SoFlo Road Trip Part 5

We awoke to a cool, overcast day and decided to see the ocean. To be honest, we had discussed seeing the sunrise since we were on the east coast and all, but we weren’t overly enthusiastic about waking up early and the cloudy sky masked the sun at any rate. But it wasn’t raining and we were a short walk from the shore so we went. It was a nice beach and we walked along the receding tide. We found a few seashells and went back to pack the car and start the day’s journey. It was our last day in Florida and we were excited about manatees. But first, breakfast.

Below, the beautiful waters of Blue Spring State Park without manatees (my photo) and with manatees (photo from park website)

Chicken’n’biscuits! Grits! I was still fighting the flu and wasn’t eating with my usual enthusiasm, but I was bound and determined to have something regional on my plate. I had some cheese and grits which was fine, but not too exciting. We headed back towards Orlando to Blue Spring State Park. I had never considered that Florida would have state parks, in addition to all of those over-commercialized theme parks, but of course they do, apparently 175 of them! This one was nice, impressive even. A co-worker had recommended this park to me as a place to see manatees, and indeed it was their breeding grounds at this time of year. We walked on the boardwalk and checked out the beautiful blue waters and saw many gars- very cool looking fish that go back to the Jurassic period and have long toothed jaws (2 gars below).

Unfortunately, despite the fact that we were there during the breeding season, the manatees had other plans that day. We walked the length of the boardwalk, enjoyed the views, and saw a video of what it looks like when the sea cows and their babies are hanging around. I’d like to go back someday. We consoled ourselves with this mosaic manatee sculpture selfie and headed to a last-minute destination that we ended up enjoying quite a bit.

Off we went to Winter Park and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. It has the largest collection of Tiffany pieces in the world. I refer, of course, to Louis Comfort Tiffany of art deco and lamp fame. And, wow, was this guy prolific! From his early sketches to the well-known stained glass, to his jewel of a home – Laurelton Hall on Long Island, colors flashed and glowed in glorious design.

There were other wonderful things to see at the museum, notably American pottery and prints. We spent hours here, happily immersed in beauty. It is difficult to choose a few photos to represent the place. I can’t, for example, portray accurately the exhibits of Laurelton Hall rooms or Tiffany Chapel (below, middle) that are architectural pieces from the original sites one must walk through to experience.

After the museum, we had a fabulous Greek dinner and stayed with a relative of H for the night. I was off the next morning before dawn to a flight back home. It had been a delightful vacation with a dear friend in an unlikely place- who could ask for more?


SoFlo Road Trip Part 4

Grand lobby ceiling at Flagler college

And so it was time to head north along the Atlantic coast to Saint Augustine. I had been unsurprised, yet still disappointed, in the vast majority of architecture we had witnessed thus far in our journey. I know Florida has its charms, and certainly natural beauty where it has been allowed to exist, yet I crave interesting, and to be honest, historic buildings. When a history PhD I am lucky to know mentioned that St. Augustine is the oldest city in the USA I was drawn to the place. It became one of the top places I wanted to see, HC was game, so northward we went.

Streets in St. Augustine

It was about five hours from southern Miami to Saint Augustine. Though we paralleled the eastern Florida coast, we really didn’t see the ocean until we took scenic A1A for the last hour or so. We passed beach towns and enjoyed seeing sand and water out the window. We arrived at our housing for the night, a few minutes south of St. Augustine. It was a modest house in a neighborhood of similar houses, quite the contrast to the towering beachside mansions we had been passing. We could hear the ocean from our room. We didn’t stay long, though, we were bound for the oldest city in the USA for the rest of the day.

Cannonball embedded in wall at Oldest House Museum

We crossed the majestic Bridge of Lions into the small city. I wish I’d have paid more attention to this historic bridge, opened in 1927 and flanked by Medici lion replicas. These are sculptures of a lion with a sphere that reminded me of Venice and have origins in second century Rome- majestic! Across the bridge were historic buildings galore. We found parking near St. George street, the center of the pedestrian mall, and went inside a beautiful church called the Cathedral Basilica. The site has a history going back to 1565! The current building was completed in 1795. It replaced several that had burned down and holds the title of oldest Catholic congregation in the US. Inside is gorgeous painted wood and a beautiful altar (below).

