The state of Florida has borne its name since 1513, when a Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first reached the shores of the peninsula. Charmed by the beauty of the place, Juan named it Pascua de Florida, or “the Flower Land.” Almost certainly, the name was chosen to hint at Pascua Florida, or “Easter,” which was celebrated just around that time.
Our trip took place in the late Spring of 2009. Back then, we did not have a baby, good camera, or car other than Mazda Miata. So, the two of us dared to see as much Florida as we can in a little over a week, only relying on our poor two-door convertible, semi-waterproof tent, and limited supplies of food and clothes. We ended up covering about 2,130 miles, of which a good part was barely paved, and often with something other than asphalt.
Since we did not want to bump up our budget, we had booked half-a-dozen camping sites in various state and federal parks on the way. Because campground gates are commonly closed rather early in the evening, timing in certain segments of our trip was critical.
We decided to leave on Friday morning. “Why the heck do we need so much stuff?” was our main question at the time of packing. Are a mid-size bag with clothes and shoes, one backpack, a bit of food supplies, a tent, and a few sleeping accessories a lot for a week-long trip? Not, until you try to shove it all in Miata. Good thing we did not leave the blankets, as they later turned out to be irreplaceable. The morning was very gloomy and rainy, but we had already made our minds. By the time we crossed Florida border, the rain quit, and we somewhat relieved.
We enjoyed a few cups of juice at the Florida Welcome Center, wondered at the law-disobedient crow, and resumed the ride.
On the way to Saint Augustine, we realized that our weather expectations were premature, because the rain got even worse than when we had left.
Since we could not do much in the open air, we found shelter inside Ripley’s local Believe It or Not museum. Neither of us had been to one before, so—considering the circumstances—it was the right move. Below are some of the exhibits:
One of the rooms was looping a short video featuring people with world’s longest and… most maneuverable, if you will, tongues. What appeared to be a “let-me-also-try” mirror, hung very comfortably beside the TV monitor, turned out to be a display of humans’ naivety and foolishness on the other side:
On the way to our first campsite, around the intersection of 17 and 40, we stopped at a fascinating junk-yard-like antique store with hundreds of various statues, lightposts, urns, and other peculiar items.
Having taken a few pictures, we left, wondering how the buyers manage to carry the bigger things back to their homes.
When I booked a place at our first camping spot, Big Scrub, I did not realize what the name actually implied. Located off a dirt road connecting two interstate highways—eight miles from either side—it meant that you would certainly scrub your car pretty well trying to get to the campground. (Miata’s rigid suspension also intensified the effect of every hole and bump we drove on.) To further diversify the fun, there was no cell phone reception and no other people as far the eye can see.
The gathering rain clouds promised nothing but a huge mess on the way out, had we decided to stay. With mixed feelings we had to retreat back to the highway and quickly search for a different lodging for the night. We were in luck to find another camp site and set up our tent just before the rain came pouring down.
The tent was literally floating over the masses of water rapidly merging into one huge mudflow. The seam threads soaked moisture in, and we ended up sleeping all covered up in the damp clothes and blankets.
The following morning, we moved our belongings back into the car, packed up our tent, still wet and nasty from the rain, and headed towards Orlando.
There are plenty of curious names in this country for a Russian-speaking traveler:
I had been to Orlando before, albeit briefly. Not impressed by what I had seen, I figured that the Walt Disney World would be a better attraction to hit this time. Due to a long ride still awaiting us, as well as the admission costs, of all theme parks we set our choice on the Blizzard Beach area. In the midday heat of the long-expected Florida sun the aquatic kind of fun seemed even more tempting. I believe that the following pictures are more descriptive than (my) words can be, so I will tell a little anecdote instead: we spent 56 minutes waiting in line for the biggest ride, and only 4 seconds coming down :)
Our next sleepover was in some state park a few hours away, so we had to get going again. Away from the coast, Florida was not so much different from