Wandering Around Washington Oaks Garden State Park

Smooth sandy beaches are the usual picture conjured in one’s mind when thinking of Florida.  Craggy rocks usually draw images of California not Florida.  However, on the way to St. Augustine, there is a little hidden gem called Washington Oaks Garden State Park.  Nestled along the Matanzas River, this park is split in two by the main road.  On the river side is a beautifully maintained set of gardens with towering live oaks, lily ponds, and a rose garden.  It’s the perfect place for a picnic or just a stroll to stretch your legs after hours of driving.  The ancient looking oaks are dripping in Spanish moss and summon memories of what Old Florida must have looked like.

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Crossing the street takes you to the Atlantic beach side.  Here you will not find just any ordinary beach.  Instead, the beach is lined with coquina rocks that make for fun climbing and exploring.  I was reminded of a miniature version of the Mohegan Bluffs.   Waves crash over them unexpectedly, but the slippery rocks form tide pools at low tide where shells are sometimes lurking along with crabs and other sea life.  On the day we visited, most of the holes were empty, but it was still fun to scramble over the rocks looking for shells.  Pay the five dollars to visit, you won’t regret it.

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Seven Stops for St. Augustine Fun

Girls’ weekend took a touristy turn this year.  Despite the fact that we were only steps from Vilano Beach, we only stepped foot on the sand the evening of our last night. Instead of soaking up sun, we challenged ourselves to see all the highlights of St. Augustine.  Below are my top seven moments.

7.  Beach Sunsets

The picture below just says it all.

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6.  Old Jail

While this is totally a tourist trap, it was made less cheesy by our awesome inmate turned tour guide.  She held the group in rapt with her sassy demeanor as she showed us the workings of the jail that served St. Augustine until 1953.  Something called the birdcage punished inmates in the sweltering heat as they swung in the sun.  If that wasn’t enough, gallows sat on the backside of the property as a constant reminder that despite cozy looking outside of this building, it was in fact a brutal jail.  The one part that is seared into my mind is the cramped quarters of the third floor where I was not able to stand between the iron bunk beds comfortably.  

 

5.  Datil Pepper Challenge

Until I arrived in St. Augustine I had never heard of a datil pepper.  Apparently they are uniquely grown in St. Augustine and not in very many other places in the world.  Upon closer inspection of St. Augustine shops and restaurants, the peppers are truly found all over.  From popsicles to chocolate to sauces and jellies.  The datil pepper is a must try.  I recommend it dipped in chocolate or ground up in a popsicle.    

 

4.  Whetstone Chocolate Tour

Who doesn’t want to stop and taste chocolate straight from the production line?  For a mere $8 we were able to try about 12 different samples, from white and milk chocolate, to fudge, and specialty items.  Each bite was more delicious than the next; then again, I’ve never met a piece of chocolate that I didn’t like.  Right from the beginning, I knew that this was going to be a fun stop.  Our guide reminded me of Josh Gad both in looks and personality.  We each had to don a hairnet before entering the processing plant.  I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of chocolate in the production phase, but they produce as demand is called for, and as we were touring later in the day, the only live production we saw was fudge.  They did show us how the chocolate seashells are wrapped and sent down the line.  After a hot day of walking, this air conditioned tour allowed us to take a moment to cool off, and as a bonus, we left with a satisfied sweet tooth.  

 

3.  St. Augustine Distillery

I walked into this ice plant turned distillery and was in love.  The updated rustic look of the building looked just like Chip and Joanna Gaines had designed the space.  From the museum space waiting area to the tasting room, everything pulled from that original ice house feel but with an updated look.  One of the things I loved about this place’s story was how they had to petition Tallahassee to even bring this distillery to life.  Unlike beer and wine regulations regarding tours and sales to the public, spirits follow  much stricter laws.  Only after lobbying were the owners able to get the laws changed so that I could actually go on the tour of this distillery and purchase from them directly.  One concession to this is that they have to scan your driver’s license as legally you can only purchase two bottles of each label per year.  

