Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Everglades City

Everglades City is a sharp contrast from the wealth and chic that we experienced in Naples and Marco Island.  This is the area where “swamp people” live.  Instead of perusing art museums and manicured botanical gardens, you will find yourself taking an airboat ride to see alligators or riding a swamp buggy with 4-foot high tires clamoring through the cypress swamp.  Shopping here consists of buying fishing bait and beer.  All the more reasons why we loved it!  And, all of this reminds me of my wildlife biologist days driving an airboat through the wetlands of Louisiana.
Me inspecting a gas well at the Barataria Preserve while I worked for the National Park Service.
Before Betsy’s brother Mark left us, we drug him to the end of HWY 29 which dumps you into a little town called Everglades City and in the midst of the vast expansive wilderness that is Everglades National Park.  Mind you Mark is a “city boy” from Chicago.  When he is not running the Maples Inn in Bar Harbor, Maine, he spends his winters in Chicago where he enjoys strolling down Michigan Avenue, visiting the theater, and admiring the city’s architecture.  Needless to say, he was a good sport to accompany us to this unique place at the edge of the world.
The store has a wax figure of Ted Smallwood.

Our first stop was the Everglades National Park visitor center.  This was a great place to book a sightseeing tour, but the visitor center left much to be desired.  There wasn’t even an orientation movie and the exhibits were old and out-dated.  (I would suggest trying out the other visitor centers especially Shark Valley that we heard was very nice.)  We left the visitor center and continued down the road to the terminus which is Chokoloskee Island to see the historic Smallwood Store.  When Betsy and Mark asked what was there, I replied that it was a historic trading post/store turned museum.  They looked puzzled and not too excited.   

The store/museum doesn't look like much from the outside but wait until you go inside.

The store is located on Chokoloskee Island (affectionately known as “Florida’s last frontier”) and served pioneers and early settlers that lived and traveled through the area.  Ted Smallwood opened the store in 1906 and it has not changed much since.   Oh wait, it was raised after a series of flooding events.   The store was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and remained open and active until 1982.  After which the doors were locked and 90% of the original goods remained in the store.  Recently, Ted's granddaughter reopened the store as a museum and today acts as a time capsule of Florida pioneer history.
Inside the store was the town post office.  
The Smallwood dining table (right forefront) was in the midst of the store which was open 24 hours a day.
Take your time going through the store - there is lots of stuff. 
Betsy getting educated about the Smallwood business.  Underneath the
counter was angled inward so ladies hoop skirts would fit as they stood at the counter.
Is that a washer and dryer?
After the Smallwood Store adventure, we headed to the Museum of the Everglades to learn more about the history of the area followed by a walk around town.  Many of the towns’ old historic buildings have been preserved and serve as restaurants, bed and breakfasts, the “rod and gun club,” and gift shops.  We capped off our trip with a stop at the Everglades Seafood Depot which was offering all-you-can-eat boiled shrimp and salad.  The shrimp were so sweet and delicious we filled multiple plates.
The Museum of the Everglades is housed in a cute historical building that was the
"Old Laundry Building" built in 1927.  
Inside the museum are exhibits, a gift shop, and informational movies.


The famous Rod and Gun club open for lodging, eating, and a place to dock your boat.
Town City Hall

The bank is now a bed and breakfast.
We just liked this sign.  

Friday, February 24, 2012

From the River of Grass to Colorful Blown Glass

Our time in the Florida Keys came to an end and it was time to head over to the southern gulf coastal towns of Naples and Marco Island.  We had planned a visit with Betsy’s brother Mark (the hardworking Inn Keeper in Maine; see our previous posts about the Maples Inn (Maples Inn Blueberry Stuffed French Toast and Inn-keeping-101) who is taking a couple of weeks and making the rounds in Florida to see friends/family. 
Mark and Betsy with the Everglades in the background.
Our journey along the southern portion of the Tamiami Trail (the southern route through the Everglades) took us through countless miles of natural beauty and expansive wilderness that defines the southern tip of the Florida mainland.  It is evident this area is so ecologically valuable when you look at the map and realize you pass through two National Parks, two National Wildlife Refuges, one state park, two state forests, and countless other expanses of protected wild lands.  Over a million acres are filled with golden cattail swaying in the wind, menacing alligators lurking in the water, and wading birds standing majestically on mudflats.  All of this land is collectively known as the “Everglades.”  After you visit the area you can understand why it was coined the “River of Grass.”

