Exploring Stephen Foster Folk Culture State Park, Florida

🎶 🎹 Way down upon the Suwannee River, far far away 🎹 There’s where my heart is turning ever, there’s where the old folks stay 🎶. I grew up learning Stephen Foster songs and remember playing a few of them on the piano. Foster was a famous American composer who lived from 1826 – 1864. In his short life time, he wrote the music and words to over 200 songs including “Oh Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Old Folks at Home,” which is also known as “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River.”

The Suwannee River is located at this state park which pays tribute to Stephen Foster and one of his most famous songs. One would think that a Florida state park dedicated to him would mean that Foster was a Florida native, resident or had been a regular visitor, but in traveling we have find out some things are not what they seem. Foster never visited Florida or even saw the Suwannee River. So the question is, why would he use it in a song?

Suwannee River

Stephen Foster was born and lived outside of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Since many of his songs had southern themes, I assumed that he was from the South, yet he never lived there. One day in 1851 while writing “Old Folks at Home,” he went to the office of his older brother named Morrison who worked at a cotton mill in Pittsburg. He asked him if he knew a good two syllable river name in the South that would fit in his song. His brother suggested two which Stephen rejected and they got down an atlas to look for another one. Morrison’s finger fell on the Suwannee River in Florida and Stephen knew he had found the right one. He changed the spelling to “Swanee” to better fit the verse. This once obscure river was soon to become famous around the world.

The Suwannee River begins in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and meanders south through the Florida panhandle before emptying into the Gulf

In 1935, the Florida legislature designated “Old Folks at Home” the official state song. Due to concerns that the song romanticized slavery, some of the words were altered before it was adopted. In 1950 this state park was created to honor not only Stephen Foster, but also to promote folk culture. In 1953, the Florida Folk Festival was first held here and has continued each year on Memorial Day weekends with music and crafts. The park reports it is the longest running state folk festival in the nation.

Front entrance of the state park museum building

During our visit to Florida in February 2018, one of my favorite places to explore were the state parks. We visited a number of them located on the Gulf of Mexico, but this was the only one we visited in the far northern part of the state away from the Gulf. When I found out about this park and that it was “sort of” on our way to St. Augustine, I knew I wanted to visit and learn more about Stephen Foster. The park has exhibits and artifacts in a museum housed in a beautiful building with antebellum architecture built in 1948.

Inside, one of the major displays we found was made up of dioramas with scenes, moving figures and music inspired by Foster’s songs. Lots of work and painstaking detail went into them with 14 artists spending nearly two years creating the first eight. One person worked full time for nearly eight years. Everything was handmade especially for the diorama – for example the piano in “Jeanie” was hard carved from solid black walnut. The first rows of cotton in “Way Down” have hand formed stems, leaves and cotton bolls attached.

Foster wrote this song about his wife
This song became the state song of Kentucky in 1928.

One of the most beautiful parts of the museum were the two large decorated rooms with rare and historic pianos. There is even a piano that Stephen Foster once played donated to the state park by a great-granddaughter.

Stephen Foster’s piano
Antique piano with mother of pearl keys
The decorated Museum features historic pianos

Another piece of Foster furniture can also be found here. His niece, daughter of Stephen’s brother Morrison wrote a letter regarding how the song came about and the importance of the desk to the family: “This desk was always in our home and I can attest that on many occasions I have heard my father caution me and my brother never to let anything happen to this old desk for it was the one on which your uncle Stephen wrote the song Way Down Upon de Swanee Ribber.”

Stephen Foster’s note for “Old Folks at Home”

During his musical career, Stephen partnered with Christy’s Minstrels, a musical troupe who performed his songs. He sold the rights of his “Old Folks at Home” song to Christy for $15.00 and it became very successful and popular. Foster never received any credit for writing it until after his death. He was only 37 years old when he passed away from complications after a fall in New York City. When he died on January 13, 1864, he was almost penniless with a mere 38 cents found in his pocket.

Located in the park is a 97 bell carillon in a 200 foot tower that plays Stephen Foster songs throughout the day. It is considered the world’s largest tubular bell carillon. Well, songs usually play but unfortunately when we visited, the tower was needing renovation and all was silent 😔. Inside the building we did find other music to listen to. A park volunteer gave us our own private concert playing the dulcimer as well as the piano. Other exhibits regarding the carillon and Foster can be found here.

Carillon Bell Tower

Since the park also supports folk art and culture, there is an area of small buildings devoted to artisans, called the “Craft Square.” We visited a few of them although some were closed up for the day.

The Craft Square

We ended our day with an evening jam session held in a community room. This Friday night bluegrass jam was open to anyone who wanted to bring their instrument or just listen, which is what we did. Mark and I have always enjoyed these jam sessions during our travels and this one was enjoyable as well.

I think that is it for catching up on our Florida travels from two years ago. Until next time!

