Snow shovels in Sarasota

Two weeks have passed since we posted the last blog.  Life in the sun has continued its normal relaxed existence.  Sue and Alice came over from Venice for lunch, before Alice headed back to Atlanta.  Friends from CPII joined us for drinks.  We’ve been for several walks, often along the beautiful beaches in the area.

Beach walks

We love walking at the edge of the sea.  Even on beaches that we visit regularly, we sometimes spot different things.  In the course of our recent Anna Maria Island walk (from City Pier to Manatee Beach) we saw some people apparently practising circus acrobatics, and a couple getting married!  (Not the first wedding we’ve seen at the Sandbar – this one was much less formal that the one we saw last year.)

Entertainment on Anna Maria City Pier

Circus tricks 1

Circus tricks 2

Beach wedding

Exchanging vows

When we went to South Lido Beach, there was quite a strong wind, so the kite surfers were out in force. We enjoyed watching, but were quiet glad to round the bend to the sheltered side of the island, and find a perfect spot to get out our chairs and have a quiet read!

Seabirds swarming for fish

Kite surfers

Let’s go fly a kite!

Clearly a popular spot

One day we decided to go a bit further afield, to Caspersen Beach (just south of Venice) which we hadn’t visited before.  It’s a ‘natural’ beach, a long stretch of sand with lots of shells, some large rocks, dunes, palm trees etc.  When we arrived, there were relatively few people there. We walked along the beach for a couple of miles – we could have gone much further, but decided to turn back and get our coffee out of the car!   By that time there were more people around and we saw that many of them were standing in the sea, wielding an implement we learned is known as a ‘Florida snow shovel’ to hunt for sharks’ teeth.  This is obviously a popular pastime on Caspersen Beach – Sandie talked to some people who come every year for a holiday, and spend the time collecting sharks’ teeth to take back ‘up north’.  What they do with them then is unclear!

Caspersen Beach

Treasure hunt

How to use a Florida snow shovel

Searching through the spoils

Evening entertainment

There’s always a variety of entertainment on offer in Sarasota.  Last Friday we went to the Opera House, to see Madame Butterfly. It was a splendid production: great set, beautiful costumes and of course wonderful music.  Although not opera buffs, we were enthralled.

We’ve seen several live plays recently, but a week ago we went to the cinema for a change.

We saw an excellent film called A United Kingdom.  From advertising material we’d gathered it was about a white British woman who married an African prince, but it wasn’t until the film started that we realised it was the story of Seretse Khama, who were treated abominably by the UK government, kept apart from his wife and out of his own country for years, before finally leading his people to independence.  It was a story familiar to us, because we’d read all about it when visiting Botswana in 2013!

Statue of Seretse Khama in Gaborone, Botswana

Gaborone airport is named after him

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Camping with vultures

We wanted to do another short camping trip, and decided to leave on Tuesday 28th February, as the weather forecast for that week was good.  We planned a route to take in a few places we hadn’t already visited.  At the campground we chose for our first night, only one site out of sixty was still available, so we booked it.  And then of course the forecast changed.  We considered postponing the trip, but thought the weather might be even worse the following week, so we decided to go ahead.  Here’s what happened.

Tuesday

We headed east, with a brief stop at the Pioneer Park in Zolfo Springs.

Old railway engine at Zolfo Springs

It always amazes us how empty central Florida is, once you get away from the coasts (and the theme parks).  Our first destination was Bok Tower Gardens, and our ‘combination’ tickets enabled us to visit the adjacent Pinewood Estate, including a house confusingly built by a Mr Buck. The building was attractive, but we were unimpressed by the interior.

Pinewood Estate

Tiled staircase

The main feature of the Gardens is the very photogenic tower, including a 60-bell carillon. We listened to the 3pm recital in a special viewing area, where you can see the carilloneur on closed circuit TV.  She was a young woman from Poland, and we were able to talk to her afterwards.  We were also interested to learn that the bells were made in England, at the Taylor Bell Foundry in Loughborough, where we used to live!

Bok Tower

Detail of the Tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were rather disappointed by the Gardens – to us, more like a park.  But we discovered that Iron Mountain (where the tower is situated) is, at 324 feet, the highest spot in all of ‘peninsular’ Florida. It dwarfs Hobe Mountain, the highest spot in southern Florida, where we were last month!

Wedding excitement

After leaving Bok, we made our way to Lake Kissimmee State Park, where we had booked a campsite.  We’d had fine weather so far, and there were lots of stars – a good sign, we hoped.

Wednesday

Before leaving the state park, we did the short (2.8 miles) Gobblers Ridge Trail, which took us to the lake.  The views were rather disappointing, as there were lots of reeds between us and the water.  However, we climbed the observation tower, and found about six vultures waiting at the top!  We got fairly close before they flew off.  And when we were almost back at the car, we saw a couple of Sandhill cranes, which seemed happy to be photographed.

I spy tasty tourists!

