Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Games, galavants and guinea pigs

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Jan. 28-30, 2013

Dunedin, FL – Twice today our RV radio has turned on automatically with wind warnings for boaters on the gulf. Weather alerts are a feature of the radio but they sometimes catch us by surprise, like when we come back from doing something and hear voices inside the RV before we open the door!

The palm trees have been blown inside out all day today, but it was still sunny and quite warm. We have started using the fitness room at the park, which offsets some of the good eating we’ve been treated to here, and keeps us limber.

It has been a relaxing couple of days, with truly summer weather (I think we hit a record warm yesterday of about 82 degrees). On Monday morning I joined the throng of park residents at the weekly morning coffee meeting, where newcomers are welcomed, upcoming events announced, anniversaries and birthdays celebrated and jokes shared. There’s even a live band (musical residents who play anything from violins to drums and glockenspiels) who entertain everyone as they grab coffee and a donut and find a place to sit.

Fawn and I were back there again after supper for Bingo night. Having only experienced Bingo here at this park, I have only an inkling of what it must be like in the big halls, where prizes run into the hundreds. Players come with Bingo daubers in various colours tucked into separate pockets of their special tote bags, in which they also carry little mascots to place in front of them, or whistles they blow whenever the caller says N44. The concentration is keen as the cards fill up and people look for that one special call that will give them the prize. I did a lot of dabbing and hoping, but I didn’t do any winning. It was good fun though, and afterward I helped Fawn wipe down the tables.

We went for a drive yesterday with John and Fawn in their big red truck. The pelicans were still perched on the piers by the gulf waters, and ospreys screeched from their high perches on Bay Shore drive. Hibiscus flowers nodded in the breeze in people’s gardens and bikers glided along the Pinellas Trail. Down by the marina, boat owners hosed down their yachts and seagulls scrounged for bits of fish they might have washed loose. It was so pleasant to see the world go by from the back seat while John took us around!

To escape the humidity and wind this afternoon, Val and I went to the movies. We saw Silver Linings Playbook, one of the films in the lineup for the Academy Awards. We always enjoy seeing the chosen movies before Oscar night, and this one had some very good dramatic performances.

Our evening entertainment was making our own quesadillas on the quesadilla grill that John and Fawn received as a gift. Stacking a tortilla with salsa, peppers, chicken slivers, onions, olives and shredded cheese, topping it with another tortilla and squishing it between the hot plates of the grill kept us all busy, as did adding dollops of sour cream and more salsa, and eating the molten result. We were glad to be of service as guinea pigs for the new appliance, and declared the experiment a great success!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

How to survive winter

Saturday, January 26 and Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dunedin, FL – Clear, sunny skies have beamed down on us and even though we’ve been here for several days now, we still find ourselves exclaiming over what beautiful weather we’re enjoying. It’s delightful!

Saturday was laundry day – at least for me; no-one else came near the laundry room the whole time I was there. Not that I was complaining – it was better than the time in Las Vegas when there were more launderers than machines and people started fighting and throwing each other’s clothes around! I couldn’t get out of there fast enough!

Our plan for later in the day was to invite John and Fawn for supper at our place, since it seemed warm enough to eat outside. Having four inside our tiny home on wheels is virtually impossible, so this looked like a good plan. We got extra steaks and veggies, and picked up a nice dessert. We called John from the store to invite them over and he accepted immediately, so we were surprised when, a bit later on as we chatted with them at their place, Fawn invited us to join them for supper – they had steak for the barbeque! Apparently there was a miscommunication. However, by this time the sun was setting and a fresh breeze was making us think that dinner al fresco wouldn’t be as appealing as it had seemed earlier.

No problem; we offered to bring our food over and do it at their place instead. One of the other campers, Willem, pedaled by on his bike and John and Fawn hailed him over to meet some fellow Canadians (us). He was temporarily on his own at the park, so we suggested he join us for supper. After a meal of delicious steaks, salad, potatoes, fresh green beans and tiramisu for dessert, Willem declared he had been on his way to buy a steak for his supper and that tiramisu was his favourite dessert, so we were delighted to have made his day as well as his acquaintance.

Today was girls’ day out as a group of us drove to St. Petersburg, just south of Dunedin, to attend a matinee performance of the musical Nine to Five of Dolly Parton fame. It was presented by an amateur community theatre group, and I was surprised to read on the program that all the music and lyrics had been composed by Dolly Parton.

We enjoyed the story of 1970s life in the typing pool for women who were underpaid and overworked under the thumb of a heartless boss. It was fun to see the 70s clothes and typewriters, and some of the actors had excellent singing voices too.

The lot of us – about 20 women from the park – then descended unannounced on a local Perkins restaurant, where the staff pushed several tables together into one large one in a separate dining room for us, and then juggled 20 different orders, some of which changed more than once before being finalized! We all enjoyed our meal and plenty of laughs as we covered every subject under the sun.

The sun had actually set before we got back, but a big orange moon took its place, rising through the palm fronds above the park and closing the hibiscus flowers for the night. This sure is a great way to pass the final days of January.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Guys’ day out

Thursday, January 24 and Friday, January 25, 2013

Dunedin, FL – Val was up at five this morning to be ready for his pickup to go to Orlando for a car show and auction with his brother John, Cam (the real car enthusiast) and Tom. The sun was just hinting at an appearance on the horizon when they drove off, and I rolled over and went back to sleep.

While the boys admired vintage cars, lovingly restored with gleaming finishes and meticulous care, and attendees were bidding for more four-wheeled prizes to add to their collections (one person had 58 cars in his possession! A bit more tricky to store than postage stamps!), this snowbird was checking out the stores!

