Saturday, May 31, 2008

18. St. Augustine - our oldest city

We learned in school about Chris Columbus discovering America in 1492. Nearly 30 years later, a group of settlers was greeted by friendly Indians when they landed at Plymouth Rock. They shared a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, corn-on-the-cob and pumpkin pie. My memory is a little hazy, but it was something like that. I also vaguely remember the name Ponce de Leon, but the history books didn’t give him the credit he deserved for his role in the history of Florida and the U.S. Here’s a little background:

Columbus landed in the West Indies and never actually reached the mainland. Ponce de Leon accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the “new world” in 1493. They landed in Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic. About 15 years later, Ponce was sent to explore and conquer the island that is now Puerto Rico. He succeeded and was appointed governor of the island. He later heard about a garden island called Biminy. It had a fountain of youth. He obtained a permit from King Ferdinand to look for the island. He set out with three ships and landed in what is now St. Augustine on Easter Sunday, 1513, thinking it was the island of Biminy. He named the land La Florida (the flower) and claimed the territory for Spain.

Near his landing location, Ponce de Leon found a large spring and a band of extremely health Timucuan Indians. They drank the water, lived twice as long as the average Spaniard, and grew to an average height well over six feet (Ponce was 4’-11”). He believed he had found the “Fountain of Youth.” He didn’t know that it was tribal tradition that the tallest man married the tallest woman and they gradually created a tall tribe. Ponce took vast amounts of the water back to Puerto Rico to drink and bathe in, and he lived 61 years, which was old for that time. He might have lived longer, but he died of an infection from a wound following a struggle with the Calusa Indians. They didn’t want Spanish settlers moving into their territory on the west coast of Florida and fought long and hard to keep them out.

Today, the Fountain of Youth Park is an interesting collection of historical data about Ponce de Leon’s life and discoveries, as well as the story of the Timucuan Indians. A celestial planetarium explains early astrological sailing techniques that Ponce used to find his way around, and there's a monument at the original landing site (photo). The spring has been preserved and all visitors get a free cup of water. We feel much younger now.

The first settlement of St. Augustine took place about 50 years after Ponce de Leon’s first visit. Another Spanish explorer, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, brought soldiers, priests and colonists to the site in 1565 and established what is now the oldest continually occupied European settlement in North America. During the next couple hundred years, the British, French and Spanish fought over the territory. In an attempt to save the city, walls and moats were built around it. The original gates to the city have been preserved (photo). Still, the city changed hands several times. Many settlers died and the community was burned down or severely damaged by Sir Francis Drake and others before finally becoming part of Florida and the United States.
We took the trolley tour of the city, did the walking tour of the old section and saw the oldest schoolhouse, oldest drugstore, first Catholic church and many other interesting buildings. The oldest house (below) was originally built in 1650 and rebuilt after the city was burned down in 1702.
The oldest masonry fort in the U.S. is the Castillo de San Marcos. It dates back to 1672 and is still standing solid on the waterfront. It was built with coquina, a soft shellrock formation that was mined nearby. The rock is full of shells and gets very hard when exposed to air. It was used extensively for foundations, walls, sidewalks and other purposes. A similar building material called tabby used oyster shells in its mix and was used primarily for walls.

Downtown St. Augustine is a grid of narrow streets. One street is only six feet wide. St. George Street (below) has been turned into a pedestrian-only street and is full of shops and restaurants. The less busy residential streets are quiet and full of character. Preservation is a high priority in St. Augustine. Strict design controls make sure that new development doesn’t corrupt the character of the town.
The most influential of early St. Augustine developers was Henry Flagler. He was also a railroad pioneer and co-founder of Standard Oil (with J.D. Rockefeller). The Flagler name is everywhere. One of his greatest achievements was construction of the Hotel Ponce de Leon. It was built in 1887 with amazing craftsmanship and intended for the rich and famous. Many Tiffany windows still surround the dining hall. Ornate murals, tile and hand-carved woodwork are everywhere. This was one of the first major buildings wired for electricity by Thomas Edison himself. The clock above the fireplace was made and installed by Edison. The hotel was originally wired for DC current and visitors were getting shocked. Since that wasn't acceptable, Flagler hired a staff whose only job was to turn light switches on and off. The hotel eventually deteriorated and was purchased by Flagler College which spent $23 million restoring the building. Today, it’s a beautiful showplace and a great campus for the 2,000 student private college.

