Florida, USA

Florida: the first of 11 states we travelled through this summer.

In a nutshell—what to say?

Hmmm.

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I’m going to outline our travels around Florida 2016; the first of 11 states in our travels this summer. I hope to give you a feel of each of the places we visited, being Miami, Everglades, Kennedy Space Center and a lovely pretty island called St Georges. Then a bit of advice about weather, accommodation, dangerous things and other useful stuff. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, I feel a bit of poetry is always in order!

Into the undergrowth:

Airless humidity.

Tangles of mangrove forests and thick-legged spiders.

Scampering crabs and the shy shadows of manatees.

The lurking, blank menace of an alligator’s gaze,

And logs with senses sitting stock-still on a ripple of water.

 

A wild raccoon resting in a tree,

Humbly takes food from a human hand.

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Into space:

Gasping humidity.

 

Space shuttles spanning 10 buses in length,

Stonking great exhausts and silver sided space ships,

Pieces of moon rock and meteorite and astronauts’ suits.

 

I wonder: the future.

The wonder: what is out there?

 

In the suburbs:

Rows of metal mailboxes all standing sentinel,

The dense urban musk of day-old sun-warmed garbage

Hanging morosely like five-day-old body odour.

 

Diamond-touched beaches,

Breeze-tickled palms.

Sand stretching into blue and beyond.

Oh, and did I mention the humidity?

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Those are the images I get when I think back to Florida.

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-Miami-

We stayed in South Beach (SoBe). The air was rank with gently roasted garbage and warm sewage— having lived in the mild-climate of England for most of my life, this is not something I am used to. The locals seem to barely notice the stench as they pace on by in their daily routines.

As for many of the streets, you could be in almost any city in the world—almost any—the humidity and temperature was certainly notable, but the one thing that sold it for us, the one thing that set it apart from many of the other cities in the world, were the beaches.

What fantastic beaches!

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It’s palm tree paradise, and they’re so expansive, there was always a guarantee of finding a quiet spot if you’re willing to use your legs. Muscle beach was also a great place to sit and watch for a while—although it is probably more interesting for those who are attracted to men!

We found Miami to be much of a maze of one-way streets—which can make using buses a tad troublesome if you don’t check the timetable correctly. Walking seems to be the best way to get around in SoBe, but a bus is needed to get to the main city. We used a tour company to make sure we would not miss any of the best sights of the city: Miami to the Max.

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The tour did do exactly as advertised, but I wouldn’t have said there was very much ‘max’ about it; perhaps the name is a small part misleading. The tour stopped off at a variety places in SoBe and in the main city and we were able to mark them on our satnav to explore the next day with more time. On the tour, the art deco district was of particular interest, with its graffiti streets and walkways.

We saw Little Havana where we watched locals compete at Dominos and we brought a cigar from a heavy-smelling Cuban cigar shop—and we don’t smoke—they just smelled that good! We also visited a typical Cuban-style restaurant and had a traditional lunch. We thought it was wonderful—but then we had been living on saltines, sweet corn and almonds for nearly a week, so I am probably not the best to take opinions from!

We paid for a bundle to see the Stars’ islands boat tour. It was interesting, especially if you follow the lives of stars. Not something me or my husband do so we just enjoyed the air conditioning and views. The only problem we found was the person on the loudspeaker who was very difficult to hear against the engine of the boat; we felt we missed a lot of the commentary—which if we knew more about celebrities, might have been a real disappointment. You can sit on the open top deck but we saw people coming down afterwards looking like they were going to faint from the heat. Perhaps not recommended in the summer months…

-Everglades-

For us this was a whirlwind tour. We arrived late one afternoon and left the following morning, but it is surprising just how much you can fit into such little time if you keep busy.

Once again, we decided it was best to take some of the excursions. It seems difficult to see the area otherwise—especially in such a short time. On the afternoon we arrived we jumped onto one of Captain Jack’s Airboat tours. These are speedy air raft things that make a colossal noise and as they race through the natural mangrove channels; they are exhilarating. Despite being noisy, we still managed to spot some wildlife on our tour; the captain had an uncanny wildlife-dar and slowed the boat down well before so as not to spook anything. I was pleased to spot two alligators and a wild raccoon up close. The captains carry animal feed in their pockets and have partially tamed the raccoons who are happy to come out for a tasty morsel. We managed to take a few snaps. Some advice though: hold onto your hats, use the ear defenders (unless Tinnitus is now fashionable), and don’t take non-waterproof cameras. A well-tethered GoPro or similar is the only thing I would advise. Oh and hold on tight—to anything and everything.

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There are many mangrove and grassland tours to choose from, but Captain Jack’s included entry to an animal sanctuary which we were able to view after the airboat tour. At the sanctuary they had hourly alligator shows and we had the opportunity to hold a small gator.

