Archive for the ‘Florida’ Category

This Alamo is worth remembering

March 23, 2009

Remember the Alamo?

I’ve done enough grumbling about rental car agencies that it’s a relief to have something nice to say for a change. A couple days after I got home from a trip to Florida, I realized my credit card was missing. I remembered throwing it on the seat of my rental car after getting gas on the way to return the car, and that’s the last time I’d seen it. 

I called Alamo Rent A Car at Tampa International Airport, where I’d turned in my car two days earlier, to see if the card had been returned. I assumed absolutely nothing would come of the call, until, that is, I spoke with Wini McKee, a customer service rep who organizes the lost-and-found department. Wini said no one had turned in the card, as I expected, but then she went above and beyond to track the car using my reservation number, call the people who were then renting it (!), and ask if they had found the card. They had! They were turning the car in the next day and said they would turn in the card. Wini mailed my credit card back to me immediately.

A little aside. When my card was turned in, Wini had initially forgotten I was the one she had talked to about it. So she called me to say my card had been found. Which is to say, even I hadn’t known it was lost, Wini would have tracked me down to say it had been found.

Some of this is about Alamo’s policy, not just Wini’s. But it takes conscientious employees to follow a company’s policy. Wini has worked at the company for 15 years, and in Tampa for about five, around when Alamo decided to have a bona-fide lost-and-found. Before, “it was a complete disaster,” said Wini, who ably whipped things into shape. Some of the items she’s reunited with their owners: wallets filled with cash, digital cameras, glasses, retainers, and hearing aids. “I find that most customers are honest and will report things found in the cars.”

Thanks to Wini, Alamo, and their honest customers for inspiring me to write a positive car-rental story for once.


The biggest buzz I’ve ever had

March 12, 2009

The bees start to gather in our tree

A most amazing thing happened to me two days ago while I was staying at our little condo on Indian Rocks Beach, Fla. I was sitting outside having lunch before heading out to visit my quite ill mother when I heard a strange humming sound. I looked around and saw a huge swarm of bees heading up our little street. They were in a pack, but flying every which way.  A few neighbors came out to watch.

At a certain point I decided to go inside and watch through the window. The swarm came closer, then proceeded to cluster on a fairly thin branch of an oak tree a few feet from our front door! In a few seconds (seconds!) they had formed a tight blob o’ bees, with just a few flying around. A BIG blob!

People were walking under the tree for a look, but I wasn’t so brave/stupid. I peered outside, then went in to make a few calls seeking information. Because, what did it all mean? Plus, we had monthlong renters coming the very next day. What if they were bee-phobic or even allergic?!

A swarm of bees has settled down

The swarm settles in. But for how long?

I called town hall and the county extension service, which handles all things of the natural world. (In rural areas, extension agents work closely with farmers.) Long story short: I learned from a city public service worker and an extension agent that my new neighbors were likely honey bees, but beekeepers weren’t interested in coming to fetch them because of the influx of nasty African bees. If they didn’t leave they would need to be exterminated. (Noooo!) But likely they were migrating to a new home, and would move on in a day or two to keep looking for suitable holes to snuggle up in. Later I found some great information  about honey bee swarms online.

A big blob of bees is hanging from a branch

Is this a blob o' bees or what? Any guesses as to how many bees are here?

The bees pretty much kept to themselves, though I did keep the front door closed. Their pulsating, wiggling mass fascinated me, and I begin to feel quite honored that they’d planted themselves in our tree. I know enough about bees to know how incredibly well-run their colonies are. Plus, what woman doesn’t have fantasies of being a queen bee with a few thousand workers and drones serving her?

Each time I came and went, I checked on the bees. Their natural powers transfixed me, and I felt protected by them. (Yeah, yeah, I got carried away.) The next day I came home from Mom’s around lunchtime to clean up the condo to make it ready for our renters, whose surname happens to be BEEchey. (Coincidence? Hmmmmm…)

The queen and her army is off to another destination

The queen and her troops are off to another destination. Bye-bye, honey bees!

