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.

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