Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Vacation Part three

Our holiday seemed to have three very distinct parts to it, a holiday sonata if you will.
The first was our week in the Keys, which was very refreshing and relaxing. I felt very much at home in the Key. I could actually imagine living there part of the year. The pace of life is much slower there and the people are very welcoming. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and had it not been for the fact that this was my first trip to Florida and there was so much I hadn't seen, I think I could've quite happily spent the entire time we were gone in Key West.
The second part of the vactation was the Bahama's, which was also quite relaxing. However it was painfully obvious that we were tourists, in a foreign country that relies on tourism. Everywhere you went someone had their hand out trying to to sell you something or expecting a tip. I enjoyed the sun and the sand, and I think I would like to return there one day on a diving holiday, but to be quite honest I'm in no rush to see it again. There are planty of other places on my list I would prefer to go instead.
The third part of the journey started with a brief return to the Keys for a day of diving, which was totally awsome. Then off to explore some new territory that even Darrell hadn't explored. He's been to Florida several times in the past, but had never done an everglades tour, so it was something we both really wanted to do. We had stayed in Florida City after the Bahama's so we could easily get down to Big Pine Key for diving, and discovered that there was an aligator farm right in the city, near the Everglade National park. We headed over there the next day to see all the gators and take an airboat ride. It was a lot of fun. We watched the Gator show, and saw the breeding and grow out pens, then rode the big airboat. You have to wear ear protection on the boat because it is really loud as it whips over the water, and the Driver would spin it 360 degrees almost at full speed. It was a real rush. The driver was an excellent tour guide and he pointed out all the wildlife we encountered and told us about the birds that live in the swamps as well as some of the different kinds of vegitation. I could've rode that boat a few times, but we had places to go and things to see.
Our plan was to travel across to the west coast and up as far as Tampa then across to Orlando. The most popular highway running across from Miami to Naples is a four lane highway nicknamed Alligator alley, and you can supposedly see a lot of wildlife on it. Darrell has been on it before, but was unimpressed by it's claims, luckily we spent some time talking about our plans to various people in Key west when we were there and got some local info that was very helpful. One of the ladies we met inthe bar, Ginger, told us to avoid Aligator alley and take the old highway 41, which is a longer slower drive, on account if it being only two lanes and winding up the coast, but she guaranteed we would see a lot more on it. Man was she right. The ditches on either side of the road basically blended seamlessly into the swamps in most cases and we saw aligators everywhere. We stopped saying "oh there's one" because they were all along the banks every ten or twenty feet. Just about everywhere there was enough land on the side of the road for a parking lot there was a swamp tour operating and there was also a very cool nature center we stopped at, which had a big observation deck over the ditch. There were about a dozen aligators just laying about on the banks along the length of the ditch there as well, and these guys were not all covered in dried mud and laying piled on top of one anoter like the ones at the farm. These guys were sleak and clean and sunning themselves, and perfectly able to leave the ditch any time they wanted too, because they were wild. Of course wild aligators are actually safer for the most part than the farmed ones, because wild aligators, lik emost other wild animals, are naturally afraid of humans. Honestly, can you blame them. People are the most destructive and deplorable animal on the planet, they should be afraid...I am. You are actually in more danger at the aligator farm, because those aligators are fed by people and associate food with people, not a good thing...that's why it is illegal in Florida to feed or approach wild aligators. People are mostly harmed by wild aligators for their own stupidity, but doing things like trying to touch them to see if they are alive, or swimming in water where they could be, or any number of macho things that people are apt to do. That said, I still wouldn't have wanted to break down on the side of highway 41, even though there were people all along the sides of the road fishing in the ditches, it's not a place I would get out and walk about. I certainly wouldn't stop to let the dogs out either.