A couple miles outside St. Augustine is Anastasia Island with long beautiful beaches. We packed the sunscreen, beach chairs, towels, sunglasses, etc., and set out for an afternoon of cooling off in the surf.
As we were leaving the beach, a big storm cloud was building off the coast. It dropped two tornado type funnels, like long black hoses. It was well off shore but caught the attention of everyone on the beach and even made the evening news on Jacksonville TV. You might be able to see it in the following photo. It got much closer, but we were driving away . . . fast.

On the way to the beach, we stopped at the St. Augustine Lighthouse (1874) and climbed the 219 steps to the top. Great views from up there.

We ended our stay in St. Augustine with a relaxing Memorial Day jazz concert in the plaza. The "Plaza de la Constitucion" was the first public space in the country. It's design was laid out in a 1573 Spanish ordinance that required "a prolonged square, the length equal to one and one-half times the width." The square was intended to be the center of the community with only businesses and churches facing it. Today it's still a beautiful plaza and the center of community activities. We had a great time in St. Augustine and recommend it highly as a vacation destination.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

17. Stennis and Kennedy Space Centers

While visiting Mississippi in April, we stumbled across the John C. Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis. We had never heard of it, so we looked into it and took the free tour of the facility. It was very interesting.

The Stennis complex was established in 1963. This is where NASA tests the large rockets that carry things into space and send astronauts to the moon and the space station. All the space shuttle engines are tested here before the launches. Because of the noise involved in testing, a huge amount of land was acquired and cleared of human habitation. A small town or two had to be relocated outside the noise buffer area.

As you might imagine, rocket engines are very loud and powerful. They burn a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at a temperature of about 6000 degrees. The three Space Shuttle main engines develop just over 37 million horsepower. One engine weighs one-seventh as much as a locomotive engine but delivers as much horsepower as 28 locomotives. It also has a high-pressure oxidizer pump that delivers the equivalent horsepower of 11 more. We got to see some of the test facilities, which look much like regular launch pads, but without the full rocket apparatus. There's lots of noise but nothing shoots into the sky (hopefully).
Lots of people work here. More than 30 other agencies conduct business at Stennis and the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command operates a world class oceanographic and meteorological center here. It was surprising to learn that more oceanographers work at Stennis than any other place in the world.

The Stennis facility has an impressive visitor center. We could walk through a mock-up of the International Space Station, get a close look at a Space Shuttle Main Engine and much more. As you can see, Bonnie took the controls of a Space Shuttle mock-up. It’s also a great place for kids to learn about space travel. School bus loads of kids arrive every day for tours.
After our eye-opening visit to the Stennis facility in Mississippi, we looked forward to a stop at Cape Canaveral in Florida to see the Kennedy Space Center where the rocket engines are put into action. Again, we were not disappointed. It was even bigger and better.

We got an early start and arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in time for the 10 am 2-hour bus tour of the site. We couldn't help but feel the history and importance of this place. This is where, on May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space and where John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth a year later. It took him only about five hours to go around three times. All NASA human space missions and Space Shuttle missions have lifted off from here, including those that failed. The following photo is launch pad 39-B where the Space Shuttle is launched. It's much larger than it appears on TV.
The two wide paths leading up to the launch pad are gravel tracks for the huge "crawler", which is a very heavy tracked vehicle. It's job is to move the rocket, in its upright position, from the assembly building to the launch pad. It moves very slowly and burns a gallon of diesel fuel every 42 feet. And we thought our RV was getting bad mileage!!! Next shuttle launch is on May 31.
We had hoped to see a launch pad and some buildings, but were blown away by the tour and the visitor center presentations. The space center is a huge sprawling complex of 140,000 acres of land, swamp, Atlantic beaches and waterways. It has two launch pads, one of the world’s longest runways (for shuttle landings), and the rocket assembly building (below) is the third largest building in the U.S. About 16,000 people work at the space center and, judging by the cars in the employee parking lots, they're paid very well.
The facility isn’t quite like Disneyland, but it does have a “Shuttle Launch Experience” ride that provides the feelings, sounds and experience of being launched (we didn’t do that one). The visitor’s center also includes museums, two IMAX theaters, a rocket garden (photo), lots of displays and hands-on things for kids and adults, restaurants and, of course, gift shops.
One of the most popular exhibits was a huge Saturn V rocket. That’s the one that sent 27 astronauts to the moon, including the first humans to land on the moon . . . Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin in 1969. The rocket is enormous. It’s 363 feet long and, when loaded, weighs as much as seven Boeing 747s. It’s hard to visualize how something that big could get off the ground. The earlier visit to the Stennis facility helped us comprehend the power of the engines.
We were surprised that such an intense, loud and dangerous facility was so closely integrated with the natural environment. But the center shares its property with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and nearly half of the Center is within the nationally designated Canaveral National Seashore. Throughout the base we saw heron, ibis and other birds, alligators, wild pigs and bald eagles. The tour guide pointed out a very large eagle’s nest that has been high in a big tree near the main road for 40 years. Even though a shuttle launch could blow the feathers off a duck a mile away, it seems that most wildlife survive and aren’t adversely affected by the occasional loud noise. Most of the time the area is very quiet, public access is restricted and most work is done indoors. It’s an amazing facility and a great place to spend a day.