From there, we walked through the town to the Oldest House Museum. We noticed the peculiar building material in many structures, and learned of its importance in St. Augustine. Apparently it is called coquina and was quarried nearby as the town grew. It proved to be quite resilient, as evidenced by the 17th century fort (“oldest masonry fort in US”) known as the Castillo San Marcos on the Matanza Bay in town. We drove by the impressive fort but did not tour it. We went to The Oldest House instead.

Coquina is a type of rock with visible seashells, an historic building material

The Oldest House Museum admission included a guided tour to the house as well as entry to the museum, gardens, and colonial kitchen. The museum was basic and enjoyable and, incidentally, explained coquina nicely. Our very earnest guide explained the different levels, uses, and construction styles of the house, which is also called the Gonzales-Alvarez house after two of its inhabitants. There were interesting details about how the house fit into life under Spanish and British rule, as well as after US independence. Afterwards, we wandered the grounds and also saw a map display in the exhibit area of the research library on the property.

Below: oldest house, colonial kitchen, map display, another view of the colonial kitchen with garden.

We walked back to the pedestrian area and had a great dinner. It was getting dark but we really wanted to see the Flagler college area. We were not disappointed. Beautifully lit and with gorgeous woodwork and Tiffany stained glass, the main building was built in 1888 as a hotel by Standard Oil founder Henry Flagler. We walked around the grounds and admired the domed entryway, which was the only part of the building we could access at that time of day. There are tours, and if I go back I would try to take one because the small part of the place we saw was impressive!

Dinner al fresco with 2 hams LOL, Flagler inside and out, tiffany lamps from hotel near Flagler.

Nearby is an amazing hotel, where they allowed us in to ogle the decor, such as the Tiffany lamps in a private dining room above (HC is great at getting strangers to welcome us and show us around!!), and a city building with a small plaza and fountain (which did not photograph very well at night). Take my word that this part of St. Augustine had gorgeous archetecture and I wish we’d had more time. We walked back to the car through lovely residential streets, cozily lit in the night, and back to our digs for the evening. I fell asleep listening to the ocean and thinking of the excellent day we’d had.

SoFlo Road Trip Part 3

We woke up in Homestead and off we went. It was not far to the Earnest F. Coe visitor center, yes that Earnest F Coe who, at age 60 as a retired landscaper from Connecticut moved to Miami (this was the 1920s) and saw the destruction of the southern Florida ecosystem. He fought for over 20 years to save it, having little success but persevering at a time when the area was being destroyed for real estate, rare plants were removed for fun and profit, and local birds were being killed in large numbers, their feathers used for hats. Millions of birds slaughtered for hats! Eventually the government became involved in protecting and preserving the unique ecosystem and the park grew from fragmented parcels that hugely disappointed Mr. Coe to its present size of 1.5 million acres, or 2500 square miles. I think he must rest easier now, and we were excited to see more of -and I quote from the National Park website-“the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States”.

We took a glorious wrong turn and found ourselves on a thin highway heading towards the Florida keys. Teal blue water on either side, the windows down, talking a mile a minute, good music on the car stereo, trying to catch up on each other’s lives, it took us a while to realize we were going the wrong way. The keys looked to be beautiful but we were far more interested in the everglades. We righted ourselves and soon we approached the National Forest.

The visitor center was nice. There were maps, educational displays, and very helpful staff. The older man at the desk, from Ohio as it turned out, told us about his favorite hiking spot called Snake Bight trail. We learned that it’s a play on words; a ‘bight’ is an inlet, or inward curve of land by water. We decided to take his recommendation.

First we went on the boardwalk trail just down the road from the visitor center. It was beautiful- breezy, full of birds, long views of the landscape, and close-but not too close- alligators.

See the alligator below?

We drove through more of the park and stopped at the Snake Bight trail entrance, parking by the side of the road. What followed was not the best hiking experience, in fact we discouraged hikers who asked our advice from continuing as we made the return trip, but the trail was flat and easy to follow.

What we thought we’d find at the end of Snake Bight trail:

There were many, many mosquitoes, despite the time of year being favorable for avoiding them. At the visitor center we had seen that the bug level- mosquitos and black flies seem to be quite the nuisance here- was as low as it gets. The Snake Bight mosquitos, however, had not gotten the memo and were out in full force, lucky for me they favored HC. We did our best to ignore them and walked. It was two miles of flat hiking through an unchanging landscape of marsh trees, ending at a dry marsh in harsh sunlight, the water just visible in the distance. Then we walked the same two mile trail back to the car.

