|Travelogue: Florida 1999||
Flew from Atlanta to Miami, then drove from Miami to Hollywood, Florida to stay at the home of my old friend Bob Gross. I had a really unpleasant time with the people at National Car Rental. I asked a couple simple questions, and they answered me with the snottiest attitudes. When I got the car, the windows were filthy inside and out, and I had another unpleasant interaction with the cleaning folks. Oh well. I donít like renting from National, but for some reason their rate was a full $100 less than the other rental agencies, and they gave me a large car for the same price as an intermediate.
Got up late, then went to the Deli Den in Hollywood for breakfast. Had excellent lox, and insanely slow service. An hour and a half to get a bagel with lox and one cup of coffee? I couldnít attract my waitress's attention to get a second cup. Yikes!
My fiend Bob had drawn me a map to the Deli Den and then indicated the direction to the beach. I misinterpreted his drawing and just started heading north on I95. After a while I realized that I should probably get off and just start heading to the coast. I saw a sign for Pompano, so I got off there. Pompano Beach is OK, but most of the people there were very old except for the occasional family. I decided I wanted to see more of the "scene" so I headed down to Ft. Lauderdale beach where things were much more happening. After sitting on the beach reading for a while, I headed up to the strip and went to the Elbo Room for a drink. Wandered up and down the main drag watching people go by. Eventually gave that up and headed back to Bob and Cindy's to join them for dinner.
This morning I decided that I would try and actually find the beach in Hollywood. It wasnít hard. Just go to A1A and youíre there. The Hollywood beach is really weird. It is "Little Quebec" here. I have no idea why, but it seems that 90% of the people that come here are Quebecois. Everyone is speaking Canadian French, the restaurants have French names and menus, the store owners all speak with heavy French accents. This is really an odd thing. Also, the beach here just isn't as interesting as Ft. Lauderdale, so I decided to head back there. Before I left I had a really bad club sandwich at one of the undifferentiated restaurants along the "Broadwalk", then was on my way.
Ft. Lauderdale beach was a replay of yesterday, and it was nice to lay on the sand, read, and watch people go by.
Spent this afternoon at South Beach in Miami Beach, wandering around the area, and looking at the famous deco buildings. To be honest, the buildings were a bit disappointing. I had heard and read about these great restored Art Deco hotels, but they really weren't that inspiring. The people watching was good though, especially on the beach. Had a snack at the Clevelander, an old and well known watering hole. There was some kind of a camera crew that looked like they were trying to make yet another spring break documentary. Later that evening had dinner at a little place called Xanadu. It was good, but unexceptional. When evening finally fell I wandered around from bar to bar, but I kind of lost my enthusiasm. The scene there really is a scene, but it's interesting for only so long.
Eventually I was about to give up, but for some reason I wandered into the bar in one of the hotels on the main drag. There were about 10 people in there. I sat down and ordered a drink. In pretty short order a crazy (and rather pissed) Brit named Simon Glanville came over and started chatting. Pretty soon his brother Andrew joined in, and then they introduced me to their friend Massimo, who is Italian but has lived in London for years. We talked and drank and generally had a bang-up time, and eventually they made me an honorary Glanville. Well, it seems that over the course of an evening of drinking these guys had become friends with everyone, especially the bar tender. So, when it came time to leave, the bartender kindly pointed us to a party at the Astor hotel, about 15 blocks away. We piled into a couple of cabs and off we all went.
The party was really fun. It was crowded, but not too packed, energetic, but not too loud. There were some interesting people there and I talked with all kinds of folks. It was really great and I had a great time. There was also a very chic nightclub across the street that the Brits all wanted to go to. It was the kind of place that you couldnít get into unless the doorman decided that you were 'OK'. Fortunately for them, the doorman was from Genoa, which is where Massimo came from. Unfortunately for me, I lost them before they went over there, and when I went to follow there was no way I was getting in. It was after 2am at that point anyway, so rather than wait like a yutz in front of this oh-so-chic club, I headed home.
