Mary Selby Botanical Gardens

What to Expect on a Visit

Opened in 1978, the historic home and garden were left to the people of Sarasota by Marie Selby in 1970. Your visit should begin in the Cooley Theater where a 4-minute film gives the background history to this lovely Florida home. Marie Selby and her oil-tycoon husband, William, bought the land in the early 1920s. Although wealthy, they preferred a simple lifestyle which is reflected in the Spanish style home they built and the informal gardens they created.

This was intended as a winter home and a base for hunting and fishing. After the death of Marie Selby, the property has since been developed into a world-famous tropical oasis with an unrivalled collection of air plants called “epiphytes”. It has the largest scientific collection of orchids and bromeliads in the USA.

Your self-guided exploration of Selby Gardens begins in the steamy Tropical House where posts and frames support pots and rocks covered in ferns, orchids and bromeliads in a very natural setting. Waterfalls drip down mossy rocks and exotic orchids bloom at every turn, along with amaryllis, anthurium and a collection of gesneriads. Many of the specimen plants are labeled for easy identification.

Beyond this huge conservatory is the Bonsai collection followed by a shady display of airplants. They are attached to wicker circles creating tiered wind chimes which hang from the low branches of a huge native oak tree. The gentle chimes and oriental script make this a peaceful and harmonious place to take stock of these gardens for the first time.

After the tranquil Koi Pond which has two waterfalls, there are several bamboo stands and ferns including some sizeable tree ferns in the borders. A footpath leads off to the Children’s Rainforest Garden, a family-friendly area of recreated tropical rainforest with a 12-foot waterfall and an amazing banyan tree for scrambling over its roots. It’s a place for children to explore and play with three different huts housing various rainforest-related exhibits.

The huge fig trees planted by the Selbys 80 years ago have grown to create an impressive Banyan Canopy which is an impressive feature of the garden. The showy hibiscus flowers thrive in the Sarasota climate along with an area of succulents. In spring, the huge pink flower tassels of the Pseudobombax Ellipticum or Shaving Brush Tree lie scattered on the lawn and are an extraordinary sight.

The Gazebo on the edge of the lawn makes a stunning focal point to this part of the garden, surrounded by bright annuals in a palm-shaded setting. As you stand admiring the subtropical plantings, heavenly scents waft across from unidentified sources. Geckos and anoles rustle in the fallen leaves and birds enjoy the shelter of the Gumbo Limbo trees. See desert rose plants, exotic strelitzia (bird of paradise), flowering shrubs and giant staghorn and elkhorn ferns suspending high in the air on sturdy chains.

At the extreme south end of the garden is a paved area with seats for enjoying the stunning views of sailboats and pleasure craft moored in the bay beneath the John Ringling Causeway bridge. A scenic pavilion is used as a wedding venue and has beautiful stained glass panels of wildlife high in the roofline.

Close to the boat dock and landing stage is a boardwalk through the protected mangroves leading to a white sandy beach littered with driftwood and seashells. A gentle breeze from the water keeps the air fresh and breezy and the restful lapping of the waves adds to the peace of this pretty garden.

Heading back along the path to the original home, look out for the multicolored trunk of the well-named Rainbow Gum Tree, a type of eucalyptus.

When the house was built, it was coated in expensive cochina shell on the exterior, which was a new and expensive process in the 1920s. The building is now used to provide a Kids Discovery Corner, reading room and a café with indoor and outdoor seating. A small reflecting pool captures part of this lovely structure in its mirror-like surface.

At the rear of the house is the Christy Payne Mansion which houses the Museum of Botany and the Arts and has ever-changing exhibits on a floral or botanical theme. There is a planted butterfly garden in front of the house. The Old Carriage House nearby offers daily tea tastings and is a great place to relax with a well-deserved cuppa!

If you enjoyed reading about this fun experience near Clearwater, you will love the newly updated book/ebook Days Out Around Clearwater and St Pete Beach available on Amazon from just $4.99. Happy trails!

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5 Ways That Crafting Promotes Health and Wellbeing

5 Ways That Crafting Promotes Health and Wellbeing

Not only can crafting help lower your stress and get your mind off things, but there are also other health benefits attributed to crafting.

1) Improve your Mood

Whether you are by yourself, crafting with your significant other, or having a craft party, activating those creative juices can be a great mood enhancer. When you craft with other people, it can turn into a genuinely fun social affair. Even after you finish, the sense of pride you’ll have when people ask you about your piece can turn a frown upside-down.

2) Boost your Brainpower

The focus required while crafting is an effective way to exercise the brain for people of all ages. There have been many studies done that connect the reduced chances of mental deterioration over time with crafting. Also, crafting activates areas of the brain that are not as active during the routine work you may be used to.

3) Increase Social Activity & Communal Support

Crafting provides a unique social atmosphere where not only are you focusing on your craft, but you are connecting with the people you are crafting with. Crafting promotes natural conversation through the pieces you are creating and the questions and answers that come along with it. It is a unique date idea as well as a great activity to plan a party around.

4) Helps with Hand-Eye Coordination

Whether you are doing a large woodworking project or doing a delicate dream catcher, careful hand-eye coordination is required. For many of us who have office jobs, we don’t get to use out hands and make something as often as we would like, crafting gives us a way to use those hands for something else besides typing. We learn our hand-eye coordination early in life with crafting in kindergarten, now we can maintain our skills and dexterity throughout our lives with crafting.

5) Can Help Fight Aging

Whether it be mentally through the focus and brainpower that crafting requires or physically by the improvement in visual-spatial coordination crafting helps with, crafting can help turn back the clock. Also, the social element when crafting with other people can aid keeping your conversation and social skills at their highest levels.

All-in-all, crafting can help our moods, hand-eye coordination, social skills, and even brainpower.

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Ybor City

What to Expect on an Ybor City Historic Walking Tour

On arrival in Ybor City, you may be surprised at how quiet this area actually is, particularly outside the winter season which runs from December to April. However, the area is at its liveliest at night, hence so many nightclubs along the street. By day there is the excellent Visitor Center along with cigar shops, tavernas, cafés and restaurants where you can enjoy coffee or lunch. The area certainly has a lot of character with the original cobbled streets, decorative New Orleans-style architecture, fountains, and a beautiful arched entrance to Centro Ybor.

Meet up at the entrance to Centro Ybor with your Cuban-hatted guide, Lonnie, who has been a local resident for over 30 years. He is a friendly walking encyclopedia of local history and experiences!

Lonnie begins to tell the story of Ybor City circa 1885, with the colorful background to Vincente Martinez-Ybor’s life. Born in Spain, he was sent to Cuba where he learned the cigar business before escaping to Key West where he built his cigar-making empire. Better transport connections, financial incentives, his good friend Gavino Gutierrez, and the chance to build his very own city eventually lured him to Tampa where he established “Mr. Ybor City.” Martinez-Ybor’s attempts to secure a reliable workforce led him to build workers’ homes and offer ownership on very favorable terms, especially as he was already in his late 60s!

As your guide recounts the story of cigar-making and the building of Ybor City, the walking tour meanders along the cobbled streets at an easy pace, stopping to view some of the earliest wooden homes, called “casitas”. They are now part of the National Historic Landmark District which covers 10 square blocks. On the wall of each house is the nail on which the delivery boy would push the daily delivery of crusty Cuban bread!

By 1927, the cigar-making business in Ybor City was at its peak, with 230 cigar factories, and 12,000 workers producing 6 million cigars per year. However, by 1929 the Great Depression took hold; fewer cigars were sold and cigarettes became the “new” cigar. An ugly rumor (totally untrue) that cigars were hand rolled and sealed with saliva, fueled by a fear of tuberculosis, added to the marked decline in the cigar business. Finally, automation arrived and Ybor City was doomed. As factories stood empty, many of the buildings were bulldozed and the area gained a reputation as being dangerous and undesirable.

