Peacocks, Dolphins, Manatees, and So Much More In and Around Clearwater, Florida

My one and only vacation out of my home state of North Carolina during 2020 was to the St. Petersburg area of Florida, which you can read about here: A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat, and here More Things to Do in St. Petersburg, Florida. If you didn’t read the posts and don’t want to, St. Petersburg is on the western part of Florida where the Gulf of Mexico is, hence cities here are often referred to as “on the Gulf side.” Last year I primarily stayed in St. Petersburg but I knew I would be back to explore more of the area because I loved it so much here.

When I was trying to figure out where to go for my daughter’s spring break in 2021, I considered Portland, Oregon and the coast of Oregon, different islands in the Caribbean, Savannah, Georgia, and some other places but ultimately I knew Florida was the best choice given the circumstances. I knew I could get a cheap, direct flight to Tampa, Florida with Delta, who I also knew was still blocking off middle seats. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I also knew I wanted to go back to see some of the cities just north of St. Petersburg, including Clearwater and Tampa. For reference, here is a map of that part of Florida:

See where all of the blue marks are? Those are all places I labeled in my Google map that I used last year and this year. The big cluster includes Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Bradenton. Just north of the cluster is Crystal River.

So the plan for this year was to start off in the Clearwater area including Safety Harbor and stay a few nights, drive almost 2 hours north to Crystal River and spend one night and much of the next day, then drive south to Tampa and stay a few nights. Last year I had wanted to go to Clearwater and go to the beach there as well but there just wasn’t enough time. This year, I made it a priority and was glad I did.

Clearwater

I’ll start with Clearwater here. First I should note that there’s Clearwater the city and Clearwater Beach. Clearwater Beach is on a barrier island with soft, white powdery sand and packed with restaurants, hotels, and shops. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where they rehabilitate injured dolphins and sea turtles is on the barrier island as well. Clearwater the city spans the entire east-to-west portion of this part of Florida, so there is the intercoastal waterway that eventually becomes the Gulf of Mexico on the west side and Old Tampa Bay on the east side. In other words, you’re never far from water views in Clearwater.

Restaurants in Clearwater

One restaurant we loved in Clearwater is Shnookums BBQ, just on the edge of Clearwater bordering Belleair. Belleair is full of mansions overlooking the water and has a tiny unmarked park called Hallett Park. I got our BBQ to go and drove the short distance to Hallett Park, where we ate dinner overlooking the water and cityscape. It was an absolutely perfect evening. If you enjoy Vietnamese food, Pho Bowl Clearwater (in an unassuming strip mall) is some of the best Vietnamese I’ve ever had.

Parks in Clearwater

Now to the part about peacocks. One afternoon, we were walking around Kapok Park and decided to walk over to Moccasin Lake Nature Park, only to find out the nature park was closed on Mondays. However, in the neighborhood beside the nature park, I spotted several peacocks in front of someone’s house. The male was in full display mode showing his feathers off and slowly walking around while several females just lounged in the front yard. I had seen peacocks before but always in parks in Hawaii and never just in front of some random person’s house.

We later went back to Moccasin Lake Nature Park on a day they were open and saw the peacocks inside the park. One peacock was sitting on top of a fence, which is when I learned they must hop the fence to go back and forth between the park and neighborhood. There were many trails with beautiful big trees and lots of shade. We walked to a pond and saw several turtles in the water. There is also an indoor area where you can touch or hold the animals they have chosen specifically for this. On the day we were there, they had two different snakes and a snapping turtle. My daughter held both of the snakes and we both got a science lesson from the very chatty and friendly worker there.

Safety Harbor

The population of Clearwater is around 115,000, which isn’t a huge city by any means but by comparison, Safety Harbor with around 17,000 people is a much smaller, quieter town. We stayed in a hotel in Safety Harbor and it was great but if you want close and easy access to a beach, I recommend staying in Clearwater instead. What you do get in Safety Harbor is a cute little downtown area with some amazing restaurants and a few waterside parks.

Restaurants in Safety Harbor

If you’re a big coffee fan like my daughter is, you’ll love Cafe Vino Tinto, a coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch. There is a small outdoor seating area and everything we had from breakfast burritos and biscuits to Thin Mint Lattes, Chai Tea Lattes, S’mores Lattes, and London Fogs were all delicious. The Sandwich on Main has amazing sandwiches, some made with homemade Portuguese bread. As a huge fan of real Hawaiian shave ice, imagine my excitement to discover a place that comes pretty close to what you usually can only find in Hawaii, Sno Beach. I had dragonfruit mojito and my daughter had rose shave ice, both with sweet cream over. Another restaurant that was excellent is Water Oak Grill, a seafood restaurant where my daughter had soft shell crab for the first time and loved it. My shrimp and grits were every bit as good as I’ve had in Charleston, SC, which is saying a lot because they set the bar there.

Parks in Safety Harbor

Safety Harbor may be a small town but it has several great parks, like Safety Harbor Waterfront Park, Philippe Park, Mullet Creek Park, and also not really a park but Safety Harbor Pier. Now for the part about dolphins. In the nearby town of Oldsmar is Mobbly Bayou Beach Park. We went here one morning after it had rained the night before, thinking we could possibly spend some time at the beach.

When we saw how tiny and soaked the sandy beach at Mobbly Bayou Beach Park was, we decided to just walk around. I heard a strange noise coming from the water so we went to get a closer look, just in time to see a dolphin jump out of the water. Then I saw more dolphins, all playing in the water, spinning and flipping around. In all, I counted four dolphins, which we watched with delight for several minutes before they retreated further away from us. There is a trail system at the park, so we walked around on the trails for about an hour before we headed back.

