South Texas

There are really only three places full time RVers typically spend the winter.  These are Florida, Arizona and extreme south Texas.  We have spent most every winter of our lives in Florida and a little time in Arizona but never Texas.  So we left sunny warm Florida and headed west to Harlingen Texas and Tropic Winds RV Park there.

The park itself is very nice with paved wide sites, a large main hall, pickleball courts, wood shop, fitness center and pool.  The park offers live music concerts coordinated with several other parks in the area.  Musical acts included tribute bands to The Beatles, Rolling Stones, ABBA, Buddy Holly, Billy Joel/Elton John and Jimmy Buffett.  Lots of other shows keep everybody entertained.  Most of our neighbors have been spending winters in the area for years.

South Padre Island is a popular beach location on the Gulf of Mexico.  The day we visited there was a red flag warning for high winds and a blue flag for Portuguese Man-O-War on the beach.

Famous So. Padre Island

The entire area is bounded on the southwest by the Rio Grande River and Matamoros Mexico.  Brownsville has a lot of history.  We visited the Museum of History housed in the old Southern Pacific Depot.  The beautiful locomotive No. 1 was built by Baldwin Locomotive Works and is the last of its kind in the world.  The huge MAN motorcar was reputedly built for Mexican President Porfirio Diaz although there is no record of its construction.

1928 Southern Pacific Depot

Locomotive No. 1 built in 1872

German MAN built car for Porfirio Diaz

Historic Market Square (1850)

The same day we visited historic Ft. Brown now part of Texas Southmost College.  Many buildings of the fort are preserved including the Quartermasters Residence, Post Hospital and Morgue where Dr. Gorgas did important work to end the scourge of Yellow Fever.  The fort was active during the Mexican War, the Civil War, the era of Buffalo Soldiers, Pancho Vila and World War I.  It was interesting to learn that Brownsville was a major port of export for the Confederacy which provided revenue to sustain the Civil War.  A successful Union blockade here could have ended the war much sooner.  The last land battle of the Civil War was fought near here weeks after the surrender at Appomattox.

Ft. Brown Quartermaster’s House

Ft. Brown’s Gorgas Hall

The Morgue

The National Butterfly Center is located right on the river near Mission TX.  The proposed wall would have a huge negative effect on this valuable private preserve as many migrating butterflies and birds do not possess the native abilities to traverse a tall barrier.  The director of the preserve has been a vigorous opponent to The Wall.  We found the 100 acre preserve to be a fascinating place to visit with beautiful butterflies and birds on this vital stop on the migratory flyway.  Hundreds of species of birds and butterflies pass thru annually.

The National Butterfly Center

Green Jay

Altamira Oriole

Plain Chachalaca

Special thanks to David and Kathryn for their hospitality at their Texas ranchero before they move to Durango.

 

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The Royal Palm Railway Experience

We visited the newest incarnation of the Mt. Dora Florida Railway.  The new operator on these tracks is the Orlando & Northwestern Railway offering The Royal Palm Railway Experience on the Golden Triangle Route from Mt. Dora to Tavares to Eustis, Florida.  These three small cities are each about 8 miles apart and run on tracks first built by various railroads in the 1880s.  These railroads all became part of the Seaboard Coast Line RR in the 1960s.  When Seaboard became part of the huge CSX Railroad these small short lines were divested and became part of the Florida Central Railroad.  Many operators have run tourist trains in the area.  Among these were a doodlebug and a steam train before the current trains powered by diesel locomotives pulling wonderfully restored passenger cars.  The ride is smooth, quiet and air conditioned and slow.  On weekends there are lots of different offerings in addition to coach rides.  There are dinner trains, murder mystery trains, wine trains, rails and ales, etc.  Something for everyone and the week we went many were sold out.  We are always happy to see tourist trains and rail history supported by the public.

Tavares Depot

Mt. Dora’s Lakeside Inn

Lake Dora’s damaged pier

Lake Dora beach

Tavares’ Lake Harris

 

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Withlacoochee River Kayaking

We recently had the opportunity to join the Sandy Oaks RV Park kayak group on a couple very nice paddles on sections of the Withlacoochee River near Dunnellon Florida.  We met the group while staying at the RV park in 2018.  They are a very active and friendly group.  We are learning much more about the kayaking adventures available.

The river courses from the Green Swamp to the Gulf of Mexico through a rare all natural area of the state.  Withlacoochee is a native American word meaning crooked river.

Our first trip this year was from a launch site near Dunnellon on the crystal clear Rainbow River down to the Withlacoohee, up the Withlacoochee to a lunch stop and back again.  A total of 6.3 miles.  There were 13 kayaks and 16 people.  The Rainbow has a pretty stiff current so the paddle back was a workout.

