In and around Stephen Foster Folk and Cultural Center

Azaleas Along the Florida TrailI originally planned to hike the Florida Trail from Suwannee Springs.  But, I knew things weren’t going as planned when the desk clerk pointed out that rain was expected, followed by a cold snap. Last I checked Wunderground, my weather source reported that clouds were predicted. Back up in my room, they were calling for a minimal chance of rain. However, an hour later, it became 45% chance. Not surprisingly, when I walked to my car, a misty drizzle fell.

Alternative Plan: I decided to drive ten miles to stall for time and hike a different part of the Florida Trail: that which traverses Steven Foster Folk and Cultural Center State Park .  If the weather stayed awful, I could visit the museum and the craft demonstrations. White Springs also looked like an interesting place to take photos.

I arrived at the Florida Trail trailhead in the park. Drizzle continued, and the air temperature hovered in the mid-fifties. Well, I am a Floridian and a little rain doesn’t stop us, though the cold gives us pause. The trail follows the river closely. Like a roller coaster it goes up and down for the full three miles to the boundary of the park. Great for my need to hike some hills  As an out-and-back, it wasn’t as many miles as I had hoped, but the hills and wet sand gave the boots and the lungs a reasonable workout.

There are many scenic overlooks along the river, but there’s also a lot to see on the ground, such as these oddly colored fungi.

Colorful Fungus on a Log

Spectacular wild azaleas grow all along the river.  Azaleas along the trail came in all shades of pink with some areas thick with colorful bushes.  It appeared that I was probably lucky as had the season been warmer these may have reached the end of their blooms.

Pink Azalea surround the Trail

The Suwannee is a favorite of canoeists and kayakers, as it provides rapids and opportunities for long distance trips

Canoeist on the River

After the hike, I headed into the museum, which pays tribute to the music of Steven Foster, with ten quite unique dioramas that memorialize his songs.

Stephen Foster Diorama

and a carillon (not working and needs repairs). Steven Foster wrote over two-hundred songs, many about the South. He never actually visited Florida.

Next, I headed into White Springs, the former home of an early twentieth century era spa. In its heyday it was home to fourteen luxury hotels. Many burned in 1911, so not much remains and the town now has fewer than 1000 inhabitants.  The Telford Hotel, built early in the 20th century, has been closed since 2014.  People still remember eating and staying there, though. Telford Hotel

Next door, the lovely Sophie Jane Adams house dates to 1893, though I wasn’t able to find out much more about the house.

Adams House, circa 1893

The bad weather turned out to be a blessing as I didn’t spend my entire day on the trail. Tomorrow, though is another day!

Down Upon the Suwannee River

Bridge Over the Suwannee River

I’m heading into the stretch for my hike preparation. I now have eighty some odd miles on my boots and I’ve hiked as far as ten miles at a time.  But…I still haven’t done the kind of elevation gains that the REI folks recommended. Other than flying somewhere, I think that I am not going to find a 2000-foot elevation gain in Florida, or in Southern Georgia, for that matter. But the authors of the Florida Trail Guide   (the Florida Scenic Trail is Florida’s version of the Appalachian Trail) put together a listing of hilly portions of the Florida Trail.

The stars aligned!  Last week the Suwannee Spring Reunion music festival, an annual event, at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park popped up on my calendar wish list for the same  weekend that I wanted to do a long hilly hike. (I had wanted to visit the park for a long time) And….the trailhead for two Florida Trail hilly hikes happened to be just across the river on the other side of Suwannee Springs. About a 3.5 hour drive, this clearly was an overnight trip and I gave it two nights, with Sunday at the festival. Monday and a few hours on Tuesday will be for hiking. Camping at the park or motels in Live Oak are options, but need to be reserved well in advance of a festival.

The Festival was well worth the visit with some amazing Americana music (bluegrass, blues and country). Great for listening and photography. Sunday has two active stages; thus, you move back and forth…no downtime between bands.

The Infamous Stringdusters

 

Ralph Roddenbery

Bring your own chairs. Vendors sold food, much of it even healthy and there is also a café on site.  The Festival Park hosts a huge number of campers during events and many people stay for all three days.

SOS Cafe

I think they might want to call this hippy fest if the name hasn’t been taken already.  More tie dye here than probably existed during the 1960s, both for sale and on people.

Tie Dye Everywhere

After I finished listening, I headed over to Suwannee Springs across the road.  The ruins of the Suwannee Springs spa, which existed before the Civil War, remain as well as those of an old train trestle. A closed car bridge crosses the river to the trail.  Tomorrow looks to be some fun climbing. I can’t wait!

Suwannee Springs Spa Ruins

Foot Bridge Leading to the Florida Trail

 

 

 

Hiking the Serenova Tract Before It Disappears

Fishing Lake along the Hiking TrailJust an hour away from my home, the Serenova Tract of the Starkey Wilderness Preserve was next on my list last week for breaking in the boots. I was enticed by its purported 10.7 miles of hiking trails and 6500 acres of wilderness within an hour’s drive.

