After several weeks home for the holidays, we resumed the RV life in Florida on Monday, January 7. A video link is at the bottom of this post if you’d rather just look at the scenery. :)
We started off with 2 state parks in central Florida. First was a night at Lake Louisa (restocking the fridge and getting our bearings) and three nights at Hillsborough River.
Lake Louisa is a nice little park between two lakes, neither of which is Lake Louisa. After an overnight there, we drove to the actual Lake Louisa to have lunch and walk some trails near the water. The lake has an unusual dark reddish tea color. They say it’s due to tannic acid, and not harmful to people or wildlife. Mark was surprised to see a map showing nearby Lake Minnehaha, having grown up not far from Minnesota’s Minnehaha Falls. He thinks the name Minnehaha (laughing waters) makes more sense for falls than lakes!
Hillsborough River State Park
Next we headed to Hillsborough River State Park, a short drive southwest. Hillsborough has many easy hikes by the river and a nearby historic fort, Fort Foster. We also engaged in some of our first substantial “campground culture” including a pot luck dinner with about 30 other guests and a “campers coffee” with donuts, park info and Q&A.
We met some nice people at the potluck dinner and had some good discussions about things to do in the area. We got more than one recommendation to visit the Ybor historic district in Tampa so we added that to our agenda. The next morning we checked out the campers coffee and donuts event where we learned many statistics about the Florida state park system, including history and finances (zero tax dollars, entirely funded by camping fees!)
After the campers coffee, Mark joined a group from the campground on a tour of nearby Fort Foster, a military outpost during the years of conflict with Native Americans. The death rate was quite high, not from fighting – but rather from insect borne disease! The medicine of the time was primitive (bloodletting, quinine, amputations without anesthetics), and they eventually had to close the fort because it was such a death trap.
After Hillsborough we drove straight to Ybor – a neighborhood of Tampa that’s become an interesting historical area. Ybor was founded on cigar production by a Cuban who emigrated first to Key West, and then when labor strikes proved too troublesome, moved operations to Ybor. The factory was so successful, the area was a huge boom town, with massive growth and immigration. It was the start of what is now Tampa. We toured the Ybor museum and an original cigar factory worker’s home, illustrating life back in the days of the cigar boom, which started in the 1890s. We also had our first cuban sandwich of the trip. It’s a local specialty and did not disappoint.
Honeymoon Island / Dunedin
We booked 3 nights at an RV park just to the north of Dunedin (“Duh nee din”) which is a cute town on the gulf coast just west of Tampa, An excellent bikeway – The Pinellas Trail – stretches almost 40 miles from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg and we used it for our two major outings in the area. The first was a day on Honeymoon Island. If was an easy 3 miles on the wide and flat paved trail, then a scenic ride out on the causeway to Honeymoon island. Honeymoon Island has 2 parts, one of which we enjoyed. The enjoyable part was to the west, a long stretch of white sand beach with plenty of trees right up to the shoreline, which provide cover for the “honeymooners”. We walked at least a mile northward. It felt secluded there despite its popularity on that warm weekend afternoon. We’re not sure how many actual honeymooners the place attracts, but a wedding was performed on the beach that day. We saw the bride and groom posing for wedding photos on our way out.
Less enjoyable for us was the nature preserve on the eastern fork. It started off fine, with a maze of trails we rode through on our bikes. After about 20 minutes we reached a dead end where a bald eagle was in his nest. Cool. But on the way out the pleasant trail turned nasty. Suddenly we were being bitten by flying insects. We hadn’t prepared for bugs! So we fled in haste, swatting away what we could. But escape wasn’t so easy! We encountered multiple “trail closed, do not enter” signs blocking our exit path.These eventually forced us in a big loop back to the trail end, where we found the crew putting out the signs! At that point we decided it would be “safest” to try to retrace our steps back the way we came in, only to find some of *those* trails shut down too. After a long ride down an alternate trail, we hit a long patch of deep sand, which was impossible to ride on! We dismounted and pushed our bikes through the (seemingly endless) sandy stretches, wondering whether it was too late to turn back and try yet another exit path. But we forged ahead, *finally* finding our way out, hot and sweaty and bug bitten. Ugh! What a mess! Lesson learned: Always keep bug spray in the backpacks!
The next day we took our bikes on the Pinellas trail again, this time for the 6 mile ride into Dunedin’s funky and slightly hipsterish downtown. We found a bike rack right near the trail, and locked up the bikes to explore on foot. The place was hopping with activity, with lots of restaurants, pubs, and specialty shops. After walking down to the docks, and winding through several blocks, we found ourselves at the Dunedin Brewery for a flight of their beers and a bite to eat. They claim to be the oldest microbrewery in Florida, founded in 1995. That’s 10 years after Boston Beer Co, six years after Cambridge Brewing Co. so I guess Boston was ahead of the curve. Anyway, Dunedin is pretty nice. We could see ourselves taking an extended vacation here someday. (wait, do you need to be working to have a “vacation”?)
Oscar Sherer State Park / Osprey
We stayed at Oscar Sherer campground in Osprey for 2 days. Friends Jeff and his wife Monica were staying just a couple miles away in the same town (Jeff is a former HP co-worker of Mark’s). We spent a fun and active day together. We started out in the morning with a bike ride on a rail trail connected to our campground. After a lunch break back at their place, we headed to Casey Key where we relaxed near the water. Finally, we drove among beautiful waterfront mansions to dinner at a seafood restaurant.
Our main “bucket list” item for Florida was to see Key West. We lucked into campground reservations at 2 state parks for a total of 4 days on the Keys. John Pennekamp State Park is on Key Largo and Bahia Honda State Park is farther west on Big Pine Key. They served mostly as home base for two trips to Key West. After an overnight in Key Largo, we checked into Bahia Honda and got on a bus to Key West, arriving late afternoon.
We spent a while wandering around, passing Harry Truman’s Little White House, and the Hemmingway house, but since it was getting late we didn’t tour either one. We headed for the “southernmost point” in the US, watched the sun set from a pier, then had an excellent dinner at a restaurant adjacent to it. We were lucky to get a table at the water’s edge where we watched the sea and glowing sky gradually dim. Just beautiful.
The next day, we opted to drive the RV most of the way to Key West (the bus had been painfully slow) and then bike the rest of the way in. We walked a lot, down to Fort Zachary Taylor, back to the Key West lighthouse, just enjoying the day. We decided to head to Mallory Square, one of the most popular sunset watching locations in Key West. Quite a nice spot with boats passing back and forth, clouds billowing, street performers on the boardwalk, and general merriment. We got a few pictures of the sun lowering, but we were robbed of a real sunset, as a low cloud bank covered the sun just 10 minutes before sunset. :( We finished the evening with a nice meal, and took our time strolling through the bustling streets. We noticed a few sprinkles, but weren’t too worried. Rain wasn’t predicted for over an hour, plenty of time to get back to our bikes and ride back to the RV. Right? Wrong! The sprinkles turned into a steady rain. The bikes were 1/2 mile away. We started walking fast, getting wetter and wetter. In haste, we unlocked the bikes, preparing for a drenching ride back to Wandah. But, we lucked out!! The rain let up again, and we had a mostly dry (but very windy) ride. We wasted no time getting the bikes on the rack, and ducking quickly inside the warm, dry RV. Whew!
While we were in the Keys, we got the call that our RV parts were in, and we could bring it in for service Monday morning. So on Sunday we drove 5 hours to a campground near the RV dealership in Winter Garden to prepare Wandah for the drop off. That involved quite a logistical dance of its own. The fridge and freezer had to be emptied/defrosted, grey and black water tanks emptied, bikes and bike rack taken off the vehicle, clothes packed and rental car picked up.
After dropping off Wandah, we drove to Icon Park in Orlando to relax in the sun, see a movie (Little Women), be lifted 450 feet in the air on little chairs hanging from chains (the Star Flyer), have a nice dinner, and do a wine tasting at Coopers Hawk. The tasting included 8 wine choices, but by #6 we were feeling too full (and buzzed frankly) so we called it a night. (Yes, we’re getting old!) We didn’t even secure a hotel until after 8 pm. No worries, there were a dozen to choose from.
We’ll end this post’s narrative here. Gluttons for punishment are welcome to attempt to endure a 7+ minute video with scenes from the above adventures. You’ve been warned!
We’re currently on hiatus from the RV trip, visiting friends and family. We’ll pick up the story once we get Wandah back. We plan to head toward the panhandle and then along the gulf coast toward Texas. See you then!