Saturday morning was sunny and cool when we pulled out of Reed Bingham State Park and reconnected with our journey down the east coast of Florida. Our first stop was four hours to Daytona Beach along Interstates 75, 10, and 95. Driving time was just under 4 hours, but it took us over 5 hours with multiple stops at rest areas for bathroom breaks and lunch. I was nervous about the RV park we were heading for, concerned they may not have our reservation at International RV Park. When I made the reservations in Florida a month ago I had trouble finding any place in the Jacksonville to Daytona Beach area that had room in January. I was too late in making the reservations. International RV Park was not my first choice, but when I called they did not immediately say they did not have room. In fact, all they took down was my name and dates for the reservation. They did not even ask for a phone number. When I called back a few days later to check on our reservation, they had to look but did find our name. We obviously never got a confirmation since they did not have our email or phone number. I doubt we would be able to find room in any other park if they lost our reservation. On top of that, Kal looked at their webpage which indicated prices from $40-$80 a night and a separate charge for electricity. This is certainly more than I wanted to spend for a week, but we really had no choice. As they name implies, International RV Park is within a couple of miles of the Daytona International Speedway and we did not know the racing schedule and if we were staying during a big race we would likely be paying a premium price. When we pulled into the RV Park on Saturday afternoon, I really got nervous since it is a large RV park, with over 350 sites, and it looked full. However, they did have our reservation and took us around to see the sites that had available. Although over half of the park are pull through sites, nearly all of these are doubled up with RVs parked in both directions at this time of year. There was only about 6 sites open that would hold our 35 foot RV and since we did not care about cable, we were able to select a site with a road directly in front, which meant there was a good chance that I could back the RV into it!! We got assistance from the manager and a neighbor across the street and I was able to park the RV after only four attempts. We got set up and I went to the office to find out what it was going to cost. After double checking that our length of stay was for 9 nights he proceeded to work up the ticket. When I mentioned that we were Good Sam members, he gave me a funny look like whether I was serious and they showed me the receipt. It was for only $150 for the 9 nights including electricity. This works out to $17 a night which is less than any other commercial park we had paid so far! I gladly accepted the rate. I suspect that the price is a combination of a couple of factors. First, it is not a premium site since it does not have cable, picnic table, or concrete patio as some of the other sites. Second, we are actually sharing a site with another RV. As we suspected the RV park is nearly full to capacity with snow birds, many from Canada and the midwest that are staying here for the winter and now that we are back into temperatures in the low 70s, I can see why. The RV Park is better than a parking lot, with a little bit of room between sites, but for this price I couldn’t complain. It turns out that my reception over the phone is due to the extreme lay-backed attitude of everyone in the park. It is a real friendly atmosphere, almost a community, and they have numerous activities every day. In fact, they gave me two tickets for a Luau party that were having that night in the clubhouse. Beginning at 5:00 we had some great snacks and free drinks. While we had trouble finding a table since it was so packed, we did finally get chairs brought in and seated at a table with three other couples from Ontario and Iowa. They were a lot of fun although most of the discussion was about NASCAR and their trips to all the racing venues over the years. I guess you should expect this staying at a park only a few miles from the racetrack. You could easily hear the loudspeaker and cars racing that evening. Dinner was a BBQ pig complete with an orange in its mouth, beans, potato salad, and a wide range of deserts. They also had entertainment that was a combination of hula dancing by some of the residents (just imagine 70-80 year old women hula dancing – it was a riot) and line dancing for anyone wanting to join in. The dance floor was not large and they managed to more than fill it up with the line dancing. They certainly had a lot of fun and we enjoyed the free meal and entertainment a lot. We certainly felt we had made the right choice for a place to stay!