Exploring Wakulla Springs State Park and St. Marks Wildlife Refuge

Wakulla Springs State Park

The State of Florida boasts the largest number of fresh water springs in the United States as well as the world. In 2001, the Florida Geological Survey reported there were at least 700 springs. One is located at Wakulla Springs State Park and while staying in Tallahassee for several days, we made a trip to the park to see the largest and deepest freshwater springs in Florida and perhaps the world. The opening to the springs goes down 180 feet and the area is filled with sinkholes and submerged cave systems formed by dissolving limestone. The extensive cave system beneath the springs extends more than 32 miles and serves as a network of channels that supply the more than 250 million gallons of water per day that flows from the springs. The name “Wakulla” could be from the Timucuan Indian word for “spring of water” or “mysterious water.”

View from the diving platform of the park’s swimming area and boat dock in the distance
The springs are home to manatees

It has been two years since we explored Wakulla and I hadn’t taken the time to write about it until now. It has been nice to reminisce and check out the photos again. At the time, the main draws for me were the guided boat tours and the chance to see manatees, an animal we had never seen before. Located above the very large springs are a platform where we first viewed these creatures. Underwater their bodies looked like a long, shapeless blob. It was exciting to see several of them swimming around together.

Manatees gather at Wakulla in the winter months when they are searching for warmer water which stays 70 degrees here year around. Also known as “sea cows,” they are related to the elephant with grayish thick, leathery, wrinkled skin. They are propelled by huge powerful tails but are actually slow swimmers. They are heavyweights, weighing between 1,000 – 3,500 pounds!

That’s me in the orange shirt and hat waving
Bald Cypress trees along the Wakulla River

The ranger guided boat tour was a relaxing journey down the Wakulla River which is bordered by a swamp. We viewed majestic bald cypress trees, alligators and a variety of bird life like anhingas, white ibis and hooded mergansers. I thought it was interesting that the great egret in photo did not seem fearful to be hanging out right next to a very large alligator.

Hopefully a sleeping alligator and an alert egret?
Pied-billed Grebe

Archaeological field work has been conducted here since 1850 when the first mastodon bones were discovered in the springs. More bones were found including a complete mastodon skeleton in 1930, now on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. Since I like visiting state museums, I ventured there another day and saw the skeleton pictured below. As recent as January 2019, another mastodon skeleton was found covered in sediment eight feet below the Wakulla River.

Mastodon skeleton from Wakulla Springs

Hollywood has also found the park to be appealing as a number of movies have been filmed here including a few Tarzan films like “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” (1941) and the popular “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954). Most scenes from the “Black Lagoon” were filmed in California at the Universal Studios Backlot, but the underwater sequences were filmed at Wakulla. If you want to be amused check out You Tube of the cheesy “creature” swimming below the female star. I had never seen the flick, so got a kick out of watching a few of the watery scenes. Movie special effects have come a long way. Film crew from the movie “Airport 77” placed a 70-foot mockup of the 747 into the basin of the springs for the underwater sequences.

Wakulla Springs State Park Lodge

In 1937 a grand Spanish style lodge was constructed and continues to provide rooms and a restaurant. The interior has lots of special touches including a great deal of marble work with the world’s longest known marble bar (70 ft.) in the soda fountain/gift shop. The ceiling in the lobby is beautifully covered with decorative hand painting.

Hotel lobby with hand painted ceiling

After our visit to Wakulla we drove down to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (1931) which is one of the oldest in the National Wildlife Refuge System. It was established to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds. It features coastal marshes, estuaries and is situated along the Gulf Coast of Northwest Florida.

Mark getting some shots with his long lens
Tricolored Heron
American White Pelican

Before our trip we were given a tip that a bald eagle nest with babies could be seen at the refuge (thanks to Anette) and we were able to locate it. Although it was far off, with our binoculars we could watch one eagle feeding a youngster while another parent sat in the treetop above the nest. Mark was able to catch the scene with his camera.

The other birding highlight was the large flock of Redheads. I hadn’t seen this duck in some years, so it was neat to see so many here.

A pair of Redhead males

St. Mark’s Lighthouse can also be found here. The present tower was built in 1842 and is still used today. When we visited, we found the tower and light keeper’s dwelling were being renovated.

St. Mark’s Lighthouse

We were treated to a great sunset at the refuge. I was very glad we arrived before the show!

Sunset on the Gulf Coast

Thanks for checking in – until next time!

Grand Buildings and Pirates in St. Augustine

View of Flagler College from across the street

I wanted to do one last post on St. Augustine because there are some pretty neat buildings I have not yet shared. St. Augustine is a lot about Spanish architecture and several buildings showcase this very well and definitely deserve a look. Perhaps the most well known is Flagler College, a place that would be great to attend just to be surrounded by such elegance. Built in 1887 by Henry Flagler the founder of Standard Oil, students live in a building designed to be an exclusive resort once known as the Ponce de Leon Hotel.

