National Forest (Alexander and Juniper Springs)
Via Palatka and Salt Springs we made our way towards Alexander Springs in the Ocala National Forest. The drive through the forest wasn't very spectacular, just woods and long straight roads. We didn't visit any other springs in the area because there was a day charge for each of them. We arrived at Alexander Springs around 1 p.m. There was a day-use fee of $4 per person. The natural pool is a fantastic swimming and snorkeling opportunity. The water is crystal-clear and there's a big, deep blue hole where you can see down to the bottom where the spring water originates. You can't really appreciate it without a snorkeling mask because only then you can clearly see this natural phenomenon. The water was fairly cold; it said that it's 22 °C all year round. I saw a turtle basking in the sun at the shore and I swam among a school of fish. They also warned us to beware of an alligator that lives at the springs but so far has never bothered anyone, and we even saw it swimming along, quite close to where we had been snorkeling only moments before! Alexander Springs is a very idyllic place with a little beach and benches set in the grass among shaded trees. There were many squirrels playing around which made for good photo opportunities. We also saw a couple of vultures. We lounged a while in the park and at the end of the day we followed a short boardwalk trail through the dense vegetation along the creek. This is also the starting point for the Alexander Springs Canoe Run. Leaving the park at 4:30 p.m. it took us an hour to drive to Ocala, but it wasn't the most direct route. Ocala Florida is also known as the Horse Capital of the World with rolling hills and farms breeding thoroughbred horses much like in Kentucky bluegrass country. It was a very scenic drive along Route 42 along roads lined with moss-draped oak trees and occasional patches of beautiful pink flowers. The Ocala National Forest is also home of the Florida Black Bear, but I guess you have to be very lucky (or unlucky depending on the situation) to see any of these fellows. Once arrived in Ocala, we checked into the Travelodge. We had planned to stay two nights but only one night was available with the discount coupon. The room was a bit old but okay. The big downside was that it was located right at a major traffic junction and very noisy. We had dinner at the Longhorn Steakhouse which was very good ($40 incl. tip for steak and chicken).
We would have stayed in Ocala, even if we had to pay a bit more for the second night, but as we would probably have had to change rooms anyway and because the room was so noisy, we decided to check out in the morning. We had a quick continental breakfast (cereals and muffins, not as good as in the Travelodge in Florida City) and by 8:15 a.m. we were heading towards Juniper Springs where we arrived around 9 a.m. The day use fee was $8 for both of us and we rented a canoe for $28 including re-haul. We were the first this morning to start on the Juniper Springs Canoe Run which follows the Juniper creek from the source down 7 miles (11 km). They estimated 3 to 5 hours for the trip, but we were quick as we completed it in 3 hours 15 minutes. It really seemed like we were paddling on our own. It required quite some maneuvering along the narrow twisting stream and ducking under overhanging branches and fallen trees, but it was fantastic. First we passed through a jungle-like area, then through more open savannah. The current carries you along at a walking speed and sometimes you have to round corners by bouncing the canoe off the banks. We saw a lot of wildlife: several alligators (a big one was even swimming right in our path, but when we got there it was gone!), a couple of small deer and blue herons, many turtles, a frog and many fish of course. The water was crystal-clear. Eventually we reached the landing ramp. After us three more canoes came in. Re-haul was from 1:30 p.m. every hour until 4:30 p.m. I wouldn't really recommend this tour to beginners even though I heard that quite a few beginners try their luck here. But we did quite well actually because we didn't get stuck and we didn't do any wrong turns (what we heard happened to the others), and it was only Volker's third and my fourth canoe trip.
