The 5 hour red-eye flight from Seattle to Orlando is almost worth it for the magnificent sunrise: at about 6:30ET (3:30 our time) it started – carmine below saffron below deep blue below black... The display lasted an hour, until we landed at 7:30am.
Tuesday, April 4
The second surprise was not a nice one: the airport car rental was anything but free-with-the-package – it was going to be about $500 Cdn for insurance. We checked with Visa Gold to see if they cover rental car insurance – they don’t. (We later bumped into a couple in the same boat whose insurance was covered by their more expensive $25/mo. credit card.)
We had a great brunch with Kelly, who Jim has worked with since 1999, and her husband Tom, in Cocoa, east of Orlando. They have an air conditioned house that felt just kind of normal after the first humid out-of-car experience. Kelly showed us her office, tucked into a corner near a drafting table where Tom does the most amazing drawings… mirror image of Jim’s office with my sculpture stuff in it!
It was a 3 hour drive to Ft. Lauderdale on highway 95, with only landfill sites to see. The Ramada Plaza hotel was another not-great surprise – we were in a small plain room that was quite noisy, overlooking the hot tub and pool. We left and went downtown. Couldn’t find the Riverwalk mentioned in the tourist book – ended up in a seedy, dangerous looking area that we quickly left, and just as quickly found ourselves in a very upscale shopping district that led to the beach area from Las Olas Blvd. (Sometimes the US seems like Canada with both economic extremes added; the streets definitely feel more dangerous.)
Jim found some live entertainment while I walked the beach. I joined him, sitting with the singer’s wife. ALEC KASH, she says, knows about 700 songs. He sings effortlessly – great voice. We laughed at her stories of the multilingual town meetings and the drivers who flock south in November and cause a zillion car accidents until the locals speed up and the visitors slow down. Then everything reaches a sort of stasis until the end of the tourist season.
Wednesday April 5
We packed up for the cruise the next morning but first visited FLAMINGO PARK, in Davie. Wow – well worth the visit! The tram ride and a presentation were both narrated and populated by hawks, owls, snakes, alligators and a tree they call the tourist tree (not this one – the red, peeling one).
There was a long, slow line-up to board the REGAL EMPRESS, with forms to fill out & documents to show. That’s where we met Nancy & Dino Vierra from Sooke, traveling with their 10 year old daughter. We commiserated on the additional expenses that kept adding to the package we were offered. Neither of us took the room upgrades with windows that turned out to be overlooking the promenade passageway rather than the sea. There were also excursions offered at $50 and up per person, but we opted to be left to our own devices on shore.
Thursday April 6
When the boat docked at NASSAU the next morning we picked up a map at the information bureau right at the dock, and checked out the new (2003) National Art Gallery on West Hill Rd., about a 15 minute walk. It was great!!! Particularly liked one watercolour by Thierry Lamarr and several very imaginative pieces by local artists. And the gift shop was suberb.
We found out at lunch, back on board, that it was possible to get the #10 bus at $1US to Cable Beach, or a taxi for $6US per person. We ended up just walking to Lighthouse Beach, which was calm, uncrowded, and clean. Jim talked to some ladies selling necklaces, whose businesses were down since the tourists were being directed to other beaches (particularly Atlantis beach on Paradise Island). She sold us two hematite necklaces for $10. We also visited the local Straw Market (burnt and rebuilt in 2001) on the way back to the ship. The temperature was as it always it in the tropics: perfect for swimming, “give me shade or I’ll die” elsewhere. The ship and every building was air conditioned to the freezing point, so you always needed to be carrying something warm.
The food was good on board, and the company even better – we met and talked to people at each meal, from India, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky… In general, we’d recommend the cruise, but not the boat, built 1953, with bathrooms that give real meaning to the term ‘cramped quarters’.
Another small problem was the tea. We seem to have been a little too far south for teapots. Even back in Orlando they served the hot water in tall teapots. I got used to asking for hot tea, instead of just “tea, please” and then realized I’d need to say “boiling hot” if I didn’t want tepid. Geeze…! I also got used to stashing teabags, even the lousy Lipton tea that was the rule rather than the exception, since there may not be any at the next stop.
Friday April 7
We’d been asked to have breakfast between 6:30 and 7am (ha!) but we went instead to the buffet breakfast on the promenade deck, open until 9am. We had our bags out of our room by 8am, sat on them for quite and while, and left the ship shortly after 9, as soon as it docked and cleared customs.
We took I-95 to MIAMI, in search of the Miami Dade Cultural Centre. Parked on Flagler & after asking at a store found out there were no meters because it’s free. Walked by a ton of electronic stores & found the Miami Art Museum, where the staff – asked, “What would you do in Miami if you were only here for a day?” – directed us to the 7 block Lincoln Rd pedestrian mall on SOUTH BEACH. We crossed the Macarthur Bridge and traveled north on Collins with the beautiful beach to the right, restaurants & beautiful people to the left. The royal palms & art deco buildings make South Beach pretty classic Miami. Lincoln Rd was perfect – tons of stores with nothing but colourful, umbrella-ed eating areas in between. Our server at Starbucks was from Seattle, had been to Victoria, and served us what turned out to be our favourite lunch – fruit, muffin and tea/coffee.
We thought we’d try to reach the FLORIDA KEYS before arriving back in Ft Lauderdale for the night, but we weren’t counting on the I-95 petering out to highway 1, proceeding at a snail’s pace. We exited at Red Road, looking for the sea. It took a while, through a 15mph school zone, but eventually we found Old Cutler Rd. (?) and went west again on Eureka. By that time we knew we’d never make the Keys, so we headed for MIAMI METROZOO, arriving 3:50pm. That turned out to be not nearly enough time for the huge zoo, which started shutting down at 5pm regardless of the posted 5:30 closing. The aviary will have to wait for another day, but the up close, narrated presentation of snakes, parrot, cougar and cockatoo by zoo staff was fantastic.
We looked at the map and saw #997 going straight north through the Everglades, and decided to take it back to the hotel. Krone Rd. is a two lane highway through the mangroves – at least I think that’s what they were. They were dead, in any case. Big, white, dead tree trunks, for miles. After some hair-raising passes (not by us), we got to the 27 and it was a relatively quick trip back.
Supper at the Ramada Plaza was the usual cafeteria-quality food but we asked for and got a much nicer room on the 4th floor – large, quiet, with kitchenette. It wasn’t enough to make us stay for another day though – we decided to skip out on the time share presentation and leave for the west coast of Florida.
Saturday April 8
It didn’t take much more than an hour to cross the state from Ft Lauderdale to NAPLES, on Saturday morning. This time we drove through the Everglades east to west on highway 72 and found a dozen other types of landscape. Naples seems to be a great place if you like “nice”, as in clean, orderly & very white. We found Pelican Bay Blvd while searching for the beach…. Mile after mile of landscaped, brand new, swanky condos. We stopped and asked someone for directions to a restaurant on the beach… She had to think hard, then directed us about 5 miles south, to Tin City – a Fisherman’s wharf type place, great example of fake funk. Plasticized rope decor, but they sold genuine grilled cheese sandwiches & homemade ice cream.
We finally headed for SARASOTA, looking for a cheap motel. Turns out there are a million on hwy 41. A very ordinary looking Best Western motel was $149 US/night, so we stopped at the cheapest looking one, and got it for $69 plus tax. It had a bar of soap and an air conditioner, plus a few complementary ants in the sink. Oh well.
We found a beautiful beach this time – Lido Beach. Dunes the consistency of corn starch, blue rollers, taps to rinse off. I walked for half an hour in the surf, while Jim snoozed in the car.
Checked out that interesting spit of land with Gulf of Mexico Drive… no fishing shacks there! Well, the 10,000 sq. ft., lined with sable palm kind… It got realer & a little more public farther north. The evening air was incredible – fresh and warm. (The whole week was in the 80’s and sunny, but evenings could get nippy if the wind came up.) It rained & thundered the night we were there, ending 41 days straight of dry weather.
Sunday, April 09, 2006
Went to IHOP for breakfast and headed north to St. Petersburg. The eponymous Boyd Hill Nature Conservancy (which is very flat) is a real jewel. I walked acres of trails, with herons, eagles, osprey, alligators, tortoises and the most amazing sculptures. We took a 60 minute narrated tram tour with a family from Brazil, for $1US each – worth a million.