There are so many big stores in the area, filled with stock that we never see in Canada, or, if we do it costs a lot more. My first stop was Jo-Ann, a craft and fabric superstore that’s a creative person’s dream. It was fun just browsing through the store and looking at all the different ways one can express oneself, whether in yarn or clay or beads or wood or whatever. With Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter all on the horizon, there were all sorts of red, green and pastel items on display, and all at 30 per cent off. Despite all the temptation, I was just there to look, so I actually got 100 per cent off.

We were out yesterday with John and Fawn looking for hardware items in a couple of hardware stores – and even there, Fawn and I were entertained with colourful banners, kitchen items and even jewelry – in a hardware store!

Our other source of entertainment yesterday was a delicious supper at Panera Bread, a franchise in these parts that offers delicious soups, salads and pastries at very reasonable prices. It’s John’s favourite place to eat out, and we could see why. I had cream of tomato soup, crusty brown bread and Fuji apple chicken salad, with blue cheese and pecans and crisped, thin slices of apple. Everything was fabulous, including the shared wedge of coffee crumb cake Val and I had for dessert. We do miss Tim Hortons, but this place is one we wish we could take home with us.

The car show was a big event, Val says, and he enjoyed seeing all the different vehicles people had brought to auction off. His favourites were the 1940s station wagon with real wood on the sides and the robin’s-egg-blue 1957 Chevrolet with whitewall tires. I think, after the two-hour drive each way plus the show and the early wake-up, Val will sleep well tonight. Me too.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

No pressure!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Dunedin, FL – If grocery shopping, going through the carwash and reading don’t get you excited, you can excuse yourself from reading today’s blog! On the other hand, if you intend to read each entry faithfully, this one won’t take you long.

For people enduring minus 40 windchill factors in parts further north, this morning’s reading of 54 degrees F on the RV thermostat will sound pretty tame, but it was the coldest we’d seen so far, and we were glad of our puffy, warm duvet. We don’t run the furnace overnight – it tends to be noisy and we really are warm enough under the covers – but Val did the honours this morning as the first out of bed by firing it up. It only takes a few minutes before it’s quite comfortable, so guess where I spent those few minutes.

Just up the street from the RV park is a newly renovated grocery store that wasn’t available to us last year, so after breakfast we drove over to have a look and to replenish our supplies. It’s very well stocked with everything we really need, so we won’t have to go far to get whatever we want. With the perishables stowed away, we headed over to the club house for Soup ‘n’ Sandwich day, and enjoyed a lunch of delicious clam chowder and grilled cheese sandwiches.

After lunch we strolled over to the fitness centre, having signed a waiver and acquired the entry code, to check out the equipment. It’s step one in our preparations for a regular fitness routine like the one we have in our basement gym at home. Step two will be actually using the treadmill and other equipment, but that will have to wait for another day. Today was booked solid!

The afternoon excitement consisted of heading over to the do-it-yourself car wash for a thorough clean-up, inside and out, of our little blue Honda FIT, followed by a rubdown by hand back at our site by Val while I did the inside windows. Now it positively sparkles!

After all that exertion, it was time to kick back and relax. I actually got through a couple of chapters in my book, and Val did the same, but he covered fewer pages, because I could tell that reading had been superseded by horizontal meditation not long after he headed off to the bedroom. It was a most refreshing afternoon.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Where Gulf breezes blow

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dunedin, FL – We’re in familiar territory again, two sites over from the spot we had last year here at Dunedin RV Park. It’s a nice feeling arriving at a park where you know how the washrooms work, where the laundry is and what the camp policies are right off the bat! And Val’s brother John, Fawn and Algarve the pooch welcomed us warmly with big hugs and an invitation to supper. Lovely!

The drive from Kissimmee took less than two hours, so we took our time getting organized before we headed out. Campgrounds don’t always like it if you check in too early, so that was another reason not to rush. It was a rather cool morning, but there was only a light cloud cover so the driving was easy. We smiled at the hydro pole by the highway as we left Kissimmee, designed in the shape of Mickey Mouse. There’s only one like it, so people use it as a landmark – “make your exit just after the Mickey Mouse hydro pole”!

It was a pleasure to see the beaches and coastal inlets on the west side of Tampa, lined with tall palm trees and populated by pelicans and turkey vultures flying overhead. We drove straight for the Gulf coast before turning north, with the water on our left, headed for Dunedin.

A bagpiper in full Scottish kilt and sporran welcomed us to the town – rather stiffly, since he’s on a signpost, not in the flesh – and we soon began to recognize some of the landmarks from our last visit. We already knew that “Dunedin” has “edin” in it because of its connections with Scotland’s Edinburgh. Highland games are also part of the local tradition.

Before long, we were settled at our site, hooked up, slides deployed and lawn chairs set out on our little patio. I finally got our backlogged laundry taken care of, and defrosted the refrigerator, so we’re all set for our month next to the beautiful Gulf coast, with sights to see, friendships to renew, fresh breezes to enjoy. We even sat outside and read our books for a while today – a nice change from tromping around theme parks for three days in a row!

Juicy hamburgers from the barbeque, a fresh salad, strawberries and home-made cookies tickled our tastebuds at John and Fawn’s spacious RV, with its brand new wood steps and railing that John built soon after they got here last fall. It was great catching up on all their news and getting them up to speed on ours. And Algarve pranced around chasing his tail for our entertainment. A great way to end the day!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Behind the scenes with Walt

Monday, January 21, 2013

Kissimmee, FL – A soft drizzle, which then escalated into proper rainfall while we ate our breakfast, did not deter us from our third day at Disney World, this time to the Disney Hollywood Studios.

By the time we parked there and headed for the shuttle bus to the park grounds, the rain had dried up and the sun was peeking through the clouds. It remained overcast for the rest of the day, but the only rain we experienced from that point on was manufactured by the movie special effects pavilion that we visited. We couldn’t believe our luck.

