St. Leo’s Benedictine Abbey

 

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.

Gathering in Greeting in the St. Leo’s Benedictine Abbey Parking Lot

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.

St. Leo’s Hall

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.

 

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The intensely hot, bright July day proved attractive to multiple butterfly species.  It gave my telephoto lens quite the workout.

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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!

 

 

Rainbow Springs State Park: An Antidote to the Florida Heat

Rainbow River

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.

Waterfalls built on old phosphate mining waste

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.

Monarch enjoying a meal

 

Zebra: A common Florida Butterfly

 

Gulf Frittilary

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!

Rainbow Springs State Park Swimming Area

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)

Nature Quest Rents Tubes and Kayaks at the Park

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.

An Unplanned Ending to a Great Tubing Trip (Photo Courtesy of Caity Mellicant)

 

Running Cypress Point Park

Beach
Cypress Point Park Beach

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.

Salt Works
Tampa Confederate Salt Works

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.

Beach Trail
Beach Trail.

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.

Trail
Poorly protected  and maintained trails attract trash and are noisy

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.

Near the Hyatt
A well protected trail gives the illusion of a quiet country path

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding the Cross-Bay Ferry

Checking in!
CCross-Bay Ferry in St. Pete
Cross-Bay Ferry in St. Pete

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.

From the Ferry
On the Ferry
Kicking back

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.

streetcar
Catching the streetcar
Water taxi
Water taxi

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.

on the streetcar
Caity on the streetcar

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.

Ferry
The End of the Day

Wakulla Springs Overnight

Wakulla Springs

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.

Arriving at the Lodge
Arriving at the lodge

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.

Lobby
The lobby is resplendent in marble and cypress

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.

Wakulla Springs
Creature from the Black Lagoon

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.

 

 

 

 

Art Deco Elevator
Art Deco Elevator

The Lodge is also home to the oldest working Art Deco Elevator, one that would have had an attendant …back in its glory.

World's longest marble soda fountain
World’s longest marble soda fountain

After lunch we had the house specialty, ginger yip at this historic soda fountain.

Swimmers in the springSwimmers in the spring

Wakulla Springs
Wakulla River Florida Jungle Cruise

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.

Alligator
Sleepy Alligator
Wading birds and turtles enjoy the day
Wading birds and turtles enjoy the day

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.

bed
Rooms

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.

Dining Room
Dining Room

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.

trail

 

Honeymoon Island

Honeymoon Island Beach
Honeymoon Island beach

Honeymoon Island State Park and theDunedin Causeway make up my second favorite Tampa Bay beach experience.

Kayak Rentals
Kayak Rentals on Dunedin Causeway

On the three-mile long causeway you can drive right off the road onto the beach to fish or rent/launch boats. Dunedin Causeway is also a branch of the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, an ever extending rail trail.

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.

Frenchy's Outpost
Frenchy’s Oupost

 

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.

Endless 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.

Dunedin Sunset
Dunedin Sunset

St. Pete Beach: My Favorite!

 

Pass-a-Grille
St. Pete Beach

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.

Pass-a-Grille Beach
Another gorgeous sunset

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

Central Avenue Trolley
Trolley awaits passengers

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.

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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.

Sunset in St. Pete
Sunset in St. Pete

The St. Petersburg Art Scene

ArtWalk

Wow! The September Second Saturday ArtWalk was amazing.  As with many towns around Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg holds a monthly ArtWalk where local galleries remain open late and often have special exhibitions or openings.  St. Petersburg has one of the best in the area.  This month we were lucky enough to have ArtWalk coincide with the finale of the St. Petersburg Mural Festival (SHINE 2016).   Here are a some of our favorites. The Festival attracted official and unofficial entries…with many businesses adding public art.

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Some of the murals weren’t quite complete so we were able to watch some of the artists still applying paint. Lucky for us, unlike a chalk festival, we can return during the next few months to see ones that we missed and revisit our favorites. A map of the murals and information on all these great artists can be found here.

In addition to the murals, twenty-one museums and galleries had special exhibits.  Each month is different so before we headed out  we downloaded the monthly map and guide from ArtAlliance website.  As the ArtWalk covers about four square miles, we have found it better to decide in advance to focus on one or two of the five arts districts .

We usually choose a centrally located restaurant, park nearby and walk to galleries. You can also use the trolly.  Central Avenue continues to evolve into a gastronomic haven, with new restaurants and cafes opening every month. Our restaurant choice this time was the recently-opened Hawkers Asian Street Fare. Check out this intriguing, yet inexpensive menu. It was worth the wait.

Hawkers restaurant
Hawkers Asian Street Fare

By far, the Warehouse district has the largest number of galleries that participate in the ArtWalk and it has been many a month that we spend a large part of our Saturday night at Duncan McClellan’s Gallery sipping wine and watching the glass blowing demonstration where a featured artist creates amazing art glass.  These are great photo ops! During ArtWalk a food truck is set up and often they have live music.

Glass Blowing
Duncan McLellan Art Gallery

I can’t promise that ArtWalk will be this exciting every month….but with more new galleries and restaurants opening all the time, you can’t go wrong visiting St. Pete during this  monthly event.