Saturday, January 31, 2009

Seminole-Wekiva Trail...

...is located in the northern reaches of the Orlando, Florida area, and runs for 14 miles from Altamonte Springs to the Wekiva River. Its connection with other trails makes it 30 miles long and reaches Longwood, Lake Mary, Winter Springs, and Oviedo. This paved trail is a rail-trail running on the former Orange Belt Railway line, at one time the longest railroad in the country.

Three parks and 2 schools are connected by this trail. Lovely forest borders much of the trail, and though residences line sections, the trail still gives the feeling that you are removed from dense population. A number of small sub-division roads are crossed easily, and major roads cross at traffic signals.



The worst crossing of Highway 434 has a new underpass that is substantially completed as of end of January 2009 and close to opening is shown here...

More info and downloadable maps here

Friday, January 30, 2009

Ocala Mountain Biking Trails

We awoke to more cloudiness and drove to Ocala's Santos Trailhead to bike my favorite biking venue of the nearly 100 I've biked across the country over the years. With many dozens of miles of trails, all marked as to difficulty, and all twisting and turning through the lovely Ocala National Forest, this area is unsurpassed in mountain biking offerings in my opinion. The mid-50s temperatures with a little drizzle departed during our 2 hour, 14 minute, 16 mile ride and the sun broke through, raising the temperatures to a nice 62 degrees. Here Ellen pedals through an open section of forest, with sight lines extending far into the woods...




... whereas this section below is dense and closed in and you must take care as you constantly negotiate blind curves which might have a biker coming the other way.


Being Friday, though, we avoided the heavy weekend traffic. W e were going to bike this again tomorrow before leaving for Orlando, but signs were posted warning of a big race here tomorrow morning which will make the area very congested, but we will stop here again in 3 weeks as we head back north. In several sections, the trail forces you to squeeze between trees as seen here, testing your maneuvering ability -- and this is on the easy yellow trails. Rocks and roots are rampant, also testing your skills and your bike's ruggedness.




After 3 months of Chicago's winter precluding biking, it's wonderful to have biked 3 of the last 4 days here in Florida, and we look forward to more of the same the next 2 days before reporting to our 6 day Disney "behind the scenes" Elderhostel program. For more info on this area, see my webpage.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Biking in the rain...

We did the laundry and then read in the motel room as the rain continued, but later in the afternoon cabin fever struck, and since the rain turned to a fine mist, we drove to the trailhead, took a chance and began biking, and got a one hour 12 mile ride in on the wet Gainesville-Hawthorne trail...


Our clothing also got wet but it felt good to get out and get moving again. We even saw 4 deer, a bunch of squirrels, some birds, and this guy crossing the trail...



(What kind of snake is it, Greg?) Tomorrow it's off to Ocala and our favorite mountain biking venue -- the Santos Trails through the Ocala National Forest.

Rain, not shine...

...predominated yesterday as we drove 300+ miles from the Panhandle to Gainesville, scrubbing a bike ride on a new trail we passed enroute, and it looks like today will be a washout, too, and preclude today's ride on the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail which we biked last year. The temperatures are nice - 70s yesterday and upper 60s today -- but the precipitation is predicted to last all day, so this ride will have to wait until our trip back through here in a few weeks. We do need to do laundry, and since we hate to waste a nice day on such chores, today is ideal, and then we'll perhaps catch a movie this afternoon. Tomorrow should be dry and allow us to do our favorite mountain bike ride in the Ocala National Forest as we make our way to Orlando.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Biking Gulf Islands National Seashore

Gulf Islands National Seashore is the largest of all the national seashores (spread over 12 different units) operated by the National Park Service, and is located south of Highway 98, which hugs the Gulf coast in the western section of Florida's Panhandle. We biked 15 miles of the Santa Rosa Unit off Navarre Island Causeway. Paved parking is available as you enter the island as well as in several sand lots as you drive along the bike trail, which parallels the road for 2 miles through the residential area as seen below..