Alexander Springs would have been easier to navigate as it is more open, but for that same reason it's perhaps less interesting. At the end of our trip we went for a swim in the source of the spring and we spent another hour. It was nice, but not as idyllic as Alexander Springs which is more like a natural lake. Juniper Springs is more like a natural swimming pool instead with walls all around. There is also a shallow area for kids. And there weren't any squirrels around, so that was less fun. Therefore, for snorkeling I would recommend Alexander Springs and for the canoe run Juniper Springs - for the more adventurous at least. We stayed until 3 p.m.; then we drove to Gainesville which took about 1.5 hours. The first motel we tried was full; apparently they had a convention going on. We checked in at Budget Inn ($49) on 441 (intersection of 331) which looked nice enough from the outside. The rooms were large with a kitchenette, but fairly old and ours had a strange smell. For dinner we went to "Denny's" at the Holiday Inn (2 burgers and soft drinks for $21). Then we watched a beautiful sunset over the lake at theParamount Plaza Hotel (where we wanted to stay originally, or we should have gone to the Holiday Inn, with a discount coupon it would have been quite a reasonable price).
Blue Springs State Park near Orange City, between Orlando and Daytona Beach, would have been another interesting part of the Ocala National Forest, especially in winter from November till March, when manatees gather in the spring for the comfort of the warmer water. But it was out of our way and it would have been too late in the year anyway.Cedar Key
When we got up on Saturday morning the 23rd it was raining lightly. We drove to a coffee bar and bought two café lattes and two muffins which we ate in the parking lot. Then we drove to a gas station for a fill-up and we finally left Gainesville at 9:30 a.m. The rain got worse. It was all straight road to the west coast for almost 60 miles. We reached Cedar Key 1.5 hours later in the pouring rain. It's a quaint little fishing town in the middle of nowhere which we liked immediately. But the weather looked really depressing and there didn't seem to be much of a chance that it would clear up very soon. Nevertheless we drove around the place checking out the few motels. As it was a Saturday there were not many left that had vacancies. We spoke to a German motel owner who had settled down in Cedar Key 15 years ago. He made us a good offer for the following two nights, but we only wanted one night and today. Eventually we found a very nice accommodation, the Beach Front Motel, but for a higher price than our normal budget would allow. But after the last two disappointing nights we felt we should treat ourselves. After we had checked in and decided to go for lunch, the sun came out again. Quite literally from one moment to the next it cleared up and we ended up with a nice sunny afternoon after all. We had a fish basket lunch ($17 for two with soft drinks) on the veranda overlooking the sea of the Rusty Rim Pub. Unfortunately it wasn't warm enough to use the motel pool, so we just strolled along the streets and drove around the island a bit. Watching the pelicans at the pier was quite entertaining. They were flying around, diving and waiting for fish. There isn't much to do at Cedar Key but there are a number of activities offered: scenic boat tours (Lady Pirate for example) which explore the nearby islands for bird watching, sand dollar trips, dolphin encounters or sunset trips, for only $12 per person as well as fishing charters. Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge is good for bird-watching and can be explored by land or by sea. There is no beach in Cedar Key, but neither are there any big hotels. It's very quiet and remote, a good place for nature lovers. We just missed the sunset at 8 p.m. which we could have seen perfectly from our motel, but we were still at dinner at the Seabreeze Restaurant ($28.50 incl. tips for pasta and soft drinks). Most dishes on their menu are seafood and they have a nice sea view. After dinner we went to the Seabreeze Lounge downstairs for a cocktail and beer. They had some good life music.
On Sunday the 24th we had a record low of only 16 °C. A beautiful sunny day with a perfect blue sky, but unusually cool and very windy. After breakfast at Anne's Café we left Cedar Key at 8:30 a.m.
It took 1.5 hours to drive to Homossassa Springs. We checked into the Park Inn (since 2006 Bella Oasis), right next to the entrance to Homossassa Springs Wildlife State Park. We got a nice room with a discount coupon. It was overlooking the pool area and gardens. The park entrance is accessible via a footbridge from the courtyard. We paid $9 admission per person. The hotel provides discount coupons, but they had run out of those. We took a pontoon boat along pepper creek to the main entrance. Then we strolled along the park trails to see Florida's native wildlife (cougars, alligators, a gray fox, otters, turtles and many bird species; the black bears were in hiding) and the endangered manatees which can be observed here all year round. There was also Lu the hippo who has been kept from the original zoo. We spent a total of three hours.
