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Florida - Tropical Introduction
February 8-12 and 21, 2017Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,
Written February 9 +
On Wednesday, March 8, we took our first flights in a couple of years. After decades of flying up to 120,000 miles in a year, I found myself surprisingly nervous about going inside the metal tube again. Of course, there is no way to make it from the West Coast to Florida and Cuba without planes, so flight it would be.
We left San Jose Airport on a 9 am Southwest Airlines flight to Denver, about a two-hour hop. There we had a three-hour lunch layover, where we could look out at the snow on the Front Range.
The leg to Tampa was twice as long, but we remarked that it was much less than the flights of our former German or Ukrainian destinations. Long enough, however. In Tampa, friends Chin and Peter met us at the airport and brought us home for some beers, snacks, and lots of chatting. We trust this old-friendliness will last, because we will have almost two weeks together!
Morning came early enough and host Peter made coffee and served breakfast. Our "B&B" is their three-story condo in Indian Rocks Beach ("IRB"), west of St. Petersburg and Tampa. Peter and Chin moved here from the Washington DC area because daughter Alysia had been a college student nearby and the quiet beach community had appealed to them when they had visited her.
Marianne and I soon headed out to see the beach, a short walk away. IRB is part of the string of small towns on the Gulf of Mexico barrier islands and the beaches really are picture-perfect. This particular island stretches has 22 miles of soft, white sand. This time of year, it also has plenty of people enjoying that sand.
In the afternoon, hostess Chin took us to see the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. The trip took almost an hour, by the time we drove south through a dozen beach towns and then east, across sprawling St. Pete. I will admit I had lost my bearings, so I am reproducing this map of our travels so far in order to get a bit oriented. Forty years ago, I used to live a couple hours north and would visit from time to time, but I had not remembered such a large Los-Angeles-like place.
The Dali Museum itself was a treat. The modern building sits on the harbor and features the permanent Dali exhibits, a theater and lecture hall and space for traveling exhibits. At the top of a helical staircase we found the Tom and Mary James Wing and the two main art exhibits.
The traveling exhibit featured a Frida Kahlo show, focusing on the struggles and difficulties of her own 47-year life. Severely injured in a bus accident at the age of 21, Kahlo managed a most colorful life, despite the constant pain of her injuries and the four-dozen surgeries needed to allow some amount of recovery and function. This pain-filled back story seemed to be the theme of this St. Pete exhibition.
visited a decade-and-a-half ago. (And the Dali Museum in Figueres.) I was struck again with the ability of Dali to create images that morphed from paint splotches up close to intricate drawing at a distance. The orange-toned picture of Cadaques was one example, as was the painting of Dali's brother on the right. (Can you place the details in the larger picture?)
The museum itself is modern and on a mid-winter day like today, crowded. Chin had found a space for lunch in the cafe while Marianne and I had been enjoying Frieda and Salvador. Afterwards, we all enjoyed the gardens.
From there it was a shuttle ride back to the car and a stop for a quick bite for Marianne and me. Then the 45-minute drive over to IRB and time for a siesta. I think we were getting into the tropics.
Indian Rocks Beach also features a sunset rendition of Taps by bugler Ken Deka, so that forced another beach stroll. Along the way we saw signs of the day's beach crowd, at least their shell displays and sand castles.
Friday. Despite the fact that our host and hostess set the schedule, it started the way we would start travel days on our own: slow coffee and breakfast, some diary writing, read a newspaper if available, and catch up on "screen time" - aka Facebook, email, etc. We have observed how the technology now influences everyone, even though smart phones are only about a decade old. Even we seniors need to stay connected.
Our day's excursion was north, to the village of Dunedin. This was another almost-hour-long drive. We passed fancy beach houses of Bellaire and Bellaire Beach. Million dollar homes, occupied now, but vacant large parts of the year. Then there were the high-rise hotels and vacation crowds of Clearwater Beach and Sand Key, teaming with folks and families on spring break.
Off the barrier islands, into Clearwater itself, we passed the Scientology headquarters and a crowded downtown scene. Farther north, we drove along waterfront neighborhoods, less ostentatious than those of Bellaire, but very nice vintage places, not unlike our own Cambridge Avenue homes. Here, I think we could feel at home. (Prices appear to be twice Fresno, and half coastal California. Always compromises.)
We ended in Dunedin, a very homey village, and the Old Bay Cafe, a perfect, old, pier-seafood cafe. The crab cakes and soup were great and the ambiance exactly matching expectations.
After food and drinks, we needed exercise and a walk though the small downtown. It was surprisingly fertile grounds for photos, at least that's my opinion.
While Chin and Marianne shopped for clothes and household knick knacks, Peter and I enjoyed the sun and mild weather. I also practiced photography on this water fountain. Fun for me.
We rested after the drive back. That's what senior tourists do. Afterwards, we joined the Indian Rocks art scene at the local art club's seasonal student-instructor show and award ceremonies.
The evening moon light was picture perfect too. We spotted this small house for sale, just behind the art center and library. We speculated about being able to live in such a small place. Later, Peter looked it up and it was a very tiny 500 square-feet. Too small I suppose. Good, no temptation.
One more stop on the beach and one more picture, and we called it a day, a nice day.
