We chose the National Parks recommendation of the Mangroves Boat Tour and stepped into the quiet motor boat which seated six very comfortably. Captain David is experienced with boating and knows so much about the flora and fauna of the Everglades. This Northern part of the Everglades National Park is at the Bird Rookery and is a perfect place for ornithologist and birding tours.  This area is home or host to over 350 species, so you can spot many and observe their habits, especially on sunny days.  Ours was a mild, cloudy December day but we learned a lot about birds in our 90 minute boat tour through the open waters of Turner River into the protected waterways beneath tunnel formed by the millions of mangrove trees and their eerie roots

David told us the habits of each of the birds we spotted along the way, slowing or stopping for us to look closely at the markings on the feathers, and noting shape and color of beak and legs. We learned the following:

  • The Rosette Spoonbill’s lovely pink color is from eating shrimp. It is the only spoonbill species in the USA. It wades in shallow waters searching for shrimp.
  • The Great Blue Heron is the largest predator of alligator babies.
  • White Ibis are known as the “hurricane bird” because it is the last to leave before a hurricane and the first to return. They are easily distinguished from white egrets because ibis have long, curved, yellow beaks. Since white is a perfect target for predators, Nature gave fledglings gray-brown feathers for about 18 months. By this time they turn white since they have learned how to protect themselves.
  • Cormorants are large black birds with a huge wing spans and dense bones to help them dive straight down into the water many feet deep to catch fish in their powerful beaks. We saw some also sitting with open wings on the dock in order to get dry, since they do not have the body oils of other sea birds and these cannot fly as fast with wet wings.
  • The Anhinga looks like a Cormorant but has a long, thinner, sharper beak with which it spears its fish.
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  • The Royal Tern, proudly claiming a post in the water, is nature’s weathervane because he always faces into the wind. It is easy to identify from other terns by its black band on the white head and its orange-yellow beak. When sailors cannot determine correct wind direction, they look for this brave bird.
  • By contrast to the White Ibis, young Brown Pelicans are white for about 18 months.
  • Tri-colored Herons sit patiently in trees awaiting crabs, their favorite feast.
  • Turkey Vultures have a keen sense of smell and soar high above, circling the carrion to eat. They follow the Black Vultures to get their food.
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  • Crows work together to open trash cans and food packs and search hungrily for treats. These are smart birds, known as the Trickster to Native Americans. In Japan Crows have learned to lay walnuts in the path of traffic to get them cracked!
  • Did fishermen learn the secrets of Green Herons, which use bait at the water’s edge and swish it to attract fish?
  • White Egrets have gold feet which attract fish in the water. Their beaks are black.
  • On the 10,000 Islands Tour during a heavy rain the next day we discovered Great White Pelicans in a large flock. They huddled together with heads tucked on the spate of land farthest out at the edge of the open Gulf of Mexico. Their beaks can hold three gallons of water! That weighs 24 pounds!
  • 4 white_pelicans resizedAt the National Park Visitor Center we enjoyed a nature walk with a park ranger and then Andrew, another Ranger had an excellent Bird Smart Talk. Birds get their food in a variety of ways specific to each species, so they don’t compete for their food but often help each other. Herons and egrets are sight feeders and wait patiently to stab their fish.  Ibis are deep mud fishers. Rosette Spoonbills are tactile fishers who feel the fish with their feet as they wade in the shallows.  Great Brown Pelicans have sharp eyesight and dive from 50 or 60 feet to get fish they spot from above. Their special head structure with air sacs to cushion the blow helps prevent these dive-bombers from injury.

    White pelicans work as a group and push their fish to the shallows. These birds have a nine-foot wing-span. Pelican pouches can hold three gallons of water. He told us about several species that are not here, including the Clark’s Nutcracker, which collects and buries pine needles in warm weather and remembers in winter where hundreds of these are buried to eat. Of course, birds can fly to where food is plentiful. The Arctic Tern has the longest of all migrations, flying around the world twice in a year.

    NOTE: Photos from website Free Stock Photos

The only sound was the crunch of our tires on the crushed limestone as my family and I pedaled our bikes along the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota. Suddenly my sons slowed their mountain bikes to avoid the flock of wild turkeys strutting their way across the trail in front of us. Earlier that day we had surprised several deer on the trail and ridden through railroad tunnels so long we couldn’t see the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Not long afterwards, we encountered a strange trailside building, which our guidebook told us was sided with the round lids of cyanide barrels left over from mining operations.

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Wildlife, scenery, history and adventure were around every bend as my husband Tim and I and our 14 year old daughter Hanna and 11 year old sons Flynn and Sam rode for three days and over 90 miles through the Black Hills of South Dakota on the Mickelson Rail Trail. While thinking about taking the family on a multi-day, self-supported bike adventure may seem daunting, it is quite within reach for anyone wanting to give their family a memorable, confidence-building experience.

My first reaction to the idea of bike touring with kids was, “No way!” as I envisioned herding my brood of youngsters along a major highway while lethal semi-trucks sped by. Then I discovered rail trails – the perfect solution for a safe family bike tour. Rail trails are decommissioned railroad beds that have been transformed into multi-use trails for biking, running, hiking and skiing. Some are paved while others have a crushed gravel or limestone surface, and all are generally flat or have gently rolling hills. Many, like the Mickelson Trail, have railroad tunnels and trestles that add to the appeal.Photo 3

There are over 2,000 completed rail trails in the United States and another 700 or so projects in progress that will eventually add up to over 30,000 miles of trails. Some rail trails are only a portion of a mile long, while 14 trails in the United States are over 100 miles in length. The Mickelson Trail rolls for 114 miles through the scenic Black Hills in South Dakota from Deadwood to Edgemont.

