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Spooky Florida Research Trip

The haunted Castillo in St. Augustine Florida


Day One
I do NOT like getting up at 4 am. But since my flight was at 7 am, I was up and at ‘em, and out the door asap. Getting through the airport was easy at that time of day, but by the time the flight set down in Jacksonville at 9:30 am, I was feeling pretty tired. Which was why I kept telling folks I was headed to San Antonio (which is in Texas) instead of Saint Augustine! I seriously needed some lunch, which I got on my way to Saint Augustine.

Ghostly orbs of light were forming as we got on line to tour the Old Jail in St. Augustine, Florida
Ghostly orbs were forming as we got on line to tour the Old Jail

By 1 pm, I had eaten, parked the car (after a 20 mile detour since I missed the exit to Saint Augustine – probably still looking for the sign to say San Antonio!!), and was aboard the trolley, shivering in the 30 degree temperatures as I took the tour of old town, which visited all the major tourist spots in Saint Augustine. Whew! Whatever happened to sunny, warm Florida? It was exactly the same as not-so-sunny and not warm at all New York! Still, the tour was fun. I rode the trolley halfway around the circuit and then got out and spent about an hour in the Castillo, where two lovers were buried alive – bricked up in the wall, supposedly by her jealous husband. Spooky indeed.

Then I hopped back aboard the trolley and headed to the mythical Fountain of Youth, where the archeologists have located the stone cross that Ponce de Leon had laid into the ground like a huge arrow, pointing toward the spring he called the Fountain of Youth. They found an old salt cellar made of silver buried by the cross – which was about fifteen feet long and six across – and inside was an old Spanish parchment which was an affidavit declaring that this cross had been laid on this land by Ponce de Leon in 1513. Amazing. After that, I had a couple of drinks from the Fountain of Youth (you never know!), photographed a couple of white peacocks who were strolling the lovely grounds, and then headed back to the trolley.

After a visit to the old Jail, the trolley took me back to the parking lot, and I drove out to the lighthouse and climbed 220 stairs to the top. I still get a little freaked out by those stairs, since they are open and you can see right through them. Although freakier still were the pictures of one of the fellows admiring the view from the top had taken with his cell phone when he was inside the tower, which showed a shadow-ghost of a little girl. You could see the railing right through her dark, shadowy body, and her eyes glowed. Oh-boy!!

Then I nipped over to Gator World and had a wonderful time snapping pictures of big gators and small, until my battery ran out in the cold. I took this as a signal that it was time to depart, and headed to my hotel for a rest and dinner before coming back into old town for a Ghost Tour. The trolley took us around the town while a costumed actress told us all the local ghost stories. We ended up at the haunted jail, which I photographed while we listened to an actor who pretended to be one of the inmates. I could sense as soon as I stepped inside that the building was haunted. I felt the presence of several ghosts as we walked through the bottom floor, and nearly every photo I took had ghost orbs in it! Two of the pictures had faces as well. Very creepy. I had a hard time getting to sleep that night, in spite of the early morning.

Day Two

My second day in Saint Augustine was much more relaxed than my first, though it was still icy cold. I checked out of my hotel and spent a leisurely hour photographing the local church and garden that were created in celebration of the first landing of Ponce de Leon. There was an absolutely lovely little chapel on the grounds perfect for picture taking. I spent quite a bit of time there, just absorbing the spiritual peace of the place, which was a nice change after the spookiness of the Old Jail and Ghost tour of last night.

Church and garden celebrate first landing of Ponce de Leon

Next, I headed to the Welcome Center to park my car and strolled through the cold and misty rain first past the haunted cemetery and old Gate, and then down the old street with the first school, until I reached Flagler College. I went in the main entrance to look at the rotunda and the Tiffany windows. Then I walked down the street until I reached the magnificent Presbyterian Church, which I photographed inside and out. By this time, my feet were sore, and so I found a little pub called Scarlett O’Hara’s with great food, and spent a relaxing hour there before walking back to the Welcome Center to retrieve my car and head south to Orlando with its old folktale of a ghost baby, and of course, a day at Disney.