Sandhill cranes

From Lake Kissimmee we headed north. Our next main stop was Mount Dora, an attractive small town on the shores of another lake (there are lots of lakes in this part of Florida). We ate our picnic lunch in a pavilion right on the water, and then walked around the town centre, using a map which identified the historic buildings. It was late afternoon when we left the town, too late to go as far as we had originally planned.  We tried one campground which was full, but luckily we found a suitable site just a few miles further on.  The stars tonight were even brighter than last night – the lack of light pollution creates a wonderful show.

Whoops – she’s shrunk!

Mt Dora Lighthouse

 

 

John P. Donnelly House

Thursday

Despite the stars, it was very grey when we got up.  There were several rain showers (some quite heavy) through the day; fortunately they came while we were in the car.

It was not far from the campsite to our first destination: Ravine Gardens State Park at Palatka.  We’d passed close by last summer, but our information said the best time to visit was in the spring, preferably February-March.  So here we were, but we were sadly disappointed.  Sun might have helped, but it was not only the weather.  Some footpaths were poorly maintained; there were not as many azaleas as expected, and many of them were already dead.

Ravine Gardens State Park

Azaleas

We had a brief stroll around Palatka in search of our morning coffee, and noted the many murals in the town.

Palatka mural

Coffee stop

Then it was on to the Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park at Gainesville.  This is a massive sinkhole: you can descend 236 steps into it, and walk round a short trail at the top.  When we’d done that the weather still looked miserable, and we’d seen all the places we planned to visit on this trip, so we decided to head home.

Devil’s Millhopper State Park

Back in Sarasota

Being back a day earlier than planned gave us the opportunity to visit the ‘Quilts in Paradise’ show.  Quilting is a big thing here, and our friend Jane was exhibiting.  The quilts were beautiful – there are obviously a lot of skillful and talented people around!

Psychedelic quilt

One of Jane’s

The weekend followed our usual pattern:  ‘pub crawl’ on Friday evening (including free wine and opera on Palm Avenue), walk downtown (market, library etc) on Saturday morning, and theatre on Saturday evening.  This time we saw Born Yesterday, the third of the Asolo’s so-called ‘Washington trilogy’. It was quite different, being a comedy, and written soon after World War II, but although the acting was excellent, we didn’t enjoy it as much as the other two plays in the series.

Opera on Palm

On Sunday we did our usual beach walk, this time south along Turtle Beach.  We noted that the sand brought in last year to replenish the beach was already being washed away.  After returning to ‘base’ we got out our chairs, had coffee and started reading, but we didn’t stay long because of the winds which have been so strong recently.

I wonder why this place is for sale?

Pelicans in flight

Monday was rather different from usual.  It was our final Italian lesson, but this was a ‘practical’: instead of a classroom session at the college, we had lunch together in an Italian restaurant in Venice (appropriately); the waiters had been given instructions to talk to us only in Italian.  Coincidentally, we’d been invited to a meeting of the local ‘Europeans in America’ group, 6pm at an Irish pub between Venice and Sarasota.  It made sense to call there on the way back, so we filled in the time doing a tour of Venice thrift shops; we found a few things we needed and bought some other things we did not!

Ian and Marianna at the Europeans in America dinner

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Fur and Fun in Sarasota

We’re still finding plenty to do – how can you be so busy even when you’re retired?!

Walking and wandering

Raccoon family

Raccoon family

The weather has been warm and sunny nearly all the time, so we’ve had plenty of opportunities for walks.  Even when we go to places we’ve been before, there are often new things to see.  When at South Lido Park (by the beach, at the southern tip of the island) a family of racoons ran right across our path.

 

 

 

 

We often see wildlife (especially pelicans and other birds) at the beach; human activity can be interesting too!  We saw more birds when we went to Nathan Benderson Park for the first time. A large lake (used for international rowing competitions) occupies most of the park, but there is a footpath which goes all the way round.

 

North Watertower Park, en route to Nathan Benderson Park

North Watertower Park, en route to Nathan Benderson Park

Nathan Benderson Park

Nathan Benderson Park

Heron at NBP

Heron at NBP

Circus Big Top at NBP

Circus Big Top at NBP

We’ve always said that we cannot walk to the beach from our condo, but last Monday we proved this statement incorrect.  For the second time this year, we walked across the Ringling Bridge to St Armand’s Circle; from there it is not far to Lido Beach, so we decided we might as well do a short stroll to the northern tip.  It was an enjoyable afternoon, and proved we can walk to the beach – but of course we would not want to do so carrying our beach chairs!

Beach blossom

Beach blossom

Seagulls and shadows

Seagulls and shadows

Sunset

Sunset

Sunset aerobics

Sunset aerobics

Partial eclipse of the Moon

Partial eclipse of the Moon

Dolphin fountain

Dolphin fountain

Bashful pelican

Bashful pelican

The things these humans get up to!

The things these humans get up to!

