Friday, August 30, 2019

Hitting the Water in the Florida Keys

Our primary objective in the Florida Keys has been cancelled due to the weather. That doesn't mean we still can't see what's swimming around out on the reef, we just have to tackle it from another angle. But first, we have to talk about another quirky find.

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Yesterday, as we got rained out from one adventure to another, I was looking for something other than simply than going back to the hotel to watch TV. Traveling down the Overseas Highway near our hotel, I saw a small sign on the median simply saying "African Queen" with a symbol for a U-Turn.

I follow the sign to a tour boat dock and there it is, the African Queen. This is the boat used in the movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. After the filming was over in Africa, the production left the boat behind.  Found partially sunk in Cairo, the current owners bought it and brought it back to Florida for a restoration.

Wandering over to it, we note that it's just like in the movie and, when the captain turns on the steam powered engine, sounds just the same, too.  

It's now available for tours of the Key Largo marina. Unfortunately, it is not wheelchair accessible, though.

Fortunately, there's a large glass bottom boat docked next to it that the operator says is so we plan on taking that the next morning for a tour.

Now it's a day later and we're rolling onboard the boat. Tim stakes out a spot near the front of the boat by the underwater window.  Other passengers board, the boat is maybe half full, and we launch towards the Atlantic Ocean.

Gently and slowly we pass big waterfront mansions with pools at the water's edge. One even has a waterslide built in to go right into the channel. Once we've cleared the marina, the captain boosts the engines for the half hour ride out to the reef which sits seven miles offshore.

Even though we're seven miles out, the water is still shallow...anywhere from eight to forty feet deep...and a skeletal metal lighthouse stands on the shallowest part of the reef.

Now, the captain puts the engines on idle as we drift lazily over the reef, taking in the damsel fish, parrot fish, barracuda, and more. The colors of the coral shine vibrantly in the sun-filled, clear water.

The guide on the boat picks up a mic and begins the description of what we see but starts with a warning to remove any sandals or anything loose so that they don't fall into the well where the underwater window is, followed about ten seconds later by a lady next to Tim dropping her flip flop in.

" I just said," the guide goes on, "please remove loose items so that they don't fall in. For the lady that just dropped her shoe, we can negotiate how much it will cost for me to go down and retrieve it later."

A kid at the other end takes this as his cue to toss his stuffed animal in, too.

Except for a couple of clueless fellow passengers, it's still a stunning sight to see all the sealife below.  No, we didn't get to actually get in the water to go snorkeling like we wanted to but this is probably the next best thing and it's accessible too, including the bathroom on board.

We drift this way for about an hour before it's time to fire up the engines for the ride back.

Tim and I take this opportunity to sit on the fantail and enjoy the ocean spray on this hot, Florida day.

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Darryl Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

"Can't you live with it?" - Unforgettable but True Quotes From the Road

The following has all happened to us on our travels...

"No problem, I can just reach in through the window," as demonstrated by the motel clerk in Mexico when our key wouldn't work in the door.

"Can't you live with it?" - asked by a front desk clerk in Stamford, Connecticut when I asked if someone could spray the thousands of ants mobilizing in our room.

"It's OK, that toilet clogs all the time," the desk clerk with the plunger fixing our facilities in San Luis Obispo. Could have maybe warned us before we used it...

"Yes, it's wheelchair accessible...there are only two steps into the room," said the hotel manager on our arrival in Ensenada.

"You will find our country very forward thinking, the bathroom over there is completely wheelchair accessible. You only need to go down a short flight of stairs." - artist in Brugges when we asked where we might find a restroom.

"NEIN!" - shouted at me by a security guard in Salzburg when I tried to push the up button in the elevator.

"I'm Dangerous Dan the bongo man, you should visit my web site," said a homeless guy in Central Park with a baby carriage full of Budweiser.

"Sorry, I was up till three last night partying with my boss and am wiped out. I need another beer , I've got the best job in the world...hey, no filming!" - tourguide at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee.

"Just drive through the entrance to our parking lot. Drive through the lot, when you get to the exit, tell the attendant you need handicapped parking. He'll let you back out and you can find a couple of spots just outside the entrance." - desk clerk at Toronto hotel.

"Do you need them changed tonight?" - night clerk at hotel near Lodi, California when we complained about blood stains on the sheet.

"Awesome, it's a hotel party!" - shouted by drunk guy outside our room at the Residence Inn in Kansas City.

"Do you remember what the guy who was waiting behind you when you checked in looked like? He just robbed us." - motel manager in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"It's a Mormon thing." - from a Dairy Queen employee in Ogden, Utah when I gave him a questioning look after he asked if I'd like some Mayonaise with my fries.