 

2.  Paddle Boarding the Salt Run

On our last day, before the two hour drive home, we spent the morning at Anastasia State Park paddle boarding the Salt Run.  Just inside the park there is a rental place with SUP and kayaks.  We purchased a two hour block of time and made our way north along the Salt Run towards the lighthouse.  It was hot, but thankfully there was a small breeze that made the heat bearable.  Along the way I spotted a stingray, but the highlight was when I came within five feet of a Roseate Spoonbill.  I have never seen one of these birds in the wild, only in zoos.  I watched it feed in the oyster beds careful not to get too close to the bird or the beds.  The Salt Run provides two miles of sheltered water to paddle upon.  It’s the perfect place to try out SUP since the water is so calm and shallow.  I can’t wait to return with Geoff and our kayaks.      

 

1.  Hyppo Popcicles

Skip the ice cream, skip the fudge.  Instead, run do not walk to The Hyppo.  My mouth is watering as I am writing this remembering these awesome gourmet ice pops.  They are made by hand with local and organic produce.  Their three shops have flavors that change frequently.  Cori and I sampled six in the three days we spent in St. Augustine.  My first and favorite was the strawberry datil pepper, a nice blend of sweet and spicy.  My second encounter with The Hyppo was a watermelon mint which was extremely refreshing after the super hot day of sightseeing.  Last was the peach cheesecake and this one I had dipped in chocolate.  It too was yummy, but the chocolate took away from the popsicle.  I also tasted the cantaloupe pepper and pineapple cilantro that Cori chose.  I enjoyed these as well.  From now on each time I visit St. Augustine, The Hyppo will be a must stop, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they bring a location to the Orlando area.

 

Nesting Sea Turtle Walk

I am a turtle addict.  I can remember the first time my mom showed me a snapping turtle in a bucket that she had captured while she was mowing the grass.  I quickly gained an appreciation for its strong jaw as my mom warned me not to put my fingers too near its mouth.  My brother and I captured painted turtles in our backyard when we lived near a swampy retention pond for a summer.  Caring for them for a few days before releasing them back into the neighborhood.  I’ve seen these roaming reptiles on sandy trails in Central Florida, in the depths of the Caribbean during a dive, and lounging on a beach on Hawaii’s North Shore.  But my favorite turtle memory is the time I snorkeled in Barbados and gave a loggerhead a big hug.  I’m not sure what draws me to these creatures.  Perhaps I connect with their nomadic ways or they just remind me of my carefree childhood, but be it terrapin, tortoise, or sea turtle, they have special places in my heart.

When I came across the opportunity to witness a sea turtle nesting at  Canaveral National Seashore I made reservations for two and told Geoff he was on board whether he wanted to be or not.  (It’s a good thing that he likes this stuff nearly as much as I do.)  

A few days after placing my reservation, instructions with where and when to meet arrived in the mail and I began counting down the days until June 10th.  

The day arrived and it was my last day of school for the year and has actually turned out to be my last day of school forever since I will be starting a new job soon.  Geoff and I drove out to the coast and grabbed dinner in Titusville at Crackerjacks, a tiki bar on the river.  The service was non-existent, but the beer was cheap and the shrimp was good.  

Traffic and dinner took much less time that we anticipated, and we had about two and a half hours to kill, so we explored the park.

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First, we drove to the manatee overlook, but saw nothing but the running water and other disappointed onlookers.  I had little hope of seeing a manatee, the water in the ocean was a balmy 80 degrees so, they are not looking for warmer river waters at this time of year.  We did pass a little gopher tortoise as we were driving.  Hopefully that was an indication of our luck for the evening.

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Next we drove to the beach where families were packing up their cars and heading home for the evening.  We virtually had the beach to ourselves, so we walked for awhile dodging waves and looking for seashells.  

As the Turtle Walk time approached, we drove to the visitor center to meet our group.  Upon arrival a $14 per person donation was requested.  Upon payment we chose two seats in a theater where Park Ranger Ashely proceeded to inform us about the types of turtles that nest on Playalinda Beach.