Day Trip to Tarpon Springs

Just a short 30 minute drive from Clearwater lies Tarpon Springs with its downtown listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tarpon Springs is probably best known for its historic sponge docks and Greek influence. The city was first settled by Greek sponge divers in the early 1900’s.

My first impression was that the area was much bigger than I expected and immensely more touristy than I thought it would be. We went into Tarpon Springs Sea Sponge Factory and discovered all of the different sizes and shapes of sponges as well as soaps and other skin products. There were dozens of other shops selling sponges and soaps in addition to the usual kitschy touristy items. After a while they all seemed to blur together.

There is no shortage of Greek and Mediterranean restaurants but I knew I wanted to stop at Hella’s since it’s known to be one of the best in Tarpon Springs. It was super busy and like a mad house but I guess there’s a method to their madness because the pastries we got were crazy good. After sitting to enjoy our afternoon desserts, we decided we had had enough of Tarpon Springs and drove back to Clearwater.

A couple of things we did not do but I heard are worth checking out are: Tarpon Springs Aquarium and Animal Sanctuary, taking a cruise around the area, Safford House Museum (a restored Victorian mansion with tours), and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church with stained glass and a Grecian marble altar.

Crystal River

The main reason to drive 2 hours to Crystal River was to swim with manatees but the area has some other fun activities that I’ll also go over later. Although Crystal River isn’t the only place in Florida to see manatees, it was the closest for us coming from Clearwater. Manatees are migratory animals and spend their winters from November through March in the warmer waters of Florida.

Our time in Florida was during the last week of March and first few days of April so I knew we would be at the tail-end of the migration, meaning we might not see a single manatee. I booked our snorkeling trip to swim with manatees through Bird’s Underwater (technically Famous Bird’s Underwater Manatee Dive Center) for the first trip of the day at 6:30 am, knowing we would be more likely to see manatees during the early morning hours rather than later in the day on either their 11 am or 2 pm tours. We had driven to Crystal River the day before and spent the night there so we would only be a 5 minute drive from the dive center.

We left with two groups of other people so there were 6 people on the pontoon boat plus our guide and captain besides us, but there was plenty of room for everyone to stay relatively distanced from one another. The boat ride was relatively short, which is a good thing because my daughter tends to get motion sickness, but she was fine the entire time.

Sadly, I forgot to bring my waterproof case for my camera, so here are some of the manatees we saw later at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park (note, the manatees are not fenced-in even though you can see part of a fence)

We were warned by our guide on the boat ride out that visibility had been extremely poor the past four days and in reality we might not be able to see any manatees or if so the water might be cloudy and murky. Great. However, when we got to a spot where a manatee had been seen by another tour group, we all zipped up our wet suits (that we had put on prior to boarding the boat), pulled down our snorkel masks (my daughter and I had brought our own, which given COVID seemed like an even better purchase than I realized when I bought them before the pandemic), and gently eased into the water.

The water was crystal clear! We could all easily see the gentle giant as it glided along the bottom of the Three Sisters Springs, munching on sea grass and reinforcing its nickname “sea cow.” Honestly, I could have stayed in the water watching this manatee all day. It was extremely calming and relaxing. I was glad to have the wet suit because even though the water is a constant 72 degrees and may seem warm, I was chilly at times because I was gently gliding in the water, not swimming. We all watched a video on proper and improper treatment of manatees before boarding the boat and one of the things they covered was not to swim near a manatee because you could accidentally kick it. Instead of having snorkeling fins, we all crossed our feet at our ankles, bent our knees, and using a pool noodle, used our arms and hands to gently move around.

We also saw some fish but other than manatees there wasn’t much in this part of the water, which was fine with me. We ended up spending a total of three hours with Bird’s Underwater, including getting wet suits, watching the video, snorkeling, and going to and from the springs in the boat. I was more tired than I realized when I got back into the boat and was told we had to head back to the dive shop.

Parks in and around Crystal River

After we had gone back to the hotel, showered, gotten dressed and checked out, we went to Crystal River Archaeological State Park. At the park we saw remnants of a prehistoric ceremonial center, burial mounds, and remains from the area’s earliest settlement. Admission was just a few dollars (I think $3) that I left in an envelope at a stand in the parking lot. Crystal River Preserve State Park is right beside the archaeological park, but we didn’t go there.

Just about 20 minutes south of Crystal River in Homosassa is Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. We picked up sandwiches from a grocery store and ate lunch in the park overlooking the crystal clear water, but there is a cafe onsite where you can buy sandwiches and other snacks and drinks. This park has several rescued animals such as flamingos, bald eagles, a 61-year-old hippo that we saw pooping in the water (much to the delight of the young boys near us), a black bear, foxes, alligators, and manatees.

The manatees at this park have free-range to swim in the spring or make their way to a river that feeds into Homosassa Bay and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. There is also a rehabilitation center just for manatees if they are sick or injured. I’ve been to many different zoos, aquariums, and other places where they have rescued animals but this was one of the coolest.

After we left Homosassa Springs, I drove back down to Tampa which took about an hour and a half. I think I’ll end here and pick up on another post solely on Tampa, since it deserves a post of its’ own.

Have you been to Clearwater or this part of Florida? Have you swam with manatees? Ever wanted to? Please share!