Once I began my research on this hike, it became more than a hike. A few interesting articles popped up. It seems that Pasco County had been trying extend a major road directly through the center of the preserve since the 1990s. The Ridge Road Extension dispute pits Pasco leaders, who assert that the road is critically needed as a hurricane evacuation route, against environmental groups  bent on saving the wetland. For a variety of reasons, the County hasn’t received permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. The Suncoast Sierra Club has formed a thirty-four member Save our Serenova Coalition.

Well, not only was this a hike, but it was a story!

Most of the local hikes that I have completed have been in isolated rural areas.  But clearly, for some of the places I visited, such as Little Manatee State Park and the Serenova Tract, development squeezes these little islands of greenery.  Major roads surround Serenova on three sides. The trailhead is now directly across from a brand-new Publix grocery store.

But once I started walking down the trail here, the outside world receded. I kept thinking to myself as I passed lovely little fishing lakes, streams, and passing equestrians: “What kind of person thinks about putting a road through here?”  Many of us think that this road really isn’t about the hurricane, but is about accessing more land to develop.

The scenery here IS remarkable, with towering pines and laurel oaks.

Towering Pines

This is real Florida with wetlands, the occasional flooded trail, and the ruins of an old homestead near a tiny lake.

Homestead Ruins

There are also areas that are so arid that prickly pear cactus grow. Butterflies flit everywhere, but sad to say wouldn’t stand still to have their pictures taken.  At one point I traversed a field of palmettos intermixed with wild lupine that seemed to me to just glow.

Wild Lupine

So what about the trail? Well the quality of the trail markings doesn’t quite live up to the magnificence of the scenery.  There are only a few signs and lots of unmarked trails. Hairpin curves on the main trail remain unsigned. Main intersections are supposed to be marked, but many of the signs were missing or broken.

Broken Trail Sign

I ended up losing the trail and navigating out of the preserve with my phone. I did manage to get ten more miles on my boots.

With a little work this place can and should be preserved as the world-class park that it is!

You can sign the coalition’s petition to save Serenova Tract here.

Wildflowers and Other Delights After the Inferno: Croom Wildlife Management Area

I have now spent the better part of a month working towards a comfortable pair of hiking boots and a renewal of my long dormant “hiking legs” in preparation for my trip to Greece.  I exercise weekly at the gym and pretend the treadmill is a hill; run up and down our local causeways; and head to our lovely public lands to hike. Florida is the place to be in late winter. This last week I hiked the Croom Wildlife Management Area . Folks from my local chapter of the  Florida Trail Association suggested hiking along “Loop B-C” starting at the Tucker Hill trailhead. Tucker Hill Trailhead

This trail turned out to be quite the treat (yes there were hills) as parts of this trail have experienced a recent “prescribed fire”. These supervised fires clear the underbrush, prevent uncontrolled burns, and encourage new growth.

Sunflower
Sunflower

Happily the resultant open sunny areas abound with spring wildflowers and bright green young pines and turkey oaks. All this attracts butterflies. I even saw some common milkweed that will attract monarchs.

common milkweed
common milkweed

During my hike, though, the place was instead hopping with tiger swallowtail butterflies.

I haven’t often seen wild lupine, but I found a large patch. Many more would bloom soon in the surrounding area.

Wild Lupine
wild lupine

Along the way, a small gopher tortoise literally came running along the path. I didn’t think that a gopher tortoise could run, especially as fast as this little guy.I was waiting to see if a large rabbit was in hot pursuit. The gopher tortoise, a keystone species, plays a critical role during a fire. Many small critters are protected within the gopher tortoise borough during a fire, allowing for quick recovery after the fire.gopher tortoiseThis is for the most part a dry pinewood forest, but surprisingly there is a small amazingly beautiful little wetland near the campground.

Wetland Near the Trail
Wetland Near the Trail

Hiking the Hillsborough River

 

Bridge over the River

When we first moved to Florida I searched the area for hiking spots near our house.  Most of the nearby hiking trails were less than a mile long, so hiking didn’t seem a viable exercise option. During the last couple of years though,I missed my woodland activities, so, I signed up for a hiking trip to Greece. New boots in need of breaking in, I began the hunt for places to hike, preferably, with some hills and less than two-hours away by car. Ah you say, hills in Florida, that’s not going to happen. Well there are some, apparently, though a bit of a drive.Map of Possible Hiking Destination

I set as my goal to have a 100 miles logged onto my shoes by mid-April. Admittedly, some of that would be treadmill hill climbing.

As of this post I have reached about one-third of my goal.  My last couple of trips were up to north Hillsborough County to the Hillsborough River.  In order to hike the river, you need to know who owns the land.  The  lands surrounding the river may belong to a county (Hillsborough, Pasco or Hernando), a municipality, the State (as State Parks or State Forest),  Water Management District (affectionately known as Swift Mud by us locals), or even the Federal Government. The SWFWMD site  and the Fish and Wildlife Site are the most helpful in choosing trails as they have the most up-to-date information. But…and it is a big but, the descriptions of hikes are often somewhat vague.  Google and other online maps may or may not show all parks from all jurisdictions. You may want to check alltrails. com , for the reviews. However, their maps seem to be out-of-date, as do the existing books.

