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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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’m a freelance writer, photographer, reformed gardener, and retired Public Health Doc. I’ve managed social media and photographed the gardens for the Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation. Now-a-days, I concern myself with alternative transportation and fitness. I write about many different topics but truly my passions are the outdoors and traveling. I love to research travel and, as travelers know, the joy is in the journey. This past year saw trips to view the fall color in the Appalachians and Smokies, a visit to Panama and its awesome canal, and, of course, photographing the eclipse with family. I love writing about my trips and making photos and will share them here Enjoy! My older travel and professional articles are here.