Then you hit the National Seashore land and are greeted by expanses of white sand. I just left Chicago and it looked much like this, except it was snow. The bike path for the next 12 miles or so is simply a painted bike lane at the edge of the roadway, but since the road was closed for reconstruction due to Katrina damage, we had no vehicles to deal with and simply enjoyed the ocean to our south, the Santa Rosa Sound to our north, and the marvelous sand beaches.



The stunning sugar white beaches of Gulf Islands National Seashore are composed of fine quartz eroded from granite in the Appalachian Mountains. The sand is carried seaward by rivers and creeks and deposited by currents along the shore.






Gulf Islands National Seashore's barrier island habitats, offshore waters, and submerged resources offer a variety of recreational opportunities for people year-round. In fact, more than 80 percent of the park is submerged lands teeming with marine life. Also, marshes collect fresh rainwater and support diverse communities of plants and animals. Live oak forests are home to resident and migrating bird populations.It is rich in natural resources, with sparkling blue waters, magnificent snowy-white beaches, fertile coastal marshes, and beautiful winding nature trails.

Monday, January 26, 2009

On the road again...

...driving 420 miles from Lafayette, Louisiana, through Mississippi and Alabama, and into Florida's panhandle, staying in Fort Walton Beach on the Gulf Coast, in the area dubbed the Emerald Coast. Resorts and condos dominate the area, and I'm glad this isn't high season or the prices and traffic would all be measurably increased.

We had supper at Old Bay Steamer Restaurant across Highway 98 from our inn -- an unbelievable seafood establishment. We ordered the steamer platter for two, comprised of lobster tails, king crab legs, snow crab legs, and a pound of tiger shrimp, accompanied by corn-on-the-cob, new potatoes, and salad -- a veritable feast -- all fresh and steamed perfectly. See Ellen's blog for photos and more info.



Tomorrow we'll explore the area some more and bike in a state park, with the Gulf on one sde of us and Santa Rosa Sound on the other side. Check back tomorrow for the photos.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Cruise Day 6: Activities Aboard Ship

Activities are available to suit all tastes and interests and we availed ourselves of quite a few. Here are a few examples:

Climbing the 30 foot high rock wall was something I had never tried before, but I made it to the top and rang the bell...



Ellen tried her luck at a bingo tournament...



...as well as a slot machine tournament...



A jambalaya cookoff by the pool was followed by platefuls for all who wanted to try the result...




At 8:30 every evening, live shows were available in the La Scala Theatre. Below is Merrill Osmond, the lead singer for the Osmond Brothers for 50 years. Between songs, he regaled us with stories of his brothers and sister and showed video clips of the group back in the "old days."




Other nights featured two comedians, Olympic gymnast Lance Ringnald, Kenny James (the 13-time winner on Star Search), and the ship's singers, dancers, and band.


Even the sun put on quite a display for us over the open ocean at sunset...




... and Jean, our stateroom attendant, left gifts of her towel creations in our room every evening, like this monkey that was hanging around...




Every day we'd walk the decks and up and down countless flights of stairs for exercise, and on day 5 we ran into Bob and Angie doing the same thing. Bob and I were colleagues teaching at the same school for over 2 decades, so we talked awhile and made a date for lunch together that noon and the next. And then we continued to run into each other at events the final 2 days of the cruise and wound up speaking a number of times. Small world, for sure!



The chef who carved the ice sculptures demonstrated his skills on this 300 pound chunk of ice, creating a sailfish for us in under 10 minutes. His job entails creating 5 new sculptures daily. I wonder how he feels about his "works of art" being so temporary.



Mini-golf was another activity we participated in...



Other activities included the hot tub, sunning and reading on the pool deck, watching flying fish cavort near the hull, appreciating the variety of art in the stairwells and hallways, and attending a fine art auction.