I needed hikes that would be greater than five miles, so the SWFWMD properties seemed to fit the bill. But beware, a lot of the trail here is paved. The unpaved trail is a lightly used hiker-biker trail. The best parking area is the Flatwoods Site.  After paying your $2, walk about a quarter-mile, to the Central Kiosk where there is water and everyone gathers.

If you need information there is usually someone who is familiar with the area.  From here you can do up to sixteen miles hike on the Main Eubanks Trail, a loop trail.

Signage is good at the Flatwoods Park The trail here is well-marked with numbered posts (this wasn’t true at the other parking lots where I couldn’t find the numbered posts).  February is a great time to hike as there are no bugs and the humidity is manageable.

About ten miles north of the SWFWMD property (or according to one map just an extension) is Hillsborough River State Park. The park has a number of well-maintained stacked trails, including part of the Florida Trail.

White Lilies

There are lovely old trees and many flowers and quite a few remnants of the Civilian Conservation Corps as this park was one of ten Florida Parks built by the CCC.

CCC Picnic Table

The trail here follows the river so has some awesome views. Three stacked trails, including the nature trail, the Barnyard Trail and the Seminole Trail allowed for a seven-mile goal on my visit to the park (could have gone ten). It was slightly hilly.

Botanical Gardens In and Around Tampa Bay

Bromeliads at the Florida Botanical Gardens

February begins Spring in Florida. Many tourists head this way, tired of the cold weather that is likely to last up north until May.  One great way to enjoy Florida is through visits to one or more of the botanical gardens throughout Florida.These are great places to run, walk, sit or best of all take photographs of birds and lovely flowers. I took many of these on my morning run this week, through the Florida Botanical Gardens, using my 25-50mm lens set to a macro setting, compensating for the incredibly lovely sun, or using my 75-300 mm telephoto lens.Watching Birds is a Favorite Pastime

Snowy EgretBe sure to check out the website of your local botanical garden before you leave. Determine if they are members of the   American Horticultural Society.  As a member you get reciprocal admission privileges throughout the country. This can really add up to some great savings as some gardens charge as much as $25 for a single visit.

February in Florida fills with color as we have the tail-end of the camellia season and the beginning of the azalea season in Central and Southern Florida. Succulents also bloom in the Spring.

 

Easy day trips for those in Tampa Bay are the Florida Botanical Gardens, Marie Selby Gardens, Sunken Gardens, Bok Tower and the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens. Check out some of my photos from this and previous years. Afternoons bring out the butterflies and napping among the Flamingos (at Sunken Gardens).

Flamingos at Sunken GardensFlorida Botanical Gardens Butterfly Gardens

 

Myakka River State Park: Great Florida Hiking!

Myakka River State Park

I bought a pair of discontinued COLUMBIA Women’s Culvert Mid Omni-Tech Hiking Trekking Boots for the upcoming hiking trip to Greece.  I had managed not to have to buy boots for decades as my feet hate boots. The guides for my upcoming hiking trip to Greece, though, were adamant on the need for ankle coverage as the hiking would be rocky and dusty.

With two-and one-half months to go, I need to get movin’ and get these boots broken in. So every week I will seek out a place within an hour or two of home to break in the boots. With this in mind, Hubby and I set out for Myakka State Park, a little over an hour drive, near Sarasota. We hiked three trails using the State Park trail map we got at the visitors information center, an old Civilian Conservation Corps building.

We had a really nice trip and expect to go back another day as we missed out on getting permits to hike into Deep Hole Lake. Most of the hikes in the park are short unless you hike out onto the backpacking or bicycle trails, but you should try all of them. Everyone needs to visit the Canopy Walk, near the river. It’s ultrashort, but provides different view of the park from above.

Next, we hiked out onto the Birdwalk boardwalk.  We came upon a female Florida Softshell Turtle, busily laying eggs.  She was huge, probably two feet in diameter. Mostly these turtles aren’t easy to see as they only come on land to lay eggs.

Next, we headed onto the Myakka River trail.  Backpackers and mountain bikers use this trail to reach primitive campgrounds throughout the park. Although, we had the book and a park trail map, we found the trail to be confusing as there were red, blue and unmarked trails.  But I did get my boot workout.  Though it’s February, it is already warming up and so the unshaded parts of this trail are already getting warm.

If you don’t want to hike, a boat tour and rental kayaks may interest you.  This is certainly worth another trip in the future. The boots may even be comfortable by then.

Myakka River State Park View

 

A Great Year for Astrophotography

Wow! As I sit here blurry eyed, I marvel at what a great year it has been for photographing the sky! And really…I can’t say how much this has forced me to extend my knowledge and perhaps even my skills as a photographer.

Flowers are filled with Color
Florida’s Colorful Flowers

Moving out of my comfort zone, essentially that of a flower/garden photographer, with a passion for macro photography, has been a challenge. Florida is just such a great place to appreciate all that color. It always seemed strange to me that there were people out peering at a black sky, usually in the cold, just hoping to catch a glimmer of a bit of space dust. And.. doesn’t this flower look like something from outer space?