Happy travels,

Donna

More Things to Do in St. Petersburg, Florida

Previously, I wrote A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat with some basics like where to stay and some of my favorite places to eat. In this post, I’m going to just talk about things to do since there are so many fun things to do in that area. I’ll start with outdoor activities since that’s my favorite. There are a crazy number of places in and around St. Petersburg to go walking, cycling, running, bird-watching, or just have a nice picnic lunch in nature. The town of Bradenton (a suburb of St. Petersburg) has a multitude of preserves so I’ll start there.

Preserves, Parks, and Trails in the Greater St. Petersburg Area

  • Robinson Preserve- 682 acres that is a mix of preserved mangrove, tidal marsh, and former agricultural lands that have been converted to coastal wetlands. The “Expansion” which has even more coastal wetlands and other habitats, a 2.5k rubberized pedestrian-only trail, additional kayak launches and trails, restrooms, picnic areas, and the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology, or “NEST.”
  • Palma Sola Botanical Park- free. 10 acres. Yoga and other special events like Winter Nights Under the Lights the end of December. tropical plants, rare fruit trees, 3 tranquil lakes, a wealth of butterflies, screened pavilion and two gazebos.
  • Perico Preserve- trails, birdwatching, no dogs allowed.
  • Jiggs Landing Preserve- boat ramp, fishing, grills, open space, pavilion, playground, restrooms, trails
  • Neal Preserve- 20 foot tall observation tower, shell trails, and boardwalks that wind through the coastal environment (no bikes on trails; no dogs allowed).
  • Riverview Pointe- 11-acre site adjacent to the DeSoto National Memorial. Trails, fishing, wildlife viewing.
  • Ungarelli Preserve- trails, pavilion.

Nearby Anna Maria Island also has Leffis Key Preserve with scenic trails.

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Sunken Gardens

We visited Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg and loved it! In addition to the botanical gardens with waterfalls, winding paths, and more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, there are pink flamingos and many other tropical birds. There are also special events throughout the year. Admission is a reasonable $12 for adults and $6 for children. We found a special buy one, get one free on Groupon, so it was an even better deal for us.

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Flamingos in Sunken Gardens

There are literally dozens of parks in the St. Petersburg area, some that are simply open spaces, while others have playgrounds, kayak/canoe launches, fishing, pavilions, soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts, swimming pools, splash pads, dog parks, grills, and so much more. You can check out this interactive map of parks and things to do in Manatee County.

Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde is on 1,136 acres made up of five interconnected islands (keys). In addition to the historic fort, there is over 7 miles of waterfront including almost 3 miles of white sandy beach, camping, seven miles of paved trail connecting North Beach, East Beach, the boat ramp and the camping area, two swim centers, 2 fishing piers, a 2.25 mile canoe trail, and short nature trails. There is a daily parking fee of $5.

Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo has 30 acres and over a dozen different gardens, aquatic habitats, artwork, a gift shop, annual events and programs, and best of all, it’s free. Also in Largo is the historical Heritage Village, set on 21 acres with 33 historical attractions including a variety of historic homes, general store, railroad depot, two schools, church, and more, and also all free.

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Stand up paddle boarding in Weedon Island Preserve

Weedon Island Preserve is an expansive 3,190-acre natural area located on Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg. There is a cultural and natural history center, guided tours and nature hikes, boardwalks and trails, and kayak/stand up paddle board rentals. Weedon Island Preserve is also a well-known birding and fishing site. Here’s the link to Sweetwater Kayaks, where we rented stand up paddle boards and paddled through the mangroves there. The guys working there are extremely nice and the launch site is literally steps from where you rent the boards or kayaks. There’s a link where you can check the tides, too since it can make a difference if you’re going through mangrove tunnels.

You can find more information on parks, gardens, beaches, and preserves for St. Petersburg, Largo, and Tierra Verde at the Pinellas County Website.

The Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail (most people just call it Pinellas Trail) is a linear trail currently extending from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs and is a multi-use trail that runners, cyclists, and walkers can enjoy. The trail was created along a portion of an abandoned railroad corridor, providing a unique, protected greenspace. My daughter and I ran on the trail a couple of times in different directions each time and absolutely loved it. It’s safe, scenic (cool mosaics, flowering shrubs and other landscape typical to the area) and pancake flat. Parts of it are shaded but other parts are not, so I suggest getting out early to beat the heat.

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Running on the Pinellas Trail

Museums and Galleries in St. Petersburg

Like the wide array of outdoor spaces available, there is no shortage of museums and galleries either. If I was short on time and had to choose just two or three, I would choose the Chihuly Collection, The Dali Museum, and Imagine Museum, but there are others that are fabulous as well, depending on your interests. Here are the major ones in St. Petersburg:

  • Chihuly Collection presented by the Morean Arts Center- glass art by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly.
  • The Dali Museum- an impressive collection of works by Salvadore Dali and similar artists of his time.
  • Imagine Museum- a stunning collection of American Studio Glass, rotating exhibitions, and a growing collection of International Studio Glass.
  • The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art- over 400 works of art inspired by the history of the American West.
  • Morean Arts Center- located in the Central Arts District with three other facilities in St. Petersburg.
  • Morean Glass Studio- watch glassblowing demonstrations and sign up for classes to make your own masterpiece.
  • Morean Center for Clay- watch local artisans at work and purchase some locally made pottery.
  • Museum of Fine Arts- over 20,000 works of art from ancient to contemporary.
  • Craftsman House- gallery with a collection of fine craft and artwork by American artists.
  • St. Petersburg Museum of History- featured displays include Schrader’s Little Cooperstown, the largest collection of autographed baseballs and the world’s first commercial airline flight.
  • Great Exploration Children’s Museum- designed for children ages 10 and under and filled with hands-on activities to stimulate learning through play and exploration.