The walking tour highlights some of the key buildings still remaining on 9th Avenue, such as the mock castle exterior of the former Spanish Men’s Fellowship Hall. Built in 1905, it now serves a new purpose as a nightclub.

Martinez-Ybor’s first factory, a huge redbrick building, is now the headquarters of the Scientology Church, occupying the block on the Avenue Republica de Cuba between 8th and 9th Avenue. Look out for the rooftop cupola, once used to look out for the ships arriving with tobacco leaves from Cuba. Once spotted, a horse and cart was dispatched post-haste to collect the tobacco from the nearby docks before it could be sold to their competitors.

The tour visits the old courtyard where wives would bring a blanket and lunch for their menfolk, who would dash down the steps, eat a hasty meal and then return to their shift, for they were paid by the piece. You’ll learn about the fascinating job of the lectors, who were paid by the cigar workers to read to them as they did their boring task, rolling cigars day after day.

The colonnaded building opposite the factory, built in fine Italian Renaissance style, was the Cherokee Club, the Factory Owners’ Club. This became the city’s first hotel, El Paso, which accommodated Presidents, State Governors and even Winston Churchill in the 1940s. Another historic balconied building featured on the tour is the elegant Don Vincente de Ybor Historic Inn, formerly a doctor’s clinic and maternity home, now said to be haunted. If this tale makes you curious to know more, you may be interested in the two-hour Ybor City Ghost Tour which runs after dark, tracking the spine-chilling tales of past residents.

The historic tour of Ybor city visits the metal steps where Don Vincente de Ybor Historic Inn made the speech which signaled the start of the revolution against the Spanish in Cuba. It also includes the pretty Parque Amigos de Jose Marti, where the Pedrosa House stood and where Marti frequently stayed under the family’s protection. The park is normally kept locked, but the tour guide has a key, giving access to the only patch of Cuban-owned soil in the USA!

The tour concludes in the Visitor Information Center in the former building of the Spanish Social Club. On the old stage, a short movie tells a quick history of Ybor City – but nothing that you won’t have already heard and seen in detail from this excellent walking tour!

Additional Info

As well as the informative Historic Ybor City Walking Tour, the Ghost Tour of Ybor City may interest visitors. It takes place after dark and the local guide leads the way to the Orpheum Theater where illicit lovers are said to haunt the basement; to the King Corona premises, still the “home” of the long-deceased shopkeeper; and to the Cuban Club where the ghost of a boy drowned in the swimming pool still restlessly haunts the premises.

If you enjoyed reading about this fun experience near Clearwater, you will love the newly updated book/ebook Days Out Around Clearwater and St Pete Beach available on Amazon from just $4.99. Happy trails!
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Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

What to Expect at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

I would recommend parking at the main entrance on US 19 as the boat trip is so much fun as you are transported along the river to the main attractions. This entrance is also the place you will find complimentary kennels as dogs are not allowed into the state park.

After parking and purchasing your admission tickets, hop aboard the next tram or take the complimentary boat trip. The tram runs along the ¾ mile Pepper Creek Trail through some of Florida’s most unspoiled natural habitat. It makes a very pleasant 15 minute walk for those who prefer to go at their own pace, and it is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. However, the boat trip is a real treat. The pontoon boats sail gently along Pepper Creek taking about 20 minutes with an interesting commentary on the way out, and a quicker trip with no commentary on the return voyage.

Once in the wildlife park, plan your visit so you can participate in the three educational programs on offer which include a Manatee Program, Wildlife Encounters in the open-air auditorium and the Alligator and Hippopotamus Program. They are very interesting and well worth making a point of joining in – you are sure to learn something new from the expert Wildlife Care Volunteer Wardens and Park Rangers who present the programs and answer all your questions.

There is a 1.1 mile-long boardwalk that runs along both sides of the Homosassa River. It is lined with enclosures of native Florida creatures, many of which have been injured and need a permanent sanctuary home. The exception to the Florida wildlife is the 52-year old Nile Hippo nicknamed Lu, who can be seen basking on his own terrace or swimming in the pool.

Prior to the creation of the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in 1989, the area was a private attraction with various exotic animal exhibits. When it became a state park dedicated to preserving “The Real Florida”, the non-native animals were moved to other permanent homes. This led to an outcry from local residents who had become attached to their very own hippo. This led to Lu the hippo being giving a reprieve and he was made an honorary Florida citizen to avoid deportation!

Before arriving at Homosassa Springs, Lu had been used in the filming of many TV shows and films including the popular “Daktari” series set in Africa. He quickly became a pampered attraction and was fed marshmallows tossed to him by visitors. Unfortunately this led to him having a set of unhealthy yellow teeth which he is keen to show visitors when he opens his mouth wide for healthier treats of melon and bananas.

Weighing around 3,000 pounds or three tons, this giant lumbering creature moves in a seemingly ungainly manner on land but he swim gracefully in his pool with just his boggle eyes remaining above water. According to the very informative and humorous program presented by the volunteer warden, Lu also puts away 15 pounds of hay and grain as well as plenty of fruit chunks every day. One quick word of warning – do not stand behind him as he sprays! You can follow his thoughts on his very own Facebook page, Lu.

Opposite the hippo pool is the alligator lagoon with currently 11 resident alligators. Following the shady boardwalk along the river, the Wildlife Walk is a wonderful way to view many native animals including red wolves which are almost extinct in the wild, owls and birds of prey, a flock of pretty pink flamingoes, nesting pelicans and other birds. Being on the raised boardwalk, visitors are within close proximity of the wildlife, making it ideal for taking some stunning photographs.

The path leads through gates into the walk-in Shore Bird Aviary with a realistic seashore where the white sand is scattered with driftwood and an old boat. Visitors can purchase food to feed the unusual ducks, seabirds and herons in this excellent facility.

Walking further on around the clear spring-fed river, you will see sensitively designed naturalized enclosures with bears, river otters, panthers, bobcats, and a huge turkey displaying his black and white feathers to dramatic effect like a plump and disapproving Victorian lady. Take a short diversion to the Reptile House to see snakes and young alligators.

The Manatee Area is an enclosed section of the river which houses four West Indian manatees who can no longer survive without care. The best place to see these ungainly mammals is from the underwater floating observatory. The wide windows allow visitors to see the manatees floating in the warm spring waters like giant grey barrage balloons with fan-shaped tails. They are fed after the 1.30 p.m. program, so this is an excellent time to head for the “Fish Bowl” to see them feed. The observatory also looks out on huge shoals of fish including snook, sheephead, brim, ladyfish, mullet, and catfish.

The source of the Homosassa River is the bubbling natural spring which delivers 2 million gallons of fresh spring water into the river every hour from a 35-foot deep hole. The crystal clear spring water is 72°F all year round, just what native manatees need to survive in the cold winter months.

Your visit is sure to be enhanced by the presence of 30 employees and rangers in green shirts, and some of the 300 volunteers who can be identified by their grey shirts. The Friends of Homosassa Springs also provide invaluable support to this lovely park which I would urge you to visit. Your first visit will certainly not be your last!

If you enjoyed reading about this fun experience near Clearwater, you will love the newly updated book/ebook Days Out Around Clearwater and St Pete Beach available on Amazon from just $4.99. Happy trails!
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Ringling Museum

What to Expect on a Visit to the Ringling Museum

After parking in the shady car park, head for the main Visitor Center where maps, information, and tickets are available. There is also a tasteful Museum Store and the lovely Treviso Restaurant overlooking the lake and fountains.