We weren’t the only ones to defy the weather; crowds of moms, dads, kiddies, grandparents and others flowed through the gates for a day of fun, but it wasn’t impossible to get through. There were actually park benches and picnic tables available for use if we wanted to sit down.

A lady we met at Epcot yesterday gave us some tips for this visit, having been a regular attendee at WDW for years. So on her advice, we headed first for the stage show of Beauty and the Beast, a 30-minute version of the movie, complete with a talking teapot and Belle the book-reading heroine. We were not disappointed!

Live action of a more exciting nature followed at the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, where we watched the stunt double for actor Harrison Ford engage in fights, leap up ladders, dodge plane propellers and outrun enormous boulders. Audience participants recruited as extras added to the fun.

On to Mickey Avenue to learn about animation drawing in its pre-computer days, with pictures of the first Mickey Mouse as drawn by a young Walter Disney in 1928. We learned of his fascination with Abraham Lincoln, and his deep affection for his older brother Roy who, in early times of difficulty and poverty, made sure his younger siblings each got a toy for Christmas. We watched a video narrated by Disney himself, whose dream of an amusement park where parents and kids could have fun together began when he took his young daughters to ride the carrousel and watched them from a park bench.

Our last visit was to the Studio Backlot Tour, where we saw some of the mechanics behind torpedoed ships, flash floods, explosions and other special effects. The tour took us through warehouse areas full of props like old bicycles, parasols, suits of armour and rubber face masks, and past large windows through which we could see seamstresses at dozens of sewing machines making costumes. We also strolled through Streets of America, full-sized lots of buildings that were only facades, but looked convincingly like the skyscrapers of New York and the steep avenues of San Fransisco.

It was a treat to peek behind the scenes and appreciate the incredible contributions of huge teams of people who work to put together the movies we all love to see. As the third of three days of visits to Walt Disney World, this was a great finale.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Around the world and to Mars and back

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Kissimmee, FL – If you had told me that we would be flying in a space ship to Mars today and walking around the world, I probably wouldn’t have believed it, but we did just that and more! Our destination this morning was to Epcot, another of the Walt Disney World theme parks. It was a much kinder day this time, with fewer crowds and a more laid-back feeling that we both enjoyed thoroughly.

Epcot stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (or, some say, Every Parent Comes Out Tired!). With its giant geodesic dome, monorail and futuristic buildings, it does fire the imagination about the possibilities of the future. We had a taste of some of that when we took the ride inside that dome, and traveled through the stone age, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution and into the computer age.

Then, when we went to the Mission: Space pavilion, we took on the role of navigator (me) and pilot (Val) of a space capsule, strapped ourselves in to our seats and headed off on a mission to Mars. It was my job to slingshot our ship off the moon’s gravitational pull toward the planet destination, and Val’s to initiate the thrusters to get us there after our five-month sleep (“it will only seem like a second”, our flight commander assured us). Overshooting the runway and nearly falling into a bottomless chasm was just part of the adventure.

Back on planet Earth, we continued through the park to the World Showcase, where we visited the pavilions of Mexico, Norway (where we rode a Norse ship through that country’s history), China (complete with the Temple of Heaven), Germany, Italy (with the Piazza san Marco tower), America, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK (with a psychedelic rock band playing Beatles tunes in the bandshell) and, of course, Canada.

In the Canadian pavilion’s 360-degree cinema screen, the show opened with a booming voice telling the audience about igloos, polar bears and 365 days of snow as a blizzard roared around us, until comedian Martin Short butted in to debunk the myths and provide a sweeping trek from Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, across the prairies, through Toronto and Montreal and all the way to the maritimes. Val and I were delighted to note that we had visited every Canadian site featured in the film!

It was fun to see the replica of the Chateau Laurier Hotel and the staff, all dressed in red-checked lumberjack shirts. They even had fake snow outside where Donald and Daisy Duck plus Chip ‘n’ Dale, all dressed in mittens and mufflers, posed with visitors for photos.

We ran out of time when we got to the Seas, the Land and the Imagination pavilions, but we would like to visit Epcot again some day. Our evening treat was dinner with our friends Jeff and Louise from Ottawa, who invited us to their Florida home near Haines City, just south of Kissimmee. It was great to see them and talk about travel, current events and news from home.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A truly sparkly magical day

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Kissimmee, FL – “Meeska, mooska, mouseketeer; mouse cartoon time now is here!” – anyone who recognizes that little rhyme is probably as old as we are and watched the Mickey Mouse Show when they were kids. Today we relived some of those days as we wandered through Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

There was magic, to be sure, and I’ll get to that. The not-so-magical part of it was the fact that we chose to visit the theme park on the Saturday of a long weekend, which we hadn’t realized was this weekend until we heard someone mention it on the TV news last night. We figured since we were coming in January, hardly anyone would be there, or at least the numbers would be lower than normal. Boy were we wrong. It took more than two hours to get from the parking lot, through the ticket lineup and finally through those magical portals to the park itself.

Masses of people crowded the streets. Teeming throngs. Wall to wall humanity. And what a varied bunch they were too! We certainly didn’t feel out of place as two baby boomers without kids. But there were lots of kids too. The ones that really blew me away were the little girls dressed in Snow White or Cinderella costumes, or with their hair swept up on their heads, sprayed with glitter hairspray and anchored with tiaras and Mickey Mouse barrettes. The odd wardrobe choices weren’t limited to the younger set either; scores of much older little girls were wearing sequined mouse ears with red polka-dot bows, and lots of people had mouse-themed T-shirts and other garb.

