February 18, 2011 – We both got off work a bit early (yay for comp time!) and started the drive drive towards Jacksonville, FL. We stopped for dinner at a fun little pizza place, Mamita’s Pizzeria and More, in Ridgeland, SC. Ridgeland is a very tiny town, but somehow two Northerners (from OH) wound up opening up a pizza place there. The pizza is great, as are the garlic bread sticks; we tried a New York white pizza with lots of cheese, garlic and pepper – cooked in a brick oven, with some of the best crust we’ve found yet down south. Eventually we made it to our stop for the night, the Hampton Inn in Jacksonville. Of course, the GPS decided to pronounce it “Jackson-vee-ya” but that’s another story.
February 19, 2011 – After breakfast at hotel we drove to Blue Spring State Park in search of manatees. Fun creatures sighted included an approximately 35 year old gator, baby manatee and parent, 4 other manatee underwater lumps, a hawk, and a sandhill crane flying and calling overhead. Of course, we also enjoyed looking at all the fish in the crystal clear water, including one that was moving around the mud to make a nest. Apparently these nesting fish will chase off gators; fiesty little things. Tony found a fun local place for lunch called Laspada’s Original. It’s run by a family from Chester, PA, and they have a great Philly cheese steak with white American, mushrooms, and grilled onions, on a grilled sub roll.
Properly fortified, we drove to Lake Kissimmee State Park. The trek took us past orange groves, orange trucks, and the Florida Natural Plant. One of the highlights of the trip happened just before reaching the park, when we saw a pair of Crested Caracara in a tree. The male was grooming the female (or just ruffling her feathers) with his beak.
Once at the park we headed out on a trail that was supposed to take us past a watch tower and towards the lake. Well, the structural integrity of the tower was suspect (and it was closed, anyway) so we continued on. Eventually it sounded like there were lawnmowers (or race cars) nearby; the sound turned out to be hover craft heading out for a few hours on the lake. We didn’t realize how loud those things were! The birds didn’t seem to mind too much, we saw a nesting osprey, a few egrets, some coots, lots of vultures riding the spinning air currents, and an armadillo. On the way back we were talking, and heard a woodpecker tapping in the tree above us. We stopped, and a giant pileated woodpecker popped its head out from around a branch, looked at us, and continued hopping around and pecking at the tree. We were about 12′ from it, and it didn’t seem to mind us at all. They’re difficult to spot because they don’t make much noise, and move around (from branch to branch, and tree to tree) quite a bit before searching for bugs inside the tree again.
Dinner at Bahama Breeze was delicious as usual – jerk shrimp in garlic butter with toasted Cuban bread, almond-crusted mahi mahi, and shrimp and lobster pasta. Once we made it out of the crazy parking lot we headed over to our hotel, the Hilton across the street from Downtown Disney. We checked in then walked over. The crowds weren’t too bad, and the live music was good as usual. This time the red male living statue was posing with little kids who wanted their pictures taken. A group of women walked by and he changed his pose so he could look at them – it takes skill to flirt while you’re completely covered in red paint and posing with a guitar as a statue. We also snagged some caramel chocolate dessert from Ghiradelli.