Friday, February 24, 2012

A Very Photogenic Day

February 24, 2012
The Chihuly Collection in St. Petersburg is the only museum-quality collection of Dale Chihuly sculptures in the world.  Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed in the galleries.  The sculptures are spectacular, and the way that they are displayed and lit-- to project color and shadows, to create reflections and enhance sparkle—adds drama and another dimension to the glassworks.  This photo from a Tampa Bay Times website review gives a clue to the drama of the theatrically lit galleries.

I have never heard him say so in an interview, but I always think that Dr. Seuss illustrations must have been one of his major artistic influences, in addition to Murano glass.  This photo is from the museum website--we didn't cheat and sneak in a camera.

Dale Chihuly does not actually blow glass anymore.  Back in the 1970s he was in a bad auto accident, and lost an eye, which limited his peripheral vision and his depth perception.  Then in the late 1970s he badly injured a shoulder body surfing, which made it difficult for him to do the heavy physical labor of blowing his large scale works.  Since then, he has designed his glass installations and led his team of over 100 workers who create, assemble and install the works that bear his name.  He is like a composer and conductor of music—he doesn’t actually play the instruments, but it is his vision and his direction of the process that determines the outcome.

Here are a few pictures we could take of his small pieces for sale in the gift shop.  

You can have this beautiful Jaffa Orange Persian Set for $24,000.  It is sitting right out there on a countertop in the gift shop where an unattended child could cost his parent a lot of money.

And, here is a pair of shoes inspired by Dale Chihuly’s shoes.  Dale Chihuly does his design work using acrylic paint in squeeze bottles.  He stands over a large sheet of water color paper placed on the floor, and enthusiastically squeezes and spreads the paint, resulting in lots of paint spatters on his shoes.  Emulating the master, many members of the staff have spattered their shoes with paint.  (Our docent claims she has ten pair.  I am sorry I didn’t get a photo of her shoes—they were beautiful, with finely lined almost zebra-like swizzles of paint.)

After lunch at a trendy bistro next door to the museum, we went retro, visiting the Sunken Gardens, a St. Petersburg landmark since 1935.

A plumber who liked to garden in his spare time bought the four acre property in 1903, and drained a large shallow lake on it, exposing rich soil where he planted fruits and exotic tropical plants from all over the world.  As his garden grew, so did the number of visitors, until he began to charge admission in the 1920s, and then officially opened it as a tourist attraction in 1935.

We can’t say exactly why we were a bit disappointed.  Maybe we expected more flowers or more exotic atmosphere.  But, the garden was a lovely little oasis with lots of shade and plashing water on a record-setting hot sunny day. 

Pretty in Pink
Is pink the official color of Florida? 

Roseate Spoonbills and White Ibises gather at a pond beside busy Highway 41:

Rose crystal column in front of the Chihuly Collection:

Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in St. Petersburg. The tower reminds me of a wedding cake:

Flamingo at Sunken Gardens:

Bougainvillea at Sunken Gardens:

Family Fun

February 23, 2012
Yippeee—my sister Patti put me in the driver’s seat of her Miata convertible today!  My first time driving a convertible was grand, after I got over feeling a little overexposed to the elements at high speed.  Some jerk in a little red sports car honked at us, and I scowled and said “What’d I do!?”  Patti just laughed and said, “Girls in a convertible.” I got the idea that guys honk at her all the time when she tools around town in her cute convertible.

Our husbands couldn’t fit in the Miata, so they followed in the Lexus, and we left them in the dust.  They eventually caught up with us for lunch at a great Punta Gorda restaurant overlooking Charlotte Harbor.

We had a wonderful time visiting with Patti and Al, rocking the afternoon away on their back porch, shaded by live oaks and palm trees, with lots of colorful tropical foliage all around.  It was so great to spend time with them, and it was so comfortable hanging out in their little corner of paradise that it took a real effort to get together the energy to get up and go back to Ruskin.  (Hope they weren’t wondering if we would ever leave.)

