Saturday, June 28, 2014

Oh, the Places We Go! How About Alaska?

Sparky and Eldo were getting cabin fever....It's hot in Sarasota now, and the summer muggy season is here. Eldo especially was getting antsy.....He started looking....and looking, and looking..."How about a cruise?" he asks one day...."How about one? Are you finding some good deals?" responded Sparky.

"Yep...How would you like to go to Alaska?" was the million dollar question Eldo came up with.
"HOW WOULD I LIKE TO GO TO ALASKA?" shouted an excited Sparky. "OF COURSE I'd like to go to Alaska!!!!!" That's only been on her bucket list for years and years. Thought it was way too expensive and pretty much had chalked it up to reading about it in other people's blogs. WELL! Eldy, the master researcher, came up with airfare, a BALCONY cabin and all expenses paid there and back, for 1500.00 a person....THAT was terrific and doable! And a fantastic early birthday present for Sparky whose birthday is in July. Next question, "How soon can you be ready to leave?"   "Uh, how about in two days?" Sparky says excitedly. So, he booked it three days before the ship left....He booked through Holland America, on the "Oosterdam", (christened in 2003) and the trip was called the "Glacier Discovery Northbound". Here is our itinerary.

We were going to see three ports--Ketchikan, Skagway, and Juneau, and then a stop in Glacier Bay to see the glaciers! Sparky was SO EXCITED!  She was going to get to be in cooler weather! Woo hoo! We packed and were on our way!

We flew from Tampa to Vancouver....Sparky loves looking out the window and seeing the changing landscapes as you fly over the country. The above photo is as we are leaving Florida. Isn't it gorgeous from above? And then, later, the mountains take your breath away....

The cheapest flight Eldo found was a United flight to Tampa with a stop in Chicago, then Chicago to Vancouver...Sparky doesn't mind layovers at all, as long as they aren't the fast, get to the next gate in less than 10 minutes kind! She LOVES to people watch.....
Once we got to Vancouver, the ship lines had taken our suitcases directly to the ship. All we needed to do was find transportation to the dock. We took a train from the airport right to Waterfront Station to the docks, which was a lot cheaper than taking a taxi. It was 6.75 each as opposed to $45.00 for a taxi. We boarded the "Oosterdam".

The Oosterdam was a nice ship, although it appeared to be a little dated and needed some fixing up...the patio door curtain was dirty, the toilet seat finish was coming off, and the shower curtain was threadbare at the bottom. Minor stuff...The ship had some beautiful areas to it--the atrium/bar area....
Some interesting bench/seating areas...
Beautiful bar stools...

Nice outdoor pool and hot tub...As we traveled further north, these were not used as much.
The indoor pool had a retractible cover to let in fresh air and sunshine or to keep out the cold and rain as we traveled further north.
Even the elevators were something else!
Beautiful floors....You hated to walk on them!

The staff was EXCEPTIONAL---very friendly, the service was amazing! And the best part? The food! Sparky is here to report that the food was----FABULOUS! It was EXCELLENT! Every day, it was wonderful!  Since we booked at the last minute, we did not have assigned seating like you do on some cruises. We could eat whenever we decided, whether we wanted to head to the buffet or the dining room. Every day the food was excellent.

One thing we noticed is that there weren't as many on board activities to choose from on this trip. The highlights of the ports and the glaciers perhaps took precedence over offering more onboard things to do. Exercise classes were expensive---12.00 per class, so Sparky abstained from doing any. She walked the ship decks a few times in the brisk air instead. Temperatures steadily dropped  as we traveled....Most of the time it stayed right around in the high fifties at sea, and low sixties in port. It sure felt great!
Oh, the scenery....WOW!
Lots of seaplanes, of course. Someone told us that 1 in 20 people living in Alaska need one to get around. We believe it!

