Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Meeting some Florida fauna up close

We did have a lot of fun that first month.  In addition to pigging out at Dixie Crossroads a few times, we explored lots of other fun dining experiences.  At Dixie Crossroads, they start you out with a big basket of corn fritters dredged in powdered sugar.  It is impossible to stop eating these things, but be careful, once you get rid of them, the wait person will bring you another basketful.  If you don't exercise some will power here, you won't have room for the wonderful dinner.   Their specialty is Rock Shrimp, a hard shelled little critter that was considered commercially unprofitable until the regular shrimp had a local crash.  Still, it took Rodney Thompson, founder of Dixie Crossroads, to figure out how to shell these shrimp and make them available for good eats.  The rest is history.  The little guys really do taste like lobster.

Now about that airboat ride...   We asked our landlord about that, and he explained there were two outlets nearby.  Midway Airboat Rides is out Hwy 50 almost to Christmas, and then there is Loughman Lake Lodge out by Mims.  He was partial to Loughman Lake Lodge because they have a restaurant and you can get something to eat.  This trip, we opted for Midway because it was the closest.  We appeared at the appointed time, and were introduced to the resident potbelly pig, who would squeal with pleasure when you scratched his back.

After we got situated on our boat, the captain promised to show us lots of alligators, but also some other interesting sights.  We got a wonderful tour, as he explained about the cattle ranches, and how the cattle got along with the alligators.  He showed us an Indian mound at a fork in the river.  It seems these mounds were made by piling up shells from generations of dinners.  It sounds like they were built for living platforms in the swamp, rather than for ceremonial purposes.    He also took us into a grove of tall cypress, and he turned off the engine so we could hear the silence.  It was quiet, but for a bird twitter now and then, and the lapping of the water.  He said sometimes there are reptiles to see in there, but not today.  He pointed out numerous birds along the way, ibis, herons, a couple of sandhill cranes, my favorites.

And of course, lots of alligators:

My favorite part of the trip was the diversity of it, how many different things the captain pointed out and explained to us.  We have taken the trip again, and also the Loughman Lake one, with much less information. Those trips were mostly just alligator viewing trips.  So kudos to our captain of the day, wish I could remember his name!

The airboat engine:

We had to wear ear protection, this thing is LOUD!

After we disembarked at the end of the trip, we were introduced to Hollywood, a baby alligator, and we got to stroke him and even hold him if we wanted to. He had a band around his jaws so he couldn't bite, and we had to hold him just so, not like cuddling a baby, but like holding out a hero sandwich to show it off.  His skin is so soft, like a baby's. 

There are so many interesting things about the St. John's River area, and the coast, all different from anything I ever saw in Michigan.  I got to know a lot about the birds and plants and animals of Michigan, but I have a whole 'nother world waiting to be learned down here in Florida.

Next post will cover more fun things, and how we started house shopping.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I'm getting used to this place

I had lots of company coming in for this first month, and several road trips planned as well.  Sister flew in from Alaska for  a week, and DH flew in for almost two weeks.  We planned an expedition to San Antonio, Florida, home of St. Leo University, to visit friends who live across the Lake from the school.  We drove cross country to Bradenton to visit relatives, and there we were introduced to a truly Old Florida dining experience, the Linger Lodge.  Then of course we had to visit DH's brother in Winter Park.

I learned the difference between Old Florida and the rest of Florida.  Indian River City where I stayed is Old Florida. The houses were built in the 50s and earlier.  There are certain styles, Spanish, like my house, farm style, mid-century styles.  Many do not have AC unless it was recently added.  Windows open, and there are lots of shade trees and plants that cool the walls on the sunny side of the house.  The yards are sometimes big with room for fruit trees and garden vegetables, sometimes small and easy to care for.  In most neighborhoods, the house designs vary, though there is one neighborhood in particular that looks like it came from a 1950s Florida dream, all the houses the same design but all different pastel colors. When you get into the houses, you find neat, divided 3/1 floor plans, tile or terazzo floors, big screened patios out back.

The newer parts of Titusville contain a lot of tract developments that would be at home in many other parts of the country.  Ranch style or split level houses, even some colonials, cheek by jowl with similar houses, all with attached garages and neat lawns.  They look very nice but not unique.

My neighbor and landlord is a wonderful source of information about the history of Titusville, the homes and families, also the plants and animals, and even the rocks.  There is a kind of big soft rock you see often in yards down there, it's grayish tan, and has lots of little shells in it. There are some amazingly shaped specimens, some holding mailboxes in front of houses.  When I asked, the neighbor told me it's Coquina.

I was walking around the neighborhood with Ginger every day.   I was actually getting interested in the place, and I kept looking for houses for sale, just in case.  I saw a few houses I might actually be interested in, but nothing was for sale.   The house across the street was for sale, but priced too high for us.  When we eventually did look at it, the layout and rooms were too cramped for our tastes. It had been updated, and the Craftsman features were all gone inside.  That was a shame.

