My Clearwater and Tampa, Florida trip.

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Sandbar at Anclote Key Preserve.

More than two months ago, my daughter and I spent 8 days in Tampa and Clearwater Beach, Florida.  I never got around to writing about my trip, even though I kept promising to.  Well, I finally got around to it.  Better late than never, right?

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Horseshoe crabs — one of them crawled right over my feet!

I got to see my son while we were in Tampa, even though he had to work most of the 4 days were here, but we did all go out to dinner a couple of times, spent some time lounging at the hotel pool and hot tub.  On our last day together, we all went to ZooTampa.  It was a bit pricey, but worth it.   We got a late start, but still managed to see almost the entire zoo, except “Australia.”  The sections we saw were “Florida,” “Africa,” “Asia,” and “Primates.”   The zoo is very large so if you go, be prepared to spend lots of time walking!  Stay hydrated.   As we passed through the indoor reptile area (a welcomely cool respite from the heat), there were colorful decorations all over the ceiling that resembled deep sea creatures and looked as if they were made of glass — but they were actually sculptures made from recycled soda bottles and other plastic trash!

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We loved seeing all the different animals (there were even river otters — my favorite — in the “Florida” section).  My daughter seemed quite taken with the pink flamingos, who were very entertaining and funny.   There were so many of them!  We spent a long time just watching their antics.

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One of the days my son was working, my daughter and I decided to drive to Tarpon Springs, a small Greek fishing village which is known as the Sponge Capital of the US.  It was my third visit there.  It’s one of my favorite places in the Tampa Bay area. On a whim, we decided to take the Sponge-O-Rama cruise out into the Gulf.  It’s a two hour cruise and pretty cheap at only $20 per person.   We had to wait a while for the boat (a sort of ferry) to fill up, but when we took off, the water was pretty choppy from recent storms, and I had to hold on.  Drinks were served but it was hard to hold onto them without them splashing everywhere.  After we got out into the Gulf, the dark water from the marina and inlet suddenly turned bright aquamarine.   For a minute I thought someone had slipped some LSD into my beer!  But this is the actual color of the water.

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The boat’s captain, a youngish Greek man who had been raised in Tarpon Springs and worked with the boats all his life (his name was Atticus!) explained the reason why the color of the water changed so abruptly isn’t so much due to the depth, but because once you leave the river and enter the Gulf proper, the water changes from brackish (almost freshwater) to salt water.  The mangroves dotting the area suck up the nutrients from the water, making it clear.   He pointed out other things we were seeing along the way.

Finally, about three miles out into the Gulf, he pulled the boat over next to a large sandbar.   This was part of Anclote Key Preserve State Park, a group of very small mangrove islands so remote there is no way to get there except by boat.  The sandbar is a semi-permanent fixture, with a few low growing plants and grasses and a lot of seaweed washed up on the sand.   The sand was absolutely blinding white, like snow, and surrounded on all sides by the clearest aquamarine water I’ve ever seen.  In the shallow areas the water was so crystal clear you could barely see it.  Our group (there were about 20 of us) spent about 30 minutes exploring, collecting shells, or swimming.  We were each given a plastic grocery bag to collect shells in.   I didn’t spend much time shelling.  After a few minutes, I ran out into the pristine warm salt water and just let it engulf me.   The whole experience was exhilarating, even though 30 minutes wasn’t nearly enough time!

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The above photo is my absolute favorite.   The juxaposition of the white sands, aquamarine water and fluffy white clouds stirs my soul.  I have made this photo the background on my laptop!

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Our combined seashell booty.