See you in Ketchikan, our first port in a couple of days....Sparky is spreading out the Alaskan blog just a bit. It takes awhile to sum up the best parts and choose the best photos from a wonderful experience!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Nature Abounds in Our Backyard and Here in Sarasota/Bradenton

Sparky loves it when it rains hard. All the birds come out to play in the little lakes and streams formed right by the golf course. The land is fast draining, so the birds are only there for a short time. They are right back along the edge of our lanai. We've seen flocks of cranes come in…And always the ibis….They feed so fast they are like little jackhammers, and they move along quickly!
Those ibis are so funny to watch! Sparky watched one butt another one out of the way while they were eating, more than once. Like there weren't enough bugs to go around after all the rain!? They look a little bedraggled, don't they?
They squawk at each other, just little squawks….

We had a fox come through at the same time, it's not the first time he's been seen….He rolled around and around on the grass after the rains, just thoroughly enjoying himself until Sparky showed up with her camera, then off he trotted. See ya, Mr. Fox!
And immediately after the ibis strolled quickly through our backyard, along came a pair of black bellied whistling ducks.

Sparky has been over to the Celery Fields in Sarasota, near Sun 'n' Fun,  a couple of weeks ago… The fields are the county's primary storm water collection. A 300+ acre site of wetlands, grasslands, two boardwalks and an observation hill is there to climb where you can get a beautiful view of the surrounding habitats. It exists for everyone's pleasure, particularly birders. Over 100 acres of wetlands has been restored with over 20,000 plants established. The Audubon Society is really amping up the place for better bird viewing. A new visitor center is going to be built there, they are adding restrooms and the big hill has had lots and lots of trees and palms planted for the more than 200 bird species that have been spotted in the wetlands and grassy fields of the former celery fields.

Sparky likes to walk the boardwalks or sit at the gazebo and see what's happening…Today, a lot! She spotted a female limp kin with a nest of babies! Four babies to be exact, but here you can only see two.
Sparky watched for quite awhile….And chatted with some serious birders who had some amazing camera equipment. But Sparky is satisfied with her little Canon powershot.
It's always amazing to see the little babies doing what they need to do instinctively.
The mother was out a little ways from the nest, but not too far. She seemed to be keeping an eye on the little ones as she fed.

Purple gallinules were in sight….at least one, anyway…
A tri color heron was watching and waiting for fish….

And, there was a family of ducks. The babies appeared just about to be grown. They were having a ball sloshing through some serious muck. You could hear them slopping through the mud and they had no trouble finding enough to eat, with their little ducktail fannies repeatedly bobbing up and down as they ate.
When Sparky got closer to the action, the mom moved away from the babies to distract, and posed in the late afternoon sun…..Looks like a mallard?
The last thing Sparky saw was a good sized black snake…ugh!
But, that's a part of nature….Just not Sparky's favorite thing to see! Sparky stamped on the ground and it boogied out of there. Good thing it did, or Sparky would have boogied….It was getting late, time for one more last shot, the mom limp kin hopped up onto the boardwalk railing and made sure we weren't bothering her little chicks on the other side.
Sparky will definitely be back to the Celery Fields again soon!  Bye for now…..

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

All Fired Up to Kayak and No Where to Go….Sea Eagle Woes

Sparky thought she would kayak the Braden River this weekend.  Nice temps, not too hot, so down to the landing she went, Jiggs Landing, about a half mile from her house. Normally, it takes about 8 minutes to inflate the kayak, fasten the seat in, throw in the necessary supplies and set out on the water.

But something wasn't quite right…Sparky was distracted, (no surprise there, laughs E.) and after inflating one side of the kayak and then the other, she went to the car to get the rest of her stuff---food, water, paddle, etc. She came back and darned if one side of the kayak wasn't inflated. Hm-m-mmm…must have forgotten to push the valve stem up so it would hold air or something like that. She pumped it up again. Went to pick up her paddle, which was laying on the ground, looked back at the kayak, and the one side was deflated again.

What the heck??!!!!!  Sparky examined the kayak closely. Pumped it up again, and this time, watched the side chamber slowly deflate again. She couldn't hear any air leaking, so examined the sides very closely…..

AHA! One of the side seams had a portion of the seam completely open.  There was at least a six inch seam opening. WEIRD! The glue looked like it had completely dissolved in the one section. The rest of the seam was firmly and solidly attached. Sparky has pushed up the kayak skin so the gap can be REALLY seen!

