Man o’ Manatees

January is manatee mania month in Florida. There is no better time of year to see – and swim with (yes!) – these gentle giants in The Sunshine State, and Floridians go all out to show off the endangered sea cows, including throwing a festival or two. Did someone say festival? No way we would miss that!

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With temperatures plunging across the country, we thought this story from a few years ago might provide some inspiration for a great Florida getaway. This year’s manatee festivals are the Florida Manatee Festival in Chrystal River January 18th & 19th and the Orange City / Blue Springs Manatee Festival January 25th & 26th!

Swimming with manatees in Florida!

January is manatee mania month in Florida. There is no better time of year to see – and swim with (yes!) – these gentle giants in The Sunshine State. Floridians go all out to show off the endangered sea cows, including throwing a festival or two. Did someone say festival? No way we would miss that!

Swimming with manatees in Florida!

In winter the Florida subspecies of the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus) can be found on both the Gulf and Atlantic sides of the state seeking warm waters. Since we had seen them on the Atlantic side a couple of years ago, and especially since we learned that it was the only place where we could actually get in the water and swim with manatees, we headed to the town of Crystal River on the Gulf Coast.

Swimming with manatees in Florida!

The area around Crystal River has about fifty mammoth fresh water springs that feed Kings Bay with perfect seventy-two-degree water year round. The manatees come to the springs to mate, feed, or just rest and get away from the colder seas. In fact, they like the water in the bay so much that they have been known to stay even through the summer.

We made an afternoon out of exploring our options as to which of the many “Swim With Manatees” boat tours to use by bicycling around the quaint little bay side village of Crystal River.

Along the way we spotted several sea cows feeding along the seawall in the bay. Let the mania begin.

Swimming with manatees in Florida!

After talking to a few of the tour operators, and reading up on the excursions while stopping off for a little waterfront refreshment, we were convinced that our ultimate meeting-the-manatees experience awaited us not in Crystal River, but ten miles south at Homosassa Springs.

So the next day we drove on down to board our boat ready to say howdy to some sea cows face-to-face.

Snorkeling with Mantees in Florida!

Another of the massive springs common to the Florida Aquifer feeds the Homosassa River, and manatees are known to swim several miles up the stream to congregate near the source. We chose this tour because it is usually less crowded, the water is often clearer, and it had the added bonus of getting to see some monkeys.

Monkey island of The Homosassa Riverside Resort, Florida

Yup, monkeys, as in more fun than a barrel of. Just after leaving the dock our boat passed by the famous monkey island of The Homosassa Riverside Resort.

The five resident spider monkeys all gave us a good show, climbing trees and swinging from ropes while we cruised by. Our captain, Laura, explained how the little primates got there.

Monkey island of The Homosassa Riverside Resort, Florida

Dr. John Hamlet was convinced to move to Florida by the resort’s colorful owner G. A. “Furgy” Furgason. It seems the good doctor had been using monkeys to study the polio vaccine and Furgy, always the promoter, had the idea that they might make a good tourist attraction.

After dredging in the marina created a pile of rocks just offshore from his businesses, Furgy had his monkey island.

Homosassa River, Florida

Another fifteen minutes or so up the river and we were wetsuited up and ready to go. But first the rules. Manatees are protected by several state and federal laws, so it is strictly forbidden to harass them in any way.

No chasing, poking, scaring, riding, or in any way going cowboy with the sea cows is allowed. It is not a roundup, pardner.

Veronica all snorkeled up and ready to go!

Captain Laura explained that it was best to try to stay still and let them come to you. And they did. A lot. They are huge, adults often reach over one thousand pounds and babies nearly half that, and they swam right up to us. Several times we had no idea one was around until it was right next to us. They seemed to come out of nowhere.

Swimming with manatees in Florida!

Manatees are slow moving, very gentle, and actually seem to enjoy interacting with humans, so we mostly floated silently and let them move around us.

We even got to touch a couple of them, which is allowed as long as it is done softly and with an open hand. Their skin is a little bristly, with short, coarse hairs, and often covered with a layer of algae.

Scars on the back of a manatee from boat propeller

Sadly, as we had noticed in our land-based manatee viewings, almost every one of these congenial creatures bears scars from collisions with watercraft.

They nearly all have tell-tale parallel lines across their backs from boat’s propellers. In fact they have no natural predators, humans are really their only threat, mainly from impact with boats, but also loss of habitat and pollution.

Swimming with manatees in Florida!

The good news is that a great deal of effort is being made to protect them and their numbers seem to have stabilized, with at least five thousand spending the past few winters in Florida.

One of the groups working to preserve the manatee population is Friends of Blue Springs State Park. For thirty years they have been raising funds and awareness with The Orange City / Blue Springs Manatee Festival.

Our timing was perfect, the festival was winding up the next day. So we drove across the peninsula to Orange City to get our fest on and see some more sea cows.

Food truck at Manatee Festival

Disc-Connected K-9 Frisbee Dog

The in-town portion of the festival is a really fun fair, with food, music, booths and the like, but the main attraction was not manatees – it was dogs.

The Disc-Connected K-9 show wowed the crowd with the amazing frisbee catching antics of a group of well trained border collies. We even got to watch a world champion do his high flying disc catching thing.

Disc-Connected K-9 Frisbee Dog

Save the Manatee Club at the Manatee Festival

But the festival really is all about raising money to help the community and the state park, so busses were provided to shuttle folks from town out to the park.

We climbed aboard our standing-room-only coach for the short ride while reading up on the park from a brochure.

Blue Springs State Park, Florida

Blue Spring is another first magnitude spring, pouring forth over one hundred million gallons of water a day, and like the springs around Crystal River, the water stays a constant seventy-two degrees year round.

So manatees love it, and many will swim miles up the St. Johns River to get to it.

Click here for more pics of beautiful Blue Springs State Park

Blue Springs State Park, Florida

Exiting the bus, we took a boardwalk path up to the source of the spring and got exceptional views of all sorts of wildlife along the way.

Turtles, alligators, and any number of birds and fish, but the stars of the show were being quite shy. The half dozen or so manatees we saw were all resting on the other side of the river from the path, so we didn’t get a very good view.

Manatees at Blue Springs State Park, Florida
Click here for more pics of beautiful Blue Springs State Park

But that was fine with us, we really didn’t want to get greedy. We had already experienced about the best manatee encounter anyone could ever hope for.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Can’t get enough manatee action? Click here to see our sightings on Florida’s east coast! Be sure to watch our video on How to Spot a Manatee:

Our Favorite Winter Getaways (without going too far away)

With the holidays behind us we think it is a good time to take a look at some ideas for escaping the midwinter doldrums that are likely fast approaching. So here we go with a look back at a few of the places that were the best for lifting our spirits over the past few winters… CONTINUE READING >> 

With the holidays behind us we think it is a good time to take a look at some ideas for escaping the midwinter doldrums that are likely fast approaching. So here we go with a look back at a few of the places that were the best for lifting our spirits over the past few winters.

Glacier National Park is certainly a year-round destination, and much more popular in the summer months.

Unfortunately, most of the glaciers in the park are long gone, but by visiting in the winter we were still able to get a feel for the once icy landscape.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder travels along the southern edge of the park and is an amazing way to see it in the snow, but we wanted to venture in a little deeper.

So we rented a car and drove through Hungry Horse to the western entrance of the park and up the famous Going to the Sun Road.

Staying in the nearby town of Whitefish, Montana made the trip all that much better. Not only did we get to experience some real Wild West hospitality, including a dogsled trip through the Rockies, but there were not too many other people crowding up the place.

Probably because most travelers are looking for warmer climes this time of year, duh!

Hawai’i is wonderful any time of year, but when temperatures drop and the wind chill is brutal a tropical paradise moves to the top of almost everyone’s list.

Whether it is a day on the beach or visiting a volcano, our fiftieth state is perfect for a winter escape.

We’ve done both, so here’s a look at a few of the wildly colorful and unique beaches on the Big Island.

Most of those colors come from volcanic activity so we felt like we had to takea look over the edge of a volcano while it was erupting!

Even with the incredible power that lies deep within our planet on display only a few hundred yards away we still felt perfectly safe.

As if that wasn’t enough, we decided to go inside. Yup, we walked inside the lava tubes of an active volcano and lived to tell.

Actually, so far as we know everybody who has done it has also survived.

Skiing is always a popular winter pastime, but we stumbled upon a particularly peculiar variation in Arizona.

It’s not something that can always be done, but when the weather cooperates it is possible to ski all day and then hang out by the pool afterward. Just outside of Tucson lies the southernmost ski area in the United States, Mount  Lemmon Ski Valley.

The drive up the mountain was gorgeous, going from sizzling arid desert to frigid alpine winter wonderland in less than an hour. It was like passing through all of the seasons in one day, and at the top the views were nothing short of spectacular.

Not much further down the road we discovered one of our all-time favorite spots, Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

This little fishing village on the northern shore of the Gulf of California just might be the ultimate snowbird destination. It may be only an hour’s drive south of the border, but it’s a million miles from the hustle and bustle of life back home.

The landscape is mesmerizing, with arid mountains dropping into the crystal blue Sea of Cortez, and here in the heart of the Sonoran Desert temperatures are in the eighties even in the dead of winter.

Mexico is home to another of our top choices, Cancun and the Riviera Maya. This area along the Caribbean coast is so jam packed with things to do and places to go that we could easily spend the entire winter here.

From the historic and mind blowing Mayan ruins in Tulum and Chichén-Itzá, to Rio Secreto, a river that flows for miles underground, this mystical region never ceases to amaze.

Taking the extra time to really explore led us to another gem, Valladolid. This inland hideaway on the Yucatan Peninsula has been named by the Mexican government as the best preserved colonial city in the entire country.

And of course the incredible food from the region makes it so we never want to leave.

But then summer will come along and we will certainly be looking for places to cool off by then.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Seeking the Seeds of Civilization on Crete

Beginning nearly five thousand years ago a society formed on Crete and over time became a precursor in art, architecture, and language to what we now know as Hellenistic culture.
Minoan civilization was based here and without them, along with the Mycenaean Greeks on the mainland, Greece would certainly be a very different place…
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Thanks to Road Scholar for providing this lifelong learning adventure through the Greek Isles! As always, all opinions are our own.

Even though it wasn’t the first stop on our Great Global Get-Together cruise through the Greek Isles, we begin our stories about the voyage on the island of Crete because ancient Greece might not have even existed without it.

No, that’s not an exaggeration, the Minoan civilization was based here and without them, along with the Mycenaean Greeks on the mainland, Greece would certainly be a very different place.

Beginning nearly five thousand years ago a society formed on Crete and over time became a precursor in art, architecture, and language to what we now know as Hellenistic culture.

We began our exploration at the ruins of the palace of Knossos, and discovered just how influential Crete really was. As Europe’s oldest city and the mythological home of Minos, the first King of Crete and son of Zeus and Europa, this was instrumental in giving the entire continent its name.

At one time it is thought that up to one hundred thousand people lived here, which would have made Knossos one of the world’s great cities.

Our first stop was the throne room, where kings of this vast city-state sat to rule. At least that was the original theory. Now scholars believe that this may have been strictly ceremonial and meant as a tribute to a mythological goddess.

Another character from mythology was most certainly believed to live here because the Labyrinth at the palace was the legendary home of the Minotaur, a half man half bull. The monster was born to Pasiphaë, Minos’s wife, after Poseidon made her fall in love with a bull.

An actual labyrinth has never been found, leading some historians to speculate that the myth might have been simply a story to explain the horrifying noises coming from underground due to the many earthquakes in the region.

We won’t weigh in on that debate, but do lean toward the idea that no man with a bull’s head was running around here a few thousand years ago. We did find several non-mythological wonders at the palace though.

Such as, the entire complex had a water and sewer system that would rival similar designs elsewhere in the world that didn’t become common until thousands of years later.

Also the builders created structures with several floors, at least up to four, with ventilation airways built in, which was certainly unique for the time.

The art was equally impressive, with colorful columns on almost every building, huge frescoes adorning many walls, and highly decorated pottery giving a glimpse into their ancient lifestyle.

Although, depending on who you ask, many feel that the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who excavated and restored much of the complex may have taken a few too many liberties with his restorations of the colors and artwork.

The site was discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos, but it was Evans who did most of the work beginning in 1900 and continuing for 35 years. Some archeologists think his recreations went off track into the realm of unfounded speculations.

For a more academic view of the history, and a much better look at some of the artifacts, we made the Herakleion Archaeological Museum our next stop.

Widely considered to be one of the most significant museums in all of Europe, it holds relics from Cretan prehistory and history, covering a span of over five thousand years.

Much of the art includes various forms of sea life, which obviously was an important part of Minoan life. Frescoes, pottery, jewelry, and statues all feature octopus, dolphins, fish, and shells as decoration.

Many more featured bulls, which certainly seemed less logical. Perhaps some of the reason goes back to the Minotaur, but for whatever reason bulls were very important to the Minoans and maybe even worshiped.

One theme we saw repeatedly was bull leaping. Yup, men would take a running leap over a charging bull as part of a ceremony. Was this a part of their religion? Maybe, but no matter the reason for the crazy feat, the scene is immortalized in both sculptures and pictures.

Much of the art was ceramic, some functional such as pots of all sizes from tiny to giant, but a great deal was also simply decorative, such as figures and statues.

One of the more interesting displays had numerous larnakes, or clay coffins. Since these are only about three feet long, we first thought that the Minoans must have been very small. It turns out that the remains were either cremated or bent to fit into the terracotta chests.

Perhaps the most significant piece in the museum is also one of the smallest, the Phaistos Disc. Discovered in palace of Phaistos, about twenty miles south of Knossos, this circular clay tablet is about six inches across and covered with symbols and characters thought to be from an alphabet or logograms.

The 45 distinct signs appear 241 times in what might be some sort of story, but researchers have so far been unable to decipher the meaning. What is known is that this is one of the earliest examples of type setting ever as the symbols were pressed into the clay before firing.

Another thing we knew was that after all of this investigating, we were ready to eat.

A trip to Arolithos Village, a near perfect replica of a traditional Cretan village would solve that, and provide us with some fun. Our entire group was treated to an old fashioned Greek meal, but before the food was served we worked up even more of an appetite with some music and dancing.

If ever there was the proper time to exclaim “Opa!” this was it.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our previous adventures in Greece!

Thanks to Road Scholar for providing this lifelong learning adventure through the Greek Isles! As always, all opinions are our own.

Five Tips for Living in the USA

No matter where you originally hail from there are probably quite a few differences between your home country and the USA. Everything from language to food, work schedules, and even how you greet someone is probably different. While this can cause some anxiety, it’s also one of the most exciting parts of moving to a new country… CONTINUE READING >> 

No matter where you originally hail from, there are probably quite a few substantial differences in culture between your home country and the USA. For most new residents in the US, these differences can be a major shock to the system.

Everything from language to food, work schedules, and even how you greet someone is probably different than what you grew up with. While this can cause some serious anxiety for new immigrants, it’s also one of the most exciting parts of moving to a new country.

Information about living in the USA isn’t hard to come by, but a lot of the time it doesn’t account for those minute cultural differences. Below are five of the very best tips to maximize your time in the USA, adjust to the local culture, and start acting like a native.

1.    Each State is Different

One of the most common misconceptions about the US is that it’s the same everywhere (when in reality this couldn’t be any further from the truth). New York is not the same as Massachusetts, and California is certainly not the same as Alaska.

There are so many regional differences in culture, language, food, etc., which may come as a surprise to some. Not only do cultures differ between states, but landscapes are also dramatically different. The American Southwest, for example, is drastically different than the Northeast (i.e. New England). Likewise, Montana is virtually a different country when compared to somewhere like Florida, or New Jersey.

Where you choose to live in the US will play a large role in how easy you find the assimilation process. Larger cities are more diverse, and contain a lot more immigrants than in rural areas. However, there are also a lot of immigrants throughout the entire country.

Before you choose a specific city or region to move to, it’s recommended to do some in-depth research about that area’s culture, tastes, weather, etc. to see if it’s a good fit (or not). One thing that you can’t fault the US for is its incredible amount of diversity.

2.    Tipping Culture is Real

Unlike a lot of the world, tipping is expected in nearly all restaurants in the US. Not only is it expected in restaurants, but it’s also expected with certain services as well. For example, if you’re staying at a hotel, and the bellman helps you take your luggage to your room, they would expect a tip for that.

Anywhere from 15% to 20% is a normal (and expected) tip amount. Anything below that, and you might not get the best service in the future. When dining at a restaurant, it’s considered incredibly rude to not leave a tip (borderline asinine, actually).

3.    Work-Life Balance

Europeans are known for taking month long vacations (sometimes even longer), and having a relatively balanced work-life relationship. Americans, on the other hand, are known for being incredibly work-centric (more so than most other countries in the world). There is definitely a culture here that appreciates (and rewards) hard work. That’s what the American dream is about after all, right? Work hard, and your dreams will come true.

The point that we want to make here though, is that most employers are only required to give you a certain amount of time off per year. Actually, America is one of the only countries in the entire world where employers aren’t legally obligated to give their employees any paid time off.

Keep this in mind when selecting jobs to apply to (and subsequently work at). Some employers treat their employees better than others, and choosing the right employer can make all the difference in your quality of life.

4.    You Need to Pay for Healthcare

One of the most overlooked aspects of living in America is its healthcare system. Unlike a lot of countries in the world, America has a private healthcare system. This means that unless your employer provides you with a healthcare plan (which many do), you will be required to pay for your own insurance.

This means paying a monthly premium, as well as a certain percentage of any medical care costs (with the remainder being covered by insurance). The one advantage of this system, is that America is known for having some of the very best hospitals and medical research facilities in the world.

5.    Learn to Appreciate Differences

There are undoubtedly massive cultural differences across all of the various regions, states, and cities in America. It’s important that you learn to appreciate them for their differences, and perhaps explore them.

Understanding American culture won’t take a few months, rather it will take a few years until you really start to understand the US way of life.

We are happy to present this collaborative post to offer valuable information to our readers.

Post-Parting Depression: Saying Good-bye to My Adult Kids

Having just returned from our first visit to our eldest’s new home in Paris, we felt that this is a good time to take another look at this story.

I’ve got an issue and I need help! I’m hoping I’ll get a lot of suggestions on this post from our amazingly insightful readers…

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Veronica Writes

I’ve got an issue and I need help! I’m hoping I’ll get a lot of suggestions on this post from our amazingly insightful readers.

Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” -Dr Seuss

Having The Spawn come and go in such short and hectic celebratory spurts gave me some interesting insight into how I deal with my empty nest good-byes.

Not well, it seems.

No matter how long they’ve been out of the nest, no matter how happy they are, no matter how I prepare myself, no matter how much I write about it – I can’t seem to keep myself from being head-over-heels depressed every time I have to say good-bye to my young adult offspring.

It hits me like a ton of bricks. Seriously, I cry like Tammy Faye Bakker on the second day of her period — a regular air-sucking, mascara-dripping, please-God-nobody-see-me sob fest.

One would think I’d be used to good-byes by now. Or that I’ve somehow figured out how to prepare for the letdown. After all, The Spawn are all finished with college and it’s been over ten years since we’ve had a full time, live-in offspring.

Prior to a visit, I’m obnoxiously ecstatic. Bouncing off the walls happy. I certainly don’t want to tarnish that feeling with the planning of the inevitable pit of despair at the end. So instead, I’ve been leaving an open void of time — just waiting there for me to fall into, dragging self-pity in behind me.

Seeing The Spawn never fails to fulfill me. I am always surprised at how easily I can slip fully back into Mommy mode, it’s a huge part of who I am. When I’m around them I smile bigger, laugh harder and feel so comfortably myself. The heartstrings sing — and dig in hard.

Having to let go from those good-bye hugs at the airport is literally physically challenging. I feel like I’ve just run a marathon (okay, I’ve never actually run a marathon, but it looks really difficult). I can’t catch my breath, there’s a tightening in my chest and exhaustion soon sets in.

I have to force myself not to take to my bed with my smelling salts.

On the plus side, I’m finding that I have a quicker recovery time. What used to last weeks is now a matter of days.

Growth, right?

Does this mean it gets gradually easier until the post-parting depression goes completely away? Or do I need to learn to brace myself for the inevitable and learn new ways to cope with it?

Veronica, GypsyNester.com

YOUR TURN: Do you have similar experiences? Any advice on how I can avoid post-parting depression? Suggestions, please!