Pedal-powered, Amish, buggies on Florida’s streets

web3-wheeled-horse-and-buggy‘What happens in Pinecraft stays in Pinecraft’.

You don’t expect to hear this about members of a religion which eschews electricity and bans driving. But in Florida, a state loved by the rich, the retirees, and the snowbirds, an unusual flock is living and holidaying there, and it’s there I hear the phrase.

Staying on the edge of Sarasota, alongside a nature reserve and golf course, I find I’m also beside an Amish and Mennonite neighbourhood: Pinecraft. ‘Plain people’ as they call themselves, have been on Florida’s Gulf Coast since the 1920s and, over recent years, their friends and relatives have become snowbirds. It’s those snowbirds, escaping the northern winters, who use the phrase about Pinecraft – words usually attached to sports teams or friends off on a wild weekend, not conservative Christian folk.

The streets have traditional Amish and Mennonite names such as Yoder, Graber and Schrock and the local population have their roots in different Midwestern settlements, each with slightly different styles of clothing, religious beliefs, and customs.

One thing that stays the same are quilts which are something of a cultural icon. They are beautiful as well as functional and seem to create togetherness for the Amish women who stitch and talk as they make them.  I visit Alma Sue’s Quilts and talked with a woman working at a huge quilting frame. Her needle kept going in and out of the material as she talked: telling me she’s eighty-four, quilts daily from ten until four, was originally from Indiana, and has been making quilts since she was a child. When I comment about her long day she said the woman she shares a house with, picks her up at four, takes her home and ‘she tells me to put my feet up’. She continued, ‘she is older than me and cooks all our meals, so I’m very lucky.’

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No doubt her house is small – most of the Amish bungalows appear to be about fifty or sixty square metres while the neighbourhood seems to be about one square kilometre. The closest I got to visit a home was when my host bought material at the Sewing Nook, a little shop at the back of a home. The woman said her business was mostly only open during the ‘season’ and she was really busy then – we’d followed the directions at her letterbox to ‘knock on the front door’ and she’d open the shop. She tells us the snowbird visitors like her variety of material which ‘is different’ to choices they have in the mid-west.

Horses and buggies, thought of as essentially Amish transport, don’t travel these Floridian streets; here they use three-wheeled bikes, pedal-powered buggies. I saw church members in traditional, plain clothing, the men with long beards and the women with their hair covered with caps, all pedalling their substitute buggies along the road and footpaths. Letterboxes often have biblical messages or homilies on them and many yards have bird boxes, although I didn’t see any doves, or other birds, in residence.

Walking to the Pinecraft Post Office, we pass their popular shuffleboard courts, complete with stands for watching the players from, and arrive at the world’s only Amish-operated post office.  Some years ago, when it was under threat of closure, and valuing letters, the Amish purchased the small building and postal contract. With no computers or debit card machine the office woman uses a calculator, and receipts are hand-written and stamped. Outside, a well-used notice board advertises jobs and community events and I overhear a couple of ‘English’ (as the Amish call us others) say how much they valued having the post office close by.

Big Olaf’s provides us a huge ice cream, then after walking past a diorama of traditional Amish country and the only horse and buggy in town, I visit Yoder’s Fresh Market to browse the shelves with its great variety of foods, including many interesting homemade pickles.

I’m taken out for dinner, five minutes’ walk away, at one of the Amish restaurants in the area. These Pennsylvania-Dutch style restaurants are popular among Sarasota’s 50,000 locals, Amish snowbird tourists, as well as the local Plain population.  This is a Sarasota ‘must-do’ for your bucket-list – take an empty stomach for favourites such as fried mush, butter noodles, meatloaf, fried okra, and shoofly pie – their mashed potato was the creamiest I’ve ever eaten, and the oven-fried buttermilk chicken, divine.

This area was first settled by an Amish man, who tried, unsuccessfully, to farm celery. He was followed by other Amish who also grew produce and, as homes multiplied, Pinecraft developed into this fully-fledged neighbourhood. The Pinecraft tourist season runs from November to April and sees the Amish population swell with older snowbirds, youth there for seasonal work, and newlyweds on their honeymoon, who all stay in their own holiday home, a rented house, or at one of the trailer-parks.

Although not there during ‘the season’ the Amish folk added an unexpected and interesting dimension to my travels – an Amish area in the midst of a lovely city, in what can be a hedonistic holiday state, and a reminder there’s more than beaches and amusement parks in Florida. See more photos here  and a short interview about my experiences in Florida on Radio NZ National

Swimming with Florida’s manatee (dugong)

It’s satisfying ticking off a bucket list item: swimming with manatee – tick.

With two Florida locals, and three from Mexico, I cruise some Florida canals looking for a 600-kg creature (1322.77 lb). Sirenia are large marine herbivores and are also called sea cows, manatee, dugong and for sailors, mermaids.  It’s not the right season, but a few are permanent residents. We are looking for a fat needle in a large, watery haystack.

The canals are beautiful with expensive real estate and living at the water’s edge are a few ordinary working folks among the rich and famous including John Travolta who has a holiday home here.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge looks after this part of Kings Bay and many locals object to their speed, and other, restrictions. DJ, our young Captain, calls out to a young guy in a hire boat to slow down, to obey the speed limit – he did, but maybe just until we were out of sight.

Manatees, which lack blubber which allows whales tolerate the cold, have a near-perfect winter refuge here as many of the springs produce large quantities of warm (22 c) water.  We’re told that the locals in this de-facto manatee capital of the USA can, from November to March, walk out their doors and see dozens of them swimming or sleeping in the canals.

We pass a boat, with its passengers in the water watching this relative of elephants, but DJ moves on and later, just when I decide my bucket list will not be ticked today, we find a manatee floating on the water like a great grey blimp beside a private jetty.

I’m so excited. The only other manatee I’d seen was in a Disney park many years ago – wildlife in the wild is always different!

“She’s due to pop” our skipper says. It seems no-one has ever seen a birth and a local university has offered $US10, 000 for a video of the event. I immediately check my camera’s video setting, wriggle into a wet suit, then with mask and snorkel on, slip off the back of the boat.

For some reason the water’s very dark at this time of the year which suits the manatee as they can sink and be out of sight quickly.

Keeping well back from this pregnant cow I’m thrilled to be in the water with her. We’d learnt they needed warmth from the sun and her back was out of the water catching sun rays.

Although only a few feet away, the murky water made her hard to see clearly. I just float and admire her while sending mental ‘I love you’, and ‘we won’t hurt you’ messages. We stay in the water for about ten minutes and she’s motionless the whole time. As we get back into the boat she glides slowly into the middle of the canal and I miss her lifting her nostrils to breathe before sinking.

Our boat moves away slowly, heading for the Three Sisters Springs where, in season, photos are taken of the manatees resting in the clear, warm water. It was photos such as them that had put the manatee on my to-experience bucket list.

Once again we slide off the back of the boat, swim past two cruise boats moored between us and the entrance to the springs, then past the barrier that stops boats entering. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop canoes and kayaks and I keep to the edge as many of the boats seem to have passengers who have little control over their direction.

The water is much clearer here and I see how easy it would be to watch them underwater: a reminder that bucket lists sometimes need to be time specific.

Touching protected wild animals, as our captain had suggested we could (none of us did) would never be allowed in many countries, and it’s this ‘swim with manatee’ activity that has conservationists, boaters, some residents, politicians and tour operators arguing over the future of the area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversee all wildlife refuge areas and, manage the manatee population too.

In the video shown before we boarded, we were told ‘don’t disturb resting manatees; don’t block them when they are leaving the roped-off areas (where people are forbidden) and don’t touch.’

Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, believes the situation at Crystal River is harassment of the manatees, and is “in direct violation of both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.” He advocates stricter rules including requiring swimmers to “stop a body length away from manatees” so they are free to interact, or not, with people. “The majority of the dive shops are trying to do a good job” Rose says, and “If they want to be responsible and protect the privilege they have, which is so unique, then fine. If not, the swim-with program should go.”

Some years ago, in Florida, I’d bought a Wyland (marine artist) print of a manatee and baby and now I’ve seen one – without a baby, so no ten thousand dollars for me.  With its fat, flat, wrinkled face and sensory whiskers, the manatee looks rather like an overweight dolphin or small whale despite not being related to either.

Vulnerable to extinction, the population in this state is under 5000 and it seems that without stronger conservation efforts, these gentle creatures will be consigned to legend status along with the mermaids.

Like New Zealand’s flightless birds, the manatee evolved in an environment with abundant food and no predators.  Now vulnerable, its survival depends on locals and tourists being willing to share its home. If you are travelling in Florida, November is Manatee Awareness month and when you are most likely to see them.

