Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kayaking with Alligators, Turner River, Big Cypress National Preserve

We decided to go kayaking with the Ivey House, which I can wholeheartedly recommend. It's a bit pricey, but definitely worth the money. The guides working there are super-knowledgeable and easy-going at the same time.

Our kayaking guide

The Ivey House offers three kayaking trips a day: the sunrise, the midday, and the sunset trips. We signed up for the sunrise trip, as we reasoned that most animals are active early in the morning. Also, we didn't want to risk getting sunburned by the afternoon sun during one of the later trips.

Our guide told us that we picked a perfect time to go kayaking in this area: it was not too hot, the bugs were tolerable (sort of), and the water levels in the rivers dropped low enough to attract birds to come nesting there. However, we didn't see too many birds there, and all the once that we saw belonged to the same species that we had previously seen during our hiking expeditions in the area.

Early morning on the water

Well, we didn't sign up for this trip because of the birds. We wanted to see alligators. And we weren't disappointed: there were many of them, and they came in a variety of sizes. We experienced the thrill of kayaking next to a big alligator, carefully watching our moves. We also had the thrill of seeing a group of baby alligators; we were so excited to see them that we forgot to look around to make sure that their mother was not hiding somewhere nearby . . . I doubt she would be too pleased to see that we were only a meter away from her little ones.

A baby alligator

About two years old alligator

An adult alligator

Look how close to the alligators we were!

The other highlight of our kayaking trip was a turtle resting on a tree trunk. Look at this guy, doesn't he just beg to be photographed?
A turtle

At times, kayaking was challenging, as we were on a narrow and meandering river, the banks of which were overgrown by the Mangrove forest. Moreover, Anil and I were were in a double kayak, which posed a double challenge. First, our kayak was longer than a standard single kayak and, therefore, more difficult to navigate. Second, since there were two of us in the kayak, we sometimes had very different ideas of how we should be navigating, and we would end up canceling each other's actions, and finding ourselves stuck in the mangrove trees. It was a bit frustrating at times, but we also had a lot of laughs.
Kayaking through the mangrove forest

Water flowers

Our paddling adventure took place on the Turner River in Big Cypress National Preserve, but there are many other kayaking trails in the area that can be explored both by novice and experienced kayakers. The Ivey House also provides rentals of canoes and kayaks, as well as shuttle service to and from the kayaking trail. The top “paddling season” is from November through March. The trail descriptions and maps can be downloaded from Big Cypress National Preserve website.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Marsh Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

As the name suggests, the Marsh Trail in Big Cypress National Preserve navigates through a marsh, which is a favorite habitat of many birds. During a short, maybe 40-minute walk we saw many wood storks, anhingas, cormorants, egrets, and herons, as well as a group of American coots.

American coots


A wood stork

Of course, there were alligators too, and one of them was even quite active. It was swimming around always keeping at least one eye on us, with an expression of superiority and evilness on its face. Even though it wasn't too big, I still preferred to keep my distance from it. And as we were walking deeper and deeper into the park, I kept looking back over my shoulder, worried that I might see an alligator lying across the path we just hiked, blocking our way back. I was wondering what our options would be if that would happen, as the trail was narrow and surrounded by water on both sides. Luckily, we didn't get to act out this scenario.

An alligator

In the park, we also saw many pretty butterflies. They must have been affected by the afternoon heat too, as they were not flying too much, and were conveniently posing for pictures.
Queen, Danaus gilippus

White Peacock, Anartia jatrophae

Mangrove Buckeye, Junonia evarete

The Marsh Trail in Big Cypress National Preserve is located on the south side of the Tamiami Trail, 13 miles west from the intersection of Hwy 41 and SR 29.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

"Das leckerste Eis auf der ganzen Welt" - Naples, Florida

I'll remember Naples as the place where we got delicious, organic, home made, preservatives-, colorants-, high-fructose syrup- and sugar-free ice cream, and equally delicious organic coffee. A proof that ice cream doesn't have to be loaded with additives and sugar to be delicious.