After exploring spooky spots in Orlando, I headed to Lake Buena Vista, and settled into my resort. Then I strolled along the boardwalk and causeway until I reached Epcot. I wandered through the World Showcase until I reached Germany, where I got in to dinner after a short wait. They seat you at community tables in this pavilion, so I sat with three brothers who were visiting Epcot for the day, and we chatted and ate dinner and enjoyed the live band. It was fun. It was absolutely freezing when I headed back out to the World Showcase, and I crouched by one of the live torches they set up around the lagoon as part of the fireworks display. I only had my little point and shoot camera with me, but I did my best to photograph the amazing fireworks show. Then I walked back to my hotel for an early night. Lots to do tomorrow!

Day Three
As soon as I woke up on another frosty Florida morning, I knew I wanted to go to Animal Kingdom. And that’s just what I did. I took the bus to Animal Kingdom and spent many blissful (but freezing cold) hours shooting pictures of the birds, which were taking full advantage of the cold which kept the mammals indoors, to sneak food and play in all the spots which normally were not accessible to them.

The only furry creatures that seemed to enjoy the cold were the tigers, which were very active in their exhibit. The safari tour was fun, but fewer animals were about. My favorite part of the day was the rollercoaster ride on Mount Everest. Woo-hoo! It was so much fun I did it twice in a row! I also got called up on stage during the Bird exhibition in Asia, and took pictures while a huge vulture flew right over my head. The other girl who was chosen shrieked and ducked, but I just kept shooting. After living with three birds for ten years, I was used to things whizzing around my head.

Haunted Shell Mound near Crystal River
Haunted Shell Mound near Crystal River

I spent an afternoon exploring Magic Kingdom before heading back to my resort to change for dinner, which I had in France at the Chef de France restaurant. It was tres bien! Then I watched the fireworks show for the second night in a row – this time with my SLR, which took fantastic pictures until that battery ran out. Hard to keep the life in these batteries when it’s so cold. Ah well.

Day Four

Said goodbye to Disney this morning and headed right out for Crystal River. Crystal River was only a couple of hours north and west, so I got there by lunch time. I made my way to the Archeological state park and wandered through the haunted shell mounds for about an hour, climbing up the temple mound and wandering through the Spanish-moss strewn trees to see two steles, one carved with an ancient face. It was fascinating. I even had a lovely talk with a state policeman who took in the park as part of his patrol. And it was much warmer today. I only needed a light jacket, and not so many layers. Good deal. Maybe the cold snap was breaking.

Next, I checked into my hotel and spoke briefly to the fellows at the dive shop, who recommended the Homosass Wildlife Park as a great place to spend the afternoon, so I headed down there as soon as we finished talking. I arrived in time to catch the 3:30 pm manatee feeding, and then spent the next few hours wandering the exhibits, laughing at the antics of the animals and birds that lived there. Then I headed back to Crystal River to have dinner at Cody’s, as recommended by the guys at the dive shop. Great steaks, and my server was a friendly resident who told me all the local hangouts and wrote out directions for me in case I wanted to visit any of them during my stay.

Day Five
I was up at 6 am today, ready and raring to go in spite of the 30 degree temperature. The mist was rising from the river along with the sun. I grabbed my Manatee watching gear and spent fifteen minutes taking photos of the docks (still slippery with frost), the boats and all the robins wheeling and darting, bathing, feeding, and calling out to one another. An osprey flew overhead, along with several cormorants. It was lovely. I spent the morning on a wildlife-viewing tour on the river. It was freezing cold, but I loved seeing all manatees, birds and other critters in their home environment. Then I headed down to the Everglades, which are reputedly haunted by the tragic ghosts of the failed Flight 401.

Day Six

Great blue heron flying over the Everglades
Great blue heron flying over the Everglades

Warm weather at last. I didn’t need a coat at all today, and even wore a short-sleeved shirt. I’m not ready for shorts yet, but the day may come!! My parents arrived in Florida yesterday and they joined me this morning as I headed up to Shark Valley today. Mom needed to stop once, so we pulled off at one of the Airboat places run by the Miccosukee tribe, and ended up having a fantastic ride on one of the air boats, out to a recreated village on one of the islands amid the vastness of the grasslands. I was amazed that our guide could find his way through the broad sweep of the Everglades – I was lost almost at once!! Our airboat broke down just as we reached the village, so I got some extra time to explore the nature trail and recreated villages. Due to her arthritis, Mom decided to stay on the boat. However, it soon became apparent that we needed to switch boats, so a bright yellow job came rushing into the village, and we all moved over to that boat for the return trip.

