From the Withlacoochee to Busch Gardens, it's good to vacation in Florida

We live in the state where the rest of the world comes for vacation.

So why leave?

That was my thought when I took off last week — to not pack a suitcase or book flights, to not pay motel bills or fill my tank with gas, to not eat out so often that it becomes a drag rather than a treat. And to instead look for entertainment close to home.

So last Thursday, my oldest son, Noah, and I canoed the Withlacoochee River north of Nobleton, where it spreads out into a series of pools and the current is so slow you can paddle upstream almost as easily as down.

I won't get into the question of whether the river is slowly dying, as it seemed to be during the worst of the drought, but I can report that after this spring's rains it isn't dead yet.

The channel was wide enough, the wildlife primitive enough and the bankside vegetation lush enough, that we could have been on the upper reaches of the Amazon.

We saw alligators, turtles, little blue herons, snowy egrets, and, in three hours, only four other vessels — two kayaks and two airboats.

On Wednesday, we canned tomato sauce.

"I feel like it's the late 19th century,'' Noah said as we carried boxes of Mason jars into the Little Rock Cannery.

Yes, but only in the best ways:

Everybody helped out with chores like cutting tomatoes and cleaning pots. The half-dozen canners could laugh, joke and cook on a 90-degree day in a kitchen filled with steaming pots and cooled only by an open window.

And maybe in the 19th century, public employees worked like mules. In the six hours it took us to cook and can 32 quarts of sauce, we never saw supervisor Flossie Raines when she wasn't holding either a mop, spoon or telephone receiver.

For modern excitement, we went to Busch Gardens, which is better than ever during the recession.

Other than the $6 beers (it used to be free, remember?) the price is right. We've visited three times so far for the price of a one-day pass, meaning each trip cost about the same as the price of admission and an armband at the Hernando County Fair. And even so, the place was deserted last week.

We rode SheiKra so often that dangling 200 feet above a sheer drop became as routine as retrieving the newspaper from the driveway. With non-existent lines, we had time left over for the quiet stuff we usually bypass in the rush between coasters — the gondolas over the park, the train past gazelles and zebras, a walk through an aviary stocked with exotic birds.

To see the most spectacular native species, all we had to do was look up through the windshield of the car like Ray Liotta peering at the black helicopter in GoodFellas.

Swallow-tailed kites. They seemed to be everywhere we drove in the county last week, soaring in groups of three or four. Though rare, they are highly visible, spending almost all their time in flight, hunting and eating insects on the wing.

Also, said Bev Hansen, a longtime birder from Spring Hill, "they are a very large and striking bird,'' with a deeply forked tail, and well-defined black-and-white plumage.

They arrive from South America in February and March, when snowbirds are leaving for the north, and breed and nest here until late summer.

That's one more reason to like them. They don't mind Florida this time of year.

From the Withlacoochee to Busch Gardens, it's good to vacation in Florida 06/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 15, 2009 6:15pm]

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