Florida Day Trips February 2019

It was quite cold when we arrived in Florida in mid-January 2019 but once the weather got better we took a few day trips from our house in February.

Go here for a picture gallery.

Lake Louisa State Park

Much of Florida is wild and empty. The Florida State Parks system showcases the best of this wilderness and some historical monuments with over 190 parks spread throughout the state. For a modest entry fee per car, you get a map of roads and hiking trails at the entry gate and can then drive to the visitor center where there is usually an exhibition and often a food service (probably only burgers). There are well-equipped campgrounds for motor homes and tents, but in some you can rent a cabin or pitch your tent in the backcountry (with a permit). Park rangers and volunteer staff are always very friendly and helpful.

Lake Louisa State Park is under an hour’s drive north from our house. We had been there before but only to have a picnic by the big lake.

We decided to tackle a 3-mile hiking trail and set off walking through the typical Florida scenery with trees and open spaces of grass and scrub. The scenery changes in Florida with a very short change in the elevation. You can be walking by a swamp and go up just a very few feet and find yourself on firm ground.

Trail, Lake Louisa State Park

Most of the trees are covered in Spanish moss which we really like. It is not actually a moss, but an epiphyte or bromeliad which lives off rain and airborne dust etc. We learned later that it can harbour a nasty bug which can burrow into your skin. That’s probably why it’s removed all the time from the trees on Southern Dunes where our house is.

After a while realised that this trail was 3 miles one way and it wasn’t clear how we would get back to the car. We decided to turn back when we reached a small stream which we would need to wade through. You do have to be a bit wary of snakes although we have rarely seen them in Florida.

Martin took a slightly diferent route back from me and saw a deer. I didn’t see any wildlife but there was a warning sign on the road, and of course one by the lake.

We didn’t see any, Lake Louisa

Back at the car park we had a snack on the beach by the lake and watched the sunset. We had walked about 4 miles in 2 hours and it was about 85 F.

Harry P. Leu Botanic Garden

This is the major garden in Orlando. It’s about 50 acres including the lake, and was created by Harry P. Leu and his wife who travelled all over the world bringing plants back to their house. They deeded their house and garden to Orlando in 1961.

We went there many years ago before we started to create a tropical garden at our house. This time we recognised a lot more of the plants. There’s a nice walk round on easy paths and a lake where we had seen small alligators on our previous visit. This time we saw only a group of turtles sunbathing just outside the water.

Turtles at Harry P. Leu Gardens, Orlando

A brown-coloured owl stared down at us from its perch in a tree. From the Internet I identified it as a barred owl.

Owl, Harry P. Leu Gardens

The garden is renowned for its 2000+ camellias with over 240 cultivars. Many were still in flower but we were just a bit late in the season to see them at their best.

Camellia, one of 2000+, Harry P. Leu Gardens

The bromeliads were excellent and they have several thriving specimens of the beautiful green, cream and pink stromanthes which we have been trying to grow at our house – this plant suffers in frost which can occur once or twice a year in central Florida.

Stromanthe – wish ours was so healthy

Some of the plants are huge.

Wish my monstera plant could grow like this, Harry P. Leu Gardens

This garden is a pleasant oasis in suburban Orlando. It’s easy to get to it and to park outside.

Pioneer Village at Shingle Creek

Our friend Nancy came down from New York to stay for 4 days. We had made various plans but the weather forecast was not good for our first full day together and so we decided to stay close to home and visit the pioneer village just outside Kissimmee. This contains a number of early (i.e. very late 19th century) buildings constructed by some of the first settlers in Osceola County. All the buildings have been moved to the village from elsewhere in the county.

There are four houses, one of which, belonging to the Tyson family, had only one room, even though they had eleven children. A larger house built by the Cadman family who were originally from Yorkshire has several rooms and is furnished. They lived in it until 1980.

Inside a house, Pioneer Village

Cattle ranching was an important business at that time – there still are plenty of cattle in Florida. The citrus industry also got going at the end of the 19th century. Helpful information boards described the role of these families in setting up these industries.

With summer temperatures in the high 90s F, life must have been tough for the early settlers with no refrigeration, no air-conditioning, and plenty of mosquitoes as well as snakes and alligators to deal with.

There are replicas of a train depot, a church and a schoolhouse which did look rather familiar to those of us on the wrong side of 70.

Familiar-looking school room, Pioneer Village

The site also has a replica Seminole village which shows how the original inhabitants of central Florida lived before the arrival of European settlers.

Like many similar places in the US the village is run entirely by volunteers. The sign boards are excellent.

The forecast rain didn’t come. We went into Kissimmee for lunch and ate a nice quiche at a place which described itself as a tea room. Saying that it was “overstuffed” (a favourite word with American furnishers) with decorations would be an understatement. Christmas decorations seemed to be everywhere. The owner was very pleasant but we did have a conversation with him about making tea. There was a teapot, a rare object in the US, but it only contained hot water to go with a biggest choice of tea bags I have ever seen, but no Yorkshire tea.

Dalí Museum St Petersburg

Rain was forecast again the next day and so we decided to drive the 80 or so miles to visit the Salvador Dalí Museum in St Petersburg. We had all been there before but they now have a completely new building not far from where the old one was. Once you get past the traffic on the interstate in Tampa it is easy to get to St Petersburg where there is little traffic on the wide streets and plenty of parking.

Dalí Museum, St Petersburg

The museum was very busy indeed. We decided not to join a group tour but instead used the excellent iPod-based audio guide which also shows a photo of each picture which is being described.

Martin and I went to the Dalí Museum in Figueres and Dalí’s home in Port Lligat in north-east Spain in 2013 and what we had seen and learned there helped us to understand more about this strange and eccentric artist.

There was also a special exhibition of Dalí and Magritte who were appeared to be competing with each other to create the weirdest painting. In this area we played with a digital tool which allowed us to appear to be part of a Dalí painting.

Fun at the Dalí Museum

The museum has one downside, a cafe which is much too small for the number of visitors. We decided to eat there as we fancied some Spanish food but had to wait a very long time for a nice tapas meal. It being America, the gift shop was huge with some lovely and rather expensive souvenirs.

The promised rain finally arrived in a downpour just as we were leaving but it didn’t last long. After a visit to Haslam’s, which is the largest independent bookstore in Florida, where we managed to buy only one book, we had dinner outside at 400 Beach, a very nice restaurant by the marina.

Sunrail and Winter Park

The weather was very much better on Nancy’s last day with us and so we went back to plan A and did something we have never done before in Florida which was to take a train. A new commuter rail service called, not surprisingly, Sunrail opened in central Florida last year. It goes from Poinciana just south-west of Kissimmee right through the downtown part of Orlando to various commuter towns north of the city.

Sunrail

There are just a few trains outside in the rush hour. We arrived at Poinciana Station in good time to find the platform crowded with grey-haired snowbird seniors taking a day out. This train is amazing value, $2.75 roundtrip for seniors for a journey of 50 minutes each way to Winter Park.

The train is double deck and we went past parts of central Florida which you don’t see from any of the major roads.

Almost everyone was going to Winter Park which is where the wealthy built their mansions so that they could escape the winter cold in the north. A very short walk from the train station takes you to an excellent narrated boat tour where you can see the huge houses and also the buildings of Rollins College, one of the best-known colleges in southern US. The guide said that a number of the houses had been pulled down and rebuilt even bigger.

The boat visits three different lakes, going on narrow canals between them.

Canal, boat tour Winter Park

This is definitely not a trip for a bad day as the boats have no top as the bridges over the canals are so low.

Boat tour, Winter Park

We saw some cormorants perched in three trees in one of the lakes.

Cormorants from boat tour, Winter Park

After lunch at a Turkish restaurant we went to the other major tourist attraction in Winter Park which is the Morse Museum of American Art. This building houses a large collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, he of the coloured lampshades and the posh jewellers on Fifth Avenue, New York.

Tiffany lamps, Morse Museum

Besides the lampshades there were many stained glass windows and mosaics and some excellent glass vases. There are even tops of columns decorated with glass daffodils.

One of four stained glass artworks depicting the seasons, Morse Museum

Many of the pieces came from Tiffany’s Long Island home Laurelton Hall. This includes a chapel interior created by Tiffany for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After this event finished the chapel was re-installed in a separate building on the Laurelton estate. After the hall was destroyed by fire in 1957 the founders of the Morse Museum Hugh and Jeanette McKean moved the chapel to the interior of the museum. The glasswork in it is stunning, especially the globe-shaped font.

Font in the chapel, Morse Museum

There is no audio guide at this museum but instead a pile of well-designed and well-written small leaflets in each room. You can take these away. I really really like the Tiffany stained glass and ended up buying a big book about it.