The airboats just skim right on top of the water – right over the grass! Sometimes they followed the watery pathways, and sometimes they plowed through the sawgrass to make their own! Amazing. And they were so light that even on the hard, skidding turns, I didn’t lose balance or need to clutch the rail. The only downside was the noise. The girl in the shop gave everyone cotton balls to put in their ears to block the sound, and we needed them!!

Next, we headed to Shark Valley, where we signed up for the 2 pm tram tour. We got snacks from Vending for lunch, and I spent the next hour or so wandering the roads and hiking paths, taking pictures. We saw dead fish everywhere. They’d been killed by the cold snap, and an abundance of birds were having a feast. An hour wasn’t enough time to take photos of everything I wanted to see! I didn’t even make it to the second hiking trail before I had to turn back to make the tram tour. The loop road is 15 miles total, so the only real options were to rent bikes or take the tram. If I’d been alone, I would have rented the bike for a couple of hours and then taken the tram. But since Mom was along, we did the tram. It was very informative, though not great for taking photos. We stopped at the observation tower on the far end, and the scenery just took my breath away. No way could I capture the grandeur on film. Can’t be done. But I tried!

Day Seven

Gator pile-up in the Florida Everglades

My parents and I headed down to Flamingo this morning, in spite of the cloud and the drizzle. The road was so different from the road to Shark Valley. Higher elevate, for one thing (We were nearly 3 feet above sea level in places. The height made me dizzy! Kidding!) At this dizzying elevation, the road was surrounded by hardwood trees, although occasionally the hammocks opened up so we could see the grasslands, swamps, and increasingly, the lakes that were part of the estuary. I could also smell the sea.

By the time we got to Flamingo, the sun was out and the weather was warm. We signed up for two boat trips – one through the canal to see the wildlife and the mangrove trees, and one out on Florida Bay. It was fun! We saw both crocodiles and alligators as we boated through the mangrove forest, not to mention manatees, ospreys, pelicans, cormorants, and lots of terns. Fascinating. The guide described one very poisonous tree in the region – well regulated now – that was used as a death sentence for tribal enemies. They would tie the person to the trunk of the tree, and the sap and runoff from the tree would drip down on them, gruesomely killing them over a series of days. Yikes! I’m glad the park system keeps them cleared out of all the visitor zones. On our way back to the visitor center and marina, one fellow lost his hat in the water. Fortunately for him, the captain retrieved it rather than allowing the gators to grab it. It was hard to turn that big boat in the narrow canal, and we got a lot of leaves aboard in the process (none of them poisonous!!)

I spent the afternoon chasing down urban legends and ghost stories in Miami while my parents rested. Then we headed out for a nice dinner and an early night.

Day Eight

I drove the length of the Key’s highway 1 today, starting at the bridge into Key Largo and ending up in Key West. It was a lovely drive, though it go monotonous after awhile. The most memorable bit was the 7-mile bridge and the rest-stop we took at Curry State Park. Dad and I wandered the beach, and Mom took over a picnic table to work on her art. It was relaxing and enjoyable.

We checked into a wonderful beachfront hotel in Key West – Southernmost on the Beach – and had dinner at the café on the beach. I nipped out to the long dock between appetizer and entre to take photos of the sun going down into the ocean amidst a blazing orange and gold sky. Amazing. After dinner, Dad and I walked the length of Duval street, watching and listening as the night came alive with tourists and artists, music, jokes and laughter.

Sunset on the beach in Key West

Then we went on the Ghost Tour and learned many spooky things about old Key West, including a twisted story of “true love” that was definitely a keeper for Spooky Florida. I also had a personal ghost encounter. One old building that the owners have never successfully rebuilt was redolent with a strangely sweet and sour wood smoke scent for me, even though no one was smoking nearby. Turns out, this building had burnt at one time, killing eight people – seven of them children – inside it! The smell of smoke is part of the haunting. Creepy stuff!