With map in hand, Val and I wandered through the various sections of the park. Signs at the various rides indicated wait times, while long queues of people snaked along the entrances to them. I didn’t see any wait times under an hour. We weren’t all that interested in having our guts wrenched sideways in lurching rides over mountains or through tunnels anyway. We did take the monorail to peek at Epcot, and the choo-choo train through the Magic Kingdom for an overview, as well as a leisurely sail on the stately paddlewheel near Tom Sawyer’s island.

The highlights of the day were the Dream Come True parade in the afternoon (there was Mickey! In person!), and then, after dark, the Main Street Electrical parade with floats all made of lights, including Alice in Wonderland’s toadstools, Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, and Captain Hook’s pirate ship. They were spectacular! And, just as our feet were ready to fall off, we actually found a spot to sit down and watch the amazing fireworks display behind the multi-spired Disney castle. The show was accompanied with music, song and Jiminy Cricket’s voice, talking about how dreams can make wishes come true, while brilliant sunbursts, stars and sparkles lit up the night sky.

Val truly earned his halo, tromping around with a spouse-turned-six-year-old all day! My special souvenir is a pair of Mickey Mouse ears, just like the ones the Mousketeers wore on TV, which I yearned to possess as a child, when I faithfully watched Jimmie and Annette and Bobbie and all the others in their white turtleneck T-shirts, singing “M-I-C (see you real soon!), K-E-Y (why? Because we LIKE you!), M-O-U-S-E!” A great day. And great memories.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Land of the mighty mouse

Friday, January 18, 2013

Kissimmee, FL – If you follow Mickey’s left thumb in today's picture, you can see our little blue Honda FIT, parked behind our RV at the KOA campground just six miles from Walt Disney World. It was a short trip today from St. Augustine, so we’ve had quite a bit of leisure time for a change.

When I got out of bed this morning, the RV thermostat read 58 degrees F. Quite a change from the summery weather we’ve had up to now! Fortunately, we only had wind to contend with as we drew in the slides and prepared to leave St. Augustine. The rain began to spit once we were on the highway, taking Interstate 95 toward Daytona Beach and then heading southwest on Interstate 4.

By lunchtime there were no rest stops or even lay-bys to get off the highway, but we had ready-made sandwiches in the fridge which I hopped aft to retrieve, and we ate as we drove. Maybe at some future date there will be more rest stops, because there was a lot of clearing going on, probably to add more lanes for the heavy traffic. And I saw one extensively-cleared area that looked big enough for a future rest stop.

The countryside was flat with pine trees and palm trees and swampy bits until we got to the urban sections around Daytona Beach, and then as we got closer to Orlando. It’s such a big centre, we were in citified traffic for a good chunk of time before we took our exit to get to the KOA in this suburb of Orlando, at its southwestern end. The park is located between Seven Dwarfs Lane and Happy Camper Drive, and today’s photo shows the d├ęcor! We like the generous site size, plus the paved pad on which we are parked.

When we were finally established, with electricity, water and cable TV all plugged in and slides extended, the rain began in earnest. Excellent timing! I don’t think the temperature got any higher than 19 Celsius today, and it isn’t that warm even now, but we’re not complaining! There’s nothing to shovel! And I’ve had time to browse the internet to learn more about Walt Disney World, where we plan to venture tomorrow.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The man who invented Florida

Thursday, January 17, 2013

St. Augustine, FL – We’ve got the furnace going in the RV tonight after a marked reversal in the weather. What started out as another sunny, warm day quickly changed at lunch time when a strong wind blew in with much cooler temperatures and a few raindrops. I guess we are now experiencing what Floridians consider normal January weather, after being spoiled with an early summer up to now.

We took advantage of our red train tickets today merely for their free parking, as we set off on foot to see Flagler College and the parts of St. Augustine closest to our starting point. It was nice to be walking about in the old city.

There was a little time to kill before the tour of Flagler College would begin, so we took a look at the building across the street from it, which started out as the Alcazar Hotel at the time that Flagler College was known as the Ponce de Leon Hotel, both built by Henry Flagler. Now Alcazar is known as the Lightner Museum, but also houses the city administration and other shops and offices. Its courtyard includes stately palm trees and flowers, as well as a pond filled with large koi fish. Next to it on the same side of the street is the Villa Zorayda Museum, an exotic structure inspired by the Al Hambra palace in Spain!

Back at the college, a student tour guide told us about the palatial building that started out as a resort destination for Americans escaping winter in the north. Flagler changed the notion that St. Augustine was mainly a place for consumptives seeking a cure. His Ponce de Leon Hotel was made of poured coquina concrete and trimmed in ornate terra cotta archways, turrets and tiled roofs.

Flagler spared no expense on the inside, paneling the walls in carved wood, paving the floors in marble and mosaic designs, decorating the ceilings with cupids and curlicues, and gracing the windows with stained glass commissioned from Tiffany. He offered free accommodation to noted artists in exchange for magnificent paintings for the walls, and hung priceless Austrian crystal chandeliers in the ladies’ parlour.

To entice more visitors, Flagler built other locations where they could golf, bicycle, swim or practise archery so they wouldn’t get bored. He also established the railway system in Florida that would bring them there from the north. All this was unfolding when his career was at its height, but no one could have guessed he would reach this level of success when, at 14 years of age, he left his poor homestead and started working in a small general store. He would sleep under the counter at night with the store’s brown wrapping paper for a blanket, and during the day he applied himself to becoming a top-notch sales person.

It was fascinating to learn about the man who was largely responsible for putting Florida on the map. It’s one of America’s rags-to-riches stories, and while Flagler was shrewd and ruthless in some ways, he had a very positive impact on the fortunes of many people in the sunshine state before his death in 1913.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Two magic potions

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

St. Augustine, FL – Our future brightened quite a bit today as Val and I both partook of water from the Fountain of Youth! I had always thought that it, and Juan Ponce de Leon, its discoverer, were mythical entities, but we learned otherwise here. A member of Christopher Columbus’s crew when it came to the West Indies in 1492, Ponce de Leon landed on these shores in 1513.