Circus Museums

Roll up, roll up for all the fun of the circus! For most visitors, the first stop will be at the Tibbals Learning Center which houses the first part of the Ringling Circus Museum. After stopping to admire the beautiful circus mural and watch the short introductory film, wander around the 3,800 square foot model of a typical travelling circus in the early 20th century. The scale and logistics of having such a show on the road become apparent as you enjoy this beautifully recreated circus “village” of animals, wagons, tents, sideshows, and rail cars that transported 1300 workers and performers, plus 800 animals over 15,000 miles each year!

In the Golden Age of the Tented Circus (1919-1938), circuses such as Barnum and Bailey, Howard Bros, and the Ringling Brothers would cover 150 towns erecting a Big Top to seat 15,000 visitors. The model is beautifully made and can be viewed from all angles to see the crowd, animals, tents, and performances along with railroad carriages and animal cages in the menagerie. The atmosphere is perfectly staged with lively circus music, lion roars, and laughter playing in the background.

Once you can tear yourself away, the second floor has a colorful collection of memorabilia, showcased miniatures, costumes, videos, and exhibits which all build up the picture of the workings of a 1920s circus. See the glorious bandwagon that was pulled through the streets of New York City by 40 black horses ahead of the traditional street parade and enjoy the interactive exhibits which are part of this display.

The neighboring museum is just as amazing with galleries of hand-carved animal wagons and the restored “Wisconsin” Railroad Car used by John and Mable Ringling and their friends. Built in 1905 by Pullman, the private railroad car was 79 feet long, 10 feet wide and 14 feet high and it lacked nothing. Stained glass, decorated domed ceilings, a kitchen, observation lounge, dining room, and staff quarters have all been restored to their former luxurious standard. The three staterooms had upper and lower berths which converted into sofa seating, washstands, toilets, and even a full-size bathtub!

During the winter, the circus originally rested at its winter quarters. From 1928 onwards, Sarasota was the chosen winter destination for the Ringling Circus, known as the Greatest Show on Earth. The mild weather allowed shows to continue throughout the winter for the first time.

Grounds and Gardens

Visitors are sure to enjoy the pleasant gardens of the Ringling Estate which include Mable’s Rose Garden, the Secret Garden where John and Mable are buried, the Dwarf Garden and the Millennium Tree Trail.

The extensive grounds are laid to grass and planted with mature specimen trees including sabal palmettos, Florida’s state tree, and 13 historic banyan trees with their distinctive aerial roots. There is a small lake and the property overlooks the calm Sarasota Bay towards Longboat Key. There is ample seating in wicker-style chairs for visitors to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

Ca’ d’Zan Mansion

Built in Venetian Gothic style, the five-story mansion was completed in 1926 and was lavishly furnished for John and Mable Ringling. The name “Ca’ d’Zan” is Venetian and means “The House of John.” The pink sandstone exterior is unusually decorative and very colorful with tiled decoration, an ornate balcony, wrought iron work, and Moorish-style windows. When the mansion was built, money was clearly no object and the huge terrace overlooking Sarasota Bay is of various colorful patterned marbles enclosed by a fabulously ornate balustrade. Take a seat and enjoy the sea breeze, watching the sailing yachts, fishing boats and cruisers on the water, as John and Mable no doubt did long ago.

When you arrive at the entrance to the museum, check the tour times of the house for availability and take a self-guided tour through the lovely first floor of the house. Other optional tours and docent-led tours of the upper house and tower are also available for an additional fee and photography is allowed, without flash.

The ground floor tour begins in the solarium at specific times and then progresses through the gilt carved doors into the ballroom, foyer with its grand piano, furnished central “court” or living room, breakfast room, pantry, and kitchen. There is also a formal dining room and a quaint Tap Room, complete with bar. Many of the formal rooms have beautifully decorative coffered ceilings and there are displays of silverware, dinner services and flatware in the cupboards, just as the family would have left it.

Ringling Museum of Art

Finally, head to the pink colonnaded buildings which were completed in 1929 to house John Ringling’s considerable art collection. The Renaissance-style buildings surround a sunken Italian courtyard garden complete with gushing fountains, water features, potted bougainvillea, and many statues, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David. The original was initially installed at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

Complimentary docent-led tours of the art museum are available at certain times to help you get more from your visit to this impressive legacy of artworks, or you can stroll through the galleries reading the exhibit labels. There is also a 30-minute film of the lives of John and Mable Ringling.

The museum has some circus-themed artworks and sculptures as well as wonderful masterpieces by Rubens, van Dyck, Titian, El Greco, Gainsborough, and Velazquez. Many of these were purchased by Ringling from collections made when grand European country houses closed and sold off their assets, accumulated during the traditional Grand Tours of Europe in the 18th century.

Two of the galleries in the art museum were historic salon interiors bought from the Astor mansion in New York City prior to the demolition of the house in 1926. As you pass from room to room appreciating this remarkable legacy, you are sure to find some favorites in the paintings, silverware, statues, busts, and 20th century photographs which make up this eclectic museum.

Along with the house and gardens, this remarkable art collection was bequeathed to the state of Florida when John Ringling passed away in 1936. It is now the State Art Museum of Florida, a national treasure, giving pleasure to many thousands of visitors each year.

If you enjoyed reading about this fun experience near Clearwater, you will love the newly updated book/ebook Days Out Around Clearwater and St Pete Beach available on Amazon from just $4.99. Happy trails!
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The Florida Aquarium

What to Expect on a Visit to the Florida Aquarium

Your first impression as you walk into the Florida Aquarium is how huge this attraction is as signs and elevators lead off in various directions promising plenty of things to see and do. Pick up a guide of “What’s swimming your way today” so you don’t miss the excellent presentations that take place throughout the day at various aquarium locations.

You may want to linger at the Horseshoe Crab Observation Pool before heading up the elevator to begin your underwater adventure at the Coral Reef exhibit. This includes a huge aquarium with beautiful colored fish and mesmerizing rays that flap gently past or slide up the glass showing their amazing mouth and gills. Shoals of silver fish swim by along with more vibrant colored species such as bright blue tangs, surgeon fish, neon-colored parrot fish, angel fish, hog fish, spotted porcupine fish and the menacing open-mouthed green moray eels, among many others.

This area includes a walk-through tunnel to see the fish, sharks and eels above and beside you. With various viewing windows, it’s a great place for photos. The corals and anemones in the smaller side aquariums are almost as brightly colored and diverse as the fish themselves. You’ll emerge near the floor-to-ceiling panoramic viewing window where you can take a seat for a presentation or just sit and watch children getting up close to sharks, giant barracuda, tarpon, grouper and turtles all so much bigger than they are!

This mega-huge aquarium is large enough to have presentations with scientific dive masters actually inside the tank talking to the audience. The educators identify the various species and share some fun facts and ecological advice with the audience. The displays start with a short film promoting awareness of the fragility of our reefs and the dangers of pollution and waste disposal on the oceans.

Close by are more aquariums with the strange sea horses, pipefish and sea dragons which look like floating seaweed until you take a second look. The Ocean Commotion offers another great viewing widow to see jellyfish, octopus, crabs and countless tiny colored fish swimming in tight choreographed shoals.

The River Tales exhibit offers a change of pace with a stream with wood ducks and ruffleheads bobbing above the fish in a fun display. You’ll see many of the fish that live in Florida rivers such as longnose gar, catfish and bluegill. Further on there’s a huge gator display – the best way to get up-close and see these scaly Florida natives in detail! Diving river otters attract plenty of attention as they flip and dive. Another local feature is the cypress swamp where herons, pink spoonbills, ducks and glossy ibis live on the water. There’s a great viewing platform if you climb the steps to see the birds at eyelevel, perched in the trees.