Trail and end of the trail:

Back in the car, we decided to go to the end of the road, the Flamingo Visitor Center. It was a strange place, a bit desolate with cement structures, a few abandoned buildings and some damage from hurricanes, most recently Irma. There is camping available, and we were surprised that no one seemed to be using it, since hotels were booked nearby, bug counts were low, and it generally seemed to be tourist season. It was nice to talk with the staff, look at the simple displays, and watch the water from the elevated viewing area. The day was getting on, though, and we were ready to continue.

We drove back through the park, enjoying the scenery and somewhat sad to leave, however we were pleased to have the novelty of planned housing that night. P, a friend of HC, lives in the southern suburbs of Miami. It was closer than we’d thought, and soon we were enjoying dinner at a wonderful Columbian restaurant with excellent company in the warm night air. We relaxed and had a splendid night of food and conversation. The next day, we would see the oldest city in the US.

SoFlo Road Trip Part 2

Above: bridge out of Tampa

Southward we went to Naples, where I found an excellent hotel and made reservations. Unfortunately, the hotel turned out to be in Naples Italy, and while we considered going over there, and how awesome that would be!!! we had to face reality that we have jobs and families and a budget and needed accommodations that night in Naples, Florida.

At this point, I had to admit that although I had been denying it for days, I had a case of the flu. The botched reservation really made me aware I was not at peak function but I was still on vacation and we were just getting started! We found a drug store and I stocked up on meds and off we went. We had amazing chicken tacos at a Cuban restaurant and we managed to find a rental apartment in Estero not too far from the beach.

We dropped off our things and our host told us about Clam Pass, a couple of miles down the road. We parked and followed a boardwalk through some mangroves. The thick growth hid the towering condos nearby. We dodged the electric carts passing by with beachgoers, crossed a bridge, and looked for mangrove creatures.

After a time, the path opened up on a beach with white sand and turquoise waters. It was late afternoon and we would be there for the sunset. We walked around and enjoyed the place.

Sunset on the gulf coast

The next day was really wonderful. We went to an estuary between the Everglades and the Ten Thousand Islands. Our host has helped us reserve a tour in a double kayak of this interesting area. What we didn’t realize is that we were the only ones on the tour! We had a knowledgeable tour guide all to ourselves. He navigated us through the maze of water pathways amongst the mangroves, pointing out birds, a shark, a jumping fish I believe is called a jackfish, and a couple of alligators that were at a safe distance.

It was beautiful and the mangrove tunnel was especially awesome.

We got a hot tip about the nearby Everglades City seafood festival and headed that way. Soon we were surrounded by seafood, lots of it, under a large tent, in the middle of a happening that included a loud band on an elevated stage, beer sold in plastic mugs, and lots of people milling about.

It was way out on a country road, on which we saw miles of cropland and helmetless teenagers doing wheelies on ATVs blocking the traffic. The festival was very rural USA, not overly friendly, very pro- gun and pro-Trump, and we didn’t stay long. We needed to find a place to stay that night.

We very nearly didn’t. When we made it through the back country, we came to Homestead, Florida and it seemed to be booked that Saturday night. Maybe it was the seafood festival.

I was interrogating my cellphone for a hotel and I came upon many options in nearby Florida City that were as unsavory sounding as they were budget friendly. My favorite review went on about the moldy curtains, foul smells, and lack of towels at one establishment (apparently the reviewer had to go out and buy towels) and also mentioned the unwanted foot traffic of professional actors from “xxx movie being filmed in room 136”. I kind of wanted to go stay at one of these places for the entertaining stories I would no doubt have from the experience, but I was still feeling under the weather and I really just wanted a quiet place to sleep. Luckily, we found a rental room in someone’s house and it seemed less risky than the Florida City dives. We ended up in a very comfortable condo drinking tea with the lovely young woman who hosted us that night. The next day we would see the everglades!

Southern Florida, Feb. 2018

What happens when you take two friends who meet in college, add 25 years and 9 kids, then subtract the partners and kids for a week? H, my dear longtime friend, and I thought we’d find out.

First, where to go? She’s in Akron, Ohio, and I’m in Philly. We considered Mexico, the western and southwestern US, and Puerto Rico. Then we took another look at the budget and went with Florida

Florida? I have had personal dread about the whole state, but that is based on the Disney industrial complex, which really isn’t fair. There is a lot more to the peninsula, notably the Everglades national park, 1.5 million acres of the southern part of the state. Then there’s the oldest city in the US, St. Augustine. We decided to road trip throughout SoFlo, as H began to refer to southern Florida.

