Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Many Faces of Cypress Gardens

Cypress Gardens started out as a botanical garden on a private estate. While it has grown and adapted to the competitive environment of Florida attractions over the many years since it began- it is still a magnificent botanical garden, both natural and formal, first and foremost. But surely there is something here for everyone: a butterfly conservatory, an aviary, a zoological display (with things you won't likely see elsewhere like a black spotted leopard and an agouti), a Southern Mansion with belles in gowns strolling the property, an amusement park, and a world class water skiing show that has been running for the last 60 years consecutively- making this the longest running athletic display event in the country.
The view from the sky ride- a space needle like ride that carries you 153 up in the air for a bird's eye view of the grounds is terrific and a great place to hear a brief history of the place while the observation platform rotates so you won't miss anything the guide is talking about.

Another reminder: click on photos to enlarge and "back arrow" to return to blog.

Looking up at the sky ride...
And looking straight down from 153 feet in the air...
and then out over the garden grounds.
There are dozens of large topiary pieces all of which were beautifully executed and in terrific condition, even for the winter month display.

There are waterfalls, flowing streams, and a huge lake- all part and parcel to the park....
There are Cypress trees pretty much everywhere- hence the name, but at Lake Eloise they are very large and stand majestically, draped in Spanish moss by the water's edge.
In the Oriental garden section, bamboo of all sizes and shapes rustle musically in the wind.
The Banyan Tree is worth the price of admission alone. It is breath-takingly huge and beautiful at the same time.
The head shot photo roster on the entryway to the ski stadium reads like a who's who of the water ski world, and many if not most of the sports greats have performed here or been a part of the ski team at one time or another. The show was very entertaining!
Their signature pyramid performed while flying the American flad passes by the stadium seating in revue....
These skiers are heading right to left, having just cleared the jump ramp "three up" and are each performing a different flip maneuver.
The butterfly girls wave to visitors as they exit the ski show and welcome them to other parts of the grounds.
This Galapagos sized tortoise was as eager to look at us as we were to look at him....
But "Action Jackson", here " behaved just like I normally do, by sticking his head in harm's way and hamming it up for the cameras. It seemed like he and his family were having a great time at the gardens....and there will be a lot of people go home with a photo very similar to this one!
This "photo op" gator marked the entrance to the display which housed some of the actual alligators that "starred" in the Tarzan movies of the 1930's. Now if that isn't special, then I don't know what is!!! Ahhhh, ee ah ee ah ee ah eee ah!

Oh, and the price of admission to the park includes a second day visit (used within a week) at no additional charge. So since our timing seems to have been simply impeccable on this visit, we will go back again Sunday to hear The Beach Boys in concert. Surf's up, dude!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Way Down Upon The Suwanee

Everybody, now: "Way down upon the Suwanee River, Far, far from Home...." Well, it finally fit our schedule to visit the lower Suwanee River and the town of the same name. Beautiful old Florida area. A brisk but meandering river of legend, Spanish moss more dense in most cases than the leaves in the trees- big trees. We did manage to get one kayak run up the river but weather in the form of rain and tornadic activity kept us off the river for the most part. Unless, of course, you count parking right up against the banks of the river as technically being ON the river. What a campsite!

Some business dealings not related to our travels required us to use up too much of our time there. While it is a beautiful spot, it is also a very remote spot and there was NO cell phone signal that worked for us at all. When we had to make a call, which we had to do almost every day that we were there, we had to drive at least 20 miles down the road to get even a faint signal. The campground had a wifi that was woefully inadequate and seldom if ever allowed me to connect, so we pretty much had to make a run whenever we needed computer hookup, paper document transmissions and so on as well. At the end of our stay, the management asked us if we would return. We told them we would love to but our need for communication might preclude that. However they assured us that the brand new wifi which would be fast and powerful and on a giant tower rather than on a small sat dish would be ready in a couple weeks. Who knew. Timing is everything. But at least now we know we will be able to get back there again some day. It's a beautiful part of Florida. And perhaps part of that is because it has not been over built, over populated, and over run by man and his technology at this point yet. Ain't no Walmart here, folks!We're pretty much in the center of the shot above and that's us below as well.