Went with Bob and Cindy to the Ft. Lauderdale Riverwalk fair. A rather uninspired fair. Later that afternoon I helped Cindy get Win95 installed on her laptop. Had dinner with my old friends Jon and Sara Casher at Charlie's Crab in Ft. Lauderdale. It was quite good. I had the garlic crusted Sea Bass, and Martha's Vineyard salad. Nice.
Went to check out the Ft. Lauderdale Saturday night scene to see how it compares to Miami Beach. No contest. Ft. Lauderdale was an amateur loser's convention in comparison. I couldnít tell you the names of all the clubs I went into, but it was pretty poor. Had one funny adventure. I was wearing a really loud Hawaiian print shirt that I had bought in Phuket. At the door of one club the doorman told me the price was $10 unless I could show a Ft. Lauderdale drivers license, University of Miami student ID card, or other local ID, in which case it was only $5. I said, "Well, I donít have any of those but I am wearing a really loud shirt" (pointing dramatically at my chest.) He said "Yeah, you are! I'd say that deserves getting in for 5 bucks."
Drove out the Tamiami trail to the Everglades. This was a great thing. Took an obligatory airboat ride at Gator Park, which was a hell of a lot of fun and educational. Granted, they feed the animals to make them "tame", which is a bad thing, but it was still kinda fun. I was expecting it to be totally stupid, and was very pleasantly surprised. There were lots of alligators and birds and the guide did a good job. In the middle of the trip I got to get out of the boat and stand in the Everglades. The Everglades is actually a river. It turns out that it flows; it flows very slowly, but it does flow. It is the only river of its kind in the world. Note: Airboat rides are not allowed within the Everglades National Park itself, because they apparently harm the environment.
Drove to "Shark Alley", one of the park entrances. The bird watching was awesome. There were also turtles, alligators, and a profusion of fish. It was a beautiful evening with wonderful air. It is great to be in the Everglades at Sunset, because the birds and other animals are coming home to roost, or heading out to hunt. Definitely recommended. Finally I left Shark Alley and had a great sunset drive to Everglades City.
Stayed at a nice little boutique hotel called On the Banks of the Everglades Hotel. The hotel used to be a bank, and the proprietors have fun spreading around fake money and playing up the whole "bank" pun. It was a pleasant place to stay and a fair value. Recommended. Ate dinner across the street at a place called the Rod and Gun Club Restaurant. Started with the frogs legs appetizer, and then moved on to grouper stuffed with crab meat. The food was good but not great, and the service was terrible. Had to go into the kitchen twice to find my waitress to get service. At least you donít have to tip in Florida. They expect you to tip, but the service is so bad everywhere that no one deserves one.
Breakfast at the hotel, included. Beautiful day - in Northern climates this would be considered a "lazy days of summer" kinda day. Drove down to Chokoloskee Island. Watched a dolphin slowly meandering in Chokoloskee bay. Ate Stone Crab cakes at "J.T.'s". It was OK. Drove back along the Tamiami trail to the town of Flamingo, on the west coast of the Everglades. Along the way stopped at the excellent Fruit and Spice Park. I love that kinda thing. Ate a great Sapodilla. Checked in at the lodge at Flamingo - a really expensive cheap motel. Like they say, location, location, location. If you want to stay in the south west Everglades, and you donít have a tent or an RV, then you are staying at the lodge at Flamingo, so they can charge whatever they want. This place really is cheap though - the curtains are tattered, the chairs make a disturbing "crunch" when you sit on them, and the place is just generally run down. I hope that at least some of the money is going to the park service, 'cause it sure isn't going to maintain this place.
Went to Eco Lake to watch the birds at sunset. There were huge numbers of different kinds of egrets, ibis and herons. Fantastic. And lovely little finches of gray and yellow flitting among the sawgrass and morning glories. Alligators in the mud. Swarms of mosquitoes, tons of repellent required. It was really amazing, and I stayed until the sun set.
Had dinner at the café. Mmmm, a chili dog, then a Snickers bar for desert. It was actually good, though I'm not sure the 2am heartburn was worth it.
Spent over 1/2 hour in my room hunting the mosquitoes. Killed 50 or 60 of them before deciding it might be safe to go to bed. Re-covered myself with repellent anyway. I found a really good technique for killing them. My hands were getting raw from slapping, so I took one of the hotel's face towels and used that to smoosh the mosquitoes into the walls, mirrors, ceilings, etc. The towel worked really well because it conforms better to the surface your mashing the mosquito into than a hand does. I wonder what the cleaning people thought the next day.