Too bad these beauties don't fit in
the moho.
Naples activities were a myriad of hiking with Spirit (and her lab friend Ivy), shopping, arts/crafts fairs, eating, and visiting outstanding museums.  Remember, the hiking is not only because we like the outdoors and nature, but to exhaust our 4-month old puppy before we head out for the day.  After a nice  walk through “panther habitat” at Collier-Seminole State Park, we headed over to Marco Island to stroll through the arts and crafts fairs.  Our shopping bags remained empty but it was a great way to see the area and get a feel for what inspires local artists.  One quickly learns that the most inspirational landscape feature is the water.  Marco Island is beautifully perched along the southern Gulf of Mexico in a highly productive estuarine environment that the local artists depict in their works.  

Yea, dogs are allowed!
Mark discovered that the Naples Botanical Garden allowed dogs at certain times and on certain days.  So with dog in tow, we scurried over to the 170-acre gardens.  We were quite surprised that such a nice botanical garden lets dogs stroll the grounds and were pleasantly surprised to see how many other dogs were there.  A sharp eye had to be kept on Spirit so she didn’t eat the bamboo and dig and swim in the Asian water garden.  The gardens had just opened an exhibition of sculptures from Zimbabwe which were beautifully placed throughout the grounds.  We wond our way through the maze of plants that represented the flora from Asia, Florida, Brazil, and the Caribbean and thoroughly enjoyed the trip.
One of the many statues from Zimbabwe that grace the grounds of the Botanical Gardens.
Wildlife is such a part of the Zimbabwe culture and is an artistic inspiration.
One of our favoite pieces which was set beautifully in a water feature.
The Caribbean section of the gardens complete with a Caribbean-style house and steel drums inside.
The childrens section is great...a butterfly house, tree house, sand play yard, and sidewalk chalk.
Betsy's love affair
with Skyline Chili.
Rarely do we eat at the same restaurant (and order the same thing) three days in a row.  But this has been known to happen with us!  In this case it was Skyline Chili, the famous Cincinnati Chili restaurant that somehow made its way south to Florida.  Mark found this culinary treasure in Fort Lauderdale so we made it our charge to find out if there were any other locations in Florida.  After all, Betsy and Mark are   from Cincinnati and loyal to their roots.  What was started by a Greek family in 1949 has become  an institution in Cincinnati and other parts of Ohio.  Regulars saunter in, take a seat at the counter, and spout off orders that include such items as a 5-way (which is chili, spaghetti, cheese, onions, and beans), cheese coney, and chili bowl.  The Cincinnati-style chili has a distinctive flavor created by the blend of spices including cinnamon, allspice, cloves, or chocolate that becomes highly addicting.  Betsy was in heaven thinking that she may never get Skyline again after Florida so we filled up while we could and bought a can to stash in the cupboard.
A cheese coney, oyster crackers, and 5-way. 
Dig in Mark and enjoy the 5-way!
Good boy Mark, you cleaned your plate.

Too bad there were no cameras allowed inside,
the Chihuly glass was spectacular.
Saturated with chili, hot dogs, spaghetti, and cheese, we made our way to the art museum for some real culture.  The Patty and Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art is a 30,000 square foot facility with 15 galleries containing paintings, sculpture, drawings and other art forms that are unique and interesting.  Of particular interest to us were the exhibits featuring Dale Chihuly’s blown glass and Louise Nevelson’s sculptures. 

In between eating and sightseeing, we threw in some shopping.  Just a few blocks away from the Pier are Third Street South and Fifth Avenue.  Strolling down these streets it is easy to see why people are attracted to the chic boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and nightclubs.  We stopped in at the colorful Tin City, a revitalized waterfront district that was once the hub of Naples fishing industry.  Here you can shop, eat, schedule a fishing charter, and find other water adventures. 

Great shopping and eating area framed by palms and gorgeous houses.
The Naples Pier was built in 1888 as a freight and passenger dock.  It has been rebuilt
mulitiple times (due to hurricane damage).  Today it is a popular tourist attraction.
Shopping in Tin City.