A detour to the Rivers of Madagascar offers rainbow-colored shoals of Outer Reef Fish on beautiful corals and there’s a display of curious ring-tailed lemurs, also from Madagascar. After taking in the penguins, lobsters and Goliath grouper there’s the opportunity to stroke stingrays in a shallow touch tank.

After a break in the café you can enjoy water in a different way, cooling off with water jets, cannons, fountains and slides around a pirate ship in the 2.2-acre Explore-a-Shore waterpark.


If you enjoyed reading about this fun experience near Clearwater, you will love the newly updated book/ebook Days Out Around Clearwater and St Pete Beach available on Amazon from just $4.99. Happy trails!


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Glazer Children’s Museum

What to Expect on a Visit to the Glazer Children’s Museum

Pick up a map at the Visitor Services as you enter this fabulous world of discovery through play. First stop will probably be the KidsPort where a flowing river invites kids to make dams, make waves and experiment with tug boats, cargo cranes and pulleys. Water play includes turning wheels for water flow, operating paddles, watching boat races and operating an Archimedes Screw to carry water up to feed a waterwheel. If you’re worried about kids getting wet before the day has barely begun, there are cute sets of oilskins for them to wear.

Older children will be fascinated by the Rain or Shine weather creator. Choose three buttons such as rain, wind and thunder and hey-presto – the clouds above generate real wind, fine rain, lightning flashes and noisy thunder to order!

Under 4s will enjoy the Tugboat Tots, complete with ship’s wheel, levers to pull and buttons to press, and there’s a sand corner for barefoot play in the Cruise Ship area.

Suspended above the sand play is the Water’s Journey – a series of raindrop-shaped platforms in scramble nets which older children can scramble up and through in safety to quite a height. Every activity has an educational aspect showing what lives in the wetlands and what an aquifer is. Adults will be as engrossed as the kids they are accompanying!

On the second floor there’s plenty more to keep everyone happily occupied in the Art Smart Lab. Visit the interactive Sports Corner where you can race an animal or be the goalie and see yourself in action on the live screen. Some of the high-tech media activities are sponsored by Bay News 9, Bright House Networks and Telemundo Tampa. One of their amazing exhibits is the chance to do a local weather report “live” on TV reading form a teleprompter. Kids will certainly enjoying seeing themselves on TV!

A series of exhibits offer role play opportunities for children such as piloting a plane complete with uniforms, hats and virtual cockpit screens. Further along the gallery, the Design and Build has everything you need to be a plumber, builder or crane operator. The City of Play Pretend includes a mini-Publix with shelves stocked with groceries and checkout scanners, a veterinary clinic with plenty of cuddly animals to x-ray and treat, a hospital, Central Bank and a Firehouse with pole, fire engine and all the gear.

We’re not done yet! Little engineers can construct the perfect paper airplane with the help of museum educators then test fly it in the wind tunnel.

Special daily events take place in the My House, Your House Theater, such as hands-on cookery programs. While whipping up a dessert, kids can learn about cuisine and cultures in other countries. The Twinkle Theatre has lights, sound effects, costumes, curtains and props for groups to produce their own drama.

If you stay until 4.30 p.m. you can join in the end-of-day parade with songs and dancing led by the imaginative museum staff. You probably won’t be allowed to leave without visiting the Museum Gift Store which has some excellent educational games and projects.

New plans for the Children’s Museum in 2015 include an extensive walk-in Wizard of Oz exhibit on the third floor. This area has superb views across Curtis Hixon Park to the Hillsborough River and the Moorish-influenced minarets of Plant Hall at the University of Tampa, now a National Historic Landmark.

Additional Information

Winter visitors can combine the museum with the pop-up ice rink which is erected right next to the museum from late November through early January.

If you enjoyed reading about this fun experience near Clearwater, you will love the newly updated book/ebook Days Out Around Clearwater and St Pete Beach available on Amazon from just $4.99. Happy trails!
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New client…looks good

My new client ClubMed certainly likes my work, lovely photos and scroll to the bottom – yes, all 5000 words!

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Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

I learned so much on my High Points Tour with staff from the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve near Naples, Fl. Read and enjoy the photos!

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Koreshan State Historic Site

Koreshan State Historic Site

The Koreshan State Historic Site is a very unique and interesting place to visit. It is the preserved site of a 19th century religious community with 11 original buildings, Victorian gardens, a nature trail along the Estero River, canoeing and camp sites in a 200-acre park.


Self-guided tour leaflets and information boards are available, along with volunteer docents, for those who want to tour the grounds at their own pace. However, I can recommend taking a 90-minute ranger-led tour for those wanting to delve into the beliefs of Dr. Cyrus Teed and understand the day-to-day operations of his “New Jerusalem”.

Koreshanity began in Estero in 1893 and lasted until 1982 when the last member died. Along with tours, the historic estate hosts the Estero Concert Series which attracts professional musicians and world class opera singers to perform in the atmospheric Art Hall. It also offers re-enactments and ghost walks at Halloween which are well worth attending.



Koreshan is located at the intersection of US 41 and Corkscrew Road at Estero.

GPS Coordinates:   26.433257, -81.814653


From I-75, take exit 123 (Corkscrew Road) and head west 2 miles.

Cross US 41 and continue along Corkscrew Road about ½ mile to reach the entrance to the park.

What to Expect on a Historic Walking Tour

At the entrance and ranger station, pay the admission and book a place on the next guided tour if you want a ranger-led experience of the historic site and gardens. The tour meets just off the car park outside the Art Hall, where a huge swamp mahogany provides shade from the Florida sun.

The tour begins in the beautiful Art Hall which is still used for public concerts as in the days of the Koreshan Unity Settlement. The hall is filled with artworks by former Koreshan members and by Dr. Teed’s son, Douglas Arthur Teed, who became a well-known landscape and portrait artist in New York. The most remarkable exhibit is the globe which shows the world as we know it, but on the inner shell of the earth’s outer atmosphere, as Dr. Teed believed it was.


We followed our knowledgable volunteer guide, Mila, along the crushed shell paths passing Orchid Trees in full bloom, a Sabal Palm with cacti growing on the trunk, and finally reached the cherry orchard just outside the Planetary Court building.

Here we learnt more about Dr. Teed and his “illumination” in 1869 which led him to Chicago and then to Estero to found his Koreshan Unity, the word “Koreshan” being Persian for “shepherd”. His new order followed a mix of Old Testament, Far Eastern ideas, reincarnation and Teed’s own scientific beliefs. His ultimate aim was to define the universe through science.

About 3,000 members lived outside the settlement with their families while up to 300 others chose to join the religious order at Koreshan, which required giving their property to the community and living celibate lives onsite. The followers were hard-working people and the community was self-sufficient, even providing services to the outside community. They valued education and the arts and had their own drama group and 17-piece orchestra which performed public concerts.


The three-story Planetary Court is a fine example of Georgia Foursquare architecture, built in 1904. The cream clapboard house with its shady front porch was home to the Seven “Sisters” who provided much of the original finance Teed required to establish his community and saw to the day-to-day business of the settlement. Each lady had her own simply furnished room and a caretaker looked after them and lived at the top of the house, in the cupola. We admired the ornate craftsman-built staircase made of beautiful date pine, and learned that there were no baths or kitchen in the house as the Sisters ate formally each evening at the communal dining area.