The Fountain of Youth park we visited this morning includes a prehistoric spring that native legend claimed to be a source of eternal youth. Still flowing today, the fountain continues to enchant visitors who can enjoy its waters in little plastic cups that staff members set out each day. Peacocks roam the grounds, where we also learned about navigation by the stars in the planetarium and native lifestyles at the village of thatched huts which is the park’s newest feature. The land is the site where Pedro Menendez de Aviles, a Spanish admiral, founded St. Augustine in 1565 and claimed the territory for Spain – a territory that comprised the entire North American continent!

With a renewed spring in our step, so to speak, we boarded the red train and headed for the Whetstone Chocolate Factory on the west side of town for our tour. The heady scent of chocolate greeted our nostrils as we entered the shop, and even before the tour began I just had to have a taste of their wares! Fortified by a delicious dark chocolate truffle, I eagerly absorbed the information about cacao plants, the beans within its pods, the drying and roasting process, and the further steps between raw cocoa and the amazing confections that are offered at the other end.

Several tastings enhanced the experience, as we tried bitter cocoa nibs, milk, white and dark chocolate samples, and artisanal chocolate formed by extensive processing to extract the most delicious flavour and texture possible. I even got to pose with a model of Lucille Ball next to the conveyor belt from that unforgettable scene in one of her I Love Lucy TV show episodes! It wasn’t hard to make use of our discount coupons in the shop before we left, knowing the important health benefits of anti-oxidants in 70 per cent dark chocolate. Yum.

The red train brought us back to the harbour where we visited the Castillo de San Marco, the great fort built from coquina, a local construction material made with crushed shells. Dressed in a tri-corn hat, a blue doublet and bright red hose, our guide Jesse told us the tale of the siege at the fort in 1702 when the British attempted to take it. This strategic spot was the site of many changes of power over the centuries, and the site is now a national monument.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Claws, feathers and shrunken heads

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

St. Augustine, FL – The guide books for this area are jammed with coupons and special offers for the dozens of sights and activities for visitors to enjoy, so we decided to start with an overall look at everything via the red Ripley’s Sightseeing Train. Our tickets are good for three days of hop-on, hop-off visits along its extensive route, and we also got discounted tickets for some of the places we wanted to see anyway. They even gave us a little red train whistle on a lanyard as a souvenir.

As the train rattled through the streets, our driver provided an ongoing commentary punctuated with clangs of the train bell at each stop. The city reflects its Spanish heritage in many of the buildings, constructed with multiple archways and red tile roofs. Palm trees and gardens, fountains and statues all add to the city’s charm. With a history dating back 500 years, St. Augustine can rightfully claim to have the “oldest” of a lot of things – including a schoolhouse, a house, a street, a drugstore and much more.

We made note of several spots we would like to go back and visit more extensively. We hopped off at the Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum and ate our lunch at a shady picnic table outside before heading in to see the weird collection of oddities in this, the first of the many Ripley’s museums in other parts of the US and the world. We saw Notre Dame Cathedral made of toothpicks, a portrait of Frank Sinatra made entirely of thousands of crayons (including blue ones for his eyes!), shrunken heads made by remote South American tribes (with an explanatory video on the process), two-headed sheep, optical illusions, gravestones with quirky epitaphs – plus dozens of Ripley’s Believe it or Not cartoons like we used to marvel over in comic books when we were kids.

Our next visit was to the Alligator Farm Zoological Park and its displays of rare and exotic birds, mammals and reptiles. The farm boasts 23 species of crocodilians, as well as a 30-foot python, a komodo dragon, king cobra, monkeys and tropical birds. It’s beautifully laid out with lots of greenery and natural enclosures and more than 100 alligators and crocodiles. We saw dozens of alligators flopped all over the place and each other, basking in the sun or undulating their tails through ponds of water. Their ability to remain completely motionless, sometimes with their mouths agape, made a lot of them look like statues, until a bit of food was tossed their way and consumed with a quick chop of their great jaws. Maximo, the largest alligator of the park, lazed, submerged, in his personal pond, and we were able to take in his 15-foot length through a Plexiglas window below water level.

Brightly feathered cockatiels, parrots and toucans were also on display, as well as roseate spoonbills, vultures and wading birds. One of the staff members gave us a short talk about Neptune, the blue parrot, who demonstrated his acrobatic skills, perched on her arm. It was a very interesting afternoon!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Quackers and crackers

Monday, January 14, 2013

St. Augustine, FL – Tonight we are camping at another KOA campground (the acronym stands for Kampgrounds of America, where everything that ordinarily would start with a “c” starts with a “k” instead – kabins, kampers, etc.), this one on Anastasia Island near the historic town of St. Augustine. The tourist material says this is the oldest city in America, and Ponce de Leon reportedly landed here in 1513 and discovered the Fountain of Youth! We will certainly be checking that out during our stay.

Fine weather and warm temperatures continued to bless us as we departed from Charleston on US highway 17, headed south toward the Interstate 95. One of the things we became quite used to seeing along Highway 17, especially in Mount Pleasant near our campground, was the series of small wooden roadside huts where artisans sell sweetgrass baskets. The descendants of African slaves continue to weave beautiful baskets and trays in a wide variety of designs. We watched one basket weaver at the tourist information center demonstrating her art. Long strands of dried grass are woven into ropes, held around by strips of palm branches and coiled into the various shapes. The result is very beautiful, but also expensive; a dinner-plate sized tray cost $80.

