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Monday, February 5, 2018

Amtrak, Pelicans, Savannah & Wildlife

With our camper van in Florida and us in North Carolina, good friend Jim Thompson agreed to go on a quick trip with me to bring the van home. That allowed Beth to continue helping the Zebracorns, our favorite high school robotics team.

Amtrak's Silver Star offered overnight service from Cary, NC to St Petersburg, FL at a reasonable price. Being a train fan, I'd always wanted to take a sleeper car and this offered a good excuse.

The train rolled in, on schedule, about 9:20 PM when we were greeted by our friendly porter.

The tiny roomette had everything we needed; two chairs, power, cup holders, a table, sink, toilet, and space for luggage. All this in a 3'6" x 6'8" space. When we were ready, our porter converted it to bunkbeds, each with a window.

The next morning, he reversed the process and we enjoyed the view from our tiny private compartment. It actually made the camper van seem spacious. Fresh coffee was brewing just down the hall and we had blueberry muffins and granola along to go with it. Unfortunately, dining car service is no longer a part of this train. The replacement lounge car food isn't very good, so I'd recommend bringing your own food.
Although the train didn't get any closer to St Petersburg than Tampa, Amtrak provided a bus that delivered us across Tampa Bay to our destination.

Mom was there to greet us and we had a good visit. Borrowing her car, we drove down to Rotunda where we picked up the van from sailing buddies Wayne & Jill. They were kind enough to keep svIntuition in their driveway for us.  Catching up with them over a vegan lunch at a new local restaurant was fun. Back at their home, Jim got to meet the same alligator that Beth & I met when we visited in November. He seems to have picked out a spot  in the sun just outside their pool fence. After checking that we were on the opposite side of the fence, we picked tangerines in the backyard. Fresh citrus was a real treat. Thank you Wayne & Jill!

Reluctantly getting ready to leave, three familiar looking idiot lights greeted me upon starting the van. After saying some choice words, a quick call to Sarasota Mercedes-Benz landed us an appointment that afternoon. By three-thirty we were at the dealer where they diagnosed a failed wheel speed sensor on the passenger front side. Fortunately, the sensor was in stock and could be replaced that afternoon. At about $200 for the part and $300 in labor, we were happy that it was covered under the Sprinter powertrain warranty. The service department tried to charge us, and when I questioned it, verified with a manager that it wasn't covered. Luckily, I had the warranty booklet in the glove compartment which clearly listed the front wheel speed sensor as a covered part. The service department then agreed, and we were on our way at no charge.  It pays to read your manuals and question the dealership!

Looking at the weather forecast and our schedules, we decided to spend another day relaxing in Florida before making the trip home. We had a good time visiting with mom and dad and I was able to show Jim some of the parks around Largo.

With both Jim and I being amateur photographers, we stopped at the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary for some up-close encounters with Pelicans and other recuperating seabirds. Located in Indian Shores between two condominium complexes, it is easy to miss.
Jim brought a real camera, while I carried my iPhone 6. Packing supplies and bedding for the van trip didn't allow for my big camera bag.
With their own beach access and a nice Gazebo facing west, the Seabird Sanctuary has a tiny slice of paradise.

Sunday morning, my sister called and asked if I'd seen the news yet. We switched it on and learned of the terrible train accident in South Carolina. This is the very same train we had ridden three nights earlier. Our sleeping car was the one directly behind the car that folded in half. We feel awful for the engineer and conductor that were killed and everyone else that were injured.

After that sobering news, we said farewell and headed off in the van. After seven hours of driving in the rain, we opted to stop for the night in Savannah, Georgia. Their visitor's center parking lot has overnight parking for small RV's. Normally $8 for 24 hours, the lot is free on Sunday nights. Nestled between museums and the Savannah School of Art and Design, it is a great spot from which to explore the city. You can walk to anywhere downtown or, if walking isn't your thing, tour busses depart from the lot next door. 
We arrived on Superbowl Sunday, so walked across the street to "The Distillery" for a good dinner and some game viewing. Not being big football fans, we retired to the van and were asleep before the game ended.

Update 2/2018: Several people have reported that the Visitor's Center has posted "No Overnight Parking" signs. This is a sad development.

 The next morning we even had a towable RV with us in the parking lot. Their airstream trailer matched the stainless steel railroad passenger car in the museum. After the required two cups of morning coffee, we headed North crossing the Savannah River on the modern Talmadge Memorial Bridge which offered great views of container ships, auto ships, the city and the port of Savannah. Too bad there wasn't a place to pull over at the top.

South Carolina greeted us as we descended onto the marshland surrounding Route 17. Noticing a sign for the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge Visitor's Center, as we zoomed past, our interest was raised. Continuing a bit further, we noticed a second sign, and turned left to see where it led.
Additional signs lead us to the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive. After checking out the road to insure it looked "van friendly" we set out on a four mile adventure. Signage and even an AM radio broadcast provided information about stops on the drive. While Jim was able to get some bird photos from the van, we did venture out onto a few short trails. One even ended in a bird blind constructed by local boy scouts. We will definitely return here with photography equipment when we aren't rushed for time.

Inside the Visitor's Center we enjoyed a short movie showing the history of the area. Photos were on display from a contest held last year - and they were impressive.

Dioramas displayed the wildlife that inhabits the refuge.
Displays allowed much closer observation of animals than one might want to be in the real world.
These recently hatched baby gators were well done.
By dinner time, we were in North Carolina where we picked the small town of Aberdeen for our stop. Home of the Aberdeen & Rockfish RR, we were pleased to find a local restaurant open on a Monday night. After ordering, I ran across the street and shot a couple of photos as the sun was starting to enter the golden hour. The RR Headquarters is in the historic building beside the caboose.
This old caboose sits beside the passenger station where the train no longer stops. We had seen it from the Silver Star only a few days before.

After enjoying Crab Cakes at the Double Eagle Bar and Grill, we left the tiny town serenaded by a carillon coming from the wooden Methodist Church.

We arrived home a couple hours later without incident. I'd met a deer in my Mini Cooper only a week earlier, so was scanning the woods after sunset.  I truly appreciated Jim taking the time to go down and back. It turned a chore into a fun adventure.

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