All the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, but there was never a church on site. We peeped inside the bakery which once made up to 600 loaves a day – the yeast bread was in great demand locally as it was so much tastier than the local cornbread. Other buildings include the two-room Vesta Newcombe building, final home to Vesta who arrived at the community as a child and lived here until her death in her 90s. We also saw the industrial area with a huge oil-driven generator which powered band saws and machinery in the neighboring machine shops as well as providing power to the surrounding outlying farms.

The Koreshan Unity was totally dependent upon Dr. Teed and after his death in 1908 many followers became disillusioned when his teachings about his resurrection were not fulfilled. Eventually the Koreshan community, its archives and substantial acreage were donated to the state of Florida, in 1961.

The final part of the tour took us through the gardens where there are many specimen trees sourced by Dr. Teed on his travels all over the world. Look for the huge Australian Monkey Puzzle Tree, the exotic flowers on the Bombax (red silk cotton tree), the Ear Tree and the African Sausage Tree. Fruit trees, pecans, magnolias and lovely red pineapples with their exotic pink fruits can be enjoyed as well as more common azaleas and palms.


Landscaped mounds make a popular place for the burrowing Gopher Tortoises and two decorative bridges were an interesting highlight. Massive Washingtonian Palms planted in 1896 line the Grande Promenade which is visible from the Bamboo Landing. Here we saw many canoeists paddling in the clear shallow waters of the Estero River, which was the main access to the settlement before US41 was paved. This area is the start of the Nature Trail, a pleasant 30-minute walk along the river, through immense bamboo stands and the picnic area to end at the boat ramp. Having done it, I would recommend going out and back along the river trail which is a much more pleasant than returning on the park roads. Otters, herons, bobcats, foxes, alligators, snakes and a variety of birds of prey all make their home in the park.

Our tour ended at the Founders House, built for Cyrus Teed in 1896 and surprisingly comfortably furnished. There is an interesting display of old photographs of the Koreshan community in its heyday and an informative PBS film gives more background detail to this short-lived religious sect.

Guided Walking Tours of the Historic Site

January – March these guided tours take place at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily

April – December at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays only

Guided tours can also be scheduled in advance on request.

This is an excerpt from my book Days Out Around Fort Myers available as a paperback ($10.99) or downloadable ebook ($4.99) from

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Fancy a Day Out in St. Augustine?

St Augustine

Many people complain that Florida has no real history. It’s true, it does not have much compared to Europe, but the history it does have is very impressive. For example, did you know that America’s oldest continuously occupied settlement is St Augustine in Florida?

This lovely city has a relaxed ambience and is full of history and old world charm. The historic streets, Spanish-style architecture, Bridge of Lions and quaint shops along St George Street make this a delightful place to spend a day. The historic quarter includes America’s Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, colonial dwellings and the old City Gates.


Visitor Information Center

  1. Castillo Drive/Cordova St

St Augustine FL32084

Tel: (904) 484-5160

GPS Coordinates: 29.902, -81.315


Things to Do in St Augustine

St Augustine is a truly historic city with many attractions, a fortress, museums, historic houses, and beautiful architecture in the heart of the city. It was founded in 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles on the feast day of St Augustine, and this is how the city got its name. In 1702, it burnt down and was rebuilt in the shadow of the huge Castillo de San Marcus. Many of these 300-year-old buildings can still be seen today, lining the pretty, narrow streets of the historic district.

In 1883, railroad magnate Henry Flagler visited St Augustine on his honeymoon. He was so impressed with the area that he built the grand Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1888, now the centerpiece of Flagler College. Wealthy visitors began to follow his example, traveling by train to Florida’s East Coast and soon St Augustine was a popular tourist destination, as it continues to be today.


Visitors will find St Augustine is a charming and unique city. It is quite compact and easy to walk around with plenty of lovely pavement cafés and high-end restaurants. Trolley tours are a great way to learn about the main historic sites with an informative guide. Stroll to the old fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, which overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway spanned by the Bridge of Lions. The fort is a National Monument, managed by the National Park Service. Visitors can walk the casements, watch videos, view re-enactments and weapons demonstrations, or take an interpretive walk with a ranger. Take a ghost tour of the city or visit the incredible Ripley’s Believe It or Not! attraction nearby, which is interesting for all ages.

Enter the Old City Gate and wander along the cobblestone streets to the Plaza de la Constitution. Explore the Colonial Spanish Quarter nearby with its charming higgledy-piggledy buildings, including America’s oldest wooden schoolhouse. A massive chain encircles this cypress and red cedar building and anchors it to the ground during high winds! This traffic-free area has a collection of historic buildings and small shops selling ice cream, chocolates, gifts, and antiques. Some of the interesting attractions include the Spanish Quarter Museum which has seven reconstructed buildings with costumed interpreters demonstrating crafts and skills from the mid-18th century.

In contrast, King Street is the heart of the more modern city. Lined with beautiful Spanish-influenced architecture, it is very pleasant to stroll along and admire the buildings such as Government House with its Spanish-style loggias and Zorayda Castle with its Arabic motifs, a replica of the fabulous Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. Further along King Street, the Hispanic-Moorish building that was once the Alcazar Hotel now houses the impressive Tiffany glass and antiques of the Lightner Museum collection.

One-hour tours of the Ponce de Leon Hall are well worth taking to see inside this lovely Spanish Renaissance-style building. It was constructed in 1888 as the Ponce de Leon Hotel and is now a National Historic Landmark, part of the Flagler College campus. It was designed by architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, who went on to build New York Public Library and the House and Senate buildings in Washington D.C. It features Tiffany designed mosaics, stained glass windows, and beautiful murals by George Willoughby Maynard and Virgilio Tojetti. You can just imagine that it was quite a wonderful place to stay in its time and was one of the first hotels in the country to have electricity. The grounds are also very pleasant to stroll around.

There are several beaches around St Augustine including the white sands of Anastasia Island, just five minutes from downtown. It has a pier, playground, pavilion, cafés, and shops. Crescent Beach is also on Anastasia Island, a wildlife refuge with a natural setting that is popular for beachcombing. Vilano Beach is said to be the area’s best kept secret with waterfront restaurants, a fishing pier, parasailing, and SeaDoo rentals.


St Augustine as a city is free to visit but various attractions charge admission/tour fees.


Old Town Trolley Tours

Adults             $23.69

Children 6-12  $10.30

Old Fort

Adults             $7 (7-day access)

Children under 15 Free when accompanied by an adult

 Ponce de Leon Hotel/Flagler College Tours

Adults             $10

Children under 12 Free

Colonial Spanish Quarter Historic District

General admission to the street – Free

Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Adults             $14.99

Children 6-11  $7.99

Seniors            $12.26

Lightner Museum

Adults             $10

Teens 12-18     $5

Under 12         Free

 Opening Times

See individual attractions for opening times


 Where to Eat in St Augustine

Just along St George St there are a number of sidewalk cafés offering everything from coffee and cakes to sandwiches and light lunches. For a more substantial meal in nice surroundings, try the Aviles Restaurant in the Hilton Hotel on Avenida Menendez. It has an international menu including some Spanish specialties as a nod to this Spanish-influenced city.

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Brevard Zoo and Treetop Trek

Brevard Zoo and Treetop Trek

Brevard Zoo advertises itself as a little zoo that does big things, and it’s true. The emphasis at the zoo is on experiencing a variety of wildlife and having some unique adventures, all reinforcing a message of Conservation through Education and Participation.

As well as a range of interactive wildlife experiences and adventures, the zoo offers a self-guided aerial obstacle course with zip lines as part as part of the separate Treetop Trek.



What to Expect on a Visit to Brevard Zoo

This modern well-planned zoo is set on 50 acres and has over 500 animals with 130+ different species. The animals are divided into various “lands” such as Expedition Africa, Australia and Asia, Wild Florida, La Selva Rainforest and Paws On.