Our bike tour on the Mickelson began with both excitement and trepidation as family trips sometimes do. Our pre-teen boys were excited to start the adventure. Hanna; however, let us know with the teenage silent treatment and frequent eye rolls, that riding her bike for days through the middle of nowhere on what just happened to be the weekend of her 14th birthday was not her idea of fun. We hoped her surly attitude wouldn’t taint the whole trip, and were relieved to see her angry face visibly relax over the miles. Eventually a smile broke through as golden aspen leaves surrounded us and she discovered new-found confidence that she could indeed ride her bike for miles through the boonies.

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On day one we planned to ride 16 miles to our first cabin, less mileage than planned for future days due to this section of the trail having the most elevation gain. Thankfully, this section is also one of the most beautiful parts of the trail with spectacular views and fall color. The kids’ faces showed the strain of the long uphill climb, but some encouragement that there would soon be a downhill section helped get them to the top. Once at the pinnacle, we whooped and whooshed our way downhill, enjoying the wind in our faces, the golden fields whizzing by, and the knowledge that the hardest section of the trail was behind us.

As we had breakfast at our cabin on day two, we awaited the passing of the hundred or so riders on the annual 114 mile Mickelson Trail Trek which just happened to be the same weekend. By the time we got packed up and ready to ride the 32 miles planned for day two, the first trail trekkers pedaled by from the south on their final day of riding. Heading in the opposite direction from the trekkers, we enjoyed waving and smiling to each person as we passed. We saw young kids and families, mountain bikes and cruisers, riders decked out in colorful cycling jerseys and others in skirts or jeans.

“Mom, did you see that?” exclaimed Flynn, as he pointed to a woman who looked to be in her 80s and was riding a vintage cruiser bike with a wicker basket and leaving a trail of dust in her speedy wake. I shamelessly reminded the kids of this woman’s amazing energy later in the day when they were whining about being too tired to pedal any further.

In a short while we arrived in tiny Rochford, where we visited the Moonshine Gulch Saloon, known for its storied history and eclectic decorations consisting of ball caps and business cards stapled to every inch of the ceiling. We were there too early for their famous burgers, so we ate a snack at the quaint Rochford “Mall.” From there it was several long slow uphills and breezy downhills into Hill City. Once checked into our hotel, we visited Teddy Bear Town, a house packed to the brim with stuffed animals of every type and size from all over the world, most donated by visitors. Many other attractions such as riding the steam-powered 1880 train await families in Hill City.

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On day three we rode 37 miles, made possible by having a special birthday destination along the way – lunch at the Purple Pie Place in Custer, a funky restaurant that offers delicious milkshakes and pies. Also memorable was the view we had of the Crazy Horse Memorial from the trail, and the herd of buffalo we encountered.

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By the time we arrived at our final destination we all had sore bottoms but were proud of our accomplishment. Due to school and sports schedules we had decided not to bike the final leg of the trail to Edgemont. I was surprised that when Sam found out there was more trail left, he wanted to ride it, and I think we would all have done one more day if we had the time.

So, pump up the bike tires and gather up the kids for a family bike adventure on the Mickelson Trail. In an age when our youth are often glued to computer games and television, the experience of being outdoors relying on your own power and perseverance to bike to your next bed is confidence-building and memorable.

When to go:

The Mickelson can be ridden from spring through fall, though summer can be hot, requiring riding early in the morning. We chose mid-September due to cooler temperatures and nice leaf color and it was a perfect time to ride.

Where to stay:

There are campgrounds, cabins and hotels all along the Mickelson Trail. We stayed at the Carsten Cabins at around mile 16 the first night, at the Day’s Inn in Hill City on our second night, and at the Shady Rest Cabins on our final night.

Where to start your ride:

The Mickelson Trail can be ridden in either direction but the trail loses about 1,100 feet in elevation overall when ridden from Deadwood to Edgemont. There are 15 different trailheads to use to customize the length of your trip. If you can’t swing an overnight trip, day trips are also possible. Many shuttle companies can help you get back to your car.

What to bring:

Wide tired bikes such as mountain bikes or comfort/hybrid bikes are needed. Staying in cabins rather than camping reduces the amount of gear you need to bring. Bike racks and panniers are the best bet for carrying gear, since backpacks weigh heavily on backs over the miles. Our panniers carried changes of clothing, warm layers, hats and gloves, rain gear, food and snacks, water, a map and guidebook to the trail, first aid, sunscreen, bug repellant, a camera, and bike repair tools and supplies.

Tips for families:

Your speed and distance each day will depend greatly on the age and riding ability of your children. Be prepared to stop frequently at the many trailside rest stops and attractions, and bring plenty of high energy snacks and water. Make sure you know how to fix a flat tire and have basic bike maintenance skills. Buy the latest edition of the “Trail Guide for the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills, SD” which has a good trail map inside.

Resources:

Trail guidebook with detailed map: http://www.mickelsontrailaffiliates.com/shop

Trail website: http://www.mickelsontrailaffiliates.com/trail-info

Trail map (general overview): http://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/mickelson-trail/docs/mickelson-trail-map.pdf

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That title might seem a little awkward.

Let me explain:

Last December, we announced to our kids that we were taking a family trip to Hawaii. But since this was a big deal, we decided we wouldn’t go with the boring approach of simply wrapping the tickets, so as they were playing with their just-opened presents downstairs, we quickly set up a Hawaiian-themed breakfast.  When we invited them upstairs, it was a little taste of Hawaii.  We quieted them and played a song we wrote to the tune of “Mele Kalikimaka.” We changed the lyrics (“to say Merry Christmas to you”) to “on our trip to Hawaii, Oahu.”

