Saturday, December 04, 2010

Gator Watch Florida 2010

This is a land of opportunity I thought. “It seems like a land of opportunity”, I said to no one in particular. My family studiously ignored me and carried on gazing out the windows of the Kia saloon and over the mangroves of the Everglades flashing past on either side. The Tamiami Trail, a ruler straight ribbon of road, lay ahead and behind, and hurricane season clouds lowered overhead, threatening a thunderstorm of biblical proportion.

The previous afternoon, Virgin flight 104, had dropped us into a maelstrom of Miami culture or the airport as we like to call it. Miami Beach was the first stop on our relaxed itinerary and the only thing that stood between us and our destination was “The Drive”. Travellers’ tales of the perils awaiting the hapless Brit who should venture into the wrong parts equipped with rental car and expensive holiday gear had scared us witless, so the unexpected bonus of a GPS unit seemed like a potential life saver. How thoughtful then for all of the Alamo’s and Hertz’s to gather themselves together into a bunker shaped multi-storey and to position the exit ‘neath tons of radiation sapping concrete. “No GPS signal being received” was the unit’s response to pretty much any command. We were on our own - paper was the only technology that could help us now.

Ocean Drive loomed large over the hood - an Art Deco extravaganza of hotels and bars with a view of the Atlantic across a sliver of dunes and expanse of sand. The Park Central was our home for a single night, a character starring in a remake of fifties Havana, with its gloomy corridors of dark panelling and whirling ceiling fans, leading to the pristine white of the poky rooms with their tiny paned windows. We ventured out into the humidity of a Florida evening - which curtailed our search for sustenance to the sidewalk restaurant outside the hotel lobby. The expected hordes of mosquitoes had thankfully decided to take their vacation too and we ate our sea bass unmolested; our table cooled by a giant fan straight off a Hollywood film set.

Nightlife pumped out of every neon lit joint up and down the strip - “Unload your dollars here” they seemed to say, but we were jet worn and retired to our rooms to summon energy for the serious art of chilling out. A breakfast later and the opportunity to swim in southern latitude waters was too good to miss, so we briefly sampled the warmth of the Atlantic before heading off to the quiet of the Gulf coast, via the swampy delights of the interior.

“How can you see, Dad?” asked the kids. “It’s fine”, I lied, as I strained my eyes to glimpse a tail light winking through the deluge unleashed by those Everglade clouds. The young people were on “Gator Watch”, a sport indulged in by the innocent visitor whiling away the monotony of the eighty mile drive to next stop Naples. The score stood at Kids 2, Gators 0 as we rolled into the Freedom Square lot for the opening ceremony of the box that held the key to our next week’s accommodation.

Lely Resort was the answer to the posed question - a vast area of holiday heaven a mere pitcher’s throw from the mall. Bronze Horses stood guard at the entrance off the highway as the road snaked between the development’s three championship golf courses to our waiting cavernous bungaloid villa complete with pool and surrounding anti-bug netting. The par four second, with its raised green and vast sand traps threaded its way past our home from home, providing entertainment as players wrestled their balls from tees to hole. These were either rookies or we were better than we thought we were. When we finally chanced our arm and played it boy how we were wrong, totals ratcheted up and balls went AWOL with alacrity.

The Americans do golf like they do everything else - big: big course, big price - but there’s a deal to be done before my boy and I are aboard our buggy which announces that we are four hundred and ten yards from the hole. The ninety three degree heat means that this is literally no walk in the park, and we are ferried in comfort from slice to hook and eventual sunk putt. We wave to the girls relaxing by the pool before the next hole heads out over heron-patrolled lakes.

Before long, hours have passed and a shimmering apparition appears in the form of the mobile sandwich and drinks lady. We hand over greenbacks and she returns with pleasingly ice cold water - we had already passed up the invitation of a “grill order” offered by our IT laden transport. These guys had thought of everything, but we were glad to keep dehydration at bay until the untimely demise of our round when the afternoon thunderstorm kicked in and kicked us back to our villa.