A cat for a week

On Sunday 5th February Sandie was finally able to do her ‘foster training’ at the Cat Depot.  She learned that foster carers are usually required for litters of very young kittens.  This may involve bottle feeding at all hours – something we did not feel very keen about!  In any case, ‘kitten season’ has not really started yet. But the following Saturday, to her surprise, Sandie had a phone call asking is she could foster an adult cat who was convalescent.  She said yes, of course, and a couple of hours later Dimitri took up residence at Central Park 2. He was a stray who had been badly injured; skilful surgery had left him with one eye, and wearing a cone.  We understood that we would have him for two weeks: after one week we’d need to take him back to Cat Depot to have the stitches removed, but then we’d have him for a further week to ‘build him up’.

Dimitri

Dimitri

Settling in

Settling in

Dimitri was friendly, affectionate, and settled in amazingly well. One regret about our present lifestyle is that we cannot have a cat, so it was lovely to have one around, if only for a short time.  However, it was even shorter than we expected.  When Sandie took him to have the stitches out, the vet announced that he was thriving, had put on weight and was ready for adoption!  So she had to leave him there and return home alone.  Still, she is able to see him on her regular visits to Cat Depot, and last Friday he was looking good (minus cone).  He’s popular with the staff and volunteers, and we hope that he’ll find a good ‘furrever’ home soon.

Dimitri minus cone

Dimitri minus cone

Evenings out

On St Valentine’s Day there was a ‘sock hop’ at our clubhouse, i.e. a dance with music from the 50s and 60s.  The band was good and it was great fun.

The 'sock hop'

The ‘sock hop’

Shake it about!

Shake it about!

We continued our tradition of Friday night ‘pub crawls’, and added a couple of new venues to our itineraries: Towles Court (in central Sarasota) where there are lots of art galleries which open late on the third Friday of each month, and Walt’s Fish Market, which is south down the US41, and so popular we had to wait an hour for a table.

On Saturdays we usually go to the theatre, or the cinema.  On Feb 11th we were back at the Asolo to see The Originalist, the next play in their ‘American Society’ series.  The main character was the late Judge Scalia, about whom we had previously known very little.  But once again it as a brilliant play, really gripping.  We were less enthusiastic about Big Fish, which we saw the following week at the Players: the plot was weird and the music instantly forgettable.

A day in Venice

Yesterday, we spent the whole day, not just the evening, at Venice.  Our Italian teacher, Sebastiano, had recommended the ‘Italian Feast and Carnival’, organised by the Italian-American Club there.  He also told us that he was giving a talk on the ‘Art and Architecture of Venice’ that morning, and we were able to combine both events with a visit to our friends Sue and Ed.  First stop was the Art Center, where Sebastiano gave his talk and then led us outside to visit one of the buildings he’d mentioned.

On the way to the Triangle Inn

On the way to the Triangle Inn

An enthusiastic lecturer

An enthusiastic lecturer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next we went to the Italian festival, with Sue and her sister Alice who had arrived from Atlanta two days earlier.  There were lots of food stalls (not all of them Italian!) and we watched the Tarantella Dancers perform.

Waiting for the action

Waiting for the action

Swingin'!

Swingin’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tarantella Dancers

Tarantella Dancers

Later that afternoon we went for a stroll around a park we’d spotted in the morning, close to the Art Center.  Then we went to a dinner with Sue, Ed and Alice, at their community hall.  There was music after the meal, but no room to dance, as the hall was packed.  Finally we returned to the festival, where we danced to a band called Uptown Express, took photos of the funfair and watched the fireworks.  A full day, but everything fitted in very well.

Lit-up gondola

Lit-up gondola

All the fun of the fair

All the fun of the fair

Uptown Express

Uptown Express

Fireworks to finish

Fireworks to finish

 

 

 

 

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Mountaineering in Florida

After our cruise to the Bahamas, we landed in Miami early on Monday 23rd January. As we were not in a rush to get back home, we decided to drive up the Atlantic coast before crossing the state. We had plenty of time for a stop on the way.

Better luck this year

We visited Jonathan Dickinson State Park in February last year, on our way back from Central America.  But we were rained off – there was a heavy storm just after we arrived in the park, so after looking round the Visitor Center we had to leave.  We decided to give it another try this year, but on our way north the clouds grew very dark and we thought we would be thwarted by the weather again. By the time we arrived in the park the sun was out again, but it was extremely windy.

Last year we bought a bumper sticker which said ‘I climbed Hobe Mountain’.  This amused us because Hobe Mountain – said to be the highest point in southern Florida – is 86 feet at the summit. But we did not make it because of the rain, so we were determined to do so this year, and we walked up the short boardwalk, despite the wind blowing a hooley.

The ascent of Hobe Mountain

The ascent of Hobe Mountain

Next we took photos of the Loxahatchee River, then started on the Kitching Creek nature trail.  At that point there was some rain, so we took a shortcut back to the car park.  But then the weather improved again – so we completed the whole trail at the second attempt.

