Florida – It’s A Jungle Down Here

June was a sad month in Central Florida. To add to the sorrow of shootings at the Pulse night club in Orlando, a two year old was snatched by an alligator and drowned. Those of us who live in here  know that “fantasyland” does not extend to daily life. I have been waiting out of respect for the Graves family to write something on the topic of alligators. With the publishing of a spot-on op-ed piece in the Tampa Bay Times by Darryl Fears (http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/column-the-natives-always-know-alligators-are-everywhere-in-florida/2282141), I figure it’s time.

I’ve lived in Florida for more than 35 years. Prior to moving here, we lived in the relative safety of Maine. We played in the woods almost daily, picnicked, hiked and even walked a quarter mile down the thickly wooded road to our closest neighbors to play. The one admonition I remember from our parents was to steer clear of bears with cubs.

Flash forward to my military dad getting an assignment to sunny tropical Florida. He gathered us kids together to tell us Florida is not like Maine. Forget playing in the woods or even stopping to pick roadside flowers. He told us there were poisonous snakes and alligators living there and we had to be aware at all times.

Our first exposure to alligators was when we visited Gatorland in Kissimmee. Opened in 1949, it was small classic roadside attraction in the 1970s complete with a giant gator’s open toothy jaws for an entrance. It was an introduction to getting to know our new state. We saw more alligators when visiting Silver Springs in Ocala. Outside of that, I don’t recall seeing alligators in their natural habitat; I just wasn’t looking for them. Now I can spot one even partially submerged in a canal while riding along Alligator Alley at 55mph.

Alligators are everywhere – fresh bodies of water and man-made lakes, retention ponds, canals, ponds on golf courses, etc. Rapid development has encroached on their home. I have swum in Wekiva Springs, gone tubing at Moss Park and swum in a couple lakes in my youth. I remember people swimming in Lake Downy in east Orange County every summer. People water ski on lakes here all the time. All the while I never gave it a thought that this is where snakes and alligators live. After reading about a fatality at Turkey Lake Park many years ago, I never swam in fresh water again.

I have a healthy respect for alligators and know to stay clear of areas where they commonly live. I never walk my dogs near bodies of fresh water after the one time I heard a low growl followed by a large splash into a pond on the other side of some trees where I was walking up on an adjacent sidewalk. By the size of the splash, I judged we escaped being attacked by a fairly good sized alligator. I live in a subdivision where alligators are a common sight, sunning on the banks of man made retention and landscape ponds and lurking in the water sometimes with only the area above their eyes and part of their tail visible. I have even seen two baby alligators up close – one in a drain culvert, the other behind a telephone pole on dry land. I would agree with Mr. Fears – alligators are lurking everywhere in Florida

(I am still more afraid of snakes and being bit by one. Even holding a Indigo snake has not quelled my intense fear.)

As to the argument that people from other states or countries are not aware that Florida being a tropical climate has tropical wild life – whenever I travel, I try to educate myself to what wild like I might encounter as a was to protect myself. Every one who travels should do that. It’s just common sense. We have to be responsible for our own safety. As for posting signs everywhere to warn of alligators – that’s a lot of signs. The fact is alligators move from location to location. Think of it this way – Very few beaches post signs about sharks, which we all know live in the ocean, yet people still go in the water.

I used to work at Disney back in the 1970s. One day I encountered a huge alligator resting across the entrance road to what used to be the Golf Resort while driving a bus. One of the guests suggested I get out and chase it off the road. Not on your life! I drove on the grass instead to get around and reported it when I got to the hotel. I can remember swimming once being allowed at the beaches but with the danger of bacterial meningitis, the no swimming signs were posted. There are lots of watercraft that run on the lake, so you could encounter one.

Unfortunately, it has been my experience to observer that there is sometimes a disconnect with some people when they come to Disney in regards to wild animals, something to the effect that some folks can’t differentiate between fantasy and reality. When I was working on Monorails, I heard about a guest getting bit by a snake near the ferry boat dock. When Medical asked why the guest picked up the snake he replied that he thought Disney snakes don’t bite! Thank God, it turned out to be a non-poisonous water snake. I say if it isn’t wearing a Disney name tag, it is a real animal and poses a danger.