Feeding the giraffes is one of the highlights in Expedition Africa as they approach and extend their long necks to take the offered leaf, displaying their long black tongue. Rhinos, antelopes, camels, impalas, cute lemurs, exotic birds and gangly ostriches can all be seen in this exciting area.

You will find some of the world’s most unusual animals in the Australia Asia land where kangaroos and wallabies bound around. Colorful cassowaries, plump kookaburras and squawking parrots make a lively display and there’s also the chance to hand feed the brightly colored rainbow lorikeets. Gibbons from Asia can also be seen swinging from trees and generally showing off to visitors.


Wild Florida is a home-from-home for the alligators, crocodiles, flamingoes, otters, wolves, turtles, Sandhill cranes and birds of prey that make this zone their home. The best way to discover them in their natural environment is by kayaking across the wetland area.

Monkeys, vultures, beautifully coated jaguars, scaly anteaters, sloths, tapirs, tamarinds, tortoises and toucans abound in the South American La Selva zone.

Paws On provides more interactive animal experiences with a Lagoon Aquarium, Turtle Beach and Upland Area where gopher tortoises hang out. Pet some of the animals, help construct an animal home or dig for clues in this fun area. There’s the chance for visitors to……..


What is it and will you be brave enough?

For the answer to those questions I am afraid you will have to check out my book “Days Our Around Cocoa Beach” available in all formats. It also has 14 other great places to visit from Daytona to Orlando to Melbourne – so what are you waiting for?

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Ybor City Historic Walking Tour

Ybor City Historic Walking Tour

Ybor City is the former Cigar Capital of the World, thanks to one enterprising businessman, Vincente Martinez-Ybor. He established his cigar-making business in this historic quarter of Tampa in 1885. By 1927, Ybor City had 230 factories and was producing over 6 million cigars per year!


Enjoy a pleasant amble around the quiet cobbled streets on a historic walking tour, learning about the enterprising individual responsible for founding the city which still bears his name and discovering the decorative Spanish-influenced architecture in the area. The tour lasts around 1¾ hours and is led by a long-time local guide and eloquent storyteller, Lonnie Herman. The tour strolls along at an easy pace between shady spots and strategically placed street benches as the fascinating history of Ybor City unfolds before your eyes.

What to Expect on an Ybor City Historic Walking Tour

On arrival in Ybor City, you may be surprised at how quiet this area actually is, particularly outside the winter season which runs from December to April. However, the area is at its liveliest at night, hence so many nightclubs along the street. By day there is the excellent Visitor Center along with cigar shops, tavernas, cafés and restaurants where you can enjoy coffee or lunch. The area certainly has a lot of character with the original cobbled streets, decorative New Orleans-style architecture, fountains, and a beautiful arched entrance to Centro Ybor.

Meet up at the entrance to Centro Ybor with your Cuban-hatted guide, Lonnie, who has been a local resident for over 30 years. He is a friendly walking encyclopedia of local history and experiences!


Lonnie begins to tell the story of Ybor City circa 1885, with the colorful background to Vincente Martinez-Ybor’s life. Born in Spain, he was sent to Cuba where he learned the cigar business before escaping to Key West where he built his cigar-making empire. Better transport connections, financial incentives, his good friend Gavino Gutierrez, and the chance to build his very own city eventually lured him to Tampa where he established “Mr. Ybor City.” Martinez-Ybor’s attempts to secure a reliable workforce led him to build workers’ homes and offer ownership on very favorable terms, especially as he was already in his late 60s!


As your guide recounts the story of cigar-making and the building of Ybor City, the walking tour meanders along the cobbled streets at an easy pace, stopping to view some of the earliest wooden homes, called “casitas”. They are now part of the National Historic Landmark District which covers 10 square blocks. On the wall of each house is…….

Can you guess what it is? No, then solve the mystery by reading this and 14 other great things to do in my book “Days Out Around Clearwater and St Pete Beach” available in all formats.

My friends in The Villages will already know the answer as a variation to this chapter, and 14 different adventures can be found in my book  – “Favorite Days  Out in Central Florida from “The Villages’ Residents



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Tour of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Lighthouse

Tour of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Lighthouse

Most people interested in space travel will want to spend a day at the Kennedy Space Center during their stay on Florida’s Space Coast. However, there is another way to take a tour and learn more about American space history. The 45th Space Wing of the Patrick Air Force Base (AFB) conducts free public tours by bus around the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Air Force Space and Missile Museum, several launch pads and the historic Cape Canaveral Lighthouse. The only catch is that these three-hour guided tours are very popular, so you need to book at least 60 days ahead of your planned visit.


What to Expect on the Tour

Tours start at the History Center on Complex 26, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Guests are asked to be present at 8.30 a.m. to check in and run through a final security check. Your tour guides will be two civilian employees from the 45th Space Wing, which is responsible for delivered assured space launch, range and combat capabilities for the nation. It’s an amazing chance to be able to see “behind the scenes” of these operations with these dedicated professionals, who provide an informative commentary and are always happy to answer your questions. At each stop on the tour there are opportunities to explore and take photographs, so definitely bring a camera to record your historic visit

The History Center is part of the Air Force Space and Missile Museum and has exhibits about the different launch pads and complexes onsite. After a short talk, the tour progresses to the main part of the Air Force Space and Missile Museum. Here you will see many fascinating displays of ……………..

If this has re-kindled [pun intended!] the space kid in you then you may like to read the rest of the chapter along with the 14 other exciting places to visit whilst at Cocoa Beach. All of which can be found in my book “Days Out Around Cocoa Beach“. Enjoy!

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Experiencing the Everglades National Park Florida

The Everglades National Park lies just 10 miles west from Florida City and is a stone’s throw from Miami International Airport and the city itself. The national park covers 1.4 million acres, but if you think that is large, consider this – it is just one fifth of the whole area of the Everglades!

The Everglades is a unique area of vegetation and wetlands which once supported the tribes of the Tequesta and Calusa Native Americans. It is a slow-moving freshwater river formed from the overspill of Lake Okeechobee and is 40-70 miles wide, taking up much of the southernmost point of Florida.

everglades hummocks

The wetlands are covered in sawgrass, giving rise to the name “River of Grass”. Occasionally the flatness is broken by clumps of trees which grow on “hammocks” of raised ground. Crammed onto these small islands are live oaks, wild coffee bushes, poisonwood and saw palmettos. These provide shelter and habitat for many species of birds, snakes, reptiles, frogs and mammals such as opposums, racoons, black bears and bobcats as well as the critically endangered Florida panthers.

Mangroves thrive in the warm shallow waters close to the coast and their roots harbor fish and crabs which are all part of the food chain. Common birds include herons, egrets, gulls, hawks and terns as well as the more exotic roseate spoonbills and bald eagles.

Things to Do at the Everglades National Park

Visitors can drive along the 108 mile-long two-lane Highway 41 known as the Tamiami Trail from Miami to Naples to experience the vast Everglades, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On a sunny day, hundreds of steely-gray alligators line the banks of the canals. Overhead, belted kingfishers, blue herons, anhingas and other birds can be seen perched on power lines or in low trees that border the road.

everglades airboat

The route passes several Indian reservations where airboat trips can be taken across the sea of grass to nearby hammocks to see a real Indian village. These exhilarating rides are the best way to get out and appreciate the vastness of the Everglades National Park and see some of the wildlife that resides in this untouched area of nature.

everglades gator

The Shark Valley Visitor Center is a good place to stop midway along the Tamiami Trail. It offers a two-story observation tower and a 15 mile trail into the national park. Walking, cycling and kayaking are popular activities from here.