All in all our aligator portion of the trip was a blast, with one glaring exception that only bothered me. Everywhere we went, the Farm, the nature center, you name it, they had all kinds of information about the wildlife, and in their information they all mentioned the various kinds of poisonous snakes in the Florida Everglades, and that really grated on my nerves. There is no such thing as a poisonous snake! I think if you are setting up information to educate people then you have aresponsibility to provide accurate and correct information. Snakes are Venomous, they are not poisonous. It seems like a small thing but it is not. Ignorance begets ignorance. Snakes, and spiders, and other little fanged or stingered beasties are venomous. Berries, and toad slime, and arsenic are poisonous. The easy way top remember - If it bites you and you die, it's venomous. If you bite it and you die, it's poisonous. It bugs the hell out of me to see it wrong in a public information setting where people go to learn about things. End rant
We drove across to Naples, then up to Tampa and over towards Orlando. We stopped at a Ramada about halfway between for the night. The next day we headed into Orlando to see about park tickets. Oh My God, what a total rip off, tickets for those parks are. I can't imagine how families can afford to take their kids to them. The prices are insane. Disney has five different parks, and tickets to one of the for the day are $90 at the gate. That ticket doesn't get you in to all of Disney, just the one park. Want to hop between parks, add another $50 for a second park. Rip off - but for some reason people are paying it. I'm guessing with the state of the American economy, people won't be paying it for long.
I have already been to Disneyland in California and Darrell has been to Disney World, so neither of us felt the need to see the Magic Kingdom. Darrell does enjoy Epcott, but the $90 price tag kind of made us cringe a little. We then discovered we could go to Universal Studios for $69 and get access to both parks, Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure. We didn't have the full day since we were meeting our neighbours, who were also in Florida for dinner at the place they were renting from our other neighbours. For some reason, that I`m still not sure of, we bought two day passes to Universal. I think the plan was to go and see what we wanted to see then give the second day to Mike and Cathy (our neighbours) as a thank you for letting us stay with them that night. Turns out that wouldn`t have been possible anyway, since they have these little fingerprint readers at the gate, that reads your pass and your fingerprint together, so that only you can use your pass. You can`t give away the second day of your pass to someone else, or sell it or whatever. You are stuck with it once you`ve bought it. To top it off...Universal Sucked!
The time it took to park, get into the park, see three things, and get out again.....Five Hours. We waited for 40 minutes in line to see Shrek 4D. It was okay. We waited 30 minutes for the Mummy. Great roller coaster style ride, lots of fire and very fast.....also very short. We waited almost 40 minutes for Jaws...It was awful. We didn`t choose to use our second day. I was really disapointed. I had hoped for something cool, especially when you consider the kind of thing was do for a living...Unversal Studios seemed to be the sensible place to go. (I guess DisneyMGM studios is the one to go to)
After the park we went to visit Mike and Cathy and had dinner and some drinks. We spent the night at the house with them, and then got up to do our second park day. We decided not to do our second day at Unversal and chose instead to splurge and buy ticket to Epcott. We really should have done that the first time, because Epcott, although very pricey, was excellent. We did most of the attractions right at Epcott, with the exceptionof Soar in which had a two hour line and no fast passes. We had a blast doing the mission to Mars simulator, and liked it so much we did it a few times. The Canada Pavilion had the 360 degree movie, which I remember from Expo 86. The movie has changed since, although the Maritimes was not well represented in the presentation. In fact what they showed were the same sort of stereotypical fishing village sort of images I had in my brain when I lived on the west coast. aside fromthat the presentation was really good. We stayed the entire day and watched illuminations that night as the park closed. It was a great fireworks/laser light show. Then we headed back to the Ramada we had found a couple nights before and stayed there for a our last night. At this point I was past ready to go home.
The next morning we got all our stuff packed back up and arranged, then hit a few of the aquarium stores on our way to the airport. Considering our love for the aquarium hobby we should've skipped Universal and gone to Seaworld. Next time.
Our flight was ontime and went well. We got to New York with no trouble, and our connection all went smoothly. We landed in Bangour and picked up the car, then started the cold late drive home. Of course we stopped at the duty free for a couple big bottles of booze and some inexpensive cologne, and then made our way up the highway to Saint John. We got home around 5am and hit the sack.
Bright and early that morning, Brian Dropped by on his way to work and dropped the dogs off. They were very excited to be home again, as were we. In the week that has followed since our return God has been trying to punish us for enjoying ourselves by burying us with snow. I wish I could return to Key West until spring.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Diving at Looe Key

