A Beachside Holiday

This holiday season, I left the cold mountains of the northeast for the sunny shores of Florida.  After a long roadtrip down south, it was nice to head to the beach and enjoy the season with the sand, shells, and seagulls!

15747668_10208044484778136_3739923748581616487_n

15781773_10208044482858088_7250927416402062506_n

15826217_10208044500858538_9060080526657327727_n

It’s a little bit of a tradition to head down to the beach and play with those giant bubble wands on Christmas (my family gets them every year in our stockings!).  It’s so much fun!

15781468_10208044483218097_8935413634116894542_n

15780710_10208044484578131_4737616165175817320_n

15590621_10207982574830426_6462833571529637030_n

It certainly wasn’t the warmest day ever for the beach (the water was too cold for swimming), but it certainly was nice to walk along the sand, play with some bubbles, chat with family, and truly enjoy the scenery and the day.  It was a lovely beachside holiday!

sarahheart

 

 

Baby Gators and Thunderstorms

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts recounting my adventures at Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland, Florida.  It’s an absolute favorite spot of mine and, on most visits, I am usually blown away by the fantastic wildlife sightings and encounters I have there (especially during the more active gator season!).  When I first moved to Florida a few years ago, I thought my hiking days were pretty much over – I was used to hiking mountain ridges and dense forests and Florida didn’t really have any of that.  But Circle B Bar Reserve has proved to be one of my favorite hiking places of all time.  On my penultimate trip there (…I recently moved house and no longer live near it! So sad!!) I got to see some baby alligators, got super close to some wildlife, and outran an incredible thunderstorm. Of course, I took pictures 😉

When I arrived at Circle B, I immediately noticed the posted signs indicating that the major trail, Alligator Alley, was closed.  There wasn’t a specific reason given for the closures, but my assumption is that it had to perhaps do with the many alligators and sightings there recently.  With the main trail closed, I decided to just head up the trail that leads to it, which fortunately still offers incredible views and opportunities for wildlife spotting.

The trail I walked up sits in the middle of a large wetland area.  I had my infamous massive-gator-encounter here (see the gator here!) and was hoping to actually see another.  There weren’t any large gators this time, but I did spot a number of baby ones! So cute!

It was gorgeous and sunny as I headed down the trail in hopes of some more wildlife sightings, as evidenced by this lovely photo here (lol):

IMG_4220

Perfect skies, perfect temperature! It was seriously gorgeous.  I continued my way down the trail and even explored part of the Alligator Alley trail until I was met with the closed-off area and warnings not to dare attempt entering it (which I did not).  I did, though, make friends with a brave and fearless squirrel!

IMG_4234

After becoming acquainted with my new squirrel friend, I began making my way back and, for the first time, noticed how extremely dark it had gotten.  The sky was no longer a beautiful and clear blue, but a dark and storm grey.  Thunder sounded in the distance.  I was standing in an open wetland… So I booked it back to my car.

The storm that rolled through was impressive.  The wind gusted so hard, Spanish moss rained down from the trees and large branches fell to the ground.  I had a hard time keeping to the center of the trail as I headed back, the wind was that strong!

IMG_4244IMG_4249

I made it back to my car just before it started down-pouring.  The whole experience was a reminder of just how powerful mother nature can be, and how quickly a really nice day can turn really dangerous in a matter of minutes (weather in Florida is so fascinating this way!).

So, although my hike didn’t include my favorite trail and was cut short by the extreme weather, it was still an eventful and worthwhile adventure! I’ll certainly miss you, Circle B!

sarahheart

Touring Florida’s Natural Orange & Citrus Center

flnatural.jpg

I have lived smack in the middle of orange grove central for three years now and I have finally gotten around to really exploring the citrus world.  Citrus is huge in Florida – many of my friends work or have family members who work in the citrus industry.  I’ll be honest, I never knew so many variations of citrus existed before living here!  Sure, I knew there were a few types of oranges and lemons and grapefruits and so on… but never before have I encountered so much variety, including ones I have never heard of before, even when out in the wild simply hiking or walking!

My curiosity in learning more about citrus led me to a visit to the Florida’s Natural Orange visitor center.  Here, one can take a look at the history of citrus in Florida and discover just how large and complex the industry is – there’s a lot more to it than just oranges!