We heard facts about greens, loggerheads, leatherbacks, and Kemp’s Ridley.  And out of all that information my fun fact take away was that spotting a leatherback nesting was like seeing a unicorn and out of the hundreds of eggs laid, only one in one thousand will survive to adulthood.  

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As Ashley informed us of this fact, she busted out two baby food jars holding a loggerhead and leatherback hatchling that did not make it.  Crabs, birds, raccoons, humans, you name it and it is a potential threat to sea turtle hatchlings.  It’s no wonder that they are on the endangered list.  If it’s not predators getting them, its lack of habitat or the ingesting of garbage that ends up in the ocean.  After hearing Ashley talk and show us what has been removed from rehabbed turtles’ stomachs, I will never purchase another balloon in my life.  Something like 95% of released helium balloons end up in the ocean, and since they look like jellyfish (a turtle’s main diet) they end in their bellies.  

Finally it was time to head back to the beach.  In a caravan of cars we followed the ranger and her volunteer to a spot.  By this time it was completely dark outside.  No lights of any kind are allowed on the walk, and cell phones must be turned off.  In fact, no filming or camera equipment of any kind is allowed on the walk.  

We could have waited until 11 P.M. in hopes of seeing a turtle, but luck would have it that we saw one after about 45 minutes of waiting.  We walked about a quarter mile walk near the waves to the scouted nesting site.  When we were parallel with the giant loggerhead, our group of 18 silently approached making sure that we stayed behind her shell and out of her eyesight.  

I of course knelt down in front and not 15 seconds later was watching this loggerhead drop leathery ping pong sized eggs into the nest she had just created.  One of the volunteers pointed a red light into the nest so that we could see what was happening without disturbing the turtle.  With a steady rhythm lady loggerhead released eggs in groups of two or three until she filled up her nest about a half and hour later.  I lost count around 60 something eggs, but was informed that loggerheads typically lay between 100 and 110 eggs per clutch.  During nesting season that same loggerhead can nest between two and eight times.

Most of our group tired of watching the event after about 10 minutes.  Me and another girl were fixated during the entire event, and had to be told to move down towards the water so that mama could cover her nest and lumber back to the ocean.  

In the time we waited to watch our turtle drag herself back to the ocean, my husband, Mr. National Geographic, spotted the shadow of another loggerhead pulling herself out of the ocean and up the beach.  When the moonlight hit her just right, I could see her as well.  

Our turtle walk was coming to an end.  There would be no witnessing that second turtle lay her eggs.  That was okay with me.  It was nearing midnight, and I seen what I wanted to see.  It was time to leave nature to take its course, but not before marking the nest.  I have the coordinates of the nest we witnessed and hope that we can make a trip back late July to see if the hatchlings had emerged.  And so after a lovely evening I headed home satisfied with my newest turtle fix.

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Reflections and Intercessions at Our Lady of Le Leche Shrine

I awoke this morning to the terrible news that 49 people had been mercilessly killed while dancing at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a place located only  two blocks from where I have worked as an English teacher for the past 12 years.  Conflicted on whether or not I should actually take this trip, I decided that if I let the fear settle, terrorism would truly win and opted to pick up Cori for our annual girls’ weekend as scheduled.

Strangely enough on this day where terror and excitement were continuously trading places in my heart, I found myself on the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios and the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche

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From the angels guarding the bridge, to the Great Cross, to the shrine to the Virgin Mary, and the prayer to St. Francis of Assisi, I was continuously reminded that even though great tragedy had struck my community, God is truly in control.  

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I wandered that property mesmerized by the ivy covered shrine that sat in the middle.  As I entered the structure, I was greeted by a statue of Our Lady of Le Leche and surrounded by the glow of candles–burning beacons of the prayers of those who stood before me.  While most people visit this shrine to ask Mary to bestow them with the blessing of motherhood, I found myself asking Mary to bestow peace on all the mothers that awoke to news that their child had been murdered.

