Crystal River, Florida – Manatee Haven

Florida wildlife trip

Florida is a state full of wildlife wonders and a choice destination for us on family trips. We live in metro Atlanta in the neighboring state of Georgia and visit Florida almost every year. So when some of my in-laws visited us in the December of 2012, we planned a group trip to Crystal Rivers area in the lesser known West Florida region.

Our group consisted of my wife Glenda, her cousins Kimberly, Jasmine and Christian; my mother in law, my Dad and our kids Saif, Joshua, Simone and Zak. While entering Florida we took the customary group picture at the rest area by the border!

After a good night rest near Crystal River, we headed to the wildlife State park famous for Manatees.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is located near Homosassa Springs, Florida, a short drive from Crystal River. The park is one of the best places in the state to view manatees. Visitors can get close to the animals on a floating observatory. Black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators, and river otters can also been seen in the park. There is a guided boat tour through the lake surrounding the park every few hours. The park is also home to the hippopotamus Lu, famously known for his performances in many movies for the past 40 years.

One of the fascinating attraction at the entrance to the boat tour is the fossil of a Megalodon jaw. This was an extinct species of shark that lived approximately 23 to 3.6 million years ago. Megalodon was the last of a lineage of giant sharks and possibly the most powerful due to its massive jaw. It had an average length of 34 ft but known to grow up to 59 feet! The picture below gives an idea of how massive this shark used to be!

The American Alligators are a big attraction at the park. After the boat tour we visited some Alligators up close.

The floating observatory connects a long network of wooden walkways, creating a nature trail offering great view of the wildlife in the park at their natural environment.


Lu is the oldest hippopotamus in North America, and the only animal in the park not native to Florida. Lu was born at the San Diego Zoo in 1960. He appeared in the TV shows Daktari and Cowboy in Africa. He has lived in the park since 1964.

The Manatee pool, the nearby indoor aquarium and indoor exhibits were a favorite for Zak, our 4 year old bundle of energy!

After our visit at the park, we stopped by a beach next to nearby Nuclear power plant! Watching the sunset at the Gulf of Mexico was a treat!

You can enjoy the highlights of our trip in the below video clip!

Tennessee Aquarium

in search of the river monster!

The Tennessee Aquarium is the largest freshwater aquarium in North America. It has an impressive collection of river fish and animals.

The aquarium is conveniently located in downtown Chattanooga. Visitors can park in one of the visitor parking locations and take the free eletric trolly shuttle to the aquarium. Check out the video and the photo gallery below for some exciting encounters at the aquarium with alligators, giant fish, turtles and much more!

Famous Architectures – A history told in a thousand years

A 1000 year of history told through magnificent architectures

In this video series we take a tour of the famous architectures around the world that tells a historical timeline of the past 1000 years.

We start in the middle ages in the nation-state of Pisa. Then visit french medieval sites of Notredame in Paris and Pope’s palace in Avignon. Then explore the wonders of Venetian Empire of late middle ages.

Renaissance wonders by Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Vasari take us to Sienna, Florence and Milan. We then turn to the Spanish empire’s golden age in Seville.

The demise of Spanish Armada leads us to London, England during the Tudor reign in the 16th century. Followed by 17th century reign of Louis XIV in Versailles.

We then move east to Hapsburg Austrian Empire of 18th century in Vienna. Then explore 19th century Bavarian castles of King Ludwig II that gave way to German Unification.

We then head back west to visit the marvels of Industrial era and late 19th century Parisian architecture like Eiffel Tower and the modern Louvre.

Finally we cross the Atlantic to explore the rise of a early 20th century giant city in Chicago. Further crossing the Pacific, we reach Sydney, Australia and visit the wonderful post – WWII architecture in Sydney Opera House.

We end our trip in a architecture landmark of the modern era – CN Tower in Toronto, Canada.

Travel Guide – Exploring Europe in 4 weeks

Europe travel guide

Travelling across Europe, especially in summer, can be an exciting adventure. This is a brief guide on how to do it based on our own real life experience. The guide is primarily geared toward residents from North America but applicable for most travelers flying into Europe. The travels in this guide took place between 2015 and 2019.

Planning

To prepare, you should start planning at least 6-7 months ahead. A helpful resource for planning is Rick Steves Europe Travel Guide and his audio guide and books.

We use hotels.com and AirBnB for accommodation, Kayak for airlines, Duolingo app for foreign language learning, Viator/TripAdvisor for guided tours, Man in seat61 for train connections and Google Search for train, maps and attractions. Make sure you have an international plan with your wireless carrier for your smartphone. Verizon and T-Mobile has the most Europe friendly plans in our experience. For best price and availability, book ahead by at least following timeline:

  • International flights: 3-5 months
  • Long distance Trains: 3 months
  • Flights within EU: 2-3 months
  • Car Rental: 6-8 weeks
  • Hotels/AirBnB: 4-6 weeks
  • Guided Tours: 4-6 weeks
  • Local Trains: 2 weeks

It is better to book the international flight first so you know where to fly in and then plan remaining itinerary.

Places to Visit

The sites visited and the accompanying video blog series are described in my blog Best Of Europe. When in a site, use your smartphone and Google map as much as needed to get the most out of your visit.

The roadmap

Visiting all these sites in a single trip is possible if you have 4-6 weeks in hand. However, you can split it in multiple trips to suit your budget and availability. Below is a suggested itinerary.

1. Fly into Europe via A) London, Then take a flight to Vienna, Austria. Or B) fly to Vienna directly.

2. Take a guided day trip from Vienna to Budapest, Hungary. Explore Vienna as well.

3. Take an OBB train from Vienna to Salzburg for a half day tour. Then a scenic train trip from Salzburg to Munich.

4. Take a day trip from Munich into Bavaria exploring Oberammergau, Linderhof and Newscheinstein. Then head to Zurich via train and enjoy the scenic Rhine river valley and nearby Basel and Rheinfelden.

5. Fly or take train from Zurich to Milan. Take a day tour to Lake Como. Then explore Milan before heading to Venice by train.

6. Explore Venice, then take the train to Florence. Explore Florence. Then take a day trip of Tuscany covering Siena, Pisa and San Giminano.

7a. Head to Genoa by train. Then take a Mediterranean cruise from Genoa or Savona exploring Marseilles, Nice, Monaco and Barcelona. Take day excursions from the cruise ports. Then fly to Marseilles. An alternative to cruise is available in next step.

7b. If skipping cruise then fly from Milan or Florence to Nice. Then explore the Riviera (Nice, Monaco, Ezze, Cannes) by car.

8. Rent the car (preferably automatic and German) from the airport. Then explore Provence by car including Avignon, Arles and Niemes.

9. Fly from Marseilles or Nice to Madrid. Explore Madrid. Then take the train to Seville. Explore Andalusian sites like Ronda, White Villages, Granada via guided day tours. Then head back to Madrid via Cordoba in Train. Spend half or a full day in Cordoba to explore. From Madrid take a flight to Paris.

10. In Paris explore the beautiful city as well as nearby Versailles. Take guided tour to nearby Champagne region or Normandy.

11. Then fly or take the train to London. Explore London. If your entry to Europe was in Vienna then fly back to Vienna. Finally, head back home!

Travel – Best of Europe

Travel 50+ sites in Europe in this playlist!

This video blog series is a trip across Europe compiled over a few years. It is also a roadmap for travelling all these sites in a single trip if you have 4-6 weeks available. For details on preparation and a suggested itinerary for such a trip check out this blog .

Places to visit

We start in Budapest, Hungary and head west across the Alps visiting Vienna and Salzburg in Austria. Then tour Munich, Linderhof and Newscheinstein in picturesque Bavaria, Germany and end up in Switzerland visiting Zurich, Basel and Rheinfelden.

We then head south to Northern Italy visiting lake Como and Milan before reaching historic Venice by the Adriatic sea. We then crisscross across Italy visiting Florence, Siena, San Giminano and Pisa in sunny Tuscany. Our Italian tour continues west through Genoa and Savona and into Ventigmilia of the Italian Riviera.

Moving onto the French Riviera we visit Nice, Eze, Villafranca and Monaco. Driving further west we explore beautiful French villages and towns of Lacoste, Cavallion, Arles and Avignon ending up in the port city of Marseilles.

Their we embark on a cruise exploring the Mesiterranen including Barcelona, Spain! Heading deeper into Spain we explore Madrid and the Andalusian cities and villages of Seville, Zahara, Grazalema and Ronda. We then fly north to romantic Paris and royal Versailles before ending our journey in London, England!

The video blog

Touring an Olive Oil factory in Andalusia, Spain

A tour of an olive oil factory near the white village of Zahara, Andalusia, Spain

The white villages of Andalusia are famous for their scenic beauty. In addition to tourism, this region also accounts for 50% of world’s olive oil production. The video blog below is a virtual tour of one such well known olive oil factory near Zahara in Cadiz province of Spain. This factory has been in operation since mid-1700s. Enjoy the tour!