Timucuan National Preserve
As we say goodbye to George we cross the …. river and into our final state of the US; Florida! Okay so we had a quick layover in Miami last year when we had our flight mishaps back from Panama, but that doesn’t count towards a proper state visit :-). With a lazy morning and a quick stop at Camping world we drive out towards the Kingsley Plantation which is part of the Timicuan National Preserve. Its site tells the story of a former sea island cotton plantation and its inhabitants, and how the changes in the area affected the plantation, especially the change from the Spanish rule to the British/American rule.
We get an extensive lesson in cotton as well from the ranger which is really interesting as the sea island cotton is apparently the highest quality of cotton you could find – in the world even – but unfortunately has been banned from production in federal law (google it, fascinating story!). We then head out to the south of the … river, to visit another part of the reserve which is the Fort Caroline part, one of the few French forts that were set up here. When we get there the ranger has and abandoned dog with him so we offer to take him on the nature walk towards the fort, which the boys love of course.
We spot some more dolphins in the water along the fort, and enjoy the swampy hike through the salt marshes, realizing we are hitting mosquito country again as well! Thankfully it is not too bad, so we all survive and the boys hand in the dog with pain in their hearts. When we drive up to the parking lot of Walmart, there is a blood donation bus right alongside it, so mom decides to go in for a donation while the boys enjoy their homework… :-). This way we give back a little bit to the US for their hospitality!
Castillo de San Marcos & St Augustine
While the weather is not yet giving us bright blue skies and sunshine, it is warm enough for shorts and shirts so we take it! Today we are going towards St Augustine, a beautiful little touristy town down the Florida coast, about 35 miles away from our Walmart for the night. As it is a straight shoot along a coastal road, Sven takes the opportunity to pull out the bike for some on road bike riding. The destination is the Castillo de San Marcos, a Spanish fort managed by the National Parks, and this Thanksgiving Saturday packed with people.
The junior ranger book gives an extra challenge for a badge and a patch, so we spend a good 2 hours in the fort doing the work and enjoying the shooting of the cannon twice, once with Sven who has joined us in the end. Time for lunch at the big grassy patch around the forth and then a stroll through the old center of St Augustine which is filled with cute little shops, quaint restaurants and plenty of tourist traps to keep you entertained for days. We seem to dodge the rain for the better part of the day, and thus decide to head out to the beach for some extra fresh air and sand between our toes.
Luckily for the boys the beach front also has a splash park, so the swim pants are quickly put on and all the pent up energy burnt off in no time. We relax and enjoy the beach vibes with surfers passing by and drummers providing some of the entertainment. For the night we have found ourselves a nice boat ramp/park on the other side of the barrier island with a view on the lagoon, which is a great and quiet spot for a good night sleep!
Fort Matanzas & beach time
To get to Fort Matanzas, you need to take a very short ferry across the water to it, and tickets are on a first come first serve basis. We are of course fully prepared for this so we roll in early and get the tickets for the 9:30 ferry over. Before this we take a quick hop into the marsh around the visitor center where we see our first roseate spoonbill!! Think flamingo with a spoonbill, very cool birds! But back to the little fort, which is by far the smallest we have visited on our list of forts across the US. It is a square of 15 by 15 meters, meant to protect the waterway by the Spaniards, where soldiers would be stationed a month at a time and left to fend for themselves (with the help of a few cannons of course).
While the fort and the ferry to it is highly entertaining (hello pod of dolphins!), the best part of the site turns out to be the nature walk run by volunteer Jim, who gives us a great line up or Florida based animals and plants. We can now proudly say we can recognize the difference between a sable and a saw palmetto, and can recognize an osprey in the sky. The nature trail through the adjoining hammock forest is also a great way to get to know the diversity of nature in the landscape of Florida.
After our visit at Fort Matanzas we take a beeline to the beach to enjoy the afternoon with our toes in the sand again. There is enough to enjoy, and the water is nice, but there is also a range of dark clouds rolling in that forces us to get off the beach… for a little bit at least but we have already packed up and are not keen to unpack it all again. We head out to the Cracker Barrel for the night and get some more homework done before calling it quits.