The Ernest Coe Visitor Center is at the entrance to the Everglades National Park near Homestead. Collect maps and information and watch a film presentation before venturing into the park itself. The Main Park Road meanders down past hammocks, lakes and campgrounds with frequent signs to boardwalks and hiking trails along the way. The best way to enjoy this trip is by enrolling on one of the free ranger-guided walks to see some of the highlights of the amazing Everglades National Park.

The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is on SR 29, close to Everglades City on the west coast of Florida. It has a museum exhibit and various video displays. From here canoeists have access to the 99-mile long Wilderness Waterway, a canoe trail that ends at the Flamingo Visitor Center near Miami Beach.

Eventually the Everglades reach Florida Bay which extends as far as the Florida Keys. Here the saltwater supports coral, sponges and marine life and is best explored by boat.

Pictures courtesy of Trover

My book “Days Out Around Fort Myers” describes an excellent trip to Billie Swamp Safari along with 14 others.

For many more wonderful, exciting places to explore and visit in central and southern Florida please do check out all my books on Amazon. There will be the perfect one for your family I can guarantee you!






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Behind the Scenes at the Edison Ford Estate

Behind the Scenes at the Edison Ford Estate

One of the most visited attractions in Fort Myers is the Edison Ford Winter Homes Estates. Located right on the riverfront just a short distance from downtown Fort Myers, it was one of the first developments of this small cattle-ranching town in 1886. The estate straddles busy McGregor Boulevard with the Laboratory, Ticket Office, Museum and Gift Shop on one side and the houses and gardens on the other. Any visit will necessitate crossing the road at the pedestrian crossing.


The most noticeable thing you will see as you drive into the 13-acre estate is the huge banyan tree. It covers an acre with its many aerial roots and was planted by Edison in his quest to find the best source of latex for producing rubber. It is now the largest banyan tree in America.

There are several buildings which you can browse around with a self-guided audio tour or you can join one of the many docent-led tours on offer. The themed tours include Garden Tours with a horticulturist, Lab Tours of Edison’s restored botanical laboratory, Behind the Scenes Tours with a historian and even a Holiday Nights Tour in season. Without exception the tours are all very interesting and cover Edison’s personal life, his wife Mina, his many inventions (he had over 1000 patents) and the winter homes belonging to Edison and Henry Ford. Overlooking the wide Caloosahatchee River, boat tours are also available from the long pier leading out from the gardens.

Edison lived in Seminole Lodge and the accommodation is divided between the family home and the guest house which are linked by a pergola. Furnishings are surprisingly simple, but this was never Edison’s main residence. He visited Fort Myers for a few months a year to escape the cold New Jersey winters.


The other house on the property, the Mangoes, was the winter home of his good friend Henry Ford and there is a garage with a couple of Ford’s historic vehicles on show. Be aware that only the Behind-the-Scenes Tour gives visitors access into the properties; the other tours allow visitors to see the furnished homes through the open doors and windows, but the views and photo opportunities are pretty good. The humidity near the river and high temperatures make the homes pretty hot to tour as they are not air-conditioned.

Keen gardeners will really enjoy browsing the extensive gardens. Early summer is a great time to visit when many of the flowers and trees are in full bloom. There are hibiscus, euphorbia, trumpet trees, tulip trees, bright red Poinciana trees, gingers, orchids and many other tropical plants. Each specimen is clearly labeled, making any tour of the gardens an informative treat for gardeners. The Moonlight Garden with its small reflecting pool is one of the most tranquil spots and marks the footprint of Edison’s original laboratory. There is also an above-ground swimming pool complete with diving boards which the six Edison children no doubt enjoyed, and a caretaker’s house. The Ford caretaker’s home is now a gift shop.

The restored Botanical Laboratory is really not terribly exciting in my opinion. Recently opened after a $1 million restoration, it looks like a typical 1920s machine shop with work benches set out with test tubes and bottles.  However, the Museum is full of interesting memorabilia, photographs and Edison’s main inventions including the phonograph and his long-lasting light bulbs that revolutionized the world.

There are many more fun and interesting things to do and see so do check out “Days Out Around Fort Myers (available in all formats) which has 15 more places to visit. 

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Key West – America’s Southernmost City

Key West – America’s Southernmost City

 The isolated island of Key West marks the southernmost point of the United States. Situated at the end of the 106-mile long Overseas Highway which links the chain of islands hanging off the southern tip of Florida, Key West has inevitably developed as a haven for artists, writers, divers, fishing enthusiasts and those wanting to escape run-of-the-mill life in mainstream America.

Getting to Key West

Until the Florida East Coast Railway was built from Miami to Key West in 1912, this tiny community was accessible only by boat. Visitors today arrive by private boat, car, airplane into the tiny airport, ferry from Fort Myers or by cruise ship.

The railway line never recovered from devastating damage caused by the category five hurricane on Labor Day in 1935 when a storm surge of 18-20 feet caused damage not only to the railway but also to many of the upper Florida Keys. The surviving infrastructure was used as a foundation for extending the two-lane US-1 from Miami to Key West, completed in 1938.

Things to See and Do in Key West

Key West covers a total area of just 7.4 square miles and its high point is a mere 18 feet above sea level. What it lacks in size it makes up for in spirit with a lively celebration at sunset each evening on Mallory Square. Locals and visitors alike gather to toast the sun going down and to look for the green flash that can occasionally be seen as the sun’s orb disappears below the horizon. Cocktails are served from surrounding bars and street entertainers are on hand to offer some amazing performances at this nightly party. Jugglers, magicians, buskers and animal trainers all mix with tattooed bikers and yuppy yacht-owners at this vibrant sunset celebration.

After dark the action moves to Duval Street where bars host live bands and wet T-shirt contests. One of the best known locations is Sloppy Joe’s, once the haunt of writer Ernest Hemingway. You can check out what’s happening at the webcam hosted by the bar here. Alternatively, join the fun at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Café nearby.

The buildings and mansions in the Key West Historic District (including Mallory Square and Duval Street) were mostly built between 1886 and 1912. The charming Victorian architecture contains some of Key West’s museums and is painted in charming pastel colors now known as “Key West style”. The New Town was developed on a landfill site in the 1940s and includes the airport, schools, motels, residential areas and shopping malls.

Little White House

Some of Key West’s
most famous residents include President Harry Truman who once resided in the Little White House. This delightful building now houses a museum of his life. Ernest Hemingway wrote several of his well known novels during his time at 907 Whitehead Street, in a house given to him and his wife Pauline as a wedding present in 1931. The house is now a popular museum of his life and works and is still populated by the many-toed cats that Hemingway kept as pets.

There are a host of activities in Key West to suit every age and taste. Stroll the streets picking up souvenirs or browsing the many colorful art galleries. Take a tour on the Conch Train that runs around the island’s landmarks offering an informative commentary or visit the mansions and gardens which depict the tropical Key West lifestyle. Take a snorkeling or diving trip or join a sport fishing charter for some of the most exciting fishing around. Visit the old lighthouse or spend the day relaxing on the soft white sand of Smathers Beach where the shallow waters are always warm.


Whatever you choose to do make sure you relax, enjoy some of the freshest seafood anywhere and let your hair down in this laidback island paradise.

There are many more fun and interesting things to do and see so do check out “20 Best Florida Beaches and Coastal Cities (available in all formats) which has 19 more places to visit. The Villages residents will also find this a useful addition to my “The Villages” series of books.




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Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour

Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour

Unbelievably, I had lived in the Orlando area for 6 years before I heard a whisper about the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour. I had to ask the Manager of the Publix in Orlando, a life-long Orlando resident, how to find it! A hidden treasure indeed and a great place to take visiting guests.

