Carlton Ward frames Florida’s wild side

March 22, 2014
An Ogeechee tupelo tree on an island in the Suwannee River (photo Cartlon Ward)

An Ogeechee tupelo tree on an island in the Suwannee River (photo Cartlon Ward)

One of my favorite nature photographers, eighth-generation Floridian Carlton Ward Jr., recently opened his first public gallery. Hooray!

The Carlton Ward Gallery in Tampa, where Carlton is based, displays about 30 of his award-winning fine-art prints from assignments and adventures around the state. Carlton is known for his striking environmental photographs, which have been seen in Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. Now you can see them up close and personal, in frames!

When I visited the gallery, photo locations included the Everglades, Gulf Coast, Tampa Bay, Florida cowboys, and his most recent project, the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Carlton brings out the best of Florida, and is quite the intrepid adventurer. You’d have to be to get the shots he does.

For the Wildlife Corridor project, in 2012, Ward and two scientists trekked 1,000 miles from the Everglades to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia to document the state of wildlife habitats, watersheds, and ranches. “The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition” book and DVD also are available at the gallery.

Here are the basics: Carlton Ward Gallery, 1525 West Swann Ave. (in Hyde Park), Tampa. 813-251-0257, http://www.carltonward.com

Paradise found at Florida park

February 2, 2014

I wrote this article, which ran on Feb. 2 in the Boston Globe, after a summer visit to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Florida’s Panhandle. It’s a super-special place and while it’s not really a secret, it kind of still is because it’s out-of-the-way location keeps the number of visitors down. Read on…

By Diane Daniel

The State Park includes 10 miles of untamed coast and 35-foot-high sand dunes

The state park includes 10 miles of untamed coast and 35-foot-high sand dunes

CAPE SAN BLAS, Fla. — Initially, Youngra Hardwick appeared eager to share her wisdom. She had succeeded where I’d failed by snagging a waterfront cabin at T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, and I wanted in on the secret.

“There are some tricks to it. Every day different spots come open. So you have to get up really early in the morning.” Just as she was advising me about opening several internet browsers, she stopped.

“Wait! I don’t even want to talk to you about it,” she said. She was laughing, but she meant it.

View of St. Joseph Bay from the Maritime Hammock Trail

View of St. Joseph Bay from the Maritime Hammock Trail

Hardwick, who traveled here from Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two daughters, first stumbled upon the park, in Florida’s Panhandle and about 105 miles southwest of Tallahassee, while searching online for budget-friendly coastal stays.

“I look for places that are remote and isolated, and this sounded like paradise,” she said. “I was right.”

Many visitors, it seems, treat their time at St. Joseph as if it involved password-protected admission. During my three-day stay, several people asked how I had discovered the park. Check online travel forums and you can find users jokingly trying to dissuade others from visiting.

The real treats are the eight furnished cabins with a view of St. Joseph Bay

The real treats are the eight furnished cabins with a view of St. Joseph Bay

It’s not surprising that folks want to keep this spot along Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” to themselves. St. Joseph’s natural amenities include an unheard of (at least in Florida) 10 miles of untamed coast and 35-foot-high sand dunes, along with maritime forests and wildlife. The park’s 119 tent and RV camping sites are fairly standard, but the beach is just a short walk away over the dunes. The real treats are the eight furnished “cabins,” which look more like resort condominiums minus the television. And who needs TV when your back yard looks out onto the wide expanse of St. Joseph Bay?

Luckily for the non cabin-dwellers, water views are everywhere in this 2,716-acre playground. It sits at the tip of narrow Cape San Blas and is flanked by the Gulf of Mexico and the bay, giving visitors the opportunity to see sunrises and sunsets — only a few yards apart in some spots. Although the park has been anointed a “best of” by “Dr. Beach” and is frequently mentioned in national publications, its out-of-the-way location keeps traffic relatively low.