Loxahatchee River

Loxahatchee River

Kitching Creek

Kitching Creek

Back in Sarasota

We’ve continued the usual round of activities, including several short walks.

Sarasota residences

Sarasota residences

Be afraid - be very afraid

Be afraid – be very afraid

Strolling along Siesta Beach one morning we saw a most unusual sight – a sailing boat run aground.  According to our local paper, the owner’s navigation system had crashed, and they were awaiting a high tide to tow the boat back out to sea.

On the beach

On the beach

Whoops!

Whoops!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acrobatics on the beach

Acrobatics on the beach

We also enrolled for a basic Italian class – now there’s a clue to our plans for summer travel! – at the Suncoast Technical College, a few miles down the road.  There are just five sessions, and we’ve had two so far.  We’re impressed by our teacher who makes the sessions enjoyable and entertaining.  Hopefully we’ll learn something too!

On Friday 27th January our friends Ruth and Robert from South Carolina came to visit.  They were travelling from the Keys to the Panhandle, and an overnight in Sarasota fitted their plans.  We showed them around our complex, including the bayou which is just behind one of our buildings.  Ruth was very excited to spot three manatees in the water!  The rest of the time we spent eating, drinking and talking – it was great to catch up with them again.

Watching manatees

Watching manatees

Manatee

Manatee

An artful weekend

On 3rd February we did our usual Friday night ‘pub crawl’.  At least, that’s how it started.  We walked to the Bayfront and had cocktails in Marina Jack’s.  Then we headed up Main Street, thinking of having another drink in one of the bars there. But reaching Palm Avenue we bumped into some friends, who reminded us that on the first Friday of the month the art galleries there stay open late and offer music and drinks to people visiting.  So why pay for wine when you can get it free?  We looked at the art on display in four galleries, all very close together. In one we heard three singers from Sarasota Opera perform some famous arias.  We then went back to the Bayfront to get something to eat!

Sunset on the Bayfront

Sunset on the Bayfront

Palm Avenue art gallery

Palm Avenue art gallery

 

An operatic aria

An operatic aria

On Saturday nights we usually go to the theatre or the cinema – there are plenty to choose from in Sarasota.   This week was somewhat different – we went to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center to hear the Sarasota Orchestra perform ‘Tchaikovsky to Tüür’.  Tüür is a contemporary composer from Estonia; in fact this was the US premiere of his symphony, and he was present in person. We are not music buffs (far from it) but we preferred the Tchaikovsky.

On Sunday morning the Sarasota Music Half Marathon took place.  We walked part of the route in the hope of seeing and encouraging some friends who were taking part. We spotted Lynda and Kevin just as they reached the finishing line. Now a half marathon may not be considered art, but on our way back home we visited an art and craft exhibition which had been set up along the bayfront.  All in all, it was a very cultural weekend!

Walking through the Botanical Gardens

Walking through the Botanical Gardens

 

 

One of the bands on the half marathon route

One of the bands on the half marathon route

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Made it!

Made it!

Showing off the medals

Showing off the medals

Art festival

Art festival

 

 

 

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Just Cruisin’

The first half of January passed with the usual round of activities and voluntary work.  Sandie continued her dancing and her family research.  Ian did more painting, and continued trying to get his book published.  He has joined a local writers’ group, hoping it will give him some ideas.  We’ve also started planning our summer travels!

On Facebook, we read about the ‘thousand mile challenge’, which claims that it is good for health and fitness to walk a thousand miles each year.  Sounds a lot, but when you work it out, it’s less than three miles a day on average.  We generally do quite a lot of walking, so guessed it would not be too difficult, but decided to monitor daily distances just for fun.  We equipped ourselves with cheap pedometers, and Ian set up a spreadsheet.  There’s an ongoing debate about what to include, or not include, so it’s all very approximate, but so far we are well ahead of our target.   In addition to the walks we normally do – into town, along the beaches etc – we’ve done a few short walks from the condo, and are getting to know the neighbourhood even better.

'Unconditional Surrender' statue in Sarasota

‘Unconditional Surrender’ statue in Sarasota

We were expecting a dip in temperatures – January can be cool, even in Florida – but mostly the weather has stayed warm and sunny, except for one weekend.  That Saturday evening we went to the cinema, planning to see the film Lion, but it seems that everyone had the same idea, and it was sold out when we arrived.  Instead we saw Jackie, about the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination.  The following Saturday, we went to the Asolo Theatre to see a play called The Great Society. This followed on from All the Way, which we saw last year.  The Great Society covered the period of LBJ’s presidency, after he was elected in his own right in 1964.  It had a brilliant script, excellent acting and a great production.  It lasted almost three hours, but we were so engrossed, we hardly noticed the time.

Moonrise over Central Park

Moonrise over Central Park

Off to the Bahamas

Cruising has never appealed to us – we prefer to be on land and see things, rather than look at the ocean.  So when a friend sent us details of cheap cruises from Miami our first tendency was to ignore them.  But they were amazingly good value, and when Sandie looked closer she found one which sounded as if it might suit us: four nights at sea, but all day on land, at three different islands in the Bahamas.  So we decided to give it a go.