The terrain along the highway south of Charleston today included many stands of tall pine trees, as well as a lot of wetlands, either in a woodsy setting, or in large expanses of grassy bogs. We spotted a few egrets, with their spindly legs, long beaks and curved white necks, wading in the water. The alligators continued to evade us, but I’m sure they were out there. The thermometer hit a high of 30.5 degrees Celsius just after we crossed into Florida! Incredible!

We stopped at the Florida welcome center, just inside the state border, to pick up some literature and maps for the various destinations we’ll be visiting in the coming weeks. One of the nice things they do at this center is offer free cups of Florida orange juice or grapefruit juice to visitors – delicious and refreshing!

We went over to the desk to ask some questions about Walt Disney World, where we’ve never been before, since it is such a huge complex with so many things to see and do. As I chatted with the lady at the desk, Val looked to his right and discovered he was standing next to Marilyn, our friend from Ottawa, who lives just a few blocks from our home! It was a lovely surprise for both of us, and we chatted for a few minutes, promising to connect again when we got settled in the Tampa area, where we are both headed.

As we settled in to our campsite at the KOA later in the afternoon, a clutch of noisy ducks boldly waddled over to greet us from the small pond next to our site. They were not the least bit shy, and quacked appreciatively when Val offered them some cracker crumbs. I have a feeling they will be back again tomorrow.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Of medals and mariners

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Charleston, SC – On our last day at this spot, we had to decide what, of the many choices available, to explore that would also allow us time to do a few mundane things before hitting the road again. Our choice was to see the military museum on board the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, permanently moored in Mount Pleasant, across the harbour from the city of Charleston.

Since our KOA is also in Mount Pleasant, it was only a short hop to Patriots Point, where the massive carrier is flanked by a destroyer and a submarine, all accessible through one ticket purchase. Being early January, we had few other visitors to encumber our explorations, so we roamed freely through the bowels of the carrier, viewing the cramped bunks where seamen slept, checking out the mess (where a chocolate chip cookie recipe was posted that called for 500 eggs and 12 pounds of chocolate chips!), and peering into the dentist’s offices, engine rooms and machine shops.

We also visited the Medal of Honor Museum on the hangar deck of the carrier, where bios and pictures of war heroes recounted tales of valor dating back to the Civil War to the Second World War, Vietnam and beyond. One 12-year-old drummer boy received the honor from President Lincoln when he alone held on to his assigned instrument while others, including much older soldiers, abandoned their arms and fled, unequipped, from danger.

If we felt like a stomach-churning experience, we could have paid to ride in the gyrating flight simulator that was set up on the hangar deck, but we decided to skip it! Instead, Val climbed up the stairs and settled into the pilot’s seat of a TF-9 Cougar fighter jet and let his imagination take flight.

Above board, we strolled the massive flight deck, where more than half a dozen fighter planes of various types and vintages were on display, and observed the busy port across the harbour where, at the time of our visit, a huge container ship was being led in by a pilot boat, and many pleasure boats were cruising around in the pleasant weather.

There were lots of steep, narrow staircases on the aircraft carrier that we climbed up and down, and we walked the full length of the huge decks more than 800 feet long, so when we left it we were content to have only brief looks at the destroyer, USS Laffey and submarine, the USS Clamagore also on display. The sub was in very poor shape, with rust and crumbling holes at water level, but the destroyer had been recently refurbished and looked quite spiffy.

On the way back to the campground, we found a place that sold pay-as-you-go cell phones, so we now have a means of communication with the outside world! We got the laundry all up to date as well. Tomorrow we hit the road again, continuing our journey southward.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The fort and the plantation

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Charleston, SC – We’re digesting a delicious supper of local seafood that we enjoyed at the SeeWee Restaurant down the way from our campground. I had “she-crab soup” to start with plus grilled flounder, fried okra, fried green tomatoes and red rice. Val went for crab cakes and grilled shrimp, and we ate in a refurbished general store complete with creaky wooden floors and shelves still lined with canned goods from the olden days.

It’s been a full day, starting with a boat trip into the Charleston harbour to see Fort Sumter, where the first shots were fired that started the Civil War in 1861. The formidable structure that existed at that time had walls that rose 50 feet from the water, but now they are one-third that height. The fort was built in a pentagonal shape on a sand bar in the harbour, with rocks and bricks shipped in from the north. Massive cannons are still in place, pointing outward to sea through openings in the fortress walls. The museum displays explained the evolution of cannons and cannon balls from smooth tubes and round balls to striated tubes and ammunition shaped more like bullets which could travel more than three miles before landing.

I was glad of my jacket as we sailed to and from the fort, but the day was beautiful and sunny. It was great to see the skyline of Charleston from the water, with its many tall church steeples, and to glimpse dolphins out on the water again today.
We grabbed a quick sandwich when we got back to shore, and headed northeast of the town to Drayton Hall, the oldest unrestored plantation house in America in “near-original condition”. The driveway in reminded me of the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind, with huge live oaks arching over the road and framing the large brick mansion in the distance.

Betsy, one of the Drayton Hall guides, gave us a glimpse into the lives of the enslaved people who were kidnaped from Africa, stowed in fetid holds of ships that took weeks to reach Charleston, held in “pest houses” outside the town under quarantine (if they survived the crossing) until healthy enough to be auctioned off to plantation owners, where they would spend the rest of their short lives labouring in rice fields, processing indigo, making bricks or performing other tasks.

The Drayton family built the plantation house in about 1738, setting out three floors with drawing rooms, a library, a ballroom and bedrooms upstairs, paneled in wood and decorated with ornate plaster ceilings in the front rooms and a gracious staircase with mahogany banisters just inside the front door. It took some imagining to visualize the mansion in its heyday, because the rooms were all vacant and the paint on the wooden walls was worn thin. Our guide encouraged visitors to become friends of Drayton Hall with an annual membership fee that would help the plantation’s curators maintain the site.