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In Amsterdam, a new skating rink

January 5, 2014
201401_01c_skating Amsterdam

Skating rink with replica of the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge)

Fans of Hans Brinker, the fictional Dutch boy who enters an ice-skating race to win a pair of silver skates, can practice their moves at Ice*Amsterdam, the recently opened skating rink in the shadows of the majestic Rijksmuseum, on Museum Square. (An aside: Hans Brinker is an American creation. The Dutch have erected statues to “him” to keep American tourists happy. Nothing wrong with that, I say!)

201401_02c_skating Amsterdam

Skating is especially magical at night

The seasonal rink, previously operated by the city and this year run by a private concessionaire, has been upgraded to include a new design decorated with custom-made mosaic orbs; the restaurant Brasserie Winters, with heated outdoor terrace and bar; and a walkway over the rink replicating the city’s most famous drawbridge, the Magere Brug, or “Skinny Bridge.” It’s especially magical at night, but a lovely spot to visit any time.  During the day you should also visit the nearby Van Gogh and the Stedelijk museums.

At the rink, you can rent skates or bring your own, and nervous skaters need not worry — you’ll see tots and adults hanging onto chairs for assistance. If you’re not a skater, you can watch from the sidelines or from the on-site restaurant while enjoying classic Dutch treats, including Hollandse snert (pea soup), stamppot (mashed potatoes and vegetables), and apfelstrudel (apple tart).

The rink and restaurant are open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. through February.

‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ heats Atlanta

November 15, 2013
Guests on the Hunger Games Unofficial Fan Tours visit Atlanta film locations, including The Swan House, staged at Presidents Snow’s Mansion. Photo credit: Courtesy Atlanta History Center

The Swan House served as Presidents Snow’s Mansion. Photo courtesy Atlanta History Center

All eyes are back on Katniss and Peeta as the sequel “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” comes out on Nov 22. A week later, Hunger Games Unofficial Fan Tours launches Catching Fire Tours in Atlanta, where the sequel was filmed. The same group led outstanding theme trips and tours in North Carolina, where the first “Hunger Games” was filmed. This time they’re partnering with Atlanta Movie Tours to present immersive fan tours highlighting locations used in Catching Fire.

Learn archery while touring Hunger Games sites in Atlanta, such as The Swan House, staged at Presidents Snow’s Mansion.  Photo credit: Hunger GamesTM Unofficial Fan Tours

Learn archery while touring Hunger Games sites. Photo credit: Hunger GamesTM Unofficial Fan Tours

The one-day tour costs $94 and includes location tour, transportation, lunch, and hands-on activities. Locations include: Presidents Snow’s Mansion (The Swan House at the Atlanta History Center), District 12, The Victory Tour, and the beginning of the Games – tick tock! A series of weekend experiences is planning as well. Those, costing $549, include lodging, meals, transportation to filming locations, tour guides and mentors, and hands-on activities like archery, food that your favorite characters would have experienced, and a Gala Banquet. You’ll use your newly learned survival skills to compete in your own games simulation.

To make reservations, go to www.hungergamesunofficialfantours.com or call 855-668-4332.

Anarctic cruise line adds polar snorkeling

October 3, 2013
Polar snorkeling with a seal (photo Goran Ehlme - Waterproof Expeditions)

Polar snorkeling with a seal (photo Goran Ehlme – Waterproof Expeditions)

Arctic lovers, here’s the next big thing. Australian-based Antarctic cruise operator Aurora Expeditions has added another ice-breaking adventure to its lineup of polar pursuits – snorkeling – and they say they’re the first cruise operator to offer it. Passengers who take the frigid plunge will have the chance to go on daily dips in sheltered bays, around offshore islands and near secluded ship wrecks. Along with experiencing the beauty of sculpted icebergs below the surface, snorkelers might witness penguins entering and exiting from the ice and swim near seals and other marine mammals. Can you imagine?

The polar snorkeling option joins an activity lineup including scuba diving, sea kayaking, and camping, and is operated onboard by Dutch outfitters Waterproof Expeditions, which uses dry suits, gloves, hood, fins, and masks specially designed for the 28-degree Fahrenheit water temperature. Personally, I’m sticking to Caribbean snorkeling, though maybe I’d change my mind once in Antarctica. No plans this year. It’s a pricey trip!