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Some of the impressive artwork we saw at the Dali Museum and Imagine Museum

St. Petersburg does not seem overly touristy to me, although there are places that fit the bill for that, such as the cheesy miniature golf spots, cheap beach-themed shops (where you can buy an umbrella that probably won’t last a full day at the beach), and other similar places. You won’t find a plethora of chain restaurants, though of course there are some here, but there are also a decent number of locally-owned restaurants. You also won’t see row after row of towering chain hotels like you see at some beach areas.

If you’d like more information on the beaches in the St. Petersburg area or Anna Maria Island, check out my previous post, as mentioned in the beginning of this post.

Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? Anything I missed here that you enjoyed doing while you were there?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat

I feel like I’ve seen an awful lot of the state of Florida, from Pensacola in the far western edge to Tallahassee then over to Daytona Beach on the eastern part, down to Orlando, then south to West Palm Beach and further south to Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, the Everglades, and the keys all the way to Key West. I’ve also been to Naples and Ft. Meyers and those surrounding areas. Somehow I had never been to St. Petersburg before, though. I was truly missing a gem of the state!

Recently I went to St. Petersburg and also checked out areas around it including Anna Maria Island, Bradenton, and Gulfport. I absolutely loved the area and wondered how this had slipped under my radar before. While we were there we met with one of my husband’s friends he’s known since they were children who lives in Bradenton, so I also was able to get some input and the “insider’s scoop” from him.

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St. Pete’s Beach- one of many white sandy beaches!

There are soft powder-like white sandy beaches all along that area, some with sand dunes (which I find especially beautiful), great restaurants, friendly people, and tons of things to do ranging from water sports and botanical gardens to top-notch museums. Winter reigns supreme here. During the winter months you can expect highs usually in the mid- to upper-70’s and lows in the mid-50’s to mid-60’s. Best of all, it’s sunny most days with little rainfall. What’s not to like about that?

So what’s there to do in St. Petersburg? Well, if you like beaches, there are plenty of them. We visited several different beaches in the area and most of them were pretty wide to accommodate plenty of people. Some were more crowded than others, but they all had the same white, soft sand. Some of my favorite beaches were Pass-a-Grille Beach and Manatee Public Beach but St. Pete’s Beach and Treasure Island Beach are also nice, just a bit more crowded. Bean Point Beach on the tip of Anna Maria Island is beautiful as well, but smaller than some other beaches in the area.

There are also some fun, unique shops on Anna Maria Island, like Pineapple Junktion, Island Charms, the Island Cabana, plus more locally owned gift and clothing shops. Although it was closed when we were there, the Anna Maria Island Historical Society (a museum) looked really cool. You can see the remnants of the original Anna Maria City Jail, which had no windows, no doors, no bars, and no roof, meaning the people who stayed there were eaten alive by mosquitoes and suffered in the heat. According to the posted sign, no one “misbehaved” after spending one night in the jail. There’s also a historical home and some signs with interesting historical information. Just be aware that traffic can get pretty bad during the winter months if you’re going to Anna Maria Island during peak times.

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Anna Maria Island City Jail photo op!

There’s certainly no shortage of places to stay in all price ranges in the St. Petersburg area. Of course there’s Airbnb with hundreds of homes, apartments, and sometimes quirky places to stay like an Airstream travel trailer. There are also hotel chains, local hotels, plus bed & breakfasts in all price ranges. If you really want to splurge, you can stay at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort. If you’re into massive resorts with activities, a kids’ club, water park, etc. and don’t mind paying for it, this is the place for you. Note, I did not stay here (I stayed in a house through Airbnb).

Likewise, there are so many great restaurants in the area, with prices to suit every budget. Some of our favorites were:

  • Alesia Restaurant- Vietnamese/French/Chinese (trust me, it works)
  • Snapper’s Sea Grill- seafood restaurant
  • Caddy’s St. Pete Beach- sandwiches, salads, burgers, etc. with a nice water view (although not oceanview but more on that in a second, and don’t let the exterior deter you; it’s nice inside)
  • 3 Daughters Brewing- plenty of beers on tap plus good food and fun outdoor seating area; there are tons of other breweries in the area as well
  • Cafe Soleil- a French bakery and deli serving breakfast, lunch, and delicious flaky pastries

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There are two main airports in the area, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and a little further away but still not that far and a bigger airport serving more cities, Tampa International Airport. Check prices into both airports and see which is best for you. Primarily Allegiant is the major airline in St. Pete-Clearwater Airport, but there are also flights through Sun Country Airlines and charter services to Gulfport-Biloxi, Mississippi plus Sunwing Airlines has a couple of flights to Canada. Tampa Airport has many more airlines serving them but is also harder to get into and out of since it’s more crowded.

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Some things to keep in mind:

Winter is the “peak” season here, meaning it’s more crowded and hotels and restaurants are a bit harder to get reservations for. Traffic is more congested. The weather here December through February is absolutely perfect, in my opinion, and still warm enough to go to the beach. Spring break is of course more crowded, so plan on that if you’re going in April. The summer months are hot and humid, but there is a nice ocean breeze to help a bit. Fall is also nice, once the temperatures drop in October.

Traffic tends to bottle-neck in certain areas that have only one way in and out, like Anna Maria Island and Fort DeSoto. Plan accordingly and allow for extra time.

“Water view” does not mean ocean view. It means you’ll have a view of a bay or other body of water but not the ocean. St. Petersburg is on the western side of Florida, with Tampa Bay on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west (technically there’s Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve and then the Gulf of Mexico).