Indeed the bees were still there. I’d already alerted the property manager and tried to contact the Beecheys, to no avail. As I put my key in the front door I heard a buzzing sound and looked up. They were dispersing! In a few seconds the swarm was off, soaring over neighbors’ homes, flying to their next destination. I watched them go, and wondered about the few stragglers who stayed in the tree.

I like to think queen waited for me to return so they could say goodbye. Some would say that absolutely she did and others would say hogwash.  I do know this much: that was one major buzz!

Sunsets: solar energy for the eyes

March 6, 2009

There are fans and critics of daylight saving time, which starts THIS weekend in the United States (go here to see DST rules worldwide), but I think we can agree that pretty much everyone loves a good sunset.  Here are a few of our favorites, all taken by Wessel:

The sky is on fire over Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Sky is on fire over the lesser-known side of Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Midnight sun as seen on the Lofoten, Norway

The ever-blazing midnight sun as seen on Norway's Lofoten islands in June

Sunset over marshy area connecten with Lake Gaston, VA

Diane's favorite colors combine in this stunning show near Lake Gaston, Va.

Heron during a PS sunset experience in Florida

A heron poses in the afterglow of a sunset over Cayo Costa State Park, Fla.

Roxy outshines her celestial competitor

Roxy outshines her celestial backdrop at Indian Rocks Beach, Fla.

A birthday shoutout to two awesome ladies

February 28, 2009
Diane's two favorite senior ladies

Birthday girls Kitty and Roxy

Happy birthday to my two favorite senior ladies! They would be Kitty and Roxy. While Roxy is a dog (the foxy doxy with moxy), Kitty is not a cat, but my Mom (short for Catherine).  And the truth is that today is neither one’s birthday. Mom doesn’t even get a birthday this year, because she’s a Leap Year baby. In LY age, she’s 22.25, but being born in 1920 makes her 89.

Roxy is best friends with Kitty especially when being served premium cat food

Roxy loves her grandma, especially when treats are involved

As for Roxy, when I adopted her, I didn’t have a birthdate, so I decided to match her with Mom’s. But then I figured she’d want one every year, if she had the choice, so Roxy’s unofficial birthday is Feb. 28. She is 14. Of course then there’s the whole dog age vs. human age debate. It’s not accurate to “multiple times seven,” because so much depends on the dog’s weight. (The smaller the dog, the longer their lifespan.) Based on what I’ve read, I’m figuring that Ms. Roxy is around 70.

Kitty with co-resident Callie

Kitty with her kitty, co-resident Callie

Roxy and Mom are great pals, especially when Mom has treats for her granddog. But, truly, the apple of Mom’s eye is Callie, her Maine coon cat. We named her Callie because we ignorantly thought she was a calico. Um, not even close. (Of course she’s not from Maine, either.) Mom adopted Callie in 1997, and they’ve been inseparable since. The wonderful Vineyard Inn, where Mom lives in Florida, allows her to keep Callie there. (The Vineyard is neither a vineyard nor an inn, but a terrific assisted living facility in Seminole.)

So while nothing in this little report has been straightforward, I can say, without disclaimers or explanation, that I love them both very much. Mom, I’ll see you soon! Happy Birthday from your daughter and son-in-law.

The worst speed traps? They’re in Florida

February 9, 2009

Billboard on US Highway 301 S. warning drivers about Lawtey's speed trap

Danger, danger. If you’re among the flock of snowbirds driving from the Great White North to Florida this winter and you wisely opt for the scenic, less-trafficked route along US Highway 301 South from Baldwin to Gainesville or Ocala, beware that you will pass two notorious speed traps.

Before you reach the towns of Waldo and Lawtey (20 miles apart), which use speeding-violation fines to fill their coffers, you’ll see billboards giving fair warning. While unsigned, the billboards are paid for by the American Automobile Association.

Police officer with speed gun just over Lawtey city limits. We took this in September 2010.

“Waldo and Lawtey are the only two municipalities in the US recognized by AAA as traffic traps,” Gregg Laskoski, spokesman for AAA Auto Club South, told me today. While AAA designates some other towns as a “strict enforcement” area for speeders, only Waldo and Lawtey have the not-so-complimentary speed-trap label.  “The distinction comes when the municipality exceeds a certain level of its budget funded exclusively by traffic tickets. We’re not sure exactly what theirs is, but we know they’re high.”

Earlier newspaper reports have put the towns’ ticketing income at a third of their budgets. And an ABC News report last July said that in Lawtey, population 700, police officers in 2007 wrote nearly 9,000 tickets, netting the town $300,000. That’s more than 25 tickets a day!

The police response is always “We’re just making sure people are safe.”

According to earlier articles, AAA pressed the Florida Department of Transportation to at least give drivers more warning. Now there are markers saying “speed strictly enforced.” In Lawtey and Waldo’s defense (though I think they deserve their bad reputations), they’ve erected pre-speed signs highlighted with brightly colored reflective strips that warn of impending speed reductions, from 65 gradually down to 30. I drive this route enough to know they’re not kidding.

If you get nailed, see hints on fighting speed-trap tickets at the National Motorists Association’s site at And of course we’d love to hear your speed-trap stories.

On *not* swimming with manatees

February 1, 2009
Manatee and her calf swim near kayaker holding a camera underwater (photo Steve Sapienza)

Manatee and her calf swim near kayaker holding a camera underwater (photo Steve Sapienza)

My piece on *not* swimming with manatees, but instead going on a kayak trip near their sanctuaries, ran on the front of the Boston Globe’s travel section today. Coincidentally, it came out a week after a New York Times’ Escapes-section story on swimming with manatees that did not even mention the controversy around intruding into the natural life of a wild creature, much less an endangered one. That breaks my heart.

With the Times’ reach, it would have been so meaningful to impart even a little bit of that information. Also, to my eye, the photo the Times ran makes it look like the guide is holding the manatee in place (strictly forbidden) so the snorkelers have time to photograph and pet it. Very sad, if not illegal. 

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

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

As I wrote here last month, the highlight of our Crystal River, Fla., manatee-themed trip was the “Do Not Disturb” kayak tour sponsored by Save the Manatee Club and led by guide Matt Clemons, owner of Aardvark’s Florida Kayak Co.

It just so happened that Steve Sapienza, the Florida sales rep for Washington-state kayak maker Eddyline, landed in town that week for the winter. He came on the kayak tour to help out his pal Matt. Steve has a water-resistant camera, and whenever manatees would come near us, he’d simply place his hand underwater and shoot. I was amazed to see the outcome! Steve was thrilled that the Globe ended up putting his mother/calf photo on the Travel section front, and he’s letting us use his photos here as well.

Manatee almost touches Wessel`s kayak

Manatee almost touches Wessel`s kayak

This made us think that we must get Wessel a water resistant camera! Nonetheless, Wessel did an outstanding job of photographing the gentle giants from above.

I heard from Globe reader Jason Viola, who said he was happy to see a story that focused on not swimming with the manatees. Jason draws “Herman the Manatee,” a manatee comic strip, of all things, and sent me this one that reflects his similarly conflicted feelings about getting in the water with the creatures he so loves.

A bird’s guide to drip-drying

January 26, 2009

Double-crested cormorant (adult non-breeding plumage) is drying its wings

Wessel gives us this dispatch from Florida:

Kayaking has become one of our favorite pastimes over the past two years. It’s pleasant because it allows a look at the world from a different much lower angle at a pace that’s much slower than usual. Probably because of this much humbler behavior wildlife seems to tolerate kayaking humans better than humans in walking or cycling mode. During our last visit to Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., in December we ventured out on the Intracoastal Waterway. That is to say we stayed on the sidelines, to keep a safe distance from the actual Intracoastal Highway where boats speed by and create impressive wakes.


The full drying stretch

There’s a surprising amount of wildlife. On our trip we saw great blue herons, egrets, and even a dolphin. I tried to take a photo of the dolphin but it tricked me swimming in random directions during 20-25 second dives before re-emerging. I was much more successful with a cormorant perched on a pole with its wings stretched and exposed to the sun. Apparently cormorants need to dry their plumage because they do not have oil in their skin to protect their feathers from getting wet like ducks and other water birds do.

Cormorant's green eyes

Cormorants have intense green eyes

I am a casual bird watcher and didn’t know  much about cormorants. Someone had recently mentioned that cormorants have intense green eyes. This can be seen when the photo is enlarged. When reading about cormorants I learned that the green part is the iris. The extremely constricted pupil is as small as the head of a pin and is hardly visible in my photo. Many other diving birds (e.g. penguins, loons, grebes) also have intensely colored eyes, in all cases due to a combined effect of iris color and constricted pupil. The pupil dilates to a large aperture in the low-light conditions underwater. Unfortunately I don’t have photos to prove that statement.

Manatee mania in Florida

January 6, 2009
Mother and baby manatee as seen from bridge

Mother and calf manatee as seen from a bridge in Crystal River, FL

“Oh how beautiful, oh baby. Hey baby.”

I cracked up when I heard a fellow kayaker say that to a manatee. These sea creatures are huge, with wrinkly noses that look like a elephant’s snout without a trunk. From above, their bodies look like, well, giant floating turds. But they do have that “hey, baby” effect on people. On Wessel and me, too.

We couldn’t get enough of the mammals last month in Florida, when we went to Citrus County, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico, which could be renamed Manateeland, USA. Crystal River/Kings Bay is the winter home to hundreds of manatees. When the weather cools down, manatees, which need warm water to survive gather at the natural springs in the Crystal River area, which maintain a water temperature of 72 degrees (22°C) year round.

Manatee as Christmas tree ornament

Manatee as Christmas tree decoration

We saw manatee signs, trinkets, mailboxes, license plates, statues, Christmas decorations, and, of course, the celebrities themselves. We watched rehabilitated captive manatees being fed (they’re herbivores) at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, viewed groups of them, often a mother and calf, from a bridge in Crystal River, and were surrounded by them during our “Do Not Disturb” kayak trip through Save the Manatee Club. Having a manatee glide right under your kayak just below the water is quite the experience!! The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds.

Matt Clemons (standing) during kayak trip convinced Diane to not swim with manatees

Matt Clemons (standing) during kayak trip convinced Diane to not swim with manatees

Our trip was led by one of the state’s top manatee advocates, Matt Clemons of Aardvark’s Florida Kayak Company, which donates 50 percent of the cost of the trip to Save the Manatee Club. In some ways, the manatees are being loved to death. There are now a slew of outfitters that take people out to snorkel around them, which means a couple dozen humans are descending on a pod of manatees. Some people say that the playful creatures initiate touching and appreciate human contact. Others say that touching manatees, even when the manatee goes first, upsets their natural balance in many ways unnoticed by the average person. Worse, they say, some snorkelers all out harass the endangered species, chasing them, blocking them, and even trying to ride them. I’ll be writing about this more in my upcoming story about them for the Boston Globe.

As I told Matt, I was annoyed with him because before I started reading up on the issue on his and the Save the Manatee website, I was very excited to “swim with the manatees.” Though I’d wanted to do it for years, I did have a nagging feeling all the while that it seem quite right. Matt and others confirmed that hunch, damn them!

Diane `swims` with manatee

Diane `swims` with the manatees after all

Actually, Wessel and I did end up swimming with the manatees, but not really in the conventional way, as you can see here. We also “adopted” Lily, a lovely lady who lives in Blue Spring State Park in Orange City. We didn’t make it to visit her this trip, because I needed to spend time with human relatives, but it’s on the list. If you’re interested in seeing manatees, here are some great spots to go in Florida. Just view from afar, please! And click here to see more of Wessel’s amazing manatee photos.

Flocking to Florida, and back again

December 30, 2008
Sign at Florida welcome center on I-95

Sign at Florida Welcome Center on I-95

Here come the Canadians – and the New Yorkers, Mainers, and more. While we generally try to avoid traffic, driving to Florida the weekend before Christmas, at the start of North Americans’ migration to warmer climes, put Wessel and me in the thick of things.

Ontario - Yours to discover

These snow birds leave it to others to discover Ontario

The most direct north-to-south route, Interstate 95, was filled with out-of-state cars, most bearing license plates from New York (“The Empire State”),  Ontario (“Yours To Discover”) and  Quebec (“Je Me Souviens”). But we saw a little bit of everything from up the East Coast and over to eastern Midwest. Cars were packed with luggage, packages, toys, kids, and dogs. One pickup, from New York, was towing four jet skis and a canoe.

