February 25, 2017


Carol writes:   Lake Okeechobee, nearly 36 miles long and 29 miles wide, is the largest freshwater lake in the state of Florida.  Our next destination was the town of Okeechobee on the northern shore of “The Big O.”  A bike ride along a short section of the dike surrounding the lake was a great way to experience the natural beauty of Florida’s inland sea.

We hoped we would see some more alligators in their natural habitat.  It didn’t take long before we had some really good sightings.  This big boy (or girl?) was napping in the weeds, totally unconcerned with all the biking and hiking traffic.

Beautiful and majestic blue herons were plentiful…

A quick check of Trip Advisor gave us a good tip on what else there was to do in Okeechobee.  A 3-mile hike around the Taylor Creek Stormwater Treatment area was listed as the #1 attraction, so it seemed worthwhile to check it out.  This facility was designed to mitigate agricultural phosphorus runoff into Lake Okeechobee, thereby improving the lake’s water quality.  Birds and alligators were said to be plentiful, so that clinched the decision that this should be an interesting hike. 

As we were hiking along the biggest water retention pond in the treatment area, we had a chance cell phone call from our daughter.  Always eager for these calls, we stopped along the trail to talk and suddenly noticed a very large alligator swim to the edge of the pond and swiftly make its way up to the trail in front of us.  This gator was moving purposely and it was looking right at us.  As I pulled out my camera, Al handled the phone and told Meg, “Hold on, we have an alligator problem,” while I snapped a very quick pic as silent alarm bells started going off in our heads!

By agreement, we both backed up rather quickly in the direction from which we had come.  Thank goodness another alligator in the pond distracted the one interested in us, causing our gator to hightail it back into the water…

As for bird sightings, we saw a lovely pair of sandhill cranes, easily identified by their characteristic red head…

a turkey vulture…

and another blue heron, intent on catching a meal.

When I hear the word “prairie,” I imagine a flat expanse of grassland in the vast plains west of the Mississippi River, so it was news to us that Florida also has prairies.  Unfortunately, development  by man has destroyed thousands of acres of this unique so-called dry prairie ecosystem; however, the folks at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
have adopted the mission of preserving over 53,000 acres of this rare habitat .  In some instances, park rangers have converted many acres of the preserve back to its historic state by removing invasive species of trees, while the Army Corps of Engineers has worked to alter drainage patterns back to their historic courses in seasonal wet areas.

Al and I felt like we were hiking in an African savannah on trails through grasslands dotted with saw palmetto as far as the eye could see.

The shady areas consisted of palm trees, giving the hike a delightful tropical feel…

Baby alligators—and their vigilant mothers—were plentiful in the wet areas.

We felt a little frustrated that we couldn’t see more of the preserve, as hiking was the only option for us that day, but when we heard about a ranger-guided swamp buggy tour deep into the preserve, we signed up for the following day!

The wealth of information given by the ranger

on the ride deeper into the grasslands gave us a whole new appreciation of what we were seeing, both from the historical and the naturalist viewpoint. 

Animal life abounded…

Kissimmee Prairie Reserve was a very special place indeed…


After a restful slower pace on the Florida prairie, we headed down to the greater Miami area for a more urban experience.  Al selected a perfectly situated municipal campground in Pembroke Pines called C.B. Smith Park,

which turned out to be a gem for taking long walks and for appreciating the cultural diversity on weekends when all the picnic shelters filled to the overflow point with mostly Spanish-speaking families.  It was not hard to fathom why Miami is called the “Capital of Latin America.”  As we took our customary walking route, we immensely enjoyed hearing Latin music permeating the uniquely colorful cultural celebrations of birthdays, weddings, and baby showers.  Such enticing food aromas coming from the grills…

One of our chief destinations while in the Miami area was the Art Deco District of Miami Beach,
which was enormously pleasing to the eye.  We have always admired art deco buildings, and Miami Beach had them in abundance!

The beach itself was a riot of colors and incredibly beautiful vistas with a background of super condos!

Lifeguard stations


and even the snack bars were all in art deco character.

Oh, that lovely blue ocean… a perfect backdrop for picture taking.

Miami is our country's 4th largest urban area with a population of 6 million.  As such, the city offers a diverse cultural experience.  We decided to check out multicultural Miami at its best, and that meant a visit to Little Havana…or Calle Ocho as it is proudly known by its residents.

Of course, there was a Cuban cigar store smack in the middle of Little Havana,
along with a very popular gathering place for the male residents to play daily games of dominoes.

Even McDonald’s signs had a Latin flavor…

Although I wish it wasn’t a necessity, an immense police presence in Little Havana made the whole experience seem quite safe.  We even decided to stay for lunch.  I’m a hopeless picky eater, but Al was game and had some traditional Cuban food.  Al’s verdict:  Food was good but, for a lunch, portions were huge…

Making the most of only a week in the Miami area, we were curious to check out the island town of Key Biscayne.  We stopped at a gorgeous spot near the Rickenbacker Causeway where an animated fishermen was eager to show us a manatee in the waters along the fishing wall.

The incredible iconic Miami skyline made a near perfect backdrop.
Historically, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, the barrier island of Key Biscayne 
was a prominent landmark for early Spanish explorers.
In modern day Miami, some things haven't changed all that much.
Centuries later, the land at the very tip of Key Biscayne was a secret meeting place for Black Seminoles and runaway slaves trying to escape to the safety of the British Bahamas.

Today, the state park at the end of the Key Biscayne barrier island is a popular  beach destination, and the park itself made a mighty nice picnic spot.

That was a very hectic week in the greater Miami area… Now that we have had our busy and bustling urban fix, we were eager to head back to Nature for a much anticipated week in the Everglades.  Surely, nothing could go wrong with that plan, right?

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