Whether you looked upstream or down, the Cypress trees and knees made for spectacular scenery.
Twenty eight (28) miles from camp, on Highway 19 near Chiefland, Florida, Bob and Nancy Ross own and operate one of the few remaining roadside Cypress stands left in this part of the state, where once there were many. We had passed it on the way to the campground and had fully intended to go back for a visit and a tour. Besides, they are located in a sweet spot for cell signal! And we sure needed that! Suwanee River Woods sells the cross cut sections of the giant Cypress tree trunks that have become the classic Florida table tops, clocks, carving materials from the days when cutting the trees was not strictly regulated and everyone had a piece of the action. Today, the Rosses sell the trunk sections and slabs from legal, commercial operations. They use only the portion of the tree that is not used for lumber....and NO LIVING TREE is ever cut just to produce their product line of woods- it's all byproduct.

Most, but not all, of their wood is "raw" meaning it has not been sanded and sealed prior to purchase. That's because they they want to know how you plan to use the wood before they treat it or do anything at all with it. Once sealed, the Cypress takes on the appearance of the aromatic wood, cedar, which they also have as part of their product line. The irregular shape of the trunk of each Cypress tree makes each cross section cut a thing a beauty and a one of a kind piece of wood. They are truly beautiful.

Bob carves fish out of "Pecky" Cypress. The holes in the wood are produced by a fungus which makes each piece a prized treasure. Nature is the best artist of all................. We tried for an hour or better to find a piece that could fit into our "limited wall space" traveling home, but just couldn't do it. Bummer!

Nancy arranges some tillandsias, air plants, into the holes in some Pecky Cypress. The large slabs are most generally made into bar tops, coffee tables, totems, mantels, benches and the like. When we visited, their web site was not operational, so I can't help you with that contact, but they certainly do have an enormous selection of quality pieces if you are ever in the market.
The Rosses came to this place and started their business some 30 years ago. Their swamp buggy, which Nancy told us was impossible to get stuck, has fallen into a state of disrepair while they tended to business, but it was still a fascinating addition to the "collection" of things to look over at their place of business. There is a quiet sadness about the things that, rightly or wrongly, get neglected while we go about running the business of our lives. Marilyn and and I are so happy to have this time now to go about rediscovering just that kind of thing along the trails of our travel.
Back at camp, Abby took advantage of a break in the bad weather of the week and did a little sunbathing............way down upon the Suwanee River, far, far from home.

A Little Sugar And Some Mermaids

Before leaving the Crystal River area, there were two stops we hoped to make- one, a new discovery of Marilyn's, the ruins of the Yulee Sugar Mill, and the other, the Mermaids at the Weeki Wachee Springs. Both are well worth the time to visit. Both are state parks now, with Weeki Wachee having just been acquired by the State of Florida to restore the facility after 60 years of private operation by the town of the same name.

Named for the founder, builder, and incidentally, the first state senator from Florida, David Levy Yulee (an interesting guy and well worth Googling if you are a history buff) the mill was one of the premier providers of sugar, syrup and molasses to the southern region of the country for 10 years leading up to the Civil War. Yulee, a man of Peace, made a difficult decision to support the Confederacy and became the leading provider of sugar to that war effort, although he did not permit the use of the rail system that he had also built.

Partially restored at this point, the old limestone mill stands some hundred years later with some of the machinery which, in its day, was expensive and state of the art and had been made and imported from New York. Employing upwards of a thousand people in its hay day, the laborers are best described as slave labor. It was a hot and grueling and labor intensive task at which they worked. The presses below squeezed the juice from the sugar cane to begin the process.
The boiler that heated the syrup was a large cast iron tank that was heated by the wood fire directly below the tank.
The processed syrup was then cooled in a series of large kettles and each kettle in the process further refined the sugar.