After we arrived back in Fort Lauderdale, Darrell made another call to Underseas on Big Pine Key to see if there was a diving charter going out that we could participate in and there was, so I was finally able to try diving. We drove down as far as Florida City that night and found a hotel, then we were up bright and early for our trip back to the Keys.

Since I have never dove, I had to do what they call a resort dive, which means spending an hour in the swimming pool with an instructor to learn the basics, and if the instructor felt I had a good enough understanding and was comfortable enough I could dive with him at the reef.

We stopped at the Dive shop where I met the instructor, Phil, and got outfitted with gear, then we headed back to Parmers Resort, where we had stayed our first three nights in the Keys, to use their pool. It was nice to get an unexpected extra visit in with Brad and some of the other staff at Parmers.

I got in to the wet suit and hopped in the pool, then Phil showed me how to get into the weight belt, BCE, and mask & fins. Then he showed me how to inflate and deflate the BCE, and how to breathe through the regulator. Even though I have used a snorkel in the pool many times in the past, breathing underwater with a regulator feels very strange the first time. In fact it feels strange for the first little while. I learned how to clear the regulator, and cough into it etc. I learned hand signals, and how to recover the regulator if it were to come out of my mouth, as well as buddy breathing in case you run out of air, and how to clear water out of my mask. Since I was the only resort diver that day and we had time, Phil also showed me some basic bouyancy stuff. We were in the pool for about an hour and by the end of it, he was pretty confident I would do fine out at the reef...that made one of us at least. To say I was nervous would be an understatement.

We had some time to kill before we had to meet back at the dive shop, so we took another quick trip over to the blue hole to visit the aligator and iguanas. The female aligator even graced us with an appearance closer to the platform. She surfaced a few feet out and gave one of the little ducks a fright. He hopped right out of the water pretty quickly. Unfortunately a bunch of noisey people arrived and she disappeared. Some people have absolutley no clue. They show up making tonnes of noise and laughing and carrying on, then wonder why they never see any wild life. Duh!

We met back at the dive shop then, everyone headed over to the charter boat. Phil had three students who were doing their open water tests to get their licences, so I was going to be sticking with them. There were also some other divers there going out for the day as well as some snorkelers. Darrell was paired up with another tour diver and a couple other guys, and I was with Phil and his class. The boat ride out was about 20 minutes, and my butterflies were getting whipped up in my tummy the closer we got. When we got to the site I got into all my gear. Phil brought me two wet suits, one full sized and one shorty to wear over it, because the water was actually a little colder than usual. It couldn't have been too cold, since coral will only tollerate a fairly narrow tamperature band, but it still felt cold after being down for an hour. I got into the BCE and strapped it all up, then I couldn't get up off the seat. I was thinking, holy crap that tank is heavy, what if I can't even lift it and get off the bench. I was watching everyone else get up fine, and was feeling like a total wimp, then the dive boat operator reach over me and undid the bungy cord that was holding the tank down. The tank was still heavy back there, but not that heavy. I made my way to the edge of the boat, and put my left hand on my weight belt and my right hand on my mask and regulator, then stepped off and plunged into the water. I came bobbing back up, and put my fist on the top of my head to indicate that everything was fine and made my way over to Phil.