This one-hour boat trip cruises through the natural beauty of the lakes and canals around historic Winter Park in northeast Orlando. The scenic boat tour leaves the dock every day except Christmas Day. First trips are at 10 a.m. and run hourly thereafter until 4 p.m. At peak times two or three boats run, so you should easily be able to just turn up and get a ride.

Here’s a useful tip – Buy your ticket early and then go for a walk around the town. When the boat is loaded, parties are called by name in the order they bought the tickets, so early ticket-buyers get to pick the best seats.

Orlando March 09_634

The pontoon boats are very stable and suitable for the shallower waters in the canals which connect the lakes, but they have no awning to protect from the sun (or the showers!) due to the low bridges. Bench seats are provided for around 18 passengers. The ticket office stands on the edge of the lake and opens before the first trip of the day just before 10 a.m. Benches under a canopy are provided on the dock whilst you wait for the boat to arrive. The boat skippers are excellent tour narrators and they give a good patter about the sights and the wildlife, a few corny jokes and will happily answer any questions.

The boat trip begins on Lake Osceola where there are many multi-million dollar homes along the shores. After navigating through the interconnecting canal, the trip continues
around Lake Virginia. The lake is shared with other boats, fishermen, jet skis and even a water-skier or two. Expect to see plenty of birds such as blue herons, which were nesting in the trees during my early-April trip. There are egrets, ducks and ducklings, anhingas, little blue herons and even osprey living in the live oaks which hang over the lake. Bougainvillea, sleeping hibiscus and plenty of bamboo add to the natural interest.

The exclusive Rollins College campus is spread along the edge of Lake Virginia with some fine buildings and it is the source of some interesting facts and anecdotes. After returning and traversing Lake Osceola along the eastern shore the boat then navigates through the winding Venetian canal and Lake Maitland opens out before you. The Kraft Azalea Park is a picture in early spring. Enjoy viewing the beautiful gardens and multi-million dollar mansions which are the winter homes of wealthy American families.

After a most enjoyable hour the trip ends back at the dock and you probably feel in need of refreshment. Park Avenue in Winter Park is a short walk from the lake. It is a delightful upmarket collection of shops and cafés in which to browse and dine. Across the road are the Amtrak station and a beautiful park with fountains, a heavenly scented rose garden and a pergola. This is also the location of the delightful Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.

There are many more fun and interesting things to do and see so do check out “Days Out Around Cocoa Beach (available in all formats) which has 15 more places to visit. The Villages residents will also find this a useful addition to my “The Villages” series of books.




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Daytona International Speedway – the World Center of Racing

Daytona International Speedway – the World Center of Racing

It was the miles of firm sands on Daytona Beach that gave birth to it becoming the home of supercharged speed. The first Daytona speedway races ran for almost 50 years in an unofficial racing circuit that included the beach and part of the A1A Highway which runs parallel.


Finally the racing was placed on a more permanent footing when the Daytona International Speedway was built in 1959 on what became known as International Speedway Drive. The stadium has since become a landmark of the area. The track is 2½ miles long and the building of the improved circuit coincided with faster and more reliable racing cars so the main race was increased from 200 to 500 miles in length.


Daytona 500

The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s biggest and most prestigious event on the racing calendar and takes place in February each year. The date for 2012 is Sunday February 26, one week later than previous years. The event involves around 40 of the best stock car drivers and 2016 will be the 58th annual event. The race is 500 miles long, which is 200 laps, and is the first series race of the year. Its importance in the racing calendar has led to it being called the “Superbowl of Stock Car Racing”.

The Daytona 500 draws around 200,000 visitors to Daytona every year to watch the event live. The winner is presented with the Harley J. Earl Trophy in Victory Lane and the winning car is displayed at the Speedway Museum dedicated to the Daytona 500 Experience.

Other Events at the Daytona Speedway  fans will be interested in

If you cannot get to Daytona in February to see the Daytona 500, there are plenty more races and events throughout the year including the Rolex 24, the Budweiser Shootout for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the Coke Zero 400 and a host of motorcycle events.

When races are not in progress visitors can take a guided tour of the huge stadium on the 480-acre site. Guides take you behind-the-scenes to see what is involved in making NASCAR events run so smoothly. Visitors get to see the Drivers’ Meeting Room, tour the NASCAR Spring Cup Series garages, view the Victory Lane and take a peek inside the press box, seven floors above the track itself. Full tours cost around $22 for adults. There are other shorter and cheaper tours available giving visitors access to the NASCAR Nationwide Series garages, pit and the infield.



The Speedway is just a small part of Daytona Beach; for many more fun and  interesting things to do and see there check out “Days Out Around Cocoa Beach which has 15 more places to visit. The Villages residents will also find this a useful addition to my “The Villages” series of books.


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Cocoa Beach – Orlando’s Local Beach

Cocoa Beach – Orlando’s Local Beach

The first time I ever came to Florida, like millions of visitors every year, I came to Orlando. The highlight was spending a few days at Cocoa Beach on the Atlantic East coast. The endless soft sands, warm waters and lack of crowds made this one of my favorite beach vacations of all time!

Cocoa Beach 2

Cocoa Beach is home to around 12,500 residents and many more thousands of visitors pass through every year. It is located just south of Cape Canaveral near Merritt Island.

Cocoa Beach is known as the Small-Wave Capital of the world. It is perfect for beginner surfing with predictable rolling surf. Once you have mastered your balance, it is the perfect place to show off your moves, as many wetsuit-clad surfers do by the pier.

Close by is the world-famous Ron Jon Surf Shop – open 24/7 with everything you can possibly imagine for rent or for sale in the Art Deco Surf Palace.  It is the World’s Largest Surf Shop covering 52,000 square feet and compliments the nearby Ron Jon Watersports Shop. If you ever have a rainy day in Cocoa Beach, this is a great place to hang out!

As well as catching the rays on the sandy beach, you can go kayaking, sport fishing, take an airboat ride, go parasailing, take surf lessons or spot Florida wildlife from an airboat ride at Midway.

Cocoa Beach has a few restaurants and shops selling beachwear, shells and clothing. You may not be able to do your weekly shop but you will find plenty of places to rent and buy beach gear and maybe even get a tattoo! Casual beach bars and restaurants overlook the beach and places like The Beach Shack and Coconuts on the Beach offer good food, live music and the occasional bikini contest.

The gorgeous sandy beach is lined with hotels and holiday apartments to accommodate guests. Many more day-trippers take a day off from Orlando, 60 miles away, to enjoy a day relaxing on Cocoa Beach.

There are plenty of excellent things to do around Cocoa Beach. Take a stroll along the pier or visit Jetty Park where you can go fishing and watch cruise ships sail by from the beach.

A day at the Kennedy Space Center is a must for families of all ages. See the launch pads, explore the Space Garden and get a virtual experience of a Space Shuttle launch. There are many 3D film experiences and exhibits telling the tale of the Space Race.


One of the best things to do is take a two-hour boat trip with Island Boat Line Eco Tours through the small barrier islands known as Thousand Islands on the Banana River, part of the Indian River Lagoon. The tours depart from the E. Merritt Island Causeway near the sunset Waterfront Grill and Bar.  The trips are on pontoon boats on calm waters and are led by a certified captain and a professional naturalist. They do a great job of spotting wildlife, including herons, alligators, frogs, turtles and generally an endangered manatee or two. In the nesting season, the island trees are covered in nests of herons, egrets and even pelicans, sitting on huge nests.

There are many more fun and interesting things to do and see so do check out “Days Out Around Cocoa Beach (available in all formats) which has 15 more places to visit. The Villages residents will also find this a useful addition to my “The Villages” series of books.






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