Guess what else you can do in
Tin City?  Cuddle an alligator
and get your picture taken.

We had a great time with Mark and were glad our friends Bonnie and Ivy (the yellow lab) came by for a visit.  Naples and Marco Island offer lots to do and our week flew by.  We said goodbye to Mark who headed back to Chicago, packed up the coach, and headed north to Fort Meyers.

Spirit sharing her bed with Ivy.  Thanks Ivy for being such a "good sister" to Spirit.
The girls at the art show.  Each got their share of pets from festival goers.
At least someone got the message (the little tern on the left).


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Key Lime Pie

If there is one culinary delight that is synonymous with the Florida Keys it is Key Lime Pie.  This delicious, tangy, delectable treat has spread northward throughout Florida and many other parts of the country.  We try it almost everywhere we go and I am amazed at how different each piece tastes. 


The Key lime plant (or Citrus aurantifolia as known to horticulturists) is a native of Southeast Asia.  The tree made its way westward and Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing it to Hispaniola.  From there, Spanish settlers brought it to Florida.  The key lime tree was the most popular variety cultivated until the 1926 Miami hurricane devastated the crop leaving only a small population in the Florida Keys.  Key limes were replaced with the much larger Persian lime and are now imported from Mexico.

But a lime, is not a lime, is not a lime.  Key limes differ from others not only due to their size.  They are highly aromatic and taste quite different due to their acidity making them more bitter and tart. 

The recipe below comes from my ex-boss James’ daughter.  I love this recipe because of the flavor and simplicity.  It is a frozen pie so it makes a great desert at a summer picnic.  Since it is frozen, you can make it ahead of time.  I have tried half dozen different recipes…some with a baked meringue on top, some with Nellie and Joe’s Key West Lime Juice, some with egg yolks, etc.  But I always come back to this recipe.

If you don’t want to make your own crust, buy an already-made crust in the grocery store.  For those of you counting calories, the non-fat sweetened condensed milk works well.  Personally, I do not use key limes in this recipe - they have more seeds, are harder to juice and not always available in grocery stores.  This simple delicious recipe is sure to please.  Thanks Shaunna Harris for sharing this recipe.

CRUST

1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs (about 10 crackers)
¼ cup sugar
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine the ingredients in a bowl and mix well with your hands or spatula.  Press the mixture evenly into a 9-inch pie pan and bake for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove the crust from the oven and allow to cool.

FILLING

1 cup whipped topping
1 15-oz can sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon lime zest
½ cup lime juice

Combine all ingredients and mix well.  Add mixture to pie crust and place until freezer until frozen solid.  Serve.




Saturday, February 18, 2012

More Keys Please...


We scored one of the best sites in the park.
Our view was the ocean.
On our way further south in the Keys, we hit some fun tourist spots.  We were lucky enough to score eleven nights at the campground in Curry Hammock State Park so we left John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park  early and headed deeper into the Keys.  Curry Hammock is right on the ocean!  In fact some campsites are less than 20 yards from the beautiful sand and crystal clear water.  The park is in hot demand because of its location and small size (only 26 sites)
Sunrise in Curry Hammock State Park.  The campsites are just over the dunes on the right side of the picture.
Our drive south took us by the “Hurricane Monument” - a memorial to the hundreds of citizens and veterans that perished in the “Great Hurricane” on Labor Day in 1935.  The savage hurricane battered the island of Islamorada with sustained winds of 200 mph for many terrorizing hours.  The storm destroyed many buildings and the vital Florida East Coast Railroad.  Many who perished were World War I Veterans who were stationed on Matecumbe Key while working on the construction of U.S. Highway 1 for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  In 1937, the cremated remains of 300 people were placed in the tiled crypt in the front of the monument that is cared for by local veterans, decedents of the deceased and local citizens.

The Florida Keys Memorial - known locally as the "Hurricane Monument."
My new best friend.
One of our favorite sojourns was to the unique museum that explores the history of diving.  It is only fitting that this museum is located just down the road from the “dive capital of the world” (Key Largo).  The History of Diving Museum definitely makes our list of “must see” things to do in the Keys.  Even if you don’t dive, this museum is interesting, entertaining, and informational.  A brief video kicks off your visit and then you are off on your own to explore the maze of diving helmets, breathing apparatus, treasure, and many other  interesting artifacts.  The museum claims to have the largest collection of historical diving apparatus in the world.  (I have never been to another diving museum so I can’t verify this claim.)  The museum collection includes artifacts that tell the story of diving history which spans 4,000 years and began with “breath hold diving.” The museum was the brain child of Drs. Joe and Sally Bauer who pursued careers as marine biologists and were avid SCUBA divers and diving historians.  Their passion was to learn the evolution and history of man’s entry into the sea and to share their findings with others.