Have you been to St. Petersburg, Florida? If so, what did you think of it? What did you do there?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Some Things to Consider Before You Sign Up for a Winter Race in the South

I recently heard an ad for a marathon and half marathon in Miami in February. They said something about how great it would be to run in beautiful Miami in February to get a break from winter weather and I started thinking about that. I’ve run several half marathons in the winter months including Kiawah Island Half Marathon (South Carolina) in December, Naples Daily News Half Marathon (Florida) in January, Run the Reagan (Georgia) in February, Ole Man River (Louisiana) in December, Dogtown Half Marathon (Utah) in February, and several half marathons in early to mid-March, on the verge of spring but still technically winter.

While I’ll agree that it was definitely nice to have a break from cold weather when I was in Florida, I still had to go back home obviously so it was just a few days of warmer weather. None of the other states were noticeably warmer than my home state of North Carolina, even though Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana are all south of where I live so one might expect it to be warmer (I did). I remember it being chilly and rainy in Louisiana and Georgia and very windy and cool in South Carolina. When I finished all three of those races, I was ready to just go back to my hotel room to take a hot shower and warm up. That being said, Kiawah Island Marathon and Half Marathon is a great race and I still recommend it.

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I was so happy to see the finish line at Run the Reagan in Georgia!

So does that just leave Florida if you want to run a marathon or half marathon in the winter and have a greater chance of warm, sunny weather? First off remember, Florida is a big state and the weather varies considerably from the northern part to the southern part. I was in Naples, in the southern part of the state and the weather was nice enough that we still went to the beach in January. If we would have been in say, Jacksonville, it’s not nearly as warm there as it is in Naples in January but still may be warmer than where you live. Besides southern Florida, you would also have warm weather in the winter in southern Texas, southern California, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and Arizona. All of that being said, if you live in a state in the northeast or another state where it snows a lot and is bitter cold during the winter, it would seem considerably warmer if you ran a race in a state like North Carolina or Georgia. It’s all relative.

However, that’s not necessarily as great as it sounds, especially if you live in a far northern state. Let’s say you live in Michigan and it starts snowing in October, like it normally does there, and by November you’ve acclimated to the cold weather. If you were training for a marathon in Florida in January or February but lived in Michigan, that would mean you would have to run through some pretty rough weather, only to show up in sunny southern Florida, where it may be upwards of 75 degrees for the high on race day. You would not be anywhere near acclimated to that kind of temperature and it would probably feel like you were running in an inferno.

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It was fun getting to hang out at the beach with this little cutie after the race in Naples, Florida in January

There are also the holidays to consider. If you’re running a half marathon or marathon in February, that means you need to get your training runs in for the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. I’ve done that and it’s not something that was easy to do. Everyone is already busy around the holidays, with the extra shopping, gift wrapping, parties, putting up decorations, extra cooking and/or baking, visiting family members, and all of the other extra things that happen that time of year. When you have to run for 12 miles on Saturday, you’re probably not going to feel like driving 4 hours to see Grandma after that, plus you’ll likely have to figure out where to run and how to squeeze in  another run while you’re at Grandma’s house for the weekend.

It’s not all bad, though. It is pretty nice to get a break from cold, dreary winter weather, even if it is just for a few days or a bit more if you’re lucky enough to spend some time there after the race. Sure, you do have to go back home to crappy weather, but you may appreciate the warm weather a bit more while you’re there and have maybe a bit more fun because of it. Plus, it gives you something to look forward to when you’re outside training in the cold, drab winter weather. If you live somewhere that you just love cold weather and snow, you probably wouldn’t enjoy a “break” from the cold weather and all of this would be lost upon you, so I don’t recommend a winter race for you in one of the states I mentioned in the winter.

I think as long as you come prepared and know what you’re getting into before you sign up for a winter race somewhere that it will be considerably warmer than where you live, it will be fine. In fact, it could turn out to be something you absolutely love and end up doing it year after year. My theory is always, “You’ll never know until you try!”

Have you run a race in a southern state in the winter? If so, what was your experience like? Do you want to run a winter race in a southern state?

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Happy running!

Donna

 

 

National Parks in the United States That Are Even Better in the Winter

I love national parks, whether they’re in the United States or elsewhere. However, for the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on national parks in the United States, specifically ones that I’ve been to during the winter months. There are several advantages to traveling to national parks during the winter versus during the summer, including they are less crowded during the winter and prices for flights and hotels are often lower during the winter than during the summer.

I’ll begin with Everglades National Park in Florida. Last December, I visited a friend of mine who lives in Miami and she took my family and I here. She often takes friends who come to visit her to Everglades National Park and she told me it’s much more pleasant to come during the “cooler” months than during the summer, not that it cools off that much in the winter, but when you live there, it’s winter to you and you notice the drop in temperature. We didn’t see any mosquitoes or other bugs, but she told me when she was with a visiting friend earlier that year in the summer, they were nearly eaten alive by bugs at Everglades National Park.

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Airboat tour through Everglades National Park

We took an airboat tour through Everglades National Park, which I had done before on a previous vacation to the area several years prior. You’ll mostly see some alligators and many different types of birds as you zip around the wetlands. There are also manatees, the Florida panther, and turtles in the area that you may see if you’re lucky (well, probably not a panther because they’re so elusive).