MTB & Canaveral National Seashore
Today, we will test the MTB that Florida has to offer, which turns out to be a really fun exercise as Florida is tropical and flat, so no difficult climbs here! We go to the …. Preserve, and get ready for an extensive loop through it that goes around and around and around and turns out to be really FUN! With all of it being in the shade of the trees, it makes for a really good 2 hour exercise with even a few ramps and balancing challenges as we go along!
After this we head out to our final National Seashore (we have visited all the other ones); Canaveral. As the vast majority of seashores this is again a beautiful barrier island filled with great nature, especially the birds on the beach are fantastic. We are asked to fill up a trash bag as part of the junior ranger work, so we scour the shore and dune line for mostly trash that has washed ashore and manage to fill up a big bag quite quickly, feeling very good about ourselves! We have a great afternoon playing in the water and enjoying the fresh air, before having a quick outdoor shower (we have an external shower on the RV) and packing up.
We gather the badge at the visitor center and drive back north towards the home of a friend who has been so kind to receive mail for us, including some Amazon packages… Nice! Always fun to receive mail, with badges in them for the boys, stamps for our passports and blue envelopes for the parents :-(… Next up is Orlando, so we drive towards it already in the evening and park at the edge of a lake just outside the city borders.
Gatorland & Pirates dinner
We drive away from the beautiful lake we woke up to and head into the cityscape of Orlando. While we still have two days to go before Disney, we have a few attractions to go which are included in our Sightseeing Pass, and give us even more of a taste of the area. Stop number one is Gatorland, which judging by its name is exactly that: a piece of land filled with alligators! But not just that, it has different types of reptiles as well, and even an aviary with small parakeets that you can feed.
There is also a splash park which is a great way for the boys to cool off and for us to relax in a lounge chair. In between there are different shows about the gators and other critters, including a feeding show at the end of the day. Satisfied with a solid fill of alligator we literally say ‘see you later alligator!’ and drive into the city center of Orlando. We have a reservation at the Pirates Dinner Adventure, which is a dinner show with pirate story. While the theater is only filled with about 1/3 of the available capacity, we take our job to root for the Blue pirate (Benjamin) very seriously and compensate in noise – something we do well 🙂 -.
The show turns out to be a great success with us and the boys as well. While the food is mediocre at best, the entertainment is actually of a very high quality, but the best part is that the audience gets to participate. With such a small audience this means we get put to work by our Benjamin to be the best pirates we can be. We haul gold, raise the flags, paddle in a boat, shoot like a soldier, become one of the buccaneers, etc etc, and it is an absolute blast! On top of that, our Benjamin Blue wins the fight and gets the girl, so our night can not be beat anymore. After a little dance with the pirates we bid our farewells and go to bed ready to dream of our own pirate adventures.
Wild Florida airboat & helicopter ride!
Nothing says Florida swamps like an airboat ride, and so we head out towards the park of Wild Florida for a taste of this mode of transport and their animal park attached to it. Before our ride is up, we enjoy the park for a bit including a ‘creature encounter’-presentation, where we learn about some of the exotic animals of the world like the cane toad and boa constrictor. Of course a small alligator is brought out as well, which is always an impressive sight.
When it is our turn however, we climb aboard our boat with captain David, who guides us along the edges of the adjacent lake and its swampy outliers. The ride is exhilarating with high speed and the thrill of not knowing whether we will go straight across the grass or around it in the clear waters. We see alligators and tortoise, plenty of birdlife including a bald eagle and osprey, and just really enjoy the wind in our faces as we race across the water. Coming back we explore the rest of the park where we enjoy all the other animals they have on offer. Especially the sloth coming out with a baby on its belly was a beautiful sight!
While the park is entertaining, it is not a very big park and without a splash park like at Gatorland we call it a day around 2:30pm. This is actually quite okay, as we still have one more piece of entertainment on the list today: A helicopter ride!! It is a tiny one so we have to split up, and the ride is only a 5 minute long one, but it is SO much fun to take the ride and see the city of Orlando from above with all the netted pools in the backyards and the theme parks in the distance! As it was part of the Sightseeing Pass it was totally worth it for us and a great end of the day. We park the RV at a Crackerbarrel and with Luc finishing up his final bit of schoolwork we are ready for the real work – Themeparking in Florida!
Next week: Finally…. THEMEPARKING FLORIDA!!