Shangri La Botanical Gardens

Moving west out of Florida, we drove through Alabama and Mississippi in quick succession.  After spending a few nights in Livingston, Louisiana, we headed to Port Arthur, Texas.  We found the Beaumont/Port Arthur/Orange tri-cities area to be very industrial, with most of the business centered on oil production and refining.  While the port cities are an important cog in the big American wheel, they are not exactly what we would call a naturally inviting place to spend a few days.  But our campground was decent, so we thought we would check the area out.  A lot of famous people are from this region:  Singers Janis Joplin, Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Byrd, George Jones, Clay Walker, and Edgar & Johnny Winter are from here.  Athletes Babe Zaharias, Bubba Smith, Frank Robinson, Bruce Lietzke, and Detroit Lions standouts Mel Farr (superstar!) and Jerry Ball all hail from the area.  Surely there must be something more than oil here.  We set out to look for a little culture and nature.

The first place we went to was Cattail Swamp, in search of the elusive roseate spoonbill.  This area is actually a man made retention area that is the last step of the town’s sewage treatment plant.  We had to pass through a gate that had a sign that said “Warning: Aggressive Alligators”.  Hmmm….the ones we saw in the Everglades seemed pretty content, perhaps these weren’t as happy with their surroundings.  :). We stayed for a few minutes and saw a fair amount of birds and ducks, but no spoonbills or ticked-off gators.  Diana had another place that we could check out, and it ended up being a winner!

Shangri La Botanical Gardens is a privately owned preserve in Orange, Texas.  H.J. Lutcher Stark, a local business leader, began the gardens in 1942. It is now overseen by he and his wife’s foundation.  The gardens are a member of the American Horticultural Society’s Reciprocity Program, so we toured for free using our Meijer Gardens membership. It was a great way to get out and stretch our legs after a morning of doing paperwork.


The entrance to the grounds was very inviting.  It is interesting to note that this facility is the first in Texas to achieve LEED Platinum status, the highest level possible through the U.S. Green Building Council.  This area contains a wetlands demonstration garden; a series of ponds that take in water from an adjacent lake and filter the waterfowl waste from it.  It demonstrates how man-made wetlands can have a positive impact on nature.


The grounds were planted in more of a formal pattern than was the case at McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach, Florida. Most of the major plants were well identified.  


This Stephanie Dwyer sculpture, Dancing Sisters, marks the entrance to the interactive children’s garden.


Shangri La also has a series of greenhouses.  This one was featuring Easter lillies, which were also present in other areas of the gardens. It definitely smelled like spring!


This greenhouse featured orchids.


Diana really liked this yellow variety…or, since we are in Texas, this Amirillo variety!

Two of the greenhouses were also set up to feature their current butterfly exhibition.  Three varieties were present:


The Monarch…


…the Julia…


…and the Zebra Longwing.


Look at the bloom on this red Hibiscus!

From there, we followed the trail into the outdoor portion of the gardens.  


This turtle lineup was there to greet us.  🙂

David Rogers series of wooden sculptures entitled Big Bugs currently are featured in the outdoor gardens.


Yikes!  A 15 foot high Praying Mantis!


This is an Assasin Bug.


Here is a parade of three giant ants headed our way!

On our way out, Diana spotted a flash of wings to our left, as a large bird landed in a tree.  


Turns out it was a hawk.  He stuck around long enough for me to get a photo of him.  🙂

We really enjoyed our time at Shangri La Botanical Gardens.  If you find yourself in the Greater Beaumont area, be sure to check it out. We also can’t say enough about the value of the American Horticultural Society’s reciprocity program, both for us and for the participating gardens. We’ve seen a lot of places we might not otherwise have chosen to see, and the venues are able to showcase themselves to visitors from other areas of the country. Shangri La certainly was a bit of paradise in this very industrial area.


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Florida Fun

Since our last post at the Edison/Ford Winter Estates, we have covered a lot of ground.  We spent a couple of days at Dunedin, going to Honeymoon Island one day and to one of our favorite lunch spots…Kelly’s For Just About Anything…the next. After that, we spent a day in Lakeland, where we were able to catch our first-ever spring training game!  My beloved Detroit Tigers were taking on the Pittsburgh Pirates. 


Any day that I can see Miguel Cabrera play baseball is a good day.  🙂   To add some excitement,  J.D. Martinez hit a home run over the center field wall with one of the most perfect swings I’ve ever seen.  The Tigers looked very good, ending the day with a 3-0 shutout win.  I am very hopeful that this will be a good year for the team.

