Friday, March 18, 2016



In our quest to visit every national park, we recently visited the Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida which is probably the most difficult national park to get to.  Although the title implies that we took a road trip there, you can't get there by car.

Dry Tortugas is a group of small islands in the Gulf of Mexico, about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida.  You can only get there by boat or seaplane.  From Key West, the boat ride takes 2 1/2 hours each way across rough seas.  The Yankee Freedom III is a 100 foot catamaran, and it costs more than 150 bucks apiece for the trip.  We spent 4 hours there, and it was worth the trip.

Tortugas is the Spanish word for turtles.  The island is home to endangered green sea turtles and loggerhead turtles that nest there.  The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered the islands and named them.  Later, on mariners' maps, the word Dry was added, to indicate the lack of a water supply.

Most of the island is covered by the imposing Fort Jefferson which encompasses 11 acres.  Construction on the fort was begun in 1846 and abandoned by the government in 1874 and never completed.  It was the most heavily armed coastal fort in U.S. history.  Building it had to be a logistical nightmare.  They had to import millions of bricks from Mobile, Alabama, on the mainland.  When the Civil War broke out, the Union Army took over the unfinished fort, but obviously the Confederacy refused to supply any more bricks.  The Union Army began importing bricks from New England. 

The 16 million bricks composing the walls of the fort are two different colors.  The lower level bricks (from the South) were laid prior to the Civil War and the upper ones came later from the North. By 1874, the fort was obsolete because of the invention of the rifled cannon which allowed cannon balls to penetrate the thick walls.

Other than the fort, there are no hotels, no restaurants, no nothing.  There is a small gift shop for souvenirs.  If you take a private boat there, you must buy a permit and be self sufficient.  They allow camping on the beach, but obviously you'd have to bring your own food and water.

During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was a Union military prison for captured deserters.  It was the Guantanamo of the Civil War era.  After the war, the prison held four conspirators of the Lincoln assassination.  The most famous was Dr. Samuel Mudd who was implicated when he set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg.  From that point on his name was mud.  He delayed notifying authorities, and that brought him under suspicion.  Mudd was tried in a military court and spared the death penalty by one vote.  Evidence at trial indicated that the details of Mudd's story were becoming increasingly muddy.  It was disclosed that Mudd and Booth had contact many times shortly before the assassination.   Evidence also came out that Mudd had agreed to participate in a scheme to kidnap President Lincoln for ransom, but not assassinate him. 

Shortly after he arrived at Fort Jefferson, control of the prison was transferred to the 161st New York Volunteers to the 82nd U.S. Colored Infantry.  Being a former slaveholder and convicted assassin of the president who freed the slaves, Dr. Mudd feared for his life.  He attempted to escape by stowing away on a ship but was caught and severely punished.  Later, an epidemic of yellow fever broke out, and the prison doctor died.  Mudd survived the disease and became the prison doctor.  He saved many lives and basically wound up running the place.  President Johnson pardoned him in 1869, and Mudd returned home.  His name was still mud--he was never really cleared, and his descendants kept pursuing the matter unsuccessfully, all the way into the Carter and Reagan Administrations.  Eventually, the Supreme Court rejected the petition to set aside the conviction because it was not timely filed.  Mudd had died in 1883. 

Today the fort is best known as a nesting place for frigate birds and sooty terns.  The boat trips are a favorite of ornithologists--you know them by the binoculars around their necks.

We returned to Key West tired and hungry from the long boat ride.  The first restaurant we saw in the harbor was Turtle Kraal.  It was Happy Hour, and they were serving half price oysters in the half shell and drinks.  The oysters with a thick burger were great after a long day.

After dinner, it was dessert time.  Key West is famous for key lime pie.  Personally, I don't like lemon-limes, but Dianne does.  I love coconut milkshakes,  Kermit's has the best of both. 


Key West is the Southernmost city in the continental United States.  Natives, who refer to themselves as "conches" are proud of the fact that it is the only city in the continental U.S. which has never seen a frost.   The lowest temperature ever recorded in Key West was 41F. in 1981.  But records are made to be broken, right?

