Guilty Pleasures in Florida

Last month’s post on our visit to Fairbanks (here) put me in mind of a couple places we visited in Florida last winter that I think of as “guilty pleasures”. You know the kind of place I’m talking about – places you do not necessarily tell your friends you’re going to visit but you go anyway just because it’s fun or quirky and, what can I say, it’s American.

Now, I’m not including the Fairbanks stops in that category….just meant that writing the blog reminded me of the places in Florida.

So, I’m not talking about museums or historical sites or places of cultural significance that are “good” for you. I’m talking about all the other places we humans tend to love so much. Think about it. These are the places that lure you in with a thousand and one roadside signs and billboards tell you that you absolutely must stop and see them when you’re on the road.

On the one hand, if you have traveled at all in the south, you will have had to have seen a few barns painted with “See Rock City” on the side (or roof) and you know you wanted to go. Admit it.


But Rock City is actually a very lovely garden on the top of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga in Tennessee and you really should go there…and you don’t have to feel the least bit guilty…there are scenic views and geology and flowers and birds and nature and history….nothing chintzy at all (at least when I was there about 30 years ago).


But let’s take it down one level – remember the last time you traveled down Interstate 95 between North Carolina and South Carolina. Yep, you guessed it – South of the Border!

Some years ago, I used to run that route regularly on my way home to Georgia and every time, I’d see those signs…for miles I’d see those signs telling me I just had to stop at South of the Border. They really must put those signs up at least fifty miles in advance of the place because you cannot possibly miss them. If you’ve been on 95, then you’ve passed South of the Border.

sotbAnd the signs were all “Mexico”. You couldn’t be any further away from Mexico (physically or culturally) but you’d have thought you were right there getting ready to cross the Rio Grande in Texas. And it would be a totally kitschy Mexico. Now, every time I’d get taken in by those signs and I’d promise myself that one day I was gonna take that exit and I was going to see what all the hubbub was about there just over the South Carolina line. And, so I did. And, it was just exactly what I’d expected…giant souvenir shops and a couple restaurants all decorated very badly with plastic cacti and lots of sombreros. I bought a bunch of tacky things (made in Japan at that time but probably Malaysia these days) with a southwest motif. I also ate a few bad tacos and just about had a good time. It might have been a little better if there at actually been something real there to see… know a museum or a battlefield or something…but there wasn’t (at that time). But, you can bet that, when I got back home, I told everyone all about my trip down south but somehow never quite mentioned that little foray “South of the Border”. It’s just the way it is with guilty pleasures…you do it, you enjoy it for what it is and forget about what it isn’t.

Now, you know the truth. I’m easy prey (like many others I’m betting) for any of these places – roadside petting zoos, giant balls of twine, fake dinosaurs, huge rocking chairs, big rocks with names painted on them… name it, I’ve probably found myself heading in that direction. At least I did when I was younger and looked for such wonderful quirky things at every bend in the road. Now, I’m older and I am much more sophisticated and I go only to the best places and spend most of my time pondering the mysteries of the universe and gazing thoughtfully at works of art at only the best museums. Right?

Wrong! I’m still a sucker for a little kitsch now and then.

So, last winter, I had a long list of places to visit while we were in Florida sweating out the days until it stopped snowing back home. My list mostly included preserves and refuges and wetlands where the birding would be awesome and I’d, no doubt, see amazing birds and I would learn so much about wildlife and all things natural in Florida. But right smack dab in the middle of my list were a couple of places that just didn’t quite fit into the category of “learning experiences” or “nature excursions”. These were my guilty pleasures of the trip.

The first place involved birds so I can take a little bit of credit. It did involve us “seeing” the birds so I suppose I could call it “bird watching” but I’d never get away with calling it “birding”. And it involved this beautiful pink bird that is native to Florida….well, sorta.

If you want to see flamingos in the wild, you might have to go to South America or Cuba and do a bit of roughing it in Eco-lodges……at least you’d stay in places a tad bit more rustic than Sarasota…which is where we were going to see flamingos. Yes, I know there are some wild flamingos in Florida and I intend to go looking for them the next time I visit the state but, that would have to wait. I had other plans related to flamingos. I mean, seriously, why wait? You cannot just go anywhere and feed the flamingos, can you? Well, yes you can…..if you go to Sarasota Jungle Gardens.

Sarasota gardenI had heard all about this place and I had checked it out on the internet and I figured it was a tourist trap if ever there was one. And, it does attract quite a few visitors every year. Now, normally, we do not go to gardens or parks or zoos where animals and birds are caged…just cannot take the thought of all those beautiful creatures that are no longer free to live out their lives in their native habitat. And, no, an artificial habitat is not an animal’s native home no matter how much it is prettified up to be or how big (by zoo standards) it seems to be. A three hundred square foot enclosure is never ever gonna be the Pantanal in Africa…no arguing about it…never gonna happen.

flamingo wideBut, I had heard that this garden had flamingos and that the birds roamed around the garden (relatively freely) and for a small fee, you could buy a bag of food and you could actually feed the flamingos. That’s right, you walk up and hold out your hand and the birds would walk right up and eat out of your hands. And, of course, you could take pictures to your little heart’s content getting extreme close ups of the birds after you fed them. So, even if you got to see a flamingo in the wild, chances are you would not get a great photo without some serious glass (birders lingo for scopes, binoculars, and camera lens….see, I do pretend to be a serious birder sometimes and I use the language when I think I might sound more impressive).

