WELCOME TO SUNSHINE STATE CITIES

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Thank you for joining me on my posts about my recent trip to Florida. I’ll finish off this short series by sharing some photos and information about our visits to the two closest cities; New Smyrna Beach and St. Augustine.

St. Augustine was one city we couldn’t wait to visit. It lies in North-East Florida and is known as the oldest city in America. Its Spanish roots are evident from the buildings in the town; at times I felt I’d been transported in time and location to 16th Century Spain. It was founded on 8th September (my birthday!) in 1565 by Spanish admiral and Florida’s first governor, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. He named it San Augustin as the land was first spotted on that Saint’s day eleven days earlier.

I’d read about the trolley buses in St. Augustine before we arrived – such a perfect mode of transport to the main attractions. They were handy to take either as a long tour or as a  hop-on hop-off trip as well as being so colourful, open to the air and having friendly informative drivers. However there was one moot point. No one had warned us about the hard and extremely uncomfortable hard seats! Heck! My mother’s ribs are only just recovering from the plastic moulded atrocities! Luckily I remained unscathed by leaning forward and clinging for dear life to the pole by the open doorway – precariously at times. Also suspension is NOT an added extra and one piece of sage advice I wish we’d been given is not consume food before embarking on the buses. It’s a rough ride and doubly so on the cobblestones!

On arrival we first chose to absorb the city’s atmosphere by enjoying a stroll down the pedestrianised St. George Street. We revelled in the beautiful architecture all around us, eyes glancing back and forth and then up to the wooden balustrades of the first floor verandahs adorned with flowers. At any moment I imagined a cowboy shoot-out up above and with a crack, the balustrade breaking and a man falling down below. (You can visualise my misspent youth here!)

We had fun browsing the quaint tourist shops and other endless array of shops, however I was all too conscious of my already burgeoning suitcase and kept purchases to a minimum! Restaurants too were plentiful along the street and they all looked so tempting!

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This delightful building, The  School House, is the oldest wood frame building still in existence in St. Augustine today. It was built over 250 years ago whilst Florida was under the rule of Imperial Spain and was constructed of red cedar and cypress and put together with wooden pegs and handmade nails. Classes were held in the front room while the schoolmaster and his family lived upstairs.

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Two famous landmarks that symbolise St. Augustine are the San Marcos fortress and the imposing and impressive Bridge of Lions. The original wooden bridge of the nineteenth century was replaced in 1927 and then this was further renovated this century with the lions again reigning supreme.

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Image from Google

The Castillo de San Marcos is the only remaining 17th-century military stone fortress still in existence in the US. It was built out of the local coquina stone –  a soft limestone composed of broken shells which took up to three years to dry before being ready to use. During the centuries San Marcos has had four flags flown over it: the original Spanish builders and rulers, then British, for a brief while the Confederate States of America  flag during the Civil War before finally coming under the United States flag.

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Image from Google

The recent history of St. Augustine seems to be centred around the colourful character of Henry Flagler.  As the trolley tour wound its way through the idyllic streets his power and money is evident all around from the buildings he helped finance.

His former Alcazar Hotel is now the Lightner Museum, which considers itself Florida’s Smithsonian and houses artefacts from the natural world, to Tiffany glass and a Victorian village.

After hours of sightseeing we sought refuge from the busy bustle of town and happily discovered the serenity of St. Photios Greek Shrine. The shrine and the museum are dedicated to the first Greek colony in the US.

With all this sightseeing another break was required and our thirst was quenched by the delicious cooling, fruity taste of a Sangria. What could be more perfect? Our only regret was that we had too little time in this wonderful city to do it justice – we so wished we could have stayed longer!

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On our first visit to New Smyrna Beach (it soon became our regular haunt!) I felt I’d stepped into a movie set. The main street seemed to consist of front facades of shops and restaurants! The heat was unbelievable, stifling; the sunlight diffused in the warmth; the air echoed with the sounds of cicadas, otherwise silence. Silence as there was no one around! A few 4x4s parked along the road, an odd car driving past, otherwise the main street – Flagler Avenue (see how he got everywhere!) was quiet. We tried a shop; empty apart from the friendly sales assistant. We passed a couple of restaurants, with only a couple of diners. I tried but failed to turn off the theme music from ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ playing in my head.