 

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Amish in Florida – photos for Radio NZ talk

I’m talking about the ‘Amish in Florida’ on Radio NZ’s programme Nights (Our Own Odysseys) with Bryan Crump on Tuesday 24th Jan . Here’s a link to the audio and also to my blog about these photos and their pedal-powered buggiesweb3-wheeled-horse-and-buggy web84-years-old-and-still-working-long-hours webbird-houses-are-popular webonly-horse-and-buggy-in-town webquilt-is-are-a-tradition-among-plain-people

Listen in on Tuesday 24th January 2017 at 1910, or check the podcast later

Oysters & scallops in Crystal River, Florida

Scallops from Crystal River (tiny compared to NZ ones!)

 

 

 

tasty meal … I forget its name but it’s a local favourite
Not an easy job – cleaning oyster trays before the next season!

 


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Mermaids are alive and well in Florida!

Weeki Wachee Springs is a very, very small ‘city’ with a population of 4. It’s also a Florida state park and ‘the world’s only city of live mermaids’ who perform in the Underwater Theatre which was built into the limestone of the spring in 1947.

Waiting for the mermaids
Waiting for the mermaids

When the curtains parted, the sun shone into the turquoise spring, and schools of small fish and turtles swam into view. Then, from some deeper part of the spring a mermaid swam up to the glass in a mermaid tail. Waving and smiling, she swam the entire width of the glass without appearing to need to breathe. However, at some 6 metres deep, the free-divers have air hoses to get their oxygen. I was amazed at how they used the hoses, which just float in the water in between them breathing from them, and I was anxious they would find them and get to breath.

While I was a little dubious about visiting this attraction I found it fascinating about how it was done. I’m not a diver so this is not something I would ever try to do – especially when I find out they have to down a long pipe to get into the pool: I’d panic!

These are natural spring, some 50 metres deep, which feed the Weeki Wachee River, which pumps huge quantities of fresh water into the Gulf of Mexico daily. The state’s goal is to keep the spring and the river healthy, and I heard someone say ‘ it’s debatable how much the show helps environmental efforts’.

Mermaids are said to be aquatic creatures with the upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish – appearing in the myths worldwide. Sightings of them are now thought to have been sirenia (a biological order comprising dugongs and manatees) and the sightings by sailors were really encounters with these aquatic mammals. Although Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids while exploring the Caribbean so I may be wrong!

Mermaids of course have been a popular subject of art and literature in recent centuries – for instance Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale The Little Mermaid where a young mermaid falls in love with a human prince whom she saves from drowning when his ship was wrecked.  A world-famous statue, based on Andersen’s fairy tale, has been in Copenhagen, Denmark for over 100 years.

As well as watching the mermaid show, we also went on a short trip on the river with its extremely clear water. I believe canoes can be hired too.

 

many of the workers are volunteers such as these two
many of the workers are volunteers – such as these two

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Alligators galore in Florida – birds too

With alligators galore, and many fabulous birds, for me this park is a must-visit on your Florida travels. I’m told, ‘where there is a lake or pond in Florida, assume a ‘gator lives there‘. Seems they can, and do, travel big distances overnight too!

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One of Florida’s natural attractions is the Myakka River State Park and recently I enjoyed a day there with Sarasota friends: it’s one of Florida’s largest and, evidently, most diverse parks. Developed in 1934 it has a scenic drive, many hiking trails, a board walk, horse and bike trails, plus the first USA canopy walk (2000).  Please add your favourite canopy walks to the comments.

It also claims to have two of the world’s largest airboats.

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While cruising on board the Myakka Maiden I was surprised to hear alligators making a sound – for some bizarre reason that was something I’d not expected.  It was an aspirated hissing noise and, according to the captain of the air-powered boat, is used as a warning to other ‘gators to ‘get out of my space.’

The hour-long boat tour was accompanied by interesting facts, figures and fun by the driver-captain as we gently explored the shallow grassy areas of the Upper Myakka Lake. The flowers bloom according to the clock – well the sun really – and we are told “at 2pm the lake will covered with yellow blooms’.  And bloom at two they did!

I’m well-recommending this boat tour!

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Heather by Mallory
Heather by Mallory

 

 

Nature being watched, and photographed, by the Kiwitravelwriter

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first bite
first bite: For the first time I alligator at the cafe:

 

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Never smile at a crocodile … or an alligator

Over the next few days I will be starting a series of blogs about my three weeks in Florida, Atlanta, and California. The first one will be about Myakka River State Park (Florida) where I saw this fella while on a boat cruise!

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