It took us less than an hour and a half to get to their house in Port Charlotte, but it took us far longer to get back to our condo, because we took the scenic route” and left ourselves open to distractions.

 Our first distraction was an amazing bird feeding frenzy on Siesta Key.  There were at least a couple hundred pelicans and mergansers, plus a few egrets and herons working together as a group to herd fish along a sand bar, grabbing and gobbling fish as they swam. Nearing the end of the bar, they would turn in unison and herd the fish in the opposite direction.  Gulls and terns swooped in from above to horn in on the bounty.  We have never seen multiple species of birds work together so effectively to accomplish a common objective.  Five minutes later, they dispersed.  How lucky we were to be in the right place at the right time.

Jammed in Sarasota rush hour traffic, we saw this 26 foot tall statue based on the famous LIFE magazine photograph of a soldier and nurse kissing in Times Square at the end of World War II.  Roadside attraction!  We had to turn around for a closer look.  Titled “Unconditional Surrender,” the statue is by artist J. Seward Johnson.  Like the Airstream Ranch we saw a few days ago, the art-worthiness of this installation is in dispute.  Panned by critics and loved by the public, it is photographed hundreds of times a day. 

We are sure that the people who own the marina restaurant near the statue love it.  The marina/restaurant overflow parking lot is next to the statue, and then, once you are parked, the restaurant is an enticing spot to stop for a bite afterward.  That’s what we did. 

Dinner on the dock with a steel drum player in the background—we couldn’t think of a better way to end the day.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Bit of Grisly Geocaching

February 22, 2012
Front page news today:  Richard Gonzmart, the President of Columbia Restaurant-- one of our Florida favorites, where we ate dinner a couple nights ago—has been nominated for the James Beard Outstanding Restauranteur Award.  We read this as validation of our excellent culinary taste, while we are waiting for our bargain breakfasts at a local dive full of Sun City codgers nursing their bottomless coffee cups and blue collar types grabbing a bite on their way to work.  

No vacation is complete without the thrill of the hunt for geocaches, and we fill the time between breakfast and lunch with a bit of searching, which reminds us how frustrating the Florida style of cache hiding can be.  We fail to locate about half of the caches we hunt, but we are rewarded with a few memorable finds—including a cache hidden in a decoy dove perched deep in a dense bush, a tiny one hanging from a Halloween finger nailed to a tree, and this cache bucket deep in the woods guarded by a skeleton.

We buy picnic ingredients at Publix and take them to nearby Little Manatee River State Park, where we share a riverside picnic pavilion with some kayakers.  We could rent kayaks and paddle down the river this afternoon just like they are doing, but we are too lazy. 

Instead, we pick up a couple more geocaches on the way back to our resort (taking our grand total to 952), then just curl up with our books on the very comfortable outdoor furniture in a conversation corner of the promenade overlooking the marina.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Manatees in Hot Water

February 21, 2012
Today’s highlight was a visit to the Tampa Electric Company’s Manatee Viewing Center—a canal where water taken from Tampa Bay to cool electricity generators is discharged (“clean and warm,” as their brochure says) back into the Bay.  Although dumping scalding water into the ecosystem sounds like a bad thing, the manatees and lots of fish really love the warm water, as we observed while strolling the boardwalks that line the discharge canal.  (Thermometers along the boardwalk indicated that the canal temperature was ninety degrees, while the water in the estuary outside the canal was below seventy degrees.)

Looking down from the raised boardwalk, we could see lots of manatees lolling in the clear water beneath us.  Not one was free of scars from close encounters with boats.

A volunteer on the boardwalk had a cart full of manatee bones, and was giving a talk, but when we approached and heard him say, “When we was born, God gave us two sets of teeth. . .” we decided to just skip his presentation.

We had a fresh caught fish lunch overlooking the Apollo Beach Marina, then explored a little nature trail and beach nearby, at the inlet to the Tampa Electric Company  discharge canal (lots of people catching fish here and a few wading out to be among the passing manatees).  We enjoyed the antics of the pelicans that were hanging around hopefully watching the fishing folk.

