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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, SoberaniaNational 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
One can imagine extensive restoration producing a town similar to Florida’s St. Augustine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Transiting the Canal by Tour Boat
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.
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
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!
I have for most of my travel years traveled independently. Pre-internet, I would use travel agencies to buy tickets, and the like. In recent times, though, I’ve had occasion to develop what I call hybrid travel plans, where I still travel independently, but I use local travel agents to organize parts f my trip. I started doing this after a trip to Japan in which I discovered that in Japan travel agencies receive deep discounts, priority tickets, and finally they are a necessity to pay businesses that lack online payment systems and English-language websites. We also worked with an Alaskan company for a DIY trip that also included tours.
With this trip to Panama, my Frommer’s guide recommended hiring a guide if one isn’t renting a car. As it turned out, hiring a tour operator or joining a group during the rainy/off-season isn’t necessarily simple, as many tourist-related activities shift into low gear. Many of my email requests went without response. I did finally find Ecocircuitos.
However, though they had a tour listed on their website that matched my interest, I was told that it would not be available as a group tour since not enough people had signed up. But, they would work with me to do a semi-private tour. After a day of emailing, we settled on an itinerary. This would include: 1) A partial transit of the Panama Canal; 2) Transcontinental train and a visit to Portobelo; and 3) A visit to Barro Colorado Natural Monument; 5) Five nights of lodging and transportation. All for $1430. (In Central and South America you are also charged 5% if you use a credit card which you will likely have to use).
Case closed, correct? Well not quite. As I was busily transmitting my payment info, my agent emailed me that the Smithsonian would cancel the trip unless there were four people. Arghh!!! Stay tuned!
This month I’m off to my first visit to Panama, just in time, as it turns out, for the absolute worst of its rainy season! I’m retired, thus pretty flexible in my travel availability, so how did this happen? Well, I had some time in the Fall and I had hoped to visit South America (I have on my bucket list, visiting all the continents), but the more I looked at a trip to South America, the more I wanted to spend some time planning and prioritizing, so…
The trip to Panama morphed from a trip to Patagonia. In the interim I had also considered the Galapagos, a combination Galapagos-rainforest trip, Costa Rica, combined Panama and Costa Rica, and finally Panama. I found an incredible bargain trip to Panama but it had too many stops and too little time at the canal so I decided a DIY Panama trip was my trip (I couldn’t convince any of my relatives to come along, though).
I was able to make a booking.com reservation for five nights in a Panama City hotel cost for as much as one night in most other major cities of the world. This convinced me that I had chosen well.
Unfortunately, I failed to modify the time that I planned to travel: November in Patagonia would have been a good idea; In Panama, though, it is apparently the REALLY, REALLY, REALLY rainy season. Sad to say, a change in flight would have cost me $200 and Copa Airlines wouldn’t negotiate a change (I miss my Southwest). Well, I am Floridian, so I think that I can deal with a little bit of rain (she said hopefully).
I initially tried researching the trip online, but beyond the hotel and flights, I have found the Internet time-consuming for researching locality attractions. Google search generates Google and TripAdvisor reviews, and not much else. So, as I have been doing for years, I bought a paper guidebook. After testing out the various options (researching a specific question), I chose Frommer’s Panama guidebook as my cheap travel assistant, and horror of horrors, bought it at an actual bricks and mortar bookstore (Yes, I know, very retro and reflective of my age).
Frommer wisely suggests that the DIY traveler not completely go it alone. So, with the list of local Panamanian tour operators from Frommer in hand, I went back to the Internet with a better plan. I looked at the various local tour operator websites. Many have multi-day tours, but as I found out, most are only available during the peak tourist season as they have minimum number of participants. As always, traveling alone creates extra costs and issues. But I think that I finally found a tour operator through my various email inquiries that may provide me with what I need: a relatively inexpensive custom tour. We’ve been working out an itinerary. In my next post, I’ll know better and can report on the rest of my plan.
Well the 2017 eclipse has come and gone, so it’s time to prepare to photograph the 2024 eclipse. Wait, you say, you haven’t even gotten your 2017 prints developed. Trust me, this is a good time to review the experience and lessons many of the 2017 eclipse. Remember, folks were making reservations for hotels and rental equipment two years in advance for this last eclipse. Place some strategic reminders on your Google calendar for 2023 and consider incorporating some of our lessons in your plan. First lesson: Plan ahead! Second Lesson: Have contingency plans!