In the afternoon we drove to the town of Homossassa and had a quick look at the river (people seemed to be partying here) and the old sugar mill ruins. Snorkeling tours with manatees can be booked as well. Afterards we had a dip into the hotel pool. The water in the heated pool was warmer than the air outside! We had dinner at the Pepper Creek Pub on the hotel premises (fish and chips plus drinks for $20).
Via Tarpon Springs to St. Pete Beach
After a continental breakfast at the hotel we left around 9 a.m. It was 10:15 a.m. when we arrived in Tarpons Springs, the US Sponge Capital. We tried to find a cheap parking space as we didn't want to pay the full day fee for a max. 30 minutes stop. Then we walked up and down the street along the sponge docks which is lined with Greek restaurants and shops.
We arrived in St. Pete Beach around 12 p.m. We walked into the Best Western Beachfront Resort with a discount coupon and got a room for three nights for $68 per night. We had to wait a while until our room was ready. So we had a quick sandwich lunch and we spent the afternoon (3.5 hours) at Fort de Soto Park (50 + 35 Cent toll for the bridges) which is rated one of the top beaches in the United States. North Beach heads the Top 10 Beaches list for 2005. We had a quick swim with a view of the impressive Sunshine Skyway Bridge on East Beach. We shortly saw some dolphins in the distance. Then we drove to North Beach where we had a little stroll. North Beach has a white sandy beach with a small lagoon, lovely. On East Beach the sand is less fine. When we got back to the Best Western around 4:30 p.m. we were able to check in. Our room was nice enough. All rooms open either to the courtyard, to the pool or to the beach. We had dinner at the Village Inn Restaurant ($24 for turkey breast, pasta and drinks) around the corner. The sunset was a disappointment once again, for in spite of a clear sky a big dark cloud was hanging low over the sea, much like that evening in Key West. So there was none of the commonly praised postcard sunsets. We sat at Jimmy B's Beach Bar afterwards, had a cocktail and beer and listened to some live music.
Myakka River State Park
On Tuesday the 26th we left around 9:30 a.m. after breakfast at the Waffle House ($12 for eggs and a pecan waffle which was good). The morning was still sunny, 27 °C. We drove over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge ($1 toll) and onto the I-75. It took a bit more than an hour to reach Myakka River State Park. We spent two hours in the park ($5 admission) and drove along the 7-miles scenic drive. We also climbed the 23 meters (70 foot) high Canopy Walkway with a spectacular view of treetops, wetlands and the prairie, and we went to the Birdwalk at Upper Myakka Lake. We saw a few alligators and birds from the distance, especially near the road bridge. There is a little trail along the river which starts off on the right hand side behind the bridge (from the direction of the park entrance) where we saw a turtle basking in the sun and Volker nearly stepped on a little snake, a very long and thin one that was lying in the sun right across the footpath! The park also offers airboat and tram rides and canoes can be hired for $8 per hour. Many of the park's trees are draped with Spanish moss which gives it a mystical atmosphere. Back on the highway we saw two sandhill cranes and their young right along the road.
We drove to the Gulf Beaches in the Sarasota area which include Venice, Siesta Key, Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key, etc. on the Gulf of Mexico. We stopped at Siesta Key Beach, one of the world's top beaches, which is voted the "World's Finest, Whitest Sand" beach owing to its 99% pure quartz sand. Then we continued to Lido Beach and up the 789 to Anna Maria Island which has quiet natural beaches, especially at its northern end. From the north-east side you can see the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. There are no high-rise hotels or condos on Siesta Key or Anna Maria. The drive up the 789 was a bit disappointing because you can't see much of the beaches from the road. We didn't visit the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, which could have been interesting, especially for its 1924 Venetian Gothic-style Mansion. Venice Public Beach, Caspersen Beach or Manasota Key south of Venice are said to be great places to hunt for prehistoric sharks' teeth. We left Anna Maria Island around 3:15 p.m. and we were back at St. Pete Beach by 4 p.m.
In the afternoon clouds were appearing and around 4 p.m. it started to rain. In the evening there was a heavy thunderstorm with lightning, so once again we didn't get the chance to see a beautiful sunset. Hmm, so much for St. Petersburg boasting of an average 361 sunny days per year! But it was sunny in the mornning, so I guess this already counts! We had dinner at Starlite Diner, a classical diner restaurant, next to the Holiday Inn ($25 for a burger, a steak and two Pepsis).
