Saturday, 14 February 2015

Heading West

We've begun the great trek westward to Arizona. We planned on leaving Melbourne on Friday but I couldn't find any vacancies in Florida state parks along our route near the gulf coast. Then it hit me, Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S. equals a long weekend so we stayed put until Monday. We left Melbourne in bright sunshine and headed up SR 192. It looked like the fastest, most direct route to Manatee Springs State Park on the Suwannee River. Looks can be deceptive! We were driving on a straight, excellent, divided highway
SR 192, straight and divided...
until we came to Kissimmee and St. Cloud. Traffic became very heavy and slow, with traffic lights every few blocks.  We soon discovered we were close to “Disney country”. Lampposts were purple,
Purple lampposts and mile markers to Disney World

large unusual stores,
Two of many unique gift stores!
purple and green bus stations
Purple everywhere...

and mile markers appeared beside the highway.

Once we turned north on SR27, the country changes. It becomes drier, fewer drainage ponds, there are more hills, and we begin to see orange groves.
Many orange groves on this part of the highway
After we passed Ocala, we began to pass large fields, gated estates, farms with hay already baled, cattle and horses. There were no palm trees but lots of live oaks with Spanish moss. As we neared the coast we began to see more palmettos and pine trees.

The first overnight stop was Manatee Springs State Park. I highly recommend this park and wished we could have stayed an extra day. It is beautiful.  The campsites are about 1 ½ miles in off the highway. As we drove in, we saw several small deer by the side of the road.
Right across from the campsite
Sites are large, level and easy to back into.
Beautiful large sites
The next morning we went down to the spring to see the manatees. This is a large spring (or series of springs) that feed into the Suwannee River (I can't help but hear Al Jolson when I think of that river).
The Spring - beautiful and serene

I believe the volume of water is in the order of 100 million gallons per day so it's more like an underground river. The location where the spring surfaces is a large pool perhaps 150 feet across and a couple of hundred feet long and it is crystal clear. The depth is deceptive due to the clarity of the water. The real treat though lies in its name. Florida manatees lack body fat and cannot tolerate cold water and have trouble when the water temperature drops below 68 degrees F. The temperature of the springs stays constant at about 72 degrees year round hence manatees will migrate upriver to bask in the spring. Two pairs were lounging in the spring when we were there, drifting around the spring, only surfacing every 4 to 5 minutes to breathe and then sinking again.
Surfacing for air...
Looking towards the River

During the winter, all boating and other water activities are suspended due to the manatee's presence.

The spring and swamp were peaceful and serene, with no wind, but hoards of black turkey vultures in the trees and flying overhead.
They were clustered on every tree
We walked out to the Suwannee River along a boardwalk over the swamp. 
Suwannee River

The Boardwalk through the swamp, beside the Springs
This is a popular day use park as well with a large picnic area and playground. A local business man runs a concession stand with amazing smoked ribs
The smoker- on all day!
and pulled pork, and also rents canoes, kayaks and runs boat tours on the Suwannee River.

He rents canoes, scanoes and kayaks

We left just before noon to continue up to the panhandle on to Hwy 98 which travels along the Gulf Coast. The Gulf Islands National Seashore stretches about 175 miles along the coast from Mississippi to Florida featuring mile after mile of pristine white sand beaches on barrier islands. Our first stop was St. George Island State Park by Apalachicola. To get to the park, you cross a 7km [4mi.] bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, St George Sound.
4 miles of bridge

The first thing you see on the island, is the Lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper's house which is now a museum and gift shop.
The lighthouse has fallen down and been rebuilt several times.

The drive along the Island passes some interesting homes and vacation properties. Most of them are up on 3 to 4m. concrete posts.
From the gate, we drove 4miles along a road with huge sand dunes on either side.

White sugary sand drifted onto the edges of the road.

Every mile or so, there was a small parking lot with a boardwalk over the dunes to access the beach. There are two larger parking lots with washrooms and picnic shelters.