I found it curious that the organic ice cream place (Adelheidi's Organic Sweets) was run by Germans: a lovely, chatty couple. I didn’t know that the organic mania had already managed to spread to Europe. The owners let us taste as many flavors as we wanted before we had to pick the final five. It wasn't an easy task, as they had many interesting creations, including "mango cayenne," "strawberry basil," "cardamom," "black pepper," "carrots," and many others. I wish I could have tried them all.

The creamery has a perfect 100% score on Trip Advisor, and some people even think that it serves the best ice cream in the world ("das beste Eis auf der Welt"). I'm not sure if I agree with that statement (I haven’t tried all the ice cream in the world, not yet anyway), but I definitely agree that a visit to Adelheidi's Organic Sweets is a must if you are within a hundred miles of the place.

Adelheidi's Organic Sweets is located on the upscale 5th Ave South, which features a variety of galleries, antique shops, coffee places, restaurants, and other shops. The street reminded me a bit of Santa Barbara, CA, though it felt less pretentious.

5th Avenue South, Naples, Florida

Dabba Doo - an alligator-restaurateur 

Other than the creamery and 5th Avenue South, Naples might be worth visiting because of its beach. In 2005, its 10-mile-long sandy beach was voted "the best beach in America" by the Travel Channel. I agree that the beach in Naples is quite nice, but I don't think it deserves “the best beach” title. We saw nicer, more pristine beaches even during our subsequent travels in Florida.

Cormorant and pelicans enjoying a lunch break on the Vanderbilt Beach, Naples, Florida

A yawning pelican

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Fish-Hunting Raccoon in Collier-Seminole State Park

The second hike on which we embarked in Florida wasn't as exciting as the first one. Well, I guess this is to be expected: in the end, we were not in a zoo, but in a real world with animals free to go wherever they wanted.

The highlight of this hike was a raccoon trying to catch a fish right in front of our noses. Like most animals we encountered in Florida, this raccoon was completely oblivious to our presence, giving me plenty of opportunities to take close-up photos.

A raccoon in Collier-Seminole State Park, Florida

The behavior of the raccoon made me wonder if in Florida’s parks animals were paid (or somehow bribed) to parade in front of visitors. How else would you explain why this raccoon decided to go hunting directly in front of the observation platform, located at the end of the 0.9-mile-long boardwalk trail?

A raccoon looking for fish

Collier-Seminole State Park, in which this short boardwalk trail is located, can also be explored through other hikes (there are over 10 miles of hiking trails), by bike (on a 3.5-mile unpaved bike trail), and by canoe/kayak. The park provides canoe rentals and organizes ranger-led guided canoe trips through the mangrove swamp several times a week. We almost signed up for such a trip, but because of the timing issue we decided to go kayaking with another company.

If you don't like organized trips, and feel comfortable kayaking and navigating by yourself, you could rent a kayak and embark on a 13.6-mile canoe trail that follows the twisting Blackwater River through a mangrove forest. The park's rangers will be happy to give you the map of this trail, as well as share some navigational tips that you might need.

In the park we also saw many birds, including this graceful wood stork.
A graceful wood stork flying above our heads

Collier-Seminole State Park is located on the southern side of the Tamiami Trail, 20 miles east of Naples, and 16 miles west from the intersection of Hwy 41 and SR 29. There is a fully-developed campground (with showers), which can be booked online. It seems, though, that the campground doesn't fill up too quickly, so you also might try to get a spot there without a reservation.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Our First Encounter with an Alligator: Big Cypress Bend, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

Alfred Hitchcock once said, "a good film should start with an earthquake and be followed by rising tension."

Well, our adventure with alligators was quite like that: the very first alligator that we saw in Florida was lying in the middle of our hiking path, and from then onwards we would see alligators everywhere, all the time.

That there were so many of them, and that we could spot them so easily, came as a big surprise to us. In fact, when we set out for our first Florida hike in Big Cypress Bend, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, we laughed our heads off upon seeing a sign warning us that "alligators have been seen laying on the trail." (BTW: The sign should say “lying” not “laying.”)