Taking a break while polar snorkeling (photo Roger Munns - Waterproof Expeditions)

Taking a break while polar snorkeling (photo Roger Munns – Waterproof Expeditions)

Aurora Expeditions voyages aboard the 54-passenger, ice-strengthened Polar Pioneer depart from the far southern ports of South America. Prices start at $7,200 a person. The snorkeling option adds $975 and is available on these trips: Across the Antarctic Circle, Feb. 10 to 19, Feb. 19 to 28, 2014, and Feb. 19 to 28, 2015; and Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula, Feb. 28 to March 11, 2014 and Feb. 28 to March 9, 2015.

Greenville, SC, is a Southern surprise

September 8, 2013

Greenville’s awesome food festival — Euphoria — is coming up Sept. 26-29. This year’s version features singer Kim Carnes, a whole lotta chefs, and even more food. If you can’t make the festivities, any time is a good time to visit. You don’t even have to do any planning — just follow the itinerary from my “36 Hours in Greenville” story that ran in the Boston Globe on March 17. Happy trails!

By Diane Daniel

GREENVILLE, S.C. — This city of 62,000 halfway between Charlotte and Atlanta took a huge hit when its bustling textile manufacturing industry moved overseas in the 1960s. A decade later, then-Mayor Max Heller, a Holocaust refugee from Austria, set about infusing downtown with a European flavor, encouraging foot traffic, shops, and sidewalk cafes. The revitalization started in the 1980s with the construction of a Hyatt Regency and hasn’t stopped since. In fact, the Hyatt just underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation.

Today visitors will encounter a bustling center with scores of shops and restaurants and anchored by a stunning waterfall park. Meanwhile, global employers BMW and Michelin have attracted thousands of workers to the area, while Tour de France veteran George Hincapie has lured a growing community of cyclists to his adopted hometown to play in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Day 1

3 p.m.

Park it:  Start your visit with a Greenville History Tour (864-567-3940, http://www.greenvillehistorytours.com, $12), where you learn that in 1873, Bostonians Oscar Sampson and George Hall opened the city’s first textile operation along the Reedy River.

Greenville’s award-winning Liberty Bridge

Greenville’s award-winning Liberty Bridge

In 2002, Boston architect Miguel Rosales was tapped to help revive the blighted area with his award-winning Liberty Bridge. The elegant 355-foot curved suspension bridge for pedestrians replaced a car bridge that had obscured the falls 28 feet below. When it opened in 2004, the bridge united the city and provided a stunning focal point for the 26-acre Falls Park on the Reedy (Main Street at Camperdown Way, 864-467-4355, http://www.fallspark.com).

6 p.m.

Greenville grown:  American Grocery Restaurant (732 South Main St., 864-232-7665, http://www.americangr.com, entrees $26- $37) brought seasonal Carolina cuisine here in 2007 and has maintained its status as culinary kingpin since.

American Grocery Restaurant

American Grocery Restaurant

Owners Joe and Darlene Clarke set a refined but unfussy tone in two compact rooms with exposed brick walls and dark furnishings. Dishes change weekly, but rabbit and trout are often on the menu, such as in Blue Chip Farms rabbit loin with tagliatelle pasta, marinated kale, and red pepper cream ($27).

8 p.m.

After-dinner drinks:  Restaurateur Josh Beeby bows to the brew at Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria (25 West Washington St., 864-232-3706, http://www.barleysgville.com) and, downstairs, in The Trappe Door (23 West Washington St., 864-451-7490, http://www.trappedoor.com). Barley’s is bright and airy, while the Belgian-influenced Trappe is dark and squat. At either spot, you’ll find good grub and dozens of top-flight American craft and Belgian beers.

Day 2

10 a.m.

Culture corner: Originally the site of Greenville Women’s College, Heritage Green is an 11-acre swath of land downtown devoted to housing institutions of education and culture. At the Children’s Museum of the Upstate (300 College St., 864-233-7755, http://www.tcmupstate.org, $9-$10), youngsters scramble over the Kaleidoscope Climber, an elaborate multistory climbing structure. The Upcountry History Museum (540 Buncombe St., 864-467-3100, http://www.upcountryhistory.org, $3-$5) follows the area’s growth, especially its textile manufacturing past.