It is wise to remember that Disney was built on swampy wetlands and thick forest, natural habitat to snakes, alligators, etc. It’s a jungle down here folks.

Posted in Florida, Orlando, Walt Disney World | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Memorial Day Remembrance

Since today is Memorial Day, I have been thinking about what war memorials I had visited that I could write about. I came to the somewhat sorry realization that I hadn’t been to very many. A few memories stand out.

As a 11 year old girl, I can remember proudly marching in the Memorial Day Parade in Machias, Maine. I was the girl given the honor of bearing the American flag in front of our Girl Scout troop. The parade wound through town ending at the cemetery where a short ceremony was held to honor the fallen military. I felt so important that day.

The strongest memory for me was visiting the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor multiple times when my Dad was stationed in Hawaii in the 1960’s. Yes, more than 50 years ago, but the memories of those visits stay with me after all this time.

I am ashamed to say that I dreaded going to the memorial. We went every time we had visiting relatives in town. I was probably too young to appreciate what this memorial stands for and for a 6 to 8 year old girl, it wasn’t very interesting.

There is an overwhelming sense of how deep the harbor is; so deep that most, but not all of the immense 600 foot battleship is below the surface, but just barely. I remember sitting on the edge of the platform by the railing, looking at the dark, foreboding water below, watching the oil slicks that covered the water’s surface even after 2o years. At almost every visit, I did this, sitting and staring into the water, trying to comprehend the sadness of what had occurred that December day. How unfair it was that these 1,177 men (as well as those on land) were caught unaware and killed far too soon. Sometimes I would say a prayer for them. I would look at the names engraved on the marble wall, too many to remember – someone’s son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, uncle, cousin, friend, sweetheart.

Another thing I remember – while in Hawaii, my third grade classes were held in what had once been barracks on Hickam Airfield. The bullet holes in the walls of some of the classrooms were a creepy daily reminder of what had happened. At recess, I would stand under the huge shady banyan trees outside, trying to image what it must have been like for those men to try to outrun the Japanese planes shooting at them and if those trees offered any safe shelter.

This Memorial Day, let us remember the sacrifice of those who have servedour country. Some of them paid the ultimate price for freedom with their lives. They fight and die so we are free from oppression and live to realize our dreams.

 

Posted in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Lenten Dining Ideas – Fish & Chips

It is now the week before Easter and if like so many you are abstaining from meat for Lent, you may well be running out of interesting and delicious ideas of what non-meat meals to eat on Fridays. Raised Catholic, I know your pain. The Fridays of my childhood (not just Lenten Fridays, but all Fridays back then) my mother (God bless her!) served the dreaded and tasteless meals of Tuna Fish Casserole (the kind with the crushed potato chips on top), frozen fish sticks and fish cakes. There was an occasional meal of frozen breaded clam strips that were not much better. I did not know that fish had another and very real form until my sister caught a Rainbow trout when I was about 9 years old and I learned how good fresh caught fish could be. What’s even more amazing is that we lived four of those years in Maine with its abundance of fresh seafood.

Fast forward to today. No longer a Catholic, I married a Catholic who follows his religious requirements seriously. As an avowed foodie, the horrid meals of my youth are unacceptable. Even so, with seven meals (including Ash Wednesday) to plan for, I sometimes get tired and less creative near the end of the season. There is one meal we have at least once during Lent that my husband really loves – British pub-style fish and chips.

Fish and chips are served in all types of restaurants these days. Having actually eaten fish and chips at a very good restaurant and take-away shop in London many years ago, my standards of what constitutes good fish and chips is very high.

There are numerous English and Irish pubs (or imitations) in the Tampa Bay area. Here are four for now.

