Florida

View from Calloway Peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the storm on the right caught up to us and rained on our hike back down

View from Calloway Peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the storm on the right caught up to us and rained on our hike back down

Karen on a boulder in the middle of a river, hiking with Megan in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Karen on a boulder in the middle of a river, hiking with Megan in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Boynton Beach, Florida is on our itinerary for two reasons: one, it is where Jim’s mom and stepdad live for the winter and two, Jim’s sister has a condo here that she graciously said we could stay in. After a few days of visiting with Jim’s family, Megan went up to Boone, NC for a long weekend to visit her friend Karen. They had a wonderful time hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, eating delicious food, and looking for the first of the blooming rhododendrons that blanket the hills. It was the first time since we left that Megan needed to wear long pants, socks, and a sweater—a delightful change for this girl who has gotten used to the heat. Meanwhile, back in Florida, Jim was joined by his sister Candy, her husband Bill, and his brother-in-law Dana. They all pitched in to close up his mom’s house and get the snowbirds and their dog packed up and on the way to Maine, where they will spend the summer.

Sawgrass prairie in S. Florida

Sawgrass prairie in S. Florida

Like everywhere else we have been, Florida is interesting! Being back in the US, we have had less to get used to, but many things here are very different than Oregon. Before we get into our life and adventures here, a little background and history. Florida is flat—really, really flat. In the weeks we have been here with all our exploring, we have ranged from sea level to about 15 feet above sea level. Also Southern Florida is a vast wetland. Given the lack of grand topography, elevation changes can be measured in inches. The ecosystem is different on the “high ground” which is only a few inches above the mean elevation of a given area. The lowest areas have standing water year round. Lake Okeechobee (in the middle of the peninsula) is slowly draining downhill, to the south. Water in the lake starts at 15 feet above sea level and will take about a year to travel a little over 100 miles from Okeechobee, through the Everglades, and out to Florida Bay (which is the body of water between the mainland and the Florida Keys). The Everglades is essentially a 50-mile wide river that is just a few inches deep! Given all this wet flatness, almost all the land that people live on has been man made. By digging a ditch, piling up the dirt, and diverting the water flow humans have been creating drier land to live, travel, and play on. Florida’s flora and fauna are unique because this is one of the few places in the world that tropical species and temperate species live side by side. The warm wet environment means life is abundant. Ponds teem with fish, reptiles, insects, birds, and plants. Tree trunks and branches are home to hundreds of air plants. Thousands of migratory birds spend part of the year in Florida.

This is a typical east Florida beach with white sand stretching on farther than the eye can see.

This is a typical east Florida beach with white sand stretching on farther than the eye can see.

We have settled into a nice rhythm. Each morning, we begin the day by swimming in the condo association’s pool. We’ve found a fruit and vegetable stand that keeps us stocked for breakfast smoothies, green salads, and watermelon feeds. We’re about a mile from the beach and regularly enjoying walking on the endless soft white sand, swimming in the warm breaking waves, ogling the mansions and gardens built right off the beaches, and sharing it all with the families in the area. Several times we have tried to snorkel but it is always disappointing and difficult in the waves. We learned how quickly and heavily the rain can come here; one walk turned into a wet squish as our clothes became entirely soaked in the first 3 minutes of the downpour. The clouds are constantly amazing and beautiful: small cumulous form off the coast and seem to come scooting over the land just above our heads. This is a car culture with very limited public transport so we have rented a car in order to take advantage of all there is to see around: nature preserves, parks, a Japanese garden, beaches, lakes, museums, etc.

The approach to a sinkhole in Fakahatchee Strand filled with alligators

The approach to a sinkhole in Fakahatchee Strand filled with alligators

We took a road trip through southern Florida, beginning by crossing what is called Alligator Alley to the west coast and dropping south to Everglades City. Our host recommended a hike in a local swamp: Fakahatchee Strand Nature Preserve. We drove on a dirt road seven miles to get to the trail head and didn’t see any other people out hiking. The Fakahatchee is known for being full of epiphytes, bromeliads, orchids, and royal palms. We hiked along an old raised path built for when they logged the old growth cypress out of the swamp. It was pretty fantastic to be in the swamps like this but the mosquitos were so plentiful we didn’t stop to take any pictures of the amazing plants and trees all around. We saw one water snake (not poisonous) and an alligator; actually, we smelled the alligator before we saw him on the side of the trail and nicknamed him “Ole Stinker.” A couple miles in we came to an old cabin by a sinkhole. Sinkholes occur in the limestone and can be almost 100 feet deep, even though this one was probably more like 10 feet deep. Right now the dry season is coming to an end, which means the swamp is drier than usual (I can’t imagine it with more mosquitos though!) which means that animals congregate to known water sources, like sinkholes. As we stepped out onto this little dock, it quickly became clear that the sinkhole was filled with alligators. Fortunately our dock was up off the water, so we felt safe, and in the hot afternoon sun, so the mosquitos left us alone. We stayed for close to an hour watching about 50 alligators swim around the pond. They were very active, swimming, splashing, feeding, posturing to each other. You can see a short video we took here and many photos under the  “Pictures” tab at the top of the page.