My post on Miami and Everglades National Park

National Park Service link to Everglades National Park

I also visited some national parks in Utah during February one year including Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. Both parks are located in the southwestern part of Utah, about an hour or so from each other by car. When I think of Bryce Canyon, I think of watching the falling snow on the hoodoos and red rocks while we were walking around the serenely quiet park, with almost no one else there but the three of us. There’s a winter festival scheduled from February 16-18 in 2020 that includes cross-country ski tours, photography clinics, ranger-led snowshoe excursions under the full moon, and guided fat bike rides. There are two ski resorts nearby, Brian Head Resort and Eagle Point. We stayed at Ruby’s Inn, which is the closest lodging to the park entrance, and they even have an ice-skating rink across the street during the winter.

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Bryce Canyon National Park in the winter

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah in the Winter

National Park Service link to Bryce Canyon National Park

Zion National Park is bigger and more people go there annually than Bryce Canyon National Park, so chances are you won’t be the only ones hiking there even in the winter but the crowds will be thinner than during the summer. Zion National Park is known for its slot canyon, Zion Narrows, which you can wade through given the right conditions (I did not do this). Winding through the main section of the park is Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The Virgin River flows to the Emerald Pools, which have waterfalls and a hanging garden. Another famous part of Zion National Park is Angel’s Landing trail, known for its sheer drops on either side of the narrow trail. We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge, which you can literally walk to the park from, and the rooms are spacious, clean, comfortable, and quiet.

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There wasn’t nearly as much snow in Zion as Bryce Canyon in the winter

Hiking in Zion National Park in Late Winter

National Park Service link to Zion National Park

It’s possible to combine Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon National Park all in one vacation, like I did (plus we had a couple of other stops as well). Grand Canyon National Park as you might imagine is one of the most visited national parks, so going there in the winter is a great idea. If you can go during the week as opposed to on a weekend in the winter, not only will there be less people to contend with, you’ll have an easier chance scoring a place to stay within the park. Seeing snow on the Grand Canyon is something I will always remember. I’ve been there twice during the winter months and both times it was beautiful and peaceful.

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The Grand Canyon is beautiful any time of year but less-crowded in the winter

Grand Canyon National Park in Late Winter- the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

National Park Service link to Grand Canyon National Park

Although not a national park, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a great place to visit in the winter. In the 18th century, dozens of Spanish missions were constructed across southern Texas. Four of the best preserved are in San Antonio, and can be visited as part of the national historical park. The 12 mile route near the San Antonio River is connected by the Mission Trail and links The Alamo with Mission Espada.

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Photo by Viajero Cool on Pexels.com

I have a brief post on the half marathon I ran in San Antonio, which also discusses the area, that you can find here:  Marathon of the Americas and Half Marathon, Texas-10th state.

National Park Service link to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Honestly, there isn’t a bad time of year to visit Hawaii, so visiting during the winter months can only be good. Not only would you get a break from your current winter weather, the crowds will be (a bit) thinner if you go after New Year’s Day and your airfare will be (a bit) lower than if you go in July or August. The temperature doesn’t change that much from one month to the next, but it will be a few degrees cooler in January than August. For example, the average temperature in Kona on the Big Island is 81 degrees in January and 87 degrees in August.

I’ve been to Hawaii three times, once in the fall (October), once in the summer (August), and once in the winter (February). All three times, I was swimming in the ocean, snorkeling, hiking, and loving life. I know my airfare was considerably more when I flew there in August and the lowest when I flew in February. I didn’t notice the crowds being any less in one month than another, however. The first time I went to Hawaii, I visited Haleakalā National Park in Maui and Volcanos National Park in Hawaii (the Big Island), but I wasn’t a blogger then so I don’t have a post on either of those parks but I can say they are both worth spending at least a day at. I’ve been to Volcanos National Park twice and would love to visit it again someday (plus go back to Haleakalā). I went to the islands of Kauai and Oahu on my most recent visit, neither of which have national parks, but still plenty of incredible hiking, including the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai and Diamond Head State Park in Oahu.

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Waimea Canyon in Kauai during the “winter” month of February

Rediscovering Kauai, Hawaii and Some of My Favorite Things

My First Time in Oahu, Hawaii- Even Better than Expected

National Park Service link to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

National Park Service link to Haleakalā National Park

What national parks do you like even better in the winter months? Have you been to any of these parks in the winter and/or other times of year? Any national parks in other countries that you loved during the winter?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

Beach Photos From Around the World

I grew up in land-locked West Virginia and while it’s a beautiful state full of mountains, as an adult I’ve found I much prefer ocean and beach settings. If I can have mountains to hike in with views of the ocean, then that’s just about perfect to me. I’ve spent my fair share of time at beaches since I started traveling as an adult. In fact, the first international vacation I went on was to the Bahamas when I was in college.

Given the fact that I’m completely over winter and ready to move on to warmer, sunnier weather, I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite beach spots and of course include photos. We’ll take a little photo journey around the world, in no particular order, although I may have to divulge some of my favorites at the end.

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I even got married at the beach! St. Kitts in the Caribbean to be exact

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Agaete at dusk in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

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Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, California, one of my favorite places in the world

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Don’t you just love her enthusiasm? Taken in Naples, Florida

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Nearly deserted black sandy beach at Mount Maunganui in New Zealand

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Coronado Beach in the San Diego, California area during the winter

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Crete, Greece- the water was so clear and beautiful

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Black sand rocky beach in Tenerife, Spain just before a storm blew in

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One of my favorite beaches in Malta

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Black sand, rocky beach in Hawaii

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Powdery soft white sand dune in Charleston, South Carolina

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Quintessential Aruba photo

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World-famous Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman Island with the softest sand I’ve ever felt

I alluded at the beginning to listing some of my favorites but it’s funny because photos are really art, which taken as a whole are not only subjective to the eye of the beholder but also the context. For example, a person’s travel experiences are influenced by things such as who they’re with, what stage in life they’re at, how they were treated by the locals and other travelers, and even the weather. I may look at a photo and it brings back happy memories while someone else may see the same photo and just see the landscape and/or people in the photo without any context of what was going on when the photo was taken.