Travellers Tip: When you check in, check all the screens to make sure they completely cover the windows. When you leave the room in the evening make sure all lights are turned out so there is nothing to attract the mosquitoes.
Had a tasty cellophane wrapped honey bun and Styrofoam cup of coffee from the Marina Store for breakfast. Chocked full of 12 essential artificial flavors and preservatives. Took the 10:30am backwater tour on a pontoon boat called "The Pelican". It was actually really great! The extremely gay tour guide did and interesting presentation on the flora and fauna of this part of the Everglades. The sun was shining, it was warm but not too hot. There were two (endangered) American Crocodiles sunning themselves on the boat ramp. This is the only place in the world where both Alligators and Crocodiles can be found in the same place. We also got to see a beautiful Osprey flying along with a fish in its claws, and a water snake crossed the channel right in front of our boat.
Apparently there were Manatees in the water (which I really wanted to see!) Unfortunately, the water is a murky brown, so if you see a Manatee here, you really only see the tip of its snout sticking up out of the water. Apparently you really have to know what you are looking for to see them at all. So, I could have been looking right at it and missed it completely. The Mangrove trees have tannic acid in their roots and leaves, which is what makes the water so brown. Also, they shed their leaves continuously throughout the year, and the non-stop decomposition of this leaf matter makes the water both fertile and opaque. It was neat learning about the different kinds of Mangrove that grow here (Red Mangroves, Black Mangroves and White Mangroves) and the many other species of plants that live in and among them.
As an extra special bonus there were three bottle nosed dolphins in the channel which rode our bow wave for a good fifteen minutes until we turned around in a bay. It was really great, and I got some of my best photos ever of dolphins. It's funny though, I'm almost getting blasé about dolphins! I never imagined I would get to the point that I had seen them often enough that they would fail to be the highlight of a trip.
Got back, had a burger at the restaurant, and then headed out to West Lake to walk on the Mangrove Boardwalk. It was pleasant and peaceful, and not nearly as mosquito ridden as I had expected. There are 43 varieties of mosquitoes that inhabit the Everglades, with 18 that will bite man. I'm pretty sure I have been bitten by at least 16 of those varieties at this point. I reckon the other two will have found me by the time I leave.
Spent a while just sitting and watching the water in the bay lap against the shore where the occasional heron was feeding. If it weren't for the mosquitoes, I think I could let a lot of idle days just glide by here.
More on the mosquitoes. Yes, I've said a lot about them, but they are such a significant part of any Everglades vacation. I just got bitten on the upper lip. How the hell did that happen??? I'm used to having a fighting chance with the mossies. My hometown mosquitoes will land, give you a second to swat at them, and then bite. Here they seem to go in proboscis first. Also, the bites seem to swell up to impressive sizes. Two days and over a dozen bites. Now it's Miller Time. Here's an interesting factoid: apparently humans make up only 1% of the food of the mosquitoes. How do they know that? Beats me!
Dinner again at the café. Decided to have the pizza with everything this time. The pizzas take a long time to prepare, so I was able to give the mosquitoes inside the café a good go at me. Remember, it is better to give than to receive. The pizza wasnít bad, but I'm tempted to rename this café "Café Heartburn."
Got up this morning and packed up, then had my traditional honey-bun and coffee breakfast. I had reserved a canoe for this morning at 9-Mile Pond, so I covered myself from head to toe with suntan lotion and mosquito repellent and headed over to the pond.
Unfortunately, they do not have one man canoes available. Getting my two man canoe off the rack and over to the pond alone was something of a trick, but I managed it. I then headed off on the 5-mile canoe trip (with an optional short cut that cuts off 1.5 miles.) It turned out that the first 1/10-mile was the hardest. Getting across the first small pond and into the mangrove was a killer. There was a strong headwind and current, and I kept on getting blown off course and grounded on the mud flats at the sides. This was very unnerving, because there were dozens of alligators hanging out at the edges of the ponds. They are not known to attack full-grown humans, nor canoes, and are more likely to run than to fight, but nonetheless I didnít look forward to testing this theory.