In Everglades National Park, the alligators can be found right on the edge of the trail

In Everglades National Park, the alligators can be found right on the edge of the trail

The next day we went into Everglades National Park. In a shorter hike there, we were overwhelmed with the quantity of life. The place was teeming with fish, alligators, turtles, birds, algae, plants, and tourists. The animals there are used to people so we were able to get quite close, not by trying, but because these critters live right on the side of the path.

Driving down the Florida Keys

Driving down the Florida Keys

After that, we headed south into the Florida Keys. The Keys are a chain of islands stretching over 120 miles south and west from Miami. In many places, the islands are about a block wide and in other places bridges span up to seven miles between islands. We did our duty by sampling multiple version of key lime pie. We spent a night in Key Largo and another in Key West. We went snorkeling at the fantastic John Pennekamp State Park, where we got close to many large barracuda, a stingray, and an endangered green turtle, large parrotfish, coral heads and many  more colorful fish.  To get there we took a boat five miles off shore yet our snorkel site was between two and eight feet deep and pretty well beaten by waves breaking on the reef.

As far south as you can get in the contiguous US. We didn't want to wait in line to take our picture like the couple in the background, so we got in on theirs instead.

As far south as you can get in the contiguous US. We didn’t want to wait in line to take our picture like the couple in the background, so we got in on theirs instead.

In Key West, we enjoyed the people watching, the art galleries, the old architecture, the infamous daily sunset celebration in Mallory Square, and the good food. It was a riot to watch the crowd gathering for the sunset; many buskers performed for tips while boats sailed back and forth in the channel behind them. Our host let us borrow beach cruisers and we joined the throngs of slow cyclists criss-crossing town. We toured the Audubon House and southernmost point of the contiguous US, where we were closer to Havana than Miami!

Riding beach cruisers in Key West. Check out the coconut cup holder, bell, and horn on the handlebars!

Riding beach cruisers in Key West. Check out the coconut cup holder, bell, and horn on the handlebars!

The Audubon House is a museum that once was the home of a wealthy Key West family who earned their fortune salvaging wrecked boats off the keys. Mr. Audubon himself once used part of a limb from a tree on the yard as a model for a drawing.The house contained a superb collection of first edition Audubons, artist proofs, and period furniture. Panels explained the history of Key West told through the story of one family; they lived in the house for four generations. The grounds were compact, peaceful, shady and had a nice garden of tropical plants.

Can you identify which one of these is the non-native invasive species? (Hint: it isn't an orchid)

Can you identify which one of these is the non-native invasive species? (Hint: it isn’t an orchid)

Sunset celebration at Mallory Square in Key West. Note the fire juggler on tall unicycle.

Sunset celebration at Mallory Square in Key West. Note the fire juggler on tall unicycle.

Two bridge fisherman in the Keys with a "keeper"

Two bridge fisherman in the Keys with a “keeper”

Can you spot the gar fish?

Can you spot the gar fish?

Can you spot the turtle?

Can you spot the turtle?

Can you spot the resting alligator?

Can you spot the resting alligator?

Can you spot the bird?

Can you spot the bird?

Can you spot the cypress knees? Cypress trees put up these odd growths; it is assumed they help stabilize the tree in the event of strong winds and soaked earth.

Can you spot the cypress knees? Cypress trees put up these odd growths; it is assumed they help stabilize the tree in the event of strong winds and soaked earth.

Can you spot the tree under the 1000 epiphytes growing on it?

Can you spot the tree under the 1000 epiphytes growing on it?

Can you spot the baby alligator?

Can you spot the baby alligator?

Can you spot the barracuda?

Can you spot the barracuda?

Can you spot the chemtrail in the sunset?

Can you spot the chemtrail in the sunset?

Can you spot the alligator?

Can you spot the alligator?

Classic grassy marsh with scattered palms

Classic grassy marsh with scattered palms

Airboats are a common way to get around the swamps because all you need to draft is a couple inches. We decided to not go on one and instead keep our hearing.

Airboats are a common way to get around the swamps because all you need to draft is a couple inches. We decided to not go on one and instead keep our hearing.

A lookout tower near Fakahatchee. Note the air conditioner box on the side and vultures roosting on the structure.

A lookout tower near Fakahatchee. Note the air conditioner box on the side and vultures roosting on the structure.