The group that was getting their licences had to do some stuff at the top with their BCEs and then we made our way over to the bouy where the rope was. I started going down the rope, but had to stop a few feet down, because I panicked, and came back up. It was kind of freaky trying to calm myself and go down to the bottom. There's a big difference between a six foot swimming pool and 30 feet of ocean water. Couple that with the fact that the visibility wasn't very good, only about 20 feet, so I couldn't see the other divers just below. I made a second attempt to descend the rope and chickened out again. I was starting to think I might not be able to do it and may have to return to the boat, and then I got ahold of myself and forced myself to go. Third time's a charm and I made it down to the sand below. Phil and his class had some stuff they had to do down there before we did anything else as well, so there wasn't much for me to do, but hang out on the bottom and try and calm my nerves. I was very aware of my breathing, and not much else. I was still waffling about going back to the boat as well, but as I sat there I started to relax a bit while I was watching them clear their masks and go through their manouvers. Then I noticed a little hog fish about six inches away watching me. He just hung there in the water looking at me, and for about ten minutes I sat there watching him watch me. Then I started noticing the other fish gathering around, and lost interest in the goings on of the diving class. Just when I was really starting to relax I had another little panick attack because I realized I had to cough. Phil showed me how to cough in the regulator, but knowing how and actually doing it were two different things. So I screwed up my courage and coughed into the regulator and didn't die, and felt relaxed again. When the class was finished doing their thing we all started moving and exploring the reef. There were some huge coral and sea fans, and lots and lots of little fishes all around. I was keeping one eye on Phil the entire time and trying to see the reef with the other, and then under a ledge I noticed a huge baricooda. He must've been about four feet long, and bright flashing silver. I stopped fora minute to check him out and that's when Darrell's group came around the corner and caught up with us. It was cool to see them emerge out of the cloudy water, and it was really neat to see Darrell in full gear swimming about. I have so many pictures, and we have a lot of footage that he has shot when he wasdoing underwater film, but to actually see him in action was pretty cool, after only hearing the stories for the past decade. I don't know if he had a great dive though. He was with a group of guys who seemed to do a lot of swimming and not alot of observing. If you really want to see things in nature you have to be still and let it come to you. A really good example is our aquarium, we have a few fish in there that are over six inches long and if you come up to the glass, every one of them will disappear. They just flash away and pop into the rocks, and unless you sit back and let them be, they don't come out. The reef is no different, except there are larger fish with larger places to hide. darrell likes to go down and park it in a one spot for a while and see the fish come out and swim around, but the guys he was with seemed to be on a marathon to cover as much ground as they could find. He did manage to sit tight a few times and see some cool stuff.

The first time down lasted about an hour, and I was nearing the red zone on my supply gauge by the end of it. Newbies tend to use a lot of oxygen their first few dives because they are so excited and breath a lot more than normal. I was no exception. When I got back on the boat, I was just shaking, partly from the cold and partly from the excited energy. Next they took the boat to the second diving location. It was little clearer in this spot and you could actually see the bottom this time. I also had no trouble at all going down the rope the second time around. I was much more calm and relaxed and saw a lot more stuff the second time around. The second dive also lasted about an hour, and after three hours of swimming that day, I was all kinds of sore the next morning. I will definitely be going out and getting my licence before our next vacation.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Bahamas

We took our tour over to Freeport, Grand Bahama on Discovery cruises. The cruise ship was a bit of a bucket, but it was cheap. At least the fair was cheap, once you were on the boat, they wanted to be tipped for every little thing. They even posted suggested tipping amounts all over the place. There was a complimentary breakfast buffet, that had some nice items on it, and some questionable ones. We had stayed up all night and done the drive from Key West up to Ft Lauderdale to catch the boat, so we spent the majority of the cruise sleeping in our cabin.
We stayed at the Sheridan, which was a fantastic resort hotel, right on the beach. We arrived on Tuesday and were scheduled to leave on Thursday. We checked with the dive shop there to see if there a diving tour we go on, but it was on Thursday. We looked into staying, but it was going to cost way too much to change our plans, so we decided not too. On our way back from the dive shop we were looking for a place to have lunch (not an easy thing for us, since Darrell is allergic to fish). There was a couple sitting in a little restaurant we were passing they were being served some pretty nice looking burgers, so we went in. I had the best burger I've had in a very long time. In fact if I've had a better burger I don't recall. Needless to say, we were there two nights and three days, so I had three of the best burgers I have ever had.
We spent the majority of our time in the Bahamas on beach chairs in the sun, but on the second day we were hit up by one of the many gals who man the middle of the road trying to track down clients for timeshares. We had nothing else to do, and there were some nice little perks for going, so we decided what the hell. No we did not buy a time share in the Bahamas. Had there not been a 900 dollar down payment required right away, the story may be different, but luckily they weren't willing to wave it and we couldn't afford it. We did get a couple bottles of rum, some tee shirts, and a free activity for going. We chose to go on the sunset booze cruise that night, and OMG we had fun.
The booze cruise was serving all you can drink Bahama Mama Rum punch, and Agnes, our bartender, made sure our cups were never empty. Agnes was a lot of fun, she had about six teeth in her mouth, and posed for pictures with everyone, and kept us drinking all night. We also met a couple fellow Canucks on the boat. Two french Canadian Sisters, Fran and Claire. Claire lives in Ottawa, and Fran now resides in Ft. Lauderdale. We had a great time drinking and dancing with them, and they were even on our return cruise so we all went up to the top deck to watch the sunset together.
Just a sidebar about the sunset, we have been jipped on it three times now. In Key West when we went to watch it in the "Top" rooftop bar, it was all going very well, and then the damn thing went behind a wall of clouds on the horizon. On the sunset cruise it was behind a bunch of buildings and we never got out of the canal in time to see it, then on the cruise home, there was another line of clouds along the horizon.
After the booze cruise docked we went to a little stand called rum runners that sold two corona for $5 so, needless to say it was a very drunken night, and we were both quite hung over the next day for our trip back to Ft. Lauderdale. In fact I was so run down I had a scratchy rough voice, and could barely talk. There was a karaoke contest in one of the lounges on the ship and I went ahead and participated anyway, even though I was having a rough go of it. I won.
Once we got into Ft. Lauderdale, Darrell gave a call to Underseas on Big Pine Key, to see if there was any chance of getting out for a dive. They said there was, so we traveled down to Florida City and got a hotel there for a couple nights.
I'll post about the dive later.
The vacation so far seems like three or four little vacations in one. We are getting very close to having to come home, and I'm feeling like I'm ready.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Vacation - Week one!

