The Florida Aquarium and the American Victory Ship

Back in January, we took a day to visit the Florida Aquarium in Tampa because we are all about aquariums…seriously, we go to every one we possibly can, including the ones here in Oklahoma, which are obviously few and far between…

Our visit coincided with a rare cold spell in south Florida, but it was still warmer than Oklahoma.  The first full day we planned to check out the aquarium in Tampa then make our way to our hotel in St. Pete Beach that afternoon.  It was COLD.  A really good day to be inside somewhere–and lots of other people must have agreed because the place was packed.  There was a pretty good line of people waiting to get tickets when we arrived.  We finally got our tickets and made our way inside.  I took some pictures but they don’t really do things justice.  It’s a very beautiful facility with oodles of amazing animals.  

Sand eels are so cool!

Roseate spoonbills.

The duck above is watching all the strollers closely so it can snatch up dropped kiddie snacks…”Pay no attention to that sign behind me!”

We went through the whole place in around two hours; keep in mind my boys are 20 and 16 so they weren’t interested in the hands-on or outdoor play areas (they have an outdoor splash pad playground which was not open during our visit, go figure!); families with smaller kids might want to allow more time.  And if you go when it’s warm, which is apparently almost always, you will want to bring swim gear, towels, and sunscreen so your kids can play out there.  They have a place to change in and out of swim gear right next to the playground.

There is a snack bar on site but since we had seen everything we wanted, we walked about a block down the street and found a New York style pizza place which was really good.  It had a New York police precinct theme.  It is called, appropriately, Precinct Pizza.  Check it out if you are in town!

We were thinking about heading to the rental car and finding our hotel, but had noticed a sign on the way into the aquarium mentioning something about a historic victory ship nearby…so we followed the signs and found this:

American Victory Ship

The SS American Victory Maritime Museum is one of only four working WWII era ships in the country.  My older son is a major history buff, so of course we had to spend the rest of our day exploring the massive ship.

They take this old merchant marine cargo ship out on a Relive History Cruise twice a year, and we were bummed that we missed that.  Perhaps another time.  There are nine decks to wander, including 3-story cargo holds, galleys, crew cabins, mess halls, officers’ quarters, and lots more.  They also have medals and many historic artifacts.

Above you can see the dazzle paint scheme that helps to break up the shape of the ship.

 

Both places are definitely worth a visit if you are in the Tampa Bay area!  If you decide to include the ship on your itinerary, keep in mind it has nine stories to go through and it is a ship…so expect lots of walking, and lots of steep metal stairs.  To give you an idea, I had 10,975 steps on my Samsung phone for that day.  😀

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

While in Florida we visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.  If you have small children, you have probably seen this place in the Dolphin Tales movies.  It was all new to us.  This is a wildlife rehabilitation center that rescues and releases marine animals.  There are a few permanent residents that couldn’t return to the wild due to their injuries.  The most famous is Winter the dolphin, who has a prosthetic tail.  When she was about two months old she was found with her tail flukes wrapped tightly in a crab trap rope and they ended up having to remove her tail.  Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics worked with the aquarium personnel to develop a new tail for Winter to help her swim normally.

Winter the dolphin enrichment
The staff engages the dolphins with enrichment activities daily.

Nicholas is another rescued dolphin who came to CMA when he was a tiny baby with severe sunburn on his back from beaching himself next to his mother.  Dolphins must be taught survival skills by their mother and unfortunately, his mother didn’t survive.  He did recover from his injuries and is now a permanent resident at CMA.  He lives in an outdoor tank.  You might see him here on his webcam.

There are many educational presentations going on during the day.  One of these is Tail Talk with Nicholas.  If he feels like participating, he does some high leaping out of the water-the first three rows are a splash zone.

Nicholas the dolphin

Nicholas the dolphin

There are also resident otters, sea turtles, stingrays, pelicans, and sharks at CMA.

Because this is a working animal hospital it is unlike other aquariums.   You can observe medical procedures through glass windows.  When we visited there were many cold-stunned sea turtles in the surgical suite.  Since our visit, they were able to release several of those turtles, as you can see in this video:

We took a Sea Life Safari boat tour after lunch.  (We packed along some cold cuts and cheese and ate in the parking garage). You can get a combo ticket for a boat tour and CMA admission.  This tour goes through the intracoastal waters where they do a net pull to collect sea creatures (they identify them, pass them around, log them and put them back where they were found at the end of the day).  We cruised out to a tiny shell island and hung out for about 15 minutes, collected a few shells, then headed back.  It was a very fun and informative trip.

Sea Life Safari Boat
This is the boat pulled up to the tiny island.

Puffer fish Sea Life Safari
A couple of puffer fish gathered during the net pull. They had settled back to normal size at this point.
Critter from net pull, Sea Life Safari
Another critter from the net pull.
Sea Life Safari Tank
This is the tank they put critters in after they are removed from the net.