The Florida’s Natural visitor center is located on route 27, southwest of Orlando by about an hour.  They’re closed Memorial Day through the end of September, during the off season, so plan a trip during the “cooler” months! I went around midday during the middle of the week.  Surprisingly, no one else was there! It was very quiet (but very nice that way!).  There are different varieties of citrus growing around the visitor center property, so I browsed through them and was amazed at how many different kinds of oranges there are! Many are non-native, having been brought from other parts of the world, but I was surprised to learn that there was a unique local variety of orange, too.

IMG_2640.jpg

Inside the center, there is a large gift shop that makes up the front of the building.  Anything you can think of that could be “orange-ized” pretty much is.  I tried some citrus flavored popcorn (it was really good!!) and sampled some of Florida Natural’s juices.  The rear of the center is devoted to information exhibits about the history of citrus and the formation of Florida’s Natural.

The self-guided, walk-through tour gives visitors the chance to learn about all aspects of the citrus industry – from picking and boxing, to the effects of weather and how the growing seasons work.  Florida’s Natural began as a co-op in 1933.  Growers worked hard to develop methods to best pack and ship their crop and produce their juice, which used to only be canned juice and concentrate (non-concentrate didn’t come around until the 1980’s!).  It amazed me how there was so much work that went into developing and building the wooden crates that oranges are famously seen in nowadays – it was the best way to pack the fruit without damaging it!

Since the citrus industry began, weather has always played a large role in the growing and harvesting of the fruit.  There have been years where frost has virtually wiped out the season’s crop.  I think many people don’t realize how damaging something like this really can be to an entire industry or business; for example, many local, smaller groves in Florida survive by selling their crop to larger citrus businesses, such as Florida’s Natural.  If the local groves suffer crop loss from freezing temperatures or frost, their business is essentially lost for an entire portion of the year (and all the money that went into growing the citrus is wasted).  Similarly, fires can just as easily decimate entire groves.  And, in an extremely hot climate like Florida, groves are vulnerable to wildfire threats.  It was really an eye-opening experience to learn about and consider all this information.

IMG_2643.jpg

Florida’s Natural also focuses heavily on energy conservation.  The visitor center, for example, receives its energy from solar panels.  With entire groves exposed to sunlight, its easy to see how citrus and energy can go hand-in-hand.  Even the watering systems for the groves have been worked and reworked to reduce water runoff and waste!

So the next time you reach for that cold glass of orange juice, consider where it all came from!  I am very lucky to be surrounded by these wonderful orange groves on a daily basis and enjoy their (literal) fruits. Next time you find yourself in Florida, particularly in the Orlando (or even Tampa!) area, swing by Florida’s Natural for a look at the history of the citrus industry, a taste of their products, and a sample of the citrus-inspired goodies they have! You’ll be amazed at just simply how many varieties of citrus there are!

Happy travels!

sarahheart

 

 

 

St. Augustine and Castillo de San Marcos

To kick off the summer, I took a road trip up to St. Augustine to check out the famed historic town and its sights.  There’s so much history there and a fantastic fort to explore – right up my alley!

13332879_10206478686994170_6903222857054512192_n

Right next to the visitor center in St. Augustine is a conveniently located parking garage and, since everything is really within walking distance, it’s an easy place to navigate.  The visitor’s center sells “passport” passes at a discounted rate for a few of the attractions in town, but I decided to pass on this option after looking into it.  (One of the featured attractions is free to get in to anyway and the other two attractions were the fort and a colonial town setting; since I was exploring the town itself anyway the colonial town attraction seemed redundant.)

Outside the visitor center is a stone trail marker for the old Spanish Trail, which went from California to Florida.  As a hiker, I found this pretty interesting!  There was clearly much more history to be learned in St. Augustine than I even imagined.

13327577_10206478573151324_1216326432547759381_n

I walked a little ways away from the fort (you can’t miss it – it’s the biggest thing around!) and found lunch at this great barbecue place called Mojo Old City BBQ on Cordova Street.  It was fantastic!  Definitely worth a visit if you want a place that isn’t overpriced, overcrowded, or too touristy (they had great BBQ sauces, too!!).  From there I walked through he touristy shop area across from the fort.  There are lots and lots of little shops and cafes to wander through – it’s a pretty neat place to explore! After grabbing a coffee it was time to hit the fort!

