Papayas, Azaleas, Manatees and a Rattlesnake February 2020

A month in Florida in winter 2020 is always very welcome. As in November we had to spend some time sorting things out in the house, but have now found some wonderful new property managers who have fixed a host of odds and ends which needed attention.

Go here for a picture gallery.

At Home – Papaya for Dessert and the Garden

A major highlight of the trip was finally to eat some of our own papayas.

Papaya and pool, Florida Breeze Villa

Readers of this blog will know that we have been trying to grow some papaya trees for years. It looked hopeful last November when there were plenty of fruits but none ripe enough to eat – you have to wait until they go a bit yellow. They are so big that one fruit makes dessert for two of us for three days.

I counted about 40 fruits on our trees, some of which had grown from seeds. I can’t understand how such a spindly trunk can hold such heavy fruits.

Papayas, Florida Breeze Villa

There’s plenty more about our papayas in my November 2019 blog.

Our garden was in good shape with hibiscus and azalea flowers, and plenty of variegated tropical plants.

Ginger plant, Florida Breeze Villa

The 10 inch Christmas tree we planted out about 12 years ago is now almost as tall as the house. My olive tree is about 12 foot tall and the avocado I grew from a stone had to be cut down as it had grown so tall. No sign of any olives or avocados yet.

The (non-)Storm

Although it was cold for a few days at the beginning of the trip, the weather got a lot warmer towards the end our our stay. One night in early February a big storm was forecast. We stayed up until 1am watching two weather guys on local TV getting very excited about possible tornadoes.

Their radar showed a clear advancing line of the storm with ripples which might become tornadoes. It arrived at our town Haines City exactly at the time predicted.

Storm approaching Haines City

The storm turned out to be a damp squib (or squall) with heavy rain and wind for about 10 minutes and a few rumbles of thunder. As we found when we lived in New Jersey the temperature can drop about 30 degrees Fahrenheit in three or fours hours after a weather front has passed through. Sure enough it was bright and sunny the next day – and cold.

Manatees at Blue Spring State Park

Every winter when it is cold hundreds of manatees congregate in Blue Spring State Park just north of Orlando. Before setting off to go there you can telephone the park to ask how many are there. Unusually for the USA the phone is answered by a real person with exact numbers, not a recorded message.

Manatees, Blue Spring State Park

David Attenborough swam among the manatees on one of his TV programmes. Ordinary mortals don’t have this privilege. Instead there’s a boardwalk along the side of the river with plenty of viewing places. We couldn’t miss a third visit, the last being about 10 years ago. It became a bit drizzly but there were enough manatees to get some good photos.

Manatee, Blue Spring

We also saw plenty of fish include some some black ones about 2.5 feet long, and one turkey vulture (aka buzzard in American).

Turkey vulture, Blue Spring

Development continues all over in Central Florida. We took a new route avoiding the I4 through downtown Orlando and saw new housing estates (they call them sub-divisions) springing up everywhere, plus shopping malls, hospitals and the like. There doesn’t seem to be any urban planning at all.

But we did pass a huge area of solar panels, which I think were the first we have ever seen in the sunshine state.

Ocala National Forest and Ravine Gardens State Park

Finally, in the last week of our stay we took two days off driving north up to Amelia Island. Our first stop was in Ocala National Forest not far north of Orlando. It’s a huge area with plenty of hiking trails and is reported to have plenty of bears – the Florida ones are smaller than those in northern states.

We stopped at a wooden hut visitor center and had a long chat with the volunteer manning it. He knew all the best trails, but in 8 years he had only seen one bear and no Florida panthers although one had been captured on a night camera.

Our next stop was at Ravine Gardens State Park near Palatka. A ravine is a very rare thing in flat Florida but the two in this park are deep chasms in the limestone. Hundreds of azaleas grow wild in them.

Azaleas, Ravine Gardens

We hiked some of the trail which was tougher than many in the US. There was still some damage left from Hurricane Michael in 2018 and it was rather hot.

On the trail, Ravine Gardens

Almost all the azaleas were the same deep pink colour. Many were taller than me.

There were lovely reflections but no alligators in the bottom.

Reflections, but no alligators, Ravine Gardens

Amelia Island

Amelia Island is at the far north-east of Florida, almost in Georgia. It’s fairly trendy now and there is a good choice of restaurants. We had some nice fish at the Salt Life Food Shack and a nice room with breakfast at the Seaside Amelia Inn, a bit north of the main town.

The east coast of Florida has miles and miles of sandy beach and so a walk on it was essential. One guy fishing said he had been there since 6.30am and he had caught a lot.