More than once the wind actually turned me around 180 degrees, and I really had to paddle like hell to get across the pond. Finally I made it to the mangroves, and the next couple of miles were really neat. I learned a lot about piloting a two-man canoe alone, and every once in a while a big gust of wind would drive me into a mangrove, spin me around, or just force me to wait for a calm spot before continuing.
By the time I got to the short-cut cut-off, I was definitely ready to head back. I was getting tired from fighting the wind and navigating the tight channels alone. Also, the ranger had warned me that if I did the full loop, there was a long section where the water level was very low. Finally, it was nearing high noon, and there was no shade to rest in from my labors. I took the cut-off and then got back onto the main return trail. Almost immediately I was into some seriously low water. I'm talking 3 to 4 inches of depth. The next mile was sheer torture. Though less than a hand's depth, the water had a strong current (the wrong way, of course). The trail lead through wide open sawgrass, with no shade, and nothing to block the wind which was blowing against me. With the water so low, I was basically poling with my paddle, not rowing, and pushing the canoe across the floor of the channel, not through the water. Several times the wind blew me sideways into the sawgrass, and I then had to fight my way back into the trail. By the time I made it through I was genuinely worn out, over heated, and bumming.
Eventually I completed the loop and made it back to the shore. At one point I'm fairly sure an alligator was following me, but that might just have been my imagination. When I got back on shore there was no way I was going to be able to get the canoe back across the street and onto the rack. Fortunately there were several people on the shore, and I got some help with it. I collapsed in the grass and ate my lunch, which I had been unable to eat in the canoe because every time I stopped the wind or the current would push me around.
I must say that this is definitely a great thing to do. Canoeing the Everglades is the way to truly experience the mangroves, sawgrass, and wildlife. However, unless you are a serious canoer, or you can get a one-man canoe, do not attempt this alone. I learned a ton about handing a canoe, but I didnít get a chance to enjoy the flora and fauna nearly as much as I would have liked because I had to be constantly maneuvering the canoe. Also, try to avoid canoeing at high noon, and make sure you bring plenty of water (which I did do.)
After returning my paddle, and getting some more lunch, I headed back out of the Everglades. Along the way I stopped at Pa-hay-okee lookout. This is a great spot. Just off the main road a brief boardwalk takes you to a terrific lookout spot from which you can survey the "river of grass", as well as Bald Cypress trees and a variety of birds. The downside to Pa-hay-okee is that it is so easy to get to that it is very crowded. It is difficult to have a peaceful experience bird watching when there are so many people coming through. The wildlife seems amazing undisturbed by the commotion, but the more remote areas definitely offer a better experience.
Just before exiting the park I stopped at the Royal Palm Visitor Center. This place is amazing! The alligators, turtles and birds exist here in such profusion that it is truly unbelievable. Countless alligators laze about in the pond just behind the visitor center. The water is teeming with fish that literally jump out of the water. One of the fish that live here actually slap the surface of the water with their tails as a signaling mechanism. A large collection of cormorants were fishing these rich waters; it was really exciting getting a chance to watch these great birds swim down and come up with a fish, then maneuver the fish around and swallow it down. Often the fish looked much to big to fit in the bird's stomach, let alone mouth, but they always managed to get them down. All this was happening within 10 feet of me and just 100 feet from the parking lot!
I also finally got a chance to see the Roseate Spoonbill, and some amazingly huge (and truly ugly) storks. In addition there were the usual collection of blue herons, snowy egrets, ibis, etc., etc. There were several species of turtles, including soft shelled turtles that were easily 2 feet in diameter. It was marvelous. At the end of the walkway there was an amazing tableau. Five or six alligators, turtles, and a profusion of birds all wading around in one small pond. At one point one of the alligators may a lunge at an ibis though there was no blood (this time.)
Truly the Everglades is a national treasure and must be preserved. It must also be visited to be appreciated. Bring lots of sun tan lotion and buckets of mosquito repellent and go.
Just before sunset I made it to Key Largo, and got checked into the Westin Beach Resort.