Also, music was available in lounges around the ship and we took advantage of those several times.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cruise Day 5: Dining onboard

Dining onboard ship is as wonderful an experience as I'd been told. The meals and service were extraordinary every day. Breakfast and lunch are available at several locations and you go at your convenience, but all guests are assigned to a table at dinner. We shared our dinner table with two delightful couples, Roger and Nancy from Arkansas...



...and Omar and Maria from Texas...


Conversations were lively, informative, entertaining, and stimulating, and the mealtime always lasted at least 90 minutes as none of us were anxious to depart.

Our waiter, Valeriy (on the right) from Romania, and assistant waiter Altan from Turkey, both treated us like royalty. Their English was excellent and their service was spectacular.




Valeriy entertained us each evening after dessert, challenging us with puzzles to solve, such as placing 2 coffee cups on the table, one of which had an empty can in it. The challenge was to move the can to the other cup without touching the cups or can in any way. The solution was to blow into the cup containing the can, which caused the can to rise, and then to puff hard and get the can to jump out of the cup. With many attempts, I actually got it to land in the other cup.

Several evenings, the entire wait staff of 150 or more people assembled to sing for us...


The chefs not only excel at cooking but also carving, be it ice sculptures or watermelons...


Friday, January 23, 2009

Cruise Day 4: Jamaica Jungle Canopy Tour

Montego Bay, Jamaica, was our final port of call. Though Kingston is the capital of Jamaica, Montego Bay (or MoBay) is its tourism capital. Located about 90 miles south of Cuba, Jamaica has a size of 4411 square miles – 51 miles by 146 miles – and a population of 2.5 million, with 120,000 living in Montego Bay. Here’s a shot from the ship on this cloudy, drizzly day…




Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica in 1494 and actually lived here for a year while shipwrecked on his second voyage in 1503. It was Spanish for 167 years until Cromwell captured it for the British, and it remained British until declaring independence in 1962. Its name means “land of wood and water.”

The highlight on Jamaica (and the trip) was the Chukka Jungle Canopy Tour. The drizzle stopped and sky partially cleared, although little light made it through the dense jungle foliage. We were driven up over the mountain into the next valley, given instructions, bug spray, helmets, gloves, and our harnesses, and climbed up a hill to the first of 6 traverses on zip lines, the first of which takes Ellen across the river in this photo…





For increased safety, each traverse utilizes double overhead lines, with a pulley riding on each line and connected to your harness, as well as having a safety line attached to the pulleys and your harness for a third point of contact. You can control your speed by braking with your gloved hand, though that was only necessary once. Below are photos of some traverses…







The final traverse is claimed to be the longest traverse of all canopy tours in the world – 1065 feet in length and 285 feet above the valley floor – and we reached 35 mph as we flew down the lines above a gorgeous valley. Exhilarating!


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cruise Day 3: Grand Cayman

George Town, our second port-of-call, is the capital of the Cayman Islands which are directly south of Cuba and 180 miles northwest of Jamaica. It occupies 76 square miles and is 22 miles long and 8 miles wide. Its population of about 40,000 includes 20,000 indigenous people. Christopher Columbus, on his final voyage to the Americas, was blown by freak winds to these shores, on which he discovered multitudes of turtles causing him to name the islands “Las Tortugas.” However, later maps called them “Caimanau” meaning “crocodile” after the misidentified iguanas native to the islands. The island boasts no taxes of any sort and is ruled by a governor (not from the islands and hence neutral) appointed by the Queen since it remains a British territory.


No piers can accommodate tour ships, so all ships must use tenders, smaller boats, to transfer visitors to shore and back. Note the size differential between the Voyager and the shuttle tenders in the photo below…



Strong winds and large waves as seen below prevented all ships from anchoring by the unprotected downtown area, so all had to proceed 5 miles south to a protected bay called “The Spot,” thus requiring not only tender trips but also a bus ride to town.





The shore excursion we had signed up for (sea kayaking and power snorkeling) was canceled due to the waves, so we substituted horseback riding on Honey Suckle Beach.





