Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Visit to Florida, October 2010

Last week we took a week away on the Gulf Coast of Florida, a chance for David to take a break from his new stressful job and to enjoy a final bit of summer-like weather before the upcoming winter months. 

There was nothing specifically about the area of Florida that made us want to stay there, but rental accommodation there is cheap as are flights combined with almost guaranteed warm sunny weather it was an easy cost-effective week away.

The first job before leaving was to check Mojo into the Bowen Island Dog Ranch.  He wasn’t staying the whole week there as our friends Moe & Kent were collecting him for the second half of the stay.  However, he needed to have a few nights on the Ranch.

He is collected here on a grey day from the parking lot behind the Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver and gets into the old converted school bus that they use to shuttle the dogs across to the island. This poor quality image taken on my Blackberry.

Mojo Dog Ranch bus

Later that day we drive South into Washington State and down to Seattle Airport where we catch an overnight flight to Tampa, connecting in Houston.  It is about 11am the following day when we collect the rental car from Tampa Airport and head south on I-275 towards our destination of Rotonda West on the Cape Haze Peninsula. 

Shortly after leaving the Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area we pass over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge which crosses the mouth of Tampa Bay.  The shallow waters of southern Florida enable some really long bridges often several miles long. 

This bridge was built in 1987.  There had been two here previously side-by-side, one dating from 1954 (South bound) and the other (North bound) from 1971.  However, in May 1980 a freight ship collided with one of the North-bound bridge pillars causing 1200ft of the bridge to collapse into the water.  Also brought down into the water were 6 cars and a Greyhound bus which were on the bridge at the time and resulted in 35 deaths.  Both bridges were subsequently destroyed with this one new much stronger bridge built in their place – this one designed to be able to withstand both Category 5 hurricanes and a direct ship impact.


The traffic has been moved over onto the two outer lanes while the metal work is being repainted.

IMG_2868 We continue south, joining the I-75 and then eventually taking the US41 onto the Cape Haze Peninsula.  About 35,000 acres of the Cape Haze Peninsula had originally been bought by the Vanderbilt family in 1952, for which they paid $700,000.  They dug wells to access fresh water and dammed salt water inlets creating usable farm and development land. They almost immediately sold 10,000 acres for an undisclosed sum and then in 1969 sold the remaining 25,000 acres to a developer for $19.5m – not a bad investment !

About 1.45hrs south of Tampa we reach Rotonda.

RWA sign That 25,000 acres sold by the Vanderbilts eventually became Rotonda.  A master-planned golf community, much like others in the State with the exception that it is laid out in the form of a cartwheel, with golf courses and neighbourhoods forming each segment with a circular park in the middle and one remaining segment preserved as parkland.

Each neighbourhood segment is named, our rental villa was in White Marsh.

IMG_2992 We arrive at our villa.


While there was a neighbouring house to the right, it, like many homes in Rotonda was vacant – presumably an unrented vacation home.  There were however two vacant lots to the left of ours so plenty of space and privacy.


Rotonda is a ‘deed restricted’ community which means as an owner you are obligated to do or not do certain things – such as you must maintain your gardens to a high standard, must not park commercial vehicles on the driveway etc etc all with a view to keeping the community up to a high standard.  Indeed the community association has actually taken it upon itself to maintain all the gardens of the foreclosed bank-owned homes (of which there were many – this area has been hit very hard by the property market collapse) so that while they sit on the market waiting for a buyer they do not give the community a run-down feel.

So, this villa like all the others in the community had beautifully tended gardens.


Eventually Rotonda will probably become fully developed with all homesites built-upon.  However, property market crashes in the 1980’s, 1990’s and now the big one 2007-onwards have meant that the developers dream of a complete community has yet to be realised.  There are many vacant lots and homes are well spaced out.  Add to the fact that many are second homes and you have a truly quiet and peaceful community.   Just the chirp of the birds in the morning to wake you as this video clip shows.

To the back of the villa we had the patio and pool area enclosed by a lanai – which is a huge mesh screen which enables you to enjoy the patio and pool without getting bugged by flies or mosquitoes etc.  The backyard leads straight down to a wildlife lake and off beyond on the right hand side is the 5th Green of the Long Marsh Golf Course.  All neighbouring properties were a good distance away or right across the lake.  At night we realised there were absolutely no in-habited homes within sight.  It was a really lovely location to sit and enjoy the pool and view.


Inside was an airy living room with high ceilings, fans and of course the villa was air conditioned.


The entire wall of glass doors in the living room slide back out of sight to completely open the living room up onto the patio – again really nice to have the lanai and keep it open at night without the bugs coming in.  The big flat-panel TV could be turned around so each evening it was a tough decision whether to watch a DVD from the comfort of the sectional sofa in the living room or poolside patio chairs !


There was a perfectly adequate dining area although we ate alfresco each day.


The kitchen was excellent, very well equipped and with an almost silent dishwasher – very useful with an open-plan home such as this.



