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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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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