Following Lakeland, we spent four days back at Recreation Plantation near The Villages.  



While there, we caught up with Diana’s brother and our niece and her family.  We also drove up to Gainesville, as we wanted to see Devil’s Millhopper State Park.  We had read about this place on several blogs, so we drove an hour and a half north to see it.  Unfortunately, we found out when we got there that it was closed on Monday and Tuesday. Hmmmm…we have never heard of a state park being closed on ANY day of the week, but we will be sure to put that on our list of things to check before heading out the door next time.  🙂  Moving to Plan B, we drove back to Payne’s Prairie near Micanopy.  This preserve is the huge wildlife area that I-75 bisects between Gainesville and Ocala.



We wanted to get some mileage in for some upcoming hiking we are planning, so this looked like a good place to start!


First we climbed a tower and saw the preserve’s wild horses in the distance. Then we passed through the gate and into the wildlife area.  We only saw horse manure (along with bison scat) on the perimeter road.  Our hike took us about a mile and a half until the trail narrowed and we thought better of trying to go any further. The signs warn of alligators and snakes. There were also plenty of red ant hills to avoid.

Our next stop was for one night at a favorite place of ours: Golden Acres Ranch near Monticello, Florida.


You may recall our Harvest Hosts post from a year ago that can be accessed here.  This stay was just as nice as the last, although the many Guineafowl weren’t quite as vocal as our previous visit.  We purchased more of their amazing Mayhaw jelly as a thank you for letting us stay.  🙂


They sure are funny looking birds!



The Great Pyranees dogs were happy to see us!

From there we drove to the Pensacola area.  We stayed in a little campground in Holt named Eagle’s Landing.  It was neat as a pin and it had great wifi.  I was able to use it to finish our taxes, so that made us happy campers!  We also drove out to Fort Pickens and met up with our friend Diane, who was down from Michigan visiting her daughter and grandchildren.  You may recall we had lunch with her and her husband Terry earlier this winter in Orlando. This day, she brought the boys out to the fort, as they like to explore the tunnels and passageways.


It’s always good to see them!

Fort Pickens sits at the entrance to Pensacola Bay.  We were drawn here by a series of recent posts by fellow blogger, Wandering Dogs.  The white sand of the surrounding Gulf Islands National Seashore looked like snow in Beth’s post, and we had to see it for ourselves.


It was in service from 1834 to 1947, and was occupied by Union troops throughout the U.S. Civil War. The Apache chief Geronimo was held here during the Indian Wars from October 1886 to May 1887. 21.5 million bricks were used to build the structure, and a major portion of it was destroyed by an 1899 fire that reached a magazine, resulting in a massive explosion.


The wind and rain are slowly taking their toll on the remaining sections of the fort.


Not only does the sand look like snow, it drifts like it!  

Sea level rise will most likely bring about the fort’s ultimate demise, as the barrier island it sits on already is seeing closures during high surf events. Campers have been stranded in the campground near the fort recently, and this road has been flooded several times over the past few years.

With our visit to Fort Perkins complete, we headed west out of Florida.  Thinking back to all of the places we’ve visited, we realize just how large the state is. Tallying up our miles, we covered over 1600 miles with the RV. That doesn’t include our trip to St. Augustine, our drive to Port Charlotte to see Diana’s cousin, our day at Cape Canaveral, our drive to Tampa for the RV show, or the trip to see my sister and brother-in-law in Bonita Springs…all which were done with the Escape.  That was an additional 2000 miles. To put that in perspective, we could have traveled from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Flagstaff, Arizona and back and not have covered that many miles! Even though we have visited Florida many times in the past, we discovered a multitude of places that were new to us. It has left us wanting more, and we look forward to returning soon!


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Edison/Ford Winter Estates

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford are two of the most influential people of the last couple of centuries.  They became close friends later in life, often deferring to each other for ideas in their respective areas of expertise.  Nowhere is their friendship more evident than at the Edison/Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida.  We visited these grounds using the American Horticultural Society’s reciprocity program, which is included with our Meijer Gardens membership back in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Admission is normally $25 each, so gaining access to the estate for free was a nice bonus.  We opted for the guided tour, which was an additional $5 each.


Mr. Edison purchased this land along the Caloosahatchee River in 1885.  He and his wife Mina had this home, which they named Seminole Lodge, built the following year. He was 39 years old at the time.  To put things in perspective, Henry Ford was 23 years old in 1886 and 10 years away from building his first automobile.  There wasn’t much happening around Fort Myers at that point in history. The town of 349 people was simultaneously being incorporated, the road in front of the estate was a cattle path and the railroad was 12 years away from finding its way to the area. 


In 1916, Henry and Clara Ford purchased this Craftsman style home next door to the Edison estate.  It had been built 5 years earlier by Robert Smith.  Over time, Mina and Clara transformed the grounds of their estates into a combined horticultural oasis. The variety of species is remarkable, and everything is labeled…to our delight!  🙂

After World War I, Thomas Edison began to explore alternatives to the imported raw materials for rubber.  He was concerned about the United States’ dependency on foreign suppliers.  He built a laboratory on the grounds across the street from his estate, and he partnered with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone to come up with a solution.


This is a single banyan tree that Mr. Edison planted in the late 1920’s. It has since grown into this giant, covering well over an acre. Edison was hoping that the tree would be a source of rubber, a hope that didn’t pan out. He also tried a multitude of other source including goldenrod.  Eventually, synthetic, petroleum-based rubber became the choice of domestic manufacturers.


The interior of the lab is very well organized.  Flasks, test tubes and beakers on one side, and a machine shop on the other.  It was interesting to think back to my visits to Edison’s Menlo Park lab at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan and see the similarities.

Next door to the lab is a small museum.  A couple of interesting pieces caught my eye.


This was a phonograph that Edison had one of his workers build a wooden frame around.  The inventor was totally deaf in one ear and 90% deaf in the other. To ‘hear’ the record, he had to bite the frame to feel the sound through his jaw.

Another was this Barcalo offset box end wrench.  I own one of these in a 3/4″ – 13/16″ combination.  It was passed down to me from my paternal grandfather, and it is probably one of the most useful wrenches in my collection.  In essence, the card in the display case needs updating, as some Ford owners still do use this wrench on their Fords!

Back over at the Edison estate, we were able to look inside through the open doors and windows at some of the rooms.


Mr. Edison sat at the head of this table, using this chime to call everyone to dinner.  The seat has a commanding view of the Caloosahatchee.

A pergola seperates the main house from the sleeping quarters.  Edison seperated the two for fire reasons, as kitchens were a source of most home fires.  He also installed a fire suppression system.

Here is Thomas and Mina’s bedroom.

The main house has this beautiful wrap-around porch.

Next to the house is his study.  Mina had a small garden off this building, so she could be near Thomas while he worked.

Between the river and his study, he had this pool built.  The high dive was supposedly built after Fort Myers took ownership of the property and is not historically correct.

Over at the Ford estate, the home had more of a ‘cottage’ feel to it.

This fireplace commands the one end of the living room.

The home featured a cypress ceiling, which lent a certain coziness to it.

I’m sure Hank used this a few times!   🙂

Out back, there is a display with three Ford vehicles:  a Model T, a Model A, and a 1917 Model TT truck.

Near the river, this large Brown Wolly Fig shades the lawn.  The root system on it was very unique.

Here I am with a statue of Henry Ford.  I grew up 3 miles from Ford headquarters and the Rouge plant, so my childhood was heavily influenced by what this man had accomplished in the first half of the 20th century.  By mass-producing affordable cars and paying high wages, he essentially created the middle class.  He was far from perfect. We watched an hour long biography of him in the museum that was truly fascinating. 

We spent 7 hours at the Edison-Ford Winter Estates.  Most people wouldn’t take that long, but we were soaking it all in. After the hour long historian led tour, we wandered the grounds and explored buildings that weren’t included in the tour. We also enjoyed lunch with a view of the river at Pinchers, which we were able to walk to from the property. The estates are definitely worth the visit, if you happen to be in Fort Myers.  We thoroughly enjoyed it!
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The Florida Keys

Somewhere in the middle of the Seven Mile Bridge, he said “Bella do you want to see the rest?”

She said “I haven’t a care, Lenny, just take me there” and they drove all the way to Key West…

Jim Buffett – Conky Tonkin’

For most people, the Florida Keys embody a wonderful image of laid back island life.  There’s no doubt that they are laid back and wonderful, but there is also the reality that there is a very busy road that runs through the middle of them.  That brings in hoardes of people…including us….looking for a place to chill.  Tooling south on U.S. 1 through Key Largo on Tuesday, it quickly became clear that our chillin’ was going to take place with lots of new friends!  No worries, as we always have managed to find a way to seek out some of the less traveled spots.  We also love to jump right into the crowds and have a good time.  🙂

When we went to the Tampa RV Show earlier this year, we stopped at the Grassy Key RV Resort booth.  They were running a special of ‘buy three nights – get the fourth night free’.  Granted, it still wasn’t cheap…but we knew that any accomodations in the Keys were going to be pricey.  Looking on the web, we knew it was going to be nice.   


