Grab a coffee folks – this is a long one! With lots of photos.
So….the cost of a day at Busch Gardens is $88 USD per person. Then they charge you another $40 USD per person for any of the good tours. You can’t bring your own food or drink into the park. I’m sure it is worth it, but having just visited the amazing Sunken Gardens, we went in search of alternatives to Busch’s Safari Tour. We found the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium and did both for less money.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
This is a rescue facility. They take orphaned and rescued marine animals, treat, rehabilitate and, if possible, release them back into the ocean. They have some animals that can not be released due to their injuries, conditions or being raised in captivity because they were orphaned. These animals are provided with a safe environment to live out their lives, educate the public and provide research opportunities to further the care and recover of others. One dramatic example of this was Winter – an injured dolphin fitted with a prosthetic tail fin to help her swim more normally. There are also sea turtles, pelicans, sharks, and stingrays. Presentations throughout the day at the various massive tanks told their stories and talked about the animals’ habitats, behaviours, and threats. Truly admirable facility.
A highlight of our visit to this aquarium was the educational and fun playtime with Rudolph and Rex. These are 2 juvenile rough-toothed dolphins that were rescued from being stranded on Sanibel Island and brought to the centre in critical condition. Upon recover, it was discovered that both dolphins were deaf – one completely and the other mostly. As dolphins rely heavily on echolocation for food, this meant they could not be released and survive. We learned that dolphins LOVE to play, can distinguish shape and colour and respond heartily to physical affection. Only positive reinforcement is used in training and they always have a choice about doing what they want at the centre. Clearly they enjoy the attention as both were very obliging in showing us their impressive skills.
We also did Clearwater’s Sea Life Safari Tour. The sea life was a little scarce this particular day, but a short net drag produced a lizard fish, sea urchin, sand perch, sea star and squid. We saw lots of birds – a female osprey returned to its nest atop a channel marker, lots of the local brown pelican that we learned can scoop up to 3 gallons of water in its pouch when fishing! We also saw a bevy of herons, egrets, sea gulls, plovers and other sea birds on Bird Island. This is a little sand island preserve sitting off shore that you can be fined heavily for setting foot on.
Oddly, Clearwater also has an assortment of motion-activated animatronic dinosaurs. I thought at first that this was to provide information on marine dinosaurs, but the big land ones are there as well. Not sure what this is about – perhaps to provide another point of interest against the competing attractions. And it is interesting! Each dinosaur display has a story and some information about the animal.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
WOW! Right up there with the rocket launch.
Founded in 1955 by Dr. Eugenie Clark, who was fascinated with sharks and began research on this misunderstood animal, the centre grew to be a world-class presentation centre and facility. The displays of marine life were engaging and teeming with interesting facts and information told at a layman’s level. In addition to this, Mote is a research facility with a focus on sustaining, protecting and rejuvenating critical marine environments.
A host of educated volunteers are present throughout the centre to provide information on the marine life displayed. We met an alligator in the best way possible – with protective glass between us – and watched river otters at play. We learned that:
Ironically, following our visit to the marine centre, we went across to The Old Salty Dog restaurant and had a basket of peel-and-eat and deep-fried shrimp and fries. Like Billy’s Rock Crab the other day, this restaurant is worth the stop if you are in the area.
I know, right? Weird combo. But that’s what Saturday was. St. Petersburg is quite close to us and we wanted to see the sunken gardens there, so off we went. Being a Saturday, of course there was also a farmer’s market downtown, so we checked that out, had a bite of market food and picked up some local oranges. Then off to the Sunken Gardens.
The Sunken Gardens began in 1911 when a George Turner Sr., a plumber by trade, bought 6 acres of land, drained an ancient lake on the property and indulged in his favourite hobby – gardening. The gardens, now over 100 years old, have continued to be maintained and run by his descendants. Turner’s labyrinth of tiles leads you through peaceful paths surrounded by lush tropical plants, waterfalls, rescued macaws and kookaburras, ponds full of koi and tattling, bickering flamingoes. A history centre along the way tells the story of the gardens and a lovely little gift shop on the way out promises to lighten your wallet. 😊Admission is very reasonable and definitely worth the time. See below for a few of the bazillion pictures of plants and flowers that I took and hopefully pared down to the more interesting ones.
Following the garden visit, we took a drive out to Fort De Soto Park. The beaches here are sprawling and beautiful as so much of the coastal area is. There is also an historic battery site with connections to the Spanish explorers and the American Civil War. Many of the trees on the property are old and gigantic and I spent a good deal of time peacefully strolling through them and marvelling at them.
All our hard work touristing made us hungry, so we found our way back to Billy’s Stone Crab in the city center. Much more gratifying than the Rod and Reel was last week! Amazing seafood platter at half the cost of the other place and everything prepared to perfection. Highly recommended!
When we woke on Thursday, there was no news of the launch being cancelled, so we killed some time at the massive Ron Jon Surf Shop out of sheer curiosity. Cool place and not as expensive as expected, so we picked up a couple of things for tourist posterity. Heading back over to the space centre, we took the time to go through the Gateway Building. So glad we did! Models of all the different rockets and the ones that will be used in the Artemis mission to return to the moon. We did 2 of the “rides” with 4-D experiences of missions to Mars and Celestial Wonders. It was all more than cool.
