The Panhandle to The Stove

In terms of State Parks we’ve been to several for ‘hikes’ as they’re called here, strolls to you and I. We’ve seen so much diversity, more Osprey, Ibis, all kinds of Heron, different varieties of Woodpecker, Mockingbirds, Buzzards and Hawks. Unable to photograph with the phone but cast in the memory. We were also incredibly lucky to see a Florida black bear. Being very late leaving a park in near darkness we spotted a blob in the distance, crawled up slowly in the car and it was a bear walking towards us without a care in the world. We had our Bear Bell at the ready! We also found a roadside display of rusty old Ford cars, all lined up in date order by a farmer who’s tradition was followed by his son. The oldest was from the 20’s and the newest from the 60’s and they’d passed their hayday.

As we’ve previously mentioned, there are lots of parks and we enjoy spending our time in them. The Panhandle is a quiet stretch, the curve top left of NW Florida and c. 200 miles long bordering the Gulf Coast, Alabama (W) and Georgia (N). An area quite often impacted by storms but there is a calmness to the area, lost once the route starts to head to the populated towns and cities on the western edge of Florida, Tampa and beyond. Thankfully there are still parks that aren’t “theme”! We found The Worlds Smallest Police Station though and ‘Man under the Sea’ an outdoor museum dedicated to historic deep-sea exploration. We also continued to see the stark differences in how people live (and some pretty awful new design!)

Having a preference for the less commercial parks and those with purpose, we stopped at a fabulous one, St Marks Mational Wildlife Refuge, which was vast in scale and thus lots of walking trails. We were so late leaving, this is where we saw the bear in the dark, one of those wow moments in life, seeing it wild in nature. We got to see Manatee’s the day after but only at a rescue park. There are plenty of instances of injury from boat motors. Most likely global warming, the temperatures in the Gulf are unseasonally high and so they have no need to come inland yet into the warmer swamp areas, to be seen naturally. We wonder when it will stop being ‘unseasonal’ and become ‘seasonal’, sadly. Homosassa Springs also has plenty of other rescues, loads of birds injured by vehicles but also otters, panthers (injured) and bobcats (originally bought as pets believe it or not!).

After a night in Tarpon Springs we ventured off wildlife to St Petersburg as there’s a permanent Chihuly Glass exhibition there (the only other is in Seattle). Stunningly creative and colourful, his work is mesmerising to look at and being a glass blower of scale, so many of the pieces are enormous. The pictures will do the talking on this one! Definitely worth tapping to the full view!

Continuing down the Gulf Coast, western edge of Florida via Preserves, Reserves, and Parks we continued to see new species, the rare Painted Bunting looked just that, with its coat of many colours and the Cardinal, a small bright red bird (no kidding!) We are worried that we are becoming Twits to be honest when over dinner we say “we’ve had our best birding day ever” at 6 miles Cyprus Slough Reserve. We also saw plenty of Gators!

Staying on the edge of Naples for a couple of nights we spent an evening strolling the downtown Main Street, off the harbour, feeling out of place among the swanky restaurants, cars and general bling. An incredibly wealthy place, Naples is probably the go-to area for elite second homers (or probably third and fourth) It’s not our kind of place, an insight nonetheless, into a difference and very ‘white’ society. Thankfully, restored by nature at Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, we had a good twitting day in the intense heat and humidity that we were experiencing as we ventured south. A highlight there was a bird catching and killing a snake by pecking at it! Audubon Society is a fascinating juxtaposition of wonderful nature parks and wildlife preservation (focussed on birds) funded by the types of organisations that could be accused of wrecking it. Maybe it helps the execs sleep at night eh? I doubt the textbook “What keeps you awake at night?” question when coaching execs is ever answered by “preservation of the natural world”.

Starting to head East towards Miami we followed Alligator Alley with a diversionary loop road (Big Cyprus National Preserve) which is a drive through more of the Mangroves and Cyprus tree’s sitting in swamp water with Gators for company and several wading birds. Having stopped at one view point we didn’t get out of the car as one swam towards us but many just bask motionless waiting…. Arriving in Miami, we went for our exit covid tests and then headed to the hotel (The Starlight!) and out onto the streets of Miami Beach.

Miami Beach has it’s very own wildlife…. people, displaying themselves and their plumage… The front street is now pedestrianised so gone are the flashy noisy show off cars, they are replaced by people on foot or bike with modern day boom boxes who must assume everyone wants to listen to their music or those wearing very little who think everyone wants a selfie. Very warm and humid, even at night, it’s a vibrant colourful place, where the streets are full of pre or post ‘cruisers’ (there were 8 liners in dock) the buildings are faded art deco and the drinks are expensive! By day, it’s full of beach goers and the fit people flexing their muscles on the beach at the outdoor gyms. We rented street bikes for a couple of hours and rode the strip, taking it all in. The exuberant wealth and the boats outside apartment blocks, the hotel pools with cocktail bars and loud music and, all in all, a pretty cool vibe.

We took in an American Football Game, Miami Dolphins v New York Jets at The Hard Rock Stadium. What an experience and very different to sporting events in UK. They make a day of it; the car parks were full of families and friends BBQing and enjoying life beforehand and the atmosphere in the stadium is so entertaining, as much effort going into that as the spectacle on the field itself. We both noted that there was no bad language, no chanting, no berating of the 7 officials and generally it was a fun experience with a real mix of people just enjoying the day. Miami won, it was close though!

So that was it, an action packed 6 week road trip, you can see our route by clicking on the link, and we are now back at The Ranch, reunited with the princess (Jigsaw that is, not Liz) and catching up on the goings on here before a family Christmas dinner being cooked by the tall one who is steaming the place up and making a right mess of the stove!

Have a wonderful Christmas everyone, we will for sure, be thankful for what we have, health and happiness (and not living under a blue tarpaulin) xx

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