Entrance to Flagler College courtyard

It became a private liberal arts college in 1968 and today students actually give architectural tours of the building which I joined one morning. We toured the courtyard, lobby, dining room and Flagler Room which was formerly called the Grand Parlor. Below is a photo of the lobby and rotunda which has fancy carved woodwork, a mosaic tile floor, murals and a domed ceiling.

View of the lobby
Domed ceiling in the rotunda

The dining room was the most interesting as the design led me to feel I had been transported to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School. The heavy looking wooden chairs were hand carved with cherubs. Supposedly the seats were originally padded with Spanish moss but chiggers would bite the dining guests (yikes 😳), so Flager had the chairs stuffed instead with horse hair. The high ceilinged walls are adorned with many murals, but the most remarkable sight are the 79 original Louis Tiffany windows. Tiffany was given the task of designing the interior spaces in the hotel.

View of the dining room
Dining area with original Tiffany stained glass windows

The Flagler Room looked to me like a fancy ballroom with Austrian crystal chandeliers and a fire place with an original Thomas Edison clock inlaid into the largest piece of white onyx in the Western Hemisphere. Edison wired the hotel for electricity, one of the first buildings in the U.S. to have it. Hotel staff would turn the lights on and off in the rooms because guests were often afraid to flip the switches themselves.

Flagler Room
Original Thomas Edison clock

Across the street from the College, Mr. Flagler designed another former hotel built in 1888 called the “Alcazar.” The building closed during the depression and in 1948 it was purchased by Otto Lightner, a Chicago magazine publisher who converted it into a museum for his large collection of fine art. The building also now houses city government offices. There is so much to see and do in St. Augustine that I didn’t get around to touring this museum, but I did spend some time walking around the inner courtyard of the magnificent building which once held the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, now dry.

When I visited it was the 498th birthday of St. Augustine’s founder Pedro Menendez de Avila, so a wreath of fresh flowers had been placed in front of his statue.
The courtyard of the former Alcazar Hotel

I did take a tour of another grand building called the Villa Zorayda Museum which was built in 1883 as a winter residence for Franklin Webster Smith. In his design, he replicated the architectural details of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. The subsequent owner opened the building as a museum in 1933 with a collection of many historic pieces of furniture, antiques and art collected by both owners from around the world. The most well known piece is the sacred cat rug which is reported to be over 2400 years old and made from the hairs of ancient cats that roamed the Nile River.

Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the museum which was a shame as the interior was beautifully designed and made me feel like I had stepped inside a moorish castle. The tour involved using an audio wand that explained all the different exhibits as I walked the two floors of the building.

Entrance to the Villa Zorayda Museum

Ahoy Matey! I visited the first pirate museum of our travels here in St. Augustine. Although it is not housed in a grand building like the three others above, it had interesting displays and information and is reported to have one of the largest collections of pirate artifacts in the world. Historically, pirates were alleged to have hung out in St. Augustine and the Castillo de San Marcos fort located across the street from the museum.

The museum has information about famous pirates and the laws and punishments against piracy. There is a replica gun deck of a pirate ship and a variety of artifacts including gold and silver bars, gold coins owned by the pirate Blackbeard, sunken treasure, weapons and personal effects like Captain Kidd’s family bible. There are also interactive exhibits and animatronic pirates. Below is a photo of an original Jolly Roger flag, one of only two remaining pirate flags in the world. Although it is called “jolly,” the flag actually was designed to strike terror in the hearts of people.

The museum features the only known authentic pirate treasure chest that is 400 years old and made of metal. It was owned by Thomas Tew who made an enormous fortune raiding ships in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

Thomas Tew’s Chest

The treasure in the next photo is called the “Taj Mahal Sunken Treasure” as the son of the builder of this great mausoleum ordered these coins to be minted. Bound for the orient several hundred years ago, the ship was caught by a typhoon and sunk. The shipwreck was discovered in 1963 during an underwater movie scouting expedition and the coin clump removed.

I thought I would close with a photo of a quiet street in the old part of St. Augustine, a city that certainly captured my heart. In the next blog I journey back in time to our visit to Wakulla Springs State Park in Florida.

St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park

It is fun finding specialty zoos while traveling and St. Augustine has a rather unusual one devoted to alligators. The zoo was founded in 1893, starting off as a small exhibition of Florida reptiles. It continued to grow and has been at its current site on Anastasia Island since 1920. Anastasia is actually a barrier island off the Atlantic Ocean east of St. Augustine. Besides alligators, the zoo also has all the crocodile species (24) from around the world, a bird rookery and exhibits of African birds and other reptiles.

I enjoy visiting zoos and thought this one was well laid out and interesting to visit – plus I do really like seeing alligators, both in the wild and in captivity. The zoo has several shows during the day including ones where visitors can learn interesting facts and observe alligators being trained and fed. When it was feeding time at “Alligator Lagoon,” the gators came charging through the water to get their share, quite a spectacle of huge open mouths and snapping jaws.

