South Padre Island is hardly the sort of place we typically prefer to travel. Situated on the Gulf Coast of Texas less than 10 miles from the Mexico border, SPI is a tourist-driven resort town best known for raucous Spring Break celebrations and crowded summer vacations.
The fact that we were sent there on a freelance assignment DURING Spring Break did not help matters any: College students partying loudly until 2 AM and drunkenly knocking on our hotel room door at all hours of the morning is not our idea of a good time. Especially when we had to be up at 8AM to explore the eco-friendly side of South Padre Island.
We’ve always prided ourselves on “finding green” options even in the most unlikely places, and this trip was no exception. From kayaking the Laguna Madre and taking a dolphin-watching cruise to rescuing injured sea turtles with Sea Turtle Inc, getting back to nature on SPI proved surprisingly easy. But our day at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center was easily among our favorite experiences there.
The Center is one of nine established by the World Birding Center, which was created by Texas Parks & Wildlife and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services to showcase the Rio Grande Valley as a world-class birdwatching destination. As a barrier island, South Padre Island’s coastal wetlands are a crucial first landfall for birds, providing a safe haven for migratory species making their way north from Central and South America.
The SPI Birding and Nature Center is situated on a slender stretch of land dividing the Laguna Madre from the Gulf of Mexico. But its 50 acres provide an impressive array of habitats and biodiversity (including alligators, turtles, fish and more). Dune meadows, salt marsh and intertidal flats are dotted with thick grasses, native shrubs and trees that provide safe nesting grounds, as well as plentiful food sources.
We saw statuesque Great Blue Herons and various Ducks wading in the shallow pond right off the deck. Red Wing Blackbirds and a Ringed Kingfisher sat atop the railing, with the former chattering noisily as the latter hunted for a quick bite to eat. Huge flocks of White Ibis and Brown Pelicans soared directly overhead, crossing from the bay side to the gulf, and a lone osprey hovered in search of fish.
Sitting quietly in one of their five bird blinds provided opportunities to photograph a wide range of wildlife up close. Blind #3, overlooking lovely Laguna Madre Bay, brought views of Cormorants, Skimmers, Brown Boobies and Little Blue Herons grabbing their morning meal.
But my favorite sighting of the day was a flock of 8-10 Roseate Spoonbills we found resting nearby. These beautiful birds are easily identified by their pink color and spoon-shaped bills that allow them to sift through mud for crustaceans, aquatic insects, frogs and newts. And though we’ve seen them many times in Costa Rica and Sanibel Island, Florida, we’ve never gotten so close as we did in SPI.
We enjoyed our morning visit to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center so much that we returned that night, and were treated to a spectacular sunset reflected in the center’s still waters. It felt like a world away from the chaos and cacophony of Spring Break, serving as a reminder that EVERY destination offers off-the-beaten-path adventures… if you know where to find them. –Bret Love; photo by Mary Gabbett
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I have a love/hate relationship with cats. I love them for their independent spirits, their mischievously playful nature, and the rumbling motor sounds they make in moments of bliss.
Unfortunately I’m also crazy allergic to them, getting itchy, watery eyes and sneezing uncontrollably when they climb and rub on me (which they inevitably do). That part, I hate.
But the mysterious Cats of Ephesus– the Greek city built in the 10th century BC, which was among the seven churches of Asia mentioned in the Book of Revelation– ultimately proved to be a quirky attraction that made this ancient archaeological site all the more interesting.
There are literally hundreds of cats roaming Ephesus. You’ll see them sitting like statues at the base of columns lining the ancient streets, dozing atop intricately carved marble sculptures and seemingly guarding the impressive Library of Celsus.
One peeked out playfully, as if he might swat us just for fun, as we strolled through public baths built by Emperor Constantine I. Another sat atop an ancient row of toilets, looking like some sort of feline bathroom attendant waiting to offer us a paper towel and a mint on our way out.
Nobody really knows for sure how the Cats of Ephesus got here, or how they’re fed. But they all appear well cared-for, and locals seem to have a laissez-faire attitude about their presence.
It’s a well-known fact that Cleopatra once brought cats as a gift to Caesar Augustus in Rome. Some local legends suggest that the cats who populate Ephesus today may be the descendants of felines the Egyptian queen introduced during her visits to the city.
But these ruins remained largely buried by the sands of time until 1895, when German archaeologist Otto Benndorf began the first significant excavation of the site. Benndorf later founded the Austrian Archaeological Institute, which still plays a leading role in the excavation of Ephesus today (around 85% of the massive city is still waiting to be uncovered). Our tour guide suggested that archeologists brought the cats to help keep the rodent population in check.
For me, this photo of an orange tabby sitting amongst intricately designed mosaic tile work dating back to the Byzantine era perfectly encapsulates the mysterious beauty of Ephesus. Looking at his regal pose, it’s easy to understand why cats were held sacred by the ancient Egyptians (whose goddess Bastet was depicted in cat form), and domesticated by the Romans (who are credited with introducing the domestic cat to Europe).
Regardless of how they got there or how they manage to survive, the Cats of Ephesus add a sense of mystery and magic to this archaeological site, serving as a living embodiment of its ancient history. –Bret Love; photo by Mary Gabbett
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell when we travel. Not just “we” in the sense of travel writers and bloggers, but human beings in general.
We use our cameras and mobile devices to capture snapshots of us at our idealistic best, every hair in place, smiling just so, capturing moments in which we’re “living the dream” (to quote a popular blogger cliché). It’s easy for other people to look at these photos in envy, jealous of our perfect lives and wishing they could have just a taste of the bounty we’ve been blessed with.
But while pictures like the one above may be worth a thousand words, they rarely tell the full story.
Usually I want to travel. Our trip to Belize was a rare case where I desperately needed to get away. Our end-of-year deadlines had been brutal, leaving me exhausted to the core after weeks of 12-hour days. My father passed away unexpectedly the day after Christmas, just before his 68th birthday, and his memorial service left me wrestling with a complex cauldron of emotions over the fact that I’ve been estranged from my immediate family for over two years.
By the time I got to Belize– a place I’d dreamed of visiting for 15 years– I was beyond tapped out on a physical, mental and emotional level. I was so exhausted, we nearly canceled our first day’s tour of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (home to the world’s largest concentration of jaguars). After the second day– when I was knocked into a reef by another Scuba diver who didn’t see me beneath him, got severe leg cramps during our second dive and ultimately got seasick after my ascent– I literally broke down.
Honestly, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
You won’t see any photos of me getting sick over the side of the boat. You won’t see pictures of the ugly scar I got from scraping my elbow on the reef. And you won’t see any shots of the tears I wept when I finally let go and acknowledged that I just wasn’t able to handle all of the myriad things that had been piled upon my plate.
The photo you see above, of the beach at Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort, doesn’t tell any of these stories. But that’s not the point of this post. This shot– taken after our dive, a refreshing dip in the resort pool, and a snack to settle my stomach– is incredibly symbolic for me.
This dream-like image of peace and serenity represents promise and possibility, specifically the goals that Mary and I have been working towards the last four years. There’s a chair for me, Mary and my daughter to sit in and gaze out on the gorgeous surroundings, with our dog Huckleberry at our feet. There are no laptops, phones, deadlines or other obligations to be met. Just time and space, shade from the midday sun, and remarkable natural beauty everywhere you look.
Of course, that’s not the reality behind this image: In truth, I was nauseous, sweaty and at the end of my emotional rope, trying to force myself to be OK at a time when I was decidedly not OK. I was simply trying to get a few quick shots of this beautiful beach before moving on to our next adventure. But it’s representative of the dream that I aspire to– the dream that we push ourselves to our limits to in an effort to achieve.
And I know deep in my heart that, by the next time we visit this beautiful beach in Belize, that dream will have become real… –Bret Love
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As an insatiably curious world traveler who rarely visits the same place twice, it’s odd to have the sort of connection that keeps drawing me back to Sanibel Island, Florida over and over again.
I’ve been there at least 15 times since my first visit in the early ’90s. I know the island so well that I can recall its changes over the last two decades– the massive Australian pines that were felled by Hurricane Charley in 2004, the old drawbridge that used to cause long waits when crossing the Causeway from the mainland, and old school businesses (R.I.P. McT’s) that have gradually been replaced with newer, flashier establishments.
When I first started going to Sanibel, I was shocked and amazed to discover that you could usually count on seeing Alligators in the tiny swamp right next to the historic Bailey’s shopping center, which was opened in the late 1800s. You’d most often spot them lurking in the middle of the water, still as statues, their foreboding eyes watching for prey. But occasionally you’d see them right along the bank, less than 20 yards from the movie theater parking lot.
I’ve heard stories of people being caught feeding them, of small dogs snatched from their owners as they walked along the shore, and of gators being moved deeper into the swamp to avoid human contact. I haven’t seen gators in the swamp for years. But I still visit the area every time I’m in Sanibel Island, because you never know where wildlife may turn up.
And so it was that I found myself walking along the fringe of the swamp on a recent evening. I was looking for gators right around sunset when I saw this Turtle surface in the water about 15 yards away. As he stared at me, this big orange Flame Skimmer Dragonfly landed right on his head. I snapped the photo with my 500mm lens, and before I could click the shutter a second time he was gone.
It was a perfect moment of serendipity: Not the Alligator I’d hoped for, but a reminder that Nature adapts to change and brings with it sweet surprises if you keep eyes and mind open. –Bret Love
Our trip to Sanibel Island was hosted by the Lee County Visitors Bureau. But we will never compromise our obligation to our readers. Our opinions remain our own.
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If you’ve never been on a nighttime safari drive, it’s truly a spooky spectacle to behold. The darkness lends an added air of mystery to an experience already filled with awe and wonder. And, with your tracker’s flashlight usually the only source of illumination, it can be a little scary knowing that wild things wander unseen all around you.
My memories of our game drives through South Africa’s Kruger National Park are extraordinarily vivid. I remember the racing pulse of excitement the first night, when our Londolozi Game Reserve driver struggled to find pathways through the thick underbrush as we followed a female Leopard stalking her prey just after sunset. The thunderous noises of a massive Hippopotamus crashing through a thicket and running across the road behind us, faster than you’d ever imagine a creature so large could run. The incredible sight of 13 Lions stretching lazily in the road back to our camp, looking for all the world like sleepy, overgrown house cats. And the heart-pounding intensity as we watched a pack of cackling Hyenas chasing a herd of Gazelles, which leapt and bound gracefully across the road.
But one of my favorite nighttime wildlife sightings has to be this cute little trio of Baby Cheetahs, who we found hidden amongst the grass of the open savannah late at night, nursing contentedly on their mother. Cheetahs are my favorite of South Africa’s big cats– I admire their distinctive markings, their speed, their gracefulness– but until this night they were the only species (including the rare African Wild Dog) that we hadn’t seen. To stumble upon them in the dark, late at night, and see an entire family? It felt as if we hit the jackpot.
You can read elsewhere on GGT the story of how South Africa inspired our passion for ecotourism. But, for me, this photo captures one of those indelible little moments that makes Kruger National Park such a special place. In these adorable little faces, I saw the future of sustainable travel. –text & photo by Bret Love
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