13336021_10206478589151724_4887606946924135310_n

Castillo de San Marcos is the gem of St. Augustine.  It sits proudly against the water, prepped to defend the mainland against enemies at sea.  The history of the fort is just as interesting as the history of Florida itself – it exchanged hands many times and went through a number of name changes.  It was $10 to enter the fort (regular adult price) and, inside the different rooms, there were boards and postings with lots of historical information. My honest impression is that the information and set-up is very well done! The fort definitely makes use of its layout and formation in order to offer visitors the best experience and provide the most information possible – including cannon firings! I had the pleasure of watching two cannon firings (not with actual cannon balls, of course).  Reenactors set up and loaded the cannon and fired it out toward the water.  It was SO loud!! You really felt the “boom!” It was really neat to see how it works!

The Castillo de San Marcos is a star fort featuring triangular bastions, a low defensive wall to defend against cannon fire, and a ditch, or moat.  These specifications made it very difficult to lay siege against, making it the perfect place for the Spanish to hold out against the English in the early 1700’s, where the latter was defeated and forced to return home.  The fort was never won or captured by force, but changed hands a number of times due to treaties.  Eventually, the United States ended up with it and eventually turned it into a national historical site.

There is a lovely walkway along the water to follow from the fort that heads more into the town area.  From there, lots of shops and cafes dot the town alongside Flagler College.  There is a beautiful cathedral to see, museums to explore, and even a fantastic distillery that I highly recommend checking out.  There is so much more to St. Augustine than the fort and touristy shops near it – go out into the town and explore! 🙂

St. Augustine is a perfect day trip – ideal for a stop if you’re traveling along the eastern coast.  There is so much history to be had at the oldest city in the United States!

Happy travels!

sarahheart

A Wild Gator Encounter!

I decided to go for a hike at one of my favorite places to spot wildlife in Central Florida, Circle B Bar Reserve.  I’ve written a number of blog posts about my animal encounters there and, each time I go, I am never disappointed.  My most recent visit this past weekend was certainly no exception.

map

I began by walking down the Heron Hideout trail. This trail is accessible directly from the parking area and leads to the biggest trails on the reserve.  It has very little shade (wear a hat or sunscreen!) and so it gets pretty hot.  The trail is surrounded by marsh on both sides and offers prime viewing for birds, small fish, and gators.  The Heron Hideout trail eventually reaches a crossroads, where you can opt to continue forward onto the Eagle Roost trail, right to the Marsh Rabbit Run trail, or left (most popular) to Alligator Alley, which parallels Lake Hancock.  I decided to continue forward on the Eagle Roost trail.

The Eagle Roost trail has marsh and ponds bordering both sides of it before the trail turns farther up and becomes more open and sandy.  While walking up the trail, I noticed a gator moving nearby in the water.  It was pretty cool to see! I turned around at the bend in the trail and, on my way back, I became absolutely startled.

The gator I had seen swimming in the water suddenly popped its head out of the tall grass to the side of the trail just five feet ahead of me.  He was huge!  I immediately backed up, mentally running through the list of all the safety tips I had learned in the Everglades.  The gator proceeded onto the trail and I was in awe at his size – he stretched the whole way across! It was certainly a sight to see.  His gait was slow and almost crooked.  When he made it to the water on the opposite side of the trail, I waited a minute before quickly passing.  I was still catching my breath!

IMG_5196

Perhaps almost ironically, I turned onto the Alligator Alley trail next.  I didn’t have any more personal gator encounters, but I did see a bunch more! Along the trail were beautiful birds, rabbits, and turtles.  There were some baby alligators sitting in the marsh off to the left side of the trail, and larger gators swimming around in the lake to the right. There was just so much wildlife to see!

Circle B Bar is one of my favorite places for wildlife sightings and this visit definitely tops my list.  That alligator encounter was incredible! I’m glad I went when I did! 🙂

IMG_5185

sarahheart