We had planned to go on a Ten Thousand Island Tour  the next morning, but sadly it had to be cancelled. It was supposed to take us around the thousands of tiny mangrove islands spanning out towards the sea. There was also supposed to be the possibility of seeing dolphins. Instead we joined a more intimate and nature-focussed mangrove tour on a far smaller and quieter boat from the same company.

The boat could navigate into some of the really tiny channels and the chance of seeing wildlife is far likelier than on the airboat tours. We were lucky enough to see manatees and several alligators. There were also some frighteningly large spiders, some of whom had made their stretchy home right across the channel where our boat was traversing—we made a speedy head swerve to avoid getting a spider-plastered-on-the-face job. In hindsight, this might not be the best trip for those who suffer from arachnophobia.

The tour was very interesting and our guide very knowledgeable, but we were disappointed that we ended up having to pay extra for this tour—we felt they probably should have swapped this tour for the cancelled one and not charged the extra $10 as it was their fault we couldn’t go on the booked-tour we had been hoping for.

We stayed in a very nice motel called Everglades City Motel. It was spacious, clean and offered free use of Wi-Fi and bicycles. One of the guests said he had been going there for twenty years and he felt this was the best motel in the Everglades area—but I couldn’t vouch personally for the accuracy of this as we didn’t stay anywhere else.

The people there were very friendly—we met several, one of whom offered to take us out on his personal boat with beers the next day and go fishing around the ten thousand islands. This is something we would have loved to do (especially as our tour there was cancelled) but our itinerary was too packed—on these rare occasions some flexibility when travelling is very handy.

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The motel advertised ‘free use of bikes’ however we soon found this wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. We had planned two hours in the evening to cycle a short route around the area but once we saw the bikes we had to significantly lower our expectations; we barely made it around the next corner. All of them were rusting through or had no breaks (or both). None had working gears and the wheels wouldn’t turn on some of them. We tried to borrow the two best but couldn’t manage to get farther than several hundred yards before they packed in and were utterly unridable.

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-Space Coast-

We stayed in a place called Coco which we chose due to its proximity to Kennedy Space Station and price (locations closer to the station were dramatically more expensive). We had a wonderful time staying in a room of a house belonging to a local—we loved using AriBnB for this reason—what a way to meet the locals (and their many pets)! We also wanted to see what life was really like in suburban America (as we see on the television in England)—and we got to live there with a local and were fed so much cake we thought we could never face confectionary again. A lovely lady.

In Coco there was also a planetarium close-by which we felt suited the tenor of our visit well. This would be a great place to take a family—especially because of all the interactive exhibits to play with before the show. I also understand there is a really nice beach close by, but we didn’t have time to check it out.

Kennedy Space Centre is well worth a trip if you have the slightest interest in space and exploration or if you have a young family. There is easily a day’s worth of activities on just the basic ticket, but you can also pay a little more to do some really exciting things such as have lunch with an astronaut. Tickets can be bought well in advance and I would recommend this because the ticket queues were quite long, and you will want to make the most of the whole day (rather than waiting unnecessarily in queues).

Most outstanding activities during the day were the imax shows, the fake launch, the Atlantis, the bus tour and the rockets on show outside (where we took many fantastic piccies).

I left convinced I should have directed my degree towards the sciences and become an astronaut! I was revaluating all my life choices. Is there any chance they need librarians in space to categorise space-y stuff? I doubt it. Doh.

-St. George’s Island-

St Georges was supposed to be a fairly random stop between long driving days—a nothing special kind of stop—a night to collapse for respite before continuing travels the following day—kind of stop. It ended up being far more than that for both of us.

My husband and I are always looking out for potential places to move to that are warm and cultured. Almost every place we have travelled to hasn’t made the cut for one reason or another (Switzerland came the closest but we decided it was too expensive). St. Georges was different. We both felt we could have lived here. There is something tranquil about the vibe of the place, something special.

We stayed in AirBnB property ‘Bay View Room#1, St. George Island’ with John. I would thoroughly recommend staying there if it is still listed and available. John, (the owner) is a very likeable man who has an extremely quirky property; it has little carousel sitting areas, a pretty blue trim and the self-named staircase-of-completely-safe-but-uber-scary-doomy-doom. He keeps lots of charming parrots (who frequently find themselves on your shoulder), plus has a hundred and one stories to tell—we would have just loved to stay longer and spend more time with him. He’s the sort of person who would be great to share some beers with on a winter’s night up on the widow’s walk. Room was nice with lovely view. There is a large living space shared with a maximum of three other couples but bathroom and bed is private. Place was very unique and (we felt) rammed with charm.

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It is a short walk to the better-than-beautiful beach which seemed to be very quiet and private, and we had a strong suspicion from people-watching that it is mostly used by locals. It was a relief to have some respite from the tourist scene.

Now to pad it all out a bit if you have the reading time…

Weather

 Hot and humid but not unbearable. Of course I can only speak for the summer months when we were there (July/ August). We were forecast rain and storms every day, but actually found that rain showers tended to be intermittent: short and hard with swift return to the sun. These showers cool everything down for a short time but equally leave everything uncomfortably humid afterwards. Sun is strong; I suggest a sun brolly if you tend to burn easily, and lots of sun cream, of course.

Bity Things

Yes. Nothing but a minor inconvenience for some, but happen to be my premier nemesis. I swell up like a weather balloon and look like I have caught some blotchy lake lurgy—not a sure-fire way to do the cool look! Two months later and I still had marks from the ones in Everglades.

There is also one other reason you have to be careful—mozzies can carry nasty stuff. Yup, someone I know fell ill and suffered hallucinations from a mozzie bite. They were very sick.

I have travelled to Laos and Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia and lots of other places with mozzies but I have never known them as tenacious as the ones in Everglades; they will do anything to get to their red nectar. The Everglades beasties bite though clothes, they don’t give a flying whatsit how much insect repellent you are wearing or how strong it is; they just grit their fangs and bear it. They are the vampires of the sky. My ankles were so swollen after that night that I couldn’t put my shoes on properly. Beware! There is only one way to avoid the worst of them: stay indoors after sunset. They are not too bad at all during the day but appear in their masses after dark. Just DON’T venture out. It’s not worth it! Stay indoors after dark.

Other things that bite are spiders and snakes, including the dreaded black widow. There are lots of them in the more remote places, but you are pretty safe in the cities. Be careful walking through long grass and anywhere off paths. It is very true that if you avoid them then they will most often avoid you.

Another thing that gives a really good bite are alligators, and yes, they are abundant in some places in Florida, but we never felt threatened by them because we never got too close. It’s the same rule again; don’t get near them and they won’t get near you. I’m also pretty sure they don’t go for anything that‘s not in the water, so stay well clear of the water’s edge and keep all hands and feet inside boats at all times.

Last thing that we came across (and luckily weren’t touched by) is poison ivy. As they say, “Leaves of three leave it be…” Although it doesn’t bite, it can leave a nasty rash and some people can have a dangerous reaction to it. At least I’ve never seen a poison ivy that can chase after you—that would make one hell of a YouTube vid though.

Food

Food is always an inconvenience for us. I often wish all bodily functions would cease during travelling. It would make life an awful lot easier. I am the antonym of a gourmet; I find eating an inconvenience when on the road. I aim to find the cheapest and least time consuming way of fulfilling my nutritional needs and then move on. I have been known to snack on a whole cucumber, chomping into it like one would an apple, so I am not the best person to ask about food unless you are similarly minded.

Cities are generally not the place to achieve this food efficiency. In South Beach where we were staying there were no large supermarkets; they were all small and selling poor quality produce at extortionate prices. If you have a car it would easily be cheaper to drive out to shop if you are looking to stay at least a few days and can stock up a little.

Lidl type stores seemed to be the best on price. Walmart was very cheap for junk food, but veg and fruit is expensive. Shockingly, we found it most expensive to eat healthily; you could buy eight large pieces of fried chicken for the price of one small bag of cherries. Interestingly, we also found people in the country were fatter than people in the cities even though eating healthily is so much more expensive. When we first arrived in Florida we purchased a cheap pan and one ring stove. This meant we could cook our own meals which saved us some money. Eggs were good value everywhere so we ended up with a very yolk-y diet for a while. We hardly ate out.

The people

The least friendly we had met of our travels, but I only say that because people didn’t go out of their way to meet us. People weren’t as interested unless there was money involved; in Florida there is huge tourism—people come from all around the world to be there—so I didn’t find this surprising; they must have met a million English people in their working lives and each one is pretty much like the last, I guess. In comparison, most other places in America people seemed really keen to meet us and get to know about our lives in comparison to their own, as we were theirs.

Travel

Buses around Miami itself didn’t seem too bad: they were on time, comfortable and clean. There is no subway that we could find, presumably because the land is so marshy. Taxies, as always, are expensive (for cheapskates like us anyway!). The rest of the time we had a car which is the transport method I would recommend, even in Miami. We didn’t use the public transport in Florida after we picked up the car so I couldn’t comment on the other places we visited—didn’t see a single bus in Everglades though.

Accommodation

Hotels seemed really expensive to us, many over $200 per night. Even hostels didn’t look that much better if you didn’t want a dorm room. We’re not willing to pay too much when we would only be in the room to put our heads on a pillow. If you look around there are some much cheaper Airbnb places. Some have some nice perks, for example, ours in Miami had a saltwater pool.

Hang on, that’s the first of 11 states we visited. (Although oddly enough we never noticed when we were travelling through two of them!). Guess I will catch you up on the rest of our travels another day.

Photography taken with Lumix TZ80 and GO Pro Hero 4 (fish-eye lens).

More than happy to answer any questions.

 

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