So what are my favorite photos here? I’m not going to take the easy way out and say I could never choose because they’re all my favorites. I really like the stormy photo taken at the beach in Tenerife, Spain because I love how I was able to capture that moment just before a huge storm blew in. I also love the photo of the beach in Malta because of the different hues of blue in the water and the rocky protrusion, so I’ll narrow it down to those two photos for my favorites here.

What about you guys- do you like black sandy beaches, powder-white, or the more traditional tan/beige the best? Rocky beaches or sandy beaches? What are some of your favorite beaches?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- East Coast

As an American who has visited all but 8 of the states in the United States, take it from me, the US is a huge country. The entire continent of Europe is roughly the same size as the United States, to put things into perspective. Imagine driving from one end of Europe to the other end or even half of Europe in a week or two. That’s crazy, right? But yet some people come to the United States for the first time with the intention to drive across the United States, only to wind up spending most of their time in the car. There’s got to be a better way.

Here are some of my recommendations for a week-long itinerary in the United States, east coast only. If you have more than a week, add on days to either or both destination, according to your interests.

1) For the city-lover:  begin in New York City. With a population of over 8.6 million people, New York City is definitely a city with a lot to do and see. I’m not going to give recommendations for things to do and see in New York City, but I recommend staying here 4 or 5 days, depending on what you want to see and do. The noise and traffic can be a bit much for some people, so if you know you prefer to move on to a smaller area, I’d cut the time spent in New York to 3 days but wouldn’t go any less than that.

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Statue of Liberty- book your ticket several months in advance if you want to go to the top!

If you are a history buff, you can fly, drive a rental car, or take a train to Washington, D.C. There is an Amtrak train that will get you there in an hour less than it takes to drive (3 hours via train vs. 4 hours driving) and flying isn’t any faster, so I would recommend taking the train. Parking in both New York City and Washington, D.C. is expensive and difficult to find, not to mention the headache of simply driving in these hugely congested areas.

I suggest spending 2 or 3 days in Washington, D.C. As in New York City, public transportation is the best way to get around. The metro in Washington, D.C. can take you to the Smithsonian museums quickly and easily. I highly recommend spending time at the Smithsonian Museums, which are made up of 19 museums, galleries, gardens, and a zoo, all of which offer free admission. There are of course also the monuments and memorials you can admire on the National Mall. Most of the monuments and memorials are free or have a nominal fee. Check online to see if you need a ticket and if so buy it in advance.

2) For the history and nature-lover:  begin in Boston, Massachusetts. Boston is considerably smaller both in land mass and population than New York City and may be an easier transition for some people, especially those that don’t like large crowds. Boston has around 700,000 people but still has plenty to do and is also a great choice if you enjoy history. Again, I would recommend just using public transportation and walking to get around Boston. Although you could easily spend more time in Boston, 3 days would be a good amount to see the highlights.

From Boston, rent a car and drive up the coast to Maine. It’s a pretty long drive, at about 4 hours, 45 minutes. If you want to break up the drive, stop at Portland and spend the night here. Portland is full of great restaurants and nice places to stay. Your ultimate destination will be Bar Harbor, home to Acadia National Park. You could easily spend a week just in Acadia National Park, but if you’re only spending a week total in the US, you’ll have about 4 days here if you spend 3 days in Boston. You could also fly from Boston to Bar Harbor in about an hour, but honestly, the drive along the coast from Boston is worth it in my opinion.

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The beautiful coastline of Maine

3) For a beach experience and party scene:  fly into Miami, Florida. Miami is famous for its beautiful beaches, great food, and bar scene. If you like to hang out at the beach all day and party all night, Miami is the spot for you. Everglades National Park is also nearby if you want to take a ride through the Everglades in an airboat for a unique experience. Spend 5 days in Miami before heading to your next destination, Key West.

Key West is about 3 1/2 hours by car from Miami, although it could take longer if you stop at the many other little “keys” along the way. You can fly from Miami to Key West in 45 minutes if you are in a hurry, but if you want a memorable road trip, drive the Overseas Highway across a 113-mile chain of coral and limestone islands connected by 42 bridges, one of them seven miles long. Key West has a laid-back kind of feel, which may be a relief after the more upbeat party scene of Miami. Chill at the beaches and bars in Key West for 2 days before heading back home.

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One of many gorgeous sunsets we saw while in the keys!

4) To skip the bigger cities for a smaller-town feel:  fly into Atlanta, Georgia. Although Atlanta is a fun town and you could spend a few days here, for your first time to the United States, I suggest renting a car and driving the roughly 4 1/2 hours to Charleston, South Carolina. You could also fly into Charleston but flights from Europe will be cheaper if you fly into Atlanta. If you don’t have a driver’s license or can’t rent a car, by all means fly into Charleston instead. Charleston has consistently ranked number one city by Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, and for good reason. Charleston is a foodie destination, has beautiful beaches with soft, powder-fine sand, is full of historical sites, and has quaint bed & breakfasts as well as the usual hotels and Airbnb offerings. Spend 5 days in Charleston before moving on to your next destination, Savannah, Georgia.

