Saturday, February 25, 2006

Finished with the west coast of Florida

After leaving the Cape Coral Elks, we headed due west as far as we could, then due north, intersecting with US41, the Tamiami Trail, just south of Punta Gorda. After crossing the Peace River, we curled around to the west and southwest, crossing the Myakka and coming just up to the Boca Grande Causeway at Placida before turning north up the coast. We had previously decided to forego Boca Grande due to maneuvering and parking concerns, and no point in paying the causeway toll if we were just going to turn right around.

In Englewood, we turned west onto the Beach Road out to Manasota Key, keeping with our barrier-island travel theme. As Louise has already posted, complete with photographic evidence, Manasota Key turned out to be a bad choice, as we ended up running a gauntlet of low branches. It was quite lovely, though, as far as we could see through our nervousness.

We crossed back over the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Manasota Beach, and headed north to meet up with 41 again in Venice. My plan had been to again turn west on Casey Key after crossing Little Sarasota Bay, but our experience on Manasota coupled with a "winding road, trucks not recommended" sign persuaded us otherwise, and we bypassed Casey Key and we continued north on 41. Siesta Key, just south of Sarasota, though a much shorter stretch, proved more hospitable to Odyssey. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of traversing on the intracoastal side, where the main highway was, whereas the beach road was probably more interesting and would have shown us more of the town.

That pretty much finished off the day, and we turned inland to find the Sarasota South Elks Lodge (map) for a pleasant night's stay. The lodge had a large, grassy parking area (as shown in Louise's photo) and 30-amp electric hookups. I took advantage of the early stop to install mounts for a new market umbrella for our rooftop deck that we picked up at Home Depot along the way. While I was up there I inspected for any damage from the deadly Manasota Key tree canopy. It turns out that our rear roof air conditioner had quite a bash in it, though that damage was more likely from a low tree elsewhere, as the canopy was a straight shot, and whatever made this dent would have caught the center AC as well as the kitchen vent, so I surmise we did this in a tight-turn situation while maneuvering out of yet another low-clearance hazard.

In any case, the bottom pan of the unit was bashed in, and the shroud was cracked right at the left-front attachment screw. It took me twenty minutes with an engineer hammer and a Gorilla BarTM to get the pan back to a shape where I could properly secure the shroud. The shroud patched up OK with duct tape, which, fortunately, is almost the same color as the silver we had the sides of the shrouds painted. I drilled a new, slightly offset hole for the attachment screw in an undamaged section of the shroud, and put the whole shebang back together. From the ground, it's impossible to tell anything is amiss.

At some point, Louise will get a shot of the new market umbrella, which is much larger than the old one, and also a color scheme more in keeping with Odyssey, complementing the pattern on the Girard awnings.

From the Sarasota South lodge, we headed due west and, once again, out to the barrier islands, passing first through the ocean-front part of Sarasota proper, which was chock-a-block with restaurants, shops, and pedestrians (many of whom gawked as we passed), then north onto Longboat Key. The drive along this island on the west side of Sarasota Bay was quite pleasant, though we found the endless string of resorts and condos, with little else in the way of services, less appealing than the thriving downtown-like atmosphere of Sarasota. That brought us into Bradenton Beach, where we again crossed the waterway into Bradenton and followed along the east shore of Tampa Bay and arriving into Tampa via the US41 causeway and through the historic district of Ybor City.

In Tampa our overnight was at the Wal-Mart (map), principally because we have a club in Tampa and Wal-Mart was only two miles away. We did first make an effort to secure parking at the mall immediately adjacent to the club, but they mumbled something about post-9/11 security issues and refused (after first making us run around the mall from customer service to the security office and, finally, the management office). I guess we must look like terrorists in Odyssey, because even Wal-Mart asked us to move further away from the building (when the night shift came on, after we had already been parked for several hours with the blessing of both the day manager and the roving security patrol -- go figure). The refusal at the mall marks one of the very few times we have been actively turned down when we asked permission to park.

We still wanted to eat at the club, and we did not want to drive either Odyssey or Aquarius, so we called a cab. I don't know what it is about cab drivers in Florida, but this is the third time we've gotten a cabbie that knew the area even less well than we did, and we ended up having to give turn-by-turn directions. Fortunately, the driver for the return trip was not as green.

From Tampa this morning we took I-275 across Old Tampa Bay and into Saint Petersburg, bailing off just before the toll bridge south across the bay. We then headed west across Boca Ciega Bay and into St. Pete Beach. We would very much have liked to go south on the Pinellas Bayway into Fort Desoto Park for a couple pleasant nights of camping, but, not unexpectedly, the park was full for the weekend. We opted to bypass it altogether, since it was likely crowded, and stuck to the through-route, taking the Gulf Boulevard all the way north to Clearwater Beach, through myriad beach-front towns in between. Good people-watching the whole way, and we found several of the towns quite pleasant.

Clearwater Beach marks the northern end of the barrier island route, and we crossed the bridge into Clearwater and continued north on US19-A through Dunedin, Palm Harbor, and Tarpon Springs, where we joined US19. That carried us north through Holiday and Port Richey and eventually to Weeki Wachee, home of the "Mermaids." Weeki Wachee is where we first came to the gulf coast of Florida back in January of last year, on our way around the gulf, and thus we have "closed the loop," finally completing our coastal circuit of the state. So from there we headed east on 50 to connect back with US41 in Brooksville.

US41 brought us here to Hernando, just north of Inverness, and another beautiful camp spot at the Inverness Elks Lodge on Tsala Apopka Lake (map). I have to say that the Elks and the many RV-friendly lodges has really made this whole high-season Florida expedition possible.

I am hoping to hear from our friends Charles and Vicky who are associated with the Spirit of the Suwannee music park and campground near Live Oak. If they are available, we will head there tomorrow for a brief visit before heading west into the panhandle. We have now left the gulf coast behind, at least until we reach Alabama.

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