“Are you guys England?”, interjected the man at the next table. Our travels around Naples Old Town were rewarded by happening upon the Dock at Crayton Cove, a squat riverside restaurant serving up a mean mahi mahi or grouper. The building let in the evening atmosphere as it was open on all sides, but a hefty application of bug repellent kept airborne pests at bay - not so the attentions of our next door diners. No really they couldn’t have been friendlier, it emerged that they were New Yorkers with a Florida pad in the same resort as us. The man’s talent for brevity informed us that he “worked on the 103rd floor” and we knew in an instant what he meant. That he was still here to tell the tale, was due to the fortune of an early contract finish: a fortune doubled by his daughter who also worked in the towers being away on the fateful day.

No visit to South Florida would be complete without the obligatory air boat ride and we were determined not to lose out. Jungle Erv’s was our preferred destination for exploring the shallow waters of the Everglades. A small hut just off the Tamiami Trail was the base of the operation with a resident 12 foot ‘gator skulking around their observation deck. Like most attractions, handing over USD150 bought us 40 minutes in the company of Captain Bill, a sun hardened veteran with a great line in power slides and ‘gator based patter. His superior local knowledge bagged us a quartet of gnarled amphibians - despite their eyes being the only body part breaking the surface. For our viewing pleasure he managed to entice a beast to show us his dental work by snapping at his dangled fingers - a heart in mouth moment I am sure he has tried many times before.

When you think of Florida, you don’t dream of its upland vistas, as it is flatter than Norfolk, but it did have one more piece of landscape jigsaw to slot into place. Back we journeyed in the direction of Miami, but the now chirping Satnav broadcast its instruction to set our controls to hyperbolic for US1, the Overseas Highway and our gateway to the paradise that is “The Keys”.

When the roads turn to bridges and take leaps across the Straits of Florida, you know you are set for the drive of your life as first you are surrounded by open sea, closely followed by small fried eggs of islands all linked by two lane blacktop. We stop for roadside fare at the Tower of Pizza on Key Largo, pulling off-road onto a dusty strip, serving as their parking lot. The decor is straight out of 1973, with pine effect panelling gracing the walls, and Formica tables to match. A scowling waitress informs us that “we can sit anywhere”, and takes our order of slices all round. At least we can see the chef, generally flinging the dough about before topping it and throwing it into the heat of the oven. As expected it is unspectacular when it arrives, but it fills some hungry mouths and gets us quickly on our way.

It’s impossible to get lost in the Keys - with only one way in or out, Mile Markers (MM) are the co-ordinates of choice for Conchs, natives of these parts. At MM61, we find Duck Key and turn off the highway for Hawks Cay resort, the last chapter of our flatland adventure, and a real chance to be cocooned in the tropical island surroundings of a hotel and villa complex. Our home will be a two bedroom end terrace clapboarded house, backing onto water.

The saltwater lagoon pool into which we submerge our bodies in late afternoon heat is man made, but does its cooling job perfectly. Instinct tells you to head for the wooden floating platform tethered in the centre - even so the watery expanse accommodates plenty of swimmers without the clash of limbs in the main pool. We will gravitate there later in our stay if only to sample the decadence of poolside waiters ferrying your food order direct to lounger in stack-able baskets, with accompanying cocktails.

And it is not just homo sapiens that this place caters for: a trio of dolphin have checked in (albeit that they probably had no choice in the matter, and will not be leaving any time soon). They are here to entertain the land-dwelling mammals, spurred on by fish-throwing trainers. Whatever you think of the ethics of keeping species in captivity for our pleasure, they sure were fun to watch with their back flips and tail standing antics. One at least wanted to carry on when the supply of fishy rewards had dried up and was left to its own devices. The solitary “Flipper” was practising a repetitive routine of taking a mouthful of water, throwing it into the air with a casual toss of the head, and catching it open-mouthed moments later.

Other non-human residents were a small collection of fearsome-looking iguana who had chosen to settle around the Beach Grill, no doubt attracted by the promise of discarded chips as their bounty from a table-side vigil. Despite their prehistoric and scary appearance, enhanced by their bright green complexion, they did not pose a threat to the customers - at least while we were there. The daytime soundtrack of Bob Marley, Junior Murvin and other assorted eighties reggae and calypso classics must have lulled them into a similarly soporific state as the rest of us.

At last too much relaxing got the better of us and we jumped into the almost forgotten car to head down to the end of the road. It turns out the end is 61 miles away in Key West and luckily someone had thought to exploit its unique position to provide an array of tourist delights to keep us off the streets. The August heat and humidity did its best to keep us off the streets too, and we were glad of the Old Town Trolley Tours - antique styled buses in distinctive orange and green livery piloted by wisecracking but knowledgeable guides - to ferry us from attraction to attraction.

