Tag Archives: Nature

Surprising Sarasota

The Great Room at Ca'd'Zan, John and Mabel Ringling's dream home.

The Great Room at Ca’d’Zan, John and Mabel Ringling’s dream home.

Culture, history, old masters and circus people. Just what you’d expect in the sunshine state…what? Did I mention I just got back from Sarasota, Florida? Considered one of the best art towns in America, Sarasota is perched on the Gulf of Mexico, half-way down the state. The area has more than 90 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a quick drive, cross a bridge and you’ll hit Longboat Key, one of the six barrier islands that lie between Sarasota Bay and the Gulf. There are 35 miles of sugary sand along these islands and my first night we had dinner on the beach, watching dolphins chase schools of fish as the sun lowered into a golden pink sky. The stone crab was heavenly, as was the view.
Top 10 Activities in Sarasota:
1) Visit all the barrier islands and make sure to walk along the beach on Siesta Key, ranked No. 1 in the USA by Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach.”
2) Tuck into the buffet at Der Dutchman in the Amish/Mennonite neighbourhood of Pinecraft. The broasted chicken (fried and roasted so the skin is amazingly crunchy) is to die for, as are the fresh salads and pickled beets. Save room for peanut butter pie. Pick up a tray of cinnamon rolls at the attached bakery, then nip into Carlisle Gifts to peruse the beautiful Amish quilts.
3) Eat seafood at The Shore Diner. Try the crab cakes and truffle fries or the eggs Benedict with lobster salad. Heavenly.
A beastie on the Myakka River.

A beastie on the Myakka River.

4) Photograph ‘gators at the Myakka River State Park from an airboat. The tours run 3-4 times a day, are around 1-hour long and cost $12 for adults, $6 for children 6-12, and kids 5 and under are free (they must sit on an adult’s lap).
Manatees are in the elephant family! Water ellies!

Manatees are in the elephant family! Water ellies!

5) Check out Hugh and Buffett, two manatees at Mote Marine Laboratory Aquarium. They were born at the Miami Seaquarium and would have had difficulty adapting to the wild, so instead they help researchers understand their physiognomy and habits. All the animals here, sea turtles, penguins and dolphins take part in research programs that will ultimately help manage wild populations.
6) Sift through sand for shark teeth. Do this on any beach, or sign up for a pail of sand at the Mote Aquarium for guaranteed finds.
7) Kayak through the mangrove tunnels: Kayak Sarasota offers guided kayak tours at 10:15 am and 1:30 pm. If you’re lucky you might see dolphins or manatees. For sure you’ll see cormorants that like to suss out paddlers. www.ikayaksarasota.com
8) Catch a first-class performance. Choose from the Sarasota Orchestra, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera or Florida Studio Theatre.
Exterior of Ca'd'Zan, like a Venetian fairy palace.

Exterior of Ca’d’Zan, like a Venetian fairy palace.

9) Circus legacy. John Ringling of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus moved with his wife Mable to a permanent home in Sarasota in 1926. Ca’d’Zan is a 56-room Venetian-inspired villa full of marble bathrooms, hand-painted frescos and pedigreed French furniture (some is said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette). Next door is the Museum or Art, containing Ringling’s personal collection including paintings by Rubens, van Dyck, Velazquez and Gainsborough. Also on the sprawling property is the Circus Museum where you can try your hand at tight-rope walking or squeezing into a tiny clown car. www.sarasotaCircusHistory.org
A beautiful banyan tree at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

A beautiful banyan tree at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

10) Take a breather at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, on Sarasota Bay. Wander the 14 acres, contemplate life as you look over the Bay, marvel at the orchids and bromeliads. A leisurely lunch under the banyan trees makes for a perfect afternoon.

Cape May, NJ, Naturally

Heading out on a salt marsh safari in the Skimmer with Ginny and Ed, I felt a little lost…in time. With the shoreline’s cacophony of electrical wires and buildings at my back, I was looking out at a shimmering, grassy carpet covering the shallow waters of Cape May Inlet. Other than the odd small boat, it felt like our group was totally alone, exploring the shores where the indigenous Kechemeche people use to gather shellfish.

“This is the ocean’s nursery, small crabs and shrimps provide a smorgasbord for migrating and resident birds. Look, there’s the osprey nest,” said Ed, the Skimmer’s captain. “And there’s an osprey,” chimed in Ginny, his partner, pointing to a dark, large-winged bird cruising the thermals above the marsh. Being fall, many of the migrating feathered residents had already departed for the south. Great herons, snowy egret, king fishers and cormorants were still there, though, providing plenty of fodder for our binoculars.

As Ginny took the wheel, Ed urged us to come and look at his touch tank.  Gently he plucked out starfish, crabs, whelks, and sea urchins for us to admire. “These creatures are part of the chain of life. This whole area is full of nutrients and is rich with wildlife,” he explained.

“We love it out here. For eight months of the year, seven days a week, we’re on the water. That’s the houseboat we live in,” said Ginny pointing to another flat-bottomed boat tied to the dock. She and Ed told us they have been taking visitors out for eight years and their safaris are considered a top attraction. “We take out lots of school groups, but individual travelers are also a big part of our business. We just want to share the natural beauty of the area. That way people will be more inclined to appreciate it and protect it. In many places along the coast, the salt marshes have been filled in. That’s a shame. We need them, they are the area’s lungs,” explained Ginny.

Ed expertly swung the Skimmer around and we headed back to shore. The water sparkled as swallows flitted by looking for insects. Breathing in the clean air, I felt totally at peace, but also a tad jealous. What a wonderful place Ginny and Ed call home. www.skimmer.com, (609) 884-3100. For more information on New Jersey flora and fauna, go to www.njaudubon.org

Rockin’ at Rock Lodge

A hidden entrance to an enchanting getaway.

This weekend I celebrated Austrialian Day here in Swaziland with a wonderful bunch of Aussie volunteers. Snags on the barbie and a luscious pavlova were on the menu…at Rock Lodge. An amazing local livelihood project south west of Malkerns at a little community called Ngwempisi, the lodge was built in 2004 and looked like something out of the Hobbit. A South African designer was brought in to execute the plan — a three-story structure built around some monstrous boulders. No electricity, open air, propane tanks provided cooking fuel, and yet running water that was potable!  And to top it off, an outdoor, flush toilet and glorious shower! A steep 1/2 km below us was a wonderful river to swim in (no Bilharzia, fast running water, fingers crossed). Two separate dorm-type rooms offered more than enough bunk beds for our 12-person group, firewood for the BBQ pit was provided upon our request and a guide was arranged to take the group down to the river (a little hard to find on your own). A Swaziland adventure to savour…

A gorgeous respite in rural Swaziland!

Fellow volunteer Camille shouldering the boulders..

Take me to the river!

Water was far too fast for crocs or hippos…but super refreshing.

Chillin’ on the terrace.

Sleeping with nature.

Our boulder neighbour dude.

The superstar goat at the top of the hill.