On Thursday 19th we drove across to Miami.  Checking in for the cruise was quite a performance.  Of course we expected security, and were not surprised to find that we were not allowed to carry liquids on board.  We were however taken aback to be told that we could not take empty bottles – no airline that we’ve ever flown with has banned them.  We had to queue over half an hour to get to the check-in desk, and the girl who dealt with us there gave us wrong information.  As a result, we went up and down in a lift which got us nowhere, and lugged our case all the way to our cabin on the 8th deck, where we discovered that our room keys did not work.  While Ian went to find guest services and have them changed, Sandie noticed that luggage was being delivered to all the other cabins.  The porter was horrified when told that we had not been offered this service.

Our ship (Norwegian Sky)

Our ship (Norwegian Sky)

After our negative first experience, things did improve.  Our cabin was fine, and the public areas of the ship were smart and comfortable.  However, there were some disappointments.  We were told that all food and drink was included – this should have been some food and some drink.  Of the six restaurants on board, only two were ‘free’.  We were not surprised to find that you had to pay extra for certain alcoholic drinks, but Sandie was disgusted to find that she would have to pay for a cappuccino!

There were other things that surprised us.  Our (doubtless outdated) image of cruise ship passengers was that they were old, rich and well dressed.  When we booked, we were told that there was no strict clothing code, but one rule – no shorts after 6pm.  If this ever was a rule, it was completely ignored: people turned up for dinner in skimpy shorts or scruffy jeans, often with trainers and/or baseball caps.  And the average age was much lower than we had anticipated.  There were a few ‘oldies’ like us, and some middle-aged people, but the majority of passengers were young.  It was more of a young person’s ‘booze cruise’ than anything else, and this was reflected in the noise levels and the entertainment on offer.

Our ship was operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines out of Miami, but we did not encounter a single American (or Norwegian!) among the crew.  The majority of crew members (and officers) came from China, Indonesia, the Philippines or Croatia. One waiter told us that they sleep on the ship – and therefore we assume do not need a green card.

Waiting to sail

Waiting to sail

Leaving Miami

Leaving Miami

Atlantic sunset

Atlantic sunset

The islands

Bahamas coat of arms

Bahamas coat of arms

Freeport, Grand Bahama, through our porthole

Freeport, Grand Bahama, through our porthole

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first call was at Grand Bahama Island.  According to the guidebook we’d borrowed from the library, the main point of interest was Lucayan National Park, so we headed there.  It was a long way from the port, so our taxi was not cheap, even though we were able to share it part of the way. At Lucayan we did a short trail which took us to two sea caves, and then another trail which took us through mangrove swamps down to Gold Rock Beach.  This was stunning – a strip of pure white sand between pine trees and the brilliant turquoise sea.  Some dead trees made it really picturesque, and we spent most of our time there walking along the beach and taking photos.

Ben's Cave, Lucayan NP

Ben’s Cave, Lucayan NP

Inside one of the caves

Inside one of the caves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gold Rock beach

Gold Rock beach

Beach debris

Beach debris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

aa17-jan-11

Beach bloke

Beach bloke

 

 

 

 

 

 

aa17-jan-13

Next day we were at Nassau.  We left the ship early and spent the morning exploring the town.  We visited John Watling’s Distillery, two cathedrals (Anglican and RC), the Queen’s Staircase and Fort Fincastle.  After lunch back on the ship, we did a separate excursion to Paradise Island, across the bridge from Nassau town. En route we detoured to Potter’s Cay, where men gut the conchs which have been caught, and which are then cooked and eaten at a string of colourful cafés. On Paradise Island we visited the Versailles Gardens, and then strolled along Cabbage Beach.

Nassau police

Nassau police

Queen Victoria and 50 years of majority rule

Queen Victoria and 50 years of majority rule

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the Anglican cathedral

Inside the Anglican cathedral

Street mural

Street mural

 

 

 

 

 

Government House

Government House

 

 

 

Colourful buildings

Colourful buildings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Watling's distillery

John Watling’s distillery

Inside the Catholic cathedral

Inside the Catholic cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Curly-tailed lizard

Curly-tailed lizard

Gorge leading to Queen's Steps

Gorge leading to Queen’s Steps

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fort Fincastle

Fort Fincastle

 

 

 

 

Atlantis on Paradise Island

Atlantis on Paradise Island

 

 

 

Cruise ships in Nassau harbour

Cruise ships in Nassau harbour

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seafood stalls by the water

Seafood stalls by the water

Empty conch shells

Empty conch shells

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Versailles Gardens

Versailles Gardens

 

One of the statues

One of the statues

 

 

 

 

 

 

View towards the pergola

View towards the pergola

 

Cloisters in Versailles Gardens

Cloisters in Versailles Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cabbage beach

Cabbage beach

 

 

 

Drinks on the beach

Drinks on the beach

 

 

 

 

Beach family

Beach family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refreshing mudslide at the end of the day

Refreshing mudslide at the end of the day

We were supposed to spend our third and final day on Great Stirrup Cay, a small private island in the Berry Islands group.  We had not realised that we would need to transfer to small boats to reach the island.  We were given instructions, and dressed in our beach clothes, but just as we reached the exit it was announced that the island was ‘cancelled’ – the weather was too windy for the tender boats to make it safely across the water.  So we had to spend the whole day confined to the ship – exactly what had always made us reluctant to go on cruises.