There was no letdown to the hype when we traveled there three months later.

We flew Hawaiian air and were impressed. The prices were among the lowest, the seats were a little roomier than the average airline, and our 9-year-old twin boys probably enjoyed the all-you-can-drink beverage service at the rear of the plane about as much as anything else on the entire trip.

We landed at Hawaii International airport, rented a car, and drove to the North Shore. We liked it so much, we spent most of our time there.  A few recommendations nearby:

Ted’s Bakery. Even if your home base is Waikiki, this is worth a drive to the other side of the island. If you go there in the morning, try some of the huge and delicious pastries.  Stay there through lunch for some of their specialty plates and sandwiches. And don’t leave until you’ve tried a slice of the macadamia nut cream pie or the chocolate haupia (coconut cream) pie. I’ve heard the cakes are amazing, but I couldn’t separate myself from my very unhealthy but wonderfully tasty relationship with the pies.

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Waimea Falls. Waimea means “Valley of the Priests,” and for hundreds of years, this land was lived on and cared for by a priestly line. Approximately ten years ago, it was purchased by a private company who now charges a reasonable fee for patrons to walk on a paved path through beautiful terrain and botanical gardens to a 45-foot waterfall.  Some of our group swam across a small lake to the falls, while others waited on the shore, enjoying the scenery.

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Turtle Beach. Turtle Bay on the North Shore is a well-known resort, and turtle (or “honu”) sightings are a possibility there.  A more sure bet is to the south (near Waimea Bay, 1.5 miles north of Haleiwa) at Laniakea Beach—also known as Turtle Beach.  Nearly every morning, our boys begged us to go see the turtles again, and nearly every morning a turtle or two was laying on the beach.

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Haleiwa Joe’s. Mom and Dad needed a little alone time, so we left the kids for an evening and enjoyed the fare at one of Haleiwa’s finer restaurants—a polished but breezy eatery where “sandy feet are welcome.” We enjoyed the Ka’ena Sunset Salad, coconut shrimp, and New York steak.

North Shore won our hearts, but there are a few must-sees at other locations on the island. Of course, Pearl Harbor, Polynesian Cultural Center, Mormon Temple, Dole Plantation, and Waikiki Beach are premiere attractions for the approximately 5 million annual visitors.  But try these two lesser-known and very cool places:

Lanikai Beach. Not to be confused with Laniakea Beach mentioned above, Lanikai (meaning “heavenly”) Beach is a ½ mile beach east of Waikiki in the town of Kailua. Ranked “one of the best beaches in the world” by U.S. News, Lanikai Beach has virtually no tide and is renowned for its crystal clear water and soft, white sand.  The kids enjoyed swimming, playing volleyball, and building sand castles; Mom and Dad just enjoyed relaxing in their lawn chairs, watching the action.

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Maunawili Falls. Slightly northwest of Waikiki is the Maunawili Valley which hides a 3.2 mile trail more natural than the one in Waimea. Be prepared for a more challenging, potentially muddy experience which culminates in a water hole and waterfall. Wear a pair of sturdy walking shoes.

After a week in paradise, we reluctantly returned home. However, a little paradise is recaptured every time we overhear the kids talking about how much they loved the trip.

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www.waimeavalley.net, www.haleiwajoes.com, www.tedsbakery.com, www.polynesia.com, www.kailuachamber.com/beaches, http://www.portaloha.com/SecretsOfHawaii/Laniakea.htm.

 

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It’s said that timing is everything, and it’s so true when picking a time to visit a destination. Mexico has many festivals throughout the year, but one such is the combination of the Puerto Vallarta’s LGTB May Pride Celebration as it coincides with their Restaurant week, providing many opportunities for both exceptional fun and food.

Puerto Vallarta has long been a friendly environment for the LGTB community and the community coming together to host their fourth annual May Pride Week in 2016 is such an example. Parties and receptions held in and around the town offers the visitor a chance to see venues, they might not know exists.  There is a structured bar crawl (http://gayvallartabarhopping.com) where first time Puerto Vallarta visitors can easily partake of the festivities with a guide, and be in the right venue for special events.

The high mountain lodge at Villa Savana (www.villasavana.com) supplies a panoramic view of the town and beach, and quaint views of the houses of local citizens. The white washed accommodation, offers an historic character to the complex of pool and vista filled terrace.  At such a reception you might be treated to the guitar stylings of Eduardo Leon, and take home his CD for remembering the intoxicating experience again and again.

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An upscale and visually stunning restaurant is the Café de Artistes (www.cafedesartistes.com) There you can have a Chilean wine with a smoked “Mahi Mahi”, a delicate roasted sea bass filet over a confit turnip perfumed with anise, spinach and fine herb sauce, the best Short Rib and Beef Petals duo with creamy chipolte chili sauce and topped off with a desert of “guanaban” sorbet and fried “bunuelos”. All were presented artistically and at times the visual presentation out shinned the taste.

A family owned and indigenous restaurant is the humble and quaint, El Arrayan (http://elarrayan.com.mx/en/) located in the middle of old town. Here the walls are filled with displays of ingenious art presiding over a table of authentic local tastes.

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In operation for fifteen years, the Banderas Tapas (http://barcelonatapas.net/) offers a variety of small dishes fusing traditional tastes with other cultures accompanying wonderful sunset views. A tasting menu is available. The amendable bar tender can prepare exotic cocktails or fill your own personal Martini requests. With gourmet food in an open air vista filled venue and attentive service, who could ask for more?

