We spent six weeks at our Florida house in autumn 2018. It was wonderfully warm, over 80F most days, and we ate almost every meal outside by the pool. It was even warm enough to sit out in the rain as the chairs are under cover. There was plenty to do in the house but also time for some trips.
Go here for a picture gallery.
Cedar Key and North West
Cedar Key is a laid back clam and fishing village on the west coast about 160 miles north west from our house. We went there for the first time about 9 years ago. It was definitely time to go back.
On the way we took a detour to Rainbow Springs State Park. Before Disney arrived in Florida, this park was a major tourist attraction. It had elaborate gardens, waterfalls, glass bottom boat trips and a zoo. Now most tourists, but not us, go there to swim in a colourful lake, which is hopefully alligator free. My camera couldn’t quite do justice to its colours.
About an hour after we arrived, the heavens opened with a big thunderstorm, luckily when we we not far from the visitor centre and could shelter. There were sheets of rain – and the sun shining nearby. I had a good conversation with the ranger and the volunteer in the centre who really appreciated our preference for the Florida State Parks over Disney. I’m glad that the state is putting plenty of funding into these parks where there is only a modest charge for a car to go in.
We had decided to try airbnb at Cedar Key and found ourselves in a nice room in a newish house which was built on stilts in case of hurricanes. The owner told us that building regulations now require living areas to be at least 18 feet off the ground. We were about a mile from the old area of Cedar Key which is now mostly tourist shops and fish restaurants.
The Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge consists of many islands off a complicated coast line and is home to abundant wildlife. Next day we took a boat trip around some of the islands. The boat took 12 people, but all but another couple and us got off at the first island Atsena Otie Key for the beach. When we picked them up on the way back, it turned out that they had had an afternoon with the mosquitoes. I managed to grab a picture of the hat in front of us.
There was a long disused jetty off Atsena Otie Key, occupied by a long row of cormorants.
Almost all these islands are uninhabited, but Seahorse Key is occupied by a research station, and, apparently, plenty of snakes. We could not get off there but came close enough to see the research buildings and the lighthouse.
The islands vary in size a lot. Some are just grass which can be covered over at high tide.
Further out we finally got to see some of the huge white pelicans which we had seen on our previous visit. They are far larger than the normal brown ones. Some had got caught on a sand bank and were swimming to land as the tide came in.
We wondered why two small dogs had come with us on the boat, but one of them suddenly started barking like mad. It had heard some dolphins whose sound is out of range for human hearing. Several dolphins then started leaping around the boat and in the wake.
We stopped off briefly at Manatee Springs State Park on the way home. It was too warm for manatees which come to these warm springs in cold weather, and so we walked out on the boardwalk to the Suwanee River. We saw plenty of birds including vultures which we have rarely seen in Florida before. There were no alligators.
Jupiter and Jonathan Dickenson State Park
It’s about 150 miles south east from our house to Jupiter which is both a town and a barrier island off the east coast. Much of Florida is empty and this route goes through some of the emptiest area with almost no houses and just a few cattle spread around. In 89 miles of Florida’s Turnpike (a major route from north to south) there is only one exit, Yeehaw Junction where we were disappointed to see that the Desert Inn, a historic landmark building, is now closed and delapidated. It was an enormous contrast from 4-lane highways and endless unplanned development in the Orlando area.
We were rather late setting off and arrived at Jupiter Island in the late afternoon in time to walk on the beach at the north end of the island to watch the glow from sunset in the eastern sky.
There are very long sandy beaches on the barrier islands on east coast of Florida, but it all does become rather boring after a while as the coastline is straight and there are no hills or cliffs, only empty space punctuated by clusters of tall apartment blocks.
We stayed in a motel in the town of Jupiter and, after getting a nail removed and puncture fixed in one of our tyres (no charge for this), we went to the Jupiter Lighthouse and Museum where there were a few displays about the Seminole Indians who were once the only inhabitants of the area.
The lighthouse, painted red, was built in the 1850s and is on a “hill” which rises all of 50 feet. I declined the 105 spiral stairs but Martin made it to the top and can just be seen half-hidden behind the left Christmas decoration bow.