So near and yet so far

So near and yet so far

On board entertainment

On board entertainment

So would we do it again?  In a word, no.  We don’t regret at all going on this cruise.  We went to a country we hadn’t previously visited.  We enjoyed Nassau, and the Lucayan National Park. We had the experience of being on a big liner. It was a great-value trip, considering how much we ate and drank.  But the trip – particularly the last day – confirmed our feeling that cruising is not really for us.

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The Pineapple has Landed

The days leading up to Christmas were busy for us, with all our regular activities plus special events (some but not all Christmas-related).

Cute visitor to Central Park, but we don't know what it is

Cute visitor to Central Park, but we don’t know what it is

The weekend before Christmas

On Saturday 17th we went to see the Sarasota Ballet at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Centre (a huge auditorium which was almost packed). Jewels (which was new to us) comprises three short ballets, Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds. Although it is not Christmas-themed, the dancers’ costumes, in appropriately colours, gave it a Christmassy feel.

Next day we did our usual Sunday morning beach walk, this time on Lido beach.  At the southern tip, we saw a large number of vultures, in the air and also on the sand (finishing off a dead fish). A girl on a stand-up paddleboard had found an enormous hermit crab.  Later, while having lunch at the beach café, we saw a large white heron patrolling the tables. People eating were obeying the signs requesting them not to feed the wildlife, but that did not stop the heron, who managed to grab a basket of chips (fries) off one of the tables; they spilt all over the floor, and were then quickly demolished.  Ideal food for herons???

Lido Beach

Lido Beach

Vulture in flight

Vulture in flight

Vultures on the beach

Vultures on the beach

Hermit crab

Hermit crab

Hmmm - interesting ...

Hmmm – interesting …

Herons like chips as well as fish

Herons like chips as well as fish

Christmas comes

Christmas began for us on Friday 23rd December, when we invited some friends and neighbours to join us for drinks and nibbles (it was going to be sherry and mince pies, but the menu got broadened a bit).  A dozen people came, and we had a great time.  We feel lucky to have got to know so many nice people here.

Preparations for the Christmas bash

Preparations for the Christmas bash

A convivial gathering

A convivial gathering

Christmas Eve started well.  In the morning Ian went to his life drawing group, and Sandie to the farmers’ market downtown.  She enjoyed sitting in the sun, cappuccino in hand, listening to a steel band play Christmas songs.  The weather was warm, so after lunch we went to the pool.  Then disaster struck…

At the nearby Asolo Theatre, there is always a great musical production in November/December; this year is was Guys and Dolls.  We thought it would be nice to go on Christmas Eve, and Ian had booked seats online.  When he checked the time of the evening performance, he discovered there wasn’t one – the seats were for the 2pm matinee, which by then was almost over, and the box office was closed.  So the tickets we’d paid for were useless, and we had nothing booked for the evening. We ended up going to see the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One.

Christmas Day

When in Florida, the obvious place to spend Christmas Day is at the beach.  And luckily the weather played ball – it was one of the warmest days this winter.  So after skyping our family back in Gloucestershire, we drove up to Anna Maria Island, and parked at Manatee Beach.  This is our favourite local beach, and we knew that the café there would be functioning.  When we arrived, about 10.30, it was in full swing. Santa and friends were dong the rounds (Santa later gave presents to all the children there) and there was live Christmas music.  The place was packed – only problem was that Ian had to queue half an hour to order our food, while Sandie guarded a vacant table she had spotted.   She had ‘all you can eat’ pancakes, while Ian had a large vegetable omelette with all the trimmings.

Santa's here

Santa’s here

Christmas music

Christmas music

All-you-can-eat pancakes

All-you-can-eat pancakes

After we’d eaten, we went for a leisurely stroll along the beach, as far as Bridge Street.  We were amused to see that a lot of people had brought Christmas trees to the beach – many small ones, but some really large.  We also saw lots of snowmen – made of sand, of course.  We had drinks in a Bridge Street bar, and took the trolley back to Manatee Beach.  As the café was closing at 5, we had a very early dinner – but after our huge breakfast we were still not hungry, so ended up sharing.  Then we went back to the sea to watch the sunset.