We did have a plan for 2017, albeit many things seemed to go wrong. Here is what we did: About six month in advance we examined our map and chose a Holiday Inn close to the totality in South Carolina where we could watch. We arranged to rent a Tamron 150-600 mm lens for my daughter’s Nikon D5100 and planned to use my Olympus OMD EM5’s 75-300 mm lens. We ordered solar filters for both my lens and my daughter’s rental lens. We ordered our eclipse viewing glasses from Amazon and a new, sturdy, tripod from Adorama.
What Can Go Wrong Will Go Wrong
That all sounded great, right? So… this is what really happened.
Sometime during late-July, a few weeks before the eclipse, Holiday Inn left us a voice mail to let us know that they had cancelled our reservation; the folks who rented us our lens emailed us to tell us that they did not have the lens we arranged to rent; Amazon emailed to tell us that our glasses were not approved for solar viewing; the solar filters we ordered weren’t the proper size (this one mostly our mistake) and finally the tripod was out of stock.
All’s Well That Ends Well
We pretty much redid everything at the last-minute. We ended up at a Quality Inn in Spartanburg, South Carolina, north of the totality. On the day of the eclipse we drove an hour to the Clemson Campus to do our viewing ($90 donation to the scholarship fund). We ended up with a different a 200-400 mm, Nikon lens for the D5100 that cost us an extra $100 to rent. (As it turned out, we only used the Nikon during the totality as filters for this rental lens sit in slots in the center of the lens. Had we done this we could have damaged the lens mechanism, left unfiltered during the partial eclipse phase). We bought a different colored tripod and found certified glasses at the 7-Eleven convenience store.
Some of the things that we did actually do right included 1) attendance at a class on eclipse photography that our camera club Florida Center for Creative Photography, held the month before the eclipse; 2) identification of the exact seconds for the totality for our location (found on the internet); and 3) practice taking photos.
In the end it all worked out. So here are some of my best shots from the OMD. I did minimal editing, mostly just some cropping. The “people pictures” are from my daughter, Emily.
If you have never photographed an eclipse, consider taking a class. Try to do this as far in advance so that you can make any needed purchases.
Know your camera: It is necessary to use the manual setting for this…something that I finally learned to do before the eclipse. I also learned a lot about my menus.
Practice…a lot. The eclipse is not a static event so you should be comfortable repositioning the camera.
Have your planned settings and timing on some type of portable media, such as paper or a tablet. You will need to change these throughout the eclipse. This is especially helpful during the totality period.
Check your camera settings often. I know someone who inadvertently changed his ISO: lots of ruined photos
Make as many arrangements online as far in advance as possible
Follow up these logistical arrangements by phone, if possible. Online ordering and reservations may be problematic for such a huge event. There were questions that I should have asked about lenses and filters.
Prepare for large crowds and traffic.
April will more likely be a time of cool and changeable weather, rather than hot as it was for 2017. Plan your location well. Check out the weather history on one of the weather websites.
San Antonio, Florida, in Pasco County, has many photo opportunities: The San Antonio Pottery, lovely places to hike, and the St. Leo Benedictine Abbey, justify a trip to this tiny town north of Tampa. Often in passing through town to do the other two, I had seen a sign on the campus of St. Leo’s University for the Abbey. Last week after a quick visit to SaintLeoAbbey.org, I set out with my trusty Olympus OM-D, EM5, to take some photos.
On arrival, sandhill cranes congregated in the parking lot and made me feel welcome as did the welcome center.
I’ve always wondered about San Antonio as It seems fairly isolated. The 1880s, though, things were hopping. The South Florida Railroad passed through nearby Dade City and the Orange Belt Railroad stopped in San Antonio on its way to St. Petersburg.
In 1889, Benedictine monks established a monastery and Catholic high school and founded the town of St. Leo (later incorporated into San Antonio). The monastery became an Abbey in 1902. The Benedictines constructed the first concrete block building in Pasco County, St. Leo Hall, begun in 1906, completed in 1911 and still standing.
The construction of the Abbey church began in 1931 and the church was finally consecrated in 1948. The Abbey website has more detail on the history and construction. I love the part of the story where the monks barter oranges for church furniture and building material with another group of monks in Indiana. Great stuff!