Since Sunday was Jenny’s only day off until the next weekend, we took off for Orlando to see her new apartment and deliver her Christmas presents. Jenny is now living alone (NO MORE ROOMMATES with financial challenges) in a small efficiency apartment, which means it is two rooms. A bathroom and kitchen/living room/bedroom. With not much more room that our RV, she finally has a place all her own. She can now keep it clean and make her own meals for her and Keely, her cat. Jenny got around $300 in gift cards for Target for Christmas and so we had lunch with her friend Kori and proceeded to Target to get her stuff for the apartment. Her biggest needs were for storage and additional chairs to go along with her love seat couch, which besides her bed is the only place to sit. So we bought two barstools to put at the bar between the kitchen and living room, three storage units to go under the bar, and a bookcase for the living room. She was able to combine her grocery shopping with the purchase and still leave her some funds. We spent an enjoyable afternoon in her apartment putting all the pieces together and we left her that evening with a smile on her face as she finally got all the things off of her counters. On our way back to the RV Park we stopped by Kal’s cousins, Clint and Sandy in Winter Park and spent an enjoyable couple of hours talking with them and sharing some cheese cake. All in all, it was a very enjoyable day and we had plans to meet up with Clint and Sandy on Tuesday and Jenny to join us next weekend.
By Monday morning it was time to do the laundry, so Kal grabbed out dirty clothes and headed to the laundry facilities at the park. Normally this would mean that I would spend the morning cleaning the RV, however, we had a problem. We had no hot water in the RV. Our hot water heater can run on either electricity or propane and the propane heater worked fine. It was a good idea to try out the propane water heater, since we had not needed it until now, however, we needed to figure out the problem with the electric heater. I checked all the fuses and found no problems, so I went up to the office to see if they knew anyone that could give me a hand, as I had no idea how to proceed. There was another camper in the office at the time that knew someone with a tester that was staying just across the street from us. He was certainly glad to give me a hand and the three of us proceeded to figure it out. The objective was to find out if the heating element was getting electricity. If not, then there was an electrical problem. If it was getting electricity then the element was bad. Simple enough, except we could not find the element! On the outside of the RV you easily find the propane system and drain for the hot water tank, but no electric element. We removed a panel under the RV and found a lot of insulation with no obvious access to the hot water tank. Before making a real mess by pulling out the insulation, we went to look inside the RV. Come to find out the hot water tank sits next to the refrigerator with access to the back from the cabinet. It was actually easy to get to and there was the element!! In a matter of minutes (after spending over an hour wasting our time looking for it) he quickly determined it was getting power, so the element was gone. Especially since we can heat the water using propane, this is not an emergency situation that has to be fixed immediately. The RV is under warranty, so we decided to limp along on propane until we are in the Ocala area fairly close to the Florida location of Tri-Am. I will just add this to the list along with the gasket on the bedroom slide and electrical outlets that are not working. We spent the rest of the day enjoying our first warm day in over 6 weeks in sunny Florida!! This is the life!
Tuesday started off cloudy and cool, so we pushed back our plans with Clint and Sandy until lunch time. Our plans was to join them in one of their favorite pass times, paddle boarding. On a paddle board you stand up or kneel on a board while you use a paddle to gently move you around. I was a bit nervous about this especially since the temperature was only in the low 70s and without the sun, it would be very cold when I fell off the board. I was thinking that a kayak would be a better choice for me. Kal, however, was interested in trying out the paddle board, even if she did get dunked. Clint and Sandy picked us up and after taking a tour of the RV, we proceeded off to lunch at JB’s Fish Camp in New Smyna Beach. It was an excellent lunch, but the weather continued to be cloudy and cool. We mutually decided that it was not a good day to paddle board so we opted for a long walk on the beach. We then came back to the RV after an enjoyable afternoon and what started out as a quick goodbye became an long discussion of everything from insurance and investments to family history and genealogy. At 8:00 I realized that we had missed the Saturn V launch, which was suppose to go up at 7:40. However, a neighbor informed us that it had been delayed and sure enough in about 10 minutes we saw a fireball ascending over the horizon to the south. Cape Canaveral is over 40 miles away, so all we could see was the fireball, but it was still our first launch and pretty awesome.