Our second trip was from a put-in at the end of Turner Camp Rd near Inverness.  This road dead ends deep in the wilderness at a nice ramp.  From there we paddled northwest 9.3 miles with a lunch stop at a spring bubbling up right alongside the river.  Crystal clear with bass and other fishes clearly visible.  The entire trip was downstream so while long, was a pretty easy paddle.  Again we had 13 kayaks and 15 people.  This trip was A to B so we had about a 50 minute shuttle to reunite cars and kayaks.  Great trip.  Many thanks to the Sandy Oaks Kayak Club.

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Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens and Ponce Inlet Lighthouse

Dunlawton plantation and sugar  mill was a north Florida sugar plantation destroyed by Seminole Indians at the beginning of the Second Seminole War.  Its located in what is now Port Orange Florida along the Atlantic coast.  The ruins are now part of Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens, a botanical garden which was once part of Bongoland an early theme park built in 1948.

Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens

Sugar kettles from the early 19th century

Our girls beneath the Confederate Oak

Ponce Inlet Lighthouse was built at Ponce de Leon Inlet near Daytona Beach.  At 175 feet it is the tallest lighthouse in Florida and one of the tallest lighthouses in the US.  Built in 1887 it replaced the Mosquito Inlet lighthouse built in 1835 and damaged by Seminoles during the Second Seminole War.  Frequent shipwrecks eventually necessitated the new state of the art structure.  The tower and 3 keepers dwellings have been restored and are open 7 days a week.  Its a good climb to the top.

 

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Highlands Hammock and Payne’s Creek State Parks Florida

While staying at Thousand Trails Peace River RV Park we visited two state parks we had driven by countless times.  While we lived in southern Florida and toured much of the state, we were always in a hurry.  We never took the time to visit some of the lesser known parks.  Too busy with home, work, whatever.  Now in the RV lifestyle we have the time to explore.

Highlands Hammock is a true hardwood hammock just west of Sebring FL.  It has several hiking trails including a nice boardwalk thru a cypress swamp.  The park opened in 1931 and still offers a CCC museum.  Some trees are believed to be over 1000 years old.  Orange trees from the original settlers are over 20 feet tall.  There is an oak tree believed to be the largest in Florida with a girth of 36 feet.  Nice day trip.

Hardwood hammock trail

Mrs Cottonmouth from elevated boardwalk

Mr Cottonmouth close by

Payne’s Creek Preserve Historic State Park is just east of the little town of Bowling Green FL.  After the Second Seminole War trading posts were established along the frontier between white settlers and the Seminole.  Many were built by Kennedy and Darling.  When whites persisted in moving south into Indian territory some renegade Seminoles attacked the store killing the propietors and burning the post.  While Chief Billy Bowlegs vowed he would punish those responsible whites blamed all Indians.  Forts were built across the frontier.  The fort along Payne’s Creek was called Ft. Choconikla and was abandoned after only a year due to the disease carrying mosquitos in the area.  It is a very quiet park preserving the site of the Payne’s Creek massacre in 1849 that was a major spark igniting the Third Seminole War.

Chief Billy Bowlegs

Site of Trading Post

Site of Ft. Choconikla

One of our great pleasures in full-time RVing is the opportunity to visit the lesser known parks and historic sites.  In this age of overcrowding it’s a treat to find these quiet places.

We visited in December 2018.

 

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Tom Petty Park, Gainesville Florida

We have been Tom Petty fans for a very long time.  His death last year was very sad.  He has become our traveling companion on our road days in the RV via Sirius Radio.  Northeast Park in Gainesville Florida was recently renamed Tom Petty Park.  Tom, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench the core of his band The Heartbreakers all grew up together in this middle class neighborhood in Gainesville.  Despite his succes in Los Angeles he hung onto his Southern roots recently recording songs like “Gainesville”, “The Bus to Tampa Bay” and “Southern Accents”.

There’s a map of Osceola and his Raiders                                                                                          Fighting off the Everglades Invaders                                                                                                  He burnt them down, he left them for the gators                                                                              And there’s maybe something better down the road  – lyrics from “The Bus to Tampa Bay”

Tom Petty Park

Some of his songs have lines that just resonate with our lifestyle.

“Gotta get going.  Gotta keep movin’  What lies ahead I have no way of knowin”.                     “Never slow down, never grow old”                                                                                                    “Most things I worry about, never happen anyway”

Tom fought for his fans when the record companies wanted to raise prices on his records.  He was furious when anyone suggested using his music for commercial purposes.  He vowed he would never allow the commercialization of his music while he was alive but did acknowledge that his heirs could do as they saw fit.  Just recently we heard Tom’s “Runnin down a Dream” on a college football broadcast.

We love Tom Petty.  His music will be with us forever.

We visited in November 2018.