The following morning we had breakfast at IHOP (International House of Pancakes) for $17, then we drove up the Tampa Bay Beaches, a string of barrier islands that hug the coastline for 35 miles from St. Pete Beach in the south to Clearwater Beach in the north. We made our first stop at John's Pass Historic Village & Boadwalk on Madeira Beach, just past the bridge from Treasure Island. There's an interesting story of a treasure that was buried there some time before a hurricane split the island into two and created today's John's Pass, named after the pirate who lost his treasure to the circumstances! There are many beach resorts and smaller motels on Treasure Island. We continued up Gulf Boulevard to Clearwater Beach. On the route we missed the Seabird Sanctuary, a non-profit wild bird rehabilitation center in Indian Shores. When we arrived in Clearwater Beach at 11 a.m. it was still cloudy. The beautiful sandy beach was spoilt a bit for us because it's fringed with high-rise condos and hotels and it seemed to be a busy place. Pier access is $0.50 and parking is usually $2 per hour. The Sunset Celebrations at Pier 60 with street performers and vendors would be interesting for entertainment lovers.
We continued to Honeymoon Island State Park ($5 admission per car). They have a 3 km long nature trail (Osprey Trail) where we saw a great number of nesting ospreys, a few wading birds, a squirrel, many smaller birds and even two armadillos (Gürteltiere)! Part of the trail was flooded due to the heavy rain the night before. When we did our hike (between 12:00 and 1:30 p.m.), the sun was shining and the air was hot and humid. After we left the park, we had a late lunch at Subway, then we crossed the immense expanse of Tampa Bay on the Courtney Campbell Causeway (Route 60) and back to St. Petersburg on the 275 via the Howard Frankland Bridge. We got back to St. Pete Beach and our hotel at 3:45 p.m. Took a dip into the pool and the Gulf of Mexico (just a quick run across the beach) and listened to some live music from the beach bar.
The Clearwater/St. Petersburg/Tampa area is home to a lot of attractions. A trip on the Seascreamer speed boat for example should have been fun! But unfortunately there isn't enough time and money for everything!
When the season is right (May thru October), stingrays frequent the shallow water of the Florida Gulf coast and you have to be careful not to step on them. Do the Stingray Shuffle (by dragging your feet through the water instead of stepping) to avoid getting stung!
For our last evening we wanted a nice place for dinner and we picked The Wharf Seafood Waterfront Restaurant in Pass-A-Grille at the south end of St. Pete (2 fish dinners and coke for $27.50). Unfortunately we were unable to get a seat outside, but the food was good. Back at our hotel beach we finally got the chance to enjoy one more beautiful sunset. I was even able to make out some dolphins in the distance.
Thursday the 28th was a sunny day, 27 °C. We checked out of the Best Western and had breakfast at the Waffle House. They were quite busy so it took a bit longer than usual. We were ready to go by 10 a.m. Once more we drove over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. For access to the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier they wanted $3 for the car plus another $2 for each person, which was a bit much just to take a look. We took our photo of the bridge from a parking area on the other side (southern end) instead.
Shortly afterwards we stopped off at Ellenton Prime Outlets where we bought two Wrangler jeans for $43 (total).
Back to Fort Myers
We reached Fort Myers around 1 p.m. and had lunch at Perkins (a burger and an omelet for $20) and we arrived at the airport shortly after 2 p.m. Check in took a while and window seats were no longer available. We left on schedule at 17:15. Nevertheless the flight took 20 minutes longer than scheduled because the pilot chose a more northern route following the US coastline due to turbulence over the Atlantic. We flew the standard northern US route via Newfoundland and then Ireland and the UK. The movies that were shown were "The Banger Sisters" and "After the Sunset". We arrived back in Düsseldorf at 8:28 a.m. local time (2:28 a.m. Florida time) to a gray sky and rain, 12 °C. After passport control, baggage claim and a short train ride we were back home by 10:00 a.m. (4 a.m. Florida time).