Back at Little Harbor, we donned our bathing suits and headed to a shady corner of the pool deck to read until the sun got so low that we felt a bit chilly. 

 We feel as though we are really excelling at this exercise in relaxation.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beachy Biking

February 20, 2012
Yesterday was cool, windy and rainy, so all we did was chow down at our resort’s big Sunday brunch buffet, then spend the afternoon reading and napping.  Dinner was left-overs from our Cuban Restaurant dinner the night before.  No question—we nailed our goal of relaxation.

 So, today we had to get moving.  We donned our bike shorts and headed for the Pinellas Trail, which runs for 47 miles from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg.  Still in relaxation and rehab mode, we only did a tiny piece of the trail in Dunedin, then took a spur that ran along a lengthy causeway and across a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway to get to Honeymoon Island, site of the largest undeveloped beach and dune system left on Florida’s Gulf Coast. 

Like so much of Florida, Honeymoon Island had humble origins until an enterprising developer re-imaged it as a tourist magnet.  It was originally called Hog Island--home to a bunch of wild pigs, plus some domestic pigs that a local hotelier raised and fed with the left-overs from his hotel dining room.  Then New York millionaire Clinton M. Washburn purchased it in the 1930s, renamed it Honeymoon Island, and built fifty wooden huts thatched with palm fronds along the beach.  In 1940 he initiated a contest, offering two weeks free accommodations to 200 lucky newlyweds (married less than two weeks) who submitted three references along with an essay on why they deserved to honeymoon in a hut there.  LIFE magazine and newsreels picked up the story, and the place really took off. The honeymoon abruptly ended with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

 Fortunately, later developers did not get too far in their big plans for exploiting the island, and today most of it is a State Park.  Now the big honeymooners here are ospreys – the island has the densest population of nesting ospreys in the world.  As we rode our bicycles along the Osprey Nature Trail there was always at least one osprey nest in view above us, and the whistling cries of the ospreys were incessant.  We think they were proclaiming nest ownership and seeking honeymoon mates.  We also saw a nesting great horned owl and a couple young eagles in a nest along the trail.

There are four miles of sugar sand beaches to explore in the park.  I could have spent hours picking over the shells being left by the receding tide, but we didn’t have lights on our bicycles, and we had to make our way back to the car before dusk.

We ended our wonderful day with dinner at Columbia, one of our Florida favorite restaurants.  Serving Cuban Spanish specialties for over 100 years, the restaurant is still owned by descendents of the founding family, with sixth generation family members working there.  We had tapas and sangria overlooking Clearwater Bay as the sun set on a perfect day in Paradise. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Art of Nature and the Nature of Art

February 18, 2012
Titusville to Tampa Bay
Yesterday’s Bluebird of Happiness was the perfect harbinger of this morning spent watching birds in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge wetlands.  Tens of thousands of ducks dabbling and diving; egrets and herons in their elegant breeding plumage with colorful Maybelline eyes; delicate avocets wading in the shallows while an alligator skulks ominously nearby; ospreys preparing their nests—we can’t get enough of the beauty and drama in these ponds.

Dick will have endless hours of photo processing fun with the hundreds of pictures he took today.  Here are a few samples. 

The afternoon posed a fine counterpoint to the serenity and natural beauty of our morning, when we happened upon this contemporary art installation beside Route 4.  Entitled Airstream Ranch, it is the controversial work of local RV business owner Frank Bates, who was clearly inspired by a stop he made at Cadillac Ranch in Texas during a cross-country tour in his private helicopter.

We saw the upended Airstreams on the other side of the divided highway, got off at the next exit, turned around to get a better roadside look, noticed there was someone on the other side of the highway fence photographing them up close, and then decided to try to find our way to them via the back roads. 