A true delight is the food and ambiance of the ocean side setting of the Sapphire Beach Club (http://sapphire.mx ), which also hosts accommodations and a fresh water pool, overlooking the palapas of the beach, complete with roaming sellers of local goods.

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Your brunch at the Villa Mercedes (www.hotelvillamercedes.com ) might find a buffet of delights, by a pool and shaded lounge area, adjacent to a more formal restaurant and bar. You might relax here, or stay at this boutique hotel, before venturing over to the nearby Mantamar Beach Club (http://en.mantamarvallarta.com/. They supply food, drink, entertainment, and an expansive pool with cabanas, changing rooms and an upstairs area for viewing the pool and the expansive Puerto Vallarta Beach. You can spend an entire day there soaking up the festival culture with locals and out of town party goers.

For all of the above dining venues be sure to make arrangements before arriving to double check their availability.

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Your home base might be the modern Casa Magna Marriott (http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/pvrmx-casamagna-marriott-puerto-vallarta-resort-and-spa/) in the hotel zone away from the historic downtown, or stay a short distance away at the all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel Vallarta (http://www.hrhvallarta.com/)   Enjoy the VIP section of the beach with wait staff and a special VIP menu, or stroll around the pool areas with cocktail in hand, or relax in the shade, or take in the offerings of their Spa, with salon treatments or a massage, and don’t forget to sample several of their restaurants.

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Despite all the shopping and dining opportunities in Puerto Vallarta proper, it’s easy to recommend a coastal sail along Banderas Bay  with  Mike’s fishing and charter tours ( http://pvmikesfishing.com/ , where with party music and refreshments gives you a chance to feel as if you are on a private yacht. This get a way sail, to a coast beach near of the Marietta’s Islands is where you might enjoy snorkeling. This relaxing day experience is not to be overlooked. Don’t forget your sunscreen!

Any time is a good time to experience the safe and tourist friendly resort town of Puerto Vallarta. A sunset stroll along the popular malecon with its iconic Puerto Vallarta Sea horse sculpture is a must. More information can be obtained at:  www.visitpuertovallarta.com.

Their bodies were sleek and graceful, the skin soft to the touch, their demeanor welcoming even if a bit skeptical. Still, they were more used to this than I was. But I spread my arms out as instructed and flapped them in the water. Romeo and Paski, two of my dolphin snorkeling companions, then swam under my outstretched limbs, and we laid back into the water as though sunbathing. Then we went back to free swim.
Such is one of the many highlights at the Dolphin Academy, one of several up-front-and-personal animal encounters available at the Sea Aquarium on the Caribbean island of Curacao.
Now I don’t usually like watching animals perform tricks that are alien to their DNA for the amusement of tourists, but at the Dolphin Academy, the residents are treated with such loving care, I swam alongside them with minimal guilt. According to trainer Yvette, the dolphins are the first priority. “They are on a very light work schedule and every day, it varies. Like humans, they react better when their life is not all that predictable. And if for any reason they don’t want to perform -– perhaps they’re preoccupied with a personal family situation (I didn’t pursue that) -– the program is called off.” As if on cue, a participant related a past experience in which Dolphins used to give rides to people holding on to their fins. Nope, not any more — it was determined that it was too damaging to their dorsal fins and the dolphins didn’t like it so it was stopped years ago. I nodded; point well taken…one point for the dolphins.
Prior to the snorkel, Yvette instructed us on how to proceed: be patient; let them come to you; stroke them along their flanks. She taught us how to encourage the dolphin to come alongside and then free dive in unison. Romeo and I shared a number of shallow dives together and in parting he gave me a kiss. Okay, so he did it because he got a fish but still I thought he was actually smiling at me at the time.

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Dafne Greeven, a dive instructor from The Hague, Netherlands, said she had seen dolphin in the ocean, but had never interacted with them. “Most animal encounters are much more commercial,” she observed. “Snorkeling with them was a very special, personal experience. It was wonderful to see how well they treat the dolphins here and encourage us to be relaxed so that the dolphins will be.”
And it was only the start of my very personal connection with sea life in Curacao. My next encounter took me even further underwater. I’ve been snorkeling before — but never in the past did the fish swarm to me rather than my having to swim out to them. But then again I don’t usually carry a supply of squiggly little sardines with me when I go, while at the same time making meaningful eye contact. Well, meaningful to me anyway.

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But at the Animal Encounters experience getting up close and personal with a variety of denizens of the deep is the whole purpose. So there I was co-mingling with tarpon, common snook, French grunts, permit fish, horse-eyed jack and so many sting rays that I felt covered most of the time by a soft lightweight blanket caressing my body — only this blanket wanted to be fed fish which it ate with its underbelly.

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I wasn’t really surprised to find the huge loggerhead turtles and sharks behind a Plexiglas shield and fed through small holes in the glass. Still, the shark didn’t look any less menacing for being behind protective covering. I carefully followed the instructions on when to feed them directly and when to take better care of my fingers. There’s not always a second chance to do that with a shark…
Herbie, the 400-pound goliath grouper who has been king of the hill here for over 30 years pretty much just observed the proceedings. No one messes with Herbie.
Ah so many fish, so little time — I fed as many as I could in the 35 minute feeding frenzy and came away with a new respect for the difference between just snorkeling — and actually swimming with the fishes…
Back on land, my next animal rendezvous was of a more playful nature. I got to meet and greet Snapper, the sea lion. I learned the difference between sea lions and seals and watched Snapper do a seal imitation as he flopped along on his belly. Sea lions are much more genteel when they move — they walk on all fours. Using flippers, of course, but still… Snapper had a bit to say during our tete-a-tete but his vocalization unfortunately resembled a very loud, deep belch that tended to continue long after it was socially acceptable to do so. But still he was very cute -– and, like Romeo, very affectionate. Yup, I got another kiss. Between the two, I got more action that weekend than I remember occurring at the height of my dating career.