Excitement!  One day, there were three birds perched on the telephone line in front of the house.  I have seen plenty of birds do that in my time, but not this kind. These were quite large long legged white birds with long  curved bills.  They looked amazing, teetering there on the thin wire.  I hurried to get my camera, but alas!  They took off.  I looked them up and found they were American White Ibis.

DH and I traveled to Bradenton where we stayed overnight with his cousin and wife in their new condo.  That year, they had bid high to get into that condo and the development was growing all around them.  A central business district was developing, with shopping, restaurants and a theater.  They took us to the Linger Lodge for lunch, saying it was uniquely old Florida.  The place was a hit with us, all right.  To get there, we wound a couple of miles through an upscale neighborhood with large brick and stone houses set back on wide lots with lots of huge old trees.  Somehow we ended up in an old 1940s-50s campground with the Linger Lodge at one end of its community building.  We dined on a deck over the Braden River, feasting on such delicacies as Conch Chowder, Alligator Bites, Grouper, Catfish,  Key Lime Pie, Orange Blossom Pie, and of course, Margaritas. 

Next:  My sister and I go on an Airboat Ride on the St. Johns River

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Fruits of Florida

One reason I decided I like Florida is kumquat pie.  We have visited friends who live near St. Joseph, Kumquat Capitol of the World.  Nearby Dade City hosts the Kumquat Festival the last Saturday in January.  This coming year, it will be January 28th.

 Kumquat Festival

We have never yet made it to the Festival, but we did once stop in at a store at the Kumquat Capital and indulge in a piece of Kumquat Pie.  What the heck is a kumquat, you might well ask.  It is a lovely little olive sized orange.  The skin is the sweet part, and it does have a bit of sour orange flesh and several seeds. 

Since DH (Darling Husband) was planning on joining me the following week, I was anxious to acquire some kumquats and make a pie to celebrate his arrival.  I set out the next day to explore the fresh produce market and the local Winn Dixie.  I had never shopped at Winn Dixie before.   There were indeed kumquats at the produce market, and they were nice and plump and bright orange.  I got a pint of them, and some Plant City strawberries. Those are the biggest, juiciest, most fragrant strawberries ever. 

Plant City is about 100 miles WSW of Titusville, south of the Green Swamp and next to Lakeland, winter home of the Detroit Tigers.  It's the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World, and hosts the Strawberry Festival, usually in March.  In 2012, it will be March 1-11.  Being that I arrived after the Kumquat Festival and was going home before the Strawberry Festival, it would seem I was going to miss all the fun.  Well, I could at least enjoy the fruits.

To be sure, the little Spanish house I rented came with a beautiful yard sporting several citrus trees, navel and Temple oranges, tangerines, grapefruit and bitter orange.  I was invited by the host landlord to help myself to as much of the fruit as I could eat.  There were also two or three loquat trees.  I had never heard of a loquat.  It's a little oval yellow fruit the size of a cherry.  Its stem end looks more like a peach stem than a cherry stem, and the flavor of the fruit is somewhere between peach, cherry and apricot.  There is a big pit inside the loquat that some people say is edible and some say it is not.  I didn't try the pit, but I did eat loquats, and eventually made a pie out of them, using a Cherry Pie Recipe.

I found a recipe for Kumquat Pie, and went on a shopping expedition to acquire the ingredients and an important bit of equipment.  I thought a stick blender would be helpful for chopping up the kumquats for the filling.  Other than processing the kumquats, this is a very easy recipe.

Kumquat Pie
1 baked pie crust, I used a graham cracker crust
1 can condensed milk, like Eagle Brand
1 8 oz tub of Cool Whip, thawed
1/2 cup lemon juice (I used the bitter orange juice, it was really sour!)
2/3 cup pureed Kumquats (my pint made enough for three pies)

You have to get the seeds out of the kumquats, which is a pain.  Cut them in half and dig away. Then puree the kumquats, skins and all.  Measure out what you need and put the rest into plastic bags. You can freeze them. Thaw and drain before using. I would use the liquid in the 1/2 cup of lemon juice, maybe.

Now whip up the condensed milk in a bowl. It will thicken somewhat. Beat in the whipped topping, then the lemon juice. Beat til thickened. I used the stick blender for this job.  Add the pureed kumquats and blend in.  Pour the mixture into the pie shell and refrigerate for several hours before serving.

This pie is a hit with everyone who tries it.  I gave a pie kit to my host, pureed kumquats, pie shell, condensed milk and Cool Whip.

Now, I didn't just eat and make pies the first few days.  Ginger and I did a lot of walking along the Indian River and up and down the streets of the Indian River City section of Titusville.   The weather was balmy and beautiful.  I was starting to think I could get used to this. 

Next, meeting some of the local flora and fauna, and an expedition on the St. John's River.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Getting There

Winter of 2009 rolled around, all cold and snowy and inhospitable.  I couldn't WAIT to head south for my very first solo excursion, a whole month in sunny Florida.  I really had no idea what to expect.  I packed up my car, got the dog settled and harnessed in the front seat and took off. 

