Archive for December, 2013
Our tour of southern Florida continued with a short stay in Key West.
Key West is in many ways quite different from other US cities. It has a laid-back, hippy, Caribbean vibe which we enjoy. We planned to spend two nights, and stayed for three. We found an old Key West mansion to stay in, with a pleasant room, a terrace to have breakfast on, and a (clothes optional) pool and jacuzzi.
Sunset is one of the highlights of the most southerly city in (mainland) USA. Crowds gather at Mallory Square, with street entertainers and craft stalls, and clap when the sun goes down over the Gulf of Mexico. The first night we watched it with the crowds; the second night from a ‘booze cruise’ catamaran; and the third night from a waterfront bar with steel drums playing in the background.
We spent pleasant days and evenings exploring the town, including the bars and restaurants around Duval Street, and the house where Hemingway lived (still inhabited by descendants of his cats). One evening, after the booze cruise, we attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah in one of the churches, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
From Key West there is only one way back – along US 1 through the chain of keys once more. Our next stop was Miami Beach, on the east coast opposite Miami city. Driving through Miami was horrendous, but we enjoyed visiting the art deco South Beach area and admiring the brightly coloured and decorated hotels. We also did a boat cruise around Miami Bay, viewing the homes of the ‘rich and famous’ (many of whom we’d never heard of).
From Miami Beach we headed west again, and returned to Sanibel Island for their ‘luminary festival’, when many of the buildings are decorated with colourful Christmas lights and there are choirs and exhibitions, as well as free food and drink. We travelled around the island on the free trolleybuses, although their timing and destinations tended to be slightly hit or miss.
On the way back to Sarasota, we stopped in Fort Myers and visited the Edison estate, where the inventor (and his neighbour, Henry Ford) spent the winter. It was lit up with thousands of Christmas lights, as well as dozens of elaborately decorated Christmas trees.
Relaxing on the beach on Captiva Island (Sanibel’s neighbour), we had a phone call. We were meant to stay for our last week in a house in Venice, but the lady there had just had an emergency operation so it wasn’t a good idea. Fortunately, the nice lady who lent us her house for three weeks at the start of our trip was happy for us to use it again, so the next day we moved back into familiar surroundings in Sarasota.
It was lucky to have a good base, with internet and a printer, as we’d just had an urgent request to do some work for an organisation in Ghana. So it was the end of the holiday, in a sense, and back to the workaday world – but with sunshine and warm weather. It was the first piece of work for our new educational consultancy (ERA Educational Research and Analysis), and involved several days of both of us working flat out – not to mention hundreds of emails flying between Africa, the UK and the USA. Coincidentally, we found that the washing liquid we were using was also called ERA – and it had 3 times the cleaning power!
We did manage to get of the house occasionally, including a couple of trips to the theatre. One was in Venice, to see a production called ‘The Marvelous (sic) Wonderettes’, about four young women at their high school graduation in 1958, and then 10 years on, so it was full of old songs of the 50s and 60s. The other show was ‘White Christmas’ at the Players Theatre in Sarasota, getting us into a seasonal mood. However, when you emerge from the theatre into the warmth of a Florida evening and think of going back to cold England pretty soon, the seasonal glow soon evaporates.
We did another trip to Venice, to meet the people whose house we were going to stay in – fortunately the lady is recovering well. We also had a meal at Sharky’s on the Pier, one of our favourite haunts in that area. Another day we went north to Bradenton, and saw the boats on the river there and the farmers’ market, before heading west for our last afternoon on the beach.
All too soon it was time to start packing and leave our temporary Floridian home for cold, wet and windy England. We’re definitely not dreaming of a white Christmas!
Our third week in Sarasota followed the same pattern as the first two. We continued househunting, enjoyed sundowners on the beach and went to the cheap cinema again. On Thursday we had dinner with Jane (owner of the house we were staying in) and her partner Phil, at a restaurant in St Armand’s Circle. On Saturday afternoon we strolled along the bayfront, admiring the sculptures on display this year, and had drinks at Marina Jack’s, where we watched the sunset (not on a beach this time!). After dinner we went to the Asolo Theatre to see an excellent production of Show Boat.
After looking at many properties, we decided which was our preferred condo, but we also came to the conclusion that now was perhaps not the most sensible time to buy. We are still thinking about it, and it’s not impossible we’ll change our minds. But having decided against immediate action, there was nothing to keep us in Sarasota, so on Monday 25th we began Phase 2 of our Florida trip. Having spent three weeks there, Jane’s lovely house seemed like home, and it was quite sad to leave. At the same time, it was good to be on the road again.
We had decided that, if we had enough time between home ‘exchanges’, we would take a trip to the Florida Keys. The term ‘key’ actually means a small island, and there are literally hundreds of keys around the Florida coast. But when people talk about the Florida Keys, or just the Keys, this means the chain of islands stretching south from the tip of mainland Florida, and linked by the US1 road. On our way down to the Keys, we had two major stops: Sanibel Island and the Everglades.
Sanibel is a beautiful island, close to Fort Myers, which is only about 70 miles south of Sarasota. It has been a favourite place of ours since we first visited in 1982. On this occasion we strolled along the beach at the east end of the island, where there is a lighthouse and a fishing pier, and spent some time relaxing on another beach further west. We then drove through the J N ‘Ding’ Darling nature reserve and stopped several times along the way. We watched the fish jumping and saw lots of birds (egrets, ibis, anhingas, roseate spoonbills), but no other wildlife.
From Sanibel we continued our journey on the US41. In Naples we stopped briefly at the City Pier, but decided it was too windy to spend time on the beach. After Naples the US41 turns east, and skirts the top of the Everglades National Park, passing through the Big Cypress National Preserve. We made a number of stops along the way, and saw lots of alligators!
To travel through the reed-covered swampy land, an airboat is needed; they are not permitted in the Everglades National Park, but there are innumerable operators just outside the park boundaries, many along the US41. We did a small detour to Everglades City, the starting place for many more airboat tours. We watched the airboats leave and return, often with pelicans perched on the front rail, or even above the engine. But we decided this time that we would stick to the boat trips run in the National Park itself.
Accordingly, the next day we took a 1 hour 45 minutes boat trip from Flamingo, at the far end of the main park road. We saw not only alligators, but crocodiles, as well as many birds and several types of mangrove trees. On the drive back, we stopped at places where we walked short trails through hardwood ‘hammocks’, and followed boardwalks over the brackish water. The scenery in the Everglades is not the most dramatic in the world, but it is certainly unique.
Along the Keys
South of Miami, the US1 road is known as the ‘Overseas Highway’. In a stretch of more than 100 miles, it links no fewer than 31 islands by a series of bridges and causeways, including the famous Seven-Mile Bridge. The islands vary in size; some are tiny (blink, and you’ll miss them) while others like Key Largo and Marathon have towns with lots of shops and motels. But with the Atlantic on one side, and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, it is a unique and unforgettable drive.
This was our third visit to the Keys, the first being at Christmas 1982 and the second during the summer of 1989. On the first day the weather – although warm – was grey and cloudy, so we were not tempted to head for a beach. We stopped to look at some tacky souvenir shops, as well as some more upmarket arts and crafts exhibitions. We saw the African Queen – not a replica, but the actual boat used in the film of the same name. We stopped for a picnic lunch and a nature trail at Long Key. This reminded us of 1989, when we landed in Miami, bought camping gear from a shop there and then headed for the Keys. Long Key was our first stop, and the first time we erected out own tent. We struggled on that occasion to follow the instructions, although once we got the idea, it became very easy.
The next day there was a dramatic change in the weather, from clouds to a perfect blue sky and bright sun. We stopped at Bahia Honda, the most beautiful of all the Keys. Wearing t-shirts and shorts as usual, we strolled along the narrow white sand beach between the sea and the palm trees. We watched the pelicans diving, and tried to believe that this was really November.
Finally we reached the end of the road – Key West. But that’s another story…..