Alligator training demonstration
Feeding demonstration

On a series of wooden platforms I walked through the native swamp filled with alligators and crocodiles swimming and lounging. Near the pools is also the wading bird rookery which was for me a highlight. The birds are completely wild and are not fed or interacted with by zoo staff. They are free to come and go as they wish. Since there were so many birds it appears they find this zoo appealing, even though there is a throng of alligators lurking below their tree habitat.

Native swamp with bird rookery
Wood Stork
Wood Stork in flight

Most of the birds I saw were Herons, Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks. Some of them seemed to be busy building nests as they were carrying branches and twigs.

Great Egret carrying a branch
Great Egrets and a Wood Stork on the tree top
Great Egrets and Wood Storks high in the tree tops
Roseate Spoonbill – An interesting fact is these birds get their pink coloring from the food they eat

Another interesting bird area was “Birds of Africa,” which are not free to come and go. Below is a photo of the Marabou Stork, one of the largest flying birds in the world with a nine foot wing span. It has a long pink air sac hanging from its throat which can be inflated or deflated like a balloon. It is used for display to either attract a mate or defend their territory.

Marabou Stork

Cape Griffon Vultures are one of the largest vultures in Africa and feed solely on dead animals the size of an antelope or larger. These vultures are hunted because locals believe if they eat their eyes they will obtain the bird’s clairvoyant abilities and become successful in gambling. When I visited, two adults were taking turns sitting on a nest with eggs.

Cape Griffon Vulture on nest

The zoo has a collection of albino alligators that come from the Louisiana Bayou. These alligators wouldn’t last long in the wild because their coloring would not allow them to blend into the surroundings. Being pale also means they are in danger of skin and eye damage from the sun. Apparently it is a good idea to take a long look at these unusual gators 😊. Legend says those who gaze upon these beautiful reptiles will receive good fortune.

Albino Alligators
Baby Albino

One of the largest crocodiles to have ever lived at a zoo has been preserved here. Gomek once lived in the waters of New Guinea where he terrorized and killed local villagers. After being captured, he eventually came to live at the St. Augustine Zoo where he died in 1997 at about 80 years of age. He is now displayed in a room surrounded by beautiful hand carved Papua New Guinea art.

Gomek – He was almost 18 feet long and nearly 2,000 pounds – amazing to think of a crocodile weighing close to a ton!

Since the St. Augustine Light Station is also located on Anastasia Island and near the Alligator Farm I thought I would include a few photos. Visitors can tour the museum there and go to the top of the tower.

Built in 1874 the light from the 165 foot tower still shines

Thanks for checking in – more to come, stay tuned!

Exploring History in St. Augustine, Florida

A beautiful avenue of oak trees near the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park

St. Augustine is all about history and very old buildings which suits me well since I love both of those things. In this blog I wanted to talk about several historical sites I explored beginning with the spot where the city first began, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. It was on this site that Don Pedro Mendez de Aviles came ashore in 1565 to claim Florida for Spain and establish the St. Augustine settlement. At the time, the Timucuan Indians had lived here for generations. Archaeological discoveries have been ongoing in this park for years with artifacts from Native Americans as well as early European settlers.

Recreated home from the Timucuan tribe

Many people have heard about the legend of Ponce de Leon searching for the “fountain of youth.” Although it hasn’t been proven for certain that he actually searched for or drank these waters, the spring has been flowing in this park since the days when he arrived in 1513 leading the first official European expedition to Florida. If he did drink the water, it didn’t seem to help his longevity as he died at the age of 46. In the early 1900’s, the landowners created a roadside attraction selling the magical water for ten cents a glass. The park considers this to be Florida’s oldest attraction based on guest books signed from 1868 (everywhere seems to claim they have the oldest something 😊). Visitors can still take a sip in the 60 year old spring house, drinking water that supposedly contains over 30 minerals.

Entrance to the spring house

I did my duty and had a cup. I found it amusing that a day or two after my visit, I came down with one of the worst upper respiratory viruses of our RV traveling. We had left St. Augustine for our next location at Jekyll Island, Georgia. We were too sick to do the activities I had hoped like biking the island, visiting the turtle hospital, etc. So, the healing water didn’t do me much good although I had little expectation in the first place 😊 .

The park has a variety of other activities including a planetarium, excavation and other historical sites, a Native American village and weapon demonstrations.

Demonstration of a Spanish cannon
Lots of old cannons lying about

St. Augustine has the oldest and largest masonry fort in the United States – Castillo de San Marcos located on the shore of Matanzas Bay. It is operated by the National Park Service and visitors are welcome to walk all around the inside courtyard as well as on top of the walls. Some of the rooms can be viewed including storerooms, a chapel, and barracks set up with furnishings and artifacts. It is really a beautiful fort in amazing condition, although not my favorite of our travels. That goes to Fort Morgan located at the end of a peninsula near Gulf Shores, Alabama. Fort Morgan was so atmospheric and fun to explore with lots of rooms and passageways. The Castillo had so many visitors and a less mysterious and adventurous feel about it.

Looking down at visitors walking to the Fort’s entrance
Looking back at the entrance to the Fort

The Fort is built in a star shaped design called “bastion” and has thick walls, battlements, towers and a moat. The star design made it effective for mounting cannons and to withstand attacks from cannon projectiles. The Fort has stood for so many years thanks to the material it was made from – a rare type of limestone called “Coquina” which is found in the area. Because the rock is porous and light it doesn’t shatter like granite or brick and therefore cannon balls would just lodge in the walls.

The Fort sits on a beautiful location next to the Bay
Looking down on the courtyard

The main part of the Fort was completed in 1695 and it remained in military service for 251 years before being deactivated in 1933 and turned over to the National Park Service. Possession of the Fort changed six times among four different governments: Spain, Great Britain, the Confederate States and the United States.

Weapons demonstration
Entrance to the chapel

St. Augustine claims to have the oldest wooden schoolhouse in the United States. It was built before 1763 during the first Spanish occupation and has never been reconstructed. It was handmade from bald cypress and red cedar logs bound with wooden pins and iron spikes. The first students were immigrants from Minorca, an island owned by Spain located in the Mediterranean Sea. They came to the school to learn English and it cost 12-1/2 cents a day to attend. If they had no money, they paid by bringing food or wood for the teacher. The schoolmaster lived with his family upstairs from the classroom. A kitchen was located in a separate building out in the courtyard.

Inside the building, a photograph and news clipping shows the class of 1864 having a reunion in 1931. There were nine students present and their combined ages totaled 708 years! At the reunion, the former students arranged the classroom as they remembered and this is the way visitors continue to see it today.

Visitors listen to a recording from the animatronic teacher and a student

Some times misbehaving students got sent to the dungeon located under the stairwell. Life was a little harsher for students during those days.

My favorite part of the school building was the floor. It was made from “tabby,” a type of concrete popular during the time period. The concrete was made by combining water, sand, ash and broken oyster shells. I thought it was neat to see a floor filled with shells.

The tabby floor

Since St. Augustine has so much old, there has to be the oldest house to visit. It is called the Gonzalez-Alvarez House and was built about 1723. The house really did look and feel old when I stepped inside and toured the rooms. Many different families lived here until 1918, when it was turned over to the St. Augustine Historical Society who did some renovations and made it into a museum.

Gonzalez – Alvarez House with flags from Great Britain, Spain and the U.S.
A view of the back of the house

I loved all the old walls around St. Augustine and most are made from Coquina – a type of rock filled with shell fragments. I will close with a photo of one of the walls.

Stay tuned for more exploring in St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S.

Camping at St. Augustine – Birds, Beaches and Shells

Entrance road at North Beach Camp Resort
Our site at North Beach Camp Resort

Camping at North Beach Camp Resort in St. Augustine was definitely a plus. This turned out to be one of my favorite campgrounds of our RV travels. The location was perfect – sandwiched between the beach and the intracoastal waterway. It was also close (about 5 miles) to the historic old town of St. Augustine. We stayed here for two weeks in February of 2018. I wrote in my previous blog that I was going back in time to write about a place I hadn’t had time to cover. I have lots more to say about the town itself, but for this blog I wanted to write about our time enjoying our campsite and nature.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Cardinal

Our site was surrounded by live oaks with hanging moss and palmettos. We had lots of bird visitors with about twelve different species coming to our feeders. At that time in our travels, this was the first place where we had birds coming to our site. Since I love to sightsee, I usually wanted to go exploring some where each day. But here, I was content for a few days to just sit outside and watch the parade of birds coming to visit.

Blue Jay
Tufted Titmouse

Besides birds, my other favorite interest was collecting shells. The first time I went to see the Atlantic Ocean and beach across the road from our campground I was a little disappointed by all the brown sand. I was used to seeing the bright white sand and turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico and this was a definite change. But the masses of seashells all over the beach made up for it. I had a great time collecting and learning about them such as cockle, coquina, calico scallop, whelk and auger.

Masses of seashells covered the beach
My seashell collection

While the beach was a great place to take walks and collect seashells, the Tolomoto River which is also the intracoastal waterway was the best place to watch the sunset. The waterway was just a few steps from our campsite and featured a small dock/pier and Aunt Kate’s Restaurant where we ate dinner one night. From the dock we watched boats go by and pelicans darting around looking for a bite to eat.

Mark enjoying the sunset on the pier. To his right is Kate’s Restaurant

During our travels, Mark and I have enjoyed visiting area wildlife refuges to see the local plant, bird and animal life. We were fortunate to be fairly close to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve that has a variety of trails. It is located north of St. Augustine and south of Jacksonville. We went there a few times for exploring and really enjoyed the scenery. We hiked through forests of live oaks and saw palmettos; on boardwalks and bridges over salt marshes and through savanna grassland. The most exciting animal sighting was an armadillo digging in the dirt with his snout near the trail.

Although not blind, armadillos have very poor eyesight and rely on their strong sense of smell to hunt.

I had never had a good look at one before and this guy was in no hurry to leave as we approached. Armadillos are the only living mammals that have armor – bony plates covering the back, head, legs and tail. Armadillo is a Spanish word meaning “little armored one.” Here is an interesting fact about armadillos that I just recently learned. They are the only animal that carries leprosy and so it is recommended that people don’t touch them or eat their meat 🤢.

We also spotted an alligator or two!

Here are some photos from our treks through the preserve, one of our favorite walking and nature experiences during our time in Florida.

Great Egret in flight

Thanks for checking in and hope you enjoyed a look at some nature around St. Augustine. In this post I am also including a gallery with more bird photos. Until next time!

Looking Back: Exploring St. Augustine, Florida in February 2018

While planning our travels through the Florida Panhandle in the winter of 2018, I knew I wanted to spend time in St. Augustine which is located on the Atlantic Coast of Northern Florida. The draw was visiting the oldest city in the United States with many sights to see and learn about. We were able to find a great RV park near the coast and booked a stay for two weeks. I am glad we stayed for that long as there was enough to keep us busy. St. Augustine definitely won my heart, becoming one of my all time favorite cities during our RV travels.

So you might wonder why I am writing about our time in St. Augustine two years after our visit. At the time, I was trying to catch up on my blogs and make them more current, so I made the decision to write about this city later. Especially since there was so much to write about! Now seems to be a good time as we are staying a little longer in California before continuing our travels. It will be fun to revisit our time there and hope you enjoy the journey as well.

Old Town Trolley Tour passing the famous Flagler College building

St. Augustine has many facets. It is a city with a lot of tourist attractions that draw a crowd and also full of historical buildings and artifacts. In this post I thought I would write about three great ways to explore: 1) trolley, 2) cruise boat and 3) on foot. We decided to start out with the Old Town Trolley tour that gave a general overview with 23 stops along the way. Since it is one of those hop on hop off trams, it was easy to spend time in various locations and then catch another one and move on. The trolley went past a number of historic buildings including Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. (More to come on this fort in a future blog post).

Castillo de San Marcos

We also passed several historic churches with my favorite the Memorial Presbyterian Church, one of the most stunning churches I have seen on our travels. The building was completed in 1830 and worship services have been held here ever since except when the Union Army occupied it during the Civil War using it for military purposes. One afternoon I attended an organ concert here and it was magnificent.

Memorial Presbyterian Church
Memorial Presbyterian Church entrance
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine – The building was completed in 1797 but the congregation began in 1565 making it the oldest Christian congregation in the U.S.

The trolley took us along the historic sea wall next to Matanzas Bay. St. Augustine is known for beautiful water views. Two marble lions, copies of the Medici lions in Florence Italy guard the Bridge of Lions 🦁 that crosses the bay and intracoastal waterway.

When the Spanish occupied St. Augustine they built a stone wall around the city to fend off attacks by English invaders in 1702. A reminder from this time period is the City Gate which we drove past. It opened in 1739 as the only access through the defense line in the north side of the city.

Historic City Gate with stone pillars from 1808

As the trolley wound its way through the city making its stops, Mark and I had to chuckle when we arrived at the St. Augustine Distillery and everyone emptied the tram! The Distillery offers an excellent free tour and we decided to be part of the mass exodus. Although I don’t favor hard liquor and Mark has minimal interest, we liked learning about the Distillery’s history and seeing the big copper stills where they make their spirits. In the tasting room, our tour guide also concocted two different drinks of the day, the “Florida Mule” and “Rum Tiki Cocktail” and then gave everyone a taste of each. Then it was on to the gift shop with more tastings available prepared by several staff members.

Back on the trolley we stopped for another tour at the Whetstone Chocolate Company where we donned hair nets and for Mark, a beard net.

Mark all ready for the chocolate tour

As a chocoholic, it is hard to pass up this kind of tour and it was a fun journey to learn about the history and process of making chocolate. We had tastings of different kinds of bars as well as cocoa nibs. We walked through the factory watching chocolates being processed like the hearts wrapped in red paper pictured below.

St. Augustine is one of the nicest cities for walking and I spent several days exploring historic streets, buildings and museums. We found the best breakfast place to fuel up for some exploring – Maple Street Biscuit Company. They specialize in freshly baked buttery biscuits crafted into all kinds of sandwiches. My favorite was the “Sticky Maple” which consisted of a fried chicken breast with smoked bacon sitting in a pool of real maple syrup. Oh my, I thought about that biscuit meal for a long time after, it was that good.

The cafe has a unique way of identifying your order which is taken at the counter. Each day they have a different question on the board and your answer is what they will call out when your meal is ready.

“A book, your biscuit is ready!”

The main thoroughfare in the historic district is the narrow, pedestrian St. George Street that is filled with boutiques, bistros, gift shops, galleries and historic homes. It is quaint and atmospheric and gave me a feeling of being transported to a different time and place. Side streets off the main thoroughfare lead to interesting shops like the Casual Warrior’s Kimono-Ya which carried kimonos and accessories for women and men. For those that want to dress up like a pirate, clothing and accessories could be found at the Skull and Crossbones Pirate Store. Then there was the St. Augustine Textiles which specialized in colonial clothing for reenactments.

Shiver me timbers, it’s a pirate store

In one shop we found a cigar maker busily rolling tobacco leaves. Mark bought a cigar but now is unsure whatever happened to it. I think I remember him smoking it at our campsite, but it might have been his intention that never really happened. Perhaps one day the cigar will turn up in some hidden location in our tiny abode.

JC – the Cuban Roller of Cigars

Cobblestoned Aviles Street is considered the oldest street in the U.S. and also has shops, restaurants, galleries and several museums like the 18th century Spanish Military Hospital Museum. I took a tour to learn about colonial herbs used in medicines and observed demonstrations of some scary looking medical equipment.

Entrance to the oldest street in the U.S.
Aviles Street with the Spanish Military Hospital Museum
Touring Aviles Street in style

One afternoon I took the St. Augustine Scenic Cruise on Matanzas Bay to see the city from a different vantage point. I have said this before during our travels that when some kind of boat tour is available I will definitely be on board. This was a relaxing and lovely time on the water.

Cruising under the Bridge of Lions

We passed the Castillo de San Marcos fort as well as other landmarks like the St. Augustine Lighthouse.

View of Castillo de San Marcos from the boat

I hope you enjoyed a look at a little of what St. Augustine offers. Stay tuned for more on exploring this magical place!

Pensacola – National Naval Aviation Museum

While staying in Northern Florida I was drawn to the Pensacola area since my family has some history here.   In the 1950’s my father was stationed at the Naval Air Station where he trained to be a helicopter pilot.  I was born at the military hospital but when I was six months old we moved away, so I really never “saw” or came to know Pensacola.  Mark and I visited this part of the Florida Panhandle on two different days.  The first was in late January when we drove along the scenic Gulf coast to visit Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens, completed in 1834 to defend Pensacola Harbor.  While exploring near the Fort, we watched jets from the Air Station practicing and Mark was able to get the picture above.  We were both pleased that he caught one plane flying straight and one turning.

On our second trip in early February, we visited the Naval Air Station that houses the National Museum of Naval Aviation.   Besides having beautiful, white sandy beaches, Pensacola is also well known for the Naval Air Station and museum.  It would have been fun to drive around the Air Station and see more of the place where I began, but these days you can’t drive around a military installation without a specific purpose and poking around doesn’t qualify.   When we first arrived for our museum visit, our GPS took us to the wrong entrance gate at the Station and the sentry had us quickly go out the exit and back through town to the right entrance.

This museum is a first class facility with more than 150 aircraft in two main buildings.  One building has two levels so it takes awhile to see everything.  When I visit aircraft museums I usually find it a bit daunting to try and take it all in and remember what I have seen and read.  So I try to take a different approach these days and not read and focus on each plane I come across but just catch the highlights.   In the picture above is a collection of Blue Angel jets.  The famous Blue Angels are based here at the Air Station and can be seen practicing over the museum for their air shows a few times each week beginning the end of March.  It would have been great to see them in action, but we were over a month too early.

Exhibits at the museum cover from the early days of flight to the present.  One of the more interesting to me was the NC-4 plane which was the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.  On May 1919, the Commander and a crew of five men flew from New York State to Portugal.  The trip took 19 days with several stops along the way.  It was neat to read the information and see the plane (above) that first made this remarkable journey.


One of my favorite planes to learn about here was this Hellcat which was used for take off and landing practice from a training aircraft carrier on Lake Michigan during 1944.  The plane crashed into the lake and was at the bottom for 65 years before being hauled up in 2009 and restored.  They actually left a patch of the plane’s side as it was before restoring for the public to see before and after.  In the panoramic picture above, you can see this plane in the right foreground with #21.  Below, Mark stands next to the Hawkeye, introduced during the Vietnam War as a radar plane for the Navy.

The museum has other exhibits besides aircraft including recreated military camp scenes from the Pacific during WWII.   There was also a “Pensacola During Wartime” section with homes and buildings set up along a street to show everyday life for citizens during WWII.  Jake’s Garage put a smile on my face.

I found this “Raft” exhibit fascinating as it was the actual raft that three Navy men were adrift on after their plane made an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean during WWII.  They ended up on the raft with no food or water and only a pistol and knife.  During their 34 days at sea they lived on birds, fish and coconuts until they drifted to some islands.  I was amazed that the raft looked as good as it did after so many days at sea and so many years since the incident.  A book was written about this ordeal and it reminded me of the excellent book I have read called  “Unbroken” where Louis Zamperini also survives a plane crash in the Pacific during WWII and lives on a raft for 47 days before rescue.

It was a worthwhile trip to visit this very interesting museum – lots to learn and think about.  Thanks for following along with us!