 

 

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Cuba Cruise

Having lived most of our lives in Miami, we were very interested in visiting Cuba when the isolated nation began to open up.  Many of our friends visited and told us to “get there as soon as you can”.  We cruised on the Veendam ship of Holland America Line, a company that has been cruising for 145 years.  Most of our fellow travelers were veteran travelers and loyal to HAL.  There were many features we enjoyed including workshops and lectures not offered on many cruise lines.

We stopped in Cienfuegos Cuba on the south coast.  Its a small city settled by French people from Haiti and Louisiana.  The architecture is beautiful but everything seemed in need of refurbishment.  We got to see the Tomas Terry Theatre on Jose Marti Park which is being renovated in time for the city’s 200th anniversary next year.  It was/will be beautiful and unique.  We attended a chamber music performance with local musicians playing classical music with a Cuban twist.  They were great.  A highlight for many was a tour of the Botanic Gardens of Cienfuegos.  The preserve was built by Harvard University in the early 1900s to research sugar production and many tropical species.  We knew many of the plants of course but we’d never seen a Brazil Nut tree and its amazing pod.  We had a fine lunch at a Spanish owned hotel with traditional moros and tostones and flan.  The overall impression of Cuba is that time has stood still in Cuba.  The old cars and old buildings make you feel like you are in 1959 again.    People who own the old cars are called “believers” because so little of them is original.  The lack of commercialism compared to the US is startling.  But the people are friendly, optimistic and artistic.  They are welcoming Americans on their own terms.  We hope many more will visit and that relations will become more and more normal.  While Cuba is opening up there are still only  about 600,00 visitors from the US each year.

Cuba is a socialist country

Fidel is still around

Cuban style chamber music

Cienfuegos Cathedral

Town hall

Jose Marti Monument

May 20 1902 Cuba’s
Arc de Triumph

Valle’s Palace in Punta Gorda

50s American car

Another 50s Chevy

Brazil Nut tree pod

Our cruise actually began with a stop in Nassau Bahamas.  We have been there many times and walked to the Queen’s Staircase.  We also found the Bahamas Historical Society Museum open and had a nice visit with Andrea Major the director.  The Pompey Museum is named after a courageous slave and housed in the oldest building in Nassau.  It was built before 1769 and once hosted slave auctions.  It now tells the story of slavery in the Bahamas.

Nassau’s Queen’s Staircase

Bahamas Historical Society Museum

DI with Andrea Major

Pompey Museum

We also stopped at Georgetown Grand Cayman.  It had been many years since our last visit here and we enjoyed the town’s waterfront.  The town library’s ceiling is built like an upside down ship. Tarpon were abundant right in the harbor.

Veendam from Georgetown waterfront

Georgetown library

Waterfront

Cayman style traffic control

After leaving Cuba our next stop was scheduled to be Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras.  Alas, the winds were too high to make a safe approach and our Irish Captain Colm Ryan cancelled the stop with apologies.

We then anchored off Belize City in Belize formerly known as British Honduras.  The city itself seemed pretty drab but we were off to Xunantunich, one of the great Mayan city-states.  It is a mile from the Guatemalan border and in the jungle.  We had to cross a river on a crank ferry to get to the site.  Howler monkeys played in the trees.  At the temple we were able to climb to the top led by a local guide who has been an archeologist there since the 80s.  The views and stories were great.

Crank ferry to Mayan site

Native iguana

Colorful crafts for sale

El Castillo – 130 feet high

Reproduced glyphs on El Castillo

Views of 3 river valleys from the top

A last highlight of the cruise was Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan state.  We reached it on an excursion from Playa del Carmen on a new expressway.  Our Mayan guide told us the story of not only Chichen Itza but of the Mayan region.  He told of the Spanish conquest and decimation of the native people and also told of what he called the second conquest when Spanish corporations came to the Yucatan coast to build resorts like Cancun and Playa del Carmen.  All this with little to no benefit to the surviving Mayans.  From 2002 to present Playa del Carmen grew from 22k people to 500k with Mayans a tiny minority.

The Temples at Chichen Itza are incredible works of astronomic brilliance, art and stonework.  Their calendar is accurate to within 2 seconds annually of our calender.  They thrived from about 600 to 1200 AD.  Many believe they had help from aliens but we may never know since the Spaniards destroyed all but 4 of the thousands of books from the Mayan culture.  “Thanks again Spain” says our Mayan guide.  Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Temple of Kukulcan

Huge ball court

Glyphs and the snake

Temple of the Warriors

Holland America is a great cruise line and we enjoyed the Veendam as it was smaller (1200 passengers) than some of our recent ships.  All cruise lines need to do more to prevent the spread of viruses especially in the winter season.  The food was really good, service excellent, front office management excellent, boarding and port visits well managed.  We will cruise with them again.

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