Once again, we rode the bus over to the Apollo Centre, which was also the location of the launch viewing area. We spent some more time exploring things we missed the day before, including “The Vault” where there is memorabilia from the various missions, including the Apollo 14 capsule. While waiting for one of the ride experiences, I was intrigued by the "CHILD SWAP" door. LOL I thought it sounded like a better threat than no presents from Santa - "You damn well behave yourself or I'll swap you faster than you can say Star Wars! There's the door!"
Picking up our “launch” wristbands so we wouldn’t get kicked out with the last bus back to the main site, all that remained was to kill time until the launch. We found ourselves some uncomfortable seats in a set of bleachers and fell into conversation with Chuck and Carla Byers from Idaho. Chuck has spent a lifetime restoring cars and had some interesting stories. They have travelled by RV and otherwise for many years and have much to tell. While waiting, we heard from someone else that in the next viewing area, there was a big screen where there would be a commentary about the launch so we could hear what was happening and when, so we changed locations. Good thing we did, as seats very quickly filled up and we had a great viewing spot.
The Falcon 9 was being launched to deploy 40 satellites into space with a goal of providing web connectivity to areas where there is none.
Despite being a relatively short experience, the launch was awe-inspiring. It was much more dramatic than I expected it to be from the distance we were at. The explosion of gases that launches the rocket was brilliant and impressive, as was the earth-shaking rumble and roar as it left the ground. We watched and watched as it sped towards the earth’s atmosphere and even saw the first stage separate and plummet back to earth. This section falls to the ocean and is recovered to be used again. Eventually, we heard and felt the sonic boom from its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. WOW! JUST WOW!
The rest of the evening was the anti-climactic rush to exit the property and catch the buses back to the parking area. Clearly this was not their first rodeo, as the Space Center staff evacuated several hundred people and the buses ferried groups of people back and forth to the parking lot with remarkable speed. Then there was the 2.5 hour drive back to Tampa, reliving the launch in our minds all the way.
LAUNCH VIDEO 1: youtu.be/RY_FJH4up-A
LAUNCH VIDEO 2: youtu.be/3gqVxodfJn8
Knowing it would be a leisurely day while we waited for any additional news about the Falcon 9 launch, we slept in a bit and took our time finding the highly-rated Simply Delicious restaurant for breakfast. Totally living up to its name, we had a gorgeous breakfast before heading over to a park close by to explore the beach by daylight.
Being the Atlantic Ocean coast, the ocean had the heaving, living, dangerous feel that always makes me feel wild and free. The sand was gorgeous and so was the day. We spent a long time walking the beach and watching the surfers and birds. Not to mention successfully procuring the requisite seashells.
Once more brushing sand from our feet, we jumped back in the car and headed for the Merritt Island National Wildlife Preserve in hopes of seeing some manatees. We were not disappointed. Several manatees were collected in a warm cove of water at the first stop and we watched these gentle giants for some time. Another person there pointed us towards another location and we drove a little further on to find it. We didn’t find manatees, there, but there was resident beach pelican and a few dolphins playing and fishing in the water. While there, a fisherman directed us to yet another location where we have fun watching a bunch of manatees, dolphins and pelicans in a calm area of water.
Having heard nothing about the launch being cancelled, we decided to stay the extra night. We used my points this time, which got us into the more modest, but lovely La Quinta Inn and Suites. We got checked in and learned that we had inadvertently booked ourselves into a hotel with a history! The hotel had originally be owned by the original 7 astronauts in the U.S. Mercury space program’s Race for Space, and occupied by their families while they were on missions!
(Underwater manatee photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Tuesday saw us headed for the Space Coast – Cape Canaveral. As soon as we knew we were heading for Florida, Peter was online to the space centre to see if there would be a rocket launch during our time in Florida. When he was a little boy, he was at the Kennedy Space Center with his parents and was completely and utterly crushed when his mom refused to stay and see the launch of what, at the time, was Apollo 8 sitting on the launchpad. So when he discovered there would be a launch while we were here, he was as excited as…..well…..a kid in a rocket store.
We knew before leaving on the 2.5 hour drive to Cape Canaveral that the launch was delayed to Wednesday and we could still use our passes for that, but the admission ticket for the Kennedy Space Centre could not be transferred to another day, so we booked a hotel on points and spent the day at the space centre. Wow! It is huge and amazing. The admission is pricey, but once the gate pass is purchased, everything else is included. IMAX presentations, rides, theatre presentations, bus tour to the actual launch viewing site and Apollo Centre. And there was no objection to us bringing our packed lunch and drinks. Hang onto your sandwich though! The local grackles are like crows in Canada - swift to see a lunch brought out and will try and grab it if you're not paying attention.
We took our time exploring the complex before taking the bus tour to the Apollo Centre. On the way, we saw the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) where they have assembled every rocket that has ever been launched. This building is unimaginably massive and riding by it on the bus doesn’t even give one a true feeling of its scale. The flag on the side of the building is so big, the tour bus could be driven down one red stripe and the VAB could house 3.5 Empire State Buildings.
