Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Serious Problem and I ain’t Lion (Fish)

We visited Pensacola for an afternoon after a morning at the beach. Pensacola seems like a lovely place to live; small, clean and compact. We stopped at the center of town to participate in a unique event, at least one not likely to come to our home town, “Lionfish Removal & Awareness Day”.
You see, Pensacola is ground zero for an international problem, the growth of an invasive species, in this case the Lionfish, in the local estuary and elsewhere. The Lionfish is an Asian predator fish accidentally released in US waters sometime within the last 10 – 15 years. It has a voracious appetite and spawns with fecundity. It is now present in most area of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Weigh-in for the Lionfish Roundup
The Lionfish eats virtually anything that moves. For humans, the result is fewer game fish. However, there are broader environmental issues. Several reef fish feed on plants and animals that keep the reef healthy. Those reef fish seem to be disappearing as well.  

Lionfish to not respond to lures and cannot be caught the conventional way. The most effective technique involves spearing them while snorkeling or scuba diving. Did I mention that they have 13 poisonous dorsal spines and 5 additional ones elsewhere on their body? This is not a job for amateurs.
Until a better method of control emerges, the authorities are trying to develop a market for Lionfish filet, hoping that a commercial incentive can begin to address the problem. We learned that the flesh is very tasty, much like other white fish. However, as the harvesting is labor intensive, restaurants are reluctant to keep is as a regular menu item.

All in all, it proved an interesting afternoon.

We had a lovely dinner at the Fish House right in Pensacola. They did not have Lionfish on the menu. 

Coasting, Beaches of the Florida Panhandle - Updated

We planned to sample the Florida Panhandle Coast (as it is called locally, "The Forgotten Coast") at various places. Here are some findings.
Cedar Key - not a condo in sight!

Cedar Key. We visited here on the way to Tallahassee. It sits at the southern end of the bight where Florida joins the mainland. The town has served as a seaport during times of conflict when access to the interior for lumber and agricultural goods increases. Otherwise is is a sleepy village of about 800 at the last census. We felt it looked like Florida used to be. We had ice cream on the fishing pier and watched. I recommend as a novel destination.

St Mark's. Due South of Tallahassee, St Mark's mainly serves commercial fishing interests. It is even smaller than Cedar Key. We found a wonderful trail there, like in Gainesville, paved shaded and flat. The town offers little else to the visitor but the ride felt worth it.

Typical beach scene on St George's Island
St. George Island. Near Apalachicola, this island extends for miles along the coast. The central part of the island nearest the bridge is typical of beach towns. However, to the east of the bridge, a large state park occupies the whole eastern end of the island. We rode out to walk the beaches late in the afternoon. We hardly saw anyone. The water along this coast seems surprisingly clear to us barely green near the shore and blue just beyond the surf. We learned from the locals that summer time has the most crowds. During the winter it is mostly closed. I gather that most of the visitors are local.

Apalachicola. While we did not stop long, we liked what we saw there. The town seemed completely authentic. No tourist stuff in evidence. We took a loop through a residential neighborhood and wondered what it would be like to winter-over in the town. Maybe we will find out.

St. Joes. We took a detour to visit the St. Joseph's Preserve. It took quite a while to get there but I
could see the attraction. The beaches seemed a bit more crowded but not by much. The State Park requires permits for the northern part of the Park which is open to extensive hiking and camping with more than 7 miles of trails. We didn't have time for more than a short visit. Excitement of the day, a controlled burn at the park to clear off a section of "duff".

Panama City Beach. Reminds me of Myrtle Beach. I think that is all I need to say.

Panama City Beach to Pensacola. The beaches in the Pensacola area (Navarre Beach, Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key) rival those of St George Island in quality. But they have many more visitors. Even at that, the actual number of people on the beach seems smaller than that seen in Daytona or Clearwater. We stopped for lunch at Navarre Beach and had no problems finding a picnic table or space on the beach itself. However, the sun felt too hot for us lame northerners and we did not stay long. These beaches could present a good alternative beach destination if the crowds are not a factor out of season.

Update: I decided to consolidate the beach reviews. I remain captivated on the color of the water cannot be compared to the east coast water and the sand is clean. If the climate is even remotely acceptable in say, March, and of these beaches would be preferable to the madness of the normal destinations.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Tallahassee Bound

On the advice of some travelers we met on the train, we headed to Hawthorne, FL to ride the Hawthorne - Gainesville Trail. We were delighted to find a paved, level, shaded path between the two cities. We had a very pleasant 12 mile ride in which almost nothing notable happened. Ask me sometime about the case of the missing glove.  As an aside, virtually all the bike trails are paved. The soil in Florida is mostly packed sand. So regular bike traffic makes it most impassible without some form of pavement. 

After our ride, we decided to take a 2 hour detour to the tiny town of Cedar Key. I will write about it in a post on coastal cities and beaches.

We arrived in Tallahassee in time for an early check in and dinner. We walked to a lovely "fusion" style restaurant and stayed to watch the end of the Penguins playoff game with the Capitals. They won.

The next day we started our Tallahassee Tour at the Museum of Florida History. We learned a great deal of its checkered path towards statehood. Following lunch, we walked over to the Knott House, as famous residence of one of the leading citizens of the day. It also featured during the Civil War as the site of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in May of 1865. Unusual among such properties, all the furnishings and fixtures were original to the house.

Late in the day, we decided to catch a movie and settled on "The Jungle Book", Disney's new release. The story is much truer to the original work and the CGI is indescribably good. But to we really need the singing orangutan?

Our impressions of Tallahassee are generally positive. The city is very walkable, if hilly. The residents there seem to take pride in keeping it very clean. The city has tried to preserve historic properties. Moreover, it has a long history having been used by DeSoto as a camp during his expeditions. But the locals got there first.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Thick as Ticks

Flying Eagle Preserve trail
Once loaded and off the rails, so to speak, we headed for our first "shakedown" ride. I had planned to ride in a county park noted for its "wilderness" trails, The Flying Eagle Preserve near Inverness. We got their, made some adjustments to the bikes and hit the trail. At first it seemed quite nice although the trail bed consisted mainly of pebbles. However, once we left the forested part of the Preserve the trail bed got worse and the trail ride got much hotter. After about 6 miles, we called it quits. Or we thought we did.

Unhappily the trail experience lived on as we noted ticks and insect bites throughout the rest of the day, this despite the liberal (if I may use that word) use of insect repellent. I seemed to have gotten the worst of it. I itched like crazy for three days.

We decided to layup at the B&B for a while and regroup. I don't know how to describe our B&B fully. It started life as a hunting lodge on an island. Several features suggest that in its time, it was a real knockout. But it is somewhat faded now. The current owner offers B&B services as well as event hosting. It was pleasant enough but the six small furry dogs felt like overkill to me.
Lake Lodge

Before dinner we walked through a park and saw our first Florida fauna and flora. Fabulous. We also saw that mainstay of Florida sporting life, the shuffleboard arena.

After a nice dinner, we read for a while then to sleep in bed that did not move.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Strangely on the train

Loading the car
We like trains, including the Auto Train now. Check in process went smoothly, in part due to our early arrival. In fact, my car was loaded on the carrier before I got my dinner seating time. (Look in the far back of the carrier and you can just see the distinctive taillights.)

I can see that a last minute check in could provide a more stressful experience. After an hour or so, the staff directed us to our car and "roomette". I had selected a two person, left side, upper model.

The "Roomette", full width
A roomette consists of two opposing chairs and a table along with a very narrow storage area. The whole space measures no more than 3.5 x 6.5 feet. In the evening, the top bunk folds down from the ceiling and the two chair slide together to form the bottom. All in all, the room seemed pretty cozy but surprisingly quiet.

Lounge car
We had dinner at 7:00 in the dining car. It wasn't the best meal of the week but it wasn't bad either.

Sleeping went just OK. I woke up frequently, probably due to the novelty of the setting and the unusual noises. But being able to lie flat made the sleep that I did get feel pretty restful.

Breakfast rivaled that seen in cheap motels.

The arrival and check out process took some time but we cleared the station in about an
hour including the time to take out the bikes and assemble them.
Off loading

More seasoned train riders suggested taking a lower roomette and eating earlier. The lower units have less side to side swaying motion and no transit foot traffic. They also have many more bathrooms available.

In conclusion, the Auto Train, off season, seems like a very cost effective and efficient means to get to central Florida. However, the only marital relations you should plan on are those of consideration and forbearance. There is no space for anything else.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mothers rule!

We stopped at my brother's house in Woodbridge VA for an overnight visit. George and Barbara fed us delicious homemade crab cakes with wonderful sides. After dinner, we shared a very small bottle sipping bourbon from Mt Vernon. I thought it might be a special brew but it turned out to be a floor-scarping mixture of branded whiskeys such as Wild Turkey, Maker's Mark, Virginia Gentleman, Jack Daniels, Knob Creek, etc. It tasted fine but I had much higher expectations.

In the morning, their youngest son, Jack Charlton, came over to cook a Mother's Day breakfast of Eggs Benedict, smoked salmon, and sides. The Bearnaise sauce was super. The mothers were gratefully acknowledged.

About noon we decided to head for the train station. Good thing because despite GPS, we got lost.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Load 'em up!

Here we go, on the road again!  This time we head south to explore a region pretty much unknown to us. The first step of our trip presented some challenges. We planned to take the Amtrak Auto Train from Lorton, VA, to Florida, thus saving the experience of driving I-95 yet again.

However, Amtrak rules (and the reality of the transporter design) prohibit the use of roof top bike carriers. After due consideration, I concluded that I could fit both bikes in the car if I took some steps; specifically, removing the pedals, extracting the handlebar and lashing it to the top tube, removing the seat and front wheel. Once done, I could get both bikes inside the relatively small cargo space in the car. However much luggage space remained, it had to be enough. 

After much triage, we did fit enough equipment to survive a month on the road including hiking and biking equipment. 

That done, we headed for the terminal at Lorton after an overnight stop at Woodbridge VA. We are so ready for this trip...