The beach was scenic and the riding was fun, although most of the horses shied away from running in the water, and though it had been advertised as a 3 hour trip, it was only 2 hours, with only 1 hour of actual riding and an hour of driving/getting on horses, and unfortunately the value of the trip came nowhere close to equaling the cost of the excursion.





We were dropped off in downtown George Town where we got a bite to eat at a Paradise Restaurant by the Sea, complete with huge waves crashing over one section of the restaurant’s deck, and then walked through several stores and made a few purchases before catching a bus back to the dock and a tender back to the ship.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cruise Day 2: Cozumel, Mexico

Cozumel is the capital of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, about 50 miles south of Cancun and 10 miles off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The island is 30 miles long and 9 miles wide with a population of 67.000. The Voyager docked at the international pier…






…which is 3 miles from the downtown and main shopping area, which we then walked to along the shore road. We collected some freebies (tote bag and Tanzanite studs) and purchased some gifts and t-shirts. At Diamonds International, Ellen designed her own engagement ring, choosing a diamond style and size, its setting, and ring, which they then built and we picked up 2 hours later…




Lunch was at Pancho’s Backyard, an outside location amidst tall green plantings serving wonderful Mexican cuisine (see Ellen’s blog for food photos) with a husband and wife marinba duet providing music.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Cruise Day 1: Voyager of the Seas...

…is our cruise ship, our home for the next 7 days, and part of Royal Caribbean’s fleet of superb vessels. We boarded hours before sailing time, and the boarding process was efficient and speedy, though 3600 people had to be boarded. The next two hours before sailing was the great adventure of exploring the vast ship and learning of its amenities, and following is a snapshot of some of the facilities we have available to us.

This massive vessel is 1,020 feet long overall, has a waterline beam of 127 feet, a maximum width of 156 feet, weighs 137,276 tons, has 15 decks, and drafts 29 feet. Voyager features the world's first rock climbing wall, first ice-skating rink at sea, a Royal Promenade which is a marble floored street stretching just over 3/4 the length of the ship and featuring shops and light dining venues such as a Ben and Jerry's ice cream parlor and a traditional English pub, and an innovative interactive television service in which the guest can order on demand movies, room service, check their bill and more.

The formal dining area occupies 3 levels, seating some 1800 people in each of the 2 sittings…



The library incorporates 2 levels, providing books you can read, quiet places to read, as well as computers to use…



The large theater, dubbed the La Scala, has comfortable seating on 3 levels for 1200 people and boasts professional audio, staging, and lighting effects.


The promenade offers a café, stores, and more, and our stateroom has a large window looking out onto the promenade. You can see 4 stories of windows on both sides of the corridor. We are on the topmost floor of the promenade.





One of Ellen’s favorite areas is the well-provisioned casino seen below. There are tables for blackjack, etc., as well as many varieties of video slot machines.



Three swimming pools and a half dozen or so hot tubs, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of lounge chairs and also tables. Most are under the sun, but shaded areas are also available, and three bars keep the people lubricated in the heat.



A wonderfully equipped fitness center is available featuring the latest in machines as well as weights…



The upper deck offers mini-golf, which Ellen is playing here…



…and also provides a basketball court, ping pong, shuffleboard, a 1/5 mile track, and a climbing wall I will be tackling someday soon…



So, that’s a quick tour. Check back here the next few days to see what else we’re up to on this adventure.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Galveston and Goldenrod

Galveston is recovering from Hurricane Ike, and many businesses have re-opened and houses been repaired. The high seawall that was necessitated by the complete destruction after the hurricane of a hundred years ago did its job and protected much of the town proper, but some of the structures closest to the ocean were devastated as seen in these shots taken along the Gulf coastline…



We finally got to meet Goldenrod, a friend from the Internet, sharing breakfast for nearly 2 hours before we boarded our cruise ship. She has many Internet friends, but this was the first time she had ever actually sat down with a blogging pal – and the same went for us. The conversation was non-stop and the time flew by way too quickly.



Thanks again, Goldenrod, for driving down to meet us.