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The marina at Tarpon Springs (notice how much darker the water here is)

We drove to Clearwater for the remaining 4 days.  The 10 mile drive over Tampa Bay into Clearwater is very pretty.   We stayed in a cute hotel right on the beach, but the weather during our stay could have been better.   We only had two days of good weather, but being right on the boardwalk, there was still more than enough to keep us busy.   Our first night, we ate at Clearwater’s most famous eatery, Frenchy’s South Beach Cafe.  The beach was wonderful, and not too crowded.  One day we decided to drive out to Treasure Island in St. Petersburg, even though it was raining.  Hey, why not?   It rained during the drive, and the entire time we were there, but the beach was still pleasant and the water warm.  We didn’t stay long, but it was nice having the beach almost completely to ourselves.

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Frenchy’s South Beach Cafe, Clearwater.

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Treasure Island in the pouring rain.

The sunsets over the Gulf were incredible.    I just can’t get enough of Gulf sunsets, and here are the pictures proving that.

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Sunlight from sunset reflecting off the clouds to the east.

On our second day, we had beautiful weather (even though the morning forecast had predicted rain), so we decided to book the Pirate ship for its Champagne Cruise, which takes off in the late afternoon.  There are two champagne cruises; ours was the first.  The next one takes off at sunset.   I would have liked to go on that one too, but we’d already had way too much champagne.  Yes, I confess both my daughter and I overindulged (you pay your $40 for the cruise, and the drinks are unlimited), but we had so much fun, and the views from the ship were amazing (a few are pictured below). The pirate theme was fun, and the appropriately costumed staff were friendly.  The nice young man pictured below (I can’t remember his name) even hung out with us on the upper deck for a few minutes.

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Me with view of the beach in the background

One thing I noticed this time was how good I’m getting at finding my way around the Tampa – St. Petersburg – Clearwater metro area.   It’s my third trip to this area, but this time I was finally getting comfortable just driving around and finding my way from one place to another.   I’m generally not good with directions and navigation, but  because everything’s pretty much laid out on a grid here, it’s a lot easier to get around the area than where I live, where there are mountains and no grid to speak of.

It seems so much longer than two months ago I was in Florida, but in some ways it feels like it was just yesterday.   To end this post, here’s a little video I made just after sunset of the patterns of the surf (it’s actually the first video I ever made from my phone).

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Pictures: 4/8/17

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Seagulls all facing the sunset.  You should have heard the din they made!

 

I haven’t had time to write much, so I’ll just share the photos I took yesterday and caption them.   We had a wonderful day.  It was a little too cold to swim, but we waded in the shallow water on the beach, spent some time relaxing in the hot tub, went back to the beach at sunset where I took most of these photos, and then went to a party at my son’s apartment where we met some of his friends.   It was a fun day!

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I found this shrub interesting.  Notice the fall colors on some of the leaves.  I have no idea what it is.

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Looking back on the beach just before sunset.

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A romantic picture of my daughter and her friend as the sun sets over the Gulf.

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I don’t know what these are exactly but since they were at the top of the beach, they appear to be the stumps of some kind of shrubs where the tides have come in and cut them off.

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Another look at the stumps.  I think they’re fascinating.

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So moody!  I love this.

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Seagulls at sunset.  They were sure noisy!

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Surrounded by beauty.

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I went back to the beach this morning (I finally got up early), and the tide was the lowest I’ve seen it, and it was still going out. Sandbars stretched pretty far into what was covered over by water the day before yesterday, leaving bathwater-hot tidal pools filled with small tan fish (probably minnows), skeins of green-brown seaweed, and tiny hermit crabs. I put my things down on the dry part of the beach and waded out, deliberately stepping in the warm pools and feeling the soft silty sand along the way. Dragonflies flitted back and forth, probably looking for mosquitoes for brunch. The only annoying thing was the many biting sand-flies, which tried to eat up my legs (why didn’t the dragonflies go after those?) But as soon as I’d waded far enough where no more sand was exposed, the biting flies disappeared.

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I found a nice spot that wasn’t too mushy (some of the sand here is VERY soft, reminding me of quicksand, so I had to be mindful of that) and fairly free of seaweed. I settled into the slightly cooler water there, which only came up to my waist when I sat down in it.