The largest alligator in the Fakahatchee sinkhole was at least 12 feet

The largest alligator in the Fakahatchee sinkhole was at least 12 feet

The bumps you see are the eyes of alligators

The bumps you see are the eyes of alligators

Royal palms are prolific native species in S Florida. They are also commonly planted in landscaping

Royal palms are prolific native species in S Florida. They are also commonly planted in landscaping

Everglades City was a sweet quiet town with empty lots, neat yards, and scattered houses. We guessed some of the empty lots in the middle of town tell of past hurricanes.

Everglades City was a sweet quiet town with empty lots, neat yards, and scattered houses. We guessed some of the empty lots in the middle of town tell of past hurricanes.

One of the bonsai trees at Morakami. A few were 400 years old.

One of the bonsai trees at Morakami. A few were 400 years old.

Museum at Morakami had displays on local history, and life in Japan (school, family life, transportation)

Museum at Morakami had displays on local history, and life in Japan (school, family life, transportation)

Yogic turtle practicing "up dog" at Morakami

Yogic turtle practicing “up dog” at Morakami

Morakami Japanese Garden

Morakami Japanese Garden

This iguana was in a park in downtown Fort Lauderdale

This iguana was in a park in downtown Fort Lauderdale

Sunset with the municipal water town in Boynton Beach

Sunset with the municipal water town in Boynton Beach

This nest was about 6 feet from a boardwalk in a local nature preserve

This nest was about 6 feet from a boardwalk in a local nature preserve

The wildlife at a local nature preserve was nonplussed by proximity to humans

The wildlife at a local nature preserve was nonplussed by proximity to humans

The Wakodahatchee Wetlands are the last step in the local water treatment plant's outflow. It is also a free country park with a  mile of boardwalk trails so people can observe the wildlife.

The Wakodahatchee Wetlands are the last step in the local water treatment plant’s outflow. It is also a free country park with a mile of boardwalk trails so people can observe the wildlife.

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Saint Lucia

Sunset view from our rooftop over Marigot Bay

Sunset view from our rooftop over Marigot Bay

We are currently in St. Lucia (pronounced LOO-sha), which is 90 miles south of Dominica. It is similar to Dominica in many ways: climate, overall size, mountainous terrain, mixed historic influences, escaped slaves hid in the interior, small villages, dependence on tourism, subsistence living, minibus public transport, and strong Catholic and Rastafarian presences. There are differences: more flat land, more than twice the population, many resorts catering to weddings and honeymoons, cruise boats visit year round, more signs of large-scale industry and corporate presence, greater wealth and infrastructure, and good bays for shipping and freighter traffic. Despite an unemployment rate of 20%, we have found the people to be happy, generous, and smart.

Traditional architecture and conch shell decorations on two small houses in Anse La Raye

Traditional architecture and conch shell decorations on two small houses in Anse La Raye

The history of St Lucia includes some remarkable stories. The Kalinago people here also fought with the colonialists, at one point selling them tracts of land then driving them back to the sea. Ultimately, the Kalinago fled, died off, or were all killed. The French and British both wanted St Lucia and it swapped hands 14 times in 150 years ending under British control in 1814. The French Revolution brought emancipation to the slaves—many of whom joined the French army in fighting against the British. When the British retook St Lucia in 1797, many blacks refused re-enslavement, some joined a black British regiment, and were then “repatriated” to Africa. In 1979, St Lucia was granted independence and is still a part of the British Commonwealth.

The street view of our house in Marigot

The street view of our house in Marigot

We are staying in a little house on a ridge in the village of Marigot. Marigot Bay, visible below us, is a deep, hidden, natural harbor. It is considered a hurricane hole. In the 1700s, they say the entire British fleet hid from the French in the bay by covering the entrance with palm fronds. Once the French sailed by, the British sailed out and destroyed them from behind. More recently, parts of Rex Harrison’s Doctor Doolittle were filmed here in 1967. Our AirBnb is owned by a local woman and located in the heart of the village. Her family has something like 10 houses in a row and we are in one of them. We do our shopping at the minimart owned by her mom and are looked after by the extended family. Due to the close proximity of our neighbors, we can always hear a chicken, a dog, a car horn, a conversation, or someone’s music—sometimes all at once. Interestingly, country music is incredibly popular, so more often than not what is being played loudly is country. We arrived with a few days of showers which was a pleasant break but it has been hot and dry since. The northern third of the island is in a drought and currently has water restrictions in place. The rainy season begins in May/June normally, so it hopefully is coming soon.

The boat Jim crossed the Atlantic in last year and her current crew

The boat Jim crossed the Atlantic in last year and 3/4 of her current crew

On our second visit to the local beach Jim recognized one of the boats anchored as the one he most recently sailed across the Atlantic on (from Tenerife to St. Martin in November 2013). We were able to contact the the crew by email and arrange a get together. What a small world! The next day we had coffee aboard the Outremer 45. Crew and boat appeared to be in excellent condition all having recovered from their trans-Atlantic. We shared our travel plans and benefitted from their insight into European travel.