The main reason we wanted to stay along the northeast coast of Florida was to visit the National Park Service sites and since the weather was sunny and in the upper 70s on Wednesday, we drove to St. Augustine to visit the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. St. Augustine is the oldest European city in the US largely because of this fortification. In 1513, Spain claimed Florida through the expedition of Ponce de Leon, however, it was the French who gained the first foothold with Fort Caroline on the St. John’s River. In order to protect the shipping lanes from the rich Caribbean and Central America that used the Gulf Stream to sail back to Europe every year, Spain needed to fortify their claim. King Phillip II sent an expedition under Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles to eliminate the French threat and establish settlements in Florida. Thus he established St. Augustine and after eliminating the French presence to the north he built the first of the wooden fortifications. The masonry fort that now stands guard at St. Augustine was begun in 1672 following nine successive wooden forts built at different locations along the inlet. The Castillo was built using local materials meaning cutting blocks of coquina, a limestone material made of up compressed sea shells, from a nearby island. Originally covered with bright whitewash and painted and modified over the past 300 years to accommodate larger and more accurate cannons, it was an active fort through the Civil War. Initially, the fort was constructed as a storage facility to protect supplies arriving by ships and to house the citizens of St. Augustine during sieges. Soldiers did not live in the fort, but rather had other occupations in towns and surrounding farms much like our National Guard today. They were from all nationalities including freed slaves from Africa. The Castillo de San Marcos has been under siege in 1702 and again in 1740 by British forces from Georgia and South Carolina, but was never captured. It changed hands multiple times through treatise but never by force. In 1763 it became Fort St Mark under the British, back to Spain in 1783, and finally ceded to the United States in 1821 when it was named Fort Marion. Today, the fort is in amazing condition and shows the many improvement and changes through the years. They had ranger talks every hour through the day that gave the history of the fort in combination with the many interpretive signs throughout the fort. After spending a couple of hours in the fort we ate lunch along the inlet and took a couple of hours to stroll around historic St. Augustine. Scattered through the many small shops and restaurants in the historic district there are a number of historic buildings dating from the earliest days of the city after it was rebuilt in 1565. Notable were the luxury hotels dating from the 1880s, the Spanish Constitution Obelisk dating from the brief period (only two years) of constitutional government when all colonies were required to construct an obelisk in commemoration of the event in 1812, and the city gate and reconstructed Cubo Line that made St. Augustine a walled city following the siege in 1702.
Thursday was to be the warmest day of the week with temperatures reaching 80, so it was a good day to visit Canaveral National Seashore. Not knowing any better we selected the National Seashore in our GPS, which led us to downtown Titusville which seemed strange at the time. This location turned out to be the Offices for the National Seashore, which were even locked up even though the posted times indicated they should be open. Knowing the National Seashore was to the east, we proceeded over the bridge onto Merritt Island where we were immediately in the National Wildlife Refuge. Signs for the Visitor Center of the National Wildlife Refuge led us to a very nice Visitor Center where we found out that the Canaveral National Seashore is split between the northern and southern section that are not connected by road. The southern section consists of only a couple of beaches and most of the attractions are in the northern section, including their Visitor Center about 40 miles back to the north in New Smyrna Beach. In other words, back to less than a mile south of where we had lunch with Clint and Sandy on Tuesday! A quick decision put off a visit to the National Seashore until Friday and we would take advantage of the trails in the Wildlife Refuge. Before lunch we took about a mile hike through a unique habitat in Florida – the scrub community of dry sandy ridges and low shrubs that are maintained through periodic fires. It is the home of the endangered Scrub Jay, which we were fortunate to see and get some pictures of. For lunch we traveled north to the Haulover Canal that is part of the Intercoastal Waterway connecting Mosquito Lagoon with Indian River Lagoon. This location has a long history as a location where even the Indians were portage their canoes between the lagoons before a canal was dug. On the north side of the canal the Refuge has constructed a viewing platform for Manatees which are known to frequent this location. However, the water temperature has to be 70 degrees and it was only about 65 degrees according to their water thermometer. Therefore, we did not expect to see any manatees, but to our surprise there was one just off the viewing platform. After getting some pictures we went to the other side of the canal where we could set up our chairs for a quiet lunch along the canal. We did see a manatee surface a couple of times out in the canal and debated whether it was the same one we had seen near the other bank. After lunch we took another two mile hike to and around a palm hammock, which is rare since most of the hammocks are dominated by hardwoods. This hammock was all palm trees which created a unique habitat on the ground, although some of this was also created by the many rooting feral hogs in the refuge. We caught a glimpse of what we believed to be a hog moving away through the underbrush but we did not wait around to verify. Once again the hiking paths in a National Wildlife Refuge lived up to our expectation and the beautiful weather combined for an enjoyable afternoon.