Saturday. Not much to do before our lunch date with Chin and Peter's daughter (and Marianne's former student) Alysia. Morning coffee and breakfast over, Marianne and I headed out to the beach. I could get used to this routine.
We walked our required three or four-thousand steps, past a pink flower and a baby in a matching outfit. Marianne settled on a beach hill and watched the world go around.
From there, it was off to lunch at "U Le Le" in Tampa, another almost-one-hour drive away. It seems that's the standard drive time around here. In this case, the drive was worthwhile, first because it was a nice restaurant, but more importantly because we met up with Chin and Peter's daughter Alysia. We had last seen Alysia back in Kiev, when she had been one of Marianne's elementary students. Now she is a graduate student at the University of South Florida. All grown up (but still with her signature smile from 17 years ago.)
After lunch and all the required pictures, Alysia left for her studies and the rest of us headed over to Ybor City, a nearby historic district in Tampa. Ybor City was built in the late 1880s as a base for the cigar industry, after strikes and strife pushed production out of Havana. Today, it is a nightlife district, with the feel of Bourbon Street, maybe New Orleans light. We limited our main street activity to posing with an historic statue (whoes nme I forgot to note and can not now find) and a visit to a real cigar-making store. This is preparation for our Havana visit.
We also stopped at the Ybor City Museum and toured a restored worker house from the turn of the century. The museum itself told the story of early Tampa industrial development which had centered on the cigar business. After the 1930s, the Ybor City industries declined and the area became a crime filled ghetto. Nowadays, there are still roosters walking the streets, descendants of the illegal cock-fighting of that era.
After history, we returned to Indian Rocks Beach. We visited the neighbor's little pig on our way to a view of the setting sun. Another nice evening.
Sunday. Unplanned. Gray skies. Folks busy packing. Late lunch at Guppy's On the Beach. Good seafood and pleasant porch table. Marianne and I do little more than read and rest before hitting the sack very early. Chin and Peter manage to work in a Paul Anka concert. They're younger, I suppose.
Monday. Up at 1:45 am!! Taxi comes at 2:45 and the plane leaves for Havana at 6:15. Another story.
One week after leaving for Cuba, we returned and, after a good night's rest, we looked forward to one more Florida vacation day. So far, our hosts Chin and Peter had not thrown us out, but we tried to schedule a day where we placed few "guest requirements" on them.
First, we headed out to explore Indian Rocks Beach, the town more than the beach itself. We did walk out on a beach access to see what was happening on the sand, but it was still a bit crowded with Spring Break travellers. We are told that this busy season is no more than a month or three, and then IRB life quiets down and beaches are empty.
Chin had suggested a walk in the IRB Nature Preserve, just a few hundred yards from their condo and a nice, easy, boardwalk out through a mangrove swamp to the Intercoastal Waterway.
She was right. The walk was pleasant and we managed to see a fair number of birds, bugs, crabs, and snakes. I never pass up the chance to try wildlfe photography. I think this is the first time I have managed a snake shot!
We also learned a bit about mangrove "swamps", actually forests of the brackish-water bushes that are found along much of the Florida Intercoastal. The plants feature unique adaption to their swampy life, including roots that grow down into the water to form elaborate support networks that anchor the plants even against hurricane forces. Some of those roots also sprout vertical extensions that reach above the water to provide more oxygen to the plants.
All this education make us hungry, so we stopped by Kooky Coconuts, reportedly an IRB standby for ice cream and snacks. We can attest to the high-quality ice cream!
Unfortunately, the calories meant our walking would need a second session. We passed water-front houses, some simple but many quite large and elaborate. The island also has numerous fingers from the Intercoastal where people can keep boats out behind their houses and condos. Seems like a good life.
I made one more run at wildlife photos. Out on the causeway connecting IRB to the mainland I spotted a resting pelican who, I hoped, would do something dramatic. You know: fly off, dive for fish, swoop here and there. Nope, he just sat there, enjoying the Spring Break sun.
Also enjoying the Florida sun was a small chick (type?) in a nest atop a highway light. I watched here for drama too, maybe mom coming back to provide lunch to the little guy. However, my patience was limited and I settled for just a peaking fuzzy bird.
After afternoon resting, our travel crew decided on the Marina Cantina for dinner. We asked for an outdoor table, but that warm Florida Spring Break sun had gone down and left us a bit chilly. (These flame heaters look good, but provide little heat!)
On our way out, we stopped by the bar that features the best sunset view in all of Clearwater Beach, or so we were told. By the time we made it, there was little more than a red glow, but we could imagine something more dramatic. (Looking east, we saw the Marina Cantina.)
Night owls that we were, we managed one more stop for dessert, at "Columbia", a local chain of "Cuban" restaurants, first established over 100 years ago. Here the patio heaters worked and the evening ended as pleasantly as we could have imagined.
On Wednesday morning Peter and Chin drove us to Tampa Airport and we proceeded through all the formalities painlessly. Two flight later, we were home in California. We managed a late cab to Gabby's house and finished our long travel day. On Thursday, two-and-a-half weeks afer we left, we were back home in Fresno and looking forward to some home time.
No more excitement is planned in the near future, but who knows? We're retired.
John and Marianne
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