The master bedroom was a ‘suite’ with a king bed………


A desolate looking walk-in closet – just waiting for a trip to the outlet malls


And a huge en-suite bathroom with a massive walk-in shower.


At night the pool could be illuminated for an evening swim.


As previously mentioned, there were absolutely no neighbours on either side or behind so nighttimes were even quieter than the day, well except for the cicadas that is !

A rear view of the villa showing the lanai.


At the end of the garden was a bench, under the shade of some palm trees, overlooking the lake.


We loved having the lake at the end of the garden.  As well as the privacy it afforded us it also made for some nice views, the reflections and colours at different times of the day as well as a good assortment of wildlife.


Some of the wildlife we saw included Common Moorhens.


A Great Blue Heron



A Great White Heron was a frequent visitor to the lake.


The blue heron and moorhens on the lake.

Other usual suspects included lots of geckos


And many dragonflies.


On a number of occasions we saw Common Woodpeckers with their striking bright red heads and spotty black & white backs, although they would never stay still long enough to get a good photo.  This rather grainy one taken through the mesh of the lanai.


There were also plenty of warnings not to swim in the lake as alligators live there.  It was not the season to see them (they usually come out and lie on the ground in the cool winter months of Dec-Mar).  However, we did get a quick snap of this one while it’s head was looking out of the water (in the middle of the image). 


The West facing aspect of the patio afforded us great sunsets too



Another reason we had chosen this particular villa was that they supplied bikes for guest use.  We used them on a couple of days to cycle to the supermarket (a good 10 mile round-trip mostly along the Cape Haze Pioneer Trail – ex-railway line converted into cycle tracks) and also around the community.  The county we are staying in is Charlotte County.  Charlotte County is flat.  Really, really flat.  The height variation in the whole county is between 5ft and 25ft above sealevel.  You don’t get quite the sensation that it’s so flat because you’re usually surrounded by mangroves and other vegetation that blocks your line of sight.  However, drive up on a bridge or see some of the coastline and you really appreciate how flat it is. 

So cycling is easy because there aren’t any hills although there is a pretty constant breeze from the coast which makes more of a challenge depending on your direction.


Using the bikes we explored more of the community.

The ‘cartwheel’ layout of Rotonda is divided into quadrants by four large Boulevards running North, South, East and West.  Actually, the South one has never been fully developed as it sides onto the nature reserve and unlike the others doesn’t connect to the inner circle (yes we discovered this after we cycled all the way to the end of it and had to turn around and find another way through !). 

This is the Rotonda Boulevard East.  Again, you have the sense that the developers were dreaming so much bigger and grander schemes than what has so far been built – huge four-lane boulevards with hardly a car in sight !


Each quarter of the ‘cartwheel’ is then divided into two smaller segments, laid out with roads and divided up into parcels of land for building homes.  Separating the backs of most lots are fresh-water canals and lakes that contain wildlife and separate the homes from each other.

This is one of the canals behind homes in the Pine Valley neighbourhood.


There are still a vast number of vacant lots in Rotonda – quick search on the MLS shows over 500 building lots in Rotonda currently for sale.  There is so much for sale here there is very little value in the land – 7,500sqft lots (the same size as our lot in North Vancouver) start at about $7,000.  However on the plus side, until they get developed this gives the sense of a more rural location.


At the centre of the ‘cartwheel’ is Rotonda Community Park which offers tennis courts, sports fields and walking trails.


This is a panorama video showing the waterways, trails and homes of Rotonda.

Our primary intention of this trip was to relax, enjoy the sunshine, pool, do some reading etc.  We hadn’t come here do to sight-seeing.  The nearest town of consequence is Port Charlotte – a very practical and useful centre with malls and restaurants etc but absolutely nothing of interest to offer.  The cities of Fort Myers and Naples both offer a little more historical interest but were situated south of us and were more cloud-covered than where we were due to spin off from a hurricane passing over Cuba during our stay, so we didn’t venture down that way on this particular trip.

We did however have a couple of small excursions to the village of Boca Grande and the town of Punta Gorda.

Our rental car was a Ford Focus.



On one of our days we took a drive out to Boca Grande, a small fishing village on Gaspirilla Island.

This is the beach in Gaspirilla Island State Park.  The beaches on this coast of Florida really are specatular – flat, very fine sand and gorgeous clean blue waters.


This is me on the beach.


An assortment of seabirds


IMG_2929 At the very end of the island we reach the old Boca Grande lighthouse.  On the horizon, across the water is Cayo Costa State Park which is a boat access only island with more beautiful beaches (we had driven to Gaspirilla Island over a causeway).


A new automated lighthouse has now been built up the coast and this building is now maintained by the State Parks department.


The architecture in this part of Florida is very similar to the Keys and likewise many coast properties are built on stilts due to the storm surges during hurricanes.


After a good walk along the beach we head into the village of Boca Grande.


This is an innocent enough looking church.