On the way out, near the gates, we stopped so I could visit one of the oldest documented African-American cemeteries still in use, with a wrought iron archway that reads “Let ‘Em Rest”, a title suggested by the descendent of one of the Drayton Hall slaves, who worked there as a gatekeeper.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A resilient and gracious city

Friday, January 11, 2013

Charleston, SC – After arriving here yesterday through rush hour traffic and on busy streets with industrial and commercial establishments everywhere, we got a different look at Charleston today. The visitor center was our first destination, where we purchased tickets for a three-part tour that included the historic city, one of the restored mansions, and Fort Sumpter. We completed the first two parts this afternoon.

Only one other couple boarded the tour bus with us, so it was almost a private tour. Glen, our driver and guide, told us that he rarely makes use of the air conditioning this early in the year, but he ran it for us today. He says it’s usually a good 20 degrees cooler in January!

It was lovely to see the many gracious homes, cobbled streets and carefully-tended gardens in the historic part of town. Charleston is on a peninsula shaped like a tear drop, with the oldest part at the bottom facing the Atlantic Ocean. Its history dates back to the 1600s, and follows a series of devastations and recoveries over the centuries that included an economic disaster following the Civil War, an earthquake that flattened most of the city, several massive fires and, more recently, Hurricane Hugo in 1989 that destroyed the home of our guide.

We learned that enormous wealth had come to original residents through trade in rice, indigo and cotton. They spent their money on huge mansions with verandahs on several floors to catch the breezes (which they refer to here as “piazzas”), decorated inside with elaborate plaster moldings around the high ceilings, paneled doors, grand spiral staircases and glittering chandeliers.

Despite subsequent downturns in the economy of the region, the city soldiered on and prospered. Burned, flooded or flattened homes were rebuilt and restored. One historic mansion we toured today had barely missed being torn down to make a parking lot, and had housed a gas station on its front lawn for a time, as well as sheltering low-income families in its spacious rooms (a family with eight children lived in the ballroom at one point!) before a wealthy resident of the city paid the back taxes on the property so it could be reclaimed and returned to its original beauty.

On another street that had become quite seedy, a designer bought one home and fixed it up, painting the exterior a trendy pink. Over the years, more residents followed suit, choosing other bright colours for their homes on a stretch that is now a tourist magnet known as Rainbow Row.

The city’s maritime history is a whole other chapter which we only glimpsed today. We stood on the Battery, a sea wall that faced the barrier islands and, beyond them, the ocean, and were surprised by a dolphin that surfaced several times in the water just off the shore. Glen said he’d arranged it just for us. Charleston has the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier that was used to recover a number of space capsules when they splashed down from outer space, and is now a permanent museum. There is also an authentic paddle-wheel steamboat that visitors can ride on. There’s more to see than we’ll ever cover in our short visit! Guess we’ll have to come back.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Biscuits and black-eyed peas

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Charleston, SC – Tonight we are in our own little home on wheels at a KOA campground 10 miles east of the city of Charleston. Mother Nature has provided us with a free carwash for the little Honda and the motorhome, which needed it after all the salt and slush they accumulated over the first days of our travels. The rain started to spatter the windshield gently as we approached the city, and held off while we got settled at our site. Then, once we were comfortably set up and enjoying our supper, it completed the wash job.

Our route took us southwest from Rocky Mount along Interstate 95 until we got into South Carolina, and then we switched to the I-26 in a southeasterly direction to get to Charleston, which is situated on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. We had pleasant weather, just slightly overcast, and our eyes widened with each mile as the temperature rose higher and higher, peaking at 26.5C at around three in the afternoon!

One of the things we wanted to do was stop at a Camping World to pick up some gear for the RV. These large stores are devoted to the RVer’s every need, and we found one just off the highway near Fayetteville, so it didn’t involve a great detour. Marlon, our sales rep, gathered all our stuff and helped us hump it to the RV. Then he pointed us in the direction of a local restaurant with good southern cooking, called Fred Chason’s Grandsons, “Carolina’s Famous Buffet”.

We could tell it was a popular spot by all the cars parked out front. The low, sprawling building housed booths and long tables inside, with a buffet section just beyond the eating area. Large stainless steel containers stood on steam tables in several rows, laden with pulled pork, mounds of mashed potatoes, sausages, lima beans, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, mountains of hot biscuits, grits, greens and food items I’d never seen or heard of before, plus a salad bar on the side and another counter covered with great slabs of layer cake, puddings, pecan pie and other tempting confections for dessert! Eager hands ladled out hearty servings of all the above as appreciative patrons made the rounds and then sat at the long tables to enjoy their meals. We did not leave hungry, but I did manage to resist the pecan pie, leaving me with a great sense of virtue and accomplishment!

Not long after we crossed into South Carolina, we caught our first glimpses of Spanish moss hanging languidly from some tree branches, and, in the swampy underbrush on either side of the highway, there were small palmetto palms scattered about. I kept looking for alligators in the murky waters, but they were well hidden, as were the Burmese pythons that also inhabit these parts.

Our entrance into the Charleston area coincided with rush hour plus the first spatterings of rain. We saw lots of industrial areas, shipyards with cranes and oil storage tanks and plenty of cars and trucks. Not much of an introduction to the city’s fabled southern charm and beauty, but we plan to stay here for a few days, so we’ll be exploring all of that very soon.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Old cotton fields

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Rocky Mount, SC – No more jackets, scarves and gloves! When we reached our destination today here in South Carolina, the temperature read 22 degrees Celsius! And, as predicted yesterday, I managed to spot a shrub covered with blossoms as we drove into town. Of course, it is still technically winter around here too, and the majority of deciduous trees are bare, standing on ground well littered with dead brown leaves, but we saw some smaller trees in green leaf along the side of the highway.