Satellite location of Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery in former Coca-Cola bottling plant

Satellite location of Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery

New Englanders might be surprised to learn that the Greenville County Museum of Art (420 College St., 862-271-7570, http://www.gcma.org, free admission) houses the world’s most complete collection of Andrew Wyeth watercolors. The newest addition on the Green is a satellite location of Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery (516 Buncombe St., 864-770-1331, http://www.bjumg.org, $3-$5), which opened in 2008 in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant. Educational displays upstairs enrich the holdings.

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Paperhand puts ‘Invisible Earth’ on the map

August 14, 2013

Darwin narrates evolution

Darwin narrates evolution

The current production of the amazing Paperhand Puppet Intervention is one of our favorites among the nine and counting we’ve seen. “Invisible Earth” features a Charles Darwin character fast-forwarding through evolution with a message of peace, love, and stewardship — the usual lofty Paperhand themes. As always, Paperhand’s visuals amaze both children and adults. This year’s include dancing amoebas, barnyard animals, funky monkeys, a huge elegiac mask with outstretched arms, and a humanoid assembled with Japanese lanterns. Several times throughout the 90-minute show, cast members glided the stage waving huge strips of fluttering fabric hanging from bamboo poles, sometimes sending the caressing cloth out over the audience. Truly poetry in motion. Another highlight this year: gorgeous, searing music composed by Ari Picker (Lost in the Trees) and, as always, performed live by the Paperhand Band. Below are a few of our favorite images. But please, go see for yourself! Paperhand will be at its annual summer home, the historic outdoor Forest Theatre on the UNC Chapel Hill campus, through Sept. 8, and then at the NC Museum of Art amphitheater Sept. 13-15.

Stiltwalkers portray jelly fish

This year’s creations include jellyfish on stilts

Pigs walk through the audience to join the animal orchestra

Pigs walk through the audience to join the animal orchestra

The animal orchestra in action

The animal orchestra in action

Scene of the Visions of Earth

Giant masks are a Paperhand signature

The Great Unfolding

Outstretched arms signal a lantern surprise (top secret!)

Manatees in Florida: a magical day

July 21, 2013

Until this month, I’d seen manatees at state parks, in research facilities, and in the wild at places they’re known to congregate. My favorite time with Florida’s “sea cows” was a few years ago, when Lina and I went kayaking in Crystal River, where manatees like to spend their winter near always-warm springs. We were on a tour with Save the Manatee Club, a fantastic nonprofit organization. It opposes “swim-with” manatee programs (as do I in general) and discourages humans from touching manatees unless the manatee initiates it. Manatees came near our kayaks, but we kept our hands inside.

My paddling pal and manatee whisperer

My paddling pal and manatee whisperer

I finally had my first fully wild and random manatee encounter recently, and it was a memorable one! And I have to admit that I chose to compromise the “no touch” philosophy. Here’s how it unfolded.

My pal Kelly (left), who rents one of our condo units at Indian Rocks Beach, offered to join me on a little kayak outing on the Intracoastal Waterway. I was glad she did, because later she told me she’s a manatee magnet. Wow, was she ever right!

We were paddling around enjoying the Sunday afternoon when I saw a gray blob. At first I thought it was a dolphin, but it just floated there and Kelly suggested it was a manatee. I’m used to seeing them later in the year, but I’ve since discovered they’re definitely around the Intracoastal in the summer.

Manatees got close to Lina and me in Crystal River in 2008

Manatees got close to Lina and me in Crystal River in 2008

We paddled in the direction of the blob, and sure enough, it was a manatee, plus two more. We heard them before we saw them, as they surfaced for air and exhaled above the water’s surface. They continued to come near us, or we’d follow them, and finally one came close enough that I touched its snout with my finger. I screamed with joy! And then it came back, swimming right alongside my kayak. I stroked its entire back, all slimy and rough, and then I screamed some more. I yelled out a few too many times “I pet a manatee!!!!!!!” Kelly of course wanted to do the same, so we kept looking for them, but after 10 minutes of not coming close to another one we finally gave up and headed to a nearby bird sanctuary island.