The lovely abbey, typical of many important pre second world war buildings, is in the Florida Mediterranean style. I have more description of this architectural style in a couple of my posts: Wakulla Springs and Bay Pines VA.
The intensely hot, bright July day proved attractive to multiple butterfly species. It gave my telephoto lens quite the workout.
I hope to go back on a day where I can photograph the lovely stained glass windows (the light was just too much) and the grotto on the grounds. Stay tuned for Part 2!
Well a museum that has already been open for nine years isn’t exactly a new museum, but for a native anything that I didn’t visit on a YMCA field trip as a child, I classify as new. I left Chicago for other parts during the 1980’s but have visited pretty much every year since. Of course, visits with children tend to usually include lots of family events and visits to those tried and true museums I visited as a child. But life moves on and since the kids are grown, we decided that the time has come for new explorations.
Unlike the lucky folks who live north, when we South Siders visit the central city it always requires planning. Driving has never been an option. Even less so now that every Chicago parking spot requires an investment. Traveling downtown by public transportation usually means caging a ride from a willing family member or a long, tedious bus ride.
On this last visit when the weather was looking good, we caught a ride to the Orange Line and set out for the north loop. The Driehaus museum and the recently opened American Writers Museum are less than a mile apart and we thought would be a great way to spend a day in the city.
We started at the Writers museum. The lobby is lovely (despite snide comments in many reviews), with nifty elevator doors and a great looking guard desk. Ordinary, perhaps, when built, but now unique.
The American Writers Museum requires a slow ambling view, or you may miss the point here.
As with many small museums, one needs to look up, down and all around to truly appreciate the setting, as designers must work within a small space. The museum entry has a ceiling covered in books and all walls display important info.
The main hallway has authors in a chronologically ordered timeline. Walk too quickly and you will miss moving the informational blocks to study different aspects of the writers. Clearly many of the authors will be known. I found it to be great, that I had somehow missed knowing about a few of these authors. Flip the blocks and find out more or take a photo for future research. Each author has an in-depth discussion of why they were significant. I just started reading a book by Francis Parkman, one of America’s first travel writers.
Check out the word waterfall! This, on the surface, looks to be simple phrases lighting up. A look through the camera lens reveals a 3D multimedia sculpture.
A special exhibition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road included the original scroll. I’m a fan, but I did not realize that one of my favorite books was written in this fashion. Very cool!
A pleasant walk across the now sparking Chicago River (a shock to those of us with long memories) lies the Driehaus Museum. This museum, housed in the former Gilded Age home of banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson had spent most of the twentieth century as headquarters for the American College of Surgeons. Philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus purchased the building in 2003. After a five years restoration, the building now appears as it did in the 1800s.
The building houses surviving furnishings paired with elegant, historically appropriate pieces from the Driehaus Foundation Collection of Fine and Decorative Arts. The first floor houses the collection and the second floor a rotating gallery.
On this visit the gallery exhibition, an Art-Deco poster collection, featured five different artists. The guides in the museum were incredibly helpful, offering many additional insights.
They have an amazing collection at the museum as the tradition of the time amongst the wealthy was to employ as many different crafts people to decorate and buy as many things as they could afford in order to impress their peers. These buildings would have been completely packed with paintings and other artwork.
We certainly enjoyed our visit to these two “new” museums and look forward to finding more of these small gems.
I took these photos with an Olympus Tough as I was traveling light this trip.
According to the Website floridasprings.org, “Rainbow Springs is Florida’s fourth largest spring and is designated a National Natural Landmark…The spring pool is about 250 feet wide and shallow, with especially clear blue water flowing over the beds of green aquatic plants and brilliant white limestone and sand…Seven vents contribute to the first-magnitude group near the spring bowl and are augmented by five more springs and hundreds of sand “boils” to create the Rainbow River. The river runs about 5.6 miles before joining the Withlacoochee River.
During the early twentieth-century the area was home to phosphate mines, parts of which can still be seen on park hiking trails.
The 1930s brought tourists and the spring became a theme park that included a zoo, gardens, rodeo, monorail, a swimming pavilion and artificial waterfalls built on old phosphate tailings.
Like many of Florida’s older tourist attractions, it couldn’t compete with the mega attractions in Orlando so closed in 1974. It reopened as Rainbow Springs State Park in the 1990s. after local volunteers supported the acquisition and restoration of the park.