Day Nine

Dad went fishing today and I took the trolley ride around town, stopping at Ernest Hemingway’s house, the lighthouse and Mallory Square. What a fascinating place! Mallory square was once the place where the folks that salvaged the contents of wrecked ships came each week to sell off their salvage. Some of the money went to the company that owned the wrecked ship, some to the individual who salvaged it and some to the city of Key West, which divided it up equally between its residents. For many years, the city of Key West was very rich indeed. I also encountered the work of Flagler again, since he was the one who brought the railroad all the way down to Key West and built one of the huge hotels down here.

After a late lunch, the parents and I went on a glass-bottom boat ride out to the coral reef, which was fascinating, and then watched the sun going down over the ocean. It nipped behind a cloud toward the end, but the color show was still spectacular. The boat left us off at Mallory Square, where the sunset party was going on.

We slowly made our way back to Southernmost and another lovely dinner on the beach.

Day Ten
Our next destination was Islamorada, so we turned the car north just before lunch and enjoyed a lovely, sunny drive up route 1. There was a Tiki Bar attached to our hotel, so we lunched on the beach before checking into our rooms. Then Dad and I rode down to Robbie’s marina. Dad wanted to check fishing boat prices and look at the tarpon and the pelicans, and I kept my eyes peeled for the antique ghost car that haunted the island of Islamorada. Fishing was too expensive at Robbies (and I didn’t spot the ghost car), but we both enjoyed looking at the huge tarpon, and I had a long chat with one of the fellows who ran the souvenir booth, discussing ghost stories, the recent freeze and the many creatures – including more than a hundred manatees and many iguanas – who’d perished in the cold. At the next marina, one within walking distance of our hotel, Dad found a fishing trip he wanted to join and I left him happily negotiating prices while I strolled the grounds, taking pictures of the fishermen, the birds, and the boats while I watched another spectacular Keys sunset.

Reconstructed Native American village in the Florida Everglades
Reconstructed Native American village in the Florida Everglades

Day Eleven
While Dad went fishing, Mom and I went to Theater of the Seas today. I signed up right away for a Swim with Sea lions, and my Mom signed up to paint with the dolphins. So we had a busy day, what with the regular schedule of shows plus our specials. We toured the park, watched a parrot show, and then took Mom on her dolphin paint. After Mom’s special, we saw the sea lion show, rode the bottomless boat and took a tour of the mangroves before I got into a wet suit and spent a delightful hour meeting and enjoying Mimi, the 23 year old sea lion. I was the only person signed up for the special that day, so I had the sea lion all to myself. Mimi the sea lion and Rachel her trainer were both fabulous and fun.

We stopped then to have lunch and catch the dolphin show, and then headed back to the hotel. Dad entertained us with fish stories over dinner, and then I spent the evening photographing the sunset, reading and swimming. A great day!

Day Twelve
Our last day in Florida! We said goodbye to the Keys this morning, but I got in a quick sunrise photo shoot of the birds, beach, ships and docks on the Atlantic side before it was time to pack up and go. Our goal was a final boat ride on the Everglades, and a couple of hours brought us to the Micosuccee village. We were just in time to watch an amazing gator wrestling demonstration, using the ancient Micosucee techniques. The tribesmen had to bring gators back alive, since the meat spoiled too quickly in the heat. Then Tito – the man doing the demonstration – picked up a baby gator allowed everyone to stroke it or hold it (if they were brave enough.) I got to hold it twice – once at the beginning and again after everyone one left, since I found it fascinating to interact with the small gator. Tito and I had a long chat about gators and Native American traditions and wildlife, and I eventually let the gator get back to sunning himself. Tito was impressed because the little gator – once released, jumped right back out of the pool and into the sunshine, something he wouldn’t have done if I’d upset him when I held him. I’m glad of that. He seemed very calm and happy to me – which was good. Even a tiny gator can hurt you real good if he’s upset.

After the demonstration, we wandered through the recreated village, the museum and the nature trail before repairing across the road to take a farewell airboat ride through the Everglades. Our airboat captain was great. Not only did he take us to the reconstructed village out on a mangrove island, but he also gave us a tour of some of the other islands where corn was grown and where the medicine man once lived. It was wonderful.

Our hotel was only a half hour away, so we got there in time for an Italian dinner, and then Dad and I dropped off the car rental before returning for our last night in a hotel. We fly home in the morning. ‘bye Florida! See you again real soon.