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A Prairie Girl in Florida

BJ O'Brien

African Queen © BJ O'Brien

Florida, a favourite winter vacation spot for sun-deprived Canadians, invokes images of retirees by the carload, loud-coloured shirts, golf, amusement parks and miles of sandy beaches. When visiting, many Canadians head either to Disney World, to a port to embark on a Caribbean cruise or to a place to settle into for a few weeks of golf.  Last February, when my husband Chris and I visited the Sunshine State, we were not there for the usual tourist pursuits. We were on a mission: Road Trip, Florida – two weeks, seven cities and not a pair of mouse ears in sight. For our first trip to this state we wanted to explore parts that many Canadians never see.

We arrived in palmy Florida just as the sun was setting. We had timed it well for northeast USA was being threatened by an approaching whopper of a snowstorm, with all the resulting chaos to flight schedules. It was hard (well, a little bit) over the next few days to reconcile the news of snow-shrouded cities with the palm trees and warm temperatures that surrounded us. First stop, Miami. The airport has a great electric train (MIA Mover) that whisks passengers to the car rental site. We ended up renting an economy car, deciding to forego the cost of a convertible in order to put the money to other uses.

As the Florida Turnpike and other highways are laden with tollbooths, some of which won't take cash or credit cards, we selected the car rental option of an electronic Paypass ($42/week). Then, thanks to our trusty GPS (that finally realized we weren't in Alberta anymore), we set off for Miami Beach, located beyond the first of many causeways we would cross. Miami – a place that hosts nationally renowned food and boat shows, a community with a large Hispanic presence and a city where the rich and richer claim Fisher Island for their exclusive use. In short, it's a place where anything goes.

Miami has many distinct neighbourhoods, but we decided to focus our stay in Miami Beach. Doesn't that name just conjure up images of a sockless Don Johnson chasing after criminals among the pastel and pricey art deco hotels?  Miami Beach is a great place to start a vacation when you still have money in your wallet – because the bills will soon be flying out at a fantastic rate. Decent art deco hotels are over $300/night, with valet parking running about $27/day. The bars, and even the greasy-spoon breakfast places displaying plastic food for non-English speaking tourists, add an automatic 18% gratuity to your bill. 

The Victura © BJ O'Brien

The Florida fashionistas are seen alongside the funky, grubby, casually- dressed – and sockless – tourists sporting flip-flops. This is the South Beach Scene (or So Be scene because everything gets shortened in Miami).  If you want beach and night action it's all within walking distance.  So Be, once a popular vacation spot in the '40s and '50s, by the late 1960s had fallen into disrepute. However, in the 1970s an enterprising woman named Barbara Baer Capitman founded the Miami Design Preservation League. Along with others, she relentlessly worked on an inventory of buildings in the area. By 1979, The Miami Beach Architectural Historic District (Art Deco District) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 1980s brought in the TV show Miami Vice; in 1992 Gianni Versace, the fashion designer, bought a mansion here and the area was once again the place to be seen. There were two touristy things we did which developed our appreciation of Miami. The first was a walking tour that started at the beachside Art Deco Welcome Center (Price per adult: $20). It runs daily from 10:30 a.m., but we chose the Thursday night evening tour. For 90 minutes, as dusk fell and the neon lights came out to play, we heard all the gossip and history about this part of town. Our knowledgeable guide led us through several hotels, pointing out various bits of architecture and the numerous changes the Art Deco style had experienced through the years. (White was the original choice of colour and it was only in the 1980s when the buildings went as pastel as Don Johnson's jackets.) Our tour ended in front of the Versace mansion where in 1997 Versace was gunned down on his front doorstep.

Along the ocean strip was the bus stop for the Hop-On Hop-Off Double Decker bus tour. For about $40/adult this was a wonderful way to see Miami without worrying about parking the car. The bus has two major intersecting loops – the Miami Beach Loop which covers the Beaches, Jungle Island and downtown Miami, and the Miami Loop which winds through Coral Gables, past the elegant Biltmore Hotel, and into Little Havana where you can watch the men play dominos.

Food and drink are also So Be adventures. As the sun sets, the Clevelander Bar on Ocean Drive (the highest grossing bar in Florida) offers karaoke and beer for the younger crowd. We chose instead to take a stroll down to Espanola Way, where bright coloured lights frame the street of restaurants where tourists can sample Cuban, Mexican, Brazilian or Italian cuisine. We found the street scene here more impressive than the food. If you find yourself still hungry in the middle of the night, Jerry's Famous Deli is open 24/7 for your corn-beef dining pleasure.

After a few days in Miami Beach, the open road called and we headed north along the I-95. After an hour of forgettable scenery, we passed by Fort Lauderdale – of cruise ships and Spring Break fame – but carried on to swanky Palm Beach where the Bentleys and Ferraris parked by the golf courses told the tales of local wealth. For a Kennedy buff like me the attraction in Palm Beach was the address 1095 North Ocean Boulevard, once known as the White House South and the place where John Kennedy stayed just before going to Dallas on that last fateful trip. There is little to see from the road: just a high wall, overhanging tree branches, a few parked cars and the gatehouse where Rose Kennedy's chauffeur used to sleep. After Rose's death and a family crime scandal the place was sold in 1995 to John K. Castle, who apparently has restored the residence to former Kennedy appearance. (I can't really say because I didn't knock on the door.)

Cape Canaveral © BJ O'Brien

One hundred and fifty miles north of Palm Beach is the Cape, a big tourist draw briefly known as Cape Kennedy, now called Cape Canaveral. Many tourists choose to stay in Orlando and drive the hour east to Cape Canaveral, but for us who grew up watching the 1960s space launches, there was only one place to stay – Cocoa Beach. For me this place still conjures up visions of astronauts running down the beach and scenes from the TV show I Dream of Jeannie. We found a Holiday Inn where a desk clerk with a friendly smile had the desire to upgrade our room to a rustic suite overlooking the ocean. Cocoa Beach is a little scruffy, but it's filled with lots of friendly people. We were right by The Pier where the astronauts probably went to swill a few beers after those exhausting runs down miles of endless strand. It was in a restaurant at the end of The Pier that we sampled the delights of fresh fish and even tried some rather chewy alligator. (It tastes a bit like chicken.)

There is really only one reason to come to the Cape and that is to spend the day at the Kennedy Space Center. When visiting, you can choose your own tour package, running from the basic tour ($50/adult) to the full deal that includes a meal with an astronaut and a visit to the Vehicle Assembly Building ($80/adult). Immediately upon entry is the impressive Rocket Garden where everything from Mercury Project space launch vehicles to space shuttles is displayed. In the theatre there are daily events, including talks from astronauts. We decided to splurge and have lunch with astronaut Bruce Melnick, who flew on two space shuttle missions. The food was decent (not dehydrated), his talk about meals in space was interesting, and we now have a photo taken with him on our mantelpiece. 

After lunch, it was off on the bus, heading past ditches where gators lay sunning themselves, to visit the monstrous Apollo/Saturn V Center.  This portion of the tour took us from a mock up of a launch control room to the big hall where Saturn rockets and moon vehicles are displayed. Although we missed seeing Space Shuttle Atlantis (this exhibit opened after we visited), we could still hike through the gift shop that was almost as extensive as some of the launch assembly buildings.

More Florida vistas beckoned us. We then motored 157 miles across the state, which only took a few hours. We bypassed the theme parks of Orlando, veered past Tampa with its hockey arena and road construction, and headed across a western causeway to the nearby gem of a city, St. Petersburg. The city was founded in the 1880s when a Russian immigrant brought the terminus of a railroad there. A travel magazine had alerted me to the historic and reasonably priced B & Bs found along the revitalized downtown waterfront. Once settled in, we took the opportunity to visit the restored Vinoy Hotel and to sit in rocking chairs on the porch while sipping on fruity Floridian wine. When presented with the bill, however, we realized how they had funded the magnificent but expensive hotel renovations. 

Just blocks away from our B & B, we discovered the only museum outside of Madrid devoted to the works of Salvador Dali. The museum's architecture features a helix-styled staircase and the outdoor grounds are adorned with a bench inspired by Dali's melting clock. The collection features over 200 paintings covering Dali's many phases and includes the fabulous Lincoln in Dalivision. Two other museums are clustered around the Dali Museum – the Museum of Fine Arts and the St. Petersburg Museum of History. When you tire of the museum trek, there are many restaurants, bars with outdoor perches, and high-end shops to explore along the waterfront.   

Heading south from St. Petersburg, we arrived at Fort Myers, a mix of retro-touristy sights strung between expensive housing estates built along exclusive golf courses. Rain ruined Chris's golf plans, but the Miramar Factory Outlet Mall with stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks provided a diversion (and emptied our wallet). The other favourite pastime of the natives (or long term imports) here was complaining about how cold it was. Heck, for us Albertans 61 degrees was still weather for shirtsleeves and shorts!

The road continued to beckon us, and we began a very interesting drive across the southern part of Florida through the scrubby-treed Everglades, home of the Swamp People of reality TV fame. We forewent the airboat rides but stopped at a nature centre to see the freshwater-loving alligators sunning themselves. A few of those gators kept glaring at us, as if knowing we had sampled some of their kin. This is also a favourite spot for camping, but just watch out for the gators!

Leaving the Everglades we bypassed Miami and angled south through Florida City. Here the landscape is dotted with miles of greenhouses growing tropical plants and a wide assortment of fruits and vegetables. Down Highway One is the start of the road to the Florida Keys, where miles of fences keep crocodiles from wandering onto the asphalt. It had been a longer drive that day, so we decided to stop that night in Key Largo, thirty miles south of Florida City. It is very hard to find a place in Key Largo for just one night, especially during long weekends or the high season. However, we managed to find an interesting Humphrey Bogart-themed hotel right next to the marina where the original African Queen is moored. The owners are looking for donations to fix the old boat up so people can cruise “just like Bogie and Bacall” (although Hepburn was Bogie's companion in the movie). As we relaxed around the pool, we observed a group of middle-aged bearded men. Every July, an Ernest Hemingway look-a-like contest is held in Key West. Several hundred men compete for this hairy honor. We now met a contingent of Hemingway replicas, including several previous winners, who were enjoying a winter gathering of the group.

Marguaritaville © BJ O'Brien

It is an impressive drive from Key Largo to Key West over myriad bridges that that hop from island to island along this 100-mile route. The drive down the Keys took about two hours; it also claimed three of our cat lives when a geriatric driver suddenly pulled out in front of us and invited us into his back seat. Thank goodness the brakes on our rental car worked very, very well. It is understandable how drivers can get distracted, for this ocean vista and its amazing sea-green hues is a nirvana for snorkelers, scuba divers and fishermen. The most impressive sight, though, is the Seven Mile Bridge, the longest of the 40 bridges we crossed.

Key West is the southernmost point of the continental USA and only 94 miles from Cuba. We decided to stay in the more reasonably priced part of Key West (by the airport), but most crowds flock to the touristy part of town and historic Duval Street. Parking is a challenge when the streets become choked with cruise ship passengers, but this definitely is the area to eat in. Along Whitehead Street, which runs parallel with Duval, is the Hemingway Home and Museum. Here the author lived with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, from 1931 to1939. The home is still privately owned, so the crowds of tourists that pay $13 for an entrance fee help keep the place open.

During the 30-minute tour, the tales of the “last cent” swimming pool and six- toed cats (lounging everywhere) are told. Hemingway House now tends to the needs of 45 to 50 of the breed, which Hemingway loved (the breed has a 50% chance of having extra toes). And for a final treat, we stopped in at Margaritaville, the bar and store on Duval Street named after the song Jimmy Buffet wrote in Key West when he was down on his luck. Our road trip ended with a drive back to Miami for a final glass of OJ and a plunge in the pool. Back home, I can now raise a shot glass and toast our not-so-typical Florida road trip, knowing that we definitely hadn't wasted our time in Margaritaville. 





BJ O'Brien has been writing for many years but recently found “Freedom 55” after years working in the healthcare field. Her current writing activities involve membership in the Edmonton Writers' Group and the Writers Guild Of Alberta. She also volunteers at Edmonton's Lit Festival. She has had articles published in Gilbert's Royal Digest, Synchronicity Magazine and Today's Parent.