Topping the list is Cricketeers in Dunedin. Located in a strip mall right before going onto the causeway, it is a pretty good replica of an English pub with dark wood, dart boards and soccer on the big screen tellies. The menu has a good selection of English pub grub – think Shepherd’s Pie, Bangers n’Mash, etc. Go for their fish and chips, which are the best in Tampa Bay. Highly unusual is that they offer three types of fish to choose from – pollock, cod and haddock. Get the haddock – it’s worth the extra cost. The three pieces of fish are huge and the beer batter is just right – golden with a perfect crunchiness, not too heavy and not greasy. The fish is moist and delicious. Dinners are served with chips (fries) and coleslaw. I do find fault with their chips as they are regular fries not the wide planks one gets in the UK. IMG_0424The bonus – Cricketeers makes their own tartar sauce in house. For smaller appetites, try the haddock fingers appetizer. Fingers is the British term for fish sticks. The photo to the left shows they are not a stick at all, but thick portions of beer battered haddock served on a bed of shredded romaine lettuce. A side order of coleslaw makes for a perfect light meal. There are several UK beers to choose from to enjoy with your meal or teetotalers can have a mug of milky hot tea, great on a cool foggy evening or iced tea or soda. Cricketeers is very popular with the locals and can be very crowded. Wednesday evenings there is live music and all-you-can eat crab so the place is packed with senior citizens making it hard to get a table.

IMG_0705My second choice is The Pub at International Plaza’s Baystreet in Tampa. The Pub is another good replica of a British pub with a bit more upscale vibe. The servers wear kilt-style skirts with black tee shirts with the restaurant’s logo on the front and shnarky Brit comments on the back. Their version of fish and chips is very good  – one good sized piece of haddock with a light non-greasy beer batter accompanied by fries and coleslaw. Wash it down with their selection of beers from the UK.

Peggy O’Neills Irish Sports Bar and Eatery (West Hillsborough/Oldsmar location) will do in a pinch. The fish and chips can be hit and miss here – good one time and a bit greasy another. For a change of pace, I tried the beer battered shrimp ‘n chips The shrimp were ladened with too much batter which makes for a stuffed feeling after eating them. The best item on the menu is their amazing Cheese Soup.

At the bottom of my list is Maloney’s Local Irish Pub in Westchase. Every time I walk by here, the place is crazy busy. Besides the beer, I am obviously missing what others find good about this place. I can assure you its not the fish and chips. Their version is the strangest I’ve ever seen – the fish piece was totally flat like it had been pounded thin or something heavy had been placed on top of it. It was greasy and had an off taste. We have not been back here since.

We’ll keep researching more fish and chips in the Tampa Bay area and let you know where the best catch is in another post next year.

 

Posted in Dining, Florida, Tampa | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dunedin Highland Games 50th Anniversary

Scottish-DancerEvery year for one weekend in the spring a wee bit of Scotland comes to the west coast of Florida – the annual Dunedin Highland Games.  The mournful cry of the bagpipes call to all whether ye be Scottish in blood or just in spirit.

This year (2016) the games take place the weekend of March 31st thru Saturday April 2nd and will commemorate 50 years of the games’ existence. It is a celebration of all things Scottish.

Schedule of Events:

  • Pipers on the Pier, Saturday, March 26, 5:30 pm Weaver Park, Bayshore Boulevard along Dunedin’s waterfront – Free event kicking off the Highland Games week. There will be highland dancing and 50 Pipers on the Weaver Park Pier at sunset! Bring lawn chairs. Vendors, food and drink available for purchase.
  • Celidh in Pioneer Park, Downtown Dunedin, Thursday, March 31st – A free concert by Off Kilter (of Epcot Center fame) a high energy rock band with bagpipes.
  • Pipe Band March, Friday, April 1st through the streets of Downtown Dunedin starting at 6:30pm –  At least 16 bands have signed up so far.
  • Tartan Clan Reception, Friday, April 1st – At the Dunedin Scottish Arts Foundation Hall, 1134 Douglas Avenue in downtown Dunedin. The reception will be held at 7:30 pm, immediately after the Pipe Band March. This ticketed event is open to the public. Ceremonial Scottish and evening dress required.
  • DHG Trail Run 5K, Saturday April 2, 9am. for runners of all skill levels.

The main event at Highlander Park on Michigan Avenue from 8:30am to 8pm features:

  • Watch as handsome brawny lads compete in athletic feats of strength – caber (Yes, the telephone pole thing to the non-Scottish) toss, sheaf toss, hammer throw and tug-of-war.
  • Highland Dancing Competitions on the main stage
  • Individual piping and drumming and Pipe and Drum Corp competitions
  • Parade of the Clans
  • Sheep herding demonstration
  • Kids Fun Zone – Haggis Toss, “Mini” Caber Toss, “Mini” Sheaf Toss and old-fashioned Sack Races, face painting and balloon artist for the “wee Brauns.”
  • Entertainment by Seven Nations
  • Beer Tent – Sample beers from all over the British Isles
  • All manner of food and Celtic merchandise available.