But as seems to be a common Florida theme (we saw this a lot in The Keys too) it belts out the most god-awful (oops, not sure I should say that given the context ?  Oh well….) synthesized church bells.

This is Boca Grande gas station !

IMG_2941 After a stroll around the village we head to the Loose Caboose restaurant for lunch.  The restaurant is in the building of the old railway terminal.


Where we were obliged to have fresh citrus baked grouper, salad and these tasty fried green tomatoes.


Not to mention a cold beer while we watched village life go by.

IMG_2942 Life must be pretty easy working for the Boca Grande fire department.


No poo-bags here Mojo, only Mutt-Mitts !

IMG_2947 Speaking of Floridian oddities.  We came across this church sign at the Faith Lutheran Church in Rotonda.  Not only is it a little odd having a joke on a church sign to entice worshippers – but only Florida could tell a joke involving ‘hairspray’ – something the rest of the world stopped using about 20 years ago.


On Thursday the whole area was cloudy so we took a trip to Punta Gorda which was just across Charlotte Harbour. 


Punta Gorda has one of the best kept historic districts for a town in this region with many old homes on palm-lined streets.


The city was massively damaged after a direct hit from a Category 4 hurricane in 2004.  From what we saw it all looked well restored again now and just down the road was a brand new convention centre built on land cleared from destructed buildings.


Two large bridges on route US 41 that connect Punta Gorda with Port Charlotte across the water.


David on the harbourfront in Punta Gorda.


Looking across at the Fishermans Village, a small enclave of shops and restaurants adjacent to the marina where fishing and sightseeing charters operate.


A statue of Juan Ponce de Leon who is believed to be the first European explorer to discover Florida in April 1513.

IMG_2975 David thinks a sign like this at home would give his department a run for their money……


We also did a little shopping for our furry friends and of course being October entire aisles in the pet store were taken up with seasonal merchandise.  We have a gift here for Stella who Mojo has been staying with together with some ‘Tuff Stuff’ brand products we can’t get in Canada and are more hardwearing for our tuff stuff dog.


For the most part of the week we had alternated lunches eating out and at the house but evening meals we had just BBQ’d and eaten at home. However our last night would have required another supermarket visit and probably buying more food than we needed so we decided to treat ourselves to a take-away.  We had spotted the China Wok next to the Publix supermarket earlier in the week and gave them a go.

It was a fantastic Chinese meal, talk about a blend of cultures - being in Florida eating ‘New York Style’ (according to their signs) Chinese food.  It was great value with far too much (as always with Chinese) added to by the fact they had accidently put another dish in our order which we didn’t pay for and was presumably supposed to have gone to someone else. 

IMG_3006 Our final day we head back up towards Tampa airport to return the rental car and head home.

Once again we cross the Sunshine Skyway bridge.


Views of the St Petersburg skyline on the horizon.


Now up on the bridge you gain the sense of quite how flat Florida is.


Our route home had us connecting in Philadelphia so we had to fly North initially before crossing the country back to Seattle, a slightly longer route than getting here but the flight times were the ones that suited us best,

As we are making our descent towards Philadelphia we get these interesting views of tributaries to the Delaware River which forms the border between Delaware and New Jersey.

IMG_3014 IMG_3015

Then once we are close to the airport we get great views of the downtown skyline of Philadelphia


The sun was setting by the time our flight to Seattle was taking off and the rest of the journey was in the dark.

The following morning we had to get up early to go and collect Mojo who was now staying with our friends Moe and Kent and their dog Stella on Bowen Island.  After they had picked him up from the Dog Ranch on Thursday they had furnished us with some photos of the two dogs playing.  They said Mojo and Stella got on brilliantly, didn’t fight at all and just raced around in their garden or played on the rugs in the house constantly. 

They sent us these four ‘action’ shots. 




‘Come on Stella, don’t you want to play some more ?’

DSCN3554 Mojo also had to contend with two cats in the house plus an assortment of deer walking through the garden.  Everyone escaped unscathed.

Moe said the only way to get a good photo of the dogs was to make them both ‘sit’.  Here they are before being taken out on another hike.  Thank you to Moe and Kent for taking good care of Mojo and giving him such a great time while we were away !

Mojo and Stella

On Sunday we parked the car in Horseshoe Bay and travelled to Bowen as foot passengers and arranged to meet Moe, Kent and the dogs in Snug Cove close to where the ferry docks.  We had coffee and a catch up with them and then had to get back on the ferry so that I could be home in time to work during the afternoon.

We return on the ferry and have to stay on the car deck with Mojo. Mojo however was more interested in trying to get to the back of the ferry and the boarding gantry where he had left his new best friend Stella.

IMG_3020 Mojo then spends the rest of that day either looking out of the window…….probably looking for Stella.


Or waiting by the front door for her.

Mojo looking for Stella, front door

Before eventually collapsing on the sofa to snooze which he continued to do for a further 48 hours !


It was a really nice week away in the sunshine, easy and laid back and a break for us to have together.  However, coming home to our city, mountains and Mojo – it’s good to be home.