The secret worlds of Weedon Island Preserve

With a few hours to kill before our flight home we found myself soaking in the last bit of sunshine among geckos and tricolored heron. No, not at a sticky, overcrowded beach, rather, strolling miles of boardwalk in the heart of mangrove world in the Tampa Bay Watershed.

The Weedon Island Preserve is home to a menagerie of strange species and exotic plants. It’s also a research and cultural center focused on preserving the prehistoric culture of the Florida Seminole Tribe. They thrived on Weedon Island some 1500 years ago, once a true island but now more of a low-lying peninsula.

Ancient artifacts like pottery, jewelry and throwing spears are on display in the zen-like building.

As tempting as it was to read the kiosks in the Center, vitamin D, naturally, won out. We took to miles of sunny trails that lead to lookout points, platforms and observation towers.

Fast moving lizards and flapping egrets scurried out of our way on beautiful footbridges built to accommodate handicap access to all 3,190 acres. The tropical hammocks and dense tidal swamps hummed with evening activity.

A couple hours flew by in a hurry. We didn’t want to leave, who would? Be sure to visit this extraordinaire place!

Hillbilly fun in Central Florida

Some locals go their entire lives in Florida never taking an airboat ride. Really? Might it be that the thrill is no match for a theme park like Disney?

Captain Aaron Bergwerff of Wild Bill’s Airboat Tourswould beg to differ. His white-knuckle rides are real – not fabricated. Bergwerff has been at this for ten years. Every hour, on the hour, he treats parties of all ages to a 50 minute swamp tour aboard a 600-horsepower fiberglass monster.

The redneck ride included glimpses of hefty reptiles, river otters, basking turtles and batman-like birds. Not to mention a variety of tropical tree species. This is Florida’s version of ecotourism.

And, all on the pristine Withlacoochee River in the town of Inverness, off busy Route 44.

It starts with a set of ear protection equipment to dampen the noise of the engine. At a balmy 55-degrees, we layered up with mittens, hats and scarves. A skeleton head clung to the gear stick on the operator’s left side. A reminder of what should happen to us if we fell overboard.

The first half of the ride was what I’d call informative and educational. Bergwerff let the propellors rest so we could ask questions and take photos. Admittedly, he and his young son canoe, fish and even swim in this muddy habitat.

“I’m not scared in the least of gators. They hunt at night, not in the daytime. I’ve been swimming here for years.”

Indeed, because of the temp, the gators kept undercover most of our ride but plenty of other wildlife species weren’t afraid of the commotion. We turned around at the spillway dam. Our operator let loose on the throttle.

Clocking in at 50 mph, we weaved in and around swamp hummocks – debris that included fallen branches, hollow trunks and floating bromeliads. Everyone gripped their ear protection and sunglasses lest they go flying off.

The airboat came to an abrupt stop at a freshwater springs isolated by tall ancient Bald Cypress. “The buttressed trunks serve to supply oxygen to the roots of the old trees,” explained Bergwerff.

If it were only a few degrees warmer, we would have jumped into the crystal clear water!

Ulele restaurant, a taste of Old Florida

It seems like Floridians eat twice as much seafood as the average American. Every time I escape to Tampa to visit family, I find myself enjoying my catch-limit quota of yellowtail and snapper.   With the exception of Mahi-Mahi (due to overfishing),  this week is another week of chumming for angler favorites.

While hiking at swampy Lettuce Lake, we came across a happy sportsman reeling in an ancient fish called the bowfin.  The big catch would be prepared with his grandma’s recipe dinner, smoked and flavored, enough for him and his family.  Armed with that information, we too decided we’d dine at a restaurant with Florida freshwater.

The dining scene at Tampa’s Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee), a “native-inspired” restaurant and brewery by 4th generation restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, is a sustainability standout. Grouper, snapper, pompano, redfish, their vast selection of fresh fish hails daily from the Gulf of Mexico and coastal waters.

I asked if we could sit outside under the yellow umbrellas overlooking the Hillsborough River. A little bit of drizzle was coming down.  We were escorted through the vast red-brick warehouse, a renovated space that housed a dilapidated, 112-year-old city water works building.

The walls were decorated with eclectic art sculptures, world-renowned Dali drawings and old sports memorabilia. Three vastly different design concepts that visually thrive in the two-tiered mezzanine layout.  

The newly-minted Water Works Park sits adjacent to the restaurant.  The riverfront playground is a magnet for families, city events and celebrations.  Despite the ominous clouds overhead, two tiny tots ran back and forth in the splash zone dodging a bucket of water that tipped over every two minutes.