Christmas trees like to come to the beach too

Christmas trees like to come to the beach too

Don't ask

Don’t ask

Must be Florida

Must be Florida

Manatee Beach sunset

Manatee Beach sunset

Boxing Day

After picking up a leaflet advertising a fantastic light display there, Sandie suggested going to St Petersburg for the day.  On the way we stopped at the Asolo box office, and to our amazement – and their credit – they exchanged our wasted tickets.  By then the show had only a week to run, and most performances were almost sold out, so we got tickets for the matinee on New Year’s Eve.

We decided to adapt a walk we’d found to make it circular, and take us to parts of St Petersburg we hadn’t previously seen.  We walked north via Mirror Lake and Crescent Lake.  We emerged on the main road opposite the Sunken Gardens; we hadn’t planned to go there, but as we were passing….  The place seemed vaguely familiar, and we decided we must have visited once before.  Later, Ian found a photo dated 27 December 1982 – almost exactly 34 years earlier!

St Petersburg

St Petersburg

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

Flamingo at Sunken Gardens

Flamingo at Sunken Gardens

December 2016

December 2016

December 1982

December 1982

We continued north to the Coffee Pot Bayou, and turned south following a path between posh houses and their dockside moorings.  When we reached the main bayfront area, we stopped for drinks in a café and decided to stay for an early dinner.  By the time we’d finished it was dark, so we could enjoy the Christmas lights while heading back to our car.  Then it was a short drive to see the illuminations which had prompted us to go to St Petersburg.  These were amazing – so many lights packed into quite a small area – and well worth seeing.  It was provided by a church, and what amused us was the combination of fundamentalist Christian messages with decidedly secular or fantasy figures, such as penguins on a North Pole Beach, Snoopy on a motorbike and of course Father Christmas.

Coffee Pot Bayou

Coffee Pot Bayou

St Pete sunset

St Pete sunset

Giant Christmas card

Giant Christmas card

St Pete lights (1)

St Pete lights (1)

St Pete lights (2)

St Pete lights (2)

Church lights (1)

Church lights (1)

Church lights (2)

Church lights (2)

Church lights (3)

Church lights (3)

Church lights (4)

Church lights (4)

Church lights (5)

Church lights (5)

More Christmas lights

In Sarasota each December there is a ‘trolley tour of lights’ which takes you past some of the best decorated houses in the city.  We booked too late for the pre-Christmas tours, but managed to get seats on Thursday 29th.  The trolley bus was packed, there was Christmas music playing, and the driver told jokes, all adding up to a jolly atmosphere.  The Christmas lights and inflatables were amazing – only problem from our point of view was the difficulty of taking night shots from a moving trolley.  We were glad when, at one house, we were allowed off briefly to admire Santa’s apartment which had been created in someone’s garden, complete with kitchen, dining room and lounge where Santa was watching TV!

Sarasota trolley

Sarasota trolley

Santa's backyard

Santa’s backyard

Santa's home

Santa’s home

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New Year’s Eve

In the morning, being Saturday, we went as usual to the library and the farmer’s market downtown.  We were surprised to find a funfair – adult and children’s rides – crammed into the small space outside the library.  And the market was even more crowded than usual.

Fairground at the library

Fairground at the library

In the afternoon we went to see Guys and Dolls, and were very glad we hadn’t missed the opportunity, as it was a brilliant show.  The singing was great, the dancing spectacular and the stage set impressive.  We enjoyed every minute.

We went back downtown in the evening. This was our first New Year’s Eve in Sarasota (last year we were at Epcot) so we did not know what to expect.  One section of Main Street had been closed to traffic, and there were stalls selling food and drink, three sound stages, rides – and crowds of people.  We managed to get a table for a late dinner at Barnacle Bill’s; we went on the Big Wheel, and Sandie went on the Paratrooper (one of her favourite rides) for the first time in years.

Sarasota Big Wheel

Sarasota Big Wheel

View of downtown from the wheel

View of downtown from the wheel

Sandie on the Paratrooper

Sandie on the Paratrooper

What we gather happens in many Florida towns at New Year is that a large object is ‘dropped’ at midnight.  In Sarasota, this is a giant illuminated pineapple, suspended in the sky until it makes its descent (rather more slowly than we expected) into a cordoned-off landing area (no danger of hitting revellers on the way).  Crowds watched, but made surprisingly little noise: there was no countdown, no cheering, and no singing Auld Lang Syne (though there were some fireworks on the bay afterwards). But the pineapple has definitely landed, so it must be 2017.  We wish all of our readers a very happy new year.

The Pineapple

The Pineapple

The Pineapple has landed

The Pineapple has landed

Fireworks!

Fireworks!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

 

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The Keys to Christmas

By December Ian was much better, so ‘normal’ life resumed. On the 1st we went to the ‘Holiday Splendor’ evening at the Ringling complex.  This is an annual event which we really enjoyed two years ago.  Watching sunset on the bayfront with Christmas music and aglass of wine in hand is a magical experience.   The Ca d’Zan mansion is beautifully decorated, and we were able to visit the circus museum too.  We were a bit disappointed that there were no dancers this year, but music in the museum courtyard was atmospheric as ever.