Florida Gulf Musings

Before traveling to the Gulf in Northern Florida, I had visions of spending some time in the water and possibly even snorkeling if it was warm enough.  During the few weeks we were in the area, I never saw anyone swimming.  Even though it was Florida, it was still winter here in late January and early February.  Most people I saw walking along the beach were wearing jackets and long pants.  In the picture above, I am at Henderson Beach State Park in the Destin area.

Mark and I found it interesting that the beaches along the Gulf always have a flag to let visitors know the status of the water. There are four types – purple warns of potentially dangerous marine life; green is generally safe to swim; yellow means the ocean is rough, use caution and red is the most hazardous with potential high surf or dangerous currents.  In the photo above, Mark encountered a red flag at Henderson.

We visited Miramar Beach near Panama City on a cloudy and cold day.  I was disappointed at first that there would not be a colorful sunset, but actually I liked the cloud reflection on the sand and interesting lighting.  It was a day of beautiful grey clouds and I no longer missed having a sunset.  As I wandered down the beach, I met a group of “snow birds” that were glad to be in Northern Florida’s chill.  They had just arrived from their home in Ohio where the day’s high was 20 degrees.  Winter really is a matter of perspective.

At Miramar Beach I saw a sailboat stuck in the sand next to the surf.  I did some research and read that “Phantom of the Aqua” belonged to a Florida man who in October 2017 was attempting to sail to the Virgin Islands to assist residents after Hurricane Irma.  He got stuck in Hurricane Nate, abandoned the boat and was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.  He thought the boat would be destroyed in the storm and was surprised to learn several weeks later it washed ashore.  When we were there in late January, the boat had still not been picked up even though news articles written in October and November 2017 quoted the owner as making plans to get it off the beach.  I just read a follow up article that in mid February the boat was finally salvaged with the help of an excavator and a tug boat.  When the boat was pulled out to sea crowds on the beach cheered and the song, “She’s Gone” by Hall and Oates was played.  In four months on the beach, the boat had become a celebrity to locals and visitors and people were sad to see her go.  The original owner was unable to get the boat out and ownership changed a few times before she was back on the water.

One evening Panama City beach pier afforded us a lovely sunset.  We arrived to the beach just in time to see the sun go down behind the pier.  It made for a great photo op.

I wanted to share some pictures from our RV park called “Live Oak Landing.”  It was located about a 20 minute drive north from the nearest Gulf beaches between the towns of Destin and Panama City.  We stayed here for two weeks and this was one of my favorite parks on our trip – a lovely, quiet, tree filled park in the country with a scenic river next to the RV sites.   The river system, called “Choctawhatchee” – (wow, that is a mouthful) was my favorite part of the park and a great place to hang out.   The river’s course seemed a little mysterious to me as we never saw it outside the park and there were no nearby parks where we could see the river flow.  Our park had a small pontoon boat that could be rented and I thought it would be interesting to explore this swampy river and see where it went.

Mark seemed interested to give the boat a try, but changed his mind when he stepped on it and was sure that it would easily tip over.  It is hard to change the mind of someone who is not a water or boat person, so the river’s course remained unknown.   And so I close with an evening picture along the river.

Thanks for reading!  In my next blog more exploring in South Carolina.

That Turquoise Water

Recently I mentioned writing about more current locations and from time to time interspersing posts from earlier traveling as well.   In this post I wanted to talk about some of our exploration along the Gulf of Mexico in Northern Florida, also known as the “Panhandle.”  Although our RV site was not located near the ocean, we had a fairly easy drive of about 20-30 minutes to the beach towns.    Before getting to Florida, what I was probably looking forward to the most was seeing the beautiful turquoise Gulf.  In fact, the Florida Panhandle is known as the “Emerald Coast.”

Like California, Florida has many state parks – about 171 in total.  I really enjoy visiting the state parks in California and wanted to see some in Florida as well.  Luckily, there are half a dozen or so parks along the Emerald Coast.  Our favorite park to visit was St. Andrew’s near Panama City which we visited twice.  It was here I first got to see the turquoise water up close when I walked out on the pier.  I think I exclaimed in joy at the color around me!  In the picture below, Mark looks for dolphins which we saw swimming near the pier.

The beaches on the Gulf are known to have the most beautiful white sand.  I spent some time here gathering sea shells and enjoying the bird life.  The birds, including Ruddy Turnstones and Willets were so calm they even walked close by me as if I wasn’t there.

The dunes in this park and in many of the coastal state parks in Florida really add to the beauty of the beaches.   The sea oats pictured below are an important part of conserving the dunes as they stabilize, increase dune growth and provide a habitat for birds and animals.  These grasses are protected with no trampling or picking allowed.

After hanging out on the beaches for awhile, we visited the rest of the park.   There are a  few different trails for walking and hopefully seeing wildlife.  We checked out Gator Lake with the heron rookery and nearby forest.

I loved walking among the coastal scrub with twisted, dwarf trees and palmettos.  Deer can be spotted here like the one I found below.

Thanks for checking in!  Next post I plan to talk about a Civil War era fort we visited in Georgia.