Sparky was VERY upset!!! But at least the opening was easily seen NOW and discovered BEFORE getting out on the river, which has alligators in it, aggressive ones this time of year.  Sparky COULD have gone kayaking with a SLO-O-W leak, and lost air out on the water. Could have been much worse…..

Back home she went…She decided to call Inflatable Boats 4 Less, which is a company that is a distributor for Sea Eagle, and the company she had purchased the kayak from two years ago. Sparky had a blog about sitting on the porch at the RV park in the keys, waiting for her kayak to come back then. That boat has seen a LOT of action since then, but not so much since we settled in Bradenton. No matter….Tim and Crystal, the owners of Inflatable Boats 4 Less, were very surprised that the seam opened up, they said that was very unusual. They asked for photos to be sent, and they researched the purchase date. Sparky was very happy to find out that the boat was still under warranty! By the way, Sea Eagles have a THREE year warranty, folks! Woo hoo!

After sending some photos of the seam opening, Tim quickly got back to Sparky, said he had called Sea Eagle, sent them the photos and they were going to send out a brand new hull with a new, updated design at no charge. All Sparky had to do was cut out the DES label with the boat's registration number on it, rendering the kayak useless to repair so she wouldn't get a second boat out of the deal. AWESOME! In less than a few days, Sparky's new 2014 Sea Eagle 385 kayak hull arrived….YAY! There's one year left on the warranty on the new hull, so that's good.

Awesome service from Tim and Crystal…Thanks, guys! Sparky is back out on the river!

Followup note: The next time Sparky went out on the river in the new hull, before embarking, a fisherman came up to her, looked at her boat and said, "Just want you to know, ma'am, that three VERY aggressive male alligators are fighting over there (and he pointed in the direction towards the dam at Jigg's Landing) and you might want to make sure you don't go over in that direction."  Sparky was thinking, "Well of COURSE I want to go over there and see if I can get some photos of some gators duking it out!" But Eldy was with her, helping her unload, and SOME sense prevailed as Sparky resisted the urge to head in that direction after Eldy left the parking lot.  She looked to see if he was watching, and then decided, "Ya know….maybe it isn't such a good idea to go gator hunting in a rubber boat."  Sea Eagle says you can take a claw hammer to the boat and it won't rip the fabric but gator teeth might be another story.  Dang, I wish I had a hard shell kayak! says Sparky.

The Braden River is a beautiful paddle---some old houses along the river banks, some long stretches without any houses to be seen, and some nice wildlife along the way--today, juvenile great blue herons, a BIG turtle in the water…..
Some pretty leaves coming out on the trees…You would have laughed to see Sparky trying to angle her kayak in and around this tree to get a shot of this one overhanging branch. The wind kept blowing the Sea Eagle around, that thing turns on a dime. She'd position herself, the wind would come up, blow the kayak out of range and Sparky would maneuver herself back into position…Only to be blown out again and the camera couldn't focus. By the fifth time maneuvering, Sparky was cussing up a storm. Gotta get that shot! Bound and determined…Finally….
Now, it doesn't look all that special, especially with a camera phone…Oh, well…Sparky just loves taking photos of just about anything and everything….Time to go looking for some photo pops! See ya later…..

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Shimmy Mob? Count Eldo In!

"Hey, El, wanna go see the pops concert at the ball park this weekend?"
"Sure…why not?"  But wait a minute….

"Hey, El, did you see the shimmy mob/belly dancing event advertised in the paper for the Nokomis Beach drum circle Saturday night?"

Eldo perked up….Sparky knew the answer to the next question…."Hm-m-m-m-mmmm…Let me guess the answer to this next question. "Which would you rather go see--the pops concert at the ball park or the belly dancing at the beach?"  Well, DUH! Eldo would rather go see the belly dancing at the beach. Silly Sparky for even asking….