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The more I got my brain round this wonderful town the more I came to enjoy it. The art shops were a delight, particularly the aptly named Ta’Da’ shop which had many unique finds within. Only later did I learn that New Smyrna Beach is recognised as on of the Top 100 Art Towns in US, selling locally produced art, imported wares from Colombia amongst other countries, framed paintings and pictures. Of course, there was the odd tourist shop as well…always a must for us…hmmm…tourists!

There were restaurants galore and the quiet of the daytime was replaced by a lively night scene.  We visited one particular restaurant three times – after all how could we resist Norwoods Tree House restaurant.  What a fantastical concept with superb food, great service and live music.

Mexican is not a type of restaurant found often in the UK so it was a joy to visit one in New Smyrna Beach and after having some friendly help deciphering the menu we ordered and soon tucked into a delicious meal.

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Not to be out done the Italians were represented en masse too and one place we visited had the most unusual textured ceiling covered with corks!

Each step outside on the pavements along the avenue brought a moment of reflection as we gazed down at the names inscribed upon the red brick path. Instead of those of famous celebrities that I’ve seen elsewhere I was touched to see a local sway to these dedicated memorials and celebrations.

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At last I complete my trio of posts about my Florida break and I hope you’ve enjoyed them. May they have brought you some of those wonderful  restorative, exciting and blissful feelings that engulfed me. There is one fact that I’m glad I was unaware of though: that this area has the dubious distinction of being knows as the world’s shark bite capital!

Photos copyright ©Annika Perry unless otherwise specified.

GHOST CRABS ET AL

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‘Hey folks! Have you got the photo yet? I’m getting pretty bored with this posing lark!’

I noticed the  perfect round holes first. 

What lived in these burrows visible across the beach? Soon after I began to catch glimpses of the elusive crustaceans as they scuttled across the sand and as if leaping, disappeared into their holes.  Impossibly so,  I felt as the crabs were far broader than its habitat. Intrigued I wondered about their appearance, colouring. Not the usual dark brown crabs from the North Sea coast, that much I could see. 

Then one morning one of the mysterious ghost crabs obligingly paused by its burrow and looked up. Its expression was priceless; slightly disarming, slightly grumpy. It stayed still. Waiting patiently as camera phone was found, put on correct setting, sun glasses removed in order to see the screen. Ready at last! The black piercing eyes were unmoving, its shell pale and almost translucent. In contrast the legs shone with gentle light golden hues, furry-like at the tips. The two claws were of uneven size; a characteristic of the ghost crabs – so named for its pale complexion and chameleon ability to blend in with its environment and the shading of the body adjusts according to the time of day.

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The first morning I was mesmerised by a flock of large birds swooping and gliding across the ocean. Five clearly visible although other days up to eighteen would fly across the water close to shore. Suddenly one dived into the ocean before quickly reappearing. What were these majestic birds? Soon I had my answer. Pelicans! I was in utter awe; before I had only seen Pelicans in zoos. It was a joy and privilege to view them on a daily basis in the wild.  Often during meal times three pelicans would pass within two metres of our balcony, their heads and wings clearly visible. An awesome overwhelming sight and we sat in silence savouring the experience.

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One particularly elegant and regal bird was a constant visitor on the shores, purposefully striding along the waters edge, its crisp white plumage gleaming in the sunlight. Always keeping its distance from each other, the little egret, a type of heron, occasionally bopped its black beak into the wet sand before moving on with its striking yellow feet. Time stood still as I watched the egret; sheer peace and harmony. The only time it seemed bothered was as the wind increased following the hurricane and then it tucked its head snuggly against the body, seeking lee within itself.

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Partly hidden under the bottom wooden stair down to the beach, the turtle’s head stretched beyond the step. Oh no! It should have returned hours earlier back to the sea but then I saw its injury, a large chunk of shell lying by its side, no doubt attacked by the seagulls during the night. My heart went out to the poor animal. After our walk it was still on the beach, but heading in the right direction. Later it had disappeared, hopefully after making its own way to the sea!