There were some real commuters on the train back and some of them had bicycles. It seems that the new train is beginning to solve a few of the traffic issues in central Florida.

Garden at Florida Breeze Villa

Our efforts to grow a papaya tree continue. There are several others now in gardens nearby, but the one we planted in November had fallen over when it got to about 4 feet high. However I did plant some seeds from a fruit we ate in November and when we arrived in January there were about 50 4-inch high papayas in two pots. We bought another plant after we came back from the Dominican Republic and the weather had warmed up, and planted it in a different place accompanied by 2 of the little ones.

Papayas – I live in hope

The hibiscus and azaleas were in full flower in February and we even had some flowers on our bougainvillea which is still quite small. You need to be careful with these plants as they are prickly.

Hibiscus flower at Florida Breeze Villa

There was plenty of blossom on the lemon tree, and a few lemons, when we left and my olive tree was now taller than me. The avocado I grew from a stone was 10 feet tall in January.

From our pool deck you can just see some of our tropical fruit trees and little papaya pots on the left here.

Pool at Florida Breeze Villa

Our Florida home

Picture gallery: Florida Day Trips February 2091

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Put it to the People March 2019

There comes a time when you absolutely feel that you have to do something. That happened for Martin and myself when we heard that on Saturday 23 March 2019 there would be a Put it to the People March for a public vote on the government’s proposed EU withdrawal bill. So we booked a hotel and drove down to London on the Friday afternoon.

Go here for photos.

We stayed by the M25 and then left the car on Saturday at the nearest tube station High Barnet. The Central Line train from Tottenham Court Road was very full and huge crowds got off at Marble Arch, some, like me, carrying placards or draped in EU flags.

Ready for off

We were early, at least we thought we were, so we went to a nearby Patisserie Valerie for coffee. A couple of a similar age to us at the next table jokingly accused us of being wimps – they had come on a coach from Durham leaving at 5am. There was a very long and friendly queue for the loo. Everybody was talking about where they had come from.

We had intended to join the Yorkshire for Europe group who were meeting outside the Grosvenor House hotel or the LibDems meeting outside the Dorchester at noon but there was no way we were going to get to them. Park Lane was already full.

Park Lane full when we got there

The police opened up the area of grass between the two carriageways and we managed to make a bit of progress on that but came to a halt again for a long time.

There were some impromptu speeches much further down Park Lane. We couldn’t hear but joined the cheers. We sat on the barrier next to some friendly policemen and ate our lunch.

A friendly policeman

The front of the march left about 1pm. Eventually we shuffled forward down Park Lane and reached Piccadilly just about when the main speeches were starting in Parliament Square at 2.45pm.

There was a great sense of camaderie and plenty of laughs at some of the placards, but there was also a great sense of steely determination to stop this impending disaster. Like us many people were angry and upset that our country is being subjected to a right-wing coup run by wealthy disaster capitalists.

There were people of all ages, but plenty of the same generation as ourselves, putting paid to the story that all older people are Leave supporters.

Plenty of grey hairs

There were children, too, carrying placards pleading for their future. A baby in a pram was labelled “Erasmus baby”- his parents must have met when they were benefitting from the EU scheme for exchange and study abroad.

Plenty of people were draped in EU flags or waving them, but the Yorkshire flag was out in force too. The placards showed the best of British humour. Most were a lot better than my own feeble effort, but then I had never made one before. We didn’t see the Guardian’s favourite “Fromage not Farage” but there was a limerick, a “900,000 here, 90 on Nigel’s march” and “a complete Mogg’s dinner”.

Rees-Mogg: one of the best

You can find the best ones we saw among our photos here.

Some placards highighted links with Putin, and demonized Trump as well as Theresa May. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were widely derided.

Scientists for EU, who I have followed for 3 years now, and NHS for EU were prominent on the march as workers in those fields really understand how damaging leaving the EU would be.

Support for the NHS

At the bottom of Park Lane, we caught up with a lady carrying a placard Ripon for Europe with a picture of sheep in the dales. Later when I looked at Twitter she was on the front row in a photo of the bus from Ripon which was posted by Lord Dick Newby the leader of the LibDems in the Lords who lives in Ripon.

It took ages for everyone to get round the corner and funnel into Piccadilly but then we were moving forward, a bit.

Waiting to turn into Piccadilly

It was stop and start all the way from there. Every ten minutes or so somebody started a loud cheer and there was much waving of banners.

The phone signal was up and down. People kept checking the petition to revoke Article 50 which already had over 4 million signatures when the march started.

When we turned into St James, Piccadilly behind us was still full of people. Drummers from Notting Hill were trying to keep people moving.

Drummers from Notting Hill

Their conductor was walking backwards. I smiled at him and he rushed over to me while his companion took a photo of us together. I suppose I might be on his Facebook page somewhere.

A bagpiper playing the EU anthem “Ode to Joy” almost brought tears to my eyes.

Ode to Joy nearly brought me to tears

When we were nearing Trafalgar Square we saw the first big screen, but not an official one from the march, but a mobile one from the wonderful Led by Donkeys – you can find them on Facebook and Twitter. It was cycling through some of the most mendacious statements of the Brexiteers. The blank one of Jeremy Corbyn drew plenty of laughs and a chorus of “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?”

Led by Donkeys’ screen

The first of the march’s own big screens in Trafalgar Square simply said “People’s Vote Thank you for coming and have a safe journey home”. It was 5pm when we got there and the main speeches had long since finished.

In Whitehall there was a sizeable crowd making uncomplimentary noises outside Downing Street where the gates were firmly closed.

Outside Downing Street

After over 5 hours, we reached Parliament Square about 5.20pm when the staging for the speeches was already being dismantled. There were many people still behind us.

Arrived in Parliament Square – after 5 hours

The march was entirely peaceful, with no riots and no arrests. The gammon Leavers, who said online that they would disrupt it, knew they would be outnumbered and stayed away.

So we missed the main speeches. Tom Watson had already said that he was going to say that he would support a confirmatory referendum on the withdrawal agreement. I read that 86-year old Michael Heseltine had reduced some people to tears when he said

We can debate the motives and obligations of those in public life. What cannot be in doubt is our responsibility to our young generations to pass on to them a country richer, more powerful, safer than that we ourselves inherited. Our partnership with Europe is that destiny.

Walk tall. Keep the faith. Go back to your villages, your towns and your cities. Tell them you were here. Here, In parliament square. Outside the buildings that inspire parliamentary democracy. Fighting for our tomorrow. In peace. Secure. The bitterness and bloodshed of Europe’s past buried with its history.

We stayed in central London for dinner. Later in the evening a Danish family who were visiting London approached us while we were waiting for a bus. They had seen that I was still wearing my “Bollocks to Brexit” sticker. They had been following the Brexit saga, but couldn’t understand why the UK had voted to leave the EU and wanted more information. Their teenage son knew more about the implications of Brexit for the Good Friday Agreement than most British people do.

What Now?

The BBC has abandoned all sense of impartiality over Brexit. As expected, it played down the significance of the march, trying to balance the million people on it with the hundred or so on Farage’s Brexit march.

The only arguments left for leaving were still being touted by Liam Fox on the Today Programme this morning (Monday): that (1) people voted to Leave and (2) that the 2017 election manifestos for both major parties supported Brexit. But it was a narrow majority almost three years go. Time has moved on. People can change their minds. The Conservatives lost their majority in 2017. No party won the election.

Many of the placards drew attention to the lies that were told in 2016. People have seen through this now. They know that that the aim of the wealthy Brexiteers is to get rid of all the EU regulations which protect people and the environment. They know now that Brexit is all because of a civil war in the Tory Party, that Leave broke the law and that money from dubious sources was used to fund their campaign.

The Brexiteers want the UK to be out of the customs union so that they can seal the trade deal that Trump says will be so great (only for the US of course), that is to sell out UK business and healthcare to the US. There are reports that American big pharma thinks our drugs are too cheap and that it wants to charge the NHS five times what it now pays for drugs.

Ordinary people just want this awful divisiveness to end, and their country to return to normality and prosperity. They want a strong government which cares for its people. They do not want to see what we saw in London on this our first time walking about in Central London for years, that is homeless people sleeping in doorways and people begging for money on the streets and on the tube. The large balloon shaped like a banana with “Banana republic” written on it encapsulated where the UK is headed if Brexit is not stopped.

Last Words

My MP, none other than the Chief Whip Julian Smith, assured me at the end of January that “it is not the Government’s strategy to run down the clock until 29 March”. Can you believe anything that these people say?

The petition to revoke Article 50 has reached over 5,500,000 signatures as I finish this early on Monday afternoon. It was started by a 76-year old lady. She has received death threats. Is this really the country that you and I want to live in?