Key West is 150 miles from Miami, but only about 90 miles north of Cuba, which might as well be on Mars.  To get there, you'd have to go to Canada or Mexico first.  There are no commercial flights or boat rides from Florida to Cuba although that may change soon under the Obama Administration.  For years the main industry in Key West was piracy and salvaging loot from shipwrecks.  During most of the 19th Century, Key West was the largest and richest city in Florida. 

In Key West, we stayed at the Doubletree Hotel in a huge two room suite with a bar.  It was heaven!  It's a couple of miles from downtown but the hotel provides an hourly shuttle.  Parking is scarce in downtown Key West and it can cost 18 bucks a day to park in a parking garage. 

Speaking of bars, Key West boasts more bars per capita than anywhere else in the country.  Along that line, the most popular event in Key West is the daily sunset in Mallory Square.  Every sunny day, an hour or so before sunset, hordes of tourists, drinking beer from plastic cups,  descend on the square.  They are joined by street performers, food wagons and other hangers on.  One guitarist was so bad, people would pay money just to shut him up. 

Our first night in town, we had dinner at Fogarty's in an historic 1880's mansion on Duval Street where the conch fritters and grouper were wonderfully delicious.  It was named after Dr. Joseph Fogarty, an early 20th Century mayor of Key West who owned the house.  On the speaker system, they were playing songs by John Fogarty of Credence Clearwater Revival, but it appears that he has no connection with the restaurant. 

Key West is notable for inspiring its famous writers like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams (whose brother was an acquaintance of mine).  Jimmy Buffett built his first Cheeseburgers in Paradise restaurant in Key West and is closely associated with the city.  We're eaten there before, but not on this trip.  President Truman often wintered in Key West.  His house and his famous poker table are tourist attractions.


If you're driving to Key West, you first have to drive through the Everglades.  We spent a whole day there.  The Everglades is one of the largest swamps (excuse me--rainforests) in the world.  It is actually a slow moving river, 60 miles wide, starting at Lake Okeechobee, about a hundred miles north of the National Park, and it flows to the Gulf of Mexico.  The highest elevation is 8 feet above sea level.  In the early 20th Century, developers and politicians made plans to drain the Everglades and build houses, golf courses and shopping centers, and even a major airport.  In much of South Florida, they did drain the Everglades, causing severe ecological damage.

The only source of water in the park is rainfall.  Among other things, the development altered the rainfall in the area.  The Everglades National Park was created in 1947 to protect a threatened ecological system. 

In 2000, Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the world's largest environmental restoration project, seeking to return the water to its natural pattern over a 30 year period at a cost of $8.2 billion.   Bu 2014, it was determined that 50 years would be more realistic, plus another couple of billion.  As Sen. Dirksen once remarked, "Congress spends a billion here and a billion there.  Pretty soon, you're talking real money!"  Whatever the case, progress on this plan has been somewhat disappointing. 

We started our safari by visiting an alligator farm in nearby Florida City, where they actually breed alligators.  We watched as the handler fed the gators raw meat.  Crocodiles also live in the Everglades, and they are a protected species.  When I see one of these critters, especially on a golf course, I don't stick around long enough to determine whether it is an alligator or a crocodile.  When you feed a crocodile, the important thing to remember is to get your hand out of the way ASAP.  Dianne almost learned that the hard way in Darwin, Australia.  These animals move quickly, despite their size.  Crocodiles are larger and more dangerous, but you don't want to take a swim with either one.

The other highlight in the Everglades is the air boat ride through the swamps.  The gators loll around in the warm sun by the waterway.  The boat seats about 12 people and the operator stands on the back in front of a huge turbocharged motor.  It is so loud they give you earphones to wear for the trip.  They warn you ahead of time that airboats are loud, you'll probably get wet, and small children may be frightened by the loud noise.   The boat plows noisily through the tall grasses with roots in the shallow water.  It throws up streams of water as it navigates the sharp turns of the meandering river at high speeds. 

After the air boat ride, we drove into the Everglades National Park to the Ernest Coe Visitor's Center.  Coe was instrumental in prodding the government to designate the area as a national park and wildlife refuge.  The visitor center contains a museum explaining the history of the park as well as the plan and wildlife native to the region. 