The Westin Beach Resort in Key Largo is an outstanding example of a resort hotel. The kidney shaped pools with fake waterfalls flowing over fake rock grottos. The man made beach where you can rent sailboats and jet skis. The separate pools for adults and families. This is the kind of perfect place for families to go where the parents can rest assured that their 8 year old kids will find plenty of other nice kids to play with, while they go off and finally get some peace. This is exactly the kind of place that I usually avoid like the plague. But I have to say, Westin has done a fantastic job here. It's peaceful, clean, safe, and efficient. The room is large and well laid out, the bed is comfortable, and the bartender will make any kind of daiquiri you want while chatting jovially on a million subjects. After yesterday's strenuous workout, a day of just lying by the fake pool reading and writing is really nice. I also took advantage of my feelings of lazy ennui to do some research into hotels for my upcoming trips to Spain and France.
Wandered over to the hotel café for breakfast, but after waiting to be seated for 2 minutes, I realized that this was going to take a long time, be overpriced, and probably not very good. I got in my car and drove just about a mile south on US1 and found Harriett's restaurant. A classic breakfast place, and damn if it wasnít great. Good coffee, great service, great eggs. Yee ha.
One of my reasons for coming to the Keys was to do some scuba diving. However, I spent some time reading reviews onUndercurrents (the Consumer Reports of the scuba diving world), and it really doesnít sound very good here. Also, I gotta say, I just donít feel like it. God knows why, maybe tomorrow I'll be all fired up, but right now I just can't get excited.
Went out in the evening to watch the sun set from the pier behind the hotel. It was really sublime and beautiful.
Went for dinner at "The Fish House", 102401 Overseas Highway. Started with the Conch Chowder, then the Pan-Sautéed Yellowtail Snapper, and finally the home made Key Lime Pie. It was a tour de force! World class. Every mouthful was stunning. The place looks like a nothing seaside restaurant with lots of old fish memorabilia hanging on the walls and whimsical Christmas lights festooning the old nets on the ceilings. The food was unbelievable. Probably the best fish I have ever had. Take an incredibly fresh piece of fish, prepare it simply but perfectly, and serve. I'm still reeling. Even the coffee was good. And the service was great. Wow.
I had another breakfast at Harriett's. By the way, my Fodor's does list Harriett's, but I swear I found it on my own by accident. Really. Cross my heart. By the way, if you go to Harriett's, bring a sweater because the place is really cold. I donít know why but they air-condition the heck out of the place.
Drove to Key West, which turned out to be a much less interesting drive than I expected. At one point I decided to stop at Windley Key Fossil Reef State Geologic Site to check out the fossilized coral. There is a really nice hardwood hammock there, which is pretty cool. One thing I particularly liked was that the hammock was full of little anole lizards. They were everywhere. However, the fossilized coral wasnít all that interesting.
Finally made it to Key West and checked into a B&B named the Eaton Lodge. This place was OK, but its main feature was location - just a block off the main drag on Duval. This is the kind of B&B where they started with a nice old Victorian, then slapped on a bunch of modern buildings onto the back. My room was basically a motel masquerading as a B&B. Also, there was no parking provided, which in that neighborhood was a pain in the ass. The Eaton Lodge did have a really nice little courtyard area with several large parrots in cages. Be careful though because the parrots do bite, as I learned first hand, ouch!
Walked down to the pier at the end of Duval Street to watch the sun set. It was truly beautiful, thought I donít think the crowded pier was the ideal place to view it from. Afterwards, I walked the main drag for a while, then went for dinner at a place called Bagatelle. I had the shrimp and lobster puff pastry appetizer and a Jamaican snapper dish. I would have to say it was pretty disappointing. On the menu, everything sounded amazing, but the execution just didnít cut it. The shrimp and lobster was nicely done with a cheesy creamy texture in a good puff pastry. However, the whole thing was then floated in a sweet tomato sauce that clashed violently with the puff pastry filling. The snapper main course was buried under a too sweet fruit preparation of berries and bananas, which completely overwhelmed the fish. Also on the plate were asparagus, with a brown sauce on them. I expected the sauce to be a balsamic vinaigrette, but found that it too was some kind of a sweet sauce. Here I was expecting a refreshing contrast to the excessive sweetness of the fish's sauce, but instead was met with a boring sameness. The service was good, but I have to say that Bagatelle is not recommended. The food was disappointing, and the prices were plenty high.