 

But, the eclipse in April moved me into a whole different world, forced me to use a tripod and to learn an awful lot about using my Olympus 75-300mm telephoto lens. I also came to appreciate the available expertise there is on the topic.  Interested? First do what I did and find a local camera club.  The Florida Center for Creative Photography, ended up being a great resource for tons of advice.  Then of course there are the myriad of websites which provide advice to the astrophotographer. These include the biggies, such as NASA,  Space.com, and EarthSky.org,   But a Google search will generate a whole slew of professional and amateur photographers: many provide product reviews and detailed advice on settings and the like. All of these photos were taken with the camera set for manual photography.  Step-by-step information was definitely out there for this low-light photography.

This has been such a great year to just look up.  We have had a total solar eclipse,

a lunar eclipse (only partial in Florida, but full in the west) and three supermoons.

Boat and Supermoon
A Boat Watching the Eclipsing Supermoon

I can even say I learned a lot from my mistakes. I was able to watch the first of the supermoon rise, but in the absence of a critical piece of my tripod, I ended up with an orange blob. Well..at least I have the experience etched in my memory.

A bad picture
How Not to Take a Photo of the Supermoon

Really though, the sky has been the limit and this morning I was able to set up my tripod alongside like-minded folks on Clearwater Beach, set the Olympus OMD-EM5 to manual setting, set my ISO, and shoot the moon.

Supermoon over the beach
Supermoon Eclipse Over Clearwater Beach

Taking to the Open Road in an RV Rental (Part 1)

Winnebago Travato

As with many retirees, my husband and I have bounced around the idea of chucking the whole “life with walls” for a life on the road in an RV. We discarded this idea for a variety of reasons.  Mostly, I felt that a life on the road limited me to traveling the US and Canada.  rather than seeing the world. My husband concluded that a life on the road would actually end up being pretty expensive as costs for an acceptable RV and campsites have risen with the popularity of the lifestyle. But we still had this idea in the backs of our mind, even if as something to do in a few years.

As I was doing some research on another topic a month ago, though, I stumbled on a local source for renting a Class B Motorhome.  These are large, self-contained, camper vans that sleep two.

Thus far I have found RV rental to be expensive, but this is as much an educational as  recreational experience.  For us this will be a “shake down” expedition for the lifestyle and a way to assess the long-term costs. We are renting this from Lazydays RV, located north of Tampa, Florida (also available in Colorado and Arizona). The base price for a Class B rental is $225 per night, plus optional extra costs for sheets and kitchen equipment. This will include unlimited mileage and generator time. We will be renting for six days. I’m still working through the issue of whether or not our insurance will cover the rental. We did a lot of the reservation online, but I spoke with Becky, the rental rep.

The other option for renting a Class B is RV share.  This site includes individual owners who rent through a service, similar to Airbnb. The price seemed comparable, but the rentals came with more restrictions. The service provides for roadside assistance.

We are planning a circuit trip around to the Atlantic coast, Key West and through Central Florida.

Florida in January: A Great Place for Horsing Around

 

Opening the Lippizan Peformance

Central Florida  in winter is ideal for photographing horses in a variety of appealing settings. Not only will you enjoy our sunny days, but you will come away with some amazing shots. You can go to Tampa Bay Downs to see Kentucky Derby hopefuls; spend a day watching polo ponies at the Sarasota Polo Club at Lakewood Ranch;  marvel at the gorgeous Lipizzans practicing “Airs Above the Ground” at Hermann’s Farm. Other options include rodeos and fox hunts. Horse and rider make great photographic subjects as they appeal to a wide audience; these photos are portraits of the coordination and athleticism of horse and rider united to achieve a goal. To take full advantage of this opportunity, a telephoto lens would be ideal. Most of these photos are taken with an Olympus OMD-EM5  75-300mm lens.

Racing at Tampa Bay Downs
An Exciting Race at Tampa Bay Downs
Polo Players Ride Down the field
Polo at Lakewood Ranch

But in addition to the excitement of competition, there is an intimacy between horse and rider to capture as they work as a team. Most of the venues in the area have opportunities to capture these moments in stables or after events.  Below is a photo from one of the practice sessions at Herrmann’s Farm and a post-race photo from Tampa Bay Downs.

So enjoy our bright sunny days watching horse and rider work while you create some great photos.

Lipizzan Horse

This Year It’s All About the Shoes!

Appropriate Footwear for the Travels Ahead

If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to finalize those 20018 travel plans. My plans (details in future posts) thus far include a hiking trip with REI to the Greek Islands (thus the need for new hiking boots); a  trip to the Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks (gotta actually use the boots now); and a destination, to be determined, with a rented Class B motorhome. As usual we plan family visits to Chicago and the environs during the nicer weather.

The Chicago Loop

Chicago makes a nice hub for visits to midwestern destinations. Likely we will revisit the Chicago Jazz Fest

One of many concerts at the 2017 Chicago Jazz Fest

and the massive arts and craft fair in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ann Arbor Art Festival

Wow! A great year awaits.

2018 New Years Resolutions for the Travel Photographer

Sunrise

On the first of the year I sort through my photos from the previous year.  I’ve had various goals in doing this. Last year I vowed to be better about using titles and folders to make my collected photos more manageable. This year I decided to use this annual chore to inform a New Years resolution’s list for travel photography.  The next blog posts will be more congratulatory, as I did find quite a few hidden gems worthy of travel stories.