The park is merely 6 acres and doesn't take long to explore, but the sense of history that surrounds the place is rather profound. The self guided tour is accomplished with the help of plaques describing the history of the times, the process of the mill, and the impact on the local and national scene.
Then off to Weeki Wachee Springs, home of real, live mermaids! No joke! The town built around the spring is populated by "certified" mermaids who perform underwater in the spring on a daily basis. It's a fantasy land for little girls and old men alike and anyone that marvels at the ability to hold one's breath under water while performing amazing acts of physical activity, graceful ballet, and dramatic theater.
I was excited to see my first real mermaid. I had read about the place and it's struggle to survive after 60 years of opoeration. I knew the mermaids swam in a crystal clear spring and I presumed they did some basic underwater ballet and the like, but I was unprepared for what they actually do- which is to put on musical plays, complete with dialog, dance, acrobatics, and song. What regular singers, actors, and dancers do on a stage, the mermaids can do underwater, while holding their breath. But wait, these aren't mermaids, they are Koi....
Oh! There they are! Our first look at the mermaids came in the underwater theater during a full performance of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." The curtain of air bubbles went up and there they were! Please note- there are no scuba tanks, no air supply attached to the mermaids. They stay under water performing the "theater" for about a half hour at a time. They take their "breath" from a rubber hose which emits air bubbles that they have been trained to breath. And NO! I am not making this up! Each mermaid can hold her breath, even during physical activity, for nearly three minutes. Trust me- that is a long time to hold your breath. And the more active you are while holding your breath, the harder it is and generally the less the time you can sustain yourself without breathing. But don't take my word for how amazing these mermaids are at performing. Look at the second hand on your watch. Yes, YOU. Now take a deep breath and time yourself- no cheating. Keep still to improve your time. Most of you will likely not last 30 seconds. A minute is excellent. But three? That's amazing, especially while dancing and swimming underwater, under pressure, and while smiling and posing for the crowd.
Here, the star of the show swims gracefully across the spring during the performance. Note the black hose just below her in the water. When she needs a breath, she will swim to the end of the hose, take a casual breath from the bubbles that come out and continue on. If she does a complicated maneuver such as a loop or spiral up or down, she may hold the hose in her hand rather than break ranks to return to the air, but she will handle the air hose more like a ribbon or streamer and it thus becomes part of the choreography and not a distraction from the illusion that she is actually not requiring air down there.
What the mermaids can do underwater is quite amazing, although difficult to photograph. The glass and the water between the performers and the audience dissipates color and makes much of the set look blue to the camera. The human eye sees more color than the camera, although the "bluing" is common to both- no matter how clear the water.
Below is a look at the actual part of the spring where the underwater theater is housed. Doesn't look like much from the surface, does it? The spring averages 30 feet and more in depth, although the spring itself in the center of the "stage" area actually goes down way over 120 feet. In order to qualify as a mermaid, the girls must be able to - on a single breath - free dive to the depth of 120 feet, then ascend slowly to the surface. (One mermaid demonstrates this skill during the performance) The audience is asked to hold their collective breath as she performs this challenge. LONG BEFORE the mermaid returns to the surface, everyone in the audience is back to breathing normally!
This shot shows a couple of the mermaids sitting on the anchor and demonstrating the underwater breathing technique. I have always fancied myself a fairly good free diver. I can breath from a free flowing air hose at any depth when scuba diving, but no way can I hold my breath and go without air even approximating the level of skill that these girls, uh, mermaids, demonstrate ever day at Weeki Wachee Springs. After the show, and depending on the time of year you visit, you can do other things at the spring. We enjoyed a float down the river in perfectly clear water. Lots of fish and some more manatee sightings up close and personal.

Mermaid or manatee?????
Above and below, you can compare the "tails" of the mermaids and the manatee. Ancient lore tells us that sailors that thought they saw mermaids had actually seen manatees and not realized what they were seeing. Personally, I think you have to be at sea for a very long time in order for that mistake to take place. Either that, or the captain had tapped the keg of rum and no one aboard was thinking straight... But these still remain the primary theories for how we came to know of mermaids. Unless, of course, you are a believer! And after a trip to Weeki Wachee Springs, you just might be one.