A Day in Venice (Florida, not California, and certainly not Italy)

IMG_5563My grandparents discovered Venice, Florida in the 1950s.  It was a sleepy town on the Gulf coast, frequented by snowbirds, driving down from New England, the Midwest, and Canada for the winter months.  I visited there almost every winter when I was growing up in the 1960s, getting horrific sunburns that peeled for weeks, collecting black fossilized sharks’ teeth on the beach, and ogling the tattooed circus people around town.  Venice then was the winter home of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.  The Flying Wallendas and Gunther Gebel-Williams, the “lion tamer,” were local celebrities.

The sun and sharks’ teeth remain, but the circus is long gone.  Of course, Venice is much more developed and crowded now.

A 1959 view of Snake Island near the Venice jetty.

A 1959 view of Snake Island near the Venice jetty.

What is left of Snake Island today.

What is left of heavily-eroded Snake Island today.

But it retains some of its former charm.  It has a palm-lined downtown area, with 1920s architecture, full of shops, restaurants, and well-off retirees.  Even though I now am retired, I continue to view Venice as a place full of OLD people, just as I did when I was a child.  Everyone seems to be in some stage of old age, from the fit, tennis-outfitted newly-retired, to bent-over ancients holding up checkout lines as, with glacial slowness, their arthritic, shaking fingers pick out each penny and dime for exact payment.  Sightings of children are rare.

We headed to Venice this week for a quick visit with my 91-year-old mother, who has lived there for many years.  It was a six hour drive each way from St. Simons and we only had three days (between physical therapy sessions) for the trip.  We arrived to a sunset, with blue clouds massing over the Gulf, resembling a distant mountain range.


The next day—our one full day there—was glorious and sunny, with a mild breeze.  My mother doesn’t venture too far afield these days, but every morning takes a leisurely walk down to the jetties, picking up litter as she goes.

The Venice jetty usually has power walkers, fishers, and a variety of birds.  This day was no different.



That’s Nokomis on the north side of the inland waterway, with its own jetty

The most striking birds were the anhingas perched on the jetty rocks drying their wings.  They are amazing underwater swimmers, but their feathers become waterlogged, so they spend a great deal of time drying and grooming them.


IMG_5557Their eyes develop bluish green rings in mating season, which must be in full swing given these colors.


Neither people nor birds were catching many fish. Instead, the birds seemed to be taking advantage of the sun and wind for extensive grooming.

This pelican did a thorough grooming

This pelican went through huge grooming contortions

and then settled in

and then settled in.




IMG_5626IMG_5613On the way home we watched this big pelican perched very high in an Australian pine. He looked like a pterodactyl.

IMG_5685Back at the house, we watched the birds in the yard and the ospreys nesting on a nearby channel marker.

Doves perched high in a palm

Doves perched high in a palm


Osprey nest with the twin jetty in Nokomis in the distance

Osprey nest with the twin jetty in Nokomis in the distance


We toured the yard and its flowers.


And sat and watched the boats go by.



Zoe napped in the shade

After dinner out, we returned to the tail end of another glowing sunset.


It was followed by the appearance of the moon—just a sliver—and Venus, lingering over the marina.



IMG_5288The theme of the week here on St. Simons is COLD.  We have had cold with rain, cold with drizzle, cold with a wee bit of sun, and cold with wind.  After more than twenty years of living in Alaska, you think I’d be used to it.  But the cold here is the raw, wet, kind that makes you feel as if you are wrapped in a freezing, wet towel.  And we don’t have a crackling wood stove or fireplace to warm our extremities, so my fingers and toes feel like permanent ice cubes.

The birds are hunkered down, with their feathers highly inflated.



IMG_5082Rental bikes are sitting idle, but the local BBQ is going strong, adding a wintry hardwood smoke aroma to the neighborhood.


The skies have been mostly a gun-metal gray, making color even more welcome than usual.



Rare sunny day

IMG_5320Even the less colorful birds are a welcome sight.


This merganser blends in with the reed, except for that big white target on its head.

This merganser blends in with the reeds, except for that big white target on its head.


IMG_5236IMG_5263Amazing plumage.


And a wood stork’s reflection.

IMG_5219The cold weather seems to bring out the cats–they are everywhere, both feral and house cats.  This cat brought my walk to a screeching halt because, at first, I could not believe my eyes.


It was the size of a small lynx, or a plump Brittany Spaniel.  I actually thought it was a dog at first, then concluded that it must be a lawn ornament.  But when I moved, its face followed me.  An enormous face with little foldy ears.  I don’t imagine its owners have to worry about rodents–it looked large enough hunt raccoons.  I have never seen a anything like it.  Does anyone know what it is?  A Scottish Fold maybe?  It was HUGE.


The gray weather seems to highlight oddities, such as fungus, bark, and fishing lines.


IMG_5115IMG_5186Not to mention tree faces and the backside of a local restaurant.


IMG_5286IMG_4783If these buds are any indication, some warmer weather (and sun) should be coming soon and we will be able get out and explore without freezing our buns off.


Zoe’s ready.


Old Friends, Old Fort, Old House

IMG_4916Our days have fallen into a rhythm during our roadtrip time-out on St. Simons. We have leisurely mornings with coffee and the computer, followed by lots and lots of exercise, physical therapy for George’s shoulder, yoga for me, beach walks, town walks, exploring, good eats, reading, planning for our trip west, and thinking about our plans for when the trip ends.

IMG_4733The rhythm was happily interrupted by two unexpected visits with old friends, who by chance were in the area. One friend has lived in the Brazilian Amazon for decades and, aside from a brief visit thirty years ago, we had not seen each other in about forty years. She was visiting her parents in Florida and drove up here for an overnight visit. The other friend lives in Colorado and I had not seen her since eighth grade. Really. She was on St. Simons with family over the New Year and found time to meet up with me over coffee and lunch. It was oddly bizarre and quite wonderful to see them again. And it would not have happened if we had not taken this stop for George’s surgery. A little sweet side compensation.

Sydney Lanier Bridge

The weather has been all over the place. We had a severe storm and tornado watch that fizzled into nothing more than a brief rain that filled the gutters and then stopped. We’ve had fog again, and some gorgeous sun.

IMG_4685IMG_4965IMG_4712We took advantage of a sunny day to visit Fort Frederica a few miles up island.  We didn’t realize that it was dog friendly, but sure enough, Zoe was welcome.  We have been there before and continue to return because it is one of those places that–as George says–fires the imagination. There is not much there now, but it is easy–especially when you have time and no one is around–to visualize what it might have been like in its brief, vibrant existence. The Fort was established in 1736 as a British outpost laying claim to the area against the pesky Spanish.


Remains of Fort Frederica barracks

The battery

The battery

The settlement was headed by James Oglethorpe and was intended to be a new start for landless poor and those held in British debtors’ prisons, bringing the diverse and skilled artisans and farmers necessary to provide for the needs of the town and troops. Oglethorpe also welcomed religious reformers including John and Charles Wesley, founders of modern Methodism (on an interesting side note, Charles wrote over 6000 hymns including “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (how he found the time to eat is a mystery)). Fort Frederica had cannons, bibles, and a vision.


Well … not surprisingly, things did not work out as expected. The Wesleys did not last long.  Charles hated Frederica and the settlers apparently didn’t care much for him either.  He left after a few months.  John left Georgia the next year after being haled into court for refusing communion to a woman who had spurned his courtship and married another man (he was perceived as vindictive–no surprise there). He quickly and quietly left the colony before the trial.

Frederica itself ceased to exist after the military regiment was disbanded in 1749 and a fire destroyed most of the remaining buildings about ten years later.IMG_4842

But, somehow, even though little is left of Frederica, when you walk among the old townsite, it is easy to envision it. The town was laid out on a grid that is still visible. The main street ended at the water and the foundations of the buildings remain. The park service has done a nice job in describing the buildings and their residents, with vivid details from first hand accounts.

Looking down Fort Frederica's main street to the battery on the marsh

Looking down Fort Frederica’s main street to the battery on the marsh

House foundations along the streets

House foundations along the streets

The Fort’s setting was strategic, but it’s also exquisitely beautiful, fronting miles of marshland.


The remains of the battery and Sidney Lanier Bridge in the haze

The foundation of the courthouse with an marshside view.

The foundation of the courthouse with a marsh side view.

Near the Fort is Frederica’s Christ Church, dating from the 1800’s, and its cemetery in which many of the islands’ early settlers are buried.


The cemetery was full of huge camellias draped with Spanish moss

The cemetery was full of huge camellias draped with Spanish moss

The church looks like something out of a fairy tale.

IMG_4860IMG_4881After our visit to the Fort yesterday, I took a walk along the marsh and unexpectedly witnessed an old yellow cottage that I had admired, with roof angles and a spacious front yard, being torn down. It was painful to watch. For all I know, the house was a termite-infested, rotting hulk of mold and deserved destruction. But it was so lovely, settled into its lot like it had grown there. St. Simons still retains many of its beach cottages, all different, many with beautiful design lines, others more on the practical or quirky side. Slowly, but surely, they are being torn down, to be replaced, mostly, by bloated ticks of houses, filling every bit of the lot and its view.


We are expecting a hard frost tonight, which brings out garbage bags, bedsheets and other interesting plant covers.



Hunkered down