After dinner I wandered around the bars and clubs of Duval Street. Yawn. Basically the same scene as Miami Beach and Ft. Lauderdale all over again. Duval Street is really odd. I was expecting something classy, but it's not. I was talking to a British couple that were staying at my B&B. Their comment was that the whole place is very "down market", and I have to agree. That sums it up well.
One thing that really defines Duval Street is that there are all these really nice Victorian houses on the street, and theyíve been converted into places like Hooters, Hard Rock Café, and Planet Hollywood. Yug.
Got up this morning and got checked out, then walked around some of the older parts of town. The marina area and the older less-touristy parts of town are really pretty nice. It if weren't for the silly "trains" full of sight-seers cruising up and down the streets, it would be charming.
Had lunch at a really terrific place called Blue Heaven. This place is cool, man. There are chickens running around, and a guy was doing a great job playing old Russian songs on accordion and guitar. The sun was shining, the Jerk-chicken sandwich was good, and I started to feel a lot better about Key West.
Drove back to Ft. Lauderdale, which actually took a lot longer than I had expected. I drove over to Los Olas street to try to find some chic place for dinner, but instead found that the whole area was jammed with people. Nowhere to park, all the restaurants had huge lines, etc. So, I went off and found a random Japanese restaurant for mediocre sushi. For the coup de grace I went off for more stupid time wasting on the Ft. Lauderdale strip.
Went for breakfast at La Bonne Crepe Restaurant and Terrace in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. Sat at a nice sidewalk table, and the place was really pleasant. However, the crepes were disappointing. I ordered the blueberry crepes. The crepes themselves were well made, but the blueberries inside were stone cold (probably from frozen), and instantly cooled off the crepes. The result was basically a failure. I ordered a side order of the saddest looking bacon I've ever seen. Hi ho. Clearly people donít come to Florida for the food.
Not much to report today. Took care of a lot of travel plans for the upcoming legs of my trip. In the afternoon I went to the Hugh Taylor Birch State Recreation area. This seems to be a great place for rollerblading or bicycling. As a place to just wander, it was just OK. I had intended to go to the Bonnet House, but screwed up.
That evening I went to dinner at Himmarshee Bar & Grill on 2nd Ave. Another great sounding menu that didnít quite work out. The description of the squash flower soup was so mouth watering that I couldnít resist. However it ended up being so salty that it really wasnít very good. For my entrée I had the marinated lamb which was just good. The service, however, was excellent.
I had a phenomenal hot dog at Hot Dog Heaven on Sunrise Ave in Ft. Lauderdale. [Epilogue: this hot dog was so damned good, I'm still thinking about it days later!]
Went drift fishing. No one caught anything except the boat's captain who caught a nice looking snapper, and the first mate who caught an undersized grouper. The rest of us poor saps couldnít catch a damn thing.
For dinner I picked up take out from Try My Thai. Overall it was very good, but they still donít do a good Tom Kah Gai.
Not much to report for today. Went downtown and had lunch with my friend Bob, then went to the riverwalk to take a boat up the intercoastal. Unfortunately, there were really high winds and the boat cancelled. I walked over to the Ft. Lauderdale main library, which "United Airlines Three Perfect Days in Ft. Lauderdale" said was a great building. I'm sure itís a great library, but as a piece of architecture, it is unmemorable.
Afterwards, I sat outside the library in the dappled light under the trees and read for a while. A pleasant, but uneventful day.
Fly to Toronto. Note: The Toronto and Boston trips are both for visiting friends and family, so there are no travelogues. The next travelogue is Madrid, Spain.
For a sun and fun vacation, South Florida seems like a reasonable place to go. It is certainly easier than getting to the Caribbean. However, it isn't a very cultured place, there isn't much to do besides the beachy kinda thing, and the food isn't very good.
On the other hand, the Everglades are a spectacular natural treasure that I will definitely return to, the Fish House in Key Largo is amazing, and, surprisingly, Hot Dog Heaven is tremendous.
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