The NASA space program has a very respectable safety record, but accidents have happened and lives have been lost over the years. It was good to see that the astronauts that lost their lives to fires, shuttle disasters and other mishaps were honored in a special memorial to their service.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

16. Just Another Week in Florida

There was no easy way to navigate from Dunedin around Tampa Bay. The bay can be crossed on any of several large bridges, but we prefer to avoid traffic and large bridges. So, we suffered through a couple hours of slow stop-n-go traffic on the major arterials. It was similar to driving from Everett to Tacoma on Highway 99. The urban area gradually faded away in the rear view mirror and we cruised on to our next RV park, located along the Peace River between the small towns of Wauchula (pop. 4,300) and Zolfo Springs (pop. 1,600).

Our main objective in Florida was to visit Pat and John in Punta Gorda. Pat and Bonnie are long-time friends, but hadn’t seen each other for 17 years. They welcomed us into their home for a couple days, fed us very well, and pointed us in the right direction for local sightseeing. We took a dip in their pool and spent some relaxing time on the patio overlooking the back yard canal and boats. John barbecued some pork ribs and brats, and Pat made a big dish of baked beans and served up a key lime pie for dessert. If that wasn’t enough, she also squeezed two quarts of very sweet delicious orange juice, right from their own tree. Ron loves good orange juice and polished it off in two days. Best we ever tasted.

We got a personal tour of Punta Gorda, including some shopping at the Fishermens Village (how about that fish?) and Bealls Outlet, where very low prices on clothing couldn’t be passed by. Punta Gorda received a direct hit from Hurricane Charlie in 2004. It removed many of the weakest older structures. Lots of attractive new development has filled in over the past four years. Pat and John’s home suffered some broken windows and doors and a damaged roof. Their “pool cage” (screened enclosure) was destroyed and more than a dozen palm trees and other trees and plants were lost. Fortunately, their house and its contents stood up very well.

About 40 miles south of Punta Gorda, Ft. Myers is home to the winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The properties are side-by-side and open to the public. We expected just another ho-hum house tour, but it was much more interesting than we thought it would be. We spent several hours there.

A little history: Edison and Ford were friends and business associates for many years. Ford worked in Edison’s electric company and Edison helped Ford get his car factory going. Edison visited the Ft. Myers area by boat in 1885, twenty years before there were roads or rails to the area. He liked it and bought 13 acres for a winter home (he lived in New Jersey). His architect designed and built two houses and a laboratory in Maine and shipped them to Florida by boat. They were assembled on the site and named Seminole Lodge. Henry Ford was one of the many famous guests that visited the lodge. Henry eventually bought the property next door and built his own winter home, called The Mangoes. The two properties are well preserved and full of interesting artifacts and history. Edison was a prolific inventor who received more than 1,000 patents. A museum includes many of his inventions.

Some of Edison’s botanical gardens still remain where he planted more than 17,000 different plant specimens. We got to see the preserved laboratory where he did research into plants and rubber production for friend Harvey Firestone.
Edison gave Harvey a small banyan tree from India in 1925. It was planted at Seminole Lodge. A statue of Thomas Edison stands under this tree, which now covers more than an acre and is the second largest banyan tree in the world.

It was interesting that Thomas Edison could work so hard, invent so many interesting things, and still have time to entertain, travel, and fish for tarpon off his long pier. He was an amazing guy!

We heard a lot about Sanibel Island. Since it was just south of Ft. Myers, we decided to see what it was all about. After paying a rather steep $6 toll to get onto the island, we found a beautiful public beach ($2/hr. parking fee) with clean sand and lots of nice shells. Ron burns easily, so we stayed just long enough for some shell collecting, wading and a little tanning. Sanibel is a fairly ritzy neighborhood. It was fun to go there once, but there are many other beaches that are just as nice . . . with free parking and no tolls.