Hemingway’s House was a tick off the list sort of place - somewhere you feel you ought to visit - even if it is just to marvel at the feline descendants of the author’s notorious six toed pets. We swiftly departed to pick up the next trolley - it’s a jump on, jump off service every twenty minutes - and carried on around the compact island to the red and yellow marker of the Southernmost Point in the USA - a tourist magnet if ever there was one - a bit like the Equator or the Greenwich Meridian.

Completing the circular trolley route brought us back to Mallory Square in plenty of time for magic hour where the tourist drones gather in west facing celebration of the sunset. Drawn too by the jangling of trousered nickels and dimes are the street entertaining folk of far and wide - ready to put on a show or tell a tale designed to liberate coins or greenbacks in your possession. The crowds are good natured and up for a great time - especially those that have downed a few tequilas in the iconic Sloppy Joe’s Bar. We gave this a miss, with kids in tow, and marvelled at those disappearing rays in clear headed sobriety.

If it’s a Caribbean break you are after but you’ve been caught in double dip recessionary times, try the Keys - it’s a great stunt double.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Halloween Drizzle

The Halloween drizzle makes the lights of the shops flare a little brighter and the dark shadows of Oxford’s Gothic urban fabric take on a ghoulish presence. We’re here essentially due to poor planning - our intended destination, Cheltenham, being too far to travel for the lateness of the rising hour even accounting for the end of daylight saving. It matters not - occasionally a demon to get to - today we are in luck and we sweep into the centre without the spectre of jammed up streets.

Market town dwellers like us are easily impressed and the clicking of foreign tongues means we are not alone in our admiration of this learning environment. Oxford has history woven into the landscape and there is a whole infrastructure here to entertain the visitor for the day. Whether it’s eclectic commerce you are after - not too many places can boast a printed music emporium - or the fa├žade of centuries of architectural endeavour, this compact city has an array of haunts to keep you coming back for more.

Young minds must be fed on a varied diet of art, literature and music and the smorgasbord of choice is spirited in through the medium of street advertising. There is a lot happening and posters keep you updated with local events in a way that Iphones haven’t quite learned yet. We meander - deliberate wrong turnings keep us in unfamiliar and unexpected territory. Outside the Pitt-Rivers Museum massive phantom prone trees, roots uselessly clutching smoggy air, occupy concrete plinths. This is “Ghost Forest” - Angela Palmer’s metaphor for deforestation and climate change and there is no more apt day to see it, despite the mud underfoot.

The Bodleian Library’s season stretching Summer exhibition is ending and we swiftly waft around the collection of scientific instruments, examinations of Stonehenge archaeology and diagrams of napkin-folding that sprang forth from the incredibly expansive mind of John Aubrey - a seventeenth century Fellow of the Royal Society of London whose “wit was always working” apparently.

Morning turns to afternoon and thoughts turn to lunch: Oxford takes its cafe society very seriously and a snack is all we need so we bag a table at Patisserie Valerie: a chain yes, but this outlet inhabits an ancient building, which lends it a more authentic air. The two “Croques”: Madame for Monsieur and Italienne for Madame are topped with beautifully browned bechamel and a well dressed side salad cuts through the cloying cheesiness. The teens’ Eggs Benedict sport a rather suspect “glow in the dark” hollandaise, but with runny yolks and smoked salmon: who’s complaining?

We cannot escape without passing the counter where the apparition of tantalising pastries hover screaming at us to take them. We are unable to resist and our boxed pudding flies out of the door with us.

The ethereal being of Oxford is made flesh in very real scenery of the Northern Thames Valley - the rattling of chains diminishes as we make our exit.

Friday, April 02, 2010

The lamb lies down

Just how did we get duped into thinking that Britain's preferred meat at Easter time was spring lamb? Those adorable fluffy bundles of joy gambolling about the fields of the green and pleasant land are not the ones adorning your plate.

By the miracle of advertising we have been conditioned into eating a product that has travelled from the other side of the world. Spring lamb yes - but which hemisphere's spring? Consulting the shelves at Waitrose earlier today it would seem that New Zealand lamb is the order of the day. Tot up the food miles on that one and you'll come up wanting in the eco-warrior stakes.