Fishing, Amelia Island

The tide was just going out and some people were using small sieves on the end of sticks to try to find fossilised shark teeth among the gravel left at high tide. A lady gave us some – they are black and about an inch long.

Shark teeth, from Amelia Island

The northern part of the island is taken up by Fort Clinch State Park which is in a strategic position overlooking the entrance to St Marys River and Cumberland Island in Georgia. This site was first fortified in 1736 by the Spanish and featured in the American Revolutionary War in 1777 and in the Civil War in the 1860s.

Entrance to Fort Clinch

The fort was restored in the 1930s and some of the buildings contain soldiers’ 3-tier bunk beds and stores.

Storeroom, Fort Clinch

Others have huge cannon balls. There was even a list of prisoners. You can walk past plenty of cannons on what must have been the original defence wall.

Fort Clinch overlooking St Marys River

The drive through the park goes through an attractive avenue of trees covered in Spanish moss, so emblematic of the south.

The main town on Amelia Island is Fernandina Beach which has plenty of trendy gift shops and was rather crowded. We had a huge fast food lunch then set off to drive down route A1A which goes as close to the sea as possible mostly on the barrier islands.

St Augustine

East of Jacksonville we were watched by some sleepy pelicans as we drove on to an elderly ferry across the St Johns River.

On the St Johns River ferry

We turned off A1A into St Augustine. According to Wikipedia, St Augustine was “Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers” and is “the oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement in the contiguous United States”. We went there once before about 12 years ago and I remember it being very quiet then perhaps because it was Super Bowl Sunday. This time it was very crowded and we had trouble finding somewhere to park.

The Catholic basilica first built in the 1790s is quite small but rather attractive inside.

Inside the basilica, St Augustine

The basilica borders the main plaza but behind it the maze of small streets has become just a tourist trap. I think there were 10 ice cream shops in one of them and there were plenty of bars as well. We kept having to get out of the way of tourist trolleys which were crammed full of people.

So we bought nothing except the most expensive ice cream I have ever had in Florida and drove a bit further down A1A past several beach parks and turned inland where a line of tall apartment blocks started.

As we had seen earlier in our stay, there is a huge construction project in downtown Orlando where they are building a four-level flyover for Interstate 4 which runs between Tampa and Daytona Beach. To avoid this in the rush hour we stopped at Altamonte Mall, had some dinner and exercised our credit card in Barnes and Noble bookstore.

Honeymoon Island – and a Rattlesnake

On our last day we went to Honeymoon Island State Park, one of our favourite places in Florida. It’s off the west coast by the town of Dunedin. There’s a causeway across to it and so you don’t need a boat to get there.

It was President’s Day and rather busy but we got away from the crowds who were mostly at the beaches, parked at the end of the road, ate our picnic and headed off to the trail. The Osprey Trail is a lovely walk which goes past a variety of trees many of which have osprey nests in them. There’s a long version of the trail which we have done but you can do shorter versions using the various cut-off points.

Osprey Trail, Honeymoon Island

Just at the beginning of the trail three guys were standing around with cameras looking at something on the ground. The something turned out to be an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the first we have ever seen in Florida. It was curled up a bit and its tail was up and rattling. It must have been about 5 feet long. We got near enough for a good photo and left quickly.

The rattlesnake, Honeymoon Island

But that wasn’t all. We saw our first ever gopher tortoise plodding along and then a horned owl which appeared to be squatting on the edge of an osprey nest. We could just see the head of one young owl popping out.

Horned owl and young, Honeymoon Island

Florida in Winter

February is a good time to visit Florida. The days are getting longer and the rare cold winter days are past. The temperature was in the 80s the last week we were there and it was sunny most of the time. Plenty of flowers are out and hibiscus and bougainvilleas are riots of colour, if they haven’t been pruned into box shapes as many are.

Hibiscus, Florida Breeze Villa

Plenty of snowbirds come down from the north for long stays – Ontario licence plates are the most frequent. We could let our villa many times over in the three months after December but we bought it for ourselves. Why not enjoy it then?

Vacation rentals have become easier to deal with now that we have a wifi-enabled lock on the front door which allows us to set a different keypad code for every guest, also a wifi-controlled thermostat for the a/c and heating which should save some of the huge electricity bill – the Americans really know how to charge for utilities.

Our timing was great as we flew home before coronavirus became an issue. But the real reason why we arranged to come back to the UK in mid-February was a trip booked to Sri Lanka starting on 15 March. Full marks and many thanks to Experience Travel Group for re-arranging it to next January and to Emirates for rebooking our flights at almost no extra charge, all in the two days before we were supposed to leave.

Our Florida villa

Picture gallery: Papayas, Azaleas, Manatees and a Rattlesnake February 2020

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