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Continuing my exploration of the grounds I was drawn to the Great Cross, standing 208 feet above the Matanza River.  Pedro Menendez de Aviles, whom I had been introduced to at the Fountain of Youth, planted the first cross in the ground 401 years prior.  And though this stainless steel cross was erected in 1966, it serves as a reminder that this is the first place that Christianity was introduced to our country.  

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In front of the cross stands a bronze statue of Fr. Lopez, the first person to hold Mass on the soil of the United States.  Strangely enough the artist of this stature was from South Bend, Indiana an hour from my childhood home. With this information, I found myself feeling strangely rooted in two places for the first time in my life–my childhood home of Indiana and my adult home of Florida had found a place and a moment to converge.  

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As I was leaving the grounds of the shrine, I came upon a statue of St. Francis of Assisi who ,I knew from my five years of Catholic school, is often associated with birds and animals. Next to him was his prayer on a plaque that held such significant meaning on such a day of despair.  I read it and was reminded of how life should and can be.  

I know it was Cori who wanted to stop by the nation’s oldest shrine, but as I wandered those grounds contemplating all that had taken place in just 24 hours, I wondered if a greater force was drawing us to this sacred space.   And just before leaving, Cori pointed out this bench to me which served as a personal reminder that each day should be seized and lived in joy instead of fear.

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Sipping on History at the Fountain of Youth

As you all know by know, I love kitschy roadside attractions, and what could be more kitschy than drinking out of the famed Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine?  I had visited the 15 acre attraction in 2007 with my dad.  I don’t remember much from that day nine years ago, but two things did stick with me.  One was watching Dad drink the famed waters.  Disgust was written on my face as I imagined him getting a parasite from the spring water instead of everlasting youth.  I declined to partake on that trip. The other memory is the open grassy space that led to the waterfront that was dotted with historic cannons.  I was left unimpressed.    

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Dad drinking the water in 2007

Nine years later I approached the live oak lined street and came face to face with the same stone arch proclaiming I had arrived at The Fountain of Youth.  The beauty of the street and arch had me reevaluating everything I thought I knew about this place.  

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We entered the park and walked right up to our first encounter with Juan Ponce de Leon and struck our best conquistador pose.  Then we met with, Kit Keating, our tour guide for the morning.  One thing is true about Kit; he has such a passion for this place it was impossible not to get excited as he told us the history.  

One thing that I noticed on all of the marketing materials for Juan Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park was their slogan, “Where legend meets history.”  And while Kit did point out the famed waters that we could drink later, he focused more on the history aspect.

As we walked towards the waterfront, what I remembered as an open field nine years earlier was transformed.  History was literally unearthed before my eyes.  In the years since my visit, it had been discovered that this 15 acres of land actually held the true origins of the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement.

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This area, once called Seloy, was inhabited by the Timucuan Indians who gifted part of their settlement to Pedro Menedez de Aviles upon his arrival in 1565, thus establishing the oldest settlement in the country.

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To honor Seloy and the Timicuan roots, there is also a replica of many of the buildings one would have found in the Timucuan village Menedez encountered.  At this point for me, history was overshadowing the legend of Ponce de Leon.

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Kit left us to explore on our own, and we headed to the weapons demonstration where first we were introduced to the quiet crossbow and then overpowered by the booming cannon which could have hit the Bridge of Lions about a mile away.  Both demonstrations were preceded by historical significance and use.  

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Next it was time to hit the namesake of the park.  We entered the building housing the spring claiming everlasting youth.  Each of us with a plastic cup in hand sipped on the water; which to be honest, was actually refreshing on a 96+ degree day.  I think I drank three cupfuls before we headed to the Discovery Globe for a 20 minute reprieve from the oppressive heat.    

As we wound up our day, it ended up being the perfect mix of legend and history; in fact, I really love how they have played up their archaeological significance instead of the fictitious explorations of Juan Ponce de Leon.  Fun fact: while Ponce de Leon did discover “La Florida” his ties with his search for the fountain of youth were not established until after his death.

Even though I loved learning so much about Florida’s history, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my absolute favorite part of the day was seeing the peacocks with their tails spread open calling to potential mates.  Like blue and white snowflakes, they floated around the grounds earning their monikers of the proud peacock.