People’s Vote March London 23 March 2019

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Dominican Republic February 2019

After our failed attempt to see anything of the Domincan Republic (DR) on a cruise last year we decided to fly down there for a week while we were staying at our house in Florida.

Go here for a picture gallery.

Our flight from Miami on American Airlines was excellent on a brand new plane later identified from the internet as a 737 Max 8, the same model as the one which crashed in Ethiopia a few weeks after our trip. American Airlines has 24 of them.

Santo Domingo from the air

Santo Domingo

We spent two nights in the capital Santo Domingo. I had not realised before how old some of the buildings there are, and how important Christopher Columbus is in their history. Our hotel El Beaterio had once been a convent built in the 16th century. The rooms surrounded a pleasant courtyard.

Courtyard, El Beaterio Hotel, Santo Domingo

We were right in the Zona Colonial. We arrived mid-afternoon via a slightly hair-raising taxi drive from the airport. This was a fixed fare of $40 but the driver gave us his card and said he would take us back there for $25.

On the first evening we just wandered round a bit and had a falafel dinner nearby.

The next day was sightseeing in earnest. There was some competition as a German cruise ship was in port and in several places we had to battle past groups from the ship. We started with the cathedral which was built in the 16th century and is the oldest in the Americas. It was beautifully restored for a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1992 and is light and airy in contrast to many Catholic cathedrals we have seen elsewhere.

Inside the cathedral, Santo Domingo

There were small chapels along both sides. One contained a life-size tableau of human statues and animals. The humans had no faces. We were later to find out why.

First of many faceless statues, inside the cathedral, Santo Domingo

Next up was the fort overlooking the Río Ozama. Construction began in 1502 and it is the oldest colonial military building in the Americas. The main part has good views and I liked the design of the information boards. There is not too much to see inside.

Fort, Santo Domingo

We walked further up the Calle las Damas, which is the oldest street paved street in the Americas and got its name because the wife of Columbus’ son enjoyed walking up and down on it with her female friends. We briefly visited the Panteón Nacional which is a mausoleum with a soldier standing guard, never blinking as tourists filed past.

The Plaza España is the main square in Santo Domingo, although it is not an actual square. Its main building is the Alcázar de Colón where Columbus’ son Diego and his wife lived in the 16th century.

Alcázar de Colón, Santo Domingo

This building contains furnishings of the period. Some of the items belonged to the Columbus family including a small trunk which I think the guide said was made of elephant skin.

Then it it was time for lunch, a huge pizza in a nice restaurant overlooking the plaza.

On the way back to the hotel we visited the Museo de las Casas Reales (Museum of the Royal Houses) which was also built in the 16th century and was the seat of Spanish government in Caribbean. Of most interest to us were some maps of the earlier voyages of discovery, but there were also plenty of historical artefacts.

Historical map, Museo de las Casas Reales, Santo Domingo

After a rest we found we were only 2 blocks away from a long pedestrianised street with shops and cafes and more larger than life-sized human models with heads but no faces. Our hunt for the map shop listed in the guide book turned out to take some time, but during it we met up with a Canadian lady, now living in Florida, who was also planning to rent a car and needed a map.

We had an interesting dinner in a rather up-market Dominican restaurant Mesón de Bari and just hoped the rest of the country would be a bit cheaper.

Sosúa-Cabarete

With the aid of the hotel receptionist, we summoned the same taxi driver to take us to the airport to pick up our rental car. We had read fairly dire things about driving in the DR which has a reputation for dangerous driving and plenty of accidents. But we felt it was the only way to see some of country.

Our car seemed OK and after photographing all the scratches on it, we set off towards the north east. To get there from Santo Domingo you have to go on an elevated so-called “expressway” through the city as they haven’t finished building the ring road yet. We found ourselves in an enormous traffic jam with cars trying to get on to the road at the many junctions by pushing (almost literally) their way in. There was no hard shoulder and finally, after well over an hour, we reached a car which had broken down.

After that we were soon on the so-called “autopista” towards Puerto Plata. There was quite a hefty toll but people were wandering about by the side of the road. It was some time before we reached a cafe on our side of the road and had a very welcome coffee and a visit to a very clean loo.

We had planned to take the ruta panoramica over the mountains to the north coast but had to divert to the shortest route as we were in danger of not getting to our next hotel in daylight. In the end we just had to drive about 20km along the coast road in the dark.

We stayed two nights at a bed and breakfast called Garden by the Sea halfway between Sosúa and Cabarete. The room was very good, as was breakfast, but as we only know the Spanish for scrambled eggs (huevos revueltos) we had to have our eggs cooked the same way on both days.

Here, as we saw everywhere in the DR, there were many bougainvilleas.

Bougainvilleas everywhere

It was about 100m from the B&B to Playa Laguna which was an empty beach lined by apartments.

Playa Laguna near Garden by the Sea

Our one full day in the northwest was taken up by a long trip westward to La Isabela, a settlement founded by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Driving turned out to be fine as there wasn’t much traffic. You do need to have eyes all round your head because there are so many small motorbikes dodging in and out. They were just like those we had seen in Vietnam a few years ago.

We stopped for lunch (another pizza) at Puerto Plata in a restaurant on the malecón, which is the Spanish generic name for an esplanade running along by the sea. After some road works just past Puerto Plata it was an easy drive across some low hills to La Isabela where we found a neatly laid-out and well-tended archaeological site and a small museum.

La Isabela archaeological site

Columbus had picked his spot as it was a beautiful location by a small beach just inside a bay.

Where Christopher Columbus landed in 1493

One other couple was just leaving. There were no other visitors.

Driving back was OK in the rush hour at Puerto Plata and we even managed to stop at a supermarket to pick up some food for the next day.

At Sosúa we did something we rarely do which was to eat at the same restaurant on successive nights. There wasn’t much other choice near to the B&B and a Swiss-German restaurant called El Choco had a good choice of food.

Las Terrenas

Our last three nights were spent at Las Terrenas on the north coast of the Samaná peninsula which is in the north-east of the DR. Getting there on a Sunday was no problem as the main road along the north coast was quite empty. We stopped briefly at Río San Juan to see a lagoon with some colourful boats.

Río San Juan

Playa Grande, a beautiful sandy beach lined by trees and almost a mile long, was a good place for our picnic where I had company. We didn’t encounter a single nasty dog anywhere in the DR, unlike many of the countries we have visited.

Company for lunch – on Playa Grande

Plenty of locals were enjoying Sunday there, but most of the beach was deserted.

The last part of the drive was over a spectacular new mountain road (with a hefty toll), but the views were amazing. It reminded me of Hawaii with steep mountains covered in lush green and a variety of trees and vegetation.

Las Terrenas has grown from a village around a small river into a major tourist area – this is not at all surprising as there are so many spectacular sandy beaches in the area. There is a complicated one-way system and hardly anywhere to park in the town.

This area also turned out to be favoured by the French which meant one thing: good food. We stayed at the Iguana Hotel, a group of bungalows run by a French lady where the breakfast was wonderful.

Bungalow at the Iguana Hotel

In the first evening we ate at a restaurant on the beach which was about 100m from the hotel. It was very quiet.

On our first full day we set off to explore Samaná, going first to the El Limón waterfall in the middle of the peninsula. At least, Martin went to the waterfall which was a tough 2-hour round trip hike with a guide.

At El Limón waterfall

I was looked after very well at the cafe at the start of the walk where we then had lunch of chicken, rice and fruit.

After lunch we drove on to Samaná town on the south side, photographed an interesting church and then enquired about whale watching as it was in the middle of the season when hundreds of humpback whales come to Samaná Bay. The news from the whale watching company was not good. They had only one trip going on the next day which was already full. It was going to be rough and we would very likely be seasick. Since we had seen these whales before in Hawaii we were not too bothered about this.

We drove on to Las Galeras at the end of Samaná where there is also a substantial French influence and where we found a nice cafe/patisserie.

Beach at Las Galeras

On the way back we did just see a big splash in the bay which must have been a whale.

Ignoring a road closed sign we found our way back on a road along the coast, which was under construction but not closed, thus avoiding the lengthy one-way system in Las Terrenas. Dinner was at Baraonda, another restaurant further along the road from our hotel towards the town centre. We waited almost an hour for our food.

On the morning of our last full day we walked along the beach to the town centre, had coffee at Paco Cabana on the beach, then looked at the shops. Lunch was at another French place with a typically French set menu. We were the only non-native French-speaking people there.

In the afternoon we took another drive over the mountains on a different route to the south of Samaná. We passed through plenty of villages and saw a number of small horses ridden by people who were rounding up cattle. Everything looked lush and green and there were some spectacular views from the mountain road and huge coconut groves by the sea.