There was a huge tree at the base of the lighthouse. We thought it was a banyan but were told that it was a kind of oak.
From Jupiter we drove north on route 1 to the Jonathan Dickenson State Park which covers a large area just east of the main road. There we decided to do the boat tour which took us on the Loxahatchee River to Trapper Nelson’s homestead. Nelson was an eccentric who lived off the land in what seemed more like a clearing in the jungle. He had assembled a kind of zoo of raccoons, alligators, snakes and other wildlife, and charged people to visit in the 1940s and 1950s. He was found dead in 1968 due to a shotgun, but nobody knows whether it was suicide or murder.
We were on the last river trip of the day and the guide clearly thought it was too late to see much wildlife. There were a few canoeists and people in their own boats. What amazed me was how anybody could find their way on a fairly narrow and winding river with plenty of side canals, all edged with apparently the same mangroves and then the same trees as we got further away from the sea. True to the guide’s prediction there were no alligators.
Before we left we walked up all 82 feet to the highest natural point of land in south Florida then up the Hobe Mountain Observation Tower from where you could see for miles.
After the long and empty drive on the Turnpike then another on route 60 we had a nice fish dinner at a very local old Florida restaurant in Lake Wales about 25 miles from home.
Kissimmee State Park
Our third little trip was very little, only a short trip from home for a picnic in Kissimmee State Park. It’s the nearest park to our house but still about 45 minutes away. We took a picnic there in the hope of finally seeing some alligators, but, even though it was a Sunday, we found the park almost deserted except for a few birds .
The last time we were there a few years before we saw plenty of alligators in the water near the visitor centre area but there were none this time and none in the channel to the lake, where we walked alongside for a while.
There’s an observation tower in the park from where you can see across the prairie to Lake Kissimmee which is the fourth largest lake in Florida.
Camp Mack Fishing Camp is at the end of the road a couple of miles past the park entrance and so we decided to drive along and take a look. The Sunday activity was definitely there. Pickup trucks were parked everywhere and a crowd of a hundred or so mainly large people were sitting in picnic chairs watching the results of a junior fishing competition. A line of teenagers wearing their fishing club t-shirts were waiting to have their catches weighed while an MC conducted proceedings through a loud sound system.
Florida is very multicultural but there was not single hispanic or black face there. My immediate reaction was “Welcome to Trumpland”. Polk county, where our house is, did vote for Trump. Much of it is rural and small towns, totally different from the Orlando area, although it is close enough to Orlando for Disney and shopping.
We stayed about 15 minutes and took some photos. The fish were mainly bass. One weighed over 12 pounds – no kilograms in the US.
One day as we were eating our lunch outside, we saw a small plane writing in the sky with its vapour trail. The letters soon began to disintegrate before it finished. We saw it again another day as we were eating lunch by Lake Tohopekaliga at Kissimmee. The letters disintegrated again.
The Americans really go for Christmas decorations. Some houses had lights all over and a menagerie of 4 foot high illuminated metal reindeer in the front garden. They also go for huge inflatables and I managed a to grab pictures of some in two stores.
One evening when we got home we saw that a house across the road from us had a row of 3 smaller inflateables outside which were singing some monotonous music. Thankfully they had collapsed the next day.
Another day we saw a car with decorative “antlers” on its aerials. In fact we saw this twice but have no idea whether it was the same car.
The papaya tree we planted in March was dead. It had grown to about 4 feet and had one small papaya on it, but it was laid on the ground and had been either struck by the hurricane or by the lawn mowing guy who rides round too fast.
Most Americans are not into gardening and their idea of a neat garden is a lawn and few bushes, including even hibiscus, pruned into box shapes, but one garden on our development is amazing. A Mexican family lives there and the owner showed us round one day. He has 8 papaya trees, each about 10 feet tall with plenty of fruit on each. He told us that he had grown them from seeds. He also had guavas, lemons, avocados and many other tropical plants. We came away with two large papayas.