Sea and sand under the Florida sun.

I have already written about many of my travels, but somehow I failed to mention my first ever US road trip. As my lame excuse, I can only say that it was a short two-day trip which happened in 2001 when I was working in Orlando. On one of the weekends, my friends simply rented a car and we all headed south.

The weather was absolutely glorious, sunny and warm, as you might expect in the heat of Florida summer. For the first few hours, we continued along the rather quiet toll motorway, the Florida Turnpike. One of the reasons why we chose this route was the fact that none of the girls who travelled with me had any experience of driving in America and I myself didn’t even have a driving licence back then. As the day progressed, our confidence rose, just in time to leave the toll road and hit the busy Miami freeways and multilevel junctions. Of course, it’s nothing compared to southern California or Texas, but back then we were seriously impressed, even if a bit intimidated.

We didn’t stop in Miami and headed straight south along the US Hwy 1 towards the Florida Keys. This coral archipelago begins at the south-eastern tip of the Florida peninsula, about 15 miles (24 km) south of Miami, and extends in a gentle arc south-south-west and then westward to Key West, the westernmost of the inhabited islands. At the nearest point, the southern tip of Key West is just 90 miles (140 km) from Cuba.

The 127-mile (205km) road running the length of the archipelago is called the Overseas Highway for a good reason. It is an absolutely stunning highway, connecting the islands and running in large parts on long bridges above a turquoise tropical sea. We were lucky to drive towards Key West around sunset. And sunsets here are legendary, some even say that Key West sunsets are the most spectacular in the world. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was still a spectacular moment when we stopped on one of the small islands to watch. We were so thrilled and excited that when we continued towards the end of the road in Key West we forgot to switch the lights on. Fortunately, the state trooper was lenient and we only ended up with a warning rather than a fine.

Because it was only a weekend trip, we didn’t bother with accommodation and decided to sleep in the car. The local supermarket parking lot looked safe and inviting and that’s where we decided to stay overnight. Charming, isn’t it? Unfortunately, what initially might have looked like a bright, if a little funny idea, turned out to be quite a silly one. Our cheap rental car was way too small for all four of us to stretch out just a little and we didn’t take into account the tropical climate of the Keys. That night was simply stinky, hot and humid. After no more than half an hour I had had enough. After a short debate, we decided that the two girls responsible for driving would try to sleep a bit while me and another girl decided to kill some time wandering aimlessly around Key West town. As it was Saturday night, it was quite a lively and busy place, but after a few hours most of the establishments shut down and we went back to the parking lot. Not wanting to wake up the girls we spent a lot of time wandering around the 24-hour supermarket, playing with toys and clothes etc. At some point, I was seriously worried they might accuse us of trying to rob the place. Fortunately, nothing bad happened.

We started Sunday by exploring the town again, this time all four of us. Key West old town is located in the western part of the island and it is a really nice place indeed. It is where the classic bungalows and guest mansions are. Generally, the structures date from 1886 to 1912 and what adds to their appeal is lush vegetation in the gardens, including palms, mahogany and even banana trees, as well as many other smaller tropical plants. One of the homes was once inhabited by Ernest Hemingway and is now open to the public as a museum. The house is also home to a couple of dozen cats, some of them descendants of the great writer’s cat, Snowball. One of the biggest attractions on the island is a concrete replica of a buoy at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets that claims to be the southernmost point in the contiguous 48 states. It is one of the most visited and photographed attractions in Key West and every day hundreds or even thousands of people have pictures taken next to this iconic marker. We took pictures as well. It was only much later that I learned that its claim is not correct. The southernmost point of Florida is one of the private islands a few miles off Key West. In fact, the buoy doesn’t even mark the southernmost point of Key West island. For that you would have to access some of the private properties or military grounds. Oh, well.

We didn’t linger in Key West for too long as there was a long drive back to Orlando ahead of us. On our way north along the Overseas Highway we stopped here and there for a bit of splash in the warm tropical sea, but never for too long. After getting to mainland Florida, we decided to travel on the western side of the state along the Gulf of Mexico rather than on the eastern side along the Atlantic. Before even reaching Miami we turned west onto the US Hwy 41 and started crossing the Everglades. It is an absolutely huge expanse of subtropical wetlands in surprisingly close proximity to the Miami urban area. I could write a lot about many of the environmental problems and preservation projects, but let’s just say it is still a relatively wild and unspoilt land (or actually more water than land) just outside the suburbs of Miami.