At first there was no one else but me on the beach. I felt like I was the only person on earth. The sky was a bright blue dome, darkening to almost indigo toward its center, with white puffy cumulus clouds lining the edges against the horizon like lace trim. The water was clear and reflected the blue of the sky. I had waded so far out that I was surrounded on every side by barely moving but ever-changing water. I could tell the tide was still going out by the direction of the tiny ripples, and I kept having to move farther in to stay immersed. I looked back at where I’d laid my things on the beach and could barely see them anymore. I was very far out! I decided not to go any further because I didn’t want to lose sight of my things, even though it looked like the very shallow water went out quite a ways. I also didn’t want to be stuck any farther out if the tide suddenly came in.

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I laid down in the water and dug my toes into the wonderful fine sand. I put my hands behind my head and let my elbows rest in the sand, propping my head up so I could see. It was clouding up just a little, and they looked so close overhead I felt like I could reach out and touch them. I heard gulls overhead and way in the distance, I could hear the rumble of a motorboat. I stretched out my arms and legs and just let myself float, tempted to shout to the sky about how great God is and what an incredible gift this trip has been for me, and how blessed I am to be in this healing place right now.

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Mindful of my things on the beach and not wanting to drift too far away, I got myself back in a seated position and played with the sand again, rubbing it all over me the way I did two days ago. I decided to give myself a facial (that’s how soft this sand is!) so I plastered some of it on my face, let it dry a little, and then washed it off in the slightly salty water (Gulf water is less salty than ocean water). A few other people were visible here and there now, wading in the tidal pools or sitting in the shallow water. A young couple obviously in love embraced not too far away. Maybe they were on their honeymoon. I hoped things worked out for them.

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It was getting hotter and there were more people now, including some kids with plastic buckets and shovels collecting shells and hermit crabs. These kids and their equipment triggered a memory of myself as a mosquito-bitten, golden-tanned and skinny 8 year old, exploring a similar beach much farther north where my parents had rented a vacation cottage for two weeks. That beach was off Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts, where I remembered the sandbars had stretched out even further into the distance–so far that the deeper water was only a thin dark blue line against the horizon. I remembered playing out there for hours, collecting hermit crabs in my orange plastic bucket and then setting them free, and how fast the incoming tide had moved–so fast my friends and I used to try to race it in. I recalled sunsets seen from our screened in porch, painting the tidal pools pink and orange, and the smell of citronella and the sound of the bug zapper as the armies of mosquitoes dodged into it. Memories of that distant summer fused with the here and now, and time itself seemed to stop. I was still that child, yes–more wounded and damaged, but still essentially intact under my armor born of pain; still curious about everything and still in love with the wonders of the natural world. A child who still possessed the ability to give and receive love.  I always wanted to go back to that place; now I’m here instead.

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Sandbars off Cape Cod Bay, Brewster, Massachusetts

I had no idea how long I remained out there. It seemed like a very long time. I could have stayed in that heavenly spot all day, but being so fair skinned, I knew I should probably head back to the car before I got too sunburned.

Going with the flow.

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I wanted to get up early and walk on the beach at sunrise, but I guess I was so exhausted from my long drive yesterday and busy evening (also stayed up late blogging about it and chatting with my son) that my body needed extra sleep, and I didn’t get up until about 1 PM!

No worries though.  My son has to work all night tonight so he was still asleep too.   I quietly ate some cereal and headed out. I decided to go back to Rees Park, where we witnessed the sun set last night.   I felt like it was calling me back.  This time I had the presence of mind to wear a swimsuit.

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The day was hot, very hot–95 degrees and very sunny.    I drove to Rees Park and immediately smelled the ocean smell and felt the soothing sea breeze, making it seem cooler.    I noticed that unlike last night when we were there, the tide was coming in.  There were no sandbars and there were very small waves (really, more like ripples), and a lot less of the beach was visible.   Banks of puffy white clouds dotted the horizon against the bright, almost electric blue of the sky.