Dachshunds Roxy (top) and Sabrina took a 12-hour nap in Diane's lap

Dachshunds Roxy (top) and Sabrina took a 12-hour nap on Diane's lap

We had a full car as well – two humans, two wiener dogs, two bicycles and a load o’ stuff in a two-door Honda Civic. Me being the alpha (bitch?), Roxy and Sabrina feel the need to be by my side at all times, so driving positions are aligned to accommodate loving on them. (Some would say this is wrong, but if loving them is wrong, I don’t want to be right.)

I often make the 12-hour trek from North Carolina alone, so having Wessel along to share the driving was a treat. We stopped at many rest areas, and, as always, Florida’s was the best, with its free orange and grapefruit juice.

Santa had some dowtime on the beach after Christmas

Santa had some downtime on the beach after Christmas

Many of the retired Canucks will be staying in the Sunshine State through early spring, and who can blame them? Last week, while it was frigid and snowy in the north, we were jogging along Indian Rocks Beach, bicycling, kayaking with manatees, watching nightly sunsets, and feeling the warm ocean breeze.

Me, I’ll be heading back to North Carolina on New Year’s Eve, and I’m sure I won’t be alone on the road. I will be alone in the car, however. Wessel flew home yesterday so he could hurry back to the office, whereas my office stays with me. Sometimes I use the great guidebook “Drive I-95” by Stan Posner and Sandra Phillips-Posner , which leads me to fascinating diversions along the way, but Wednesday it will be a straight-through trip so I can settle in at home before the ball drops. See you on the road.

Tampa’s Super Bowl antidote

December 9, 2008
The Weedon Island Preserve in Pinellas County sits just off a busy highway on the way to Tampa

The Weedon Island Preserve in Pinellas County sits just off a busy highway on the way to Tampa

While Clearwater and St. Petersburg beaches grab most of tourists’ attention in Pinellas County, one of the area’s environmental and cultural jewels sits just off a busy highway on the way to Tampa. So if you’re Super-Bowl bound next month, make sure to add Weedon Island Preserve to your agenda. Because you have to do something other than watch football and drink beer, right? (Don’t answer that.)

The Weedon Island Preserve offers two paddling trails

The kayak and canoe launch from where two paddling trails start

Situated along the shore of Tampa Bay, the park covers 3,700 acres of protected land set among mangrove stands and sabal palm. Wheelchair-accessible boardwalks and 3 miles of hiking trails with picnic areas lead walkers throughout the preserve while two water trails take paddlers around mangroves and over open shallow waters and seagrass and oyster beds. Kayak and canoe rentals are available, so you have no excuse.

The fishing pier is popular with locals, while visitors won’t want to miss the 45-foot observation tower. The last time we were there, with Wessel’s parents, they spotted an armadillo. Big excitement for them! The preserve also is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, and you’ll see birders wandering about with their life lists or whatever they call those things.

The Cultural and Natural History Center opened in the fall of 2002 and has an observation deck

The Cultural and Natural History Center opened in the fall of 2002 and has an observation deck

History and culture get their due here as well, at the beautifully designed information and exhibition center. Try to go when the center is open (hours below) because the exhibits are great. So are the restrooms and water fountains, though maybe those are outside of the center. Oops. I can’t remember. A permanent exhibit installed last year explores the watershed ecology and the island’s history, which included ancient Indian cultures and even Prohibition speakeasies, of all things. In May 2008, a 45-foot canoe buried for about 10 centuries was found buried in mud on the preserve. Archeologists are still trying to determine how best to excavate it. Of course they’re not telling us where it is.

The Preserve has mangrove swamps with tidal creeks

The Preserve has mangrove swamps with tidal creeks

Weedon Island rangers and volunteers run a lot of programs — hiking, bird watching, photography, canoeing, and more, and you don’t have to be a resident to partake. So get out from the behind the big-screen TV and stretch your legs in natural Florida.

Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center, 1800 Weedon Drive NE, St. Petersburg, 727-453-6500, The preserve is open dawn to dusk daily, while the center is open Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except holidays.