We were certainly not disappointed.  Even though space is at a premium in the Keys, we didn’t feel like we were wedged too tightly into our spot.  The resort faces the Gulf side, and sports it’s own marina. They also have a pool, which we took advantage of.


The first night there, we caught a nice sunset off the dock. They also had a luau potluck which we attended later in the week.  Very fun, and we met a lot of nice people there.

Wednesday morning, we headed southwest through Marathon to do a little biking on the old Seven Mile Bridge.  This structure is part of industrialist Henry Flagler’s railroad that was completed in 1912.  Why would someone go to the expense of building a railroad to Key West? Well, the tiny island was the closest deep water port at the time to the about to be completed Panama Canal. Flagler’s theory was that it could be a coal refueling stop. Technology quickly improved steamer efficiency, so that need went away. The bridges were converted to highways after a 1935 hurricane destroyed portions of the railroad that they carried.  


For reference, imagine those parking blocks not there and a center line where Diana’s left tire is.  That’s a narrow bridge!  This is the northeastern two miles of the structure.  These roads were used until 1982, when the parallel highway was constructed. My parents took my sister and I partway to Key West on this bridge when we were kids.  I’m fairly certain the width of the spans was part of the reason my dad turned back. 🙂

Still, it was pretty cool to be riding on this historic road!  Take a look at the guard rail:  it is the original rail from Mr. Flagler’s railroad.


Two miles southwest of Marathon, the Florida highway department has removed a section of the bridge to prevent people from going any further.  Some of the roadway is in pretty rough shape beyond here.

On Thursday, we made the 55 mile trip from Grassy Key down to Key West.  Amazingly, we found a free parking spot on a side street.  Woo-hoo!  🙂


Our first goal was to find the Green World Gallery, owned by Artist Koz.  Diana and Steve Koslowski hail from the same hometown of Ortonville, Michigan.  We ended up buying one of his small paintings for our rig, and a Howard Livingston from Mile Marker 24 Band “Sell your stuff-keep the dog-live on an island” sweatshirt for Diana. Very nice store!

From there, we walked a few blocks to Ernest Hemingway’s home for a tour.  


We will freely admit that we have yet to read his work, but we’ve been intrigued by his northern Michigan connections.  Our tour guide Chris was fantastic, painting a portrait with his words as to the interesting character Ernest Hemingway was.  And, yes…I’ve downloaded my first Hemingway novel.  🙂


This is his writing studio where it is estimated that 70% of his literary works were penned.  That small stool to the left of the barometer in the left side of the photo is a Spanish birthing chair.  There are several of them throughout the home, as he liked to collect them.   Some people collect baseball cards; Ernest Hemingway collected birthing chairs!


Here is a decendent of Hemingway’s six-toed cat, Snow White.  There are 40 to 50 very well cared for cats on the property.  Chris stated that it was never his intention to learn the cat’s names, but know them he did!

After that, we grabbed lunch at Off the Hook.


We both had fish tacos, which were excellent.  They are just one block off of Duval…totally worth the walk!


Key West is also famous for it’s free roaming chickens.  This rooster was strutting it’s stuff in front of a residence we walked past.

And no trip to Key West is complete without having your photo taken in front of the Southernmost Point marker!


There was a fifteen minute wait to do this, and the people who were in line behind the subjects ended up being the photographers. Everyone was having a great time. We were closer to Cuba at this spot than we were to Miami!

On the way back to Grassy Key, we took a little side trip to the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key.  This is home to the subspieces of the Whitetail deer known as the Key deer.  


There are only 600 to 800 of these animals left, and they can only be found in the Florida Keys.


Weighing between 65 to 85 pounds, they are smaller than a Great Dane.

Our time in the Keys was short, but we managed to relax and have a good time.  We definitely will be back, as there is a lot more to see that we didn’t have time for.  Our next post will be from locations north of here, as we can’t get any further south!  

Flamingo – Everglades National Park

“Progress came and took it’s toll – and in the name of flood control,

They made their plans and they drained the land – now the glades are going dry.”