I can't believe it's only been a week since we left on vacation. It seems like forever. Not everything has gone smoothly or to plan, but luckily we tried to keep our plans pretty loose to begin with so we could go with the flow, and that has worked out perfectly.

We Drove down to Bangor last week on Monday night and flew out the next day. We flew via JFK in New York into Orlando. There was a snow storm so bad in New York that we were delayed for a few hours and the sky was so white with snow, I couldn't see the city coming in or going out. You know it's bad when you can't even see the lights of the largest city in the country. In fact we didn't see much of anything from the plane until the Carolinas.

We got into Orlando late and found our hotel okay. It was very cold. All the weather reports were calling for a cold snap. Our original plan was to take a couple days and so the theme parks then head south, but since temperatures were going to be in the 50s we decided to head south right away, and left for Ft. Lauderdale the next morning. When we got there our Hotel room was awful, and driving around the beach area looking for a new one was promising to be a pricey affair, so we called down to the resort we were book at in Little torch Key to see if we could arrive a couple days early, and headed to the Keys. It was fantastic. We had only really planned on a few days in the Keys but were there from Wednesday, right up until last night. We stayed three nights at Parmer's Resort on Little torch key, and did a lot of partying in Key West, then spent the next two night right in Key West at the Travel Lodge. I love Key West!!!! I want very much to be a snow bird in the near future and start living the winters there. It is the Southern most Island in the Florida Keys and only about 2 miles by 4 miles. The pase of life is slow and there isn't a bunch of overgrown buildings taking up all the oxygen. It is a total party town, and you can take your drink from the bar and wander down the street into another bar. One of the biggest things every night is to go and watch the sunset. We didn't manage to get to that until last night and unfortunately it was cloudy so we didn't actually see it sink into the sea.
We checked out of the Travel lodge Monday morning and hung about Key West enjoying our last day and evening there. We even hit the Monkey bar for a little karaoke before heading up the highway at 11pm for Ft. Lauderdale. At 5 am we hopped the discovery cruise line ship and headed over to Freeport, Grand Bahama where we are for the next two nights. The day trip to freeport is only $30 round trip per person, and you can rent hotel rooms here for $50 a night. We are at the Sheridan for the next two night, and it is awsome. Right on the beach and everything right here. The weather has been so windy in the Keys the past week that there have been no diving tours, so I haven't had the chance to try scuba diving yet. There is a beginner course and tour here in Freeport on Thursday (weather permitting) and I am signed up for it, if we can change our reservations on the boat back and stay an extra day. Fingers crossed! We still have plans to take an everglades tour, and check out the theme parks in Orlando before we fly home next week...but nothing is set in stone, so we'll see where the wind blows us. We are having a fantastic Time!!!