Monday, April 18, 2022

Family Fun on Florida's Historic Coast

St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, provided by

One of my favorite places to visit is Florida. In fact, I've been there many times and people are often surprised that I've never set foot in Disney World. The scene just never really appealed to me. But, then again, I don't have kids tagging along on my trips, which got me to thinking, what if I did? 

When I returned to Florida, this time to the "Historic Coast," I decided to write about destinations that would appeal to both children and adults. If you think that the "Historic Coast" sounds like it would be a big snooze fest for kids, you would be wrong. What I discovered was quite the opposite. There is plenty of family fun to be had in the St. Augustine area.

Affordable Accommodations

One of the first things visitors will need to find is affordable accommodations. On this trip, we stayed at the European Village in Palm Coast, which describes itself as a "one-stop destination" with restaurants, shops and rooms on site.

For $85, my husband stayed in a two-room, spacious suite equipped with a balcony. On the days we didn't feel like returning to the city, we had the convenience of dining on the ground level of the resort. One night we sat outside at a pizza parlor eating pasta and just watching the rain. It was a lovely and memorable experience. On Sundays, people flock to the resort to shop at the stands set up by vendors on the lawn of the resort. And, if you're lucky, you may even be able to watch live bands entertain under the gazebo from your balcony. They played two nights during our week-long stay.

The kitchen/living room at our suite.

The grounds at European Village.

To stay in an area that is closer to the action, consider The Ponce St. Augustine Hotel located on N. Ponce De Leon Boulevard next to the Florida East Coast Railway. Staying at The Ponce is a convenient choice of accommodations quite simply because it's located less than a mile from so many points of interest. After a day of sightseeing, families can return to their rooms and enjoy the use of an outdoor pool to wrap up a fun-filled day.

Another step I recommend is to grab a St. Augustine Tour Pass. The pass enables visitors to choose from 27 different attractions at a savings of approximately 40 percent based on two-three visits a day.

Finally, it may be helpful to note that kids love the trolley and most places on the tour pass can be accessed via handy "hop off, hop on" tour trolleys that canvass the city Monday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Now on to the destinations!

Be Prepared To Be Amazed at Ripley's Believe It or Not

Look closely at the tail and you'll discover that this sculpture is made from silverware, butter knives, to be exact. Her hair is made from uncoiled telephone cables.

I've only been to one other Ripley's in my life and after visiting this one, I plan to continue to seek more of them out during my travels.

I found myself marveling at the many strange and unusual pieces displayed at the "odditorium" located at 19 San Marco Avenue, St. Augustine. From sculptures made from butter knives, to pop culture icons crafted from candy and portraits made from matchbooks, (like the ones shown below) you will see plenty of creative and odd pieces that stun and amaze.
The "Rat Pack" drawn on matchbooks. Take note that their "cigarettes" are matches.

John Lennon made with smoke.
The interesting portrait of John Lennon" is known as "fumage art" and is made by holding the canvas above a fire and manipulating the smoke to create the image from soot. South Carolina artist Daniel Diehl has created a series of such portraits of individuals who were killed prematurely, their lives abruptly ending like a "puff of smoke."
A cute dog portrait made exclusively of vintage bottle caps.

Ripley's states that self-guided tours can last from one to two hours. My husband and I spent 45 minutes inside and were satisfied that we saw everything.

Reptiles, Birds and More at the Alligator Farm

The St. Augustine Alligator Farm/Zoological Park claims to be the only place in the world where families can see every species of crocodilian.  I was fascinated with the smile on the crocodile shown in the shot below. They even feature an albino crocodile, which I've never seen before.

A popular spot at the Alligator Farm is an area called "The Rookery." If you love bird watching, this is a must see. During our visit, I witnessed many professional photographers setting up the "perfect shot."

Roseate Spoonbills are my favorite.

Other species of wildlife can be seen on the property as well, like sloths, pythons, turtles, ducks, lemurs and more. Finally, there's a playground onsite where kids can burn off a little energy.

Kids climb ropes on the playground at the Alligator Farm.

View Even More Wildlife at the Aquarium

Those who are expecting a plethora of marine life in a sprawling building, won't get it at this relatively small, open-air facility. What they will get, however, is an educational experience provided by a certified marine biologist who will explain everything on site. 

Most of the time, kids are admonished not to touch anything. This doesn't hold true for the Aquarium experience in St. Augustine, where children are encouraged to touch sea urchins, horseshoe crabs, starfish and even nurse sharks.

For an extra fee, they will have the opportunity to snorkel in an 80,000 gallon habitat with hundreds of Florida reef fish and rays and also feed them. The aquarium supplies the wetsuits, masks, snorkels, vest and shoes. The kids just need to bring a towel, swimsuit and change of clothes.  At the end of the experience, families can hike down a nature path to the pond.

A hike on a nature path takes visitors to a pond.

Learn All about Eye-Patched Villains at the Pirate and Treasure Museum

The entrance to the Pirate and Treasure Museum in St. Augustine.
Pennsylvanian Pat Croce is known as a best-selling author and was an athletic trainer for the Philadelphia '76ers for 10 years. He refers to the Pirate and Treasure Museum as his "passion project." This unique destination features approximately 800 authentic artifacts memorializing the history of piracy from the 1600s, to the present day.

This looked a bit too realistic; his chest heaved up and down as if he were sleeping.

A young visitor "shoots" a cannon while yelling AARGH!

Visitors will learn tidbits like the fact that Blackbeard carried not only six pistols on his person, but a cutlass and dagger as well, and that he was survived by 14 wives and that Captain Bartholomew "Black Bart"  Roberts, enforced a code of conduct on his crew which prohibited gambling, but was otherwise a prolific scoundrel, who claimed to have captured hundreds of ships.  

They will also see the world's only surviving pirate treasure chest. Weighing 150 pounds, the chest is 400 year's old and belonged to Thomas Tew, who made his fortune raiding ships traveling in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Often these ships were loaded with precious jewels, ivory and silk. The museum provides hands-on experiences for the children and a scavenger hunt, which inspires them them to explore the exhibits closely. A completed card turned in at the end of the visit earns a reward.

World's only surviving pirate treasure chest.

The Pirate and Treasure Museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

Visit the Oldest Wooden School House

The Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse

Kids may be interested in knowing how their peers learned their lessons at the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse located in downtown St. Augustine. Early tax records reveal that it was present in 1716 in the Minorcan Quarter and was built for the Genoply family, with Juan Genoply as the first teacher.

Animatrons in the likeness of a teacher and students regale visitors with tales about the days of yore, like how students were disciplined and what their life was like back in the old days.

After exploring the schoolhouse, the detached kitchen and gardens, visitors receive a diploma as they exit through the onsite gift shop.

Shopping in the "Olden" Days

An old clerk handles "the books" at the Oldest Store Museum.

A visit to the Oldest Store Museum Experience will shed light on how people "got their shop on" in the past. Located on St. Marco Avenue, the museum displays items that were once the property of Charles Hamblin, who opened the store and warehouse for the purpose of supplying Henry Flagler with the goods he needed to complete his many construction projects around St. Augustine.

Store "clerk" shows off the latest "must have."

Tour guides are dressed in period clothing and explain the various items that are seen throughout the multi-room store, from old washing machines, to coffee grinders, bicycles, cure-alls and more.

Climb the Steps to the St. Augustine Lighthouse for a Beautiful View

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime museum is run by a non-profit whose mission is to preserve the stories of the nation's oldest port.

The destination is comprised of the tower, two summer kitchens, a keeper's house, a U.S. Coast Guard Barracks and a jeep repair facility employed during World War II.

Children must be 44 inches tall to climb the 219 steep spiral steps to the Observation Deck, which is rewarded by a spectacular view. Those who are too short to climb will find a play area, as well as a puppet area to keep their attention, while older kids and parents make their way to the top. There are also hands-on activities both indoors and outdoors for all ages at the site, as well as nature trails for families to hike.
The St. Augustine Light House

What seems to intrigue both young and old alike, is the legend that the lighthouse is haunted, not by one ghost, but by several. One such tale recounts the drowning of the Pittee girls. Those who are interested can read more here.  

A No-Frills Beach

Florida's historic coast is home to 42 miles of unspoiled Atlantic Beaches.  Located between Daytona Beach and St. Augustine is quiet Flagler Beach, where families can swim and sunbathe for free.

Flagler Beach in early April.

When we visited in early April, we were surprised how few people were taking advantage of the no-frills beach, which is perfect for those whose primary interest is enjoying the sun and sand. Perhaps it was too early in the season to attract many visitors.

Within a short walk from the beach are a few shops selling souvenirs, art and apparel. Restaurants are also within walking distance so that families can grab a bite at the beginning, or end of their beach visit.

Next month, I will post additional activities in the area that are more suited to grownups.

In the meantime, I hope these few suggestions are helpful in considering family fun in Florida that goes beyond Disneyworld.

Monday, March 21, 2022

A Walk on the Wild Side in Harrisburg's Wildwood Park

Wildwood was once named "Wetzel's Swamp."

Wildwood Park, located in Harrisburg Pennsylvania, not far from the Harrisburg HACC campus and the Pennsylvania Farm Show, is a haven for hikers, bikers, birders, wildlife enthusiasts and photographers, to name just a few. Yet many who visit the area are unaware that the park has been operating for more than a century now.

The area, once known as “Wetzel’s Swamp,” underwent a transformation in the early 1900s as part of the City Beautiful movement, which, at the time, was sweeping the nation. The Movement embraced the philosophy of landscape architect and reformer Frederick Law Olmstead who believed that city dwellers benefited by having access to parks and open spaces.

By 1907, Wildwood’s first paths were opened and a year later, a baseball field created. Just two years afterwards, city council threw a wrench in the works by advocating for some of the land to be used for industrial purposes. The proposal was considered by the park commission, but ultimately defeated, or we might not have the park we enjoy today.

A red-winged blackbird hangs out on cat o'nine tails.

In 1914, Harrisburg annexed the land and in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, Wildwood Park took on what was described as a “circus-like atmosphere” with a zoo which included mink, black bear, white-tailed deer, muskrat, raccoon and a mountain lion.

During the Depression, the Park was often the focus of the WorkProgress Administration (WPA) and several projects were completed at the lake, including the creation of picnic facilities.

By the 1940s, the popularity of the park waned, the zoo shut down and the area was largely neglected. Part of the land was even used for a dumping ground--a practice that continued thorough the 1960's.

By 1976, City Council was ready to sell Wildwood to Dauphin County for a steal and it was acquired for the grand total of one dollar. By the 1980’s, a movement was once again afoot, this time to revitalize the park. Grants were acquired and the effort gained steam. To continue the momentum, a group of civic-minded individuals established a private non-profit organization in 1987 called “Friends of Wildwood” and in 1992, Benjamin Olewine, a well-known food distributor, donated $827,000 towards the nature center that is used today as an educational facility.

Today’s Wildwood

Ducks hang out on a log.
Today Wildwood Park is a thriving community hub that attracts visitors from miles around. Chris Rebert, Park Manager, said, “Not only does it still provide flood protection for Harrisburg, but it also serves a variety of educational and recreational uses.”

New visitors may want to first stop at the Olewine Nature Center to pick up brochures, maps and other literature about the area before heading to the exhibits that provide wetland information. An on-site gift shop supports the “Friends of Wildwood" and on warmer days, people gather there for a weekly "Wednesday Walk."

Visitors can see wildlife exhibits and pick up informational brochures at the Olewine Center.

Photographers who visit the park will have plenty of opportunities to capture a variety of wildlife, from deer, to frogs, turtles, snakes and birds like the great blue heron, egrets and wood ducks.

For fans of flora and fauna, a special viewing opportunity unfolds in July—the blooming of the American lotus, which was once on the endangered list. “We have an expansive amount and the blooms are about 8-10-inches wide—big creamy blooms. Mid July is the best time to visit to view them,” said Rebert.
 A  pink poppy blooms along a walking trail.  

The wooded area is popular with walkers, who can take advantage of six miles of trails.

Clay Durham visits the park regularly as part of his exercise regimen. “I like it because I used to run at a local gym, but got sick of people fighting for the mirror to see who looked better lifting weights while I ran,” said the Enola resident, adding that an added bonus is the opportunity to view wildlife. “There are birds, geese and ducks everywhere. The wildlife is always there--rabbits, chipmunks and even garter snakes and toads; there is always something different and if you get tired there are benches along the way. There are paved paths, gravel paths, boardwalk areas and rustic trails,” he said.

The family friendly area is also popular with children. “My god-daughter loves the entire walk,” said Durham.

And for those who have yet to visit the area, “Art in the Park,” is a competition that artists enter every year, using items from nature to decorate the paths that run through the park. Visitors can view the exhibits from April through October 31. The 2022 theme is "Sunlight and Shadows." Below are a few entries from years past.