Getting there, as I was escaping my children and my job in the ER, I found myself surrounded by kids (headed to Disneyland) and emergency personnel (aiding an ill passenger a few rows in front of me). Ok! The plane left the runway to get the sick guy off the flight- he was able to walk off the plane so he seemed alright- and eventually we got going and made our way southward. H, coming from Cleveland, had challenges of her own driving through a snowstorm. She missed her flight, was routed through Chicago, and landed in Orlando a few hours late. She had also encountered the Disney-bound younger generation.

And then we were there! Not just in the warm, bright weather, but out, on our own, starting a new travel adventure. We sketched out the major attractions and route. Not too much, though, we wanted plenty of room for spontaneity. We rented a car, loosely planned a few nights with H’s friends, and decided on last-minute apartment rentals for the other nights. As in, we found one for the first night and that was that.

We decided to go west to Tampa, down the Gulf Coast to the Everglades, up the Atlantic Coast to St. Augustine, and then back to Orlando and our return flights. Looking back, we covered a lot of ground and saw all the places we had hoped to see, and then some. Only the manatees let us down, and that’s really not too bad.

Dali museum

We had excellent pho in Orlando, found a very nice budget place to stay, showered, and proceeded to sleep for 12 hours. Refreshed, we headed towards St. Petersburg and the Dali Museum. This museum had been recommended to me by several unrelated parties and I was thrilled to be able to get there. The building draws the eye as soon as it is visible in the distance. It has a strange, wavy structure appropriate for the artist it represents. Inside, a centerpiece is the spiral staircase coiling up and up until it ends in a skylight above the top floor. We looked around at the paintings from the artist’s early work and into the more well known pieces. A tour group was forming, so we joined and ogled the paintings large and small by Salvador Dali. After our tour we found another your with a very animated guide who was pointing out some raunchy details in one of Mr. Dali’s paintings. Needless to say, we joined that group for the rest of its tour. Gentle readers, H and I have wracked our brains trying to remember the name of that second guide, alas to no avail. I even called the museum but couldn’t get through to speak with anyone. H remembers that the guide had been with the museum 20 years and has shoulder length blonde hair. It’s worth asking for her!

We headed to Tampa and a wonderful couple who are friends of H and locals for 7 years. One of them is an ardent fan of the Tampa Lightening, an ice hockey team of all things! That amused me. We heard about their experience with Tampa hurricanes and real estate, and about their travels. They were so welcoming and great conversationalists! I felt lucky to meet them through H. We stayed the night and headed south along the gulf coast the next day.

The strange and wonderful story of a choir in a back alley

I was drawn to the sound during a street fair one autumn evening a few blocks from my house. I followed signs that beckoned down a short alleyway between two three-story brick Victorian houses. My neighborhood is full of these houses, defined by them, “twins” built in pairs in the 1890’s with an alley between each pair. The narrow corridor was shadowed and the sound grew louder as I approached a dark back yard. The sound was voices- eerie, joyful, jangling, ancient, insouciant singing. At the very back of the yard, under fairy lights, and wearing something on their heads, women were singing. I was intrigued by the music and wanted to learn more when I found out that it was a community choir.

The first time I showed up for practice, I was stunned. My head was spinning. My ears rang. There, in front of me and all around, was a cacauphonous sea of sound, words in a foreign language, crazy gypsy rhythms, random high pitched yips. We were in a small apartment in another Victorian twin. I squeezed myself between the singers, kitchen counter and refrigerator and, desperately consulting the sheet music in my hand, became part of the 15 or so ladies belting out Serbian lyrics.

Gradually I became more comfortable with the songs. The rehearsals were part punk rock band, part language lessons, part wine and snacks and conversation, and always the chest-voice roar of dissonant chords. I sang in a performance and donned the headgear I had noticed that first time- a plastic flower crown.

I wanted to learn more about this intriguing music. I have not been able to find out very much yet. What I gathered so far is that it is folk music from eastern Europe, sometimes called Slavic or Balkan music. One song, Izlel ye Delyo Heydutin which happens to be Bulgarian, was sent into space on the Voyager spaceship in 1977. Lady Gaga, not to be outdone by aliens, discovered the music and used Kaval Sviri for her documentary and on her Twitter account in 2017. There is a 2012 documentary called Balkan Melodie about Marcel Cellier, a Swiss ethnomusicologist who researched and produced this type of music in the 1960’s, notably the women’s choir called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. I haven’t yet watched this film, but I have seen a video of that group on the Johnny Carson show. And you can, too! I also plan to visit a music library I know of to see if I can learn more about the history of this music. Stay tuned, because this music has a hold on me and I will be finding out more! In between rehearsals, of course.