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Geckos galore! That is the only way to describe the paths around the condo building by the car park as geckos of all sizes crowded the paths. I had to keenly observe the path I walked along, particularly as the baby ones were only a cute centimetre long!

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The sunlight sparkled from this alien orb on the sand; hypnotic in its strange beauty. Was it alive? The answer I found out was no as this was the the ‘jelly’ remains of a jellyfish. Called the mesoglea, this is the last part to decompose when a jellyfish dies, usually after being torn apart by fish, turtles or rough weather. It doesn’t sting but not knowing that at the time I wasn’t taking a chance!

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Butterfly clams were a delight of tiny proportions. Visible briefly as the waves washed over the sand, the butterfly clams use the water to move around on the beach before quickly burrowing themselves again. This recurrent movement is known as the “dance of the coquina”.  Although it was difficult and rare to catch sight of the clams themselves, their shells were scattered across the beach and the child within me eagerly collected a handful of the 15-25 mm empty shells.

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Image from Google

Finally, a mystery! These little birds were a common sight on the beach, pecking away at the sand along the water’s edge. They were among our favourite animals in Florida, so cute and particularly endearing as with each oncoming wave they would dash quickly away up the beach, their little legs stepping so fast. Despite numerous conversations with other walkers along the stretch of coast we became no wiser as to what these birds were actually called. Can anyone help?  Below are my first attempt to upload my own videos from Vimeo – fingers crossed they work!

I hope you have enjoyed the visit to the animal kingdom from New Smyrna Beach; my next post will visit the bricks and mortar of the towns in the area.

Unless specified all photos copyright © Annika Perry

BALCONY WITH A VIEW

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For sixteen days my soul is lulled into a state of soporific bliss as I wander the unspoilt beach on the East Coast of Florida.  New Smyrna Beach stretches for thirteen unspoilt miles to the North and South of our condo residence these last weeks.

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Now, newly returned from the States and as I wait for my mind and spirit to catch up with my body, I would like to share some of the amazing and moving  photographs of the landscape, wildlife and towns. To do them justice I will write three consecutive posts – one on each topic. 

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From my mother’s and my first midnight arrival the sound of the ocean is bewitching. Not the gentle roll of waves I am used to from smaller beaches in the Mediterranean or even in the UK. Rather an unfathomable rolling roar as one crash upon the next reverberates along the coastline. Initially frightening, then quickly hypnotic and calming.

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Daylight ushers in a view of almost surreal beauty; unimaginable to our tired eyes. Stretching ahead is the widest of horizons; ocean meeting sky in a perfect horizontal line. The beach fades in the distance to our left and right, absorbed by the gentle sea mist. 

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The magic of the ocean becomes all pervasive and I know its sounds, sights and scents will inhabit my soul in the months and years ahead. I am at one with this mighty force; finding transcendental tranquility with the new-found union with nature. 

Each day solitary joggers pass in front of us as we sit on the balcony. The odd cyclists too make an early communion with the beach.

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Walkers too share its delight. Observing, we soon join them for long contemplative strolls. Ahead is a woman deep into her yoga, seemingly oblivious to the scatterings of folk around her. Sheer beauty and simplicity and surely how all yoga should be practiced. 

Many mealtimes are shared on the balcony and from here we note the quiet piercing rise of the sun – later I feel its blistering heat.

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A heat that the first few days is more a wall of hotness and humidity but  quickly we adjust to this new phenomena. We watch the placid roll of waves turn to an unruly fierceness as first the tropical storm and later Hurricane Hermine approaches.

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As the waves power their way to the shore mounds of seaweed are deposited high up on the beach. If this is just the edge of the hurricane I am glad not to witness its full ferocity. 

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On every visit to the beach I’m mesmerised by the various sensations underfoot. At first my soles sink in the soft near white sand until they resemble zombie feet! Then there is the harder darker wet sand which sends a jolt of pain on each step into the ankle as this feels harder than concrete. Then finally the tantalising breathtaking walk in the surf, a satisfying sinking feeling with each step, a small footprint indent left behind immediately filled and eradicated by the next wave.

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Around us, close to us is an abundance of wildlife – turtles, pelicans, dolphins, egrets, geckos to name a few. More of these in my next post…

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All photos ©Annika Perry