Jalousie Beach and Sugarbeach Resort. Petit Piton is in the background. Near the beach is a typical local boat. Most are named. This one, on the bow is labelled "Mother's Blessing" and on the stern "I'm Sexy You Know It."

Jalousie Beach and Sugarbeach Resort. Petit Piton is in the background. Near the beach is a typical local boat. Most are named. This one, on the bow is labelled “Mother’s Blessing” and on the stern “I’m Sexy You Know It.”

In our time here, we have sought the ultimate snorkeling adventure, spending 2-3 hours in the water almost every day. We have found much joy in exploration and moving through the water, becoming stronger and sleeker swimmers. Topography above water becomes spectacular underwater and this coastline lends itself to caves, canyons, slots, blowholes and arches. Fish and coral are abundant and we have now become amateur experts at identification. Without an underwater camera or wanting to introduce ours to salt and sand, we have no pictures to share from these experiences. Some of the highlights include spotting a giant spiny lobster, being swarmed by curious Sergeant Majors, swimming with barracuda who were nonplussed to share the water with us, seeing flights of squid who let us circle and inspect them, chasing crabs, being included by small fish (one to four inches) in their schools apparently for their protection, seeing at least five types of eels, and getting dazzled by the iridescence of parrotfish, wrasse, damselfish, and many more.

Immanently defensible Pigeon Island near Rodney Bay

Immanently defensible Pigeon Island near Rodney Bay

We took a trip north to Rodney Bay. The majority of the people in St Lucia live there and it is the center for more affluent tourism, upscale resorts, and private villas. Seeing box stores, traffic jams, and so many white people, we felt like we were on a different island. We spent a morning walking the docks of the 280-slip marina and checking out boats. We walked around Pigeon Point looking at ruins and views from the forts used by pirates, the British, the French, and the Americans (in WWII). Then we got in the water, of course, and snorkeled along Pigeon Point.

The Pitons beyond St Lucia's second largest town, Soufriere.

The Pitons beyond St Lucia’s second largest town, Soufriere.

We also rented a car for a few days in order to head south. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road so it was an adventure. Fortunately traffic was sparse and roads are rough so slow can be normal; we did fine. We traveled to places renowned for snorkeling. In St Lucia all beaches are public but resorts like to build along the best beaches, so we often had to walk through a resort, which was interesting and slightly awkward as we packed in our own gear, water, and lunch. We did have lunch one day a place called Boucan, Hotel Chocolat. Everything the restaurant serves has cacao in some form included. It was delicious! St Lucia’s most iconic image is that of two very steep mountains, called the Pitons. We succeeded in checking out the Pitons from multiple angles and swimming at the base of one. They are awesome, astounding peaks.

In early May we head to Florida. Reminder: when we create a new post, we also add photos to the “Picture” tab up above. Take a look!

Marigot Bay. Visible in the foreground is the inner harbor, where the British fleet successfully hid from the French in the 1700s.

Marigot Bay. Visible in the foreground is the inner harbor, where the British fleet successfully hid from the French in the 1700s.

Inside the Cathedral in Castries. The fluting and rosettes on the columns are painted. The walls and ceilings are covered with murals too.

Inside the Cathedral in Castries. The fluting and rosettes on the columns are painted. The walls and ceilings are covered with murals too.

One of the depictions of Mary and baby Jesus in the Castries Cathedral

One of the depictions of Mary and baby Jesus in the Castries Cathedral

View from Boucan where we ate a chocolate lunch and ogled the Pitons

View from Boucan where we ate a chocolate lunch and ogled the Pitons

The first icecream truck that drove by our house. Note the cooler is a household chest freezer.

The first icecream truck that drove by our house. Note the cooler is a household chest freezer.

The second ice cream truck, which announced itself with the song Silent Night. Note it has two "portable" chest freezers and a shade roof.

The second ice cream truck, which announced itself with the song Silent Night. Note it has two “portable” chest freezers and a shade roof.

Our neighborhood in Marigot. The two near houses both appear to be unoccupied at present.

Our neighborhood in Marigot. The two near houses both appear to be unoccupied at present.

Interior view of our house in Marigot

Interior view of our house in Marigot

Just south of Marigot lies the Roseau Valley with more flat land and big agriculture (all bananas) than was apparent in Dominica

Just south of Marigot lies the Roseau Valley with more flat land and big agriculture (all bananas) than was apparent in Dominica

Four-inch caterpillar we commonly saw eating

Four-inch caterpillar we commonly saw eating

Bay at Anse La Raye in the background

Bay at Anse La Raye in the background