You know I had to go. And so we locked the address into the GPS and we headed into downtown Sarasota and circled the block until we found the place and traffic let up enough that we could make that left-hand turn into the parking lot and then we were there…..just like traveling in the wilds of South America.

Now, I have to admit, I was excited and ready to feed some flamingos. But Jerry was pretty cool. He’s not the type to succumb to guilty pleasures on vacation like I am and he really doesn’t like to see birds caged up but he was going to do it for me because he knew that I was totally stoked at the thought of getting that close to flamingos.

flamingoesSo he wasn’t going to participate when I bought the bags of food….and he wasn’t going to participate as we walked through the gardens (actually pretty nice) noting the macaws in cages and the iguana laying on the attendant’s shoulders….

macawIguana man…..and he wasn’t going to participate as we went looking for the flamingos…..and he wasn’t going to participate when we found the birds and I started feeding the flamingos or, as they surrounded me and queued up for the food…….

flamigoes 2…..and he wasn’t going to participate as I took photos of them sleeping standing up or, as I talked to the birds and tried to pet them (they drew the line at my trying to pat them on the head, etc.)…..and he wasn’t going to participate almost up until I was just about out of food…

flamingo head 2…..then, he shrugged and said, “what the heck”, gave into the urge and said that maybe he might just feed a bird or two….you know, as long as he was there anyway.

FeedingSo, I shared some food from the last bag and we spent some peaceful and happy moments in the warm Florida sunshine surrounded by pink flamingos (and a few white ibises) nibbling at the food from our hands not caring one iota that this was touristy and somewhat tacky and not in the least up to the “standards” for seeing and appreciating birds in the wild. It wasn’t superb or marvelous or educational….it was just plain fun.

Fun… like my second guilty pleasure of the trip. This one would be the last place we visited in Florida and involved orange groves and a swamp buggy.

Like everyone else in the US, I have consumed gallons of orange juice and eaten a many an orange in my time and most of them came from Florida. Since I grew up in Georgia, and, while we could certainly get oranges from California, most of the ones we bought came (and still come) from Florida. When I had visited Florida in the past, we had driven past orange groves and I thought it would be nice to just leave the road and drive off down through the groves, just meander thought the fields and check things out…maybe pick an orange or two and enjoy the good Lord’s bounty in a garden.

orchardBut you cannot just go free wheeling down through someone’s farm without violating some property laws and maybe even getting yourself shot at by some farmer who just might not understand your need to meander and see where the oranges are grown.

swamp buggyNow, on to the swamp buggies. Down near the Everglades, back in the day (who’s day I am not sure but it was way before my time and maybe around the time they started building the Tamiami Trail), a mode of transportation was developed for riding through and working in the Everglades. The vehicle they came up with sort of looks like a jeep with big, big wheels – humungous wheels….you know, tall enough and thick enough for driving through the tall sawgrass and swampwater in the ‘Glades (aren’t you now impressed with that?…just picking up the local slang). So I had seen these behemoths and I wanted to ride one of them. It was right up there on my list with riding on one of those flat john-boats with the big fans on the back that Jerry now tells me are more properly called airboats.

farmer johnsSo, in my research and planning, I had found a place on the internet (Farmer John’s Showcase of Citrus) that offered swamp buggy rides through citrus groves. See, I could kill two birds with one stone or, at least, see two birds in one bush or something like that. Of course, you know the place was right outside Orlando and catered to all those folks who just couldn’t spend another day with Disney and were looking for something different to do. Farmer John’s was the place. You gotta know that I knew this place was not going to be a visit to a working organic farm where you could pick your own oranges (although you can if the season is right and the oranges are ripe) and work the earth and end your vacation feeling that you had given a few hours labor that somehow contributed to the gross national product and the economy of Florida. Nope, it was gonna be and, in fact, is another tourist trap…..and it was right there at the top of my list.

you pickWell, the “tour” turned out to be just as expected. The swamp buggy turned out to be more like an old school bus on gigantic wheels…which was just as cool as a jeep in its own way. The farm was a real working cattle farm with citrus groves and we did, indeed, get to ride out through the orchards and see hundreds of trees, some of which still had fruit from the last season waiting to be harvested, and some of which were blooming and smelled wonderful.

future orchardAnd to make it educational, the ride came with a tour guide who entertained us with a history of the family-owned farm and what color oranges really are in their native land (green) and a few bad jokes like, “Orange you glad we didn’t get stuck in the swamp and have to walk through the water back past that big ole hungry alligator?”

wetlandsYes, there was a nice wide creek/swampy area right in the middle of the property complete with its own resident alligator that we rode through slowly swaying from side to side as the tires cut through the mud and got stuck (momentarily) in holes here and there along the way.

But it wasn’t my birthday and I didn’t get to drive the buggy through the fields like the one lady did because it was, in fact, her birthday. But you had better believe that next time anyone asks me on a tour if it is my birthday, I’m gonna say, “Yes, why yes it is”, loudly and strongly just in case it might mean I get to drive a tractor or swamp buggy.

But this time I didn’t so next time I’ll know….if you go to a tourist trap and you want the full experience, you should volunteer. Now, you might end up on stage doing something totally embarrassing but, then again, you might just get to drive a really cool swamp buggy. Okay, let me change my plan on that – if I’m outside in or on a cool vehicle like a tractor, I’ll volunteer; if I’m inside and there’s a stage, then I’ll just keep my hands down and my mouth shut……but I’ll keep my memories about my all those guilty pleasures.