Ca d'Zan at sunset

Ca d’Zan at sunset

Sunset on Sarasota Bay

Sunset on Sarasota Bay

Inside Ca d'Zan

Inside Ca d’Zan

In the courtyard

In the courtyard

Off to Key West

Next day we set off on our postponed trip to Key West.  First stop was Cape Coral, where we visited our friends Robert and Kathy.  We had lunch at a waterfront restaurant and then visited some of the highly decorated arts and craft shops in Matlacha nearby.  Most things were far too expensive for us, but we bought a Christmas decoration for our collection, and had some delicious ice creams.

At Matlacha

At Matlacha

Ice cream time

Ice cream time

In the evening we all went to Sanibel Island for the Luminary Festival, something we’d discovered three years ago.  Sadly there was no trolley this time, and not so many choirs.  But the shops were open, the decorations were good, and there was plenty of free food and wine!

Sanibel Luminary (1)

Sanibel Luminary (1)

Sanibel Luminary (2)

Sanibel Luminary (2)

Sanibel Luminary (3)

Sanibel Luminary (3)

Next morning we said farewell to our friends and drove down to the Keys – a long journey, so we had another overnight stop in Key Largo.  On our way along the Keys we made various stops, including Anne’s Beach (narrow and not much sand, but we saw lots of impressive mangrove roots and watched the kite surfers) and Sombrero Beach on Marathon, where there is more space to walk or just sit in the sun.

Sunset at Key Largo

Sunset at Key Largo

It's not easy being green

It’s not easy being green

Kite surfer

Kite surfer

We stayed two nights in Key West itself.  As we’d visited nearly all the historic sites on previous visits, we spent most of the time relaxing.  We did visit the enormous cemetery, and although the mausoleums were not too elaborate we were impressed by the large iguanas there. In any case, the highlight of Key West is the nightlife: watching the sun set at Mallory Square and sampling the numerous restaurants and bars.

Hogsbreath Tavern performer

Hogsbreath Tavern performer

Hemingway's favourite bar

Hemingway’s favourite bar

Cemetery iguana

Cemetery iguana

Key West Christmas

Key West Christmas

Duval Street

Duval Street

Mallory Square sunset

Mallory Square sunset

On December 6th we set off on our return journey.  We spent some time on Bahia Honda, the most beautiful of the Keys in our opinion.  Overnight this time was a motel in Homestead, the first town you reach when back on the mainland.  Next day, driving along the US41, we stopped briefly at the Oasis Visitor Center (to say hi to the alligators!) and then detoured to Marco Island.  We’d never been there before and were curious to see what it was like.  It appeared to comprise mainly flashy hotels with private beaches: the only public beach was tucked away, and was actually on the edge of a lagoon, which you had to skirt in order to reach the Gulf coast.  Nice when you got there, but there are plenty of other beaches in Florida which are just as good if not better, and less effort to reach!

Bahia Honda beach

Bahia Honda beach

Jellyfish at Bahia Honda

Jellyfish at Bahia Honda

Old Bahia Honda Bridge

Old Bahia Honda Bridge

Hi alligator

Hi alligator

Our final stop was in Venice, just 20 miles south of Sarasota.  We’d seen a coffee table we liked in a thrift shop there about three weeks earlier, and decided afterwards that it would be useful.  We were lucky – reached the shop just before they closed, and the coffee table was still there.  It joined all the other things in the back of our car, and we went on to visit our friends Sue and Ed, with whom we had a meal in a new local café.

Christmas is coming…..

Just in case you hadn’t realised! The morning after our return from the Keys, we went out to buy cards etc, and on the way back we bought our (real) Christmas tree.  In the afternoon we decorated it and Ian put up the Christmas lights on the lanai.

Christmas tree

Christmas tree

On Friday 9th Sandie did her shelving at the library, but had a mid-day break for the volunteers’ Christmas party.  She was amazed to discover how many volunteers there are.  That evening we both attended the Christmas party for Central Park 2, where we live.  The weather that day was not so good, so we were inside the clubhouse rather than out by the pool, but the food, drink and laughter was just as good.

CP2 Christmas party

CP2 Christmas party

Let the vino flow

Let the vino flow

Next day we went down to the Bayfront for the annual Sarasota Boat Parade of Lights.  There were lots of people, but we managed to find a good viewing spot.  When we watched the parade two years ago, the evening was chilly (by Florida standards) and we got quite cold waiting for the boats to arrive.  This year we timed it better, so we did not stand around for so long.  And we took warm clothes – but fortunately they were not needed this time!

Sarasota Boat Parade (1)

Sarasota Boat Parade (1)

Sarasota Boat Parade (2)

Sarasota Boat Parade (2)

Sarasota Boat Parade (3)

Sarasota Boat Parade (3)

Sarasota Boat Parade (4)

Sarasota Boat Parade (4)

 

 

 

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