Well the first thing that I discovered was that I took far too many photos.  I made over 16,000 photos in 2017. So my first resolution for 2018 is to 1. Take fewer photos.  It’s far easier to reflexively photograph everything and then look at photos later.  Maybe, though, if I spend more time thinking about, composing and considering significance, I could reduce a lot of the “photo bloat” and improve quality.

I  find it unfortunate that I have traveled to some amazing places where I have been able to take boring photos.  I evaluated my photos to try to: 2. Identify and correct weaknesses. For me the thing that popped out of my year-end review was the flatness of my landscapes.  It seemed that no matter which of my lenses I used, I didn’t capture the majesty of the landscape.  This year I had been to Panama and the Colorado Rockies.  But my photos didn’t “pop” for me.  I can do better!

There probably isn’t anyone out there who can benefit from: 3. Being more organized. I missed out on photographing the December supermoon  because I had misplaced the tripod plate for my camera.  I also hadn’t even looked at a lot of photos that I had taken.  I guess I was too busy taking 16,000 photos to take the time to review and classify photos.

I could also have saved myself a good deal of aggravation by  4. Being a better planner. In my posts on Panama, I mentioned how I ended up visiting Panama during the rainiest month because I hadn’t properly researched the weather or really even Panama until after I made my flight reservations. Though my travel plans for 2018 have already been solidified, again in a kind of random fashion, this year I will prioritize, research, and yes even pre write a draft of some of these blog entries;

Everyone needs to 5. Seek feedback. Social media used to be the way to go.  Sad to say that ship has Cruise Shipsailed as the entire world posts photos to Instagram and Facebook. I don’t have an answer for how not to get lost amongst the billions of photos being posted, but perhaps acknowledgement of success via payment or contests is the way to go.

6. Photos in the Moment,  I need a great camera phone. I already posted on the need for all of us to become expert phone photographers.

 

Exit

 

 

 

Happy Holidays: A Gallery of Favorite Florida Holiday Photos

Well this has been a lovely year to photograph holiday displays.  Here are a few of my favorite places: St. Augustine, Gulfport, Ft. Myers, and Tampa. We still have another week to visit more holiday displays.  May you, your camera, your family and your tripod enjoy another year of great photographs.

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Which Camera Phone Should I Buy (Part I)?

Taking a Photo With a Phone
Phone Cameras Are Everywhere

Many photographers look down on those folks  with their phones taking pictures. We chuckle as we are sure they won’t ever get high quality photos. But lately, for me at least, the value of a high quality camera phone has become obvious.  First, as I have become more active in social media, I have come to realize that my trusty Olympus isn’t my first choice for posting. Sites such as Instagram and Snapchat require mobile technology.  Posting to Facebook requires that I download to a computer from my camera and then post.  A phone provides  access to the photo, basic editing, and immediate posting for all of the various social media sites. Secondly,  phone cameras have improved remarkably in just a few years.  My husband takes some amazing photos with his phone, even under adverse conditions, such as low light.

My current phone works fine but  Microsoft has announced that it will no longer support Windows Phones.  Sad, since over the years, I saved hundreds of dollars by using Windows phones. But even if the Window phones weren’t dying, I would need to make a change. The camera on my phone is fine for “pictures of my morning run”,  shared with my Facebook Friends, but not so much for my more business-oriented Facebook page, Florida Traveler. And sometimes when you are out and about, all you have is a phone to record a great shot.

I did an initial Google search to check out the current reviews for camera phones.  PC Magazine has a  ten best rated cameras list.  Interestingly they  were all Verizon CDMA phones. My preference, though, is to go with an unlocked GSM phone (my current configuration).   My recent trip to Panama convinced me of the value of the flexibility of GSM.  My T-mobile service worked great all over Panama, with no tweaking or extra charges.  Since I have been an Apple User all of my computer life, an iPhone would be my preference as it will be compatible with my existing iPad and MacBook Pro.  However, a $999 iPhone X is well outside my budget. So, I will use the upcoming blog posts to scan the landscape and do a personal cost-benefit analysis of  camera phones to identify a replacement for my Windows Phone.

Stay tuned to see what I decide.

 

St. Augustine’s Magical Holiday Lights

St. Augustine Florida’s holiday lights celebration lasts the entire month of December with countless opportunities to see lights on foot or by any number of conveyances and tours.

We were warned about crowds, even on Sundays. In order to avoid some of the stress, we stayed at the Best Western Spanish Quarters Inn which is directly across from the National Park Visitors Center and the main Old Town trolley stop.  I highly recommend staying at a centrally located hotel or a Bed and Breakfast ( B&Bs, decked out for the holidays, have daytime tours).

Sunday through Thursday, crowds are less and you have your pick of lodgings; weekends are more expensive. Weekend lodging in Old Town sells out early.  Most tours run during the week, especially on Monday and daily, close to Christmas and New Years. so you won’t miss out.

Our visit in early December reminded us that Florida does have weather cold enough to justify funny winter hats, and hot chocolate, so be sure and bring winter clothing.