Samaná Bay

We waited in vain for a whale to surface off Samaná town. Then it was back past El Limón and along the coast road. Miraculously we found place to park in the town and had dinner at Paco Cabana by the beach. Highly recommended.

The drive back to Santo Domingo airport next day on a good road was uneventful, but again expensive with more tolls. At least they are building some better roads now. If you look on the map you will see how few roads there are. The car had no more scratches and we had made it with no mishaps in this country of terrible drivers.

Impressions of the Dominican Republic

We liked the country a lot. The mountainous scenery is quite something. Apart from the craziness of Santo Domingo outside the Zona Colonial, much of the country is rural with small villages. There are flowers everywhere. Almost every tiny house in a village has flowering plants – bougainvillea was the most popular. The people are very friendly and helpful and we saw nothing of the crime and traffic accidents which the guide books warned about.

Santo Domingo was a very nice surprise. We knew there was some history there but had no idea that there was so much or that it was so old. The historical buildings were well looked after and included in the modest entry fee was an audio guide with a headset which was available in several languages.

Outside Santo Domingo we found prices to be very reasonable and you can use a credit card with a pin number (are you listening, Americans?) almost anywhere. We didn’t need to buy much petrol but that was all easy too, with an attendant to fill the tank.

The beaches are quite possibly the best we have seen anywhere in the world. There are just so many of them, all golden sand and kept clean.

You can get by without knowing any Spanish, but a little knowledge helps a bit.

We finally solved the mystery of the faceless figurines when one shopkeeper in Las Terrenas told us that this was because there are so many different races and mixed-race people in the DR. But it’s then odd that some of the figurines we saw had black faces and others white ones.

It was sunny or partly cloudy with a pleasant breeze all the time we were there – a contrast from cold rain when we landed in Miami.

We would definitely go again especially as it is only a 2-hour flight from Miami, but perhaps not in a 737 MAX 8.

Picture gallery: A Week in the Dominican Republic February 2019

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Anatomy of a Daily Mail Comment

My anger boiled over late yesterday when I read comments on the Daily Mail’s report on the article it had published at 5pm on 22 February by Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke “If we don’t get a deal next week we MUST delay Brexit”. So I wrote a comment at approximately 10.45pm.

Here is what I said:

susan, Harrogate, United Kingdom, 17 hours ago

Brexit died weeks ago. Most MPs and most of the population know this. The referendum was over 2.5 years ago and much has happened since then. All the promises made by the leave campaign have turned out to be false. We are indeed being led by donkeys as this group’s billboards show. All Mrs May needs to do is to be like the strong women who have stood up for what they believe in this week, and tell the nation that the Brexit that was promised is undeliverable. To save face she must organise another vote to let all those people who realise they have been sold a dud make their views clear. She must stop being weakly held to ransom by all those old white males in the ERG who are only interested in making money out of the impending disaster.

Within an hour this comment had acquired 56 red down arrows, 15 green up arrows
and 6 replies. After 17 hours when I am writing this it has 87 down arrows and 37 up arrows.

Here are the replies, and their totals of up and down arrows up till now, with my thoughts on these:

somersetsue, taunton, 17 hours ago

That vote could still return a leave result, I have heard remainers change their mind having seen what bully boys the EU are!

17 up arrows, 5 down arrows

I am aware that the vote could still return leave result. I think remainers are more likely to accept this if the vote was shown to be fair.

There is an endless narrative in the pro-Brexit press about the EU being bullies, but nobody ever gives any examples. I think that the EU leaders have behaved very well. They did not start this and it has caused them a huge amount of extra work while they have observed the UK government going nowhere negotiating with itself for months.

kemali, Blackpool, United Kingdom, 17 hours ago

My goodness Susan..in just one post you have revealed your lefty, undemocratic and man-hating views! Wow!

16 up arrows, 6 down arrows

I don’t know whether some of this is a compliment or not, but I was pleased to see that 7 of the 11 new Independent Group are women.

Professor Prune, LONDON, United Kingdom, 17 hours ago

Nonsense. The delegated instruction given by a mature and democratic eletorate trumps everything else.

13 up arrows, 4 down arrows

I don’t know how many times I have read this kind of comment before. I don’t know about “mature” but this person makes no attempt to argue against me except the endless repetition of a version of “we voted out”. Does he not know that things have changed since June 2016 and that what most of what Leave promised has turned out to be lies?

kemali, Blackpool, 17 hours ago

Rudd has been a problem since May brought her back… amazed that May hasn’t sacked her! Has she got something on her??

16 up arrows, 3 down arrows

Same person again. Just an insult.

guitarist16, London, United Kingdom, 17 hours ago

The only people who have been eating humble pie since the referendum are those that favoured remaining as their predictions and exaggerations have been proved to be futile. The referendum had the biggest turnout for a vote in recent years, every eligible person, who could be bothered voted freely, £millions was spent on campaigning beforehand, especially for remaining, registration was extended and as we are a democratic country, the majority decision is final, since then the same remain favouring MPs, have and still are, trying to stop what the country voted for, when Scotland had their referendum the majority decision was final, so why isn’t the UKs

19 up arrows, 3 down arrows

Where are the examples to support his (I use “his” although his gender is not clear) statement “those that favoured remaining as their predictions and exaggerations have been proved to be futile”. Surely it has become clear now that the opposite is true. Leavers appeared to think that the economy would fall apart the day after the referendum but it was always obvious that it would be a slow but accelerating decline as businesses move out of the UK. This is visibly happening now – we have seen another example this week with Honda whose “business reasons” must surely include Brexit.

This response also parrots the often repeated “majority decision is final” and “biggest turnout for a vote in recent years”. He does not address my point that much has happened since 2016. There are plenty of examples of people being asked to vote on the terms of a deal once this has been agreed by two parties, notably in the trade union movement where leaders are asked to negotiate new terms and then put them back to their members for acceptance or rejection. In the case of the 2016 referendum it seems to me that this is essential because, as I said in my original comment, “All the promises made by the leave campaign have turned out to be false.”

Emma Harrington, London, United Kingdom, 16 hours ago

So let’s advocate treason on a public forum that will be popular

8 up arrows and 4 down arrows

Perhaps the people who liked or disliked this comment had less trouble parsing it than I have. I am not at all clear what it is intended to mean. Is it one sentence or two? Is she advocating treason by the three authors of the article or accusing me of treason or suggesting she should be treasonous herself? In any case you could interpret this statement in more than one way. Is it the public forum that will be popular? Or is it advocating treason on a public forum, and saying that to do so would be popular?

In any case I hardly think that disagreement is “treason”. There are many instances of politicians who have publicly disagreed with their leaders.

I did make an attempt rather late to reply to guitarist16. Here is what I said

susan, Harrogate, United Kingdom, 15 hours ago

To guitarist16. We haven’t left the EU yet, but jobs are going (Honda this week) and financial organizations are taking their capital out of London. You haven’t mentioned the huge amounts of money spent by Leave in telling lies to people on Facebook about Turkey joining the EU etc. Nobody has yet said where Arron Banks got this money from. I’m so sorry for the people who fell for these lies. If this isn’t stopped the UK is heading for steady but accelerating decline in isolation from the rest of the world. It will be ripe for asset stripping by US businesses – as the Brexiteers have planned for years. See the 2012 book Britannia Unchained by Patel, Raab, Truss etc and the more recent books by Tim Shipman.

This got 7 up arrows and 8 down arrows, but by then most of these people had moved on to repeat the same comments again and again.

All this has depressed me, not because I have been criticised by these people but because they do seem to have some difficulty in actually addressing the points that I made. I have seen this over and over again in the comment forums of the tabloids.

I do wonder what people think they are achieving by repeating the same comments over and over again. Are they paid trolls? Is it brainwashing? I would seriously question whether any of the responses to my comment, and their up and down arrows, have any effect at all except to reinforce existing prejudices. Sadly, I believe the Leave campaign took advantage of this and kept pumping out misinformation on social media and encouraging more and more people to believe it and to “like” it. It appears to be continuing to do this with more misinformation about the WTO and the Lisbon Treaty.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people could look at what is actually being said, and have a reasoned argument supported by evidence?

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Three Little Trips in Florida Autumn 2018

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.

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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.

Rainbow Springs State Park

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.

View from our airbnb, Cedar Key

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.

Cormorants on the jetty on Atsena Otie Key

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.

Grassy Key – with one inhabitant

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.

Great white pelicans

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.

Vultures at Manatee Springs State Park

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.

Sunset colours at Jupiter Island on the east coast

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.

Martin behind the left bow on Jupiter Lighthouse

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.