A minute later I heard Kelly scream with excitement. “Oh my God, oh my God!” A manatee was headed her way, and then it SURFACED under her kayak and she was AIRBORNE. Sorry for all the CAPS but I’m getting excited again thinking about it. I was about 25 feet away and it was like watching a movie. No way could this be happening! Her kayak wobbled as it rolled over the manatee’s back, then the friendly beast took off with a huge splash in Kelly’s direction. We were screaming and laughing with joy! “Dude, you rode a manatee!” I yelled. “Dude, I rode a manatee!” she replied. “Legally!” I added, in case anyone was listening. How big was it? I have no idea, but I do know that the average Florida manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs close to 1,200 pounds. Whoa!

Manatee swims near kayaker holding a camera underwater (photo Steve Sapienza)

Manatee swims near kayaker holding a camera underwater (photo Steve Sapienza)

A just-released report by the Mote Marine Laboratory (visit its aquarium in Sarasota) says manatees can feel water movements thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair — an ability that makes them one of the most touch-sensitive mammals on earth. So clearly that little escapade was no accident. That manatee knew what it was doing — playing around with one of its fans. While I can’t say I want to be airborne atop a manatee, and Kelly agreed that once is enough, it was a magical manatee moment we will never forget. Here’s hoping you get yours!

Bicycle rides around the country, and the world

June 18, 2013

Here in North Carolina, our summer days are often too dang hot for bike riding, unless you get up at the crack o’ dawn (which we occasionally do). But in many parts of the country and certainly in northern Europe, where one of us hails from, this is the ultimate cycling season. To that end, some trips to inspire you.

201306_01_placestobikeFirst, check out the book “Fifty Places to Bike Before You Die,” by Chris Santella (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95). Santella is more editor than author — he enlists advice from a hosts of cyclists, from advocates to tour guides to writers. It’s a great read, and for cyclists like us, it’s like reading a dessert menu that spans the globe.

For those of us sticking closer to home, I wrote a list of cross-state bike rides for the Boston Globe that I’m reprinting here. As avid cyclists know, nearly every state these days offers some kind of multiple-day ride. Many are staged by volunteers or advocacy groups and are quite affordable, though, yeah, you’re not staying at the Four Seasons. For you luxury-minded riders, I suggest a trip with a commercial tour company, of which there are zillions. For the rest of us, check these out or Google your way to rides in your favorite states.

Participants of the Ride the Rockies

Participants of the Ride the Rockies

RIDE THE ROCKIES

One of the most rugged cross-state tours, this year’s sold-out Colorado version (right), from Telluride to Colorado Springs, features three scenic mountain passes and 20,400 feet of climbing over 513 miles. June 8-15, http://www.ridetherockies.com (Some friends are about to embark on an awesome Colorado tour. I had to pass because of my work schedule. So sad.)

BIKEMAINE

Inaugural weeklong event kicks off Sept. 7 with a challenging 400-mile loop starting in Orono and including stops in Belfast, Castine, Bar Harbor, and Bangor, with a cumulative elevation gain of 24,000 feet. Routes will change yearly. http://ride.bikemaine.org/

201306_03_RAGBRAI

RAGBRAI

The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, an annual seven-day, 470-mile ride in July, is the oldest (since 1972), largest, and longest bicycle touring event in the world. Day passes available. July 21-27, http://www.ragbrai.com (I did this in 2005.  What a blast!!!!!!!! Make sure you train for it!)