Today pleasant gardens and shady hikes invite a visit. Butterflies and ancient trees abound.
The Park provides a great place to escape the heat and swim in seventy-two-degree water in the head springs or kayak or tube down the river.We try to visit the park about once a year as this is the closest major spring to the Tampa Bay region. Florida springs are the perfect antidote to beat the Florida heat. The gulf water and pools around our areas are all in the 90s. The spring water though, ah a lovely seventy-two degrees!
The park tubing concessionaire, Nature Quest, rents tubes and provides tram service every twenty minutes up the river. You grab your tube, float with the current, and two hours later you are pleasantly cool. Tubing is available between April and the end of September (Before Memorial Day and after Labor Day rentals are limited to weekends)
We arrived around eleven: a reasonable time for a week-day but we probably would have been too late on the weekend as the park closes when the parking area fills. Early arrival is also advised because of frequent afternoon thunderstorms in the summer. For people, desirous of a quieter experience, I suggest a visit during the week or early or late in the season. Between the entry and two tubes, it cost us $45. This includes the state park admission, tube rental and the tram ride north.
We floated two miles in about two hours. All manner of boats, tubes and kayaks take advantage of the cool water. Given the crowds, we still saw quite a few birds, including anhingas, blue herons, and ibises. The water is clear, and feels just wonderful, as the air temperature was in the nineties.
A few important details: alcohol, coolers and disposable packaging (water bottles, food packaging and the like) are all prohibited on the river. The outfitter will keep your keys for a small fee. Additionally, even if you bring your own tube, you will still pay the $15 per person fee.
Perhaps the only drama occurred when I tried to pose for a photo at the end. I did find out that the current near the end is strong enough to make it difficult to paddle the tube against the current. Thus, into the water I went to paddle back to the ramp and off floated a sandal and hat. Just a word to the wise.
About a month ago for one of our weekly field trip, the Florida Center for Creative Photography sponsored a photo walk to the Lettuce Lake Regional Park, north of Tampa. I’d been to the park a few years back sans camera, however, this visit found me well-equipped, with lenses in hand and accompanied by three expert members of the club. We got some great shots, so I decided to head back to the park with my daughter and see it from the river in one of the park’s rental kayaks. Most of these shots are from the first visit, since I didn’t take my Olympus OMD out on the water and instead used my Windows 920 cell phone camera.
The Hillsborough River creates Lettuce Lake, via an overflow of river water. The river creates the swamp, named for the ubiquitous water lettuce plants.
In addition to lovely lake vistas, birds abound here. Just a few minutes into my walk with the club, we came upon these two Limpkins. They seemed to be literally posing for us for a good twenty minutes, until they finally caught some food and scuttled away.
The park has quite the collection of massive old cypress. pine and hardwood trees. These trees seemed to have avoided the clearcutting that took out most of the woodlands during the 1920s and 30s. Perhaps because the area remains under water much of the year.
Swamp lilies, a native Florida plant, grow throughout, with waves of flowers bordering the river.
Thirty-five hundred feet of boardwalks, a multistory viewing tower, and a 1.25-mile paved trail allow easy access to wildlife, views of the lake and picnics.
Kayaks and canoes can be rented here. We rented kayaks for four hours at the bargain price of $25. Rentals include all safety equipment and paddles.
The park is home to the Audubon Resource Center where folks can find more information about the park. The website provides information on kayak and canoe rentals here and in other Hillsborough County parks.
Although most people think that the Courtney Campbell Causeway Trail begins in Tampa near the Whiskey Joe Bar and the Westin Hotel, the trail actually begins at Cypress Point Park. The other day, I decided to explore that end of the trail on one of my “long runs”.
I did go online to try to find a map of the trail. Trail maps are hard to find, but this one is somewhat helpful, though it makes no distinction between on road and off-road trails. The entrance to the park, listed on the park website is an empty lot. The actual entrance is through an office park, rather than at the entrance listed on the park website.
Parking at the trailhead seems adequate, though perhaps it gets crowded on the weekend. This is a pocket park nestled between the Courtney Campbell Causeway and Interstate 275. Though it is encircled by many buildings, once in the park it feels blissfully isolated. It has just a little slice of our lovely Bay with a well-maintained little beach.
One oddity in this park, given recent controversies is an actual monument to a Confederate hero.
