Florida Gulf Coast

It was September, 1993 when I had my first holiday outside of Europe. I remember very well that Florida was a very popular holiday destination for Dutch tourists at the time. But in 1993 people were not so eager to go; quite a few tourists were killed in the state that year, so people were anxious about going. It did not stop us from going, but we promised the home front to be extra careful. Together with my good friend Astrid, I flew with Martinair to Orlando, where we would start our 2-week road trip through Florida. We spent almost a week in Orlando and Kissimmee visiting all the amusement parks. Our next stops were at the Everglades (we stayed at the Flamingo Lodge, which does not exist anymore), Key Largo and Miami / Fort Lauderdale. We rented a convertible (after having seen Thelma and Louise) and we had a great holiday!

In November 2016 I participated in the USA/Canada Experience, an event for Dutch travel agents to learn more about various destinations, airlines, hotels, etc. During this day I visited various interesting and useful workshops and at the end of the day I had to fill in a questionnaire. Those with the highest scores would be entering a prize draw and the prices were worth it I can tell you! I paid good attention that day and it paid off because I won a holiday to Florida: flights and accommodation for 2!

I booked my trip for departure in May 2017, but unfortunately I got sick and had to cancel the trip. However, 2 months later I got a second chance when Astrid said: do you want to go somewhere for a week or so?! I tried to find something last minute within Europe, but all was quite expensive and then I had a light bulb moment :). I had a look at flights to Florida (since I lost my Air Berlin tickets) and found a good deal with TUIfly. I mailed the accommodations which I cancelled 2 months earlier and all 3 of them said: you are very welcome to rebook and use your voucher, so come on over!

Day 1: from Schiphol to Sanford and on to Sand Key

Today it is July 7, 2017 and I am on an airplane with Astrid crossing the Atlantic Ocean; 24 years (and at least 24 pounds) later after our first trip to Florida! We have been friends since I was 15 years old and now, we get to see the part of Florida we missed the first time! As soon as we fly above land, we have clear view over Florida’s green and tropical landscape.

We land halfway the afternoon at Sanford Airport, which is located north of Orlando. It is a small and old-fashioned airport, but you are outside before you know it; passport control goes smoothly since only a few flights land here. We walk towards Alamo, where I rented a car (not a convertible this time) and since our category is booked out, we get a free upgrade. I love the car rental system here: they point you to the parking lot where you can find your car category and you pick one out yourself.

Before we know it, we are on our way. We think we have saved time by landing here (and not on Orlando International Airport), being able to leave so quickly, but it is a Friday afternoon and we get stuck in traffic big time. But then again, we have an air-conditioned car and after driving slow for about 30 minutes we can drive normal speed. We vaguely remember this area from our first visit. We spent 4 days at Disney World and other amusement parks and seriously had a lot of fun; now we drive past them to enjoy another part of Florida.

Our first destination is Sand Key (Clearwater) and the only thing we need to do, is to get to highway 4 and then just keep on driving till the end. The radio is on and one of the first songs we hear is No Good from Kaleo and it is the perfect road trip song; we decide this song will be part of the soundtrack of this holiday. We stop somewhere alongside the highway before we reach Tampa to have a quick bite, since we are still on Dutch time and a bit hungry. We eat some fast food which turns out to be not so tasty, but at least we ate something. Highway 4 becomes 275 and we cross Tampa Bay on road 60; the landscape changes as soon as we reach the water. The first time we travelled through Florida we did not have GPS; we used an old-fashioned map. This time we still do not use GPS, but again an old-fashioned map (so much more fun)! We like to travel the old fashioned way (meaning: getting lost now and then).

Sand Key, our first destination, is easy to find. Together with the traffic jam and food stop, it took us 3,5 hours to get here. After crossing the Causeway Bridge, we see Clearwater Marine Aquarium on our right side; I think it is home to the famous dolphin called Winter (from the movie Dolphin Tale). In front of us we see Pier 60, the lively and busy centre of Clearwater Beach. We turn left on Gulf Boulevard, cross Sand Key Bridge and the first hotel we see on our right is Sheraton Sand Key Resort and guess what…? This is where we will be staying the next 5 nights!