"Mosquitos are not a protected species here. Feel free to kill as many as you'd like." - ranger at a campfire program in Yellowstone National Park.

"That'll be 150 Euros. Cash or credit?" - Austrian Polizei stopping me at the exit of the autobahn fining me because my rental car didn't have the proper toll sticker...that I had no idea I needed to have.

Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
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Monday, August 26, 2019

The Fates Are Angry in South Florida

When I booked this trip, the highlight was meant to be snorkeling at the coral reef located off of Key Largo. Tranquil Adventures charters a boat with a pool lift built into it to lower disabled passengers into the water.

Upon arrival a couple of days ago, I called Captain Mick...owner of Tranquil let him know we were here and when we should go. We settled upon today.

Today dawns windy and cloudy. It's still warm to hot. I call the captain and he says we're still on. I ask him a few questions...does he provide towels, what kind of sandwich he'd like us to bring him, etc...and then he asks if we plan to go in the water.

"Well, yes...that's the whole reason we booked so we could go snorkeling," I tell him.

Every other month we will ship you (6) of our Classic Series wines (4) reds and (2) whites each chosen for the varietal and regional character. These wines are chosen from hundreds tasted each month delivered with a 20 page newsletter He tells me the weather and water is way to choppy to do that. All we'd be able to do, basically, is to take a boat ride.  We agree to forgo the trip. Accessible snorkeling will not be on the menu for our Keys trip as we'd hoped (we'll try to make up for it somewhat in the next post).

Now we've suddenly got a free day with absolutely no plans. I jump on the computer Googling "things to do in Southern Florida" and find the Everglades Alligator Farm about an hour's drive away near Homestead.

I see that they also have airboat rides through the Everglades. Sounds like fun so we load up the car and go.

It's still cloudy and starting to sprinkle when we arrive.  Letty heads inside while a gentleman  sitting in a rocking chair on the porch warns me "they don't let handicapped people ride the boats."

"Really?" I ask him.

"Yeah, I'm a amputee from the knee down and they won't let me on."

I go inside to get more information. The lady at the ticket counter tells me that's not true and that they have an accessible dock and the staff will help lift and transfer the rider into the boat. She offers to let me inside for free to inspect the dock and boats to make sure.

Yep, everything is as she says it is so I head back in to make our arrangements except when I do I see a video monitor above her head with what looks like a weather map.  It shows a system full of yellow and orange spiraling into an area of red and a blue dot. I ask the lady what the blue dot is.

"That's us," she tells me.

"So you mean that red, orange, and yellow system is heading right towards us?"


(Not the actual map we saw but similar)

This does not look even remotely good, thankfully we found that out before buying tickets.

We start to head back towards the Keys when we spot a produce shack called Robert is Here. Yes, that is a strange name for a fruit stand but Florida...

Letty wants to stop and buy some fresh fruit for later (check out the size of the guava she found). I pull in but while she's inside, I figure out this corner spot will be very hard to get out of so when I get a lucky break in traffic, I move to another parking spot about fifty feet away.

Oh, the hands of fate dealt with us then...that red and orange spot? It arrived while my wife was inside.  A deluge of Biblical proportions hit and hit hard. Visibility dropped down to about 100 feet.  The awning over the entrance funneled the rain into a water wall rivaling the majesty of Niagara.

Tim and I were waiting in the car. My options were to leave him alone and go find Letty to tell her we moved or to wait inside and try to spot her when she came out. I went for plan B.

A few minutes later, I see here come out, getting absolutely soaked, looking the other way.  I honk. Nothing. I honk again, a little more intensely. She walks the other way.

Only one thing left to do..."I'm sorry Tim, you'll just have to wait it out here for a minute while I get your mom."

I dash through the rain and find Letty knocking on the window of a similar looking van.  I grab her arm..."that's not our car," and run her back to ours trying futilely to get inside ours before we get too wet.

It's not happening, we're both soaked to the bone. The driver's seat of our rental van is mildly flooded but at least Tim's still dry and happy in the passenger seat.

When we hit Key Largo, the rain has gone. It was more focused on the Everglades than the Keys.

We call the day a wash and spend some time at the Happy Hour at our hotel's beachside Tiki bar before retiring to the room for the night.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 25, 2019

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: Caribbean Sunset

You ever go on a tropical vacation and the bartender keeps making really good, kick-ass, tropical drinks? You go home, try to make them yourself, and...although they may be good...but there's just something missing.

I know I do.

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Luckily, I found this recipe that's spot-on for what we'd get in the Caribbean.