Beware: Alligators have been seen laying on the trail

We assumed that it's another one of those crazy things that Americans sometimes say to avoid any potential liability in the odd case of an alligator on the trail.

How wrong we were!

Just a few minutes later, and not more than 150-200 meters into our hike, there was a big alligator lying on the trail, OUR trail. It was blocking at least half of the path, and it was observing us with its mouth slightly open, displaying its big teeth. The way it was looking at us made me think that trying to pass it would not be the best of the ideas. My husband, however, was eager to go further. He was convinced that we would be fine, and that­–in the worst case scenario–we might lose a leg. It was not a risk I was willing to take (I guess men and women are different that way), so I convinced my husband that we didn't have to complete this hike, as we could easily find another trail nearby. This reasoning worked, and we turned around and retraced our steps back to the car.

An alligator on our path!

There, another pleasant surprise was waiting for us: a beautiful great blue heron was sitting on a fence just a few meters away from our car. It didn't seem to be bothered by our presence, and even let me get as close as one-and-a-half meters.

The Great Blue Heron

When I tried to get closer, the heron wouldn’t fly away, but instead would slowly walk in the opposite direction. To me its behavior shows that the animals in the Everglades National Park/Big Cypress National Preserve area are accustomed to and not afraid of people.

Look how gracefully it moves!

A few hours later we revisited the park, curious to see if the alligator would still be lying on the path. It wasn’t, so we were able to complete the hike. We followed a 600-meter (2,000-foot) long boardwalk through the cypress swamp to an observation platform, where we spent about half an hour patiently waiting to see if any animals would show up. But except for one anhinga, a few pretty butterflies, and a white egret looking for dinner, we didn't see any.

The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk

A swamp near the observation platform

White Egret hunting dinner

A butterfly

A strangler fig

We were not too disappointed about it: seeing an alligator on our path a few hours later made us believe that the park was indeed full of the wildlife it promised on its webpage. (The webpage promises a chance of seeing: American crocodiles, Florida panthers, Florida black bears, West Indian manatees, Eastern indigo snakes, Everglades minks, diamondback terrapins, white-tailed deer, bald eagles, barred owls, pileated woodpeckers, swallow-tailed kites, raccoons, opossums, red-shouldered hawks, turkeys, vultures, sand hill cranes, roseate spoonbills, eagles, ospreys, ducks, and wading and shore birds.) Next time we are in Florida, we’ll for sure revisit this park and try to spend more time there.

When we saw this alligator warning sign on our way of the park, we were not laughing anymore

Another great blue heron

The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is located on the north side of the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41), about 7.1 miles west from the intersection with SR 29.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Florida - First Impressions

Our trip to Florida was fantastic.
Last night in Florida

We hadn't expected Florida to be so beautiful and interesting. Based on what we had heard from others, we imagined Florida to be boringly flat, and filled with college drunks and elderly retired people.

We saw a very different Florida. Yes, it was flat. And yes, Miami Beach was full of college drunks, and in some other parts, there was a significant number of older people. But there is so much more to it.

Florida might not have as beautiful and diverse scenery as California (though we were charmed by its picturesque beaches), but it does have amazing wildlife–like no other place I've ever seen outside Africa.

There were large colorful birds and alligators literally at every corner. Within five minutes of our arrival in Everglades National Park, we encountered the first alligator: it was lying in the middle of our hiking path, just 150-200 meters into our hike ... (more about this tomorrow).

The alligator on our path!

All in all we must have seen at least 200 alligators (there are almost 2,000,000 of them in Florida ...), and even a larger number of beautiful birds (we saw many great blue herons, wood storks, black and turkey vultures, cormorants, flamingos, pelicans, tricolor and blue herons, anhingas, and others), as well as a couple of rare and endangered species (key deers and manatees).

And then there is also a coral reef, the third largest in the world. We went snorkeling in it four times (plus two times off the beach), and it was just getting better and better with every time! We saw thousands of colorful Nemo-like fish (e.g., angelfish, tangs, bluestripe snappers, trumpetfish, wrasses, surgeonfish, rockfish, sharks, barracudas, and many others that I don't know the names of). It was Anil's first snorkeling experience ever, and I was happy to see how much he was enjoying himself and growing more and more confident about it.

The fact that we were able to snorkel for up to two hours without a wet suit speaks volumes about the excellent weather that Florida enjoys year-round. I should add that the day we were flying back home to California was the coldest Florida had experienced in 35 years, and it was still not nearly as cold as some days can be in San Francisco. Apparently, it never gets too hot in Florida either, which likely explains why many older people opt to move there for retirement.

The other thing that we liked about Florida were its picturesque beaches, and stunning sunrises and sunsets. Watching the sun fall asleep in the arms of the ocean is one of the most calming, transcendental even, experiences I can imagine.

Sunset on Loggerhead Beach, Bahia Honda, Florida

Sunset on Spurside Beach, Bahia Honda, Florida

The Old Bridge, Bahia Honda, Florida

This brings me to the highlight of our trip, which was a visit to Dry Tortugas National Park, located on a lonely island some 70 miles away from the nearest land. The island is the most picturesque and serene place I've been to in a while. It has absolutely perfect beaches with white sand, palm trees, and gorgeous turquoise waters; great snorkeling; and it's not crowded at all. This park alone is a good reason to visit (or re-visit, in our case) Florida.

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

The last day and a half of our trip we spent in the Miami/Miami Beach area, which reminds me about a few things that we didn't like about Florida.

First, people appear to be more rude there: they don't smile, apologize, say "thank you", or ask "how are you?"; they cut into lines at grocery shops and restrooms; most drive like maniacs and start honking if you dare to wait for pedestrians to cross the street, or if you drive "too slow", which would be less than 20-30 miles above the speed limit ... Suffice to say that even my super-patient and easy-going husband started to grow frustrated and annoyed with driving in Miami after just two days.

Second, we were amazed how difficult it is to navigate streets of Miami and neighboring cities. We had forgotten our GPS at home, so we had to rely on maps, which cost us some nerves, but at the same time it also helped us to become more familiar with the city's messy layout. Like most bigger American cities, Miami has a grid system for street naming. In most cities such a grid makes finding locations easy. Not in Miami. Whoever designed its grid system must have been on coke, as it completely does not make sense. For example, would you find it obvious that to get from SW 2nd to SW 4th Avenues, you need to drive on SW 13th Street and SW 18th Terrace? Similarly, we were amused to see that one of the streets, SW 8th St, is known by at least nine names, used interchangeably: Calle Ocho, Tamiami Trail, Route 41, Route 90, Fellipe Walls Way, Olga Guillot Way, Carlos Arboleya Blvd, Celia Cruz Way, and SW 8th St.

Calle Ocho aka Tamiami Trail, Route 41, Route 90, Fellipe Walls Way, Olga Guillot Way, Carlos Arboleya Blvd, Celia Cruz Way, and SW 8th St

By the time you are done reading all of those names, you might have taken a wrong turn ...

So unless you like partying, I'd recommend avoiding the Miami area. Florida's beautiful nature and diverse wildlife is what distinguishes it from other states, and I'd recommend focusing on enjoying those. In the next few posts, I'll share with you some tips on the best places to visit for nature and wildlife viewing in Florida. Hope you'll enjoy it!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

I'm extremely proud to report that Polish people eat the most vegetables and fruits among European nations.

World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating ≥400 grams per day of fruits and vegetables, not counting potatoes and other starchy tubers. As you can see on the graph above, only in four European countries (Poland, Germany, Italy, and Austria) this recommendation is met (link: Fruit and vegetable consumption in Europe). Needless to say, eating fruits and vegetables is very important for one's health, and I'm happy to see that my compatriots lead the ranking at least in this category. Finally, other European countries can look up to us for something :)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


This recipe for bharta (eggplant) is an excellent example of a style of cooking dominant in Indian cuisine. If you examine the list of ingredients below, you'll notice that the recipe requires twice as many spices as other ingredients! For a novice to Indian cooking, this can be quite intimidating. But I guarantee that after a few attempts to cook different Indian dishes, you'll start feeling more and more comfortable with those spices, and you might even find yourself tempted to experiment with them a bit.


  • 2 large eggplants
  • 1/2 medium chopped onion
  • 5 tbsp crushed roasted peanuts
  • 5 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • a pinch of hing 
  • 1 tsp of cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp of mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp of sesame seeds
  • 1 tsp coriander powder 
  • 1 tsp cumin powder 
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp garam masala 
  • 1/2 tsp hot red pepper powder 
  • 1/2 tsp tumeric


  1. In the hot water simmer the eggplants for about 10 minutes. When soft, drain the water, mash the eggplant, and add the crushed roasted peanuts and the fresh chopped cilantro.
  2. In the meantime, heat olive oil in a large saucepan. 
  3. Add a pinch of hing and 1 tsp of cumin/mustard/sesame seeds. 
  4. When the seeds pop, add the chopped onions and all the other spices (1 tsp coriander powder, 1 tsp cumin powder, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 tsp garam masala, 1/2 tsp hot red pepper powder, 1/4 tsp tumeric).
  5.  Saute until the onions are light brown. 
  6. Add the eggplant mixture, mix and serve.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Carrots with Fresh Cilantro

Here is another quick and easy recipe. Of all the different ways in which carrots can be prepared, this is my favorite.


  • 3 tbsp canola oil (or olive oil)
  • pinch of hing
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 4-5 big carrots, peeled, diced
  • 8 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • lemon juice, to taste


To the hot oil add the hing and cumin seeds. After 15 seconds add the carrots, cilantro, cayenne, salt, garam masala, and lemon juice. Stir for a minute. Add 3 tbsp water, cover and cook for about 5 min, till carrots are tender.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hot & Sour Vegetable Curry

I adapted this recipe from Suneeta Vaswani's "Complete Book of Indian Cooking." It's rather elaborate and time-consuming, but it's also well-worth the effort. Whenever I feel like eating something a bit more sour in taste, this is the dish I prepare.


  • sweet potato (2 cups, peeled, cut into 1 cm cubes)
  • potato (1 cup, peeled, cut into 1 cm cubes)
  • carrots (1 cup, peeled, cut into 1 cm pieces)
  • frozen peas (1 cup, thawed)
  • green beans (1 cup, cut into 2 cm pieces)
  • onions (2 cups, chopped)
  • tomatoes (1 cup, chopped)
  • cilantro (1 cup, chopped)
  • garlic (6-8 cloves, finely chopped)
  • ginger (2tbsp, finely chopped)
  • white vinegar (3/4 cup)
  • water (1/2 cup)
  • sugar (1.5 tsp)
  • cumin powder (1 tsp)
  • salt (1/2 tsp)
  • turmeric (1 tsp)
  • cayenne pepper (1.5 tsp)
  • oil (as little as possible)
Cut carrots

Cut sweet potatoes

  1. Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the sweet potato and saute until it becomes slightly brown. Set aside.
  2. Saute the carrots as above. Set aside.
  3. Saute the potatoes as above. Set aside.
  4. Saute the beans as above. Set aside.
  5. In meantime, blend the garlic and ginger with 3 tbsp of water. Set aside.
  6. Stir the sugar into vinegar. Set aside.
  7. Saute the onion over medium-high heat until golden.
  8. Add the tomatoes, garlic-ginger mixture and all spices (salt, turmeric, cumin, cayenne). Mix well, cover and cook until tomatoes are soft (6-8 minutes).
  9. Add all other veggies (sweet potato, carrots, peas, beans, potatoes). Mix.
  10. Add vinegar and water. Mix and cook until vegetables are tender (6-8 minutes).
  11. Add cilantro. Mix and cook for 2 more minutes.
  12. Serve with rice, quinoa or couscous.

Hot & Sour Vegetable Curry