During the warmer weather, Wildwood hosts numerous events to attract both young and old alike. To learn more about what you can do at Wildwood, visit their website at

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

“An Evening with the Painting” Reveals the Mysteries of the Gettysburg Cyclorama

If you decide to visit the Gettysburg National Military Museum and Visitors Center for an “Evening with the Painting,” chances are you may be rubbing elbows with history buffs. During my visit I ran into members of the Civil War History Roundtable group, whose members were interested in adding to their already encyclopedic knowledge of war history.

13th New York depicted

We were all there for an “Evening with the Painting," conducted by Sue Boardman, Licensed Battlefield Guide and Research Historian for the Gettysburg Foundation. Boardman takes visitors behind the scenes of the Gettysburg Cyclorama. The famous painting (one of the few that still exists), depicts the Confederate attack on the Union forces known as Pickett’s Charge.

69th Pennsylvania

“We hold these special ‘Evening with the Painting’ events because we recognize the incredible impact the Cyclorama has on museum visitors, some of whom seek more in-depth information about it and express the desire to take more time to admire it,” said Boardman.

Little and Big Roundtop

Larry Alexander, a member of the Cumberland Valley Civil War Roundtable, attended a session with members of the group that studies the history of the Civil War. They were eager to collect new nuggets of information from the two-hour presentation, which is held monthly.

Bigelow's Two Guns

“Not only is the cyclorama painting a true canvas documentary, the battlefield landscape it depicts has been preserved so that both the painting and the battlefield can be used to visually understand what happened here,” said Boardman, as she addressed the audience.

Battle with Codori Farm in the background.

Alexander, who arranged the visit, said he was especially interested in the history of the panoramic paintings known as cycloramas. Boardman, a wealth of knowledge on the topic, informed the crowd that cycloramas originated in Europe and were displayed in special standardized auditoriums. The paintings, rendered on parabolic canvases, give the illusion of 3-D and usually depict historic events, religious themes, or scenes from literature. Known as “entertainment for the masses,” cycloramas enjoyed a rather short shelf life of popularity ranging from 1883-1889, after which the public’s fixation turned to moving pictures.

Pickett's Charge detail

French artist Paul Philippoteaux painted four versions of the Gettysburg cyclorama; two are known to have survived throughout the years. The first version, completed in 1883, was purchased for an undisclosed amount of money by North Carolina investors. The other version, which opened in Boston in 1884, now hangs at the Gettysburg National Military Museum and Visitors center after a massive, multi-year conservation effort.

Shoes in foreground are real donated shoes where the painting ends.
Detail of a field hospital.
Event attendees learn details about how Philippoteaux prepared to paint the masterpiece by spending time on the Gettysburg battlefield with a guide and a photographer, consulting official maps from Washington D.C. and obtaining battle details from Gens. Hancock, Doubleday and others before returning to France to begin work.

Ammo Box from the Civil War.

Boardman illustrates her lecture with accompanying pictures, some depicting work scenes, including one where Philloppoteaux oversees a team of 20 artists from an elevated viewing platform. Guests will learn that the artists also made mistakes. Boardman points at the outlines of a few colorless “ghost” soldiers whose facial features were never completed.

Sue Boardman, guide, addresses the audience.

Visitors also learn about the painstaking care taken to restore the Gettysburg Cyclorama. Boardman explains how restorers used infra-red photography to find original gridlines to piece together missing gaps in the painting. (A jaw-dropping fact: some of the cycloramas were cut down to fit in smaller buildings like department stores.)

She also explains how those who worked on the painting to restore it to its original glory discovered other elusive details, including the precise color of the sky on that fateful day in 1863 thanks to Pennsylvania College Professor Michael Jacobs, who just happened to keep daily records in a weather journal.

After the lecture, guests are escorted to the main platform to view the painting up close. Boardman  points out authentic artifacts and details mentioned in the presentation, like the form of the soldiers who neglected to be “painted in” due to an oversight and Lincoln portrayed as a wounded soldier being carried off the field, along with other interesting tidbits.

Observers are also shown instances where some of the artists used themselves as models for the soldiers they painted.

Patrons are permitted to take pictures while up on the platform and also have the opportunity to climb the stairs behind the painting to observe the work from a different perspective.

“I remember as a young boy seeing the cyclorama in Gettysburg and I thought it was interesting, but since they did the renovation to restore it and display it again, it is so much better than ever before. You can even see how the artifacts in the front blend in with the painting. I was so impressed with how realistic everything looked,” said Alexander.

Those who are interested in signing up for "An Evening with the Painting" can find tickets by clicking here.