I will tell you more about the hotel tomorrow. Right now, we park our car and head towards the reception to check in. The friendly receptionist gives us a key and vouchers for breakfast. We have a spacious room with 2 queen beds and partial sea view. We quickly drop our luggage and go to the beach straight away to catch the sunset. We just have to walk out the back door of the hotel, to the pool area and in a few steps, we are standing on a beautiful white sandy beach. A few steps more and we have our feet in the water and we are just in time to enjoy the sunset and what a spectacular one! The sky behind us turns pink and purple and the clouds have the most weirdest shapes. I love sunsets and since the Gulf Coast is famous for its sunsets, I am happy.

We walk back to the hotel where we have a beer at the bar and then go back to our room. We are still on Dutch time, very sleepy and go to bed early.

Day 2: lazy day at Sand Key

We wake up after a good night sleep and go for breakfast. Close to the lobby is the breakfast area (at Rusty’s Bistro) and there is an extensive breakfast buffet for us to choose from and friendly staff who serve us tea and with whom we like to have a chat.

So, let me tell you more about the hotel! Sheraton Sand Key Resort is a waterfront hotel on Sand Key which is part of Clearwater Beach. The hotel is a family-friendly resort with a beach front pool deck where you can relax under an umbrella on a sun lounger; tropical trees complete the picture. If you love sports, you can play tennis or pay a visit to the fitness centre if you want to stay fit (I have given up trying). You can eat and drink either at the bar or in one of the restaurants. One side of the hotel overlooks the Gulf of Mexico and the other side Clearwater Bay.

After breakfast we go for a walk around the hotel and at Sand Key Park; it is a small park, so we will not be gone for hours. We start our walk at the entrance at the GuIf Boulevard. In the little park we see various birds, very cute squirrels and little lizards. We watch the anglers at the Sand Key Fishing Pier, from where we have a good look at Sand Key bridge. At the pier the egrets are waiting patiently to see if they can catch something to eat too or steal a fish from the anglers!

We walk towards the beach alongside the Clearwater Pass and find ourselves on the white sandy beach again. I see beautiful shells everywhere; I am in shell heaven. My name is Elisabeth and I am an addicted beach & lighthouse lover and shell collector. Also on the beach, plenty of beautiful beach birds!

It is getting quite warm, so we walk back to the hotel and put on our bathing suits. Our first day we will spend being very lazy on the beach. We have decided to take it easy this holiday; we both worked really hard lately, are tired and need a break. We find ourselves a sun lounger with umbrella. You cannot do without an umbrella here in the Sunshine State, because this time of year it is really hot and the sun is very powerful. Together with a few magazines, a good book and music on our phones, we just chill and order a drink and a snack now and then. It is a beautiful day… (I feel a song coming up). After sunset we get ourselves something to eat at the hotel and have a drink on our balcony.

Day 3: Tarpon Springs

Today we get back in our rental car, for a short drive though; we go up north. Since I lived in Greece for almost 14 years, I have to visit the “Greek” town of Tarpon Springs! I actually did not know there is a large Greek community in this town and found out when I was gathering information about the area around Clearwater. Tarpon Springs was named for the fish found in abundance in waters nearby, but it is mostly known as the “sponge capital of the world”, its Greek heritage and for the many miles of waterfront (my kind of town). Tarpon Springs is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and known for its Historic District where art galleries, antiques stores and specialty shops house in buildings dating from the late 1800’s. For me, it is the Greek heritage that I want to see the most!

We take road 19 and arrive after only 40 minutes! We first park our car at a parking lot on the corner of West and East Tarpon Avenue. We go for a walk, but it is Sunday, so most of the shops are closed and it is quiet. We walk towards St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox church and the church has just finished its Sunday service and that is when we see hear the Greek language in abundance as people walk out of the church. It is a bit weird, because we are not in Greece, but in Florida USA and I cannot feel the Greek atmosphere (not yet anyway).

We get back in the car and park close to the Sponge Docks; parking is not for free, but the parking fee is not too bad. We walk on Dodecanese Boulevard and we see one Greek shop or restaurant next to the other. Now I am getting a bit of Greek vibes. Tarpon Springs has a higher percentage of Greek-Americans than any other American city and it shows. We decide to go for a coffee/tea at Hellas Bakery and treat ourselves to some Greek sweets of course! Here I do feel the Greek atmosphere. The Bakery does remind me of the ones in Greece. We sit down and I enjoy a piece of baklava together with me tea. I end up chatting Greek with two lovely men who are retired and they tell me all about the Greek way of life here in the USA. Their way of life is as Greek as it can get here!