Our server, Brooks Boekelman, encouraged us to share bowls of the Native Chili for a starter.  A true taste of Florida: a fusion of alligator, wild boar, venison, duck and ground chuck mixed with cranberry beans and chili spices.  Dad’s eyes lighted up like a Christmas tree.

Boekelman dived into enlightening us on the importance of serving food harvested and raised in the United States.   I brought my camera with me and asked if I could take photos of the interior.  Like a passionate art curator, he was quick to showcase the owner’s deep pockets for acquiring beautiful art.   It surprised us that so many originals were on display, one by surrealist painter Salvador Dali and several by Peru’s most famous artist, Victor Delfin.

Sis and I split the evening special, the fabled Gulf Sturgeon.   The armored fish migrates between rivers and gulf waters but ours is farm-raised, the only farm-raised catch on the menu.  The slow-growing species is still illegal to fish for in freshwater.  The taste was so incredibly sinful, I can understand why.

 

Ulele
1810 N Highlands Ave.
Tampa, FL 33602

Bunking at the Lincklaen House in Cazenovia

There are no covered bridges in Madison County but what you will find will capture your heart just as strong. This week I’m working in the Heartland of New York, the beautifully bucolic surroundings of Central New York

Think farm-to-table, local craft breweries, antique shops, heritage sites and historic bed-and-breakfast lodgings. I’m also staying in a town voted “the coolest small town in America” by Budget Travel magazine: Cazenovia.

Unfortunately, there’s very little time for exploration and, believe me, it’s killing me not to hike! Every morning, I drive past a street sign on Route 20 for the Stone Quarry Hill Art Park, recognized as #2 in National Geographic’s “Top Ten Sculpture Parks and Trails.” Someday, I’ll find time to stop and see what all the fuss is about.

The free time I do have is spent bunking at a turn of the century landmark inn called The Lincklaen House. This elegant hotel was built just over 180 years ago and boasts renting rooms to prominent guests including former President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland and business magnate, John D. Rockefeller.

There is no elevator but who’s complaining? The modern convenience hadn’t yet been invented when the proprietors broke ground on this hotel in 1836.

Every evening, my hunger is satiated with a buttery homemade popover in the hotel’s cellar tap room, a cozy space aglow by a stone fireplace and a crowded mahogany bar. The menu includes small plates dressed with fresh organic ingredients (try the Lincklaen house chips) and rotating entrees of creative combinations.

Want to feel like a dignitary? It’s easy! Skip the Thruway and step back in time on Route 20, the original Albany Street, go 115 miles west and, voila! You’ll be enjoying the finely carved woodwork, charming amenities and moldings of this historic hotel too.

Hidden views from the Helderbergs

If you live in the Capital Region, odds are good you’ve been to John Boyd Thacher Park. Gape at horizon from the cliff’s edge, snowshoe, ski or hike dozens of trails, birdwatch with binoculars, learn about the hibernating bats of Haile’s Cave at the Nature Center: you name it, nature-based challenges abound along the fossil-rich limestone escarpment.

Last week, Mutti and I found ourselves kicking up snow off Carrick Road in East Berne to explore new ground. Other outdoorsy locals decided to do the same but with all-terrain fat-tire bikes and helmets. We bore red microspikes, hiking sticks and our dog.

A bizarre rock formation of some unknown significance stood near the trailhead. We veered onto the red-blazed Fred Schroeder Memorial Trail for an easy 5K (3.1 mile) loop. We zig-zagged around clumps of conifers, past barren farmland and around graceful snow-capped stone walls. A portion of the Long Path, a 357-mile long-distance hiking trail that begins at the GW Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey and ends in Altamont, crosses this section.

The adventure piqued at High Point Overlook with stunning views just as powerful as the busier Indian Ladder trail. What makes this special is the lack of fencing and warning signs – just be sure to leash your dog!

Cold weather cures for cabin fever

Kids that play outside in the winter? Does that still happen? It does if you take your munchkins to the Hanford Mills Museum Ice Festival.

I watched as dozens of tiny rosy cheeks found fun in pulling heavy blocks of ice out of a cold pond and dragging them 200 feet to an ice closet. Not one complaint, whine or grumble. And even when the older kids caught on that it was actually work-in-disguise they still kept to the task. That’s the secret to a successful history museum.

But the Hanford Mills Museum Ice Festival in East Meredith, NY had something for everyone: blacksmith demonstrations, horse-drawn wagon rides, historic cooking shows and, of course, ice sculpting demonstrations. The queue for a small sample of one of 25 hot soup varieties stretched all the way back to the post office building.

For more information, visit: www.hanfordmills.org

Check out my short 360-degree video of a SUNY student from the Delhi Hospitality Program working her magic.