John Anderson – Seminole Wind

Driving around the urban and agricultural areas of southeast Florida, it didn’t take long to realize that most of the land we were on was once part of the Everglades.  All of the farmland west of Miami was once part of the river of grass.  Even Miami International Airport was once home to gators, anhingas and sawgrass.  The maze of canals diverting the water coming out of Lake Okeechobee is staggering.  The Everglades we see today are but a small percentage of what existed prior to the 20th century….and the fresh water entering the current version of the glades is for the most part controlled by man.  Couple that with rising sea levels and salinity, it is easy to see that this fragile ecosystem is truly endangered.  Perhaps not ‘dry’, in the literal sense of the word, but certainly different from what it once was.

On the one hand, visiting the park left me with a sense of uneasiness for treading on the remaining portion of the Everglades.  But if you remember what I said about my preconceived notions regarding the ‘swamp’, I realize just how important it is for us to see this place firsthand.  On our trip into the lower glades to Flamingo on Sunday, it quickly became apparent that our visit to Shark Valley was merely an introduction to the novel that the Everglades truly is.

Entering the eastern side of the park from the city of Homestead, we stopped at the Coe Visitor Center.  Information on everything the National Park Service offers regarding the park is available there.  From Coe, we stopped at the Royal Palm Visitor Center.  This location is more about the attached trails than being a ‘visitor’ center, per se.

The first thing you notice are all these blue tarps on the cars.  It turns out that the vultures in the area have developed a taste for rubber windshield seals and wipers.

I pulled this photo from the web.  While we didn’t see any vultures munching on cars while we were there, we didn’t want to chance it.  We tarped the Ford.  🙂

The first of two paths we explored was the Anhinga Trail.

This beauty was poised along the side, smiling for the camera.  One interesting thing we found out about alligators is that while their bite can exert a tremendous amount of force, their muscles that open their jaws are quite weak.  Good to know if you ever find yourself in a wrestling match with one.  🙂


These bromeliad airplants were nestled in the branches of one of the trees along the trail. They are not attached to the tree; they merely use it for support.


Further down the path, I spotted this Morning Glory.


This Red-bellied turtle was checking out the tourists.


There were several Anhingas along the path.  This one was drying off after a morning swim.


A couple of birders we met identified this as an Eastern Phoebe.

The other trail in this area is the Gumbo-Limbo trail.


This stand of trees was decimated by Hurricane Andrew’s 150 mile per hour winds in 1994.  It has since rebounded nicely.


The path is named for the Gumbo-Limbo trees that grow here.  This unique tree is often referred to as the Tourist tree, as it sports a sunburned appearance.  It was used for a variety of purposes, from carousel horses to medicinal salves.

From Royal Palm, we drove 35 miles straight out to Flamingo.

This is where the river of grass meets Florida Bay.  There were thousands of birds on the tidal flats.


We spotted these American White Pelicans amongst the bunch.  These are some of the largest birds in North America, similar in size to Trumpeter Swans and California Condors.



There are several camping options available at Flamingo, including this nice trailer loop.  There is also a small visitor center.


This is a Swallow-tail Kite.  Tough photo to take, as they move really fast!

From Flamingo, we worked our way back, stopping at most of the overlooks and trails along the way.  We were hoping to see some Roseate Spoonbills…which we did not…but we did see plenty of other birds!


A Great White Egret, looking for something in the tall grass.


An Osprey hanging out in it’s nest.


I’m fairly sure this is a Raven and not a Crow. Definitely not a Patriot, Ram, Bronco … and certainly not a Lion.


A couple of Florida Vultures hanging around in the trees.

  A Great Egret in flight.

A big highlight of the day was Pay-Hay-Okee overlook.


The unusual name of this place means ‘grass river’…and what better place than this to view the endless miles of sawgrass.  I had difficulty photographing a blade of this unique plant, but here is an image from the web. 


It is triangular in structure, with upwards-facing serrations along it’s edges. Moisture is gathered in these serrations, thus feeding the plant.  Be careful…they are sharp!

As we walked down the ramp from the overlook, we heard an owl down in a thicket next to the structure.


We peered in and found this Barred Owl.


We showed it to other visitors on the deck, and everyone was really quiet and respectful of the bird’s space.

If you have never been to the Everglades, we hope you are able to see this fragile ecosystem in the near future.  The diversity of species here is astounding.  It’s amazing the Everglades still exist, with all that mankind has thrown at them in the past century.  Efforts are being made to restore a portion of the historic flow… but there are huge politics in play, so the outcome remains to be seen. We certainly hope the restoration happens.


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