Tuesday, September 8, 2009

DESTINATION: Skyway Bridge Fishing Pier, St. Petersburg, Florida

Can we have scenic fun for $4.00? Yes. Take I-275 towards St. Petersburg, Florida. South of St. Petersburg you will cross the magnificent Skyway Bridge with it's two glimmering yellow arches over portions of the Gulf of Mexico . On both the Southern and the Northern ends of this bridge there are access road exits to reach the old bridge below that has been turned into Florida State Park pier sites for fishing. (If you are only driving into the "park" to look, the fee is $3.24 per car for one hour.) If you came prepared to fish, you pay a fee of $4.00 and no fishing licenses are required. Bring your picnic lunch. Drinks and chips are available along with bait, post cards and restrooms, but that's it folks. There is one covered pavilion/picnic area, but no grilling, alcohol or pets are allowed. This is serious fishing territory. You fish, you eat your sandwich, drink your water and you fish. There are picnic facilities at the Rest Areas before you enter the park and people go fishing here also, but, if you are outside of the State Park boundary then you do need to have a fishing license that you can buy at Walmart and other locations before you arrive.

Personally, I'm not a fishing enthusiast, although I admit, there is not quite anything like a fresh Gulf fish, caught and cooked within a matter of minutes. It's like tasting the sea.


For a day of fun, some people head to DisneyWorld. I, on the other hand, went to Ikea. As soon as you enter the doors of this giant European market the cinnamon sweets and Swedish meatballs aromas hit you with the promise of a nice, filling lunch after a morning of browsing.
You immediately ascend the beckoning escalator up, up and away into the fun and fresh home interior designs that are distinctively Ikea. Ikea is not just a big, box mega store that is overwhelming. It is cleverly laid out, where you follow the path and/or the arrows on the floor so that you systematically wend your way thru the entire place to take in all of their innovative departments filled with affordable design. I saw no evidence of economic depression at the Ikea store in Tampa, Florida on the day I visited. It was bustling with people actually buying things; loading up cars. Do you live in 300 sq. ft. of space? Visit their "model home" where within less than 300 sq. ft. you have your kitchen, living room, bedroom, bath and closets wonderfully laid out and organized by means of shelving and a raised bed. Do you need to exist in less than 500 square feet? There was another model set up that included a children's room. The children's designs are especially functional and fun.

Do you need a giant fabric leaf that hangs from the wall in rain forest, shade like fashion? A white or pink, plastic daisy that hangs on the wall that also serves as a night light? A giant moon-like paper globe lantern for $8.99? Or, perhaps a child's chair, shaped like an egg with a fabric flap that folds down so they can hide inside the chair? View at least two glassed in mechanical demonstrations of how chairs are tested by pounding them with a machine to determine that they have a 10 year warranty. Wow. Who would invent such a precise and synchronized chair testing machine, encase it in glass and place in a retail store?

People tell me I am easily amused. But, I suspect that is a good thing, as I am entertained by the idea of certain things rather than having to actually own the material goods.

To see what's in store on your first trip to an Ikea, check out their website. You will see that not only do they have basic sofas and chairs that you can purchase extra slipcovers for, bedding, shelving, lamps, kitchen cabinet designs, toys, glasses, dishes, plastics, gadgets, rugs, curtains, curtain hardware, fabric by the yard, frames and prints, but their selection of European duvets and pillows using down and feathers is wonderful also. And, we are not talking "Designer" prices, but person-with-a-paycheck prices. So, that makes shopping here fun. There is always the possibility that you actually can and will buy something.

Ikea has their own in house cafeteria style restaurant with reasonably priced selections using real dishes and glassware (not styrofoam). Their specialty is a plate of 15 Swedish Meatballs served with mashed potatoes and a dab of lingonberry (it's a Swedish thing) sauce for $4.99. They also have organic and vegetarian options.

The history of Ikea interested me also. It started in Sweden in the 1940's by an enterprising fellow that started selling matches when he was 5 years old; now expanded into 40 different countries around the world. I believe that they employ their own designers, challenging them to come up with happy designs that perhaps even use eco friendly or recycled goods. If you are ever in a city that boasts an Ikea, do drop in.

DESTINATION: Tarpon Springs, Florida

It's all about the sponge. An entire Florida Gulf village built on the heritage of Greek immigrant fisherman seeking the lucrative natural sponges abundant in the Gulf waters. It is a bit like stepping back in time, if not to the 1920's when this little town thrived, at least to the 1960's when tourists began arriving. And tourists are still arriving with their wallets and apetities. There seems to be no economic crisis in Tarpon Springs. Every table was taken at Greek restaurant after Greek restaurant, so much foot traffic, several bakeries, some with walk up windows to purchase freshly baked Baklava to go, and shop after shop after shop with their merchandise spilling out onto the meanering, aged sidewalks selling 15 cent post cards, colorful sundresses blowing in the wind, Greek fishermans hats, seashells, loofahs, imported and embroidered Greek linens, natural soaps made from olive oil in dozens of floral scents, tee shirts for babies saying "If Mommy says no, ask Yai Yai" (Greek for Grandma), and sponges; so many sponges. There are yellow sponges and wool sponges for washing your car, doing art projects or the shower, silk sponges to apply make-up, finger sponges for fish tanks and floral arrangements, giant flower pot sponges to use as homes for air plants or as containers for various bath or spa items. Talk about organic. Your 50 cent or $2.99 or $8.99 sponge investment can last and be useful for years. Some of the large basket like sponges are sought by collectors and can sell for hundreds of dollars.

I am a great meanderer and loved looking in the various shops, cafes and bakeries. Prices at all places were reasonable. What I call, The Florida Greed Syndrome of soaking tourists one time and then waiting for the next tourist/victim, never took root in Tarpon Springs. These family run establishments have carried on throughout the years serving their friends, family, community and tourists in the same manner and with the same prices, year round. And, this has served them well.

We ate at Mykonos and the owner greeted us as we entered, as I'm sure that he has greeted customers for many, many years, prior to us. Greek was spoken here. It was a small place but I counted no less than 10 workers all industriously busy, lighting flaming cheese dishes and exclaiming "OPA!", flipping sizzling, delicious things on the visible grill, re-filling ice tea glasses, taking orders, clearing tables. No lethargy or price gouging here. A fabulous gyro cost $5.95. Large greek salad with small slabs (not crumbled) of feta cheese were $7.95, delicious homemade white and wheat bread served with your food (free), fresh baked baklava with a nice cinnamon flavor $2.50. The menu states: "We are known for our authentic Greek cooking prepared from scratch daily in our open kitchen." I concur. The dinner plates that I saw coming out of the kitchen looked very appealing: stuffed grapevine leaves, Greek style shrimp and pan fried squid, ahhh to sample it all one day. The paper placemats (remember those!!; I brought mine home as a free souveneir) with a map of all of the Greek Islands also stated that Mykonos was highlighted in Everyday with Rachel Ray Magazine in 2007...as "Great Meal for a Great Deal."

Besides the shops and cafes you can also see a free, old film in a box like room to the side of a gift shop, describing each and every sponge known to mankind and their uses and an even older film on the danger and adventure of diving for the sponges. Then you are funneled through a dark relic of a tiny museum where various lifesize dioramas on sponge life are to be viewed. True, this museum perhaps had it's heyday in 1960, but I still found it a "must see", very educational and remember it's free. It really puts the appreciation of sponges into you and also into the sponge buying mood. Now, you see you really NEED sponges to make your life easier and complete. I'm in.

Dodecanese Boulevard contains most of these shops and restaurants and faces the docks and the water leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Up close fishing boats and sponge boats and many, many boat tours are available. You can take the Sponge diving demonstration tour boat for a 35 minute run for $8.00 or you can opt for an hour and a half boat tour of the waterways, going out into the Gulf of Mexico viewing the sponge collecting areas of the ocean and possible and probable dolphin sightings for $14.95. If you are eating in the restaurant or taking a boat tour, the parking is free for their customers or you may snag a generally free parking space. Otherwise, parking in various lots is $3.00 for all day.

The day that I happened to visit Tarpon Springs there was also the added delight of an arts and crafts show being held in the street. If you go, remember that this is the dock side area of Tarpon Springs and is known as the Sponge Docks. There is actually a separate and quaint little downtown area of Tarpon Springs that is lined with more Greek restaurants and antique shops that merit a walk about also. (There just happened to be another Arts and Crafts fair going on that same day in this downtown area.) So much to see.

Tarpon Springs definitely rates Day Trip status. Located just North of the Tampa/Clearwater area a day trip is possible from much of Florida and especially when zipping up and down, North and South on I-75. Get to old U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs. From here you can turn to the little downtown or you can turn onto Tarpon Ave. which leads to the Sponge Docks. The street with all of the Greek action is Dodecanese Blvd. If you want to mapquest, the address for Mykonos restaurant mentioned above is: 628 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs, FL 34689


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Coffee Table Re-Vamp

I am taking my daily walk around the block and pass a pile of junk; leftovers from a garage sale held the previous day. Nothing appears to be too promising, mostly cheap, pressed wood, furniture.

As it does in Southern Florida every good summer day, it soon started pouring rain. The next day I go on my walk and pass the same pile of junk, and while most of the pressed wood furniture has buckled and folded into glumpy, swollen messes, due to the rain, one coffee table stands alone. I give it closer inspection and find that it is actually all wood and the rain has not done any real damage. Hmmm, a treasure? I return home, pick up my two wheel hand cart and then go and wheel this giant coffee home to ponder upon. It is dark, dark wood, somewhat marred, and the legs are plump and gorgeous. It could have a cottage-y, beach-y feel, if it were lightened up, I'm thinking. If I were a gifted artist, it would be a marvelous wooden canvas with it's various planes and mouldings, I can visualize each area painted a different tropical color, aqua, blue, parrot green, coral and peach. But, alas, I am not that gifted and do not want to spend the extraordinary amount of time it would take to carefully paint in such detail. So, it gets a lovely coat of white primer, and one edging done in a nice, tropical greenish blue color that I already have on hand. Now it is wonderfully suited to display giant seashells. Which leads to another idea. To give it some pizzaz; I rubber stamp in the words, SHE SELLS SEASHELLS BY THE SEASHORE SHE SELLS SEASHELLS BY THE SEASHORE SHE SELLS SEASHELLS BY THE SEASHORE all around the top edge in small letters and in a nice sandy brown color. And only now am I pleased with the finished product.