Trails through the park allow for perhaps a half mile of beach trail running and then a concrete path through the disc golf course adds another half mile: good for a warmup and some off-road running.
After warming up along the beach trails, I ran out the driveway (no signs here) and headed left on the trail which first hugs the edge of the airport then follows along Florida Route 60.
This trail is part of what will someday be a greenway trail system that traverses Tampa and connects to the surrounding counties. For now, Cypress Point Park is the terminus for the Courtney Campbell Trail in Tampa with the other terminus in Clearwater at the Bayshore Trail.
The Courtney Campbell trail which leads to the causeway is interesting in that it has various levels of protection from the road. From the looks of the various barriers, it doesn’t seem that someone using the trail will actually be hit by a car. Trash and ambience, well that is a different matter.
I suppose that when we develop trails, trash probably isn’t something that we are thinking about. But, it really does matter. Roads generate trash and trash flies onto trails. Sturdy barriers keep out trash and they also keep out noise, thus improving the trail experience.
One hears nary a peep here in this part of the trail near the Hyatt Hotel.
The Cypress Point Park and the nearby trail are well worth a run and in the future I expect to explore further with a bike.
Some experts suggest that the future of public transport in the Tampa Bay region lies with the use of our waterways. With that in mind, a few communities have ferry demonstration programs. The Cross-Bay Ferry began to travel between St. Pete and Tampa as a six month pilot project that will end this month.
Since the pilot was ending on April 30, I figured it might be the time to try this out. I visited the website last week to check out the schedule. The first thing that struck me was that this really isn’t a commuter ferry. On weekdays, the first ferry out of St. Pete is at noon and the last ferry out of Tampa is 5:30 PM. I guess for folks lucky enough to work four hours per day, this might work! But for someone working eight hours per day, not so much. For retirees, tourists, and some late rising students, though this is probably about right. We saw one person who actually looked like a commuter. Nearly everyone we talked to was, like us, a local…curious about the service.
I had read that the ferry was lightly used during the week, so I didn’t buy my tickets online. Turns out that was almost a mistake. We left home early, at 10:45, and arrived around 11:15, to get the noon ferry. Tickets were initially plentiful, but by 11:30, all the tickets for the returning 5:30 PM ferry had been sold. Parking was free for ferry riders and ferry tickets were $5 per person.
We boarded the boat 15 minutes before launch. My daughter, Caity and I sat up on the upper deck…seemingly less popular than the air-conditioned lower deck near the bar. The ride was uneventful, and took 55 minutes. The seas were calm. Many photo ops along the way. I rediscovered a filter on my camera that makes for interesting water shots. Most interesting is the Port of Tampa.
Once we arrived in Tampa, we had numerous options to enjoy ourselves. We decided to take the streetcar to Ybor City. I hadn’t been there for a while. We could also have headed up the Riverwalk on the west side of downtown. Strangely many of the bus options downtown don’t run this time of the day, so getting to Waterworks Park at the end of the Riverwalk, north of downtown Tampa, would have been a long walk. We had decided against bringing our bikes as we didn’t want to worry about them. We had also decided against the Pirate Water Taxi as being too expensive ($18 per person). It did look like a neat idea if one were spending a whole day visiting central Tampa.
The streetcar trip to Ybor City took 20 minutes. Lunch was at Hamburger Mary’s where I blew up my diet for the day with a bean burger and an awesome side of sweet potato fries. Coffee afterwards was at a neat place called the Blind Tiger…great coffee. Ybor City is quiet on a Friday afternoon, and I think most of the folks we saw walking around had come over on the ferry with us.
The trip back was at 5:30 and we were tired by then. I took more photos on the way back. The light is good that time of the day. For those who had missed out on tickets home, folks were selling unused tickets near the kiosk. We arrived back at about 6:30 and were home for dinner by 7:30.
Hopefully, the service continues as I think most of the people using the service seemed to enjoy it. Would I use the ferry rather than drive into Tampa? Probably not, as it we live too far from St. Pete and this adds at least an hour each way to the trip into Tampa. If someone decided to develop a service from our side of Tampa Bay to Tampa, I would definitely consider it. The problem though is likely to be cost. The initial cost was to be $10 per person. At that price, I might have been hesitant…particularly if parking wasn’t free. Apparently, private sector support has allowed the price reduction…so it isn’t clear whether this will be affordable. But for tourists staying near the waterfront, this is a great way to see the other side of the Bay.