I took off my sandals and stepped into the water.  It was as warm as bathwater!  So unlike the ocean water further north, even as far south as Myrtle Beach. Of course, this was the Gulf, a smaller body of water than the Atlantic Ocean, so that probably had a lot to do with the very warm temperature.

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I waded out into the water, and when I looked down, I saw small schools of tan colored fish swimming around my feet.  I squeezed my toes into the very fine, silt-like sand, an lowered myself into the water.   It was like sinking into a bathtub, only so much better.

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I closed my eyes and used the rest of my senses to feel nature around me.  I felt the ripples gently rocking me, and I just let my body respond to that, rolling over and floating and stretching every part of me that could be stretched.  I breathed in the salty air and listened to the seagulls on the shore.  I scooped up some of the silt-like sand into my hands, and squeezed the water out of it until the claylike substance squeezed out between my fingers and left a small ball in my hands.   I looked at it and could see many tiny shells and fragments of shells studded throughout the ball.    It felt so nice in my hands I decided to rub it all over my arms and then lifted my legs out of the water and rubbed some of it on those too.

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I looked around me and saw a few other people, also just relaxing and enjoying nature.    I had a short conversation with a woman lying in the water nearby, who was visiting her mother.   She said this was better than going to a spa, and I agreed.

I just sat there, not caring that the tide was now getting dangerously close to where I’d laid my things.  I looked down into the clear greenish water and then looked out where it seemed to stretch out into infinity, becoming dark blue as it receded into the distance.   I looked down again and there were those little fish swimming all around me, as if protecting me.    I looked back at the beach and gazed at the palm trees and listened to the hissing of their fronds in the gentle breeze.    For a rare moment, I was completely in the moment, not worrying about the future or fretting over something in the past.  I just was me, just a part of nature.  Not my ego or my achievements or my failures or my fear or my anger or my shame.   Just me.

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I felt the healing energy of the sun, sand and water that cradled me, and realized that this was all God’s doing.   It wasn’t the water rocking and comforting me, it was God holding me gently and using the warm water to do that.  I never felt like I got that from my family or anyone else I loved, but God has always been there, always ready to hold and comfort me.  All I had to do was ask and be open to it.   I felt a lump of gratitude form in my throat and thanked him for bringing me to this place.   Through grace, I knew I would be healed, that one day my mental disorders would be a thing of the past.

When I got back to the apartment, I found out an answer to an earlier prayer was answered favorably.   I think that has everything to do with what I found out on the beach today.

Gulf of Mexico sunset.

After eating out at a local and cheap Vietnamese restaurant (I never had Vietnamese food before), we drove out to Reese Park, in Port Richey.   The water was at low tide, so there were sandbars and you could walk out onto wet sand where the water had been at high tide earlier.  The water was nearly still.   The pictures just don’t do the incredible view justice at all.   I was amazed by its beauty.  I felt  so serene and calm there, that it’s hard to believe many of the most violent hurricanes in the western hemisphere get their start right here over this body of water.  We are almost at the peak of hurricane season, but according to the weather forecasts, it doesn’t look like anything’s developing out over the Gulf.

After the sun set, we went out to Coldstone Creamery (I had a $10 gift card) and then back to the apartment complex for a lovely evening swim in the pool.

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Post #50: on the beach

My son is a talented photographer and filmmaker. Today he shared a few photographs he took of an approaching storm and the sunset (not on the same day) off the beach on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, which is five minutes from where he lives outside Port Richey, Florida. I thought these deserved to be shared here. There are a lot of others, but I’m not able to upload the file type.
Click the pictures on for larger views.

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The water looks like liquid gold. Those are his feet.

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There’s something haunting about the child’s swing in the approaching storm, and that’s what makes the photo.

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Sunset off the Gulf.