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A visit to a nearby ostrich farm left me less enamored with animals in captivity. I found it a little sad — not to mention ironic — that they were pushing ostrich meat in the restaurant because it’s low in cholesterol; and even more disturbed to discover that most of the young end up on the menu. “Slaughtered” babes reincarnated as wraps, croquettes and burgers. We couldn’t convince our guide Alexander to maybe find some more euphemistic term to describe their sad demise….

Admittedly, this was one of those experiences that actually turn out to be more interesting than you expect. First, we learned a lot. Ostriches have no teeth so they can’t bite but they can kick like crazy and run at 50 miles an hour. The farm — you know — the one that feeds baby ostriches to its customers — apparently tricks the birds into laying more than they ordinarily would by stealing the eggs before they are hatched. Apparently you end up with a lot of extra omelets that way!
But they are fascinating bird to watch. They walk regally, head held high with a haughty look that conveys a “don’t mess with me” demeanor, but with a small pointy little face that can’t help but elicit a smile.
I liked them — I did — but I couldn’t get beyond the fact that people were actually riding the poor birds, which looked about the last thing the ostrich wanted to happen. Two guys on either side hold the ostrich’s wings to keep him from running away with his passenger, who despite the cascading giggles looked absolutely terrified. Alexander basically said that very few people ever really opt for another ride…
Feeding them, on the other hand, felt a lot more charitable. With my back to the outside of the fence and holding a feed bucket in front of me, two birds stretched their necks around me and pecked like crazy at the pellets. I felt like a large feathery cape had suddenly become alive and had gone into a feeding frenzy. I longed to be back among the fishes. More dainty eaters, they.
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Let’s just say ostriches are not nearly as endearing as dolphins and sea lions. And while I chose not to partake of their meat in the restaurant, I did feel a little guilty at lunch following the underwater swim eating a fried fish sandwich.
And now an animal story for the future based on a rare occurrence this past August 2015 at the Santa Barbara Resort. Turtle hatching!!! Turtles rarely nest on a busy hotel beach, especially one where their access to the ocean is impeded. But nest they did for the first time ever — and once tracks were spotted the Sea Turtle Conservation Agency set up precautions. The resort put a team together that made sure the nest was protected during the incubation of the eggs. They even put together a turtle watch, and under their eager eyes, at least 80 little hawksbill turtles, a critically endangered species, made it safely to their new home in the water. The good news for avid turtle watchers everywhere — as well as the resort — is that they are expected back again next August.
There are, of course, other more mundane opportunities to interact with animals on the island, in addition to the excellent diving and snorkeling for which the island is known. These include horseback riding, a butterfly farm, viewing bats hanging out in caves, lots of birds and lizards, and if so tempted, a visit to Jaanchie Restaurant. Here an iguana, a relative of whom I had just seen scurrying across my path on a hike, showed up instead in a stew. According to chef and owner, Jaanchie, it may “taste like chicken but it acts like Viagra.” Ha! At least the iguana had more to recommend it than the ostrich meat. For more information, visit www.royalseaquariumresort.com/curacao-sea-aquarium.asp; ostriches, curacaoostrichfarm.com/?lang=en; turtle hatching, www.santabarbararesortcuracao.com.

The Channel Islands Maritime Museum  at the Oxnard Harbor is a Must-See, not only for sea-farers and boat people but for history and art buffs as well.  This museum, until a few years ago, was crowded into a small space with the many exhibits cramped together. Now the wonderful museum has taken over a large property, which was formerly a restaurant right on the water front at the harbor with plenty of space to display the large collection of maritime paintings from European masters and the myriad of large, handmade ship models. Many of these are from the priceless collection of the Nelson Trust, graciously loaned to the museum for care and display.  I had expected just to see quickly a collection of boats, but what a joy to spend the afternoon with the excellent docent Mark Frees who shared his wealth of knowledge of each painting, including the background of the artist, the ship depicted, and the history of that ship’s time.  Every painting is breath-takingly beautiful with meticulous details, which are historic records of these ships from the 1500’s to the 21st Century.

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The fascinatingly intricate wood models are also part of the Harry Nelson collection and most were created by Edward Marple, world-renowned as one of the very best ship model craftsmen. Two models were from kits, but the other scores were crafted by hand from detailed architectural drawings of each of the historic ships. The minute details, from oars to guns, to sails, to riggings, to emblems and every part of the ship were possible because Marple was a dental technician and had access to fine tools of the trade and used them for the delicate carving.  We spent hours completely fascinated by all the amazing art and history of the world’s greatest ships, which were vital parts of the discoveries and wars ofhistory.  At one point, while we were admiring the gorgeous paintings, I glanced at what I thought at first was a giant and realistic painting and realized I was looking out the wall of windows at the beautiful boats in the adjacent harbor. Such a perfect place for this museum!5   out museum window

Upstairs are more ship models and paintings, one of which was a recent shipwreck near Oxnard. The ship’s wheel and other brass items are on exhibit here. We also saw the jaw bones and baleens of a whale displayed. In one cabinet is a collection of ships in bottles.  Bob Little teaches classes here periodically, helping anyone who is interested to create their own ship-in-a-bottle. You can make reservations for his classes by calling 1 805 984 6260.

Oxnard is a town we fell in love with the first time we were here and have returned to as frequently as possible. With wide streets, beautiful stucco architecture and orange tile roofs, palm trees all along the streets and lovely neighborhoods, the city is clean and has a very low crime rate, thanks to careful leaders and an outstanding citizens’ watch program. The downtown plaza has some great eateries, restaurants, shops, and really fun festivals. The third weekend in May hosts the Strawberry Festival. This area of California is famous for strawberries, vegetables, and many of the flowers which supply florists and grocery stores all over the USA.

Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar overlooking the sunny,  Oxnard Harbor Marina. The restaurant has a full service bar, and on Wet Wednesday evenings has an unusual twist on dining out:

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The owners of Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar have invited 10 food trucks to set up in the parking lot on Wednesday nights, so guests can purchase their choice of truck foods. Then they are invited to bring these meals to the Waterside Patio and order drinks, hors d’oeuvres and anything else they wish to eat.  Chef Frank Peralta also has created a quite enticing experience for Sunday brunch. He goes early to the local Farmer’s Market and selects all he needs to create a different array of meals from delectably fresh ingredients, different each week and ready to surprise and delight guests from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

During the California Strawberry Festival everyone has fun saluting the many growers who make all this possible. And just-picked strawberries are yummy in an array of different creations that will delight your taste buds! Everyone gets into the spirit of springtime with this joyous festival.

6     oxnard ca farming

In July is the Salsa Festival with more fun for all ages.  The festival is free and you can eat all the salsa and chips you desire to try for $5 at the Salsa Tent. Salsa is not just tomatoes and peppers.  You cannot imagine how many different ways these experienced local culinary artists and growers have devised to tickle you palate with their mixtures of the locally grown specialties.  There is a contest for the best!  Also a really fun event during the festival is Dancing With The Local Stars.  Mimicking the TV Show six professionals teach six local favorite “stars” to dance, and they have so much fun sharing their performance for the townspeople and tourists.  Six bands are playing music constantly on the Plaza, and the Kids’ Corner has lots of fun activities.  There is an International Food Center also.

In December the local Festival which draws attention from everyone is the Parade of Lighted Boats. Oxnard Harbor is filled with magical light, and appreciative spectators celebrate the season together.  Why not take a gondola ride around the harbor yourself and be serenaded! See all the things you can enjoy in Oxnard and make our plans through Oxnard Convention & Visitors Bureau at

1-800-2-Oxnard; www.visitoxnard.com . Come to Oxnard any time of year, and you will want to stay permanently! We wish we could!

1   emb suites  beach

When visiting Los Angeles area we love staying in Oxnard about 30 minutes out of the huge Los Angeles rush . We enjoy staying at Embassy Suites by Hilton Mandalay Beach Hotel and Resort on the beautiful golden beach coast. It is so pleasant to dine conveniently nearby.

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Our grandson, Sam, was turning ten. My wife and I decided that a good way to entice him away from home was to tell him we were going to take him to Circus, Circus in Reno. It worked!  We picked him up in Chico, CA and headed north for a scenic three hour drive going through the infamous Donner Pass. About 30 minutes into the ride, Sam looked out the window and said, “This is just what I pictured.”  That’s what I call a good start.

What to Do

Kimmie Candy June

You will spend time (most likely, lots of it) at the Midway of Fun at Circus, Circus. The arcade, a hubbub of sounds and flashing lights, features over 125 games. Our favorite was Chicken in a Pot.  A player catapults a rubber chicken into pots that rotate slowly by.  It’s hilarious and Sam was quite good at it.  Starting at 11 AM, free acts featuring aerialists, jugglers, magicians, clowns and other performers appear on stage. Don’t miss the highly entertaining JR John’s “Doggone Silly” show (starring all rescue dogs). They’ve been performing at Circus, Circus for eight years, plus airtime on national TV.

Circus, Circus’ sister property, Eldorado, was featuring the kid appropriate live musical Footloose in their showroom. It was first rate entertainment with an energetic cast. There are no bad seats and an easy walk via an indoor promenade connecting both resorts.

JR John's Doggone Silly June

Don’t miss the Kimmie Candy Factory’s tour. It begins with a film explaining the process of growing and harvesting cocoa beans, then a guided walk through the production facilities (6.5 tons are produced daily!), ending at the retail shop for samples. Candies that don’t pass inspection for size or are off-color are sold at a discount and packaged as “Oops Tubes.”  Logon to www.kimmiecandy.com for information.

Grand Sierra Resort’s 50-lane bowling center (to my relief, automatic scoring) is loads of fun. There’s a go-kart track but, unfortunately, Sam wasn’t old enough to drive. While there, we enjoyed the new menu at the Grand Cafe. (www.grandsierraresort.com).

Animal Ark June

The Animal Ark Wildlife Sanctuary is located 30 minutes north of Reno. It provides a safe haven for injured and abandoned wildlife. We followed a one mile trail past various enclosures watching raptors, bears, a puma, coyotes, wolves and a lynx. Knowledgeable docents were available for questions and commentary.  It’s an impressive educational center and thousands of school children visit each year. Check the schedule for hours and feeding times at www.animalark.org.

Scheel’s (www.scheels.com) is the world’s largest sporting goods store. There are over 85 specialty departments, a restaurant and fudge shop, two 16,000 gallon aquariums, an indoor Ferris Wheel, roller ball, a 5 Sport Simulator, shooting gallery and lots more.

Wild Island, www.wildisland.com, is aptly named. There’s a 3-D theater, miniature golf, laser mazes, billiards and an arcade with 100 games. We visited during the off-season so the waterpark was closed, but Sam zoomed around the go-kart track, loving every minute.

National Auto Museum

The National Auto Museum, www.automuseum.org, also known as The Harrah Collection, features more than 200 classic cars. It is considered to be among America’s greatest auto museums.  This grandfather and grandson couldn’t have imagined a better one!