Arriving at Trapper Nelson’s on the Loxahatchee River

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.

Hobe Observation Tower at Jonathan Dickenson State Park

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 .

Can anyone identify this large bird, Kissimmee State Park

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.

Fishing competition at Camp Mack Fishing Camp

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.

Miscellania

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.

Airplane sky writing, from Florida Breeze Villa

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.

Inflateable Mickey Mouse for Christmas

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.

Picture gallery: Three Little Trips in Florida Autumn 2018

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Plymouth and Cape Cod September 2018

This is the third of three posts on our visit to New York, Boston and Cape Cod in September 2018.

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Plymouth and the early settlers

Sunday was a good day to choose to drive out of Boston. It was fairly quiet as we went south to Plimoth, as it is spelled, Plantation which is a kind of museum cum reconstruction of what life was like when the early settlers arrived on the Mayflower. This covers a large area and, unusually for the US, you have to walk round it, all of about half a mile.

We started in the Wampanoag Homesite, a replica of how the original inhabitants of the area lived. Inside a house we met modern Wampanoags who answered questions about their ancestors’ way of life. We had an interesting discussion with one of them about their language which is being revived.

Inside a house at the Wampanoag Homesite

The Craft Center houses examples of historic crafts and a few people were on hand to explain their crafts. This Center was in a modern building which was perhaps as well as it began to get much colder as the wind got up.

The so-called “English Village” is a re-creation of a community built by the early settlers near the shore. There are wooden houses, mostly consisting of only one room, all equipped as they would be in the 17th century.

The English Village

Each house is named after a family of early settlers and in some of them guides dressed in costume were on hand to talk about life at that time, as if it was still happening.

Inside a house at the English Village

After leaving Plimoth we paid a short visit to the actual Plymouth Rock at the site where the Pilgrims landed in the small town of Plymouth. It is inscribed with the date 1620.

The wind was much colder by then. Thank goodness for Dunkin Donuts where we got some hot tea. Nowhere else in Plymouth appeared to be open at all.

“Treasured Memories” and fish and chips

In Cape Cod we stayed at the “Inn of Treasured Memories” – not the typical name of a B&B in the UK – where we had a large and warm room. It was in the town of Harwich, pronounced Har-witch, which is close to the bend in the Cape Cod peninsula. We were the only people there and the hostess was very pleasant and helpful.

Inn of Treasured Memories, Harwich

For dinner on the first evening our hostess directed us to Kream ’n Kone in West Dennis which turned out to be self-service fish and chips. They were good but not quite what you can get in Yorkshire and there was no vinegar. But we did get salad. In the next couple of days we saw far more fish and chip restaurants than we have ever seen anywhere else in the US.

Wind, lighthouses and seals

On the Monday it was cold and so windy that you could hardly stand up. We battled to the lighthouse at Chatham then went north to the Cape Cod National Seashore Visitor Center and drove round the loop road by the sea to Nauset Light – the Americans seem to just to call them Light, not Lighthouses.

We drove on to Provincetown at the far northern end of Cape Cod. When we were last there in 1977 this was quiet sleepy place. This time the tourists had descended in force, presumably because it was far too cold to be on the beach. After a very slow drive along the main street, passing among other things the Queen Vic, we did find a nice (and late) lunch.

We went out to Race Point at the far tip, walked on the beach and were rewarded by seeing some seals in the water very close to the shoreline.

Close up at Race Point

On the way back we took a detour round the National Seashore again and Martin went on the guided tour to Highland Light, climbing up the narrow stairs to the Lantern Room.

It was soon back to the B&B and then after some research online, out to a nice dinner at Pate’s at Chatham.

Another lighthouse and glass-making

The weather was much better the next day. Picking up a sandwich on the way, we drove west, first through Falmouth to the lighthouse at Nobska Point then to Woods Hole where we ate our sandwich on the beach. We could easily see across to the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Most of the houses around Woods Hole are rather large and are in a grey shingled style, a contrast from the painted wooden ones further east and north.

Our last stop was at the Glass Museum at Sandwich on the north coast. Sandwich was first settled in 1637 and, as we learned from the movie, became a large centre of glass making built up by Deming Jarves in the early 19th century. There were some excellent examples of glasswork in the museum but the highlight was a live demonstration of glass blowing.

Glass blowing, Glass Museum, Sandwich

We couldn’t leave Cape Cod without going to the largest town Hyannis where we had an excellent fish dinner outdoors right by the harbour, after the obligatory visit to Macy’s in the mall.

Traffic

Any plans for sightseeing the next day on our way back to Logan Airport were gradually scuppered as we became caught up in Boston’s notorious traffic. It must have been really awful before 2004 when they finished the “Big Dig” which took Interstate 93 underground through the centre of Boston.

Why choose Cape Cod?

Cape Cod is a pleasant part of the US. Much of it is wooded and if you drive along the main road through the middle of the cape, you hardly see any buildings for much of the way. However, except for the Cape Cod National Seashore area, Cape Cod is fairly built-up, but with individual houses surrounded by trees. In the US there is a house style called Cape Cod which is rather like a chalet bungalow in the UK. We saw many examples with painted clapperboard sides. It’s such a shame that so many residential streets in the US are marred by overhead electricity cables. Fortunately ours at Florida Breeze Villa isn’t.

Many of the place names are British, but it is slightly unnerving that they are in a different geographical relationship to each other than they are in the UK.

As we saw from the air going to New York there are plenty of good beaches, but there’s not a lot to do if it’s not beach weather. Much of the accommodation is rental houses or apartment rentals which seem to be catering for families and are thus expensive for two people. Overall it is definitely not the cheapest area in the US, but is worth a visit for a few days.

Picture gallery: Plymouth and Cape Cod September 2018

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Boston September 2018

This is the second of three posts about our trip to New York, Boston and Cape Cod in September 2018.

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Getting to Boston

We took the Amtrak train from New York to Boston. Penn Station has certainly been modernised since we lived in New Jersey in the 1990s, but you still have to go down into the bowels of the earth to get on the train which is in a tunnel for some time after it leaves.

It was a pleasant journey, for most of the time, passing many inlets with boat marinas in Connecticut.

A Connecticut marina, from the train

When we got nearer to Boston it became very dark and the heavens opened. It was also clear that the train was going to arrive late, in fact about 40 minutes late – British trains aren’t the only ones that are late. It had just about stopped raining when we arrived and we soon found a taxi even though there did not appear to be an official taxi rank and dispatcher at Boston South Station.

Staying in the other Cambridge

We were right in the rush hour and it took a while to get to Irving House at Harvard, our B&B in Cambridge. This was a nice B&B with help yourself breakfast, and tea, coffee and cake available all day.

Irving House at Harvard, our B&B

We were, however, on the top floor which required four flights of stairs to the basement eating area. They told us that it would be difficult install a lift in an old building.

We were close to Harvard University and soon found a Chinese restaurant for dinner. I had looked for the Indian restaurant where I had a great meal with some digital humanities people in the 1990s, but it seemed to have disappeared. There were plenty of fast food outlets, all full of students. After dinner we had a good browse in Harvard University bookstore and managed to only buy 2 books.

A day in Boston

The Boston subway is called the T and the next day (a Friday) we took the T from Harvard Square to downtown. It was still quite warm, although nothing like it was earlier in the week. It was also somewhat cloudy.

Our first stop was the AAA as we needed some more information and maps about Cape Cod. Very fortunately we had spotted that they are not open at weekends.

After lunch we took the hop-on hop-off Old Town Trolley (open-sided bus) tour around Boston.

The Old Town Trolley, Boston

This was excellent with the driver/guide pointing out many places of interest. Boston has more history than almost anywhere else in the US and it soon became clear that the British were the baddies for most of the time – it’s really illuminating to get another country’s view of its interactions with the British.

We first went north by the harbour, ten close to the house of Paul Revere whose midnight ride alerted patriots to the arrival of the British forces. Next was the Charlestown Navy Yard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with its huge modern buildings. Then it was on through the lovely old houses on Beacon Hill and along the Back Bay, where I stayed the last time I was in Boston for the very last meeting I went to in North America before I came back to the UK from Canada.

We hopped off at the Prudential Center which is the highest tower that you can now go up in Boston – the viewing deck on the Hancock Tower, which I went up once in the 1990s, has been closed since 9/11. The viewing area gave an excellent view all round, including planes landing at Logan airport which is very close.

There was also an excellent exhibition on immigration to the Boston area. Perhaps some of our politicians (and tabloids) could take note of this quote:

Some of our politicians (and tabloids) ought to read this

“The economic lesson here is that countries needn’t worry about too many foreign workers entering their labor markets. The time to worry is when the immigrants stop coming”

(J. Riley, Wall Street Journal 2014)

We hopped back on the trolley and went past Copley Square where we stayed on our first visit to Boston in 1977, then along by Boston Common and back to the Aquarium through the old town past the Omni Parker House Hotel where JKF proposed to Jackie, Faneuil Hall, which was built as a meeting place in 1740-1742, and finally past the site of the Boston Tea Party.

Site of the Boston Tea Party, from the trolley

Back near Harvard we had a pub type meal sitting outside and then browsed in another large bookstore.

Another day in Boston

Saturday was a bit warmer. We took the T downtown to the Aquarium again and then a 45 minute boat tour around the harbour where it was easier to see how much of the city is on reclaimed land. We managed to get a sandwich lunch at Quincy Market which was very crowded indeed.

Next was a 10 minute local ferry ride to Charlestown to visit the USS Constitution, a navy vessel launched in 1797, which last sailed in 2012.

USS Constitution

The ship and the museum next to it chart US naval history and modern day members of the US Navy are on hand to give talks answer questions. Martin disappeared down the very steep steps to see the decks below where there was little headroom, but I passed on this.

Back in town we walked some of the Freedom Trail. This route passes many of the places of historical interest in Boston. There is plenty of tourist information about it but you can’t get lost as there’s a red line on the pavement all the way. We joined more crowds in Boston Common, which is the oldest city park in the US, before dinner at Bean Deck and back to Irving House.

Harvard University

We looked round Harvard a bit more on the way to the T to pick up our rental car on Sunday morning. The architecture is quite different from Oxford. Most of the buildings surround a huge area called Harvard Yard and almost all them are red brick. Most imposing is the front of the Widener Library with steps leading up to a row of Corinthian columns.

Widener Library, Harvard University

I ought to be able to remember, but don’t, which building I was in when I gave a professional development talk to a group of librarians and others at Harvard in 1992.

Harvard’s endowent is larger than that of any other university. The number of undergraduate students is about 6700, very small by UK standards. There are just over 15000 graduate students. Most students get generous financial aid and pay little if no fees which is perhaps as well as tuition, room, board and fees come to over $65,000 per year.

Picture gallery: Boston September 2018

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New York: Gardens and Tennis September 2018

This is the first of three posts on our visit to New York, Boston and Cape Cod in September 2018.

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One item firmly on my bucket list was to go to the US Open Tennis Championships in New York. Months before the event I found out that American Express card holders had priority for early booking. I soon dug out this rarely used card and got online the day priority tickets went on sale. This card proved to be a boon in another way.

Entrance to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center

We decided to extend the trip to Boston, where we hadn’t been for almost 20 years, and to Cape Cod where we were last in 1979.

Getting to New York

Thomas Cook turned out to be the best deal from Manchester to JFK with return from Boston. The flight, on a Sunday, was uneventful and on time, though the food left a little to be desired. There was a spectacular view of Cape Cod as we approached Long Island. We arrived at the International Terminal at JFK, the one where “any other foreign airline” arrives. We were extremely glad we had been to the US recently as the immigration queue for those who did not have an ESTA (Electronic Travel Authorization to the US, a kind of visa which you get online), or were entering the US for the first time on an ESTA, was enormous.

Carmel Cars got us to Candlewood Suites on West 39th St in good time. Later we went out for the first of four nice meals with our friend Nancy.

New York Botanic Garden

There was one day before the tennis and so with Nancy we went to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, about a 25 minute ride on the Metro North Railroad from Grand Central. It was very hot, into the 90s (yes the Americans still use Fahrenheit) in the shade. The garden is more like a big park and so we decided to take the tram trolley tour. There were some lovely trees including plenty of conifers.

New York Botanical Garden

It seemed like every bit of the garden was named after a donor.

Even though it was Labor Day, the US holiday which signals the end of summer, it wasn’t too busy.

Lunch was in an air-conditioned cafe. After that we ventured into the heat again to look at some perennials and other flowerbeds and at some beautiful water lilies.

Water lilies and their reflections, New York Botanical Garden

The highlight was a special exhibition about the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s visit to Hawaii in 1939 and the paintings she did there. Several paintings were on show and there was plenty of supplementary information.

Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition, New York Botanical Garden

The huge conservatory was also showcasing Hawaiian plants which brought back memories for us as we have been to the botanical gardens in Kauai and the Big Island.

We had to retreat to the cool of the cafe again before leaving.

Tennis on Tuesday 4 September 2018

Tuesday was the first big day. It takes about 30 minutes to get to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Long Island on the subway. It seemed to be even hotter, but the American Express deal included a huge air-conditioned building with a separate area for card holders. We got there quite early and had time to cool down before going in search of lunch.

Inside the American Express lounge

The food village consisted of a long row of booths where all except one were serving large helpings of junk food and fizzy drinks – no wonder the US has an obesity problem. We managed to find something a bit healthier then found our seats in the Arthur Ashe Stadium. We were at one end and had a good view in spite of being a long way up. Thankfully we remained in the shade all the time.

View from our seats Tuesday 4 September

The first match was between American Sloane Stephens, the 2017 ladies champion, and Latvian Anastasija Sevastova. Much to the disappointment of the partisan crowd, Sloane was clearly having an off day and Anastasija won easily 6-2, 6-3.

The men’s quarter final between the two giants, 6ft 10in American John Isner and 6ft 6in Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro, was more evenly matched. There was a surprising amount of support for del Potro, the eventual championship runner-up, who won 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2. Isner started the match wearing a shirt with large bright green, grey and white stripes, but had to switch to a white one after he had used up all the striped ones. He said afterwards that he had got through 11 shirts in the heat. It didn’t seem to bother del Potro so much.

It was very hot out there

Tennis on Wednesday 5 September 2018

On the Wednesday I took myself to the tennis center and, after a brief cool-down courtesy of American Express, looked round a lot more. There was a huge number of different baseball hats on sale in the shop, for $30 each. I was one of very few people who were not wearing one – I took my Australian floppy hat instead. In fact most spectators appeared to be wearing the same uniform of shorts, T-shirts, white trainers or sandals, and baseball caps.

I walked to the Grandstand Stadium at the far end of the center to see Jamie Murray in the men’s doubles, but two games was enough in the glaring sun. I took some photos but did not see him and his partner Bruno Soares lose the match. Unlike on Arthur Ashe, a steward was stopping people entering the stadium except when they changed ends.

Jamie Murray, in the Men’s Doubles

On the way back to Arthur Ashe I discovered a Dean and Delucca food outlet well away from the junk food places. I bought a very nice sandwich at this upmarket food shop. It was almost the certainly the most expensive prepacked sandwich I have ever had at $18.

I had chosen a side-view seat for this day, but realised the day before that this seat would be in the sun later in the afternoon. In the first match I saw the eventual women’s champion Naomi Osaka win easily 6-1, 6-1 over Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko. I read later that Lesia had nearly withdrawn as she wasn’t feeling well.

Naomi Osaka, the eventual women’s champion

Second up was Japanese Kei Nishikori against Marin Cilic of Croatia. This turned out to be an excellent match. I managed to move to a seat in the shade after two sets, but my view there was getting blocked by people wandering up and down, usually carrying more junk food. It’s nothing like Wimbledon where nobody moves except when the players change ends.

It was also becoming even hotter so I watched the last two sets on the American Express big screen. The winner was anybody’s guess until almost the end of the final set. Nishikori won 2-6, 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, only to fall easily to Djokovic in the semi-finals.

After another nice meal in the evening we had a walk round Times Square which is only a few blocks from where we were staying. Tennis was the number one priority for this visit and I didn’t mind not seeing much more of New York.

Candlewood Suites

We have stayed in a good number of places in New York. Hotel rooms there
are usually quite small and dark, but we liked Candlewood Suites a lot. We had a big room complete with kitchen, desk and chairs, and wifi that worked. It was on the 16th floor (out of 32) with a big window and so got more light. It was easy to buy some breakfast food at the delis round the corner in 9th Avenue. The hotel also had iced lemonade in the lobby which was so welcome coming in from the heat outside.

Picture gallery: New York: Gardens and Tennis September 2018

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Caribbean Cruise Winter 2018

Winter 2018 was definitely time for another cruise from Florida. This time we chose Holland America, a cruise line we have never used before, for a 7-night trip to Key West, Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos, Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic and Half Moon Cay, Holland’s private island in the Bahamas. The ship was the Nieuw Amsterdam and we left from Fort Lauderdale on a pleasant Saturday evening in early March.

Go here for a picture gallery.

We had booked what is called a “guarantee” balcony cabin, which the cruise line allocates the week before. We found ourselves perched very high in one of only 10 cabins on deck 11. You can read more about the ship here.

Nieuw Amsterdam, arrow showing our cabin

Key West

On the first whole day we were in port at Key West at the very end of the Florida Keys. The ship docks right by the town with an easy walk for sightseeing. We had been to Key West twice before including once by car with 2 nights B&B, and so bypassed the major sights like Ernest Hemingway’s house.

Key West is 160 miles by road from Miami, far enough for the city to be able to do its own thing. They call themselves the “Conch Republic”, and slightly with tongue-in-cheek have an Independence Day and a national anthem. Chickens wander about in the streets. There are no high rises, just old wooden houses, beautifully done up. Needless to say there are also a lot of places selling key lime pie and key lime everything else – the yoghurt is really good.

Manatee mailbox in Key West

Rather than walk a lot, we took the trolley tour. “Trolley” is American for an open-sided bus. It’s hop-on hop-off in Key West. The trolley goes a lot further than the touristy “Conch tour train”. We stayed on round the newer part and then got off at what claims to be the southernmost point in the US. There’s a kind of beacon there – and a long queue of people taking photographs of themselves, which we duly did.

Southernmost Point

As we set off to walk some of the way back, on the pavement we found a poignant reminder that Cuba is only 90 miles away and was easily visited from the US until relations soured in 1959.

Poignant reminder

We also passed a number of larger than life-size statues.

Statue in Key West

Back at our perch on the ship we saw that the military occupies the actual southermost point where it has 2 radomes.

Grand Turk

Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands was the second port. “Grand” turned out to be rather a misnomer as it is just less than 7 square miles. It was badly damaged by Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and some of the 3600 inhabitants left then. The main town Cockburn is more like a village, but they have made a big effort to get more tourists by building a cruise terminal that can take two very large ships.

Cruise ships at Grand Turk

In the end we decided to take the ship’s safari tour. This turned out to be another trolley, this time mounted on a truck. We had to climb on up some steps at the back. In 2 hours we stopped only 3 times and then very briefly. We saw several wild ponies and donkeys wandering about. The guide pointed out hurricane damage – there was certainly a lot of building going on. The first stop was at a small craft market where there were some lovely things on sale. We bought a small oil painting for $10 and would have liked more time there.

Next we went to the lighthouse at the other end of the island. This was built by the Brits, of course, in 1852 and is now a historic monument. Most people on the tour were more interested in the wild horses and donkeys which were being bottle fed water by the bus driver.

Donkey drinking with bus driver on Grand Turk

A few venturous people were trying a small zip line there. Again it was a short stop – Martin was the only person who went into the lighthouse enclosure.

The last stop was on a rather nice beach where a ship had been wrecked. The driver told us that this ship had been moored out by the reef a few years ago because it was damaged and had only ended up by the beach during Irma.

Nice beach at Grand Turk with wreck

On reflection I think it would have been better to rent a car on Grand Turk. It certainly would be have been a lot cheaper than the cruise ship’s excursion and we could have stayed longer at some places and taken more photos. There is no way you can get lost in such a small island which is very flat and we do have a guide book for the Caribbean islands. It was interesting to see it, but I think Grand Turk falls into the “been there, seen that” category of places we have been to.

“Not” Amber Cove

The next day the Captain came on the PA at 7.15am to say we would not be docking at Amber Cove because of the swell which was caused by a nor’easter hundreds of miles away. This was a big disappointment to us as the stop in the Dominican Republic was the main reason we chose this cruise. We had booked a rental car, bought a guide book and spent some time working out what we wanted to see in this area. It’s a big country. Rather than trying to see it from a cruise ship again, we realised that we could fly down there for a week from Florida.

Amber Cove was opened in 2015. We have not been able to find out if missing Amber Cove is a frequent occurrence, but you would think that they could have built it to withstand some bad weather. The sea did not appear to be that bad and the locals must have lost a lot of business.

Half Moon Cay

So we had an extra day at sea and sailed very slowly to the Bahamas. There we did know that it was a tender and that we might not get on to the island if the sea was rough, but all was fine and we had a lovely day. Half Moon Cay is bigger and better equipped than the one other cruise line island we have been to. The beaches are lovely, but the rest of the island is low-lying scrub. I found a nice quiet lounger on the beach and got my Kindle out while Martin, needless to say, walked as far as he could.

Our ship anchored at Half Moon Cay

Lunch was an excellent barbecue with plenty of choice of meat, salad and fruit. After lunch we decided to walk the “running trail”, which was all of just under a mile on a good surface. As soon as we set off we met a local on a bicycle who told us that 45 people live on the island permanently, all working for the cruise line. He said he was in charge of the “farm” and invited us to view his “vegetables” which we duly did.

We then came to the stingray lagoon where people were doing the cruise ship stingray excursion, walking amongst them.

Sting rays at Half Moon Cay

There wasn’t much else to see except a few hens pottering around and some interesting vegetation. We were back by the dock in under an hour.

The ship left at 3pm and sailed overnight to Fort Lauderdale arriving at 7am. Because there are so many people, disembarkation is in groups and you choose your time. This meant that we could have a leisurely breakfast in the dining room before getting off at 9.45.

Life on the ship

Three days at sea enabled us to explore the ship. Our cabin was next to the large Exploration Lounge at the front of the ship. Shore excursions were being sold here at a desk, but the lounge also had some huge flat touch screens where you could research and trace where you are going. There was also a large number of travel books, a rare thing on cruise ships.

Many people spent the days at sea lounging by one of the pools. This is not really our thing again, especially when there is music as well, but we did indulge in one of the jacuzzis a couple of times, at dusk when it was quiet. The ship provided ample pool towels and beach towels.

The other passengers were mostly Americans, with a fair few Canadians. We did not meet any other British people on this ship and heard just a few other languages being spoken, although these might of course be people living in the US.

Meals

Mostly we ate in the main dining room which is table service. We always prefer anytime dining rather than the older cruise system of a fixed time at a fixed table. With anytime dining you can ask to share a table. Just think what it would be like if you were stuck on a fixed table for a week with people you didn’t get on with. We had some great companions and, thankfully, no Trump supporters.

The food for dinner in the dining room was imaginative, varied and well-presented. There were two more formal dinners with a scattering of dinner jackets, but most people just dressed up a bit more on these nights. Breakfast was a bit less exciting, but Martin managed to have some kippers one day. There was a good choice of cereals, which was a bit surprising as Americans tend not to eat them.

Like all cruise chips, there was also a large buffet which was open most of the time. This was a good place to have lunch and you could take your food outside. You could make up a light lunch or a sandwich with salad and deli meat. Seeing some people load their plates really brought home the obesity problem in north America, which is far worse than in the UK.

Our cabin

This ship has only recently been refurbished and our cabin was well-equipped with an up to date video system including a bonus of the BBC on the TV.

We didn’t meet our cabin steward for several days and wondered if he was a ghost, something he himself joked about when we finally saw him. Most of his cabins were on the deck below. He was from Indonesia and was very pleased to learn that we had been there. The room was very clean and, like on other cruise lines, we had a towel sculpture every night.

Towel sculpture

Although we didn’t know it beforehand, this cruise was also associated with the Oprah [Winfrey] Magazine and an “Oprah goody” was left for us in the cabin every night, including two very nice beach towels which we could keep.

Entertainment

We only went to the big theatre three times. One was a showing of clips from some of David Attenborough’s programmes accompanied by live musicians. The red snakes chasing the iguana from the last Blue Planet series were a big hit. The same musicians, a Ukrainian string quintet, played light classical music in one of the lounges every night and were much appreciated. One afternoon there was a showing of more clips from David Attenborough with sections on how the clips were filmed. It was all a good advert for the BBC.

We didn’t bother with the rest of the entertainment but I sensed there were fewer clubbers than on most of the previous ships we have been on. Most people seemed to be spending their evenings either sitting around consuming the expensive drinks or in the casino.

Kitchen tour

The tour of some of the kitchens after breakfast one day was interesting, but rather hurried. We were given a short presentation in several departments, although the only food we saw was pastry preparation.

Pastry chef on the ship’s kitchen tour

More interesting was the information sheet which listed how much food they get through in a week. With 2000 passengers and 1000 crew it is rather a lot. The list included 3500lbs of rice for the crew who were mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines. The head chef was a Brit from Portsmouth.

If you are thinking of cruising

We’ve now taken several cruises in the Caribbean, one across the Atlantic and one from Singapore to Darwin. It’s an easy way of travelling and of getting a sense of what some places are like, but I wouldn’t want to do it as my only type of holiday as I like to stay longer in some places. However we met many people who do only ever take cruises.

You can get a good price deal at the last minute, but the cruise lines make more money on excursions and drinks, both of which are very expensive. Most of the excursions in the Caribbean tend to be to beaches, zip lines, stingrays and the like. The crew get paid from tips (called gratuities in America) which are added to your bill. At $13.50 per person per day on Holland America this soon mounted up.

I would strongly recommend anytime dining and I would also recommend doing some internet research before booking and sailing. You will often find that there are much cheaper excursions. When you get off the ship there are normally some locals selling trips and also some taxis.

Cruisers are great users of the Internet. There are forums such as cruise critic where people post often quite lengthy reviews of individual cruises. You can find deck plans of all the ships online, and comments about ports and shore excursions.

And….. don’t forget your sweater or cardigan. It was very cold inside the ship in the public areas.

Picture gallery: Caribbean Cruise Winter 2018

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Florida in Winter 2018

Finally, finally we were back at our house in Florida in January 2018 after our enforced stay at home in 2017. But it was 31F (yes the Americans still use Fahrenheit) at 8.30pm when we arrived at the house after our flight to Orlando from Gatwick. Fortunately it soon warmed up with daytime temperatures in the 80s for all of February when we had every meal outside at home.

Go here for a picture gallery.

Pool at Florida Breeze Villa

Gardens and hurricanes

The house was fine thanks to our great property managers. Martin spent a lot of time on the garden which had been damaged by frost – a rare event in central Florida. We feared we had lost our variegated hibiscus but it and most other apparent casualties recovered rapidly. Watering is easy when all you have to do is turn on the sprinklers.

There weren’t many signs of hurricane damage in our area but when we went in search of a papaya plant at our favourite plant nursery in Kissimmee, we found few plants there and were told that they had thrown away much of their stock after it was flooded in the aftermath of Irma. They had no papaya plants, but we found some at the nearby Home Depot and invested $40. It was doing very well when we left as was the avocado I planted from a stone 3 years ago whch was now over 7 ft tall.

Flower on papaya tree at Florida Breeze Villa

Rural Polk County

Our house is in the north-east of Polk County close to Orlando, but most of the county is cattle country – yes there are a lot of cattle in Florida but they are always spread out, not grouped together in bunches like ours. There are also plenty of ospreys in Florida. I just didn’t have my camera out when we drove under a gantry with an osprey nest on it on the Polk Parkway. We were on our way to Bartow, a small town which is the administrative centre of Polk County. Once you get past the line of drive-in fast food places, there’s a nice town centre with real old-style courthouse occupying a whole block. It houses our destination, the Polk County Historical Museum. As always in the USA, there were excellent displays and a helpful volunteer acting as a steward.

Afterwards we went to tiny Homeland where there is a heritage park with old pioneer Florida houses. Sadly the buildings were closed, but we could get inside the park to walk round. The Methodist Church built in 1878 was the most elegant.

Homeland Methodist Church, 1887

Tampa Bay history and Honeymoon Island armadillos

Another day we went to the Tampa Bay History Center, where there were some excellent displays of the history of the area. In almost all the local museums we have visited in the US there has been quite an emphasis on the peoples who lived there before the Europeans came. The displays here were absolutely excellent and we had trouble dragging ourselves away from the bookstore where the credit card took quite a hit.

We couldn’t go to the west coast without visiting our favourite place Honeymoon Island, a state park just north of Clearwater. There you can walk the Osprey Trail – there were a good few at home. We had also seen an armadillo there before, but this time there were two, pottering about by the trail.

A pair of armadillos at Honeymoon Island

Honeymoon Island is a great place for the sunset over the Gulf. The day was finished with a Greek meal in Mykonos, our favourite restaurant in Tarpon Springs.

Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College

When our friend Nancy came to stay for a few days our first trip out was to see the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. This was our second visit to the college as we had also been there one evening earlier in our stay to see what turned out to be a very professional student production of South Pacific.

Frank Lloyd Wright was persuaded by the then President of the College Dr Ludd Spivey to design almost the whole campus beginning in 1938. It took nearly 20 years and it is the largest collection of Lloyd Wright architecture built for one client. We did the 2-hour walking tour which ended up as 3 hours with an enormous amount of detail from a rather large young man who had been studying Lloyd Wright for years. Among the donors whose names were commemorated in stone was one Oliver Cashdollar.

The main chapel at Florida Southern College

A castle in Florida

A castle was next on our agenda. A castle in Florida?? We had read about Solomon’s Castle in a book on the backroads of Florida. This was indeed in the middle of nowhere, about 1 hour 45 minutes south-west from our house. We expected to be the only visitors, but when we eventually got there, it was crowded with people, many of whom were also attending something called Pioneer Park Days in the nearby town of Zolfo Springs. Lunch was served in a wooden pirate boat, stuck in the moat. It looked rather like the tourist pirate boats we had seen in Marmaris in Turkey in 2016.

Solomon’s castle

The walls of the castle are aluminium with stained glass windows embedded in them. It was built by an eccentric called Harold Solomon who filled it with an amazing collection of objects which he made himself out of anything he could scavenge. In the surrounds we walked past a mock façade of a mosque and a model of an Easter Island statue. Solomon also collected vintage cars which are housed in another building together with car models which he also built.

One of Solomon’s creations inside his castle

We spent the first week in March on a cruise in the Caribbean, which you can read about here.

Miami Beach (or not) and the Tamiami Trail

There were some guests in our house when the cruise finished and so we decided to spend a bit of time in Southern Florida. This began with a huge mistake. We thought we would drive down from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach to see more of the art deco houses. What we did not know was that it was spring break. The area was seething with young people. It was impossible to park but the traffic was moving so slowly that I did get some photos out of the car window.

Art deco in Miami Beach

We gave up and headed south through a lot more traffic for our night’s stay in Florida City where we ended up eating a sandwich lunch at 4.30pm. Then it was time to catch up on a week’s backlog of e-mail, after no Internet on the cruise.

Sunday dawned bright, sunny and hot. We headed north and turned on to Tamiami Trail (guess how they made up the name) aka route 41, west along the edge of the Everglades. A stop at the Oasis Visitor Center had a convenient alligator viewing place where there were plenty of spectators, a few medium-sized gators and some fish that we didn’t recognize. The nearest we got to seeing the Florida panther was a stuffed one in the visitor centre.

In the Oasis Visitor Center – the nearest we got to the Florida panther

Naples

Our destination was Naples, the wealthiest part of Florida. There are some lovely buildings in the town centre and good restaurants where we had an extremely expensive Italian sandwich, sitting outside near a Porsche and a Bentley. We toyed with the idea of taking yet another trolley (open-sided bus on a truck chassis) tour and finally decided to do it. The heavens opened just as the trolley set off, but very fortunately only for 15 minutes. We had 2 hours of being driven around Naples, most of which was past one OTT mansion to another. The gardens were beautifully laid out and extremely well kept, but it did get rather monotonous after a while. Perhaps Americans are more interested than we are in where various famous people live.

Church in Naples, from trolley tour

Pine Island

A quick zoom up I-75 took us to the hotel in Fort Myers for our last 2 nights. We had a leisurely final day driving out to Pine Island where there are lots of colourful small wooden houses and no high rises. Our main destination there was the Randell Research Center, an archaeological site where the Calusa, once the most powerful people in Southern Florida, lived until the early 18th century when Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain and the last remaining Calusa moved to Cuba. Various sign boards around the side informed us about their lifestyle, but the most visible remains are shell mounds up to 30 feet high. An added treat was an osprey nest in the middle of the site.

The Calusa

Elsewhere on Pine Island we watched some pelicans fishing in a rough sea and had our last ice cream – key lime of course.

A rough sea for pelican fishing off Pine Island

Our flight home from Tampa was on time, but characterized by an elderly plane and the worst food we have ever had on British Airways. Back to Lufthansa for next time, I think.

The gun debate

We were in Florida at the time of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Needless to say it dominated the news for days and showed once again how polarized American views and media are about guns. One TV station talked endlessly about stricter gun controls, while another talked about mental health issues and giving guns to teachers. I watched the CNN “town hall” where in front of a large audience students and parents questioned the two Florida senators and the local congressman.

I was struck how articulate all the students were. Republican Senator Rubio, who has received over $1million in campaign funds from the National Rifle Association, did get some brownie points for turning up in contrast to the Governor of Florida Rick Scott who refused to attend. Rubio got a roasting from the students especially when he did not answer when challenged as to whether he would accept any more money from the NRA.

In the second part, the local sheriff chief did his best to calm nerves and let people know what law enforcement were doing, and a lady representing the NRA did her best to focus on mental health issues rather than gun ownership. Sadly, Trump’s latest antics were mostly dominating the news again when we left. It was good to see so many people turning out for the anti-gun marches on 24 March.


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