RIDE ACROSS WASHINGTON

This year’s tour, themed “Pines to Vines,” takes 250 riders from near the Canadian border north of Spokane south to the Hood River with about 21,000 feet of climbing and spectacular scenery. Aug. 3-10, http://www.cascade.org

Logo of the 2013 Bike Florida tour

Logo of the 2013 Bike Florida tour

BIKE FLORIDA

The 20th anniversary ride, in early spring 2014, will showcase northeast Florida’s back roads, trails, and beaches. Dates and stops to be determined. http://www.bikeflorida.org

Fans of family entertainment flock to Branson

May 20, 2013

I was surprised by how many of my East Coast friends had never heard of Branson, Missouri, one of the country’s top tourism draws. I described it to them as “G-rated Vegas without the gambling,” but now that I’ve been, I need to amend that add “with a generous scoop of Christianity and patriotism.”

Photo ExploreBranson.com

A walkway runs along Lake Taneycomo in Branson [Photo ExploreBranson.com]

If you like family-friendly variety shows and if you don’t need a drink during said show, and if you are Christian and patriotic, you’ll love Branson. I was there for a travel writers’ conference last weekend and toured around a bit. Truthfully, I felt a bit like a donkey out of water, so to speak. But that’s OK. I appreciated Branson for what it offered its fans, of which there are many. (The fairly remote Ozark Mountains town of just 10,500 hosts more than 7.5 million tourists a year and generates nearly $3 billion in annual tourism revenue. Wow.) And I admired its resilience after a tornado destroyed many buildings just last year, including the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel, where I stayed. There was nary a sign of distress at the Hilton, one of the nicest I’ve stayed in.

Branson Airport

Branson Airport

The two-room Branson Airport, serviced by Southwest, is totally cute, with hillbilly décor befitting its locale. Tourists visit two areas – “the strip,” Highway 76, where the show theaters are, and downtown. In town, Main and Commercial streets are home to several “flea market” type shops and the famous Dick’s 5 and 10 (loved the linoleum and the merchandise). A block away on the waterfront is the newish Branson Landing development, an outdoor mall anchored by Bass Pro Shops White River Outpost. A walkway runs along Lake Taneycomo (which connects to Table Rock Lake), and the view is lovely. The main fountain area is a favorite gathering place for visitors. I also recommend Waxy O’Shea’s, where I had a most delicious Mother’s IPA, brewed up the road in Springfield, Mo.

Mother’s IPA is brewed up the road in Springfield, Mo.

Mother’s IPA is brewed up the road in Springfield, Mo.

The tourism folks took my group on a few side trips, including to Silver Dollar City, a longtime amusement park now boasting a giant wooden roller coaster called Outlaw Run. Also wild is the Powder Keg coaster, which launches passengers from zero to 53 miles-per-hour in 2.8 seconds. I had no idea that was its “thing,” and when I watched it from standing still to screaming speed, my jaw dropped.

We writers broke up into groups and toured different spots. I checked out Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, developed by the Bass Pro folks. This is nature lite, and quite manufactured at that, but it’s well done and I’m guessing introduces people to the great outdoors who might not otherwise venture out. Visitors can explore the 6-mile paved loop by foot, bike or guided tram, and only the tram will take you to the Elk and Bison pasture. I cycled, and it was quite pleasant. The chapel was particularly nice – I’m sure many people get married there.

Cycling at Dogwood Canyon Nature Park

Cycling at Dogwood Canyon Nature Park

Some of my writer friends on that trip went on to the Branson Zipline, which they described as soft adventure, but any zipline is too much for me, so I passed. Others went fishing with the Bass Pro folks. That sounded cool, but, again, not my thing. I wish I’d had time to kayak. Folks at Kayak Branson told me they were considering a kayak station right from Branson Landing, which would be wonderfully convenient. Another writer friend loved her tour of Christian-focused College of the Ozarks, aka “Hard Work U.,” where students work instead of pay tuition. They make their own everything, including clothing, furniture, and butter, and even run a hotel. Interesting! I wish I’d had the chance to see it. All the writers toured the Titanic Museum Attraction, fascinating in that inside the half-scale replica you feel you’re on the Titanic.

After my visit, I’m now very curious to see “We Always Lie to Strangers,” a new documentary billed as “a story of family, community, music and tradition set against the backdrop of Branson.” The film also explores how conservative Branson will change (or not) as the country becomes more socially liberal. Interesting points to ponder about this  intriguing place to visit.


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