We did find the trailers, but they were on private property behind a locked gate, and as we drove around trying to see if there was another way in, we met a neighbor who was investigating the activity in the trailer compound and keeping his eye on us.  He gave us the lowdown on how unhappy the neighbors are about the trailers (which they do not recognize as art) and about the riff raff (like us?) that the trailers attract to their neighborhood.  He told us that when he sees strangers (like us?) driving around, he puts his .38 in his pocket (he has a concealed carry permit, he assured us), and comes out to investigate.  (At this point I was trying to unobtrusively check his pocket for a telltale bulge, while Dick just kept having a very pleasant conversation with him about a hunting trip he recently had in Georgia where he bagged his limit.) 

Meanwhile, poor Frank Bates has had a heck of a time defending his artwork.  Back in 2008 the Hillsborough County Code enforcement Board hauled him in for a violation, and he made an ardent defense of his artistic creation, complete with endorsements from the president of the Ringling College of Art and Design, the dean of the University of South Florida College of Visual and Performing Arts, and even the director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. He also presented a petition signed by 4,000 supporters, and letters of endorsement from experts in the field of roadside attractions.  The Board voted against Frank Bates, 6-0, and ordered him to dismantle his installation.

He appealed, and two years later a three judge panel of the County Appellate Court overturned the Code Enforcement Board’s ruling.  “They said it wasn’t junk, and it wasn’t a sign, and it wasn’t illegal storage of RVs,” Frank said. “But nobody wants to commit that it’s art!”  This lack of art appreciation really irks him. After all, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has an Airstream in its permanent collection, and as an RV Dealer he ought to know, the curvilinear design of the Airstream is an American classic. 

We may not be experts in art or in RVs, but we are real connoisseurs of roadside attractions.  We can say with authority that Airstream Ranch was worth our little detour.  It is a lot less trashy looking than Cadillac Ranch in Texas (which we visited in 2004, without spray paint),

 it is more impressive in scale than Volkswagen Ranch in Texas (also visited in 2004),

but it falls short of the comic/cosmic grandeur of Carhenge in Nebraska (visited 2009).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Are We Relaxed Yet?

February 17, 2012
Savannah to Titusville
This is the first day of our self-imposed forced relaxation vacation.  So far, our universe has conspired against relaxation, with a day that included (1) Dick making an early morning run to the tile store before we left to pick up the tile that will be installed in our bathroom as soon as we return home, (2) Gayl actually attempting to use the vacuum cleaner and a dust rag with vigor while he was gone, (3) conducting way too many cell phone conversations while driving to keep all our home purchase, repair, renovation and sale projects moving forward while we are gone, and (4)navigating through misty rain for most of the afternoon.

We did have a moment of comic relief on I-95 when passing a truck towing an oversize load trailer with this cargo aboard.

We gave ourselves the gift of a few hours of life in the slow lane cruising the coast along Route A1A, and our rewards included some noteworthy roadside attractions, along with a few stops to enjoy views of nearly deserted chilly beaches shrouded in mist. 

Just north of St. Augustine we stopped to look at Castle Otttis (not a typo).  Rusty Ickes and Ottis Sadler were inspired by ancient Irish castles when they built this edifice on a heavily vegetated plot of land along A1A.  When its turrets rose above the tree tops, neighbors noticed, and the lack of a building permit became a problem.  With a little finagling, Rusty and Ottis got a permit for a garage.  Does this look like a garage to you?

A sign above their mailbox proclaims “Castle Otttis was created as an original landscape sculpture in remembrance of Jesus Christ.”   The castle has its own website (, where we learned that Rusty and Ottis built the castle themselves, “without the aid of laborers, helpers, elevation drawings, or models.”   Did Jesus have a hand in it?  "The building seemed to exert its own insistent will" during construction, they claim.

We passed right through St. Augustine without a stop for the Fountain of Youth or the World’s Largest Cross (been there, done that), and were soon at our next stop, the Bluebird of Happiness at Vilano Beach.  He’s a 1940s statue originally painted orange and used to promote oranges, now repainted and reincarnated as a community mascot.  We will take him as a good omen for the happiness that awaits us during our week of mandatory relaxation.