Some of the choir at a performance last month

International spas, and my first Korean scrub

I have been in the healing waters of a Budapest health spa, had Thai massage in Bangkok, enjoyed the Russian banya in St. Petersburg and also in Southampton PA, and now I have had a scrub at a Korean spa in Philadelphia.  I love me some spa time, but the typical US establishment is a luxury out of my price range. Maybe you can relate. Luckily, I live in a large urban area with enclaves of immigrants who have a more prosaic idea of spa-type services with prices to match. The Korean place is my new favorite.

What is it about semi-public nudity and hot water that discomfits the average American? I am willing to bet a large portion of standard variety US citizens come from a cultural background where basic, not luxury, spa culture is the norm. Yet we do not have such public facilities as a common city service as one might see in Asia and Europe. Sweden and Japan may be different in many ways, but their citizens know how to sweat in the city baths. Saunas and sweat lodges and healing waters have been used by regular people all over the world into prehistory, why stop in the US? I, for one, am pleased to continue the tradition.

The Korean spa was almost empty of visitors that Tuesday morning. The employees, who did not speak English to each other and addressed me by a number, were there, of course, but almost no one else. I had been there previously with a friend and a coupon I had found online. We each had a massage that visit, and it was a vigorous and emotionless affair. On rare occasion, I have been pampered luxuriously at high-priced spa establishments in the US and I have been offered tea along with my choice of soothing music and aromatherapy fragrances. There are often health forms to complete and a discussion with the massage therapist beforehand. The Korean spa had none of this- rather I was called by number and treated as bread dough being kneaded or perhaps laundry that was being washed by hand. There was no-nonsense squeezing and stretching and turning and some light chopping with the side of the hand. It was a trifle rough, the way I was manipulated and handled by the indifferent staff, which is not to say it was a bad experience. 

The scrub was similarly devoid of new age, touchy-feely, overly precious ambiance. I was face down, buck naked, on a table covered in rubber. There was a similar table to either side of me supporting other women going through the same ordeal. A woman in what I thought was a red bikini poured warm water over me and got down to business. She had on her hands a type of mitten with loofah material on the palm side. She scrubbed every part of my back, arms, legs, hands, feet. Then she did it again. There were more buckets full of water, then I lay on my side for more scrubbing. Then in my back for even more. Then the other side. This went on for nearly an hour. 

Over time I noticed two things. One- the lady was wearing a matching bra and briefs in red with some lace. This was not a swimsuit, she was scrubbing people in her underwear! There was something really excellent about that. The other scrubbers were similarly attired. Two- there were bits of grey lint or something on the table. It gradually dawned on me that this was my own skin being scrubbed from my body. It occurred to me that I had probably not been scrubbed like this since I learned to bathe myself at some point in early childhood. 

Towards the end of the experience, the lady in underwear communicated that she could wash my hair. Why not? I agreed to that, it happened, and then I was told to sit up while she manipulated my arms and head in Thai style massage moves. Then I was sent on my way. I spent most of my time in the women only area so I didn’t even have to wear clothes unless I wanted to- bliss!

Similar to the Russian spa in the Philly suburbs, this spa also has a sauna, steam room, and hot tubs. Unique to the Korean spa are two hot rooms, one featuring jade and one clay, where one lies on the floor and absorbs the healing minerals. There is also a sauna-type room with wooden benches and pink Himalayan sea salt in large pile on the floor. The air is said to be a healing therapy in this room. 

I can’t get enough of this stuff, especially in the cold winter. I can spend hours at this place- there is even a gym and a lounge area. It feels exotic with all the Korean being spoken and the atmosphere of the different rooms. It may not be Budapest, which has maybe the best spa I’ve ever been to, or Bangkok, with its super low prices on facials and reflexology and massage, but it is much closer and just as luxurious to me. I’ve been spreading the word to friends and co-workers, but I’m often encountered with skepticism as people share with me their fears of infectious disease, being naked or seeing others naked, or whatever. I say, relax, give it a try, it has worked for millions of people for perhaps millions of years over cultures and countries. Try your local international spa, be it Laotian, Latvian, or Lebanese. Sit back and breathe the heat and steam as it mixes in the atmosphere with that of the ancients and the present day enthusiasts of health and relaxation.