Naples – Apollo Beach – St. Petersburg, FL

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So, I continued my journey from Miami along I-75 towards Naples. The drive through Everglades National Park was scenic in its own unique way. There weren’t many spots that would have offered something special to photograph, but the roughness of the wilderness made the scenery beautiful. The early afternoon traffic in Naples was not bad, so I decided to take a break from driving and visit Naples Botanical Garden. The garden is pretty and cozy, and a lot of plants were blooming even now which was surprising considering the time of the year. Parts of the garden are quite exotic, so a couple of hours go by really fast, especially if you are into taking photographs.

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When I continued from Naples toward Apollo Beach, the traffic slowed me down quite a bit. After Punta Gorda darkness started to fall, so I focused on driving. My initial idea was to visit Sarasota, but the plans changed due to the extra stop in Naples. One of my best friends lives in Apollo Beach, so I had a good reason to get there as quickly as possible. In the evening, we decided to eat in a local sports bar called Beef ‘O’Brady’s. The atmosphere was perfect for catching up, and their sandwiches are really delicious, so it’s worth a stop in case it is on your way to or from Tampa.

The next day we decided to visit a few places that sounded interesting to me. One of them was the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. The place offers best possibilities to view manatees during winter months, and it is common to see 50-100 manatees right from their viewing deck. We didn’t see just manatees but also rays as well as various other fish, crabs, butterflies, and birds when we walked down their natural trail bridge. The center also has interesting exhibitions, and it’s near I-75, so it is really easy to get there.

Then we decided to drive around the Tampa Bay, because on the other side of the bay, in St. Petersburg, there was a well-known Salvador Dalí Museum. However, on our way there, we stopped in Ruskin for an ex tempore picnic lunch. A local deli called Hot Tomato Café and Bakery made us tasty sandwiches to go, especially their Cuban sandwich was to die for! We ended up eating in the E. G. Simmons Regional Park. It is a lovely waterfront sanctuary and campground that offers swimming, kayak rentals, picnic facilities, and plenty of bank fishing areas. The park itself is smallish, but it is well-maintained and the skyline of Tampa across the bay creates a nice background for all kinds of outdoor activities.

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The drive to St. Petersburg over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is really beautiful. Even though I had just driven 120 miles along a road that goes from one island to another, this road had a different feel to it. There was less traffic at this time of a day, and maybe the clearer day was a reason for it, but the waters surrounding the road seemed more inviting. The bridge that was built in the 1980s is 4.1 miles long and raises high above the emerald-green Gulf waters. The rest areas in both ends offer good opportunities to admire great views. In the north end of the bridge there are often kite boarders enjoying the warm waters and nice breeze, and as I am a kite enthusiast, I just had to stop there for a chat. When they heard that I had been flying all kinds of larger sport and foil kites, one of them invited me to take his kite and board out there. It was really tempting, but maybe not the safest idea as I didn’t know the waters at all, so we thanked him and wished steady winds.

The museum is located in an interesting looking modern building and it has the largest collection of Dalí’s work outside Europe. It also is home to seven of the eighteen “masterwork” paintings that Dalí has painted, the most of any museum in the world. The museum is a “must see” place in the west side of the bay! The guides are knowledgeable and funny, and the garden behind the museum is beautiful. If you have hard time motivating the teens of the family (or younger ones) to visit the museum, I would recommend watching a short film called “Destino” on YouTube. The production of the film originally began in 1945 as a collaboration of Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney, but it was not released until in 2003. It is a beautiful six-minute story that tells the love story of Chronos and a mortal woman named Dahlia. In the film, she is shown to dance through surreal scenery inspired by Dalí’s paintings.

In the evening we visited some relatives of my friend and enjoyed a delicious family dinner! Thank you Grandma Theresa and Grandpa Vincent!

Top three picks in the area:

  1. Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center
  2. Salvador Dalí Museum
  3. Sunshine Skyway Bridge
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Key West – Everglades National Park

Starting the trip from the south tip of Florida sounded like a good idea. Spending a couple of days in Key West doing nothing but exploring the small town, no hurry anywhere, was exactly what was needed to wash away the tension and stress that had built up during the weeks leading to the deadline of my last project. The town surprises with its friendly, laid-back atmosphere. The restaurants are crowded with people who clearly enjoy their visit; the same cannot be said about the drivers who desperately try to find a parking spot for their cars. I visited the mandatory buoy of the southernmost point of the continental US, walked through the rooms that Ernest Hemingway once lived in, and ate in the Deuce’s Off the Hook Grill. The food was excellent in general even though I really loved their hummus platter. The whole town has managed to hold on to the real small town feeling even though massive amounts of tourists visit it every year.

The drive along the chain of the Keys is not exactly full of new experiences but rather quite redundant. However, switching to the attitude of paying attention to details helps a lot in conquering the boredom that may linger around. The ocean is, after all, really beautiful, and short stops here and there offer opportunities to notice things that do not necessarily stand out at first. Like, for those who love fishing but are not familiar with the ones in these waters, this sign:

Everglades: Swamp and alligators? Definitely plenty of both, but also beautiful birds, turtles, panthers, and stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico. Both the Ernest Coe Visitor Center and the Flamingo Viewing Center are worth a visit, but the closest to the animals you can get at the Royal Palm Visitor Center. The guides there are really knowledgeable and tell interesting facts about the animals and the history of the Everglades National Park. The tour is perfect for both adults and families with children, because there is something for everyone to see. There is quite a lot of parking space, so even that is not an issue. All year round, a water bottle is a must!

 

Top three picks in the area:

  1. The whole small town of Key West
  2. Deuce’s Off the Hook Grill
  3. Royal Palm Visitor Center