We spent an entire week at the Peace River campground. It had a nice pool, shuffleboard and pickle ball courts, a nature trail along the river, and a lodge with internet access and other things to do. It was also close to Wauchula for shopping, bank, post office, etc., and to Zolfo Springs where we found an excellent restaurant with lots of food for very low prices. It’s 1970s/NASCAR d├ęcor wasn’t pretty, but the food was good and plentiful.

Twenty miles down the road is the town of Arcadia. We drove down there for the annual Watermelon Festival on May 17. It was a very nice event with the usual arts, crafts and food vendors, a very nice little classic car show and, of course, the watermelon eating and seed spitting contests.When we were done with all those exciting events and after eating our barbecued pork sandwiches and poking through a couple of the many downtown antique stores, we parked ourselves on the brick patio under the “Tree of Knowledge” and listened to some live music. [The tree got its name many years ago when townspeople came together under its broad branches to hear the local news, to hear a sermon or to have local meetings.] It was a very nice day in Arcadia.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

15. Florida's West Coast

We expected to see more Panama City type beaches as we continued along Florida’s west coast. But the highway is far from the shoreline and much of the area is heavily vegetated and protected. There are many wildlife refuges with names such as Lower Suwannee, Cedar Keys, Gulf Hammock, Homosassa Springs and Chassahowitzka. A portion of this area is known as the “Nature Coast”. Great place for birders. We saw lots of birds, too many gators, and came across this family of dolphins while on a boat ride.

Tarpon Springs is an interesting coastal town. It was once the center of sponge production. More than 100 years ago there was a labor shortage, so the owner of a Greek sponge company turned to his homeland for fresh workers. Many new sponge workers came here from Greece and other European countries to dive for sponges. Today, the community is proud of its Greek heritage. It maintains its character with lots of Greek restaurants, bakeries, stores and the largest Greek Orthodox church in the U.S. (Don't know the guy waving in the background)

Large fleets of sponge boats worked the gulf until a red tide killed off most of the sponge beds in the 1940s. It took about four decades for the beds to recover . . . but the sponge industry didn’t. Today, just a handful of sponge boats satisfy the market for “real” sponges, while cheaper synthetics have taken over most of the market. We took a boat tour of the Tarpon Springs harbor, saw some old shrimp boats (photo) and some of the beautiful homes that line the waterways on the way to Anclote Key. The old lighthouse, constructed in the 1890s, is still operating. It was fascinating to see and learn about sponges. We “soaked up” as much information as possible about the many different kinds. An excellent car-washing sponge could be purchased for about $8, but Ron decided to stick with his dollar store model (made in China).

A few remnants of past hurricanes still litter the byways. The owners of these have been piling up fines of $50/day for years but don't seem to be too concerned about it.
A little farther down the west coast we found a very nice RV Park in Dunedin (pronounced DUN-EE-DIN). The name comes from the Scots Gaelic “Dun Eideann” which, according to local authority, means Edinburgh (is that right, Melinda?). This is where the Toronto Blue Jays do their spring training. The city is also proud of its portion of the 39 mile Pinellas Trail, a walking/cycling trail system through several coastal communities. We took the Honda to a local car wash. The machinery broke down half way through and we weren't sure we'd ever get it out of there. But, after poking around in the gears with large bars, the guys got it going again and our car emerged extra clean.

Dunedin was a good jumping off location for side trips to various sites on the St. Petersburg peninsula, across the bay from Tampa. St. Petersburg was our first destination. We were impressed with its modern downtown, lots of new construction, and very little traffic congestion. We were amazed at how easy it was to get around, and to find a free on-street parking space right at the base of the 2,400 ft. city pier. At the far end of the pier is a large upside-down triangle shaped building that contains small shops, several restaurants, public observation decks and an aquarium. It's a beautiful pier but you don't see many tourists or other people in the photo. It's the off season and business is very slow.

Do you see what appears to be a hat floating in Tampa Bay? The hat once belonged to Ron. He bought it in Sandpoint, Idaho last August. As we were walking along the city pier, a gust of wind lifted the hat off his head and over the rail it went. A fisherman on the pier tried several times to snag it with his fishing line, to no avail. Fortunately, the first shop we came to at the end of the pier was a hat shop, so we both got new hats.

Old Fort DeSoto was built at the extreme south end of the peninsula. It’s now a public park that covers five interconnected islands and 1,136 acres of parkland and some of the best beaches in the state. We spent some time there wading and relaxing.

On our last evening in Dunedin, we went out to Honeymoon Island to watch the sunset. It’s a popular activity and the roads and beaches were very busy. It was a nice lazy way to end our stay in the Tampa Bay area.