We were out photographing the Twentieth Annual Kite Festival on the Treasure Island Beach this past weekend with a myriad of other photographers. Kite festivals make for great photo opportunities and attract us like flies. You also have multiple colors plus much activity taking place on a beach or some other photogenic location.
I’d been to the festival during previous years and been somewhat disappointed for various reasons…bad weather, rain, grey skies…etc. As I recall, I wasn’t yet equipped with a selection lenses and I hate looking at photos of places where people have clearly Photoshoped blue skies. This time around I switched between my various lenses…and early in the day we at least had some blue sky.
Each time I photograph an event I become a better photographer. Especially when I compare my photos to the 100s of other people posting on the internet. Be-that-as-it-may, I came away resolved to improve my video skills as kite festivals are perfect for that modality. As I am wont to do I looked at what I had on my computer in the way of editing software, as most of my past videos have simply been automated slide shows created in iPhoto or Photo.
I reloaded my old copy of Premier Elements 11 (three versions out of date) and tried to work with iMovie. I was trying to do something simple, flip my images and remove the guy in the corner of my video who was clearly picking his nose. I’m still working on it. But…I did discover a great Adobe resource. For those of us who don’t buy into the idea of paying for every update, this is the place for us. I’m still working on that guy but my daughter, Caity Mellicant, and I got some great photos.
Every Holiday season I visit Bok Tower and Gardens. The visitor’s center, café, gift shop, and Pinewood estate glow with lovely festive plants and creative decorations.
Bok Tower has a great website where you can check out events, learn more about the Gardens and its founder Edward Bok and plan your day. The visitor’s center is also a source of information on the gardens.
The historic tower carillon bells chime with the sound of holiday music as they have since the garden opened in 1930 with daily and special concerts. Bok Tower is located near the town of Lake Wales in central Florida, about an hour from downtown Tampa.
We usually spend a half day here, but one could easily spend days photographing this ever-changing landscape, with its lovely collection of colorful plants, and still not see everything here. Certainly, one could spend weeks here with a camera. Most gardens are macro photographer’s heaven and this place is no exception with lovely flowers and many butterflies.
But the garden features an opportunity for the landscape or architectural photographer. My strategy is to circle through the gardens switching lenses with each circuit (OLYMPUS M.: 9-18mm, F4.0-5.6; 75-300mm, F4.8-6.7; and 12-50mm, F3.5-6.3).
Bok Tower, the Art Deco Tower/Neo-Gothic center piece of this garden, perches atop the highest elevation in Florida. The 205-foot tall Singing Tower is a great example from the Art Deco movement.
Industrialist C. Austin Buck built Pinewood Estates, a twenty-room Mediterranean Revival mansion in the 1930s. Bok Tower Gardens acquired the mansion in 1970. Holiday decorations abound.
The new Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden provides unique approach to encourage kids to get outdoors. I wish I’d had such a playground when I was growing up!
December is a great month to visit these gardens as in addition to the holiday decorations, the huge camellia collection starts to bloom.
We at lunch at the Blue Palmetto Cafe at the Visitors Center. In addition to sandwiches and wraps they have beer, wine and snacks.
Florida’s history is brief compared to other areas but does have its hidden history often only dating from the 1920s and 1930s. Many of these in the Mediterranean revival style that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. I found a great example of this architecture down in South St. Pete at the Bay Pines VA Hospital (now part of the C.W. Young VA Medical Center). While I was hunting through my photos I found these photos that I took three years ago, with my brand new Olympus OMD EM-5 in tow. I spent a morning photographing this great architecture. As I write this, I realize that I made a typical rookie mistake of not researching my subject. I saw stuff I liked and snapped away. But this really is a great place to spend a winter morning camera in hand. Now that I know more about the history I plan to go back and take a more systematic approach.. Enjoy my rookie photos.
Construction began in the 1930s with Building 1, 2 and 13 with completion in 1933 . Fortunately these buildings still exist, though most have been repurposed over the years as more modern buildings replaced older buildings. Newer buildings intermix with the old. This makes for a bit of a challenge sometimes if you are trying for iconic views of the facades.
Building 1 itself is a work of art. Now housing offices, it is most noted for its three level entrance
Nearby Building 24, though newer, is more accessible for photographic detail
It isn’t necessary to obtain permission to enter the grounds to photograph the old buildings. When I took these photos, I only had one lens, my Olympus M.12-50mm F3.5-6.3, but on my return visit I will go back with a better selection. These photos are exterior, taken early in the day. In the future I hope to do some of the interior (after getting permission) of the tile work.
This map will help you find the buildings. Of interest are Buildings 1, 2, 13, 20 and 24. Parking can sometimes be challenging here…but visitor parking is well-marked.
Florida has forty-two different botanical gardens to choose from. At 4 square acres, Sunken Gardens is perhaps one of the smallest Botanical Gardens in Florida. But, what it lacks in acreage it makes up for by its location near downtown St. Petersburg, with its great music, art scene, and huge selection of eateries. The Gardens are also co located with a children’s museum housed in an historic building.
Most of Florida’s old roadside attractions have been well catalogued, though Sunken Gardens seems to have missed out..perhaps because only bits and pieces still exist.
But, it exemplifies the kind of hybrid garden/zoo that was common in the state. Thus the unique collection of birds here and the occasional interloper.
Because of its age, this garden has some of the oldest trees and bushes that we see in the metropolitan area. Remnants of old Florida remain with the fauna here relatively unique. From the photographer’s perspective this clearly provides opportunities. It’s possible to come here mid-day and still have shade. The flamingos, common in the past, in front of hotels and the like are now limited to places such as Sunken Gardens. There are many flowers and birds that provide macro opportunities, but a wide-angle lens is useful for capturing the amazing landscape provided by the old live oaks, ferns and colorful Bougainvillea. On the other hand, the day I took these photos had started out bright, but my sun disappeared….making for a pretty dark day as reflected in these photos.
The small size of the garden and the seemingly steep entrance fee here are issues. The much larger Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo is free (described in a future post). However, members of the American Horticultural Society, available with nearly any Botanical Gardens, membership will get a free pass here and Groupon has discount offers. These Gardens are worth a visit in conjunction with a visit to the ever-improving downtown St. Pete, or perhaps the Children’s Museum.
We recently spent the night at the historic Lodge at Wakulla Springs in the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. The Lodge and park are about 250 miles north of Tampa Bay and about 30 miles south of Tallahassee.
We set out early on a Friday morning back in October for the Springs. Officially named after the original owner, it was about a half day drive for us, straight up US 19 from Clearwater to the Florida Panhandle. We were actually headed to the Monarch Butterfly Festival at the nearby St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday.
The Lodge at Wakulla Springs was thirty miles away from the refuge, so provided for easy access to the Saturday festival. The lodge in its day, a grand hotel, built with Tennessee marble, local heart cypress, and imported tiles, opened in 1937. Edward Ball, a financial manager and son-in-law of the DuPont family built the lodge so that people could enjoy this unique woodland and spring. The State of Florida purchased he lands and lodge after Ball’s death in 1986.
The Lodge and the grounds have quite the history. Archaeological finds in the park include early stone blades and Clovis spear points dating back to 12,000 BC, discovered during the lodge renovation. Fossilized remains of mastodon and other prehistoric animals remain in the spring and a fossil can be seen at the entrance to the jungle ride.
Florida Springs are favorite locations for movies because of the tropical appearance and Wakulla is no exception. Most famous were Tarzan movies and many scenes from the classic film “Creature from the Black Lagoon” were filmed at the spring.
The Lodge is also home to the oldest working Art Deco Elevator, one that would have had an attendant …back in its glory.
After lunch we had the house specialty, ginger yip at this historic soda fountain.
Swimmers in the spring
While we waited to board the “Wakulla River Florida Jungle Cruise” for 5pm (reservations required), the last cruise of the day, we watched brave souls diving into the sixty-eight degree water.
Rangers narrate a tour of the river in these historic little river boats. Unfortunately the spring is too cloudy for the glass bottom boat ride.
Coming from south-central Florida , we found the bird population at the spring identical to those on our waterways. Given that we were four hours north, I found this interesting. For folks interested in seeing birds, such as the ibis, little blue heron and anhinga in this picture… normally seen in south Florida, this is the boat ride for them.
I don’t mean to do a review of the lodgings here or the restaurant, but I will follow-up with a Trip Advisor Review. We paid $169 for our room. This included a substantial breakfast and admission to the park. Even with that, it was pretty expensive, given the room. The lodge in many ways remains true to its 1937 roots and often not in a good way. An awful lot is in need of repairs or just cleaning.
