Tag Archives: Florida

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.

Orlando Amusement Parks

It’s almost 10 years since my first visit to the US. People often say that the first impression is the most important one. It’s especially true in the case of USA as it is a country about which most of visitors have strong opinions. People like it a lot or often hate it, but few stay neutral or don’t really care. I was lucky in a way that the first state I visited was sunny Florida and specifically the Orlando area.

Most people when they hear Orlando probably automatically think about the Disney World. Yes, I did visit it. In fact I worked there for about three months. I can already see some people shaking their heads in despair but there is no need guys, it was really great summer.

But let start from the basics. The Walt Disney World (WDW in short) is one of the biggest tourist attraction in the US. Most people associate it with Magic Kingdom, full of all the classic Disney characters and with its iconic Cinderella castle dominating the skyline. In fact Magic Kingdom is the most visited amusement park of the world, with over 17 million visitors a year, but WDW is much more than that. It is an absolutely massive complex covering over 120 square kilometres (roughly area the size of San Francisco) with its own power plant, landfill and transportation system. Disney runs whole bunch of bus lines, some for staff only some for visitors. In fact its bus system might well be larger than the one operated by the city of Orlando. There are four big amusement parks, two water parks, a large shopping area, baseball stadium and even a racetrack. Yes, there is a 1.6 km tri-oval speedway. The whole place employs over 65000 people during the summer peak season and I was one of them.

Job wasn’t particularly good or bad, typical summer fast food stint during university. But it had some perks like free unlimited admission to all the Disney operated attractions. What was also fun, was living in a large international community of summer workers with literally thousands of students from around the world. In short it was something like a massive campus but with no exams, just a lot of parties. I shall stop here (to avoid some graphic party details) and move to describing places especially worth visiting. Because one thing you have to accept is that you have to be selective. Unless someone has as much time as we had spending there the whole summer, it is virtually impossible to visit all of the Orlando attractions.

Magic Kingdom is probably the most visited place in Orlando, if not the whole Florida. Of course it is geared towards the kids, the rides are tame, other attractions miss any specific wow factor and the whole place has a bit dated feel. But you shouldn’t miss it, even if you have just few spare hours in some afternoon, as it offers possibility of going back in time to your childhood. Parades of characters might look a bit kitschy, but what the hell, where else can you meet Mickey or Donald Duck? I also really recommend attending evening fireworks show. Especially for non-Americans it can be substitute of the 4th of July as the show goes on every day. And believe me, technicians in Disney know how to put up a good show.

Next of the WDW parks is EPCOT which is acronym for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”. I have to say I find it a weird attraction, split into two distinctive parts. The worse part of it contains group of pavilions which supposedly showcase achievements of the humanity and is called “Future World”. Unfortunately, they were, and some still are, sponsored by the big companies and offer more of unashamed and cheap advertisement than anything educational or even fun. Some of them are also quite dated and in the modern age of smartphones and other gadgets are not that impressive at all. Much more interesting part of EPCOT is the World Showcase. It is group of 11 pavilions representing: Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, USA, Japan, Morocco, France, United Kingdom and Canada. Some of them contain shows or rides but they are not especially exciting or interesting. So what I like about them? In short: food, drinks and general atmosphere. Each country pavilion offers taste of its cuisine, usually in budget and more fancy options, as well as some genuine shopping. What makes the whole experience even more fun is fact that many employees are native to the particular country; they are usually students on work placement programs. If you stay until the closing time there is really good sound, light and fireworks show. I was always impressed even when I saw it dozens of times. And on 4th of July Disney prepares really amazing, nearly half an hour extravaganza. Crowds will be enormous but it’s something you shouldn’t miss if you in the Orlando area at this time of year.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios, third of the main parks, is probably the most similar to a classic amusement park and offers two rides which I strongly recommend. First of them is Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. The whole experience starts pre ride when you visit “studio” where Aerosmith invites you to their limo. It’s all cleverly done as the big screens give impression that you really see the band behind the soundproof glass of a studio. You then get strapped in the vehicle and enter the darkness (it is an indoor ride). Now the real fun begins, with music blasting from the speakers (five for each seat), the vehicles accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds. It let you experience force of 4.5 g when you enter the first of three inversions. It is actually more than during the space shuttle launch but of course for much shorter period of time. In my opinion it is by far the best ride in the whole WDW complex. The other ride at the Studios I recommend is The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. In short, it is drop tower thrill ride where at one point you can experience weightlessness. I won’t spoil your ride by describing the details but believe me, it is good.

Fourth of the WDW parks is Animal Kingdom. In short it is mix of an amusement park and a zoo. It is probably the best park to spend really hot day as it offers more greenery than the others. Overall it is probably my favourite part of WDW, even if according to the statistics it is also the least visited one. The most popular attraction there, one which you definitely shouldn’t miss, is Kilimanjaro Safaris. No, it’s not another fancy named roller coaster, it really is a safari. After boarding big trucks you will be driven in an open space between African animals including elephants, hippos and lions among others. At some point you even join a chase for poachers. In Asian section you walk instead, among fake (but nicely arranged) ruins of maharajah palace, separated from tigers and other animals by clever system of moats in some places or glass fences in others. Another hit ride is Dinosaur which is in fact mix of roller coaster, 3-D cinema and who knows what else. In recent years Disney introduced more rides into Animal Kingdom but it happened since my last visit. Best time to visit is morning or late afternoon when animals are more active and queues are shorter (especially to the extremely popular safari ride).

As I mentioned before WDW offer more than its classic parks. There are two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon, where the biggest attraction is massive pool with artificial waves, and Blizzard Beach where main attractions are some pretty crazy slides. The tallest and the fastest one, called the Summit Plummet, is damn right scary. I did go down once but only because after 45 minutes of queuing it was stupid to back down using the staircase. Apparently you accelerate up to 50-60mph in few seconds. I remember only blasting down in milliseconds.

WDW also offers shopping and eating area called Downtown Disney. Shops are actually quite diverse, from the largest Disney Store on the planet to the Harley-Davidson Orlando. Among the restaurants are the well known Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Cafe but also some others I never heard of. There used to be quite a few nightclubs as well but according to the Disney website they closed them down to redesign (read civilize) the area which used to be called The Pleasure Island. Pity, we had a lot of fun there during the staff days, or I should rather say nights 😀 Fortunately nearby House of Blues remain open and according to the web they still run Service Industry Nights (aka SIN) on Sundays, when Disney employees enter free of charge. It’s another place I have great memories from.

Disney is fun but it’s not my favourite attraction in Orlando. My choice would be either Sea World or Island of Adventure at Universal.

Sea World is well known for its shows featuring orcas, dolphins and other sea creatures. Even if you have attended similar shows somewhere else don’t skip this park. Here shows are really well designed and executed. If you never attended such attraction it is a must place to visit during your stay in Orlando. The most popular part of the Sea World is large orca stadium which seats few thousand people and where you can watch these magnificent animals in action from up close. Orcas are much bigger than they appear on TV, believe me, just remember that if you seat in first few rows (something I strongly recommend) you will get wet. There is a good reason why they call them “splash zone”.

Dolphin shows are somehow less exiting but probably more fun as the stadium is smaller and the whole show is designed more to be fun than spectacular. Don’t take me wrong it is still absolutely amazing, just in a different way than the orca shows. The funniest shows of all involve seals and sea lions. Another popular corner of the SeaWorld is area where at certain times of day you can feed the dolphins. All you have to do is buy a little tray with fish for few bucks. It is surprisingly rewarding activity, dolphins come really, really close and you can even touch them. There are also rides in Sea World, including the tallest roller coaster in Florida, the Kraken. At least it was the tallest one when I visited Orlando last time. It’s fast and furious ride which I really love. In general. SeaWorld is great place to visit even for someone who don’t really like the idea of an amusement park. You might hate all the Disney characters, you might have locomotion sickness and hate roller-coasters but it is really difficult to resist power of the amazing animals they have in here. Even if parts of the shows might be a bit kitschy you will be impressed. Believe me. If not, you can call me a beetroot.

If you are looking for some really fun rides The Island of Adventure at Universal is the place to go. And there is one particular ride which is my favourite in Florida. The Duelling Dragons. In fact there are two inverted steel roller coasters (two dragons called Ice and Fire) running simultaneously at two separate tracks but entangled together. In some places you are just few feet apart from the other Dragon. It really feels like you are flying just inches away from some obstacles and from the other roller coaster. I really recommend queuing in special (unfortunately longer) line for the front row seats as they are worth every extra minute of waiting. The first drop will simply take your breath away and at some point you will ride on a collision course with the other dragon before entering inverted loop in the last moment. It is one (or actually two in one) ride in Orlando which no one should miss. Other popular rides are: The Hulk, where you shoot out from the dark interior into the open track accelerating from 0 to 50mph and turning upside down in the same time, and The Spider Man which is indoor ride, cross between a roller coaster and cinema. It creates really great illusion but for me nothing really beats the Duelling Dragons. Recently it was actually renamed the Dragon Challenge and became part of the Harry Potter area of Universal. Fortunately, according to internet resources, it didn’t affect the ride itself.

In general Orlando is much more interesting place than I have imagined before my first visit. All I knew was that there is Walt Disney World, some sort of place for kids. It turned up that WDW is not only for kids and that there are many more attractions for everyone in the Orlando area. Most people see all this place during a mad week or two. I can imagine it can be really tiring holiday, one which justify another holiday afterwards just to rest. I was lucky to be able to see and appreciate it at much slower and leisurely pace. And one of the best aspects of that summer was ability to see how such complicated complex like WDW works from the inside. It is an one well oiled machine.