Reaching the Apollo Center, we were taken through a series of presentations to relive the mission that landed on the moon. In the main area, we saw the awe-inspiring Saturn 5 rocket, and got to explore and learn more in-depth about the different rockets, missions, and astronauts. We heard the poignant stories of those killed on missions, saw some of their personal effects and heard their personal stories. The day was capped off with a launch simulation ride that gave us some miniscule idea of what the astronauts experience.
When we arrived, we learned that the launch was delayed again until Thursday. Since we were staying overnight anyway, we thought we would spend Wednesday being tourists on the Space Coast and keep an eye on the launch news. If the launch was not rescheduled again, we would spend another night and stay over for it on Thursday.
Peter’s points got us into the Hilton in Cocoa Beach on Tuesday night. Pretty swank digs right on the beach. After dinner on the pool patio, we took a walk down the boardwalk to the beach. With the moon almost full, the waves were sparkling with light as the surf rushed in. I did my evening Tai Chi on the beach in the moonlight and felt at one with the world.
After breakfast at the condo, we were happy to have a slow, laid-back day. The Robinson Nature Preserve is quite close to us and we took the short drive over there to walk through the area. The preserve is a huge area of mangrove and tidal marsh that has been transformed to a coastal wetland habitat. Lots of the crazy flipping fish, pelicans, egrets, herons, crabs, and vegetation galore. If one is so inclined, a kayak can be launched into the river and there are tons of trails and picnic areas. At one end is the historic Valentine House that has been moved to the location to provide a visitor centre and old-time naturalist laboratory where you can learn about the preserve and see skeletons of a variety of sea-life.
From the preserve, we continued to Anna Maria Island. This is a very touristy area with lots of little boutiques and shops, restaurants, and big fancy houses on the beach. We headed for the Rod and Reel restaurant at the end of a Peir overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and the scenery was stunning. The food…not so much. It was OK, but cheap on portions and expensive on the wallet. So if you visit Anna Maria Island, head out to the end of the pier and drop a line in the water to catch a fish, or soak in the view, but give the restaurant a miss for other options.
Lunch in our tummies, we headed for a stroll on the beach where we found a seemingly never-ending expanse of fine white sand beach and the beautiful blue-green water of the gulf. We watched the little shore birds running along the sand, chasing the who-knows-what that flowed in and out with the tide.
Brushing the sand from our feet, we got back in our car in time to hit the rush-hour traffic back to the condo that tried to challenge our peace of mind….but failed. 😊
The first real day on the ground, we found our way to the condo and got settled. We are SO grateful to have this lovely space all to ourselves for 2 weeks! Situated on a golf course in Bradenton, it is within easy access to beaches, local attractions, and groceries, etc. A screened-in patio with a view to the golf course came with its own insect catcher (wee lizard) and comfy furniture for sitting out in the balmy evenings enjoying the peace and quiet. We get a kick out of the fish in the ponds on the golf course that throw themselves into the air for bugs on a regular basis. I like to do Tai Chi in the mornings and evenings out on the patio and Peter finds it a perfect place to work his way through the Iceberg beer from Newfoundland that our friends left in the fridge for us.
Having travelled light on purpose, we made our way to the Walmart and Costco up the road for a few essentials and some groceries. Even a week into our holiday, we are struck by the incongruity of Christmas music in the stores when it is 28 degrees outside and humid as heck. Several homes in this resort development are decorated with lights and I hope to get out for a stroll around the ‘hood one of these evenings and take them in. Might have to do it over several evenings – it’s a big resort!
Deciding that 5 years was quite enough without a proper holiday, we abandoned our own Sunshine Coast for Florida’s Sun Coast. Took the quick float plane from Sechelt to Vancouver on Friday last to catch our flights to Florida on Saturday. All went reasonably smoothly and we knew we had arrived in Tampa when we saw the gigantic pink flamingo in the airport!
Our enthusiasm waned significantly during the 4 hours in line to get our reserved rental car. Not much good to say about Budget and much empathy for those still in the long queue behind us. Having been up since 3:45 Pacific time that day, our senses were not what they should have been in trying to find our friends’ condo that night at midnight. Ended up booking a seedy hotel for the first night and getting our bearings the next day. But Day 2 on has been fabulous!
It was a conscious decision not to cram-pack the days so that we need a holiday from our holiday upon returning home, but we are still managing to see and do what we want and get plenty of R & R in between. I took up “plate-catching” as I noticed license plates from all over the US and some from Canada. So far, I’ve listed 38 states we’ve seen while we are here and 4 provinces!
I’m splitting this story into different posts rather than having a monster blog, so keep reading, if you are so inclined! 😊
Don’t miss the highlight of the entire trip so far (and likely right until the end) – seeing a rocket launch! Follow the Kennedy Space Centre and Launch Day stories for more on that.
And FYI, early December seems a perfect time to be in Florida – no hurricanes, still warm and sunny, and no crowds of tourists.