Winter in Florida courtesy of James Mellicant and his Lumia 950 XL phone

For the photographer, viewing lights on foot provides the best opportunity, but had we wanted to ride the trolley, tour by boat or ride a horse-drawn carriage, we could have done any combination of tours.

After 7:00 PM, on Sunday, at least, crowds and lines began to abate when families and day-trippers headed home making for less harried photographing

Though I used my tripod as recommended for low light, I don’t think it added much except the hassle of carting it around over a couple of miles.  The lights are quite bright and almost feels like daylight. Hand-held shots are more likely successful with a boosted ISO (I used 2400).   You might also want to photograph during the hours before and after sunset. Holiday Lights look great early in the evening when the sky is still blue. I used my 12-50mm lens for nearly all my photos simply because switching out lens wasn’t really convenient. Lenses are a matter of preference and there are no wrong choices.

Photo from Jim Mellicant’s 950 XL Phone

St. Augustine literally has miles of holiday lights. I could easily spend more than one night here.

Waterfront Lights
Waterfront Lights Are Most Spectacular

Spectacular Lights

 

Victorian Christmas Stroll at the Plant Museum

Henry Plant Museum

Tampa Bay is host to many lovely holiday displays. Tampa’s Henry B. Plant museum’s Annual Victorian Christmas Stroll takes advantage of this grand dame Tampa Hotel to transport visitors to a Victorian Christmas celebration.  This display is a great place to photograph as once you have photographed all the lovely trees and decorations inside, you can photograph the equally lovely hotel exterior.

I set aside the better part of an afternoon and early evening to photograph the interior and exterior shots.  The twinkling holiday lights and the blue hour opportunities are simply magnificent all year round, but extended holiday hours make for some great opportunities.

But there are some challenges here.  I arrived in late afternoon, knowing full well that the rooms are lit in a fashion similar to the late 19th century, in other words, dark.  I came prepared with a tripod.  Turns out the museum prohibits tripods.  Not surprisingly, flash photography is also not allowed.

“Edison lights” cast a lovely glow

Edison Lights
Edison Lights

but not necessarily for photography. About twelve rooms,  decorated in lovely Victorian detail, show off the lovely museum collection with lovely holiday ornaments.

I saw a few people photographing with phones. It seems unlikely that will work well.  I set my camera ISO  variously at 640 and 1200, I tried to find rooms with windows, to get a bit of  additional light. Despite that, I needed to do a lot of post processing…simple stuff really. I used the Apple software program Photo to lighten most of these photos and improved the black balance. I also reduced the noise.

If you are photographing during the holiday celebration, I think it is best to set your ISO at around 640 for most of the shots rather than at 1200, to control for noise. Christmas trees are inherently “noisy”, as it is.  I took all these with my  Olympus Zuiko 12-50mm 1:3.5-6.3 EZ Lens.

I think the best shots were those  taken up close, where noise was less of an issue.  These glass ornaments are all quite lovely:

Trees decorated all of the rooms. Each room had a theme. Some fun ones included Sherlock Holmes and Poinsettia.

My favorite, though was “Welcome to Florida”, where a tiny train travels around a tall tree, covered in oranges and Florida memorabilia. It is apropos for Henry Plant, who founded a railroad.

Feathers and a full-size nutcracker make for interesting  photos.

I took a break after a couple of hours of shooting and returned sans camera to enjoy walking around as the sun set outside.  Once back outside, after the sunset, I retrieved my tripod and set my ISO to 1600. The night view of the hotel is free and I never tire of photographing this grand dame of a building, no matter what the season.

Plant Museum at Night
The Plant Museum in all Its Glory

Panama’s Lake Gatun: Monkeys, Monkeys, Monkeys

Geoffroys Tamarin
Geoffroy’s Tamarin Eating a Grape

We Traveled on Lake Gatun after our walk along the Pipeline Road. The Lake has a touch of Disneyland to it, but it is well-worth the visit. People have likely been visiting the Lake because of the ease of seeing wildlife for hundreds of years, so the animals don’t seem to be bothered by us.  It didn’t hurt that the gentleman piloting our small boat came with a supply of grapes, something that seems legal in Panama. The Geoffroy’s Tamarin in the trees have been a look out:

Once it let the troop know, about a dozen or so of these small monkeys boarded our boat. In exchange for grapes, they pose for photos.

Waiting For a Grape

We also encountered more White-headed Capuchins, though they stayed up in the canopy.

The canopy around Lake Gatun also held quite the assortment of wildlife. Fabio, my EcoCircuitos guide, who accompanied me on the boat (the boat captain didn’t speak English) spotted these tiny bats (definitely taking to the limit of the capability of the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm lens here).

This next photo is interesting. I was going through my photos at the end of the trip and I couldn’t quite remember why I took it and nearly deleted it.

Before: Can you see anything?

As I looked at it a bit more closely, I started enlarging sections. Much to my surprise, I found this Green Iguana. These guys grow to six feet in Panama.  Unlike here in Florida they are Panamanian natives.