You'd have to get lucky (or unlucky) to see a Florida panther, the iconic animal that, along with the alligator is the symbol of the State of Florida.  There are less than 10 in the park.   High mercury levels have decimated the species.


In Florida City, on the way to the Keys, if you look hard, you'll find Robert is Here, a popular fruit and vegetable stand specializing in rare and exotic tropical fruit.  They sell different kinds of honey, marmalades, jams, chutneys, hot sauces and everything else.  You want pumpkin butter or avocado honey--they've got it.  You want a 90 pound jackfruit?  It's the national fruit of Bangladesh, you know.   They use it in curry.  Robert has it. 

They promote their milkshakes in about 30 flavors.  People rave about the key lime milkshake which has a whole piece of pie in the shake.  Dianne had one.  I had the coconut shake.  It was very thick.  They also serve shakes in passion fruit, papaya, guanabana, Tamarindo, cherry key lime, mango, and several other flavors.  You've got the idea. 

It is located a mile or so off the main highway, but people beat a path to it.  Robert started out at age 6, selling cucumbers on the road by his father's farm.  Nobody stopped to buy.  His father decided Robert was too small, and nobody noticed him.   So they made a large sign, "Robert is Here", and he sold all the cucumbers the next day.  A neighboring farmer brought some tomatoes for him to sell.  That was in 1959.  When he was 9, Robert hired a neighbor lady to work for him when he was in school.  At 14, Robert bought 10 acres of property and planted an avocado grove. 

A natural promoter, Robert got his business featured on the NBC Today Show, World News Tonight and many newspapers and magazines.   The store is closed in September and October, but it's open on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Go figure!

Just down the road is another roadside stand promoting and serving alligator sandwiches.  They say it tastes like chicken.  I'm not sure about that, but barbecued, it tasted pretty good.  We enjoyed our lunch. 


Our whole trip was like a circus, but this time we got to see the real circus, as in Ringling Bros.  The Ringling Bros. legacy is plastered all over Sarasota.  John and Mable Ringling bought up land in Sarasota in 1911 when it was cheap.  They moved the circus there from Wisconsin in 1927.   John was an art collector, and he created the Museum of Art to house his huge European art collection.  Mable created the Bayfront Gardens on 66 acres of prime land by Sarasota Bay with banyan trees and a 27,000 square foot rose garden.  John died in 1936 and, to avoid Estate Tax, gave it all to the State of Florida.  The art museum is today administered by Florida State University. 

We visited only the Circus Museum.  Each of the other museums charges separate admission, and to properly see them all would take a few days.  The artwork in the Circus Museum is over the top.  When you walk inside, you are greeted with a mural, The Greatest Show on Earth, 42 feet long by 22 feet high painted in oil on canvas.   It features 45 performers, 45 animals (elephants, tigers and even a unicorn) and 7 banners. The mural was painted by William Woodward and took two years to complete.  He included himself in the mural.  His boss, Kenneth Feld, the CEO of Feld Entertainment, Inc., the parent company of the circus appears as the ringleader--er, the ringmaster. 

The other significant exhibit is the miniature circus and electric train layout which is bigger than my house.   Actually it covers 3800 square feet with over 42,000 individual pieces, lights and sound effects.    Constructing it was the hobby of  Howard Tibbals between 1956 and 1974 to replicate the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus,  circa 1920's.  Tibbals, who is now 80,  wasn't allowed to use the names Barnum or Bailey, (he asked and was refused!)  so he named the model after himself--Howard Bros. Circus Model..   Howard, who owned a flooring company in Tennessee,  donated $6.5 million (matched by the State of Florida) to the museum to create space for this exhibit.  His wife Janice was tired of dusting all of this stuff and ordered him to get it out of the house.   It took him a year to set it up at the museum. 

Set it up, he did!  Behind the plexiglass, you can see the Big Top with 8 large tents, 152 circus wagons, and the circus train with 55 individually hand crafted cars.   Did I mention the 1500 individual workers and performers and the 500+ carved animals in intimate detail.   It even includes 7000 folding chairs.  If you look closely, you can see miniature workers eating lunch, dressing in front of the mirror, and performing their various duties.  It could take days to study this thing in detail.   This stuff was all hand carved!  This exhibit alone is worth the price of admission!


The ship docked in Charlotte Amalie where we have visited several times before.  We sought out a unique experience other than visiting jewelry stores catering to the tourists.   How about Magic Ice, billed as the World's Largest Ice Bar!    We stop in many bars,  but an ice bar is a new experience.  In a tropical climate like St. Thomas, this could compare to the ski resort in Arabia where you can snow ski in 120 degree heat. 

At Magic Ice, we walked into the storefront where they brought us out the parkas on portable coat racks.  Then they led us through the door into a large, cold room where we could see many ice sculptures dimly lit under blue fluorescent lights (so they wouldn't melt).  The temperature was about 22F which is not really cold for us Chicagoans, and I removed my hood. 

The bar was solid ice, and the bartender poured us a shot of rum in a souvenir take-home cup.  We're not talking hot-buttered rum--it was ice cold.  The sculptures were intricately carved and quite beautiful. 

The city of Charlotte Amalie was named after the Queen of Denmark, Charlotte Amalie (1650-1714) who was married to King Christian V.  It was originally called Taphus which in Danish translates to "beer halls".  The name was changed in 1691 to honor the queen.

Columbus named the Virgin Islands to honor the legend of St. Ursula and the 11,000 martyred virgins.  That story is interesting.  St. Ursula was a British princess who sailed off to Gaul (France) at the request of her father King Dionotus to join her future husband, the pagan governor Conan Meriadoc.  She allegedly brought along 11,000 virginal handmaidens.  Obviously that would have taken a fleet of ships.  Two large cruise ships might do it, but it would be tight.  Before her marriage, she declared that she would first make a European pilgrimage to Rome. 

She got as far as Cologne in Germany where her party was besieged by the Huns and she was killed in the year 383.  All the virgins were beheaded in a massacre. 

Scholars re-examined the writings and found that whomever has thrown out the figure 11,000 actually misread the Roman numerals.  The actual number of virgins was between 2 and the most accepted figure, 11.  As a practical matter, what does one do with 11,000 handmaidens.  How do you keep them all busy?  Her payroll had to be a nightmare.  Whatever the number, we now have the Virgin Islands. 


We docked in Roseau and walked to the dock to go whale watching on a catamaran.  We saw plenty of whales, especially sperm whales spouting sprays of water.  It was a trip for Moby Dick fans. 

The island is only 290 square miles and very mountainous.  It has only 72,000 people.  It was also named by Columbus when he landed there on a Sunday.  Domenica is the Latin word for "Sunday."
It was home to fierce and hostile Carib Indians, and today their descendants live on a reservation in the Northeastern section of the island.

If you saw Pirates of the Caribbean, this island would look familiar.  The second and third Pirates movies were filmed in Domenica.. 


This time we landed in Willemstad, the capital of the Dutch island of Curacao.  The major industry is the large oil refineries to process Venezuelan oil.  Curacao is an attractive location for refining and also banking because it is largely free of the political unrest of South America.   Our tour bus drove past the refineries, out in the country to visit an ostrich farm.  These huge birds are not very smart, but if you feed them, they are friendly.  Each of their eggs is the equivalent to about a dozen chicken eggs.  The shell is so thick and strong that you can stand on it without breaking it.  I did so.

Down the road from the ostrich farm is the chichi art factory of Curacao.  A Berlin born artist Serena Janet Israel created and trademarked the term "Chichi" which is the Papiamento word for "big sister".  These brightly painted, colorful women, made from plaster are big indeed.  There are described in the brochure as "well rounded and sensual", and in fact they are!

Curacao is also known for its unique liqueur, the bright blue Curacao liqueur.  It is flavored with the dried peel of the local laraha citrus fruit which is similar to an orange.  The liqueur is naturally colorless, but they commonly add coloring, blue or orange to give it an exotic appearance.  They passed out free samples on the dock.   I tasted the rum raisin, and it was g-o-o-o-d. 