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Powder white, soft sandy beach in the Charleston area

It’s about a 2 hour drive from Charleston to Savannah. To me, Savannah is like the little sister to Charleston, in many ways. Savannah is a foodie destination, has beautiful beaches at Tybee Island, has many fun historical sites, all of which Charleston has, but Savannah hasn’t quite reached the level of “stardom” that Charleston has, for some reason. I suggest spending 2 days in Savannah before heading back and flying back out of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, about 3 1/2 hours away by car.

Those are my top east-coast destinations for first-timers to the United States. There are of course many more but I had to draw the line somewhere!

What about my American east-coasters? What east coast travel destinations would you recommend to first-timers coming to the US?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

“Welcome to Miami”- Long Weekend in Miami, Florida

I have a dear friend that used to live where I do and she moved to Miami several years ago. The last time I went to see her was around 6 or so years ago so I was long over-due for a visit to see her. When I was planning my vacation to Malta, I was curious to see how much more it would cost to go through Miami on my way home. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a single penny more (in fact it was a bit cheaper to go through Miami) so after making sure she would be available in late November (she was) I booked our airfare.

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I’ll admit, I’m a huge planner and always have been. It’s nothing for me to have tentative plans for vacations or races a year or more in advance. It may all be in my head, with nothing purchased, but it’s still more or less planned. However, for my time in Miami, I didn’t plan a single thing. I didn’t go online to check out restaurants. I didn’t go to TripAdvisor to choose things to do. Since we would be staying with my friend and she would be driving us around, I didn’t even have to make hotel and/or rental car arrangements. This is truly unusual for me, to trust another person with all of the details for my vacation.

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I’ll also admit our time in Miami may not be how many of you would choose to spend time there. We didn’t go to a single club or bar. When we went to South Beach, the only things we did were go to lunch and spend the rest of the day on the sand and/or in the ocean. We also went to my friend’s neighborhood pool and my daughter had a grand time there. Most of all, we relaxed and thoroughly enjoy ourselves as my friend went out of her way to make us feel truly welcome.

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So what did we do other than go to the beach and pool? Well, we went on an airboat ride in the Everglades. We wanted to also go to Everglades National Park but because of a recent hurricane, they were closed. My friend has gone on multiple airboat rides in the Everglades over the years with visiting friends and relatives and she likes Everglades Safari Park the best. For $28 per adult or $15 per child you get a 30-40 minute airboat tour, a wildlife nature show, and you can walk along the “Jungle Trail,” observation platform, and exhibits on your own after the airboat tour. There’s also a discount if you buy your tickets in advance online.

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I’ve been on airboat rides before through the Everglades but I had forgotten how much fun they are! My daughter had never been on one and she loved it as well. During our tour, we saw multiple alligators, a few birds, and our guide pointed out some interesting plants in the area such as some so poisonous you would be dead within 20 minutes of touching it. After the airboat ride, we watched the wildlife nature show, where they had a boa constrictor and alligators. You could also get your picture take with a baby alligator after the show for $3 (we didn’t). We finished up our time at Everglades Safari Park with a walk around the “Jungle Trail,” which was nice but we didn’t really see much of anything of note.

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One of a few alligators seen on our airboat tour

Two things of note come to mind when visiting the Everglades: this is apparently an entirely different experience if you come during the warmer versus cooler months. My friend has been here during all seasons and said the mosquitoes will eat you alive during the warmer months (most of the year in Miami) and you may not even see a single alligator on the airboat ride. More reasons to go to Miami during the winter.

This vacation was a nice break after being so busy and active in Malta the previous couple of weeks. Normally you wouldn’t think of a long weekend in Miami as being quiet and relaxing, but like I’ve said many times, my family and I don’t vacation like typical Americans do.

How many of you have been on an airboat ride through the Everglades? What was your experience like?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Naples Daily News Half Marathon, Florida- 8th state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Florida was my 8th state.

I  know a lot of people may question why I didn’t run one of the races in Disney World for my half marathon in Florida. Honestly, I purposefully didn’t choose a Disney race because the huge crowds at their races and super-early start did not appeal to me, plus they’re crazy expensive. I think Disney is fine for family vacations just not for a race, but I know plenty of people love their races so I may be in the minority on that one.

I ran the Naples Daily News Half Marathon in January 2007. I chose this race for my one in Florida for a couple of different reasons. At the time, my mother-in-law and step-father-in-law had recently bought a winter house in Naples and had invited us down for a visit. Also, we (my husband’s parents and my husband, daughter, and me) were all planning a vacation together in Hawaii the following fall and would be bringing our daughter who would be almost 2 when we flew to Hawaii. I wanted to see how she would do on an airplane before we flew all the way to Hawaii. Since this race was in January, it would be a nice respite from the cold weather where we lived.

There was an early start to the race to beat the heat. The course was flat and went through wealthy neighborhoods with enormous multi-million homes and views of the water. There was a priest in front of Trinity-by-the-Cove Episcopal Church blessing runners going by with holy water, which was a first for me to see at a race. Our finisher’s medals were cute and of good quality, as were the short-sleeve technical shirts we received. My verdict: the Naples Half Marathon was a fun, not overly-crowded race in a perfect location for those from colder climes looking for a break from winter weather.

My finish time for the Naples Daily News Half Marathon was 2:01:09.

For things to do, there’s the Naples Zoo, which is especially good if you have younger children; the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a fantastic place for viewing wildlife in the area; and if it’s warm enough there are some beautiful beaches.  One of the best beaches is Loudermilk Beach with powder white sand, perfect for long walks after you’ve ran your race.

www.napleshalfmarathon.net