On Tuesday 29 March we set off on a short camping trip, going north up the Florida coast. This was partly a nostalgia trip: there were a number of places we’d visited years ago that we were keen to see again. It was also a practice run for the longer camping trip we hope to do in the summer. We’d not been camping for nearly two years, and wanted to get back in the routine!
We are fair-weather campers – if the weather looks bad we stay at home or (if already on a journey) we find a motel. In any case, it’s not usually necessary to book campgrounds in advance. This time, however, we thought we should; it was the peak season in Florida, and there seemed remarkably few campgrounds with tent facilities on our route. So we were committed to going – and were apprehensive when we saw that the weather forecast was not good! Here’s what happened.
Tuesday. The weather was grey and cloudy, but at least there was no rain. We loaded the car and drove up the coast to Honeymoon Island State Park. We ate our picnic lunch and went for a very short stroll along the beach. Then the rain started!!! We waited a while, hoping it would stop (or at least ease) so that we could do one of the park trails, but no luck, so we returned to the main road and found the campground we’d booked.
On the way we debated what to do. We didn’t want to set up the tent in the rain – but neither did we want to pay for a motel, given that we’d already paid for the campground! The problem was solved when we saw that they had camping cabins: only one in fact, but luckily it was free and we were able to upgrade.
After setting up the cabin we drove into the nearby town of Tarpon Springs, which we’d visited at the end of 2003. First stop was a winery – but it was not open on Tuesdays! We parked at the sponge docks – Tarpon Springs is the centre of the sponge fishing industry, which was pioneered by Greeks and there is still a strong Greek community there. The restaurants serve Greek food and the many souvenir shops sell Greek- or sponge-related items. As it was still raining, we spent most of our time inside. We found a place where they did wine tasting, and later enjoyed a good Greek dinner.
Wednesday. We woke to a great improvement in the weather – blue sky and sun! We’d booked the campground for two nights, so we had another decision to make – stay in the cabin or put up our tent? We decided on the cabin, in case it rained again later in the day (and because we were feeling lazy).
We drove back to Honeymoon Island and took the ferry to Caladesi Island, as we’d done back in 1989, on a Florida tour with our three children. Caladesi is a small, beautiful island, which can only be reached by boat. We walked the 2.5 mile trail through the centre of the island, emerging at the white-sand beach. We walked north for a bit – to a very scenic stretch where the trees extend right into the water – and then south to the main beach area, near the ferry. Time on Caladesi is limited (if everyone spent all day there, the ferry could not get them back) so we had to be on the 2.30 boat. On the short crossing, we spotted dolphins, and the captain turned the boat so we could get a closer view.
Back on Honeymoon Island, the weather was still good, so we were able to do the walks we’d planned the previous day. The Osprey Trail certainly lived up to its name: we saw several ospreys, and even a juvenile bald eagle. We also saw armadillos and gopher tortoises! It was a great walk, and that night we were able to do some camp cooking for the first time on this trip.
Thursday. We continued our journey north, to Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park – another place we visited in 1989. But memories had faded, and in any case the park has changed a lot in the intervening years. It is now, as Ian said, ‘a refined zoo’, with lots of Florida animals and even more birds. In this setting, we could get quite close to the birds, and get better photos, but it somehow lacked the excitement of seeing them in the wild. The highlight of the park is its manatees, and we were able to watch some being fed, although the underwater observatory was disappointing.
From the park we drove to another winery – and discovered it had closed down! Then to our new campground, for our first night of ‘real’ camping. Our allocated site was perfect, but we thought the facilities very poor. Two years ago, we could erect our tent easily in ten minutes flat. We remembered the routine pretty well, although working out how the storm shield fitted was more of a challenge. The next task was blowing up the airbed. We had two pumps with us, one electric and one for the car. The site had no electricity, so it had to be the car pump – but that did not work. We were not sure whether the fault was with the pump, or the car. But a kind neighbour allowed us to experiment, and then – since the pump worked perfectly – blow up the mattress from his car. Since our camp cuisine is limited, it was bad news to find that our can opener did not work, but Ian coped by using a knife and a plastic hammer – and managed not to injure himself in the process.
Friday. We made an unplanned stop at Crystal River, which sounded attractive. After a brief stroll – and an excellent coffee – in the downtown area, we went to Crystal River State Park and did a boat trip. This was disappointing: the river is so wide that you see little but water, and the birds which the guide identified were tiny specks in the far distance.
We then headed for Cedar Key, a town which stayed in our minds from 1989 because it is quaint, and isolated: you have to drive miles to get there, and the road goes nowhere else – you would never pass through Cedar Key! There is a row of restaurants build on stilts at the water’s edge. The one where we had dinner in 1989 was closed for refurbishment, but we had a drink in the bar next door and later dinner in one of the other places.
During the day, we’d lost the sun, but it was still fine when we set up camp near Cedar Key. However…
Saturday. About 4am the threatened thunderstorm arrived – and how! The rain came down in torrents, with plenty of thunder and lightning, some very close. It was the first time our tent had been tested in a real storm, and it survived remarkably well. Strange as it may sound, we quite enjoyed the experience of being warm and cosy in bed, with the flashes and crashes going on all around us. However, we did not relish the prospect of leaving the tent!
By 8am it was still raining, and we decided we’d better get up. Luckily we had our rain capes in the tent, and there was a covered picnic area very close by. So we had breakfast there, and soon after the rain eased, and then stopped, so we were able to pack up the tent in the (more or less) dry.
After that we drove home, but with several stops on the way. First was Crystal River again, this time to visit the archaeological site, a pre-Columbian Indian mound complex which was moderately interesting. Next Homosassa Springs, where we took the opportunity of having another Greek meal. (The winery there was open, but had group tours going on, so we still could not visit.) Finally Dunedin, just south of Homosassa, which we visited in 2003. We had a stroll around the downtown and a drink before embarking on the final leg of our journey.