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We pretty much blew through the rest of Georgia to get down into Florida.... crowded, commercial, balmy, beautiful, tropical Florida! It is a land of contrasts and excesses, more wildlife than we've seen anywhere (manatees, dolphins, turtles, alligators, abundant fish and all sorts of exotic birds from whooping cranes to eagles and osprey), also more condominiums, beachfront hotels, and tourist attractions than we've seen as well.
The Keys had been high on Rus’s list of places to visit. Eternally the dreamer, he had visions of fishing the shallows by day, at night hanging out in some funky raw bar swilling Pabst longnecks, slurping down dozens of those fine gulf oysters and wading through mounds of steamed shrimp while a jukebox pumped out old Fred Neal and Jimmy Buffet singles. As usual, he was about 30 years too late.
There were people everywhere, both winter regulars and weekend tourists. Key West in particular was the predictable formula of bars, restaurants, hotels, boutiques and T-shirt shops, swarms of people wandering up and down the sidewalks looking for something to buy or eat. We parked a few minutes outside of town to wade in the shallows with our dogs, forbidden on most beaches. In town we looked for a place to park, found none, and got the hell out of there.
It was sobering, though, to see the Keys in mid-November and witness the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma only a few weeks before. Palm trees were down everywhere, beach sand had closed roads in Key West, salt water from the storm surge had killed thousands of inland trees, and water-damaged furniture and appliances were piled up outside every home, waiting to be picked up and dumped into huge piles awaiting transfer to even larger dumps on the mainland. Lots of buildings were damaged, hardly any awnings or signs were intact, even our campground had about 50 of its best sites washed away. Hundreds of boats that had been torn from their moorings were washed up on shore in the mangrove thickets, or grounded in the shallows, along with other garbage caught up in the storm. It'll take years to clean up this mess.
After spending a day in the Everglades and seeing enough alligators to last a lifetime, our next Florida destination was St. Pete Beach, on the west coast, a visit to the past. Rus' grandparents had lived there in a beachfront house, and he had many fond memories of their robust and generous spirits, and the white sand beaches and warm Gulf water right in their back yard. Their house was there, we just weren't quite certain which was it, since even the address had changed. But the cracks in the sidewalk where little Rusty had caught anoles looked pretty much the same. Houses along that stretch had all been enlarged since beachfront lots had become so valuable that no-one who could afford one would want to live in a two-bedroom, two-bath bungalow. The beach, though, was the same: clean, white sand and perfect water. It was a short visit and sweet; we didn't stay long enough to even get a parking ticket!
The water's still perfect at St Pete's Beach
We landed that evening at the home of Kathleen's friend, Beth, in nearby Tarpon Springs, where she made us a delicious paella dinner and next day was our guide to some of Florida's abundant natural beauty at a state nature reserve. There we saw our first armadillos, who seemed unconcerned at our presence. Beth also took us to a NY-style deli where the corned beef sandwiches have probably converted people to Judaism, and we celebrated our visit with mango daiquiris all around. Thanks, Beth, for a wonderful visit!
Armadillos at Honeymoon Island Park
Kathleen loved the warm weather, the water, the abundant flora and fauna, and the splendor of light and color that is coastal Florida. She had a delightful time visiting dolphins at the Dolphin Research Institute and taking pictures of animals at Homosassas Springs Wildlife State Park where they rescue injured manatees and other creatures. Rus was more put off by the congestion. All in all, Florida was a paradox to us. For a place with so much stunning natural beauty and wildlife, it was also one of the most difficult for our style of travel. With so many people, so much development, so many rules and regulations, and so little free space, we felt somewhat claustrophobic there. Apparently there's no end in sight: property values in Palm Beach increased 45% or more just this year, even with the hurricanes! Plus, we had to keep our water dog, Ziggy, out of every body of fresh water, so she wouldn't get gobbled up by alligators, like other dogs we heard about.