The white fluffy stuff we saw on the shoulders of the highway in the final few miles of our journey today was not snow, but shreds of cotton from the cotton fields we passed, now that we’re approaching the true south. More indicators have been the pleasant “honey” that sales staff use when addressing me as I pay for our fuel. It’s quite lovely. Plus the grits and biscuits that were part of our breakfast fare at the hotel this morning.

We have been continuing southward, but took an eastern turn as well today, departing from Interstate 81 as we left Winchester and heading along State Highway 17 and Interstate 95 and 64. This allowed us to skirt the Washington, DC area and pass through some lovely farm regions where cattle were grazing on rolling hills. We passed old stone homes with plantation names, and the properties were delineated by long stretches of low walls, made from field stones that slaves must have stacked in place many long years ago.

Not being on an interstate for much of the day meant we saw fewer tractor trailers, which made the driving a bit easier. There were some, but the highway wasn’t nearly as congested with them as yesterday. Our choice of routes also meant we missed the steepest sections of the Appalachians, which can be treacherous sometimes if the weather turns bad. We had none of that today – just light clouds most of the time and that steadily climbing temperature.

The town of Rocky Mount, population around 60,000, was established in 1867 and owes its origins to a cotton mill, the tobacco trade and the railway. It’s also the birthplace of one-time boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard. When you’re just passing through, however, you don’t get to see a lot of the nicer parts, such as parks or historic town centres, so I can’t tell you a whole lot more. But I’ve included a photo of one part of the town that was taken by one of its citizens, to give you an idea.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mini avalanche!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Winchester, VA – We have crossed four states today – New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia – and we’re now in a fifth. The last two were just small wedges of state, but it brought the total to five nevertheless. The foothills of the Appalachian Mountains came into evidence as we continued southward, lending us vistas of rolling hills with small towns nestled in their folds.

The weather was very kind to us again today. On the forecast in the hotel breakfast room this morning, we heard of rising temperatures across this part of the country, and the risk of avalanches which that presented in some areas. My concern was for the thick pad of snow on top of the RV, and what would happen if that were to come loose as we traveled along.

I kept looking up at the skylight above our heads, which was totally encased in snow when we left Ottawa and all day yesterday. This morning, after an hour or so on the road, I could see a couple of patches of blue sky through the white, and water droplets against the glass as the warmer temperatures went to work.

The outside temperature recorded on the dashboard of the RV started at about minus three degrees Celsius, and quietly rose mile after mile. The thick blanket of snow in the underbrush on either side of the Interstate began to thin out, and tufts of grass started showing through in larger and larger patches. We actually saw some plants in the bush with green leaves!

We stopped for lunch at a Pilot truck stop just off the highway, hoping to fuel up at the same time. After skirting huge tractor trailers as we approached the diesel pumps, we discovered they were not designed for a pipsqueak RV like ours with a mere 25-gallon capacity. So we decided to skip the fueling up and just park and eat. We found a spot that faced into the sun, and left the RV like a midget among giants while we went inside.

Back out on the road, we pulled into another filling station across the road to try our luck at their pumps. This time we succeeded. To get onto the ramp for the southbound side of the interstate, we had to do a bit of a U-turn, and as we did so there was a loud whooshing sound as a big load of snow flew off the roof of the RV and splattered on the ground, as well as on our windshield in front of us! Good thing we were off to the side where we could stop and clear away the avalanche in safety! I was so relieved to have that taken care of at last! There was only a small lump at the very back left when we got onto the highway again, and by the time we made our next stop it had completely disappeared.

The mercury got as high as 12 degrees by the end of the day. With any luck, we won’t have to contend with the white stuff again for a long time. The landmark we’ll be looking for now will be the first flowers in bloom! Won’t be long now!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The journey starts

Monday, January 5, 2013

Binghamton, NY – We’re on the road again! This morning we fired up the motorhome, cleaned off the car, loaded our bags and stuff in the RV and hitched up the Honda FIT to the RV in pretty cold conditions. The electrical spray we use to ensure a good connection between vehicles had actually frozen in the storage pocket of the RV, so we had to take the can inside to warm up before we could get it to work! But we finally did get it all set, and we were on the road by about 9:30 with sunshine on our faces and 40s music playing away on the satellite radio.

Those first few miles are always a bit tense, as one scans one’s memory for anything that might have been left behind, or some task we might have forgotten to do. Sure enough, I realized I’d left behind my hair dryer, so we’ll be doing some shopping at some point along the way. At least the hotels we’ll be using the first few days will be equipped.

The other thing we ransacked the house to find, without success, was the Tracfone, the cheap cell phone we bought last year for use in the US to avoid the roaming charges we got dinged with when we used the Blackberry on our Arizona trip the year before last. It was so well stowed away that we couldn’t find it. We are still hoping it might turn up somewhere in the RV, though we combed it pretty thoroughly as well. Anyway, as soon as we get connected cell-wise, we’ll let you know.

The roads were nice and clear all the way, and aside from a bit of cloud cover for the middle part of the day, we had blue skies as well. The New York landscape looked much like Canada, with snow-covered fields and naked trees lifting their branches skyward. We didn’t see much in the way of animal life, except for a few horses (wearing coats!) and cows.

It was good to find our way to the same hotel we stayed at last year in Binghamton, and to head out for supper at a familiar restaurant with good food. We are looking forward to the adventures that await as we head south! Hopefully the milder temperatures that we are headed for will take care of the thick cap of snow on the roof of the RV before too long. It will make the engine’s work easier without the extra weight too. (Today's picture is actually from January 2012 just as we prepared to head south. Looks much like it did this morning, except no snow cap!)