If you visit the Tampa Bay area, don’t miss this aquarium.  They are in the process of expanding the facility.  The staff and volunteers are obviously very dedicated and are focused on educating visitors.  It is also kid-friendly, but there are a lot of stairs.  The Sea Life Safari was a lot of fun and I highly recommend it as well.

CMA can always use financial support, so if you would like to donate to help support wildlife conservation, go here.

 

 

 

 

 

St. Petersburg Mural Tour

 

 

In early January we went on a family vacation in Florida.  One of the highlights of our visit was a walking tour to see just a few of the murals in downtown St. Petersburg.  A good friend of mine from high school lives in St. Pete and when she found out we would be in town she set up this great tour for us.

St Pete mural tour

The tour company is called Tour St. Pete.  They offer group and private walking tours.  There are a few different options, so check out their page and see what sounds good to you.  Their website has a slideshow with lots of fun pictures.  We enjoyed the mural tour.  Greg, our tour guide, is extremely knowledgeable about the murals and the artists who create them.  I believe he said there are something like 400 murals at this point, and they add some every year.  I definitely want to go back and do the Sunshine City Tour, which is about the history of St. Pete, and would love to take another mural tour sometime.

Our friend and her family came along with us and we had a great time catching up while we checked out the amazing art.

St. Pete mural tour

St. Pete Mural Tour Cat

No one will ever mistake me for a photographer, so try to imagine how great these murals look in person based on my not so amazing photos…

Peacock mural St. Pete tour

 

St. Pete mural tour

St. Pete mural tour

Up close you can see all the layers of color the artist used to build the final product…with spray paint, ya’ll!

St. Pete Mural Tour

The obligatory “run from your imminent destruction” shot!  Note the end of an old “Coca Cola” ad they incorporated into the mural.

St Pete Mural Tour

 

St. Pete mural tour payphones

We also found some old payphones!

St Pete Mural Tour

This one is stunning in person, look closely at the different textures going on within the shapes.

These are just a few of the murals we were able to see.  I highly recommend you visit and go on the tour if you get the chance.  As with any walking tour, dress sensibly for the weather, wear good walking shoes, put on that sunscreen and hat, pack along some water, and don’t forget your camera!

This tour was on a Sunday afternoon, and SpaceX was going to launch a rocket at 8pm CST that night…we finished the tour and set off across the state of Florida toward Cape Kennedy…but that’s another post.

Many thanks to my friend Stephanie, her family, and Greg from Tour St. Pete!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Five Great Gift Ideas for Young Men

This post contains affiliate links.

It’s Christmas crunch time, everyone!   Hopefully, you are all done with your shopping and can relax and enjoy the season.

I am not, but I will still try to relax and enjoy the season!

I asked my sons for gift ideas and here is the post from my older son, who is a junior in college:

 

A good flashlight is handy to have around, and something you really wish you had when you need one.

Outlite A100 Portable Ultra Bright Handheld LED Flashlight with Adjustable Focus and 5 Light Modes, Outdoor Water Resistant Torch, Powered Tactical Flashlight for Camping Hiking etc. on Amazon.com

 

Leatherman is a good company that makes quality products. A solid multitool is something that is useful in a wide range of situations from peeling fruit to fixing a car.

 

Leatherman – Wingman Multitool, Stainless Steel on Amazon

 

Fire purifies, and having a way to start a fire is always useful. Plus the sparks are pretty!

 

Gerber Bear Grylls Fire Starter on Amazon

 

Driving isn’t always easy. Especially when you’re in an unfamiliar place. With one of these, you can see the map and GPS for your phone without having to take your eyes too far off the road.

Ram Mounts Handlebar Rail Mount with U-Bolt Base and Universal X Grip Cell Phone Holder on Amazon

 

 

No one likes losing their data, and while the cloud is nice and all, it can’t compare to being able to know exactly where your backups are at any time.

WD 2TB Elements Portable External Hard Drive on Amazon

I hope you find these ideas helpful.  I think they would be nice for just about anyone!

Colonial Williamsburg in December

Last December, as our Christmas present to each other, my husband and I took a weekend trip to Colonial Williamsburg.  We stayed at the Parkside Williamsburg Resort, which is just a few miles from downtown Williamsburg.  We had visited in April 2009, and I had always wanted to see it again during the holidays.  CW has many events, programs, and activities every day of the week, so you have to plan ahead and choose what you want to do.  Their website www.colonialwilliamsburg.com has a detailed calendar and a printable PDF of the weekly events.  After checking out the schedule, we decided that we could see what we wanted to on one very long Saturday.  HOWEVER, if you go and have time, you could easily fill three or four days seeing and attending all that is available.  I had to prioritize for this visit.

A big tree in the “snow” room at Yankee Candle

On Friday afternoon we drove down from Richmond and decided to hit the massive and amazing Yankee Candle store in Williamsburg.  It was surprisingly not very crowded, which made it even better.  This store is huge, with every Yankee candle scent they make available to sniff and purchase.  They also have Christmas decorations galore.  There are Christmas villages on display, a room with permanent Christmas trees where it snows every few minutes, gifts of all kinds, and in December kids can visit Santa! If you visit, give yourself lots of time to browse all the goodies.  Our tip:  if you find something there you think you want, don’t wait until Sunday morning before you are heading out of town to drop in and pick it up…that’s when the entire population of Williamsburg brings their kids to see Santa (and buy tons of candles).  The lines get long, but the staff is super efficient and they keep it moving well.

Look, it’s the Family Truckster from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation!

A pleasant surprise was Rick’s Cheese Steak on Prince George Street.  It isn’t fancy, but the cheesesteaks were way better than what we had in Philly.  Sorry, Philly!

Next morning we were up bright and early to get breakfast at Colonial Pancake House.  We enjoyed our meal then headed to Historic Colonial Williamsburg.  You can walk from the Visitor’s Center over to the Historic Area, or you can take a shuttle bus.  We opted to walk.  Happily, the weather was fabulous for early December.  It was cold but sunny, and there wasn’t much wind.  Our plan was to walk around and look at some of the historic houses, catch a couple of programs, make absolutely sure we got lunch at the King’s Arms Tavern, pop in to a few more buildings and programs, take the decorations walking tour in the afternoon, tour the Governer’s Palace late in the day, watch the Illumination on the Palace Green, and finish up with another Christmas themed walking tour.

We attended the Rare Breeds program, where they explain about the heritage animals they keep and their breeding programs.

We did make it to lunch at the Kings’ Arms, which is a “refined chophouse” with authentic period decor but a menu that has been adapted to 21st-century tastes, and we knew exactly what to order.  Norfolk Pottage Pye:  “Tender Chicken and aromatic Vegetables made into a creamy Stew and baked beneath a flaky Pastry Shell”, which is a lovely way to describe the very best chicken pot pie ever.  I had this when we visited in 2009 and had to get it again.  It might sound like we came all the way back just for a chicken pot pie.  Well, maybe.  It is really good.  I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture!

The Christmas Decorations Walking Tour was fun and very informative.  All the decorations are fabricated with natural elements or things that would have been available to the residents of Colonial Williamsburg.  Of course, during that time period, no one in their right mind would stick a bunch of apples and pineapples out on the front of their house to look pretty, or indeed even spend time and effort decorating outdoors for Christmas, but times have changed and it sure does look good!  The wreaths are intricate and cleverly designed to reflect the occupation of the building’s owner; for instance, a tavern might include pewter tankards in their decorations.

All the fruit is real and is frequently replaced as it starts to look bad.  There is a dedicated little group of people who go around checking all the decorations and refreshing them so they always look picture perfect.

After this bracing and fun tour, we felt like warming up, as the wind had picked up a bit and it was pretty cold.  We were able to attend the tasting at R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse.  This is a restored building that was once a social hub for all kinds of meetings.  You have a choice between coffee and chocolate–prepared in a more or less historically accurate way.  We opted for chocolate.  This is not “hot cocoa” from a packet.  It is very thick and not very sweet.  They have cream and sugar on the tables and I added both to make it really yummy.  It’s like drinking a candy bar from a tiny cup.

Our next stop was the Governor’s Palace, where we opted to go on our own instead of on a guided tour.  The sun set while we were inside, and they have a few candles lit but it is REALLY dark in there.  I was gawking up at the hundreds of muskets on the wall in the stairwell, missed a step, and pulled a muscle in my calf.  Oh. My. Word.  Had to sit down for a little bit, but there was more to see and we were leaving the next day.  So I limped slowly through the rest of our visit, even though my sweet husband kept offering to go get the car and take me back to the condo.

The Illumination of the Palace Green was exciting.  By then it was totally dark.   Visitors assembled on and around the Green and the CW staff lit the cressets in front of the buildings, muskets were fired, and then the fife and drum corps played and marched down the center of the green as the crowd parted before them.

We had time to kill before our last walking tour so we went outside of the Historic District to Williamsburg proper, past the skating rink, visited a couple of cute gift shops, and had some great pizza for dinner.  Then I hobbled back into the Historic District to join our last tour.  It was interesting and a little sad.  They took us through four time periods on Christmas Eve in Williamsburg and the struggles people went through.

All done (and done in!), we started limping back toward the Visitor’s Center where the car was parked.  Fortunately, we were able to catch one of the shuttle buses halfway and ride the rest of the way back.  It’s a lovely walk but less so in the dark when it’s 40 degrees.

I had borrowed my husband’s Fitbit for the day and logged 9 miles of walking–about one and a half after my little accident with the stairs.  It was all worth it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  I would, however, be more careful on the stairs.

If you get the opportunity to visit the Williamsburg area, I highly recommend it.  There are so many things to do and see that you could easily spend at least a week.