INGREDIENTS (2 drinks):

2 oz. spiced rum
2 oz. white rum
1 oz. amaretto
6 oz. pineapple juice
juice of one fresh lime
dash of grenadine

Put all ingredients, except the grenadine, into a shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into two highball glasses, 2/3 full of ice. Dash each one with grenadine to complete the sunset effect.

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Friday, August 23, 2019

It's a Never Ending Spring Break - Spending the Day in Key West, Florida

Another travel goal for me has been to drive the Overseas Highway in Florida from end-to-end.  Now that we're at the northern end in Key Largo, it's time to take a day to drive the 100 miles or so to the southern end in Key West.

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While I had pictured miles and miles of driving over open water between little islets over a vast bridge built across an ocean, in reality, most of the time is spent on solid ground with little bridges connecting the islands in the stream.

It's only when you get to Seven Mile Bridge (exactly as the name implies), between Marathon and Big Pine Keys, where that vision of driving over the ocean meets with reality but the other ninety or so miles is not like that at all. Off to the side, we can see the original railroad bridge that has since fell to ruin.

There is little in the way of traffic congestion today and the GPS takes us straight to the monument marking the southernmost point in the continental United States.  I only wish it could point us to an open parking spot.

After letting my wife out to take pictures (there's a block-long line of people wanting to take portraits with it, that's why none of ours are close up), Tim and I drive around the block and pick her back up when we return.

Crown Jewelers - A Leading Online Credit Jeweler

We do manage to find a spot, a handicapped spot at that, along the curb on Whitehead Street which runs parallel to the most famous street...Duval Street...but one block south.

Skipping breakfast at the Hampton Inn, I notice a nice looking place near the corner. On one side is the Six Toed Cat, a nifty little cafe with ramped access through the back. The name comes from the edifice on the other side of the corner, the Hemingway House and Museum, which is known for the colony of six toed cats that live there.

The food is delicious and the coffee strong. My wife digs through her fish Benedict while I have the All American bacon and eggs breakfast.  I share my bacon with Tim in exchange for a few bites from his pancakes.

It is a very good way to start our day in Key West and, considering where we are, a very reasonable priced one at that.

The owner is very friendly and easy to talk to. This comes in handy. The one thing I wanted to do while here in Key West is to try an authentic daiquiri. I have a real hard time finding a bartender...including in the Caribbean...who can make one. This was Hemmingway's drink and this is Hemmingway's town, I'm sure someone here can do it right.

I ask the owner where I can find an authentic daiquiri. "Avoid Sloppy Joe's and all the tourist bars on Duval Street. They all make it from mix," he tells me. "Go two corners down, turn left, and go a block. Look for the Blue Heaven Bar. They make a very good and very authentic daiquiri from scratch using only the top ingredients."

I thank him and we wander off to the Blue Heaven.

A lushly overgrown walkway invites us to the open patio in back where we grab a table by the bar.

Three daiquiris are made from scratch and, yes, they are heavenly. Attitudes properly adjusted, we head a couple of blocks north and head down Duval Street.

Duval is the touristy heart of Key West, running from the Atlantic Ocean in the east a little more than a mile to the Gulf of Mexico in the west.

It's like a permanent Spring Break here, lined with bars, restaurants, liquor and drug stores, and souvenir shops of dubious quality.

Live music pours from the clubs. Loud, free spirits line the sidewalks. It's the last place you'd expect to find a quiet respite but yet, we do.

We almost walked right by it. We weren't looking for it but the sign promising the Oldest House in Key West and 'Free Admission' drew us in.

Built in 1829, and home of the Watlington Family, it was moved to it's current spot at 322 Duval Street in 1836.

Bahamian shipwrights built the house so well and so flexible, it has sustained no hurricane damage over the years. That's a big factor in how it ended up being the island's oldest house.

A docent takes us on the ground floor rooms (ramped and wheelchair accessible).

Afterward, we take a few minutes to meditate in the back yard gardens.

Outside, we continue onward to the west end of Duval Street where we meet a tour guide trying to wrangle her dispersed clients into an oceanside happy hour. 

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We wander back to where we started where a salesman at the Mel Fisher gallery lets me hold a coin recovered from the wreck of the Atocha, a 600 year old Spanish ship laden with treasure that Mr. Fisher found and recovered hundreds of millions of dollars in treasure.

The piece I hold in my hand is priced well north of $25,000.

Before we call it a day here in the Conch Republic, we take one more quite break in St. Paul's Church, listening to the organist practice and taking in the spectacular stained glass windows.

One more stop commiserating with the owner of a nearby ice cream shop over cold treats before we head back over the ocean to our hotel in Key Largo.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

CLASSIC TRIP - Kennedy Space Center, Florida 1998

For those of you who would like to take a break from the onslaught of tourism that is Orlando, Kennedy Space Center makes a wonderful day trip just 45 minutes away. Although advertised as being a 2 hour tour, plan on a whole day here.  I've tried to update the original 1998 information for 2010.

When arriving at the visitor's center, you will be confronted with possibly the world's only wheelchair accessible space actual space shuttle conveniently fitted with a ramped and elevator equipped tower allowing you access to all parts of the shuttle (see picture above).

Of course, the one thing everybody wants to see on the shuttle is the bathroom. You won't be'll get a front row seat for a view. It's amazing that 7 crew members can actually fit in the cramped quarters - most of the shuttle space is given over to cargo room and mechanics. This alone is worth the trip over but is just the beginning.

Starting off at the visitor's center, which separate from the tour of the spaceport itself is free (not any more - Ed), you can wander about the amazing museum here. Aside from the shuttle mentioned above is the outstanding Rocket Garden which displays examples of some of our nation's most famous rockets.

Those of you traveling in wheelchairs needn't worry a bit about visiting here. Every facility is superbly accessible. Handicapped parking abounds right in front of the gate to the visitor's center. Accessible restrooms are just inside and all parts of the facility are ramped. There are also twin IMAX theaters that show great movies such as "The Dream is Alive" that have special seating reserved for wheelers...none of that stadium-style seating front row business that you are forced to endure at the local multiplex.

Tim demonstrates the wheelchair access on NASA's tour buses.
The panel behind him swings away and a lift pops out from the compartment below.

After seeing the highlights of the visitor center, you'll want to jump aboard one of the huge lift-equipped buses to tour the actual space center. This is the only knock I have on the center's accessibility, and it's really just a small one. Not every bus in the fleet is lift equipped. Only about every 3rd bus is (all buses are now lift equipped - Ed).

Once on your way, the tour makes three main stops. You spend as much time at each one as you want, and then catch another bus to the next stop. It is at this point that you may have to wait for 2 or 3 buses before a lift-equipped bus will show up. (Each accessible bus has tie-downs for two chairs)
Now, on with the tour.

Once on the bus, an audio track is played featuring NASA astronauts explaing features and highlights of the facility. On the way to the first stop, you will pass the mammoth shuttle assembly building which is much bigger that needed because it originally was designed for the Saturn V booster that sent men to the moon. Recycled and refurbished it now serves present day needs.

Next to that is a smaller building with blast louvers on the windows. This is mission control where you see all those technicians at their computer monitors during a blast off. Parked out back is the biggest ground vehicle I've ever seen. This monster-sized tracked vehicle is the shuttle transport vehicle which carries assembled space shuttles out to the launch pad at a blistering 1 mile per hour.

After a drive by look at the famous digital countdown clock, you arrive at your first destination...the launching pad viewing platform.

After a quick movie showing how shuttle are prepared for flight and an actual blast off, you saunter out to the three story platform. An elevator will take you to any level you desire.

This is the closest the public is allowed to an actual launching pad due to the hazardous materials found there. There are two pads, the closest about 1/2 a mile away and the farther one about a mile. You can see them well and telescopes are mounted on the platform for a close-up view.

This is the shuttle that carried the first piece of the International Space Station sitting on the pad.

On our visit in October of 1998, the closer pad held the shuttle that was to be launched in December carrying the first piece of the International Space Station. The farther pad held the shuttle that in a week's time would carry John Glenn on his historic return to space. As a history buff, being at the epicenter of a place where history was being made was a thrill beyond measure.

This is the shuttle that carried John Glenn back to space sitting on it's pad.

Back on the bus after this stop, we pass by the shuttle landing strip and are told that the road we are on is the actual taxi way the shuttles use to be towed back to the assembly building. Just beyond that, the driver points out an alligator lounging in a water-filled roadside ditch. Then it's on to stop number two, the Saturn V display building.

Here we are noticing that are time is slipping away. We had scheduled 4 hours for this tour and then had to head back to Orlando to catch a flight home. Now is the time I realize that it's not enough to expect the tour to take only 2 hours as advertised. We were already hear that long and were only getting to the second stop. Clearly we'd have to trim some time. There is a movie you can watch about the Saturn V, but we skipped that and headed into the building.

The Saturn V's nozzles can't even fit into one picture

You may think you know how big the Saturn V is but until you've seen the actual thing, nothing can prepare you for it. The only complete Saturn V built that was never used (it was made for one more Apollo mission that was scrubbed), it lies on its side in this massive hall specially built for it. Over 3 football fields long, the booster has five gigantic rocket nozzles in it's base that provided enough thrust to lob men all the way to the moon. It is so big that I could not get those five nozzles into one picture no matter how far back I stood.

There is also a fantastic multimedia show highlighting the first trip to the moon back in 1969. Two moon rocks are on display, one you can touch, along with a lunar rover and an actual used apollo capsule. The cafeteria is here along with the requisite gift shop.

The last stop on the tour was the International Space Station assembly building where you can see components of the station being prepared for flight. As we were completely out of time, we stayed on the bus here and headed back to our car parked at the visitor's center to catch our flight home. (The space station is now orbiting around Earth so this is no longer an option - Ed)

Kennedy Space Center is located about 45 miles due east of Orlando next to the town of Titusville. It's a quick and scenic drive along the Beeline Expressway toll road (about $3 in tolls each way) to the center.

Back in 1998, admission to the visitor's center museum was free, but the tour was $14/adults and $10/kids under 12 and also includes another tour to historic Cape Canaveral where our space program began. Not any more.  General admission, which includes the space center tour is now approaching $60 for adults and $50 for children (there are a few discounts such as senior and military, be sure to ask).  The web site link at the top also describes how you can watch shuttle launches live and has a schedule of upcoming blast offs.

Copyright 1998/2010 - Darryl Musick

Monday, August 19, 2019

We'll Get There Fast So We Can Take It Slow: The Florida Keys

We're really racking up the miles on our Southwest Rapid Rewards accounts this week. This is the third flight in that time span, this time from Houston's Hobby Airport to Fort Lauderdale.

It's an early pickup from the hotel so we forgo breakfast there to get it at the airport. Unfortunately, least the terminal we're not one of those that has a decent, sit-down breakfast place to relax it. It's yogurt and fruit in the terminal waiting area.

Southwest again steps up to the plate with helpful access to the plane and a pleasant, on-time flight. A little over two hours later, we're deplaning in Florida.

While the flight was just peaches and cream, the car rental counter not so much. About 50 people in line with two agents checking in at a counter that was built to accommodate at least a dozen. 

Eventually, video terminals were set up so agents in remote areas could check us in online. My agent was in Arizona. 

It was a short stroll from there to pick up our Grand Caravan which, although nice, was not as nice as the two Nissan Rogues we had in Texas. A touch more expensive, too.

Programming our hotel's location into the GPS, we follow the on-board voice of reason to be on our way. Soon, we are not on our way too well. On the Reagan Turnpike, which has billboards along the way calling itself the "Less Stressway," we pay for the privilege of sitting in non-moving traffic. 

Eventually, we clear the clogged traffic south of Miami and finally get moving. At Homestead, the turnpike ends. The road narrows, and we get into the swampy area of south Florida and signs warning of crocodiles crossing the road before we get to the first bridge taking us from the mainland to the first of Florida's southern islands, the Keys.

This first key is to be our base for the next week, Key Largo.

After a couple of hours, we end up at today's destination, the Hampton Inn in Key Largo near the top end of the Florida Keys (at the top I referred to our accumulating points on Southwest, I should also note that our Hilton HHonors account is getting a very healthy boost these couple of weeks).

Not able to book an accessible room here, I took a chance after getting the details of the regular rooms and booked us a junior suite. It'll do, barely, at it seems they took a regular room, crammed a king sized bed along with a sofabed, a table and chairs, and a small coffee and microwave center. 

The bathroom will be adequate, though, and the manager sends up a bath chair for Tim.

Being on the beach, the room and the hotel in general smell a little musty but there's a nice beach here, a pool with a lift, and a tiki bar separating the two.

It's not near as nice as the hotel we just left in Houston but it is nice enough. It'll do.

One thing I promised Letty when we came here, she can eat as much seafood as she wanted (I'm not a fish lover) while we were here so our first stop is to go across the street for dinner.

"Street" is a relative term here. It is the only road to cross, indeed the only road through Key Largo, but that road is the heavily traveled Overseas Highway. It takes a little patience and planning but we do eventually find a spot to cross over between traffic.

Dinner is at the Catch, a laid back diner with a beach vibe to it although it's not on the beach side of the road. 

Letty has a very nice crab cake dinner, Tim goes with fish and chips, while I get the cheeseburger. We just missed happy hour so the beer is full price but it's still very delicious and reasonable.

After the afternoon of traveling, we retire back at the Hampton to relax and create a plan of attack for the rest of our time in south Florida.

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Darryl Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved