We went to Florida for a family vacation last week, visiting my mom and stepfather in Clearwater, and engaging in [more common] tourist and consumerist activities. Although I didn't take a vacation from email during the trip, I did take a full vacation from blogging (and I still feel backlogged in both dimensions ... not to mention the much longer-standing Flickr backlog).
We enjoyed seeing Mom and Fred -- even though each had colds of varying strength and duration -- and getting together with some of Fred's family (unfortunately, we did not get to see all of our friends and family in the area ... maybe next time). It was [also] nice to see where they spend about a third of their year (other thirds being spent in suburbs of Cleveland and Hartford ... intermingled with various travels to more distant locales).
Our first day there, we drove down the coast from Clearwater Beach to John's Pass. Our first stop was the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores, where we saw a wide variety of captive and free birds (e.g., pelicans, herons, hawks, vultures, mockingbirds and even crows). The captive birds were either irreparably injured or indelibly "imprinted" -- we were told that often birds form their self-impressions within the first 24 hours of life, and if the first living being they encounter is a human, then they think they are human ... and are [thus] often unable to survive in the wild. The vast majority of injuries are manmade -- hooked, lined, sinkered, shot and/or poisoned (intentionally or unintentionally). Any birds that can be rehabilitated and released are kept in a separate area where they do not interact (or see) the visitors. The free birds tended to flock to the sanctuary due to its relative safety ... and, I suspect, free food [scraps].
The next stop was John's Pass, where Amy shopped for sandals at Natural Comfort Footwear -- which had the most extensive collection of Teva's and Naot's I've ever encountered -- while I took the kids out parasailing at Jack's Marina (where they offered to give them an 800-foot [length of rope] ride for the price of a 400-foot ride, for $55 vs. $75 ... and I suspect all such offerings are far more negotiable than I normally tend to expect).
We visited Busch Gardens the next day. We did not attend any shows, and only Meg tried the rides -- including Gwazi, Montu and SheiKra -- which I think she enjoyed more than the animals. Unfortunately, the posted wait estimates for rides were often not well synchronized with real wait times, and so we stopped trusting them. If we were to visit again, we would definitely take advantage of some of the up close tours, e.g., the Serengeti Safari, but we found out about them too late to sign up for any that day. The highlight, for me, was seeing the baby gorilla at Myombe Reserve ... the lowlight was seeing the lionness pace back and forth incessantly at the Edge of Africa (I suspect she would have preferred to be elsewhere).
The next day, Evan and I got up early to go "deep sea fishing" at Hubbard's Marina. In the five-hour half-day fising trip, we saw a few people of the 30+ people catch a few fish (I suspect the total catch was less than a dozen). It was a nice day for a boat ride, and it could have been far more crowded, but Evan was disappointed -- he only caught one tiny fish (that we had to throw back), a far cry from his fishing experience off Cabo, Mexico, two years ago. Perhaps the fishing is better at different times of the year, but we both agreed that this was the last time we'd try "deep sea" fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Although we had hoped to feast on our catch for lunch, the silver lining was that Fred took us out for what was the best restaurant meal of the trip, at Guppy's on the Beach (which is not on the beach) in Indian Rocks Beach, a few miles north.
Our next destination was Sea World in Orlando. The highlights there included the killer whale show, Believe (during which I became surprisingly, and [nearly] embarrassingly, emotionally choked up), the sea lion and otter improvisational comedy show, Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island (where the mime who "escorted" late arrivals before the show was just as funny, if not funnier, than the main act), and feeding fish to the seals, sea lions and seabirds at Pacific Point Preserve. Much to Meg's delight, Evan decided he liked roller coasters (again), and so she had a buddy with whom to enjoy Kraken ... several times. Among the things I would not do again is see Blue Horizons, a peformance that combined dolphins with birds and humans in a show that seemed too theatrical and not enough animal, and pay the extra $5 for the "preferred parking (which only saved us a few dozen steps).
Our last day there, Mom was feeling well enough to join us for an outing, and we headed up to Tarpon Springs, a largely Greek community that is / was based on sponge diving. On the way there, we stopped at Howard Park, which includes a small island at the end of a causeway with nice beaches and areas for fishing and/or windsurfing. After playing frisbee for a while, we headed into downtown Tarpon Springs and had lunch at Mykonos, purportedly among the best and most authentic Greek restaurants in town (it was OK, I guess, but I'm not really a fan of Greek food anyway). The downtown area was a bit too touristy for my / our tastes, and so we didn't stay long.
That evening, Amy and I went out to dinner at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill (on the beach at Clearwater), enjoying the views of the sunset from a corner spot on the patio -- though not enjoying the smells of cigarette smoke wafting through the air from the nearby bar area (Florida seems to have a much higher proportion of smokers than other states, or at least left coast ones). The food and drinks were reasonably tasty (Amy especially liked the rich and creamy "She Crab Soup"), and very reasonably priced (given the location). Afterward, in a fitting close to the last evening of our trip, we strolled along the beach where, a little over 19 years ago, in another episode of being emotionally choked up, I proposed that Amy marry me ... and her acceptance then -- and now -- has been a source of great joy for me.