The campground is one large double loop. Campsites, with electricity and water, are large, and sandy with a lot of oyster shells.
Our site
We first walked along part of the 9 miles of pristine white sugar-sand beach,


and then drove back over the bridge to the mainland. There are long piers for fishing parallel to the bridge.
Fishing bridge, partway over the Sound, parallel to full bridge

Then we drove over another 7km bridge system –bridge, causeway and bridge- to Apalachicola. 
Main Street

Building yet to be redone
This is reputed to be the oyster capital of the world, with huge oyster beds at the mouth of the river.
Oyster fishermen

It is a beautiful little town at the mouth of the Apalachicola River.
Downtown and harbour from the last bridge
At one time the town ranked as the third largest cotton shipping port in the Gulf of Mexico. At its peak in 1853, 140,000 bales of cotton passed through the port. However, as river travel was risky and dangerous with unpredictable river conditions, steamboats being destroyed by explosions and fire, and the rail line network was being developed, the cotton industry declined and the lumber era began. Then from the 1870’s to early 1900’s, the sponge industry was developed.
Continuing along the Gulf Coast,

A beautiful drive along the Gulf Coast

Interesting homes across the highway from the beach

our next stop was Fort Pickens National Park in Pensacola Beach
The water tower, a giant beach ball

just outside Pensacola. It's a U.S. park located within the National Seashore and across the bay from the Naval Air Station at Pensacola.

Fort Pickens NP site
Again, there are kilometres of pristine beach.
Driving towards Pensacola beach from Fort Pickens
Another pristine beach....
Pensacola is a lovely little city, featuring a nicely restored and walkable downtown which we visited last spring. This year, we walked around more of the historic district,
Many of these historic homes are now offices, often Lawyers

and visited our favourite eating spots, The Airstreams-Al Fresco and the Bodacious Café for internet and lattes.
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On the advice of one of the rangers, we visited Joe Patti’s.
Sign out front

A non-descript building on the outside
One of the fleet of Joe's boats
This has a huge long counter
with the most amazing array of seafood – every kind you can imagine with a Sushi Bar in the back, and through a doorway, a gourmet food section, a cappuccino and gelato bar, and a bakery/deli counter. Outside, a small separate booth made fresh beignets while you wait.
covered in powdered sugar, but really delicious...

Before we left, we walked around Fort Pickens.
The entrance
One of a series of arches
From the Parade Ground back to officers' quarters
It was the largest of four forts built to guard Pensacola Bay and its navy yard. Begun in 1829, finished in 1834, it was in use until 1947, when missiles, airplanes and bombs made harbour forts obsolete. The only real action came when the country was at war with itself. It was one of four coastal forts that remained in Union control during the civil war. It was here that Geronimo, the Apache leader was held prisoner.

When we got home from Pensacola, passed beautiful beach homes,

and I opened my computer, it would not start. There were a tense few hours, until we got internet access at the Mississippi Welcome Center the next day. I googled, “computer won’t start” on my iPad. I got a couple of suggestions which I tried when we stopped. Luckily for me, they worked!

Our next destination, through Alabama,

Going into the tunnel under downtown Mobile, Alabama

Mobile, Alabama

and Mississippi
Mardi Gras time

An artist, Martin Miller, used wood from trees killed by Hurricane Katrina

to Louisiana, for the night was Fairview Riverside State Park in Madisonville.

Sites were large, private and level. Washrooms were clean and large. Each was a separate room with a shower.  There were lots of trees, but little underbrush.

The earliest departure yet, saw us on the road by 10am, continuing to head west on I-10 to Sam Houston Jones State Park just north of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Through southern Louisiana, it is very swampy. There is one 28km section of highway built on concrete pylons over the swamp,

and bridges over the rivers.

In some parts, we encountered the worst roads we have seen. The further west we drove, the drier the ground was, with large plowed fields.

and a rice field...

The park was really nice. We called and found there was lots of room so we decided to save the registration fee of $6- not a lot, but it adds up- besides, it is the price of a decent bottle of wine… We got to the Park Office, to discover we paid $18 camping fee and a walk-in fee of… you guessed it - $6! The park with both camping and day-use areas, is a wild refuge, home to many birds and a stop-off for migrating birds. The sites are large, paved pads for the trailer.

Sam Houston Jones SP in Louisiana
However, we had to use the board to level the trailer. Washrooms were not bad, clean, but need updating and heating. On the way out we passed the first of many marked Bayous.

It was interesting to see so many red brick houses in Louisiana. We were also surprised to see so many pine trees, particularly in swampy areas.

And on to Texas...



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