On Friday, we were ready to try and find the Canaveral National Seashore and it was less than a mile from where we had lunch a couple of days before. The Visitor Center is very small consisting of little more than a very limited gift shop, but we got everything we needed including my pin and park brochures. There are a number of stops along the six mile road along the beach that were of interest. The most impressive of these is near the entrance to the seashore at Turtle Mound. Turtle Mound is a 35 foot tall midden heap made by the Indians over hundreds of years depositing their oyster shells. We had seen other midden heaps further north along the coast, but his was by far the largest and most impressive. The National Park Service has constructed a wooden boardwalk that takes you up to the top of the midden heap which gives some spectacular views of the ocean and Mosquito Lagoon. There is a one way loop drive that takes visitors to the only remaining structure of Eldora. Eldora began as an agriculture community in 1877 with a steamboat stop and post office. In the early 1900s it transitioned into a location for winter seasonal homes for wealthy northerners and decline following the Great Depression in 1938. Today the Friends of Canaveral have restored the Eldora State House that is open to the public. Unfortunately, the house is only opened in the afternoons in January so we were not able to tour the interior. Following lunch at a small picnic table overlooking the ocean, we took another walk to Castle Windy which is another midden heap of oyster shells. The half mile walk from the ocean to the lagoon provides an excellent cross section of the habitats as it shifts from scrub palmetto and live oak to a live oak forest. The trail brochures point out a number of interesting plants along the trail including nakedwood which is a small barkless tree and wild coffee that are at the northern end of their tropical zones. I also learned that the twisted shape of live oak trees is not due to the wind but the effects of the salt air that randomly kills the terminal buds of the branches. Once the terminal bud is killed growth is continued in a new direction from side branches, thus causing the tree to twist and turn over time. Friday was a shortened day, as the weather was deteriorating with a cold front moving through. We did see rain and wind Friday night and Saturday morning with decidedly cooler temperatures (lows in the 40s and highs in the 60s).
Saturday was spent working on this blog, going to the store, and waiting for Jenny to join us for the remainder of the weekend. Following the rain over night the temperatures cooled throughout the day with a strong westerly wind. I suppose it is about time we headed further south in the search of warmer climates :). We had a relaxing evening with Jenny talking and watching TV.
We had waited until Sunday to finish the National Park System sites in the area so Jenny could come with us. We waited until about 10 for the weather to warm up a bit and then headed back towards St. Augustine to visit the southern extension of Castillo de San Marcos. When we arrived at the fort we found to our surprise that the fort is situated on an island requiring a ferry ride that leaves every half hour. We were just in time to miss the 11:30 tour, so we spent the next hour watching their short film about the fort (which was a good reminder of what we had learned earlier in the week at the Castillo), hiked the short nature trail over the dunes to the ocean, and ate lunch. We were still in plenty of time to catch the 12:30 ferry over to the fort. The Castillo protects the harbor of St. Augustine which is on the Matanzas River on the north side of town to primarily protected the northern entrance into the Matanzas River from the Ocean preventing any attacks from the north. However, the “backdoor” in the south through the Matanzas Inlet allowed ships to threaten the city from the south. Ogelthorpe took advantage of this when he laid siege to the fort and blockaded the harbor in 1740. Following this long siege that was defeated only when Ogelthorpe retreated at the start of hurricane season, the Spanish constructed Fort Matanzas on Rattlesnake Island to close access to the Matanzas River. They completed the fort in 1742 once again using blocks of coquina. The fort is very small in comparison to the Castillo consisting of only a single gun platform for 6 cannon aimed at the mouth of Matanzas Inlet. Besides the gun platform, the fort has a single room to house the 6 soldiers on duty and a separate upstairs room for the officer and supplies. From the officer quarters you can also ascend to the watch station on top of the fort via a wooden ladder through a small hole in the roof. Since the only way to visit the fort is by ferry from the Visitor Center, the Park Ranger gives a short presentation about the fort and its construction and you then have about 20 minutes to look in the two rooms, which is plenty of time. At the time, the fort would have looked a lot different since it would have been covered with a brilliant white wash instead of the gray pockmarked coquina stone. While talking with the Park Ranger I found out that Rattlesnake Island is perfectly placed to defend the Inlet, however, it was only 4 acres in size at the time and high tide would often come up to the bottom of the fort. Today the island is over 200 acres and they have filled in sand around the fort to keep it out of the water at normal high tides.