We crossed enormous bridges, one of which I think was 7 miles, to get across the bays around St Petersburg.
We zipped through Tampa and went straight to Orlando, arriving around 4pm. After checking in at the Amerihost Hotel – the lap of luxury after our Sarasota experience – we ate dinner at 5pm with a couple from Toronto, since we were the only ones in the restaurant that early. We then checked out Cedar Pointe resort to make sure that reservation was okay for Tuesday, and went to see Orlando itself. By chance we took Robinson St and found Eola Park at the corner of Rosalind, smack in downtown Orlando. Perfect for a stroll! A Shakespearean play was being rehearsed at the amphitheatre, and the fountain and tall buildings were colourful in the twilight.
Only two days left, and the time share presentation was scheduled for 12:30. We went to the Maitland Art Centre north of Orlando in the morning – a very unusual place architecturally. Looked like they had a great exhibit of Indian saris but we didn’t see it. I’d left my change purse at home & it was $1.25, no Visa.
We went farther north to Big Tree Park, where the largest cypress in the US grows, over 17 ft in circumference. Its height had been cut from 165ft to about 119 after a hurricane.
The presentation at 12:30 included lunch, a video, and free tickets to Disney World or Sea World or two-day hotel stays in various places (which we took). That pretty well took the afternoon, so we had supper and went for a walk in the place they suggested: Celebration. We thought it was just a street, but turns out there’s a “downtown Celebration”, just like there’s a downtown Disney. Everything seems very new, the whole town no older than 5 years. After getting lost in a residential area that consisted entirely of white and off-white very large houses, we made it to the ritzy downtown area with lake and tennis courts etc. I walked the lake; Jim drank coffee.
At about 9 we went to an electronics store on the 192 to check out supposed rock bottom prices on digital cameras, but a check on the internet said they weren’t all that cheap, so we passed.
Leah IMed while we were in the lobby, so we phoned and chatted about Florida and environmental waste caused by hotels – we see eye to eye on almost everything these days (except the innumerable benefits of living near one’s parents) & certainly about waste. As I write this, there’s a pile of it on the seat tray – I doubt aircraft companies recycle anything.
Tuesday, April 11
Last day! I had a list, as always, but Jim was getting tired of yet another one of Sheila’s Action Packed Vacations, so we compromised. We skipped the Cornell Museum at Rollin’s College and Harry P. Leu Gardens and just went to two interesting places: the Albin Polasek sculpture gardens and the Morse Museum.
Both are north of Orlando in Winter Park – another very new looking town, although it isn’t. It was the winter home of the very wealthy 19th century Mr Morse, and now has brick streets, colourful awnings, Central Park, lots of flowers… and the Museum, which is the real jewel. It may be my favourite museum anywhere, although I haven’t yet visited the Head Crashed In Buffalo Jump Museum near Jasper, recommended by a kind lady in Winter Park as her personal favourite, next to the Louvre! The Louvre is pretty hard to beat, but the Morse has the largest collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany in the world, and I love glass – stained, blown, coloured, shaped, you name it. It’s the light. It’s timeless. Tiffany did a chapel for the Chicago World Fair of 1893 that’s now in the Morse Museum, since his own home/studio in Long Island burnt down after falling into disrepair following his death in the 1930’s. He did far more than lamps – he was an artist as well as a master craftsman, creative & versatile. I particularly liked his use of organic line played off against the geometric, and the combination of subtle detail (painted in enamel?) with vivid colour and open space. A wide range of his paintings, glassware, jewelry, pottery, mosaics and stained glass (some enormous) is represented at the Morse. His work is proof of the power of light and beauty – I was entranced.
We checked into our last (and nicest) hotel, Cedar Pointe Resort, and went to meet Kelly, Tom and son Jared for supper at an Italian restaurant near the Florida Mall. It was great to meet Jared, 14, complete with red hair, cell phone and Florida friendliness! We ate so much we had to walk the mall afterwards, and exit by a side door when they started to close the place down. It was the perfect end to a vacation that didn’t really want to end.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
It’s our 31st anniversary today – and we’re on our way home.
See ALL the photos - well, the good ones!