Food

Deli Curcus June

One evening we walked over to the Nugget for dinner at Gilley’s; good ribs, great music and our grandson loved watching the mechanical bull riding (for adults). Since so many of the Circus, Circus guests are kids, the restaurants do a super job catering to their tastes. We enjoyed breakfasts at the Main Street Deli and Americana Cafe (as well as burgers and shakes at lunch) and Mexican food at Dos Geckos; all at affordable prices.

For resort information and reservations go to www.circusreno.com.

Thanks to the various websites for information, photos, etc.

 

Do you think, as we did, that NASA Space Program was pretty much a thing of the past and that private companies are only trying to make money off of the excitement, created years ago and in current movies, television, and books, by tempting multi-millionaires to pay exorbitant prices to take a ride into the vast unknown of the only frontier left?  Well, we were so mistaken.  NASA is alive and well and making great advances toward human beings traveling to and from and being able to live for a year and perhaps longer on Mars! And the time is only about three years away before the first steps toward that goal will be taken. The enormous Saturn V rocket, which will launch the Orion Space Ship on that venture, is what we learned all about and actually saw on our recent visit to Kennedy Space Center!  It was one of the most amazingly exciting learning and fun days we have ever spent. This is a GREAT trip of a lifetime.

2   Kennedy Space Center astronaut

Kennedy Space Center is built for families to be entertained through learning.  Each of the experiences provided at the different buildings is wonder-filled and wonder-full!  Located about an hour from Orlando’s Disney World, the center is just as enjoyable in a different way.  When you are in Florida a full day (or more) at Kennedy Center on Cape Canaveral is a MUST!  The drive out along the causeway is beautiful, as Atlantic waters are on each side of the highway, and Kennedy Space Center is surrounded by a natural wildlife preserve, so be on the lookout for hundreds of species of birds and for alligators and other wildlife.

If you visited Kennedy Space Center years ago, this is a MUST to visit again, as enormous strides in space exploration and inventions occur every day, and new exhibits here are on-going and dynamic. We recommend arriving at 8:30 A.M. to get the best parking spots at the huge parking lot. Purchase tickets on-line ahead or as you arrive. KSC is open every day year-round; gates open at 9 a.m.  Closing time is about 6 p.m. depending on time of the year.

3  rocket garden small file

At the Rocket Garden we learned about all the various rockets since the inception of our USA Space Age in the 1960’s and many of these giants ended their use in this beautiful garden for us to see and enjoy. Next we took the comfortable, narrated bus ride a few miles beyond the Center to see the actual place where the rockets are built, and we were lucky enough to get a glimpse at the Saturn V because one of the huge doors of the building was open. We saw the authentic launch pads used for sending up previous space ships. And to our surprise we learned that unmanned rockets are being launched frequently for testing, for sending up satellites, and trips to the International Space Station and Hubble Telescope.  We missed seeing the most recent launch by only a few weeks.

4   launch pad small file

When rockets go up we have seen the “smoke” billowing out and I always felt concern about this hazard for people’s lungs, but we learned it is not smoke but steam created by the enormous water tanks spilling water on the ground at the moments of ignition. This is not to put out the fires we see beneath the rocket but to cushion the enormous sound emitted by the rocket launch, which is so powerful it would literally stop the heart of anyone nearby. (Astronauts are on top of and leaving the sound behind, so it does not harm them). This sound is the reason viewers at a launch must see it from three miles away at the safe viewing area.

5 atlantis small file

There are many buildings in which we saw actual retired rockets and space modules. We saw the life-sized model of the Saturn V and its modules which will accommodate four astronauts who will live in it on the six-month trip to Mars. It will take all their provisions and necessities, including tools, for a full year of the most comfortable existence possible there and for the six month return trip! The film showed the twelve years of scientists and engineers imagining and developing the vast number of necessities for life and making them small and lightweight enough to be carried and used in such tiny space and in zero gravity. We learned that thousands of the items we use in everyday life were created by NASA geniuses for other space expeditions. These items include microwaves, cell phones, GPS, long-range communications, freeze-dried foods, solar panels, artificial limbs, ski boots, fire- fighting equipment, Teflon, UV glasses, Velcro, memory foam, and so much more, which you can find here.

I-MAX Films showing astronauts at work in zero gravity were fascinating, and we got to experience some of their difficulties in the hands-on exhibits. We squeezed into the actual seat of one space module; saw the toilet system explained and learned how an astronaut has to go to the bathroom in zero gravity. We saw actual astronauts in outer space cook and eat their food, which was humorous with food floating around in front of them.

There are computers set for a visitor of any age to stand in a specific place and experience the difficulty of an astronaut’s training. By moving my hand around in the air I tried to use the on-screen tool to repair a screw in zero gravity. It let us know the difficulty of doing this for an astronaut floating around and in gloves equal to us wearing five pairs of earthly gloves. There are many other similar experiments to try to gain understanding and appreciation for those who dedicate their lives to courageous careers as astronauts. These simulated tasks were amazingly difficult and nearly impossible but fun for people of any age to try.

6  in capsule

There is a fascinating and fact-filled exhibit and film which entices young people to choose the path to a career as an astronaut. NASA needs engineers, physicists, computer experts, chemists, lawyers, accountants, and many other well educated and dedicated young men and women. Look at the NASA career opportunities and requirements here.  Many of the retired scientist, technicians, and volunteer workers are at Kennedy Space Center to answer any questions about career choices or about their experience building rockets, space ships, and shuttles.  One live astronaut is there each day to give a talk, to have a face to face encounter and answer questions, and you can even purchase tickets to have lunch with him or her.