Tickets are $16 in advance, $18 at the gate. Children 12 & under are free. Please no pets and no coolers. For more information, visit their website at http://dunedinhighlandgames.com/.

It’s sure to be a fun day for all. Hope to see you there!

Posted in Tampa Bay Treasures | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Cossetta’s – It’s Amore!

(Sixth in a series on winter travel)


Charming historic eateries are fascinating and often feature good local cuisine. In St. Paul, it’s Cossetta’s, an authentic and charming Italian dining spot and market owned and run by the Cossetta family since it opened in 1911. A very short walk from Xcel Energy Center, it was worth walking to on a cold gray day.

Visit all four parts to this eatery:IMG_0555

  • A 300-seat Eatery & Pizzeria – Ooey Gooey delicious hot fresh pizza. A slice of cheese pizza had a nice chewy crust and a generous amount of cheese. They have other flavors including a daily flavor. There are counters for hot entrees and another for sandwiches and salads made to order.
  • Pasticceria – A dream of a pastry and gelato shop. Gleaming dark wood and polished marble floors give the cafe an Old World feel. Brightly lit glass pastry cases run the length of the shop. With so many tempting confections including a variety of Italian desserts, tarts, cookies, cheesecake, tortes and even chocolates made in house it’s hard to decide. Try the macarons. Unique standouts are the red wine flavor and the strawberry and prosecco. If you fancy a cold treat, try one or more of 18 flavors of gelato or Italian Ice. Made fresh daily, the flavor is creamy, lush and incredible. Your taste buds will say Grazie! Order a cappuccino, espresso or other specialty coffee and sit awhile to enjoy with your dessert. Check out the magnificent cakes in the display windows set in the interior and exterior walls of the shop. Some of them are works of art and a worthy centerpiece for any special occasion. Looks are calorie free.

IMG_0556

  • Italian Market – the ultimate Italian grocery store – the Panetteria (Italian bakery) offers fresh baked bread including five different flavors of focaccia daily. Don’t miss the variety of the cheese and deli meat section. Six slices of San Daniele Prosciutto were way cheaper than I can get at home. For the chef or ambitious home cook, there are shelves filled with all the items you need to cook your own Italian meals. Don’t want to cook? There’s a prepared meals counter.
  • Louis Ristorante & Bar on the third floor, which I didn’t get a chance to visit. This hot downtown gathering spot serves traditional and regional Italian cuisine as well as having St. Paul’s largest rooftop bar to enjoy drinks and small plates when the weather is nice.

Bet you’ll fall in love with Cossetta’s too. Go! Mangia! Buon Appetito!

Posted in Bakeries, Dessert, Florida, Specialty Food Markets, St. Paul Minnesota | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mickey’s Dining Car – Classic American Diner

Fifth post in winter travel series.IMG_0628

I have a soft spot for classic diners as they were a big part of my childhood. When transferred from Hawaii to Maine, we literally ate our way across America. In the 1960s, diner food was cheap for a family with four kids to feed and yet served hearty homemade fare. It may be sappy to say, but I still remember one diner in Pennsylvania that made roast beef (the kind slow roasted with onion, carrots and worcestershire sauce for Sunday dinner) and mashed potatoes with gravy just like my Mom’s. The diner experience is a pure American one and never disappoints with good home-style food.

I had heard about Mickey’s from fellow Taste Trekkers members prior to my trip to St. Paul and the buzz continued during my stay. Staff at the Xcel Center assured me it was definitely a must go to place. If the locals sing its praise, you gotta eat there. Dine where the locals dine and you rarely ever go wrong with the choice.

A short walk from the St. Paul Hotel in lightly falling snow on a Sunday morning brought me to the restaurant. I was lucky to get in without a wait. At times, a line forms that goes out the door. There are only four booths and there is a fee to sit in them. I snagged a stool at the counter right in front of the grill with a view of the griddle to watch the cook do his thing.  At Mickey’s the staff know all their regulars by name. The atmosphere is so comfortable, you may end up like I did, chatting with a local sitting on the stool next to you. It’s a very good way to learn about the city you’re visiting.