Unlike nine years ago, I walked back through the arch and into the live oak lined street with a renewed sense of respect for this little attraction.  While holding true to their kitschy origins, legend has truly met history, and I think both Ponce de Leon and Pedro Menendez de Aviles would be proud as the peacocks roaming the grounds at this park.

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Thanks to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park for hosting me.  All opinions are my own.

Flying High over St. Augustine

An open air cockpit biplane ride over the country’s oldest city is not something that instantly jumps to mind when thinking of kitschy Florida attractions.  So when Cori spotted an ad in one of those coupon books that can be found in every restaurant foyer, we were sold.  One call to St. Augustine Biplane Rides was all it took to get us ready for an unforgettable flight.  After zipping over crocodiles and alligators earlier in the morning, this relaxing ride what just what we needed.

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We opted for the thirty minute Old City Tour which would fly us over the Castillo de San Marcos, Bridge of Lions, Anastasia Island, and the beach.

Dave, our pilot, met us at our car and drove us in a golf court to the hangar.  He gave us some history of the plane explaining that even though it was a 1935 model, it had been rebuilt in 2011.  Demonstrating how to enter and exit the plane, Dave allowed us to get in, but not before we each donned a flying cap and headsets.  Instead of goggles, we opted to keep our aviators as eye protection.  

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He showed us how the instruments would work at our feet and what to avoid in the cockpit.  He also warned us about leaning out the window too far into the wind where our phones and cameras could easily be whipped out of our hands never to be seen again.  

Then it was time to go.  Within minutes we were cruising down the runway and lifting up into the air.  The warm air vanished as the wind whipped around us.  Dave deftly lifted the plane higher and higher above Vilano Beach where we spotted our hotel along the coastline.  

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Selfie snapping ensued as both Cori and I squealed with excitement while we viewed St. Augustine from a bird’s perspective.  We felt like Snoopy as the plane floated over the fort, and our pilot angled us from side to side so both of us had a beautiful view of the star shaped structure.  

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Then it started to sprinkle.  Just a quick little rainstorm that barely got us wet.  However it was enough rain to produce a beautiful rainbow that we had the pleasure of flying under.  It was surreal and a gentle reminder that turned my mind from carefree to remembering the tragic shooting in Orlando the day before.  In many ways that rainbow reminded me that life is short, and as cliched as it sounds, I was happy we had decided to seize the day.

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From downtown it was on toward Anastasia Island, the lighthouse, and the Salt Run.  All of which we had already viewed from ground.  Seeing it from above dwarfed the tall lighthouse and made the Salt Run feel much longer than two miles.  We could even see people running on the beach.  

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Thirty minutes literally flew by as we each glued our eyes out each side of the plane.  We were in silent amazement despite the loud engine and wind roaring around us.  It seemed too soon, but our wheels touched down and we rolled back to the hanger with huge smiles on our faces.  This biplane ride had been a bucket list item that we didn’t even know we had.  

For a different perspective of St. Augustine, you cannot go wrong with Dave and his biplane.

Tackling the Ropes Course at Crocodile Crossing

Zip lining is such a freeing experience.  The sense of weightlessness as the wind rushes your face is a thrill to say the least.  I was skeptical at first when I ran across a ropes course and zip line adventure in St. Augustine during my research.  Having been on mile long zip lines above forest canopies and through mountains, I had high expectations of what a zip line should offer.  Flat Florida does not seem like a great zip line destination, but with a ropes course as an added element, I was intrigued.  The more I researched, the more I knew that it would be a must do event.  With 11 zip lines and over 50 obstacles, the Nile Course at Crocodile Crossing did not disappoint.  

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Knowing the Florida heat, I opted for the 9 A.M. tour on the longer Nile Course.  The course begins with a safety briefing.   An instructor adjusts the leg and waist straps that will be the support for the zip lines, hands you a pair of gloves, and demonstrates how to clip on and off of each safety line.  One by one we were asked to show that we paid attention and demonstrate that we could in fact maneuver all the obstacles without help.  This is a self-guided ropes course.  The instructors are not allowed to touch your equipment, and if they do have to, you will not be allowed to continue upon the course.  