This lush island gets 150 inches of rain annually.  Fortunately for us, January is the dry season.  The climate favors spice crops and the island is known for nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cinnamon and cocoa.
It's not very big to defend, but it has two forts, Fort George and Fort Frederick, both overlooking the harbor in St. George's, the capital.

The capital is bisected by a mountain.  To get to the other side of town, you have to walk through a one lane tunnel which the British built around 1900.   There is no sidewalk and the pedestrians have to dodge the auto traffic while carrying bags of groceries.  We walked through the tunnel to the shopping district where the museum is located.   The small museum summarizes the history of Granada.

The most significant event in the last 500 years was the 1983 invasion by the U.S. which deposed the communist thugs who threw out Granada's prime minister Maurice Bishop who was a communist himself.  He did name his son Vladimir Lenin.  I guess there are good communists and bad communists, but its all relative.   Good or bad, compared to what?   The United Nations condemned the U.S. for this action, President Reagan told them to stuff it, and more on that later.  But they named the airport after Maurice Bishop.

Bishop had a checkered career.  He was born in Aruba to Grenadian parents.  He obtained a law degree in London, returned to Grenada where he was elected to Parliament in 1973 as head of the Marxist New Jewel Movement (NJM).  In 1979, Prime Minister Eric Gairy traveled from the island to address the United Nations.   Big mistake.  Bishop stepped in, suspended the constitution and declared himself Prime Minister.  He threw out Gairy's Grenada United Labour Party (GULP).  The whole country GULPed also.

Using the communist playbook, Bishop banned all political parties except his NJM and started issuing laws by decree.  No elections were ever held.  Any opposition or free press was stifled.  Bishop brought in Cuban and Soviet advisers for construction projects including a new airport which the U.S. insisted was intended to be used for Soviet military aircraft.

Theoretically Bishop's policies sounded good--workers' rights, women's rights, struggle against racism and apartheid.  The government established voluntary mass organizations of women, farmers, youth, workers and military which made elections unnecessary.  He formed the People's Revolutionary Army which critics claimed was used as a tool for human rights abuses, torture and detention of political opponents.  Everyone was declared equal, but government officials were more equal than others.

In 1983, disputes arose among others in party leadership.  Deputy P.M. Bernard Coard placed Bishop under house arrest.  There were mass demonstrations on the island demanding Bishop's restoration, and the mob freed Bishop.  Bishop went to army headquarters where he was arrested again, and eventually executed by a firing squad along with his wife.

Neighboring islands called on the U.S. to step in because they feared for their own stability.  The U.S. invaded Grenada with 7000 troops.  Ostensibly, the invasion was to protect Americans who attended St. George University, the medical school on the island.  Objections and condemnations came from the usual quarters like Cuba and the USSR, but also U.S. allies Canada and the U.K. loudly objected to the invasion.  They were not consulted prior to the invasion. 

Margaret Thatcher explicitly told President Reagan not to meddle in the affairs of the Grenadians.  Tempers cooled, and she and Reagan worked out their differences later.  The U.N. General Assembly voted 108-9 (with 27 abstentions) condemning the U.S. for the invasion.  The 9 supporting the U.S. included Antigua, Domenica, El Salvador, Israel, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Barbados and Jamaica.  A similar resolution in the Security Council to condemn the U.S. was vetoed by the U.S. 

One footnote:  Bishop's son, Vladimir Lenin, whose mother was Grenada's Minister of Education and Bishop's mistress, went to live in Canada with his half-siblings after his parents were killed.  He was stabbed to death in a Toronto nightclub at age 16. 

The Grenadians fondly remember Maurice Bishop every time they drive to the airport.

Roatan is an island about 40 miles off the coast of Honduras.  It is on a barrier reef and its main industry is tourism.  Tourists from all over the world seek out this island for its rich scuba diving. 

Although it is part of Honduras, the locals are English speaking Caracol people.  Caracol means "conch" or "shell" in Spanish and is considered derogatory.  The people call themselves "Islanders".  They are of European and British and British African Caribbean descent whose Bay Islands culture is different from that of mainland Honduras.  The capital is Coxen Hole, a city of 5000.  It was named after pirate captain John Coxen.  Indeed, Roatan was once home to over 5000 pirates in its colorful history. 




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