The evolution of diving helmets.
"Iron Duke" - the body armor that allowed a diver to reach  depths of 450 feet in order to collect
sunken treasure that amounted in 10 tons of silver and 5 tons of gold (c. 1931).
One of our favorite exhibits was the hall “Parade of Nations” – an impressive gallery displaying signature dive helmets from 24 nations.  The helmets are creatively fashioned in an eye-catching display set to narration and accompanying illumination that makes this static exhibit extremely interesting.  Other galleries in the museum include the timeline of diving, commercial diving applications, treasure found beneath the sea, deep diving into the “abyss,” the evolution of SCUBA, and many more.
The impressive "Parade of Nations" helmet display.
We loved this exhibit - homemade diving helmets!  Some crazy inventions.
The "Rum Runner - a 1920's helmet used to
smuggle booze during Prohibition.  Contraband was
dropped into the Detroit river and retrieved by divers.
Scary diving apparatus.
The Treasure Room.
Wanting to see some land animals, we decided to drive down to the National Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge.  The 9,200-acre refuge combines a patchwork of habitats set aside by the federal government to protect the endangered Key deer, the smallest of the sub-species of Virginia white-tailed deer which only weigh 50-75 pounds.  The current population is estimated between 600 and 750 individuals who are easily viewed from refuge overlooks, trails, and along the road.  The deer were isolated in the maze of islands some 4,000-10,000 years ago when the Wisconsin glacier melted and ocean levels rose, creating a chain of islands.  The Key deer population is geographically and genetically isolated from other populations of white-tail deer and has evolved and adapted to the subtropical, island environment.
You don't have to look too far to find Key deer.
Key deer are so habituated to people that they will come very close. But remember, do not feed!
Visitor Center on Big Pine Key includes all the National Wildlife Refuges in the Keys (including National Key
Deer, Crocodile Lake, Great White Heron, and Key West.)
So why are the Key deer endangered?  The reason is simple – humans.  Human encroachment and habitat alteration have reduced suitable habitat.  Additionally, human interaction (mostly through feeding) has altered behavior and made them more susceptible to disease, car collisions, poaching, and dog attacks.  Unfortunately, automobile-related deaths claimed the lives of 150 individuals in 2011 thus making that the highest number of deer killed by cars on record.

Along the way through the Keys we filled our bellies with food, our souls with fun, and made new friends.  We had a great dinner with our friend Bruce who spends his summers in Bar Harbor (and makes delicious pizza) and his winters in the Keys.  We made new friends, Hugh and Pat, who provided us with lots of laughs and great restaurant recommendations.  We followed Hugh and Pat's recommendation to head south to Boondocks on Ramrod Key (mile marker 27 1/2) for the coconut shrimp, bang bang shrimp, and stuffed mushrooms.  Delicious! And when your done with lunch, there is a put put golf course next store so you can burn off the five thousand calories you just ate.  In addition to Boondocks, we recommend Keys Fisheries for great laid-back seafood where we dined next to Linda Greenlaw - author and swordfish boat captain.  (Greenlaw has authored numerous fiction, non-fiction, and cookbooks, and is featured on the History Channel show "Swords.").  While in Marathon, we chowed down at Sparky's Landing two nights in a row.  Make sure you go early so you can get in on the for the 25-cent peel n' eat shrimp and chicken wings.  Or, try my favorite - fish tacos.
Betsy and Bruce at Keys Fisheries.

More pictures below...
Relaxing at Boondocks after stuffing ourselves.
Morning sunrise at Curry Hammock State Park.
Outdoor concert at the beach in Curry Hammock State Park.
One of the invasive, exotic iguanas that have invaded the park.
Boo hoo!
An exhibit along the wildflower trail at the park. 
Spirit guarding the motorhome.
Sleepy dog.