It's time to rethink our choice of Lenten dish to one that is more seasonal, more local. Your buying power can be a force for good in the saving of the planet. Please use wisely.

Motivational Speaker

Barriers to achievement are mostly in the mind. We are not born with the innate ability to perform every task that we will need to fulfil in life: we must learn, we must grow. Some acquire skills quickly, others hardly at all, after the explosion of childhood. So what stops people from taking those steps on the road to self improvement? It is that organ between your ears: that spongy mass of grey matter, filled to the brim with hopes, fears and desires.

There is no real limit to what someone can do within their lifetime. It all starts with the will to do it. To set your mind to run full tilt at a goal is the most empowering thing you can do. That's the biggest obstacle overcome right there: it is all downhill from now on. But I haven't got the talent, I can hear you whine. The truth is you don't know that for sure and nobody else does either - that's your mental barrier talking - your most vociferous critic. Until you have a go, you won't know. And guess what, by having a go you will have learnt some lessons that you can plough back in to making it better next time.

Even if the light that illuminates that path is temporarily extinguished, you have secreted away some valuable data  that can be whipped out at a moment's notice if the need arises. The more avenues of interest that you explore, the more varied your experiences become and your stock of responses to those new unfamiliar situations grows in its repertoire. Life becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, full of a world of possibilities instead of a linear route from cradle to grave.

The most exciting times in  recent human existence have been when the threshold of entry has been lowered to impossibly low levels. I am thinking here of the birth of punk rock: when seemingly overnight it became OK to start a band and play gigs even if you couldn't (by historical standards that is) actually play an instrument. Who cares that all of the Ramones songs were under three minutes long and consisted of three chords each, thrashed with abandon by leather jacketed, ripped T Shirt, twentysomethings? Only the most uncharitable would fail to agree that these were true greats of the pop world. If they had been held back by the "you can't do that" mantra, we would all be the poorer for it. Did they every sit back and consider whether they had talent? I think not. They just imagined a world in which they became stars and made it happen.

This "can do" attitude came to the fore again in 2006 with the rise of Web 2.0, a renaissance for the Internet age after the boom years of 2000-2001. Anyone with half an idea for a service that could be plied over the wires of the world wide web, launched their own startup company even if their idea had no obvious way of making any money. Again the naysayers were thwarted and the roadblock to achievement had been cleared off the highway to the future. Without this lowering of the hurdles we would never have been graced with the presence of Twitter: a service that not only made no money, but also had no point, according to its legion of detractors. I do not need to remind you of its ubiquity today.

Its time. Time to unshackle your creative power - you don't need talent, you just need to try it. What's the worst that could happen?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Time: it's important to make good use of it: a natural resource that is running out faster than oil, gas or anything found in the ground.

How to make time go further? Cloning is always an option: multiple mes all beavering away on separate simultaneous tasks. Not wasting it would be technologically more sound, as you don't have to wait for anything to be invented yet.

Waiting: now that's a no-no when it comes to utilising the power of the clock: so that makes the first option even more non-viable.

Ever wanted to go back in time? Well it is probably best not to want this, as this is not possible either. The nearest you can get to it is to rewind a video you made, but this doesn't get you very far as in my experience the film plays out the same way when you watch it forward again.

Meditation sounds like a waste of time, but some people swear by it. Come to think of it, if they are doing any swearing then they probably need to spend longer at the meditation itself.

It is said that time drags if you are not having a good time, so that sounds like a method of making more of it. Try and make yourself as depressed as possible whilst undertaking a long and difficult task and you'll complete it in no time.

If any of this sounds like it should make it into the next big business book for hard-pressed managers, don't worry: it won't. I haven't got time to write it. Loop until end.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

If you're looking for a fruit with a bit more drama, you could do worse than to sample the blood orange. This is a citrus with attitude, looking for all the world like Bela Lugosi got there and had a bite before you. The shock when your orange skinned beauty sheds its covering to reveal a heart of pure crimson flesh is very theatrical. On the taste front it's close to its normal interior neighbour, but the look is all pure murderous intent.

If you want to unleash some of the red stuff on unsuspecting friends, you could try juicing it to add a claret coloured twist on familiar cocktails - blood orange screwdriver anyone? Add a coulis of pure plasma to sauce your valentine's eve dessert to get to the heart of your relationship - you can't go far wrong.