The park’s isolation pretty much guarantees that lodgers eat in the park. I looked at the various Google and Trip Advisor Reviews prior to our trip. The food was well-reviewed and we thoroughly enjoyed all three meals…but the service…well there were definitely holes. Again a topic for a review. The lobby is lovely so we were only a little annoyed at the long wait for dinner. People gather here to play antique checkers and other games as the rooms do not have televisions but do have wi-fi. There is even a Pokemon Gym in the back yard.
Early the Saturday morning I set out on my morning trail run on the Wakulla Springs Trail…right out the front door. The six-mile trail crosses the river and heads east. It was chilly, in the 50s, but with not a cloud in the sky. I gotta say that this was truly one of the best trail runs that I have experienced. The well-maintained trail and woods are quite interesting, with many of the trees labeled so that I could read the little placards as I ran. Unlike the birds, the trees here are quite different from South-central Florida, with quite the mixture of hardwoods, uncommon in most of Florida, and trees common to south-Florida, such as palms. Some trees were even losing leaves and exhibiting fall color. Truly a great end to our stay.
The causeway ends at an entry kiosk. The cost to enter is $8, somewhat more than St. Pete. Beach. The park has a nice visitor’s center, oodles of parking, and a short walk between parking and the wide, sandy beach. Two cafes provide food and awesome views of the beach. They rent the usual equipment needed for the beach, plus bikes and kayaks. A Ferry that launches near the Park gate will take you to Caladesi Island, a great place to snorkel and hunt for shells.
Many people will pedal from the trail into the park, with perhaps a stop at one of the restaurants along the causeway. We sampled one of the newest restaurants, Frenchy’s Outpost...a part of a local chain. Frenchy’s is a colorful, comfortable, mostly outdoor, sports bar offering a wide selection of beers plus reasonably priced bar food. They specialize in grouper, which they serve in a multitude of ways. On a rainy day, which it was when we visited the other day, it was a fine alternative to the beach.
Honeymoon Island is at the north end of town so that it is possible to park in downtown Dunedin, hop on a bike or even rent a bike and pedal into the park and back into town to enjoy the eminently walkable downtown Dunedin all in one day.
Yes, there is an actual place called St. Pete Beach. It isn’t St. Petersburg Beach and it isn’t even part of St. Petersburg. The Beach sits about as far south in Pinellas County as one can be and it is my favorite beach. Pinellas County has 130 miles of beach fronting the Gulf of Mexico, with some islands thrown in for good measure. No one can say that we don’t have our pick of beaches. If you arrived here looking for a beach, there are many lists of best beaches published, but these are flawed because repetition of a beach will actually cause the beach to be retired from the list. Often the list will be limited to one beach per state and many of Florida’s beaches have long since been retired: You may just be seeing the runner-ups. Arguably, I am talking about the strongly held opinion of one person here, but it seems to me that in talking with friends, many locals consider the section of St. Pete Beach called Pass-a-Grille to be our best beach. In our mind runner-up beaches include Honey Moon Island State Park and Ft. De Soto. St. Pete tends to get the nod from locals because of the reduced hassle factor. It is one of the last remaining beaches on the Gulf where you can simply drive to the beach; open your car door; and walk across a short boardwalk out onto the beach.
This is great if you have a lot of stuff, need easy access to restrooms, have mobility challenges, or have small children. Though you will have to pay to park right at the beach, free two-hour parking is often available nearby. It’s just up and out here to a wide sandy beach. Not only is this beach easy to get to by car, you can also travel there via a charming trolley
or direct bus from Downtown St. Petersburg. Still thinking about it, well consider that the beach still sits on a quiet, lightly-traveled road, easily crossed to choose from one of a number of restaurants with amazing views and good food. One restaurant, Paradise Grill, even sits right on the beach. Rent beach equipment or buy what you need in the shop.
Perhaps, that is what makes this our favorite…it combines the peace and quiet of the beach with a small town Main street. Combine all this with some of the best sunsets, and you have beach nirvana. Sunset photography is, well, it’s a Gulf thing that even most locals do on a fairly regular basis. St. Pete Beach guarantees locals and tourists, alike, great swimming, photos and food.