Heading down cold and snowy I-75 through Ohio and the remnants of a huge ice storm in Kentucky were motivating.  Every time I stopped to walk Ginger, we had to fight snow and ice.  Huge snowbanks restricted the walking areas and it was cold and gray.   The first rest stop past Berea, KY we saw our first grass and we were both excited about that.  That night, we slept in Asheville, NC. It was cold and frosty, but at least there was no snow frozen on the sidewalks or roads. 

Next morning, we set off heading south on I-26, and it got more and more springlike the farther we went.  I was so happy!  I stopped at the abundant NC and SC rest areas, many of which had speed traps set up.  An officer in a patrol car at the north end was clocking cars and six or eight cruisers at the south end would take off and pull over speeders.  They were doing a spanking hot business.  Luckily, Ginger and I wanted a lot of exercise so we stopped to walk instead of speeding by.

Getting off at Pilot for gas and lunch at McD's,- near Bowman, SC, I decided to do a walkaround to check my rubber. I was horrified to find a huge sidewall bubble on the right rear tire, right at the rim.   No way was I going anywhere on that tire!  I called AAA, naturally.  I have a donut spare and planned to have that put on and limp on to a place where I could get a new tire.  AAA informed me, not so sweetly, that on a Sunday afternoon in South Carolina, I was not going to get a new tire.  Further, the lady said, I was to take down my own spare and make sure it had enough air in it, and have the tools ready or the "technician" would not be able to help me.  I thought that was odd indeed, and informed her that I needed help with all that due to arthritis.  Pre-arthur, I probably would have changed the thing myself, but these days, I'll take the help, thank you. It's the policy, she told me crabbily.

Fortunately, when the young man showed up with the tool truck, he had never heard of that policy.  He cheerfully changed to the donut, hoisted the dead tire onto the top of my load in the back seat, and gave me the card of a garage just 15 miles down the line that had tires available 24-7.  He even called them to make sure they had the right tire for my car.  An hour and a half after we stopped, we were under way again.  I drove my heavily loaded car 45 with the flashers on in the right lane, down I-26, onto I-95 and off at the first exit to Billy's place.  They were great!  They fitted my tire, put the donut back up under the trunk, and sent my on my way, less than an hour later.  One thing, the Hess Station across the street didn't have coffee after 1 pm. 

9606 Charleston Highway, St. George, SC
(843) 563-8436 ·
I called my landlord to let him know I would be about three hours later than my original ETA of 5 or 6 pm. We traveled on with no further mishaps down through Georgia past Savannah.  I-95 doesn't have a lot of development or tourist services through SC and GA.   We arrived safely in Titusville at 8:15 pm.

Next... I make a Kumquat Pie

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I decided I didn't like February in Michigan

It just so happened that February, 2008 was, as usual, cold, gray, icy and snowy.  It was hard to walk in our neighborhood with unplowed, slippery streets and no sidewalks.  There was no sun to brighten the days, and cold wind discouraged all but necessary outings.  I seemed to get less and less fit and more and more depressed with each passing day.   Dog wasn't too happy either.

Adapting to cold dark and snowy Michigan

Why were we still here in dreary Michigan?  Well, DH (darling hubby) couldn't take time off.  A week in Dallas in January seemed to make February in Michigan even less tolerable.  What to do?  Since I am retired, I am actually free to go.  Hubby can come down for a visit or two during the month and it will be fun, right?

I started hunting for vacation rentals to take my mind off the weather. There are websites where you can search and find rentals for anyplace, for any size group, even pet friendly rentals. I looked for beach properties in Florida.  Aaah, with the pictures and sandy beach descriptions, I was happier.  I found a few places that I really liked, in Cocoa Beach and over on the Gulf in the Sarasota area.  This could work!  I actually decided to rent a place for the following February!  I narrowed the choices down to a place right behind RonJon's Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach, when I suddenly learned, NO DOGS ON THE BEACH, just about anywhere in Florida.  Now, I have gotten serious about actually renting a spot and spending the next February in the relative balminess of central Florida, but I don't need to spend extra for beach property if I can't walk my dog on the beach, right?

I found I could save many hundreds of dollars for the month if I didn't care if I was close to the beach.  Then this place jumped out at me, a Spanish villa in the Indian River City section of Titusville.

It was attractive, the price was right, but Titusville?  Whoever even heard of Titusville?  Time to study up on the place.  I found it is the heart of the Space Coast, right across from the Kennedy Space Center, and Ground Zero for launch junkies wanting a good place to watch shuttle and other rocket launches.  Not only that, it is right across from the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge and Playa Linda Beach, miles of pristine, undeveloped, uncrowded beaches on the Atlantic.  There is lots of shopping and some nice restaurants, including the famous Dixie Crossroads,  plus it is minutes from Cocoa and less than an hour to Orlando.  Done!  I nabbed the place for the next February and settled down contentedly to weather the rest of my last February in Michigan.

Here is a link to Titusville's Visitor Portal that showcases the beautiful parks, museums and activities in the area.

Sneak preview:  I am just back from working on my new-to-me house in Titusville.   Lots of pix in the future posts.  How did this happen?  Story to follow.