Cori and I were first to head out for the day.  We climbed a ladder and were off on our first test of balance, a tight wire walk.  I tentatively placed one foot on the wobbly cable hoping I would have the upper body strength to complete this course.  The second foot followed, and I was pleasantly surprised that I found that I felt relatively stable as I made my way across to the first platform.

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With one obstacle down, I found my groove of clipping onto and off of the red safety line. While awkward at first, my fingers found a rhythm and I started flying through (at turtle speed instead of snail speed) the obstacles.  

Then it was time for the first zip line.  As mentioned earlier, I was not new to zip lining.  Geoff and I have zipped in Mexico, Antigua, and Canada.  Each location always had an employee hooking and unhooking the gear though.  This was the first time my safety was truly in my own hands.  Mentally I went through the checklist of what our instructor had showed us.  Pulley on.  Clips on. Gloves on. Hands up. Release.  And just like that I was soaring through the air over a pit of crocodiles.  Briefly, I felt like Indiana Jones before I gracelessly slammed into the platform at the other end.  

This went on for awhile.  We would encounter balance-challenging obstacles like swinging boards, creaky bridges, rope ladders, and nets.  All of which had us zigzagging over crocs, alligators, lemurs, and birds of all kinds.  Then, just as my arms began shaking from trying to keep balance, I would be rewarded with a relaxing zip line.  

Well most of them were…

On my sixth or seventh zip line I was trying to control my landing and pulled on the wire too hard stopping my momentum about 50 feet from the platform.  I was then forced to spin around and pull myself in hand over hand.  It was exhausting.  But I felt like I was in an episode of American Ninja Warrior.  

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Throughout the entire course one instructor followed me and Cori.  From time to time she would indicate which way we were to go on the course, but other than that there was no interaction.  However, the one moment when I needed interaction, the instructor was nowhere to be found.

On zip line 8 or 9, I got in a little bit of trouble.  I came in too fast and hit the padding on the platform pretty hard knocking my shoe off. (I completely understand their no flip flop rule.)   I was above an alligator enclosure at this point, and I really didn’t want my nice Asics becoming a mid morning snack.  Somehow I managed to kick my shoe up to the platform while I dangled over the alligator infested pond below.  In this maneuver though I had moved my hand in front of my pulley trapping both my glove and a finger.  I was dangling and my weight paired with gravity was pinching my finger and not allowing me to remove it.  Somehow I managed to pull my hand out of my glove and swing myself up onto the platform.  As my feet gained purchase, my glove was not so lucky and floated down into the alligator pond.  I watched in horror as an alligator bee lined for the yellow bait and swallowed it without a thought.  Adrenaline coursed through me as I was thankful to have both my shoes and not have to test my alligator wrestling skills on this particular day.

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Since our instructor was nowhere to be found, I had to call 60 feet down to a maintenance worker and explain how I had lost my glove into the alligator enclosure.  Finally, the instructor came over our way and informed me that I would need to do the next zip line with only one glove.  Then she would be able to give me another one at the next platform.  Careful not to use my bare hand to stop the zip, I made it to the next platform without incident, was handed a glove, and continued to finish the course.  

I loved every minute of this 90 minute course.  It was challenging and fun.  The only thing that I did not like was the 96 degree temperature and high humidity.  I would love to visit Crocodile Crossing again, but perhaps wait until say November or December when my clothes won’t be absolutely soaked after five minutes.  

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If you are unsure about trying out a longer ropes course, they offer a shorter course with five zip lines and it maxes out at about 20 feet versus the 60.  It also only takes half the time.  With the Nile course entry to the Alligator Farm is included.  I highly recommend visiting early so that you beat the mid afternoon heat and have time to explore the Alligator Farm as well.  

Where is the coolest place you have been zip lining?  

Thanks to Crocodile Crossing for hosting me on the Nile Course.  All opinions are my own.