After: A Green Iguana

Given that I live in Florida, I tend to be selective in the birds I photograph. Egrets for example; well let’s just say an egret needs to be doing something pretty special to garner my attention. And, well some birds are just too fast for me (I do keep trying). This Broad-winged hawk, on the other hand, was neither too common nor too fast for me. It  just sat and stared at us, so I had to take this photo.

Broad-winged Hawk

We only spent about an hour on Lake Gatun before we headed out to the Panama Canal to take photos of a very different sort. It was well worth the visit.

Jungle Boat

 

 

Panama: Photographing the Pipeline Road

If you have been following my Panama blog posts, you know that I primarily visited Panama to see the Panama Canal and learn more about its history. But I did want to spend some time learning about the rainforest. I have worked with the travel planners at EcoCircuitos.  So when my educational trip to the Smithsonian Research Institute fell through,  EcoCircuitos instead organized my trip to the rainforest with my guide, Fabio. We hiked about a mile and a half, along the muddy, Soberania National Park Pipeline Trail, about a thirty minute drive from Panama City, near Gamboa. Because we stopped every few feet to photograph something, this was more of an amble, than a hike.

Almost immediately after we started our hike, Fabio spotted a troop of white-headed Capuchin monkeys up in the canopy. They weigh about eighteen ounces or thereabouts.

White-Headed Capuchin Monkey

Our next wildlife visitors were a couple of these Central American Agoutis. To me they look a tailless squirrel, but they weigh in at close to five pounds. They seemed to not even notice us.

Central American Agouti
Central American Agouti

Next up the ants. Central American leaf cutter ants build roads and cities. Some sources claim they have the second-most complex social structure on the planet, with royalty, casts, farms and gardens of beneficial fungus, slaves and armies.  They crossed the trail on their road and just kept on going across the trail and up a tree. The folks a Science Nation  have a great video and a description of the ant cities can be found at Elegant Entomology

We next caught sight of a mantled howler monkey troop.  I was fortunate to get this awesome photo before he made a point of exhibiting his underside for the rest of the time I watched.  He’s about two feet long and weighs in at about ten pounds.

Howler monkey
Mantled Howler Monkey

We saw quite a few lovely Blue Morpho butterflies, quite common in Panama, but they seemed in a hurry and refused to pose for a photo.  This little butterfly was far more accommodating.

butterfly

The canopy is lush and ripe with fruit during the rainy season so no need for a bird to drop down to eat and few plants flower in this shade.  I do love this little kissing lips plant, though.

Kissing Lipa
Kissing Lips
Consulting with the Ranger
Consulting with the National Park Ranger

We were only on this trail for a few hours, but it was time well-spent. In particular a guide familiar with the area and my trusty telephoto lens made this a most enjoyable photo expedition. November is the rainy season, so the canopy shades the rainforest and often the afternoons are cloudy and drizzly. The lush, green, canopy mutes the light, even on sunny days.  A telephoto lens is mandatory as so much activity takes place in this canopy. Needless to say, my lite-weight Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 lens, extended out to its full 300mm, did a great job here. I can’t wait to go back during the dry season!

Historical Panama: Transported Through the Ages

Museum of Biodiversity

Panama’s history as a transportation cross-roads of the Americas intrigued me.  On this ultra short six day trip, I steeped myself in canal history in the morning and Panama’s Spanish history in the afternoon. I learned just enough about Panama’s history to plan for a future trip.  Start studying Panama’s history at the Museum of Biodiversity. The museum, housed in world-renowned architect Frank Gehry’s most colorful building provides a timeline of Panama’s history, beginning with the volcanic eruptions that created the isthmus.

Panama's History in 3D
Panama History in Three Dimensions

From the start species moved back and forth across the newly created isthmus. This land bridge changed our world. Don’t miss the multi-dimensional movie on Panama’s history.

Many species moved across the isthmus
Species Movement Across the Isthmus of Panama

Visiting the Spanish Ruins

I visited three different historical sites, all UNESCO World heritage sites. Unfortunately, drizzle and grey skies marred these visits. It was, after all, the rainy season! I’ll be back some day on a bright sunny day to get better photos and experience all of Panama’s past. I barely had enough time for the canal and Spain.

South American riches traveled from South America, north to the Caribbean town of Portobelo, across the Panama isthmus on the cobbled Camino Real, through the Pacific coastal town of Panama Viejo (Old Panama City) and finally traveled on to Spain by ship. Through the eighteenth century British pirate attacks disrupted these Spanish settlements, not infrequently burning then to the ground. Casco Viejo finally replaced Panama Viejo, during the 19th century because of its more defensible location and port.  Time brought independence from Spain, inclusion in Gran Columbia and irrelevance.   In the 1840s, however, gold prospectors transited the isthmus on that same Spanish Camino Real to reach the Pacific Ocean and California. American speculators built a small railroad to transport the prospectors. Finally the canal saga began, first by the French and then the US.

Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo is open limited hours. The day I visited (a holiday) both the visitor’s center and the park were closed. I was able to see tops of the extensive ruins, including churches and schools, over the fence and at the entrance, though.  Apparently, large parts of the town, along with many other historical buildings, was dismantled to build the Panama canal. (Leave it to us to dismantle old historic buildings!). The town literally sits at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and on the day I was there, the water was simply a mud flat. It seemed an odd place for a port

Puente del Matadero, Panama Viejo

Historic Casco Viejo

Historic Casco Viejo (Panama City), more centrally located near modern-day downtown Panama City, is a work in progress. Panamanians have restored many old buildings as restaurants, coffee shops and museums. After a long day of touristing it was great to find the Casa Sucre Coffee House, one such repurposed building.

Casa Sucre Coffee House

Many historic churches have remained in Panama;  however, other buildings are still simply shells that will need much work.  Contrast this yet to be restored building with the Iglesia San Francisco de Asis.

Unfinished building Iglesia San Francisco de Asis

One can imagine extensive restoration producing a town similar to Florida’s St. Augustine.

Portobelo

Christopher Columbus named Portobelo when he visited in 1502. Portobelo became a major Spanish trading center, holding three-month long annual trading fairs at the peak of Spanish influence from the mid-sixteenth to early nineteenth century. My ecoCiruitos guides, Fabio and Roberto transported me into the center of this small town built amongst the ruins of this highly fortified town. Dark clouds threatened and when it began to rain  we moved quickly…not necessarily the ideal circumstances for photographing ruins. The extensive ruins of forts and the village show evidence of  tropical humidity and age the ruins as they are covered in soot, but they are otherwise in reasonably good shape for building of such age.

Camino Real: The Terminus to the Road to Panama Viejo

This area, like the ruins in Panama City is somewhat of a work in progress. The lovely restored customs house awaits content. It certainly has the bones to become an historical museum. This little slide show below is a sample of two and a half centuries of Spanish rule in Portobelo, including the forts and the customs house. With the Smithsonian Research Institute nearby, it seems that they would have another opportunity to develop a lovely regional museum here in Portobelo.

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The other attraction here, Iglesia de San Felipe, houses the Black Christ. Portobelo celebrates the Black Christ statue at an October 21st festival. The church was the last building that the Spanish built before leaving Panama.  Many believe that the Black Christ cures illness.

A Visit to Panama: The Canal Four Ways

Panamax Ship

 

The Path Between the Seas

I think that it was the Lonely Planet guidebook that suggested that before visiting Panama visitors should finish David McCullough’s exhaustive book on the building of the Panama Canal: The Path Between the Seas.  Great advice and well worth the effort!  I downloaded the audio version and finally finished listening to all 35 hours of it somewhere near the end of my six-day trip. I now understand the great importance of this wonder of the world and the cost associated with its building. I was lucky enough to view the canal from three perspectives, the train, a partial transit, and a jungle boat.

 

The Panama Canal Railway

My guide, Fabio and our driver Roberto of,  EcoCircuitos, the guide company that had organized my tour, dropped me off on my first full day in Panama. (more about that in a different post). The first “mass transit”  across the Panama isthmus  was the train.  Once-a-day this brightly colored commuter train leaves Panama City, traveling alongside the canal, as the sun rises on the Pacific, its destination, Colon, on the Caribbean.  Mostly commuters use this train and tourists head for the  restored antique passenger car or small observation car at the front. I traveled with a bunch of high school-aged students on a  field trip and a few independent tourists like myself.  Most tourists leaving the train travel elsewhere in the area, since the train does not return until evening. Options included the guided tours to ruins at Fort San Lorenzo or Portobelo. Some return to Panama by bus.

Early Morning Views of the Canal

 

Transiting the Canal by Tour Boat

Panama Canal Tour Boat
Panama Canal Tour Boat passing the Museum of Biodiversity

A number of companies in Panama City provide the opportunity for full or partial transit of the canal. The EcoCircuitos folks arranged for my half-day partial transit on Panama Marine Adventures  Pacific Queen. Roberto, dropped me off at the Flemenco Island dock for my five-hour trip on the canal and through two of the three sets of  canal locks (Miraflores and Pedro Miguel). The tour boat, filled with folks from around the world, transited alongside another filled tour boat and behind the Miltiades II, a bulk carrier ship. The commentary was in both English and Spanish.

Miltiades ll

The photo opportunities here were outstanding. Last year the Panamanians completed locks capable of handling larger neo-Panamax ships and we did see one of those transiting the nearby larger lock.

Most folks gather outside at the front, but the views from the back are also outstanding as you watch the massive metal gates of the locks open and close.

Lunch and breakfast provide breaks for the non-stop photography and there was even a local band entertaining us on the trip.

 

Jungle Boat Ride

The "Jungle Boat"
The “Jungle Boat”

Finally, there was the “jungle boat”.  To be honest when this showed up on my proposed itinerary, I scoffed.  This sounded so… touristy.  Unfortunately, my first choice, visiting the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute was filled (I needed to make reservations months in advance!), so I went with this…not wanting to completely miss a trip into the rainforest.  This was actually a combined hike (more in a future post) through Soberania National Park and a boat ride from the Gamboa Rainforest Resort on the Chagres River and onto the canal.  I really enjoyed this canal view.  We entered the canal north of Pedro Miguel Lock and in the small boat we were able to get quite close to the massive ships transiting the canal. A great photo-op.  Take a look!