J loves crocodiles. He always has. I have no idea where this fascination came from, but it is there and since we are heading to Florida, home of gators galore, I figured that he would love to see some in the wild. Having previously experienced the commercialism of the Everglades, I went on the hunt for alternative locations to view alligators. Once I read about Myakka River State Park, I knew that I was onto a winner. Since the park is located not far from Sarasota we planned to spend the morning at Myakka River and the afternoon at Siesta Key beach. Only things didn’t quite go to plan.
We headed out of Orlando at 9am which meant we should have been at Myakka River State Park about 11am. However, at some point we needed to stop to go to the toilet, so we followed the service sign off the motorway, drove around trying to find them only to discover that they were actually over a mile away on a different road. We aborted the plan but then struggled to get back on the motorway. This detour took us almost half an hour. When we finally found the services, drinks were then ordered and I managed to mislay my purse leading to a frantic search of the car. By the time we made it back en route our eta was almost an hour later than planned.
We then followed the Sat Nav instructions despite the fact that we didn’t see any signs at all. We came off the main road and headed into bugsville. Hundreds of dead bugs covered the windscreen within minutes as we drove through rural farmland with picturesque farmhouses – the kind that I always imagine for rural America with a post box on the street next to the gate; winding driveway; a swing on the porch and a dog sleeping under the tree. It was a very scenic drive but we were beginning to wonder where the park was when suddenly we were upon it. Or at least a closed gate was in front of us. Apparently that gate is only open at the weekend! The sign said that the main gate was only 5 miles away so we got back in the car and drove onwards. An hour later, 2 hours later than planned, we arrived at Myakka River State Park. I was pretty fed up and had lost all enthusiasm, J had fallen asleep and hubby had a migraine. It wasn’t panning out quite how I imagined so far.
Things were about to pick up (for all but hubby at least) when we drove over the river and spotted 6 alligators swimming below us. We parked the car and ran excitedly to watch them. J loved it! “There’s one mummy! And another one!” I was relieved that having come all this way we had at least seen a wild alligator. We then drove further into the park to the visitor’s centre. Hubby succumbed to his migraine in the back of the car whilst the rest of us went to eat our picnic lunch. Luckily, we had put mossie spray in the bag as there were so many bugs I think we would have been covered in bites if we weren’t protected. I was bitten by some kind of spider and still have the bite mark on my foot now. There were so many bugs that eating became a challenge. Love bugs were the most prevalent and they are two bugs joined together so they seem quite big. J was freaked out by them and hardly ate at all.
Giving up on the food, J wanted to see more alligators, so we went for a little walk and spotted some by the edge of the river. I did get a little anxious there as there were lots of reeds and I was worried that one might try to attack J especially since we knew they were in the water. We decided that taking a boat trip on the lake was a safer option. Waiting to set off, I hoped that we may see 10 or so alligators and some of the diverse bird life that the park is home to. Hubby was still suffering, so sadly he missed out, but the rest of us had a fabulous time.
The boat was only small and there weren’t the crowds of tourists that the Everglades sees. Instead, about 20 of us headed out to spot alligators. Initially, J got very excited about sighting a nose here or a tail splash there but since the alligators were almost fully submerged he began to lose interest. However, then we headed over to what they call the alligator nursery on the far shores of the lake. Here the alligators were in the shallows or on the beach which meant that you could see them properly. J was thrilled. “There’s an alligator!” He cried excitedly every few seconds. J was over the moon when the alligators started swimming under the boat and popping up on the other side. He thought this was very clever of them.
The tour guide estimated that there are about 1000 alligators in the lake alone at any one time. We must have seen over 100 during our hour long boat trip, which was incredible. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and shared lots of information; one piece in particular stood out for J as he keeps telling people about it. Alligators have 80 teeth and as soon as one falls out is is immediately replaced by another.
I could have easily spent the rest of the day at Myakka River State Park, especially now that hubby had recovered. There was another tour that went off the beaten track to see more wildlife; you can hire bikes and cycle around the tracks; there are plenty of walking tracks including a boardwalk above the lake (although I was rather less keen to explore this one) and there is even a tree top walk which we really wanted to do, but since it was now 3.30pm, we decided to head to the beach before it was too late.
Siesta Key was only about a 30 minute drive from the park and there was free parking at the beach. This beach has been voted as one of the best in America and we wanted to see what was so special about it. I have been to a lot of beaches. When we travelled back in 2005 and 2006 we saw some exceptional beaches across Australia and the Pacific and I couldn’t wait to see how Siesta Key fared. Well to be honest, at first sight I was disappointed. The beach is long and wide. It isn’t overly built up nearby but the midrise apartment blocks and hotels lining the back of the beach are not exactly pretty. The warm, turquoise sea on the other hand was gorgeous and I desperately looked out for dolphins but not one was in sight. I definitely think that Carmel in California can boast a nicer beach though. However, this beach does exceed all others on one point – the sand is quite something. It is really white and compacted which means you can cycle on it. It also feels incredible on your feet, so soft and silky and I could have spent all day walking up and down it barefoot. Not my favourite beach setting by a long shot but the sand definitely wins an award.
With bellies rumbling, we started to head towards the main hub, but realised it was too far to walk, so hubby headed back to collect the car and picked us up en route to find dinner. We drove around the streets of Siesta Key looking for somewhere to park, unloaded out of the car and suddenly realised that the camera bag was missing. The camera bag that contained the very expensive SLR camera, lenses and Go Pro, but most importantly the camera bag that contained all of our photos and memories from our holiday. I have never seen a car speed off so quickly as hubby rushed frantically to see if the bag was where we left it. The five minutes he was gone were long and tense but thankfully he returned calm, smiling and with camera bag in hand.
We enjoyed dinner at a funky little beach themed restaurant with plenty of character before heading back to Orlando. We had a lovely day overall despite the lengthy journey, illness and the near miss photo disaster. I was absolutely thrilled that J had seen alligators in the wild and I had ticked off a bucket list item to visit a Gulf of Mexico beach. If you are heading to Orlando to visit the parks, I would definitely recommend a day or two away from them to take a break and see some of the many fabulous sights that Florida has to offer. Whether it be manatees, golf, a space rocket launch, alligators, mermaids (yes you can see ‘mermaids’ in Florida) or a natural spring. There is just so much more to Florida than just the theme parks. Head out there and enjoy it.
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