So we went…It was not quite what we thought it would be. A large group of belly dancers, around 30 or more, wearing purple "Shimmy Mob" tee shirts showed up to perform, and the usual cast of characters at the Siesta Key drum circle showed up to promote World Belly Dancing Day. There was the "Jester", a retired school teacher…. 

There was the "Shaman" as we like to call him, the guy with the cream colored bowler hat who has a terrific physique for his age who does the "blessing" ritual of getting the dancing circle ready….and the scarf lady, all previously showcased in previous drum circle blogs…Tonight, it had sort of a lackluster feel to it. The shaman didn't do nearly as much incantation as he normally does, and the jester removed himself to the outside of the circle entirely and watched the rest of the proceedings from up in the lifeguard tower after a brief exhortation to watch the sun set which doesn't really set, as he explained, moving around the circle attempting to educate the crowd.

There were PLENTY of people there all right….

But the belly dancing was just ONE group dance, where the dancers were performing the same choreographed dance in 165 cities all over the country at the same time, 6:30 PM… The dancers were there to raise money for women's shelters, a wonderful cause.

After they finished, they were done, and the usual throng of people clogged up the center circle standing around talking to each other and taking photos of the drummers. The wonderful hoop dancers that use to come last year and the year before were not there, and the people who love to dance in their exotic costumes and really get down to the beat weren't there. We feel lucky that we've seen some really really cool drum circles over the past couple of years. Guess the word has gotten out on how cool they were and although the throngs of people show up each time, the performers are few and far between now. Part of that we think is due to the lack of etiquette shown by the bystanders. There's a reason a large circle is drawn. Bystanders are supposed to stay on the outside of the circle and let the performers do their thing on the inside of the circle. There's no room for them to do their hoop magic, for the scarf/sword lady to do her dancing to the beat, so the really interesting skilled performers seem to be staying away for now…..

Sparky went down to the water's edge for a little while to watch the skimboard surfers do their thing in the good waves curling into the beach. One of the guys did a 360 degree turnarounds on their board in these little waves. They were quite good and fun to watch!

We didn't want to stay any longer at the drum circle so we headed over to the North and South Jetty at Venice, not too far away….Good sightings there, but not the belly dancing kind….(Sigh, says E.)
A lone dolphin swimming out and away from the jetty…….A great blue heron waiting for leftovers…..

A fisherman hoping for a catch of some sort….

A beautiful end to a beautiful day…Time to go home, E…………………...

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Diverse Sarasota/Bradenton!

But living in the Sarasota area makes that very easy to do…One of Sparky's friends from up north said just the other day, "I feel like I'm living in the wrong location! We still have the heat on and are wearing winter jackets!" Come on down, Jeannie…Retire down here in beautiful, sunny Sarasota or the more affordable Bradenton and come see all that there is to do!

We ate breakfast at the Gulf Gate Cafe and Tiki Bar this morning….Didn't spot any dolphins…The food is just OK for breakfast, but boy, what a view! As seen through Sparky's morning beverage of choice.

And there's been sand dredged to expand the beach, so there's a lot more beach to walk afterwards, should you feel so inclined.

We usually head over to the Anna Maria Island City Pier after breakfast to see what wildlife is showing itself. There always seems to be something in the water to see! Today it was several dolphins swimming and diving and a lone dolphin stealing the bait fish off the ends of the fishermen's rods,

along with a pair of snowy egrets waiting for handouts…..

The egrets get a lot of shrimp to eat from the fishermen….They have named some of the birds who frequent the joint…Stewie and Huey were these two…..Sparky resisted asking, "Is there a Dewey and Louie? Or a Dewy, Cheatem, and Howe?" She was in a silly mood. No wine involved.

Sparky saw some cow nose rays gliding by---too wavy and murky today to get a good photo….

Off to downtown Sarasota for the Farmer's Market and a terrific craft fair going on…The amateur piano players were out, but they didn't seem like amateurs. There was some awesome piano scores being played all over town. If you've been reading the blog, you  might have seen the one about there are six artistically painted pianos with built in dehumidifiers in them placed all around Sarasota for several months and anybody can stop and play. Lots of people do! A lot of beautiful music was being played downtown today….

Some artists were out doing their thing…..

Sparky stopped at the arts and craft show and talked to a lady who had very eclectic stuff. It turns out she was a dumpster diver, a purveyor of all things recyclable and trashed…All her art was made from discarded objects from all over the world, bits and pieces of class, metal, and tons of broken objects from her travels and made into funky looking, yet functional pieces. She calls her art "artful necessaries from the finest trash." The name of her booth was "A Pain in My Glass." As Sparky was typing this, she first put a pain in my "ass" unintentionally! Guess that's the whole idea, so you won't forget her booth's name. Cynthia Linden is the artist and calls herself a "trashologist." She was very interesting to talk to, and shared a cute story about how when she first moved to where she is now, she saw the neighbor's house being renovated and a big dumpster outside the house. She saw them leave, thought they were leaving for up north and decided since she hadn't officially met them yet, she'd check out the dumpster while they were gone. While she was IN the dumpster, the neighbors returned, and she couldn't find a good time to exit while they were there. Finally, she poked her head out of the dumpster, at which point they saw her emerge, she introduced herself, and what she did for a living, and now they are the best of friends. Quite the first impression of your neighbor, eh?  Sparky bought a little angel.

By the way, Cynthia's email address starts with "reality bytes….."  A interesting lady with wit and cool pieces of art. Respectfully, Sparky did not take any photos to show you what cool pieces and parts she put together to make things, but a lot of stained glass mixed in with everything you could possibly imagine. Kinda funky, but Sparky really liked her work. (Ummmm….glad Sparky didn't buy anything bigger than this little angel, says a relieved E.) Sparky has trouble convincing Eldy of a home purchase now and then, but he has to admit, that the house has turned out nicely so far. But Sparky hasn't put her stamp of individuality in the decorating department quite yet. She's waiting for the right moment and the right funky piece to add some additional touches. (Uh-oh! And that's all I'm gonna say, says E.)

On to the next event today…The Harvey Milk Festival in downtown Sarasota….A festival honoring the first openly gay mayor of San Francisco AND the diversity of the Sarasota community….It coexisted side by side with the farmer's market, the craft show and had food trucks galore, which caught Sparky's eye. Sparky was more interested in the food trucks than she was in the music entertainment which was so LOUD, it was PAINFUL! After a blah couple of chicken tacos, with eardrums pulsing and the sound booming from the ridiculously loud speakers causing Sparky some significant ear pain, we decided to take our leave…...

Down to Siesta Key Beach for the 2014 Dig the Beach Volleyball Tournament! Problem was, we waited too late in the day to go see it. Eldy couldn't find a parking space, the lot was full, the side streets were full. So he dropped Sparky off, she took some photos, and Eldy missed all the action. (Well, PHOOEY! says E. I hate it when I miss seeing a talented bunch of women play beach volleyball.) And he hates it when he misses those thonged bikini bottoms and those itsy bitsy bikini tops. We all know that's the REAL reason he's keenly disappointed today….lol……

On the way home, we saw horses at the beach! Kids riding bareback into deep water with guides leading the horses, we didn't know that was offered here, too.  They basically lead the horses with the young riders along the beach for a few yards, into the water up to the horse's chest, then back out to the beach for a photo opp. Each horse has a guide to walk them and then stay with the riders as the horses briefly swim. The little kids were thoroughly enjoying it. Down the road from the horses was this cool bus, the Surfer Bus.

The Surfer Bus has a huge supply of rental kayaks for use. Don't know how much, Sparky doesn't need one. She just got a replacement Sea Eagle 385-- more about that on another day.

We managed to pack in a LOT of stuff today, and there was lots more to choose from besides all that. It's amazing how many visitors are still here in the area. Must be a lot of Europeans with families doing the tourist thing. The beach was FULL today. The restaurants seem to be quite busy, too. Not much of a slowdown going on even after the snowbirds have left. Plenty of tourists are still coming, especially to Anna Maria Island.

A great day, jam packed, time to slow down and relax for the rest of the day…..Bye for now!