We continue our walk; Astrid goes into the shops and I get to take photographs outside. That has been our deal since we became friends: she shops and I take photographs. I cross the road towards the water and I see tour companies selling “sponge dive” excursions and other boat trips. The Greek immigrants built Tarpon Springs’ sponge industry and they turned this remote village into “the sponge capital of the world” and sponges coming from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico once outstripped citrus products as Florida’s main export (big deal, because the citrus industry here is huge). But times have changed. Sponges still in abundance though at the shops. I have a look to see if we can still book a tour, but we should have booked for early this morning, because the next possibility is late in the afternoon. So, I keep on walking and taking photographs.

Everywhere I look I see decorated bicycles and I absolutely love them! They are made by Warren, the flower bike man of Tarpon Springs and he is the man who placed them all over this city. By doing so he is leaving a legacy of colourful bicycle art, which make you smile once you see them. My favourite is of course the Greek bicycle and the sponge bicycle! As I walk back alongside the water, I see a house boat, with a Dutch flag and I wonder if this is where he lives… No sign of life, so I continue my walk. Astrid and I meet at a little square where we have a drink and a snack while listening to live music. Life is good and we are relaxed and we hang out around for quite some time (our faces getting the colour of a lobster from the sun).

We decide to leave Tarpon Springs halfway the afternoon; we thought about having a late Greek lunch, but we are still a bit full of the Greek sweets we ate earlier and the snacks, so we skip lunch. We go for a drive towards Fred Howard Park. As soon as we leave the centre, we find ourselves in an area that could have been the movie set of My Big Greek Fat Wedding. The houses are more Greek than they are in Greece ;-). I am driving, so no photographs, but it brings a big smile on our faces.

We reach Fred Howard Park’s by a 1-mile long causeway. We just want to have a quick look and see a white sandy beach, which is a very popular swimming area and since it is Sunday it is quite busy here. It is a perfect location for visitors to enjoy the beach, sunsets, ospreys who are nesting and you can even spot eagles as they fish for food in the surrounding waters. Dolphins, and occasionally manatees, are also seen in the area. The causeway is used for sunbathing, fishing, and exercising and is also busy. We get ourselves an ice cream and then move on.

We drive back south and stop at Dunedin Marina. Dunedin is located just west of Tampa. This town is known for its annual Scottish celebrations (you could have guessed from its name). It is one of the oldest towns on the West Coast of Florida and it is my kind of town; it looks very relaxed here! We do have an appetite by now and we sit down at Olde Bay Cafe & Dunedin Fish Market. It has the most perfect location, right at the water and they serve the most delicious food. We order quesadilla’s and taco’s with a beer and look over the marina, which is used by both residents and visitors. The view is fantastic and we see yachts and sailing boats coming back in after a day out on the water. There is something about this spot that makes us feel super relaxed. We order a second beer, alcohol free this time and just relax.

Before it gets dark, we drive back to Sand Key to catch another beautiful sunset. This time I see a pirate boat, which takes tourists on a sunset cruise. It makes a pretty picture especially when a bird dives down in front of it. We go for a walk on the beach, even though it is dark and later on we sit down again on our lovely balcony to enjoy the view and a drink (or 2, 3).

Day 4: another lazy day 😉 at Sand Key

Our first day was a very lazy day, yesterday we went out and had a relaxing day and … today we have another lazy day ;). It feels great not having to do anything and just read a magazine or a book. We can feel our batteries being charged!

At the end of the afternoon we decide to make a move. We leave our comfortable sun loungers, get dressed and cross the bridge towards Clearwater Beach. At Clearwater Beach you can find quite a few luxurious hotels like Wyndham, Hyatt and Hilton but there are hotels for all kind of budgets. But what a great and lively location to stay! Apart from plenty of hotels we see bars, restaurants and shops; all you need really!

We want to visit Pier 60, which feels like the hot spot and centre of Clearwater Beach. The pier features a 1,080-foot fishing pier, a recreational park with a bait house, telescopes and six covered pavilions. Pier 60 is a popular spot for anglers, because of its many lights, which make it ideal for night fishing. The bait house offers a complete line of fishing tackle, T-shirts, souvenirs, drinks and snacks, as well as rental equipment, a full line of bait and skilled staff to assist. Astrid and I will just watch the anglers instead of trying out ourselves!

However, after about 15 minutes, above the “skyline” of Clearwater Beach, the sky is turning really dark and we decide to leave the pier and walk back towards the beach. While still walking on the pier, the wind starts to blow really hard and we see people on the beach grabbing their belongings and leaving the beach as fast as they can. Before we know it, the rain comes pouring down and we have to seek shelter under a pavilion. We get wet anyway. As soon as the pouring stops and a drizzle begins, we move on.

When leaving the pier, we say to each other that it is the perfect time to have dinner. We walk to Mandalay Avenue, which is just around the corner. We are not going to be fussy with the rain still coming down and stop at Extreme Pizza. Astrid feels like having pizza, so we go inside. We both order a big pizza (which turns out to be extremely big), a normal beer (but also big) and we just chat away; it will take a while to finish the pizza anyway. After a few hours we go back to the hotel, where we chill on our balcony.

Day 5: Honeymoon island and ice cream!

Today we go for another shirt ride and this time to Honeymoon Island. Seriously… the name of the island makes me laugh. Astrid and I are good friends and we both have not been very lucky in love (so far) and we are going to visit Honeymoon Island… You have to admit: that is funny ;)! Astrid is an optimist though and I am sure true love will come her way. Me… hmmm… I am not an optimist anymore when it comes to love. As far as marriage is concerned: that was never one of my dreams and those who know me will laugh when reading this, especially since I am going to visit Honeymoon island. I have decided I will stay the free spirit I have been so far, or as Eddie sings it in his song “Guaranteed” (which is my personal anthem): “consider me a satellite for ever orbiting”. Anyway… you never know (“and pigs might flight fly” as my ex would say)!

We cross the causeway boulevard, pay the entrance fee and park our car at the North Parking Lot. We realize we did not buy an umbrella, so we may not last that long here on this island without having some shade. Right now, it is a bit cloudy, so first we go for a walk. Honeymoon Island has a beautiful walking trail of about 5 kilometres and we walk half the trail. This island is absolutely beautiful and you can spot tortoises, raccoons and armadillos (which we do not see of course, since the animals are smart enough to show themselves only when it is not too hot). Up in the air you can spot eagles or osprey. We find ourselves a bit of shade between the vegetation and lay down on the white sandy beach; the island has about 7 kilometres of white sandy beach and together with the turquoise waters this island is a piece of paradise. I go for a swim and another walk on the beach. We stay for a while untill it gets too hot for us.

We make a move and visit the Rotary Centennial Nature Center and have a look around while chatting to one of the volunteers. He talks about the island, its nature; such a lovely man, very kind. He secretly wants to know what we think about their new president and he apologizes straight away (and not for asking). I am not writing down my opinion, I try to stay away from politics on this website. I think that the United States of America have a lot to offer to travellers. I love the coast, the National Parks, the nature and I hope it will be treasured!

Before leaving Honeymoon Island, we quickly park our car close to where the ferry boat leaves to Caladesi Island, so we can use the restroom. Caladesi Island is also a state park, but only accessible by boat.

On our way back to Sand Key we stop at Dunedin and go for a walk. We visit a few shops, an art gallery and all is colourful here. I really like Dunedin, because it has such a good atmosphere! At the corner of Mainstreet and Broadway we see Strachan’s Ice Cream and a sign says that here you can treat yourself to the best ice cream ever, so… I guess we will have to get ourselves an ice cream then! They are not wrong; the ice cream is really delicious and although we only have 2 scoops in a cone, it is an XL ice cream (all is big here in the US of A) and it feels like a full meal. But OMG… it is so delicious!

At night we enjoy another sunset at Sand Key. I will never, ever get enough of sunsets. At home you can find me at the beach at sunset; it is my moment of relaxation. At night we go for a walk at Shoppes on Sand Key, on the other side of the road of the hotel. It is a small shopping mall, but still we manage to wander around for a while. We need to eat something and end up having a very tasty burger meal from Shorty’s; we sit down outside overlooking the water towards mainland.

Day 6: from Sand Key to St. Pete Beach

After breakfast we check out of Sheraton Sand Key Resort; our next stop is not too far away from where we are now. It is only a short drive towards St. Pete Beach (Saint Petersburg). The drive is actually 40 minutes, but we take our time so we can enjoy the scenery. We stop often to admire the beautiful beach houses and to take photographs. I see my “little” dream home and I can see myself living here, admiring the sunsets at night, collecting shells in the morning… Keep on dreaming ;).

Our next hotel is a landmark called the Pink Palace, but its real name is The Don CeSar. Once you arrive though, you understand why it is called Pink Palace! The hotel simply cannot be missed, it dooms up as soon as we reach the end of Gulf Boulevard. My friend Sandy would love this hotel, since pink is her favourite colour and this hotel is really Pink with a capital P! The Don CeSar opened in 1928 and has been welcoming travellers ever since (even during the war). The hotel is a true icon with a rich and glamorous history and you can feel it once you see it. Many celebrities have stayed here and we cannot believe that we are staying here.

The hotel parking is on the other side of the road and a bridge takes us to the hotel entrance. We check in and have a beautiful room with sea view; the interior is coastal style, which I love. Staying here feels like going back in time, because of its timeless atmosphere, I guess. We leave our luggage in the hotel and explore the area. The Don CeSar has a lot to offer! The front side looks out over Gulf Boulevard and Pinellas Bayway and the back side offers a beautiful garden with pools and luxurious sunbeds. From the garden we walk straight onto the beach! The hotel has everything you could possibly need: a spa, shops, bars, restaurants, an ice cream parlour and so on. You really do not need to go out of the hotel!

However, Astrid found out that St. Pete has a Macy’s and I promised her she was “allowed” to go shopping if we found a Macy’s on our way. So off we go and we spend the entire afternoon in the shopping mall. In Macy’s it turns out to be a Black Summer Friday, so Astrid goes nuts and even I end up buying some clothes. I want to keep Astrid’s privacy, but I would have loved to post a photograph of her and her shopping bags ;). We walk around the mall for a while and since we did not have lunch, we decide to have a very late lunch / early dinner in the food court. I go Asian style and treat myself to a stir fry.

We go for a drive towards downtown Saint Petersburg and park our car close to the Salvador Dali Museum. We are too late for a museum visit, but we still can have a look in the gallery shop before it closes. What a beautiful building and I wish we arrived a bit earlier so we could visit it. We go for a walk at Albert Whitted Park and then drive back to The Don Cesar, passing by countless galleries, beautiful murals, etc. and since we do not use GPS, we see quite a bit of the city!

Once we are back at The Don CeSar, we are just in time for a spectacular sunset. This place is truly magical and the beach being so stretched gives all visitors plenty of space to enjoy the sunset. After sunset we go for a drink in the bar and just have a relaxing evening. We may sound boring, but… we are during this holiday ;)!

Day 7: collecting shells at relaxing in style at Don CeSar

The next day we get up very early, before sunrise. Yesterday at the check in desk, I asked a lady from guest relations where the best shelling spot is. I heard about Shell Key, but instead she told us to go to 1st Avenue early in the morning and go for a walk on the little beach there. We go by car, but it is only a short drive. The lady was right: beautiful shells everywhere. I cannot take a lot with me, but I take a beautiful collection that fits into the biggest Tupper I took with me from home. OK, I admit once more: my name is Elisabeth and I am a shell-a-holic!

It is quiet and peaceful and Astrid and I enjoy the silence. I realize it is actually very nice to go for an early morning walk (instead of sleeping in). We want to go for breakfast somewhere, but it is still too early for anything to be open in this part of St. Pete’s Beach. We decide to get some breakfast from a small supermarket and sit down on a bench, overlooking the Pass-a-Grille channel, while the sun rises up further.

St. Petersburg really has a lot to offer and if we did not need to have a lazy holiday, we would have explored more. We go back to The Don CeSar and find ourselves a comfortable chaise by 1 of the 2 (heated) pools. The pool concierge hands us thick fluffy towels to put over our chaises and points out the water taps with various fruits in them in case we want a refreshing drink; we love it here! We find ourselves chaises with an umbrella, go for a swim, listen to music, read a magazine… this is all very therapeutic I must say! In between the 2 pools is The Beachcomber Bar & Grill where we order a delicious lunch and after we just continue our lazy routine with a swim now and then.

At the end of the afternoon we get dressed and go for a drive on the Gulf Boulevard. After a while we end up at Ricky T’s Bar & Grille (on Treasure Island) for dinner. We saw this restaurant yesterday evening when driving back to the hotel from St. Pete’s city centre and it was packed. There was live music and happy people, so to us it seems like a good place to go to tonight and sit down for a meal. Tonight the restaurant is also packed, but we are lucky to get a table outside after waiting for about 10 minutes. We order drinks and a tasty meal while enjoying live music. And once we are back at The Don CeSar… guess what? We enjoy a beautiful sunset!

Day 8: from St. Pete Beach to Estero Island / Fort Myers Beach – Sanibel & Captiva islands

We leave The Don CeSar in the morning. We are not in a hurry to check out to be honest, because the hotel is really great. We would have loved to stay here for an extra night and we actually could have, but flight wise we had to cut our holiday with 1 night or extend it with 3 and we just made a choice. We did not cut on our Sand Key stay, which was great, but not knowing how spectacular The Don CeSar is. Anyway, who knows… if I should ever go back to Florida, for sure I will go back to The Pink Palace. Anyway… we check out and leave on time and before we go, they hand us 2 bottles of water for our thirst while being on the road.

Our next stop is at Estero Island / Fort Myers Beach and we have a 3-hour drive ahead of us. We drive towards interstate 275 and cross the impressive Sunshine Skyway Bridge and then turn south on interstate 75. Driving in Florida without GPS is easy as it turns out once more. The more south we go, the more tropical it gets; the scenery changes. We stop somewhere on the road for a late and big breakfast before we continue our drive to Fort Myers!

Estero Island is easy to reach, we are doing great with an old school map! We cross the Matanza Pass Bridge and immediately see the lively centre of Fort Myers Beach and its fishing pier. We would like to have a look, but as a rule we drop our luggage off first, so we keep on driving towards our accommodation. After another 10 minutes we arrive at Outrigger Beach Resort, where we will be staying for the next and last 3 nights of this holiday. The location is perfect; so far, we have been so lucky with where we have been staying. I just love the beach and staying right at the beach is enough to make me happy!

We check in and are welcomed by the manager who is… Dutch! When making the reservation I found out the resort has a Dutch manager, so I brought a few Dutch goodies with me. I am glad I did because he made sure we have a Beachfront Efficiency room, which is more like an apartment with kitchen facilities and it is very spacious. The best part: from our balcony we have a 180 degrees view over beautiful Estero Beach, which is right in front of us. Whoo-hoo… He asks about our plans and I tell him that tomorrow we have a boat trip over the Caloosahatchee river, which is offered to us and. He advices us to leave our luggage in the room and get back in the car and drive to Sanibel and Captiva island, which is only half an hour away.

So, back on the road we go! We pay a fee at Sanibel Toll Facility to access the Sanibel Causeway and the islands. Sanibel Island is known for its white beaches and the large amount and diversity of shells that you can find here (another reason for me to visit, although I have collected plenty in the meantime). But the island offers a lot more, like beautiful nature and wildlife. If you have a good holiday budget, you could decide to stay here for a couple of nights or on Captiva Island, neighbour to Sanibel. Both islands represent the outdoors, so if you are into biking, birding, sailing and or other water activities, you are visiting the right place!

We stop at the Norhtern Beach where we park our car. From here we visit the pier and the lighthouse (of course I have to visit the lighthouse, being a lighthouse lunatic). We walk towards the little pier first which is full of anglers, both human and big birds like egrets and pelicans, trying to catch some fish. From the pier we can see Fort Myers Beach / Estero Island across the water. It is the perfect place to stare over the water and spot wildlife.

From the pier we walk towards the lighthouse through the park. Seriously, if I could make one of my biggest dreams come true, I would live in or next to a lighthouse. I love what they represent and back home whenever I feel a bit lost, I visit the lighthouse at night and look at how its light shines. It gives me comfort and brings peace to my mind. Sanibel lighthouse was one of the first lighthouses on Florida’s Gulf coast. It is not made out of concrete or bricks, but it has an iron skeleton tower. This means it is not a lighthouse which you can visit or go inside. Anyway, I love it and if you want to know more about the lighthouse, just click here.

On top of the lighthouse sits an osprey and we find out there is a nest close by. The Osprey are known as Fish Hawks or Sea Hawks and they look similar to other Hawks with dark their brown bodies and wings. They are found along Florida’s coastline but so far, we did not see any. OK, truth is we are no bird spotters, but do get excited seeing bird this big! We can actually spot the nest from a distance and take some photographs with our zoom lenses and I manage to shoot a short video, but the quality is horrible since I was standing on a tree trunk which was wobbly (I will share it anyway). What a beautiful bird, or birds I should say since we can spot the couple together!

We walk over the beautiful white sandy beach for a while; it is not too sunny, so not too hot. This island is truly a piece of paradise! We walk back to the pier through the little park and spot a Marsh rabbit, which looks very cute and is not afraid. When reaching the pier, visitors are pointing towards the water and Astrid and I see a manatee at the surface and a few minutes later dolphins. She has to drag me away, since I could stand here all day to see if I can spot anything else.

We leave the Northern Beach and go for a drive over the island, cross the Bling Pass over to Captiva Island and just enjoy the scenery. I have put my camera away, otherwise I will ask Astrid to stop at least 10 times. Captiva is mostly named together with Sanibel island, but the islands do have their own identity. Captiva Island feels a bit like a decor of a tropical fairy tale. We decide to find ourselves a place to eat at the end of the afternoon; our late breakfast was our last meal. It is busy since it is a Friday evening, but with a bit of patience we manage to get a table at Keylime Bistro and order a delicious meal with a beer. Once we are back at Outrigger Beach Resort, we have some drinks while relaxing on our big balcony. It has become a routine, but we love it.

Day 9: trip over Caloosahatchee River

I get up and go for a beach walk before getting breakfast. All is so peaceful here at Outigger’s, especially this time of day!

We have breakfast in our spacious room. Outrigger Beach Resort does offer breakfast downstairs, but this morning we want to enjoy the view from our balcony. Across the road is a small 7 Eleven supermarket and I get some fresh bread, eggs and juice.

Today we have a boat trip planned organised by Pure Florida. We need to drive for about 40 minutes to their location at West First Street. We arrive early at the marina and treat ourselves to a cup of tea with a Key Lime pie (which we both love and have not had so far). I think that will do for lunch :). We ate our first Key Lime Pie 24 years ago and we cannot leave Florida without having eaten one.

We get our tickets just before it is time to board. I will be honest when I say I would not have thought about booking this tour myself, but I am curious. We have a very friendly crew and we end up enjoying a 90-minute history and ecology river cruise on the Caloosahatchee River. We see the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, a bit of downtown Fort Myers, some bird rookeries and mangroves. Our captain gives us interesting information about the history of Fort Myers and the river. We hope to see wildlife, but no manatees or dolphins today. We do see a lot of beautiful birds and really enjoy the tour.

We drive back towards Fort Myers Beach, park our car close by the pier and go for a walk. We visit the shops in the area before we go to the pier. We have learned that at the end of the afternoon the sky usually changes and it looks fantastic with dramatic clouds over our heads. We have also learned that this means we will get wet. When walking on the pier once more we are treated to a tropical rain storm (just like in Clearwater). We manage to quickly walk back and decide to go for dinner at the Greek restaurant Plaka. The food is delicious and the atmosphere is as Greek as possible, being in the USA.

After dinner we continue our walk since Astrid has spotted a few more souvenirs shops. I end up buying a few souvenirs (as if my house is not full enough yet) before we get back to our car and Outrigger Beach Resort. Time for sunset and beers on the balcony!

Day 10: Kayaking at Lovers Key

Our last full day in Florida starts with another breakfast on our balcony. Today Astrid and I decide to go to Lovers Key State Park. Seriously, who comes up with names like these? 😉 OK, it is a romantic spot and I am sure you can get married here… but thankfully it is also a park suitable for good friends and families! Lovers Key was supposed to become the site of luxury condominiums because of its perfect location, but this piece of land was donated to the people of Florida so that its beaches and mangrove forests can be preserved for all to enjoy (meaning also tourists like us).

Lovers Key is only a 5 minute’s drive away from where we are staying. As soon as we enter the park there is a viewing point on our right. We park our car and have a quick look and right in front of us in the water, we see a few manatees. YES! They are the sweetest water creatures alive; the gentle giants of the water! We also see a few kayaks in the water, so we enter the park after paying our entrance fee and rent a kayak for ourselves at Lovers Key Adventures, so we can explore the canals and lagoons that are favourite grazing spots for the manatees, but also shorebirds. As long as we do not come across alligators. But first we go for a walk along the trail.

As soon as we enter the water with our kayak, we are in a constant discussion about how to paddle so we can go forward (because that is not going too well). However, we have been friends for such a long time, afterwards we will laugh. In the end we do great job I think and we manage to stay dry! The area is pretty amazing, beautiful piece of nature. We see more manatees and also a young one next to its mother. No alligators, thank G! You can get quite close to the manatees, especially if you stay quiet, but of course we respect the animals and keep a safe distance. We paddle away for a few hours and return to the kayak pavilion once we have completed the trail.

We take a shuttle bus towards the white sandy beach, but it is in the middle of the afternoon and seriously warm and sticky. We do not have an umbrella with us, so we take the next shuttle bus back. We could walk, it is only a short distance and there are great trails here, but it is really warm and we need a cool drink! We leave Lovers Key behind us and go back to Outrigger Beach Resort where we treat ourselves to a cocktail and something to eat at the bar as we chat away with other guests. At the end of the afternoon we go for a long beach walk and admire the colourful beach houses we see, as well as a piece of beach art!

We see those clouds coming in and decide to walk back but the rain comes down before we are even close to Outrigger. We cannot stop laughing and I desperately try to protect my camera from the water, but even the little bag I carry it in is soaking wet. The rain keeps on pouring down that evening, the sky has become black and we watch the most spectacular lighting show over the Gulf from our balcony! Lightning strikes and lights up the sky…

Day 11: Alligator Alley, Miami Airport and back home.

I cannot believe this is our last day; actually, this last day we do not have time for much but driving towards Miami International Airport. We have breakfast downstairs and decide to leave early, that way we can stop somewhere along the way for a lunch break and to see if we can spot alligators alongside Everglades Parkway, also known as Alligator Alley. We go back on highway 75 and pass Bonita Springs and Naples, places we have not seen 24 years ago and also now we skip this part. We quickly get of the highway to see if we can get a glimpse of these town, but we realize there is not enough time. Who knows we will come back someday and visit these places, plus Marco Island and go further down south at the Florida Keys. We stop at Alligator Alley and even in the tiniest streams of water we see alligators. We keep a safe distance, even though they do not prefer to eat human flesh!

Astrid and I try to find an IHOP before reaching Miami airport, because we feel like having pancakes. But every time we see one, we see it too late to turn around. We manage to reach the airport in the chaotic traffic in this part of Miami. We say goodbye to our rental car; returning it is easy. The airport is very old fashioned, it seems not to have changed much since we last were here 24 years ago. OK, there is Wi-Fi! We eat something at the airport, plenty of food to choose from, but a lot of junk food though. We have a flight delay and get ourselves a beer which is big enough to get through the waiting and then we board and leave Florida, USA behind us.

My dear and long time friend Astrid: this trip has done me a world of good. I am so grateful that you suggested to go away for a while. We are relaxed, tanned and had a great time! Another thank you goes out to Sheraton Sand Key, The Don CeSar and Outrigger: thank you for having us! Florida is a great destination and it is not only about sun, sea, beach & alligators. I suggest you have a look at this website to find out what more this great destination has to offer, because it is simply too much too mention here!

I finish this travel blog with “my” song… Guaranteed by Eddie Vedder!

“On bended knee is no way to be free
Lifting up an empty cup I ask silently
That all my destinations will accept the one that’s me
So I can breath

Circles they grow and they swallow people whole
Half their lives they say goodnight to wive’s they’ll never know
Got a mind full of questions and a teacher in my soul
So it goes

Don’t come closer or I’ll have to go
Holding me like gravity are places that pull
If ever there was someone to keep me at home
It would be you

Everyone I come across in cages they bought
They think of me and my wandering
But I’m never what they thought
Got my indignation but I’m pure in all my thoughts
I’m alive

Wind in my hair, I feel part of everywhere
Underneath my being is a road that disappeared
Late at night I hear the trees
They’re singing with the dead
Overhead

Leave it to me as I find a way to be
Consider me a satellite for ever orbiting
I knew all the rules but the rules did not know me
Guaranteed

Travel Blog by Elisabeth, One Lucky Traveller

July 17, 2017

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