We are glad we chose to stay in our RV at the quiet KOA in Titusville beneath giant hardwood trees with scenic Spanish moss trailing down. It is only a half-hour away from Kennedy Space Center and from the Merit Island National Seashore and Playaland Beach. And if you do not have camping equipment you can rent one of their excellent cabins or deluxe cabins.

We had made reservations for the boat trips from the Everglades National Park and we had paid in advance the steep price for The Mangroves boat trip and on the next day the 10,000 Islands Boat Trip. We knew there were no refunds or cancellations, no matter the reason.  If you are staying in the Everglades National Park Flamingo campground check your map because we made boat reservations thinking they were near the campground. We were not aware that the ones listed on the National Park website which we purchased are at the North Entrance to the Everglades at Everglades City, about a three-hour drive from the Flamingo campground, at the bottom of the park.  However, there are other boat trips you can arrange out of Homestead, or near Flamingo RV Camp in south of the Everglades. Just be careful when booking from the National Park site lists.  We found out our trips were from Everglades City and could not be changed, so we changed our camping reservations.

We highly recommend taking both boat tours: Mangroves and 10,000 Islands and also the local air-boat tours. Each is a different and unique tour. If you wish to stay in a campground nearby there are several in Chokoloskee Island or Everglades City. The 10,000 Islands tour boats hold so many and go so frequently each day that you can buy those tickets on the spot, but the Mangroves tour holds only 6 passengers and these tickets, the true Everglades experience, should be purchased ahead of time because they go in any weather except severe lightning and hurricanes.

2  white pelicans flock

From the dock at the National Park Museum/Office we took the 10,000 Islands Tour in pouring rain, but we enjoyed it. The overhead cover is for sun protection and does little for rain, since it blows in. The 90 minute ride is on an outboard motor boat which holds 49 passengers and goes about seven and a half miles out among the many, many mangroves small islands all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. We saw various birds braving the downpour and numerous dolphins playfully jumping up into the raindrops. It was fun, especially seeing the huge flock of white pelicans on the sandbar, huddling together with heads tucked.

At the Everglades City National Park Museum and Visitor Center we arrived 45 minutes early for our first Mangroves Boat tour. It was a good thing because, although we were told to go to the dock at the Observation Tower, there were no signs there and the tower office was closed. We asked the nearby store and restaurant, but it was still confusing to find the correct dock with many boardwalks to get through the dense mangrove forest to the water.  Finally, we saw the boat arriving.

3  entering mangrove tunnels

The comfortable boat has only 6 individual and padded seats. The motor can travel in low tide in only three inches of water if it attains enough speed to lift the motor above the muddy bottom. So the boat speed varies due to tides and whether in large open waters or in the very narrow canal tunnels, which are natural and created by the mangroves. David was an excellent tour guide, very considerate in taking photos of tourists at particularly good places, and able to answer all our questions. We cannot imagine how these captains keep from getting lost in the maze of mangroves surrounding the protected waters of the National Park.  Sometimes they have to rescue lost tourists who cannot find their way back in rented kayaks and canoes.

4  white ibis in red mangrove roots

David slowed or stopped the boat to identify and tell the habits of each of the different birds we saw in both the Turner River and within the National Park waterways. This is a birders’ paradise with hundreds of different species either living here or migrating through. He knew so much about each one and gave us ways to identify them in flight or in trees. This made the trip so interesting. We learned much about the mangrove jungles:  Three of the world’s 50 species of mangroves live here. The black mangroves are identified by the straight up trunks and black bark. Their roots, called snorkels, grow straight upward out of the water like thousands of spikes. The white mangroves also grow straight and tall with roots like normal trees, which go into the ground and are not exposed.  The red mangroves are the ones whose strange and eerie roots create the natural tunnels. The roots grow downward like vines from the upper parts of the trunk, and when they reach water they appear to make the tree walk. The lower roots grow downward like long clusters of arms balancing the tree and firmly grounding it to the soil.  These make the thousands of red mangroves begin to bend over and create weird tunnels above natural brackish water channels.

The 90 minute trip through these mangrove tunnels is fascinating! Although there are thousands of mosquitoes year-round, they only bothered us when the boat stopped for photos or narration. But repellent and sun protection are absolutely necessary. The quiet outboard motor boats (instead of noisy air-boats) on these tours by private concessionaires are the only ones sponsored by the National Park. The noise pollution of the air-boats is considered to be detrimental to the wildlife, and since we heard many of them at our RV Park we know the noise is very loud, even a fairly long way away.

5 gator at everglades

We saw a very large American alligator lying placidly in the only sunny spot on this cloudy day. The only other land mammals which live in this jungle are the nocturnal bobcats, “tide-turnal” raccoons (come out at low tide), and mangrove squirrel. The Everglades are the only place where both American alligators, who live in fresh or brackish water, and the American crocodiles, which live in salt or brackish water, share their habitat peacefully. There are many kinds of lizards, spiders, snakes, and crabs.

6  stone crab

This is the stone crab capital of the world. To eat these delicious offerings is environmentally friendly because the crabbers only remove the leg with the largest claw from the stone crab and return the crab to the water. Within a short time the crab grows another claw leg and the next year the largest crab claw leg is harvested. The crabs can live healthy for many years going through this process of re-growth. I was so relieved to know no animal had sacrificed its life for us when we enjoyed our first delicious stone crab at the restaurant known as the local best of Everglades City: City Seafood. This is a modest establishment that serves terrific homemade seafood meals. You can select alligator, conch, stone crab, frog legs, and the other traditional fruits of the sea like scallops, shrimp, other crabs, many fish, all caught locally and served fresh from the day’s catch.  Delicious!! We highly recommend this restaurant!