The road we chose runs almost completely straight, cutting across the wetlands for miles. One of the most exciting ways of experiencing the wetlands is to take a tour on board an airboat. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, an airboat is a rather funny-looking flat-bottomed boat propelled in a forward direction by an aircraft-type propeller. They are a very popular means of transportation in the Florida Everglades, but also in the Louisiana Bayous and other wetland regions. The tour we chose was onboard a rather large vessel, carrying a dozen or so passengers. Be warned that these boats are seriously loud (but you will be given some ear plugs) and bloody fast. One more warning: if you have some fancy hairstyle, it will be destroyed by the combination of speed and the huge propeller just behind you. On the upside, the boats are designed to take you to inaccessible areas of the swamp, places that you cannot reach by foot or by car. It is a unique experience. During the trips there are moments when the engine is switched off and you float quietly in the river of grass, with alligators swimming close to the boat. Our tour was cut a bit short due to a large storm brewing on the horizon, so we had a chance to see an alligator-feeding show. Unfortunately, once we were off the fast moving boat a swarm of vicious mosquitoes descended upon us. As none of us had any insect repellent, we decided to cut our visit short and escape the beasts and the looming storm.

After crossing the Everglades, we reached the west coast of Florida. Its southern part is a rather random collection of boring suburbs, many of them full of retired folk, stretching practically continuously from Naples all the way to Fort Myers. This semi-urban area completely lacks the sophistication, diversity and attractions of, let’s say, Miami. Because we still had a few hours to kill, we decided to visit Sanibel Island. I can’t remember who recommended it to us, but it turned out to be a great idea.

Sanibel Island is a great example of how local people can protect their beautiful local environment from the dangers of mass tourist developments. Located just off the shore of Fort Myers, this barrier island was for years a sleepy backwater. Then, in 1963, the causeway was constructed, linking it to the mainland, resulting in an explosion of growth. Fortunately, City of Sanibel was incorporated and restrictions were passed, limiting the kind of crazy growth which destroyed many other parts of the Florida coast.

Nowadays, no building can be taller than two storeys and no fast food or chains restaurants are allowed. The exception is Dairy Queen, which was there already when the laws were introduced.

I have to say I’m not a great fan of typical beach holidays, but even I was charmed by the simple beauty of Sanibel. Soft white sand, an expansive beach, swaying coconut palms, lush tropical foliage and beautiful crystal blue water. In short, a classic tropical paradise. I have never been to the Caribbean or the Pacific islands, but that’s how I imagine them.

We arrived on the island in the late afternoon and stayed there to watch the sunset. It was an absolutely lovely view. It seems that even I have some sort of romantic side. The experience was even better due to a total lack of crowds, we had the expansive beach practically to ourself. The beaches of Sanibel are white as snow and full of sometimes amazing shells. It would have been nice to stay there longer, but sadly we had to go back to Orlando, which was still quite a few hours away. We finally made it home way after midnight.

During that summer we made a few more trips to the beaches of Florida, including some good ones in Sarasota and St Petersburg, but none of these places was even closely as spectacular as the Keys or Sanibel.

I had to wait right up until 2008, when I visited Florida again, to see some other interesting parts of the state. First stop after leaving Orlando was the Ponce Inlet lighthouse, which is the tallest lighthouse in Florida. Built in 1887, this 176-foot tall masonry structure offers unparalleled views and is located just 12 miles south of Daytona Beach. The world famous Daytona Beach didn’t impress me at all. It is just a random collection of average motels, hotels, bars, condos, shops and all the associated commercial junk, the total opposite of what we experienced in Sanibel Island a few years earlier. However, further north along the coast after passing Ormond Beach, things are get wilder and more spectacular. Obviously, it wasn’t really a wilderness, but the beaches south of St Augustine are really nice indeed. White, wide and empty (at least in late April when I got there). I really enjoyed long walks along them, watching sea, sky and some amazing cloud formations.

But the real star attraction in this part of state is St Augustine. Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorer and admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, it is the oldest continuously occupied European-established city and port in the continental United States. It is a popular tourist attraction, for its Spanish colonial buildings as well as elite 19th-century architecture. The city’s historic center is anchored by St. George Street, which is lined with historic homes from various periods. Most of these homes are reconstructions of buildings that had burned down or had been demolished over the years, though a few of them are original, including the González-Alvarez House, which is the oldest surviving Spanish Colonial dwelling in Florida. Two of the most pectacular buildings in the city are the extravagant Ponce de León Hotel (nowadays The Flagler College) and Hotel Alcazar (nowadays The Lightner Museum, both built during the boom years of the late 19th and early 20th century in a Spanish Renaissance Revival style by millionaire Henry M Flager. They really look like palaces or castles from the fairy tales. But there is also a real castle in St Augustine. The Castillo de San Marcos site is the oldest masonry fort in the United States and its construction was begun by the Spanish in 1672. The site was never taken by force despite multiple periods of attack. However, it changed hands from the Spanish to the British, then back to the Spanish and finally to the United States. Who said that American history is short and easy?

The city offers some good eating and shopping options, especially along the pedestrian-only St George Street. We spent a large part of the day wandering around the town, doing a bit of shopping and taking lots of pictures. It has a really nice atmosphere, especially outside the main holiday season, when it can be swamped by busloads of tourists. Finally, towards the evening, we hit the road again and headed north towards Georgia.

As I said at the beginning, the weekend trip to the Keys was my first proper travel experience in the US and it probably shaped in many ways my fascination with this country. It also firmly established Florida as one of my favourite states.

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