IMG_0629It may not be the cleanest place I have ever eaten at – the floor covered in slush and dirt tracked in by constant foot traffic needed a good cleaning. Picture vinyl covered stools and booth seats, a bit of cooking grease sheen here or there and some serious wear and tear. Coats are hung on hooks on the wall. There is no place to set a purse or laptop unless you use the tight counter space which is needed more for the food. Cut the décor some slack; it’s been here a long time.

If you’re a health nut or have food issues, this may not be the place for you. They cook almost everything in butter, the good old fashioned way.

IMG_0632I decided on the pecan waffle with a side of grilled ham. The waffle was thick, but not heavy tasting and studded with lots of pecans. The slice of grilled hostess ham reminded me of all the times I ate Saturday breakfast at Angel’s diner in Orlando when I would finish my 3rd shift job at the local newspaper. With a mug of milky tea, it was a warm and filling breakfast for a snowy winter day.

Being there brought back pleasant memories for me. If you like classic diners, don’t miss this place. If you’re of a certain age, being at Mickey’s will spark memories for you too.

Posted in Breakfast, Diners, St. Paul Minnesota | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Spring Training Baseball a Big Hit For Florida Tourism

It’s spring here in Florida and many a young man’s (and older men as well) fancy turns to romance. The romance of baseball spring training, that is. If there weren’t already enough reasons to come to Florida in March – escaping harsh cold winters up North, college spring break, Disney World, beautiful beaches, etc. – the crack of the bat and cry of “Play Ball” are the siren calls to diehard baseball fans to fly south for the “Grapefruit” League.  More than a million fans made the annual pilgrimage to Florida in 2015. The players have been training hard the last few weeks. The first games are scheduled for March 1st.

Where I live on the west coast of Florida, there is a wide choice of where to go and what team to watch. Take your pick from the Yankees at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, the Toronto Blue Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin and the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Field in Clearwater. If you don’t mind an hour or so away drive from Tampa, catch the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Field in Lakeland, the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton and the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota. Drive further to Ft Myers if you’re a Boston Red Sox or Minnesota Twins fan or see our local boys the Tampa Rays, who used to do spring training at the old Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, but now train down in Port Charlotte. In all, fifteen of 30 MLB teams compete in exhibition games around the state.

In contrast with regular season MLB games, ticket prices are low and seating capacities smaller. For the best seats, reserve well in advance or consider buying a season ticket (generally 15 or so games). Plan on day games seeing capacity crowds. Night games do happen, but are rare. It is possible to get tickets a few days before a game. A quick check of seating availability prior to posting this article showed tickets available for the March 2nd games for both the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin as well as for the Yankees vs the Detroit Tigers in Tampa. (Of course, the seats for the Yankees game are in the highest seating section.)

The relaxed atmosphere and smaller venues permit much greater player-fan contact. Major league teams schedule regimented pre-game autograph sessions.

Expect to fill your scorecard with some new player names. Many spring training invites will wind up in the minors when the big club goes back North. Remembering some of those names as they progress in their careers is part of the fun. It could give you a great story to tell friends later to say “I remember seeing (insert name of player) when he was at spring training”.

Want to rub shoulders with the players? Be on the lookout at local restaurants that players frequent when in town for spring training. In Clearwater, Lenny’s Deli down the road from Bright House Field is a hangout for Phillies players. The bonus is the food is really good especially their house made chicken noodle soup heaped with a generous amount of chicken.

To find out more information, check various web sites, including:

mlb.mlb.com/springtraining/
www.flasports.com/springtraining/
www.floridagrapefruitleague.com/
www.springtrainingonline.com

For the tech savvy smartphone user, there’s the Florida Grapefruit League Mobile Phone App that puts all the information you need at your fingertips.

For those who prefer their baseball games outside, it’s a warm-weather exercise in nostalgia. Sun and baseball fun, it’s a home run no matter how you look at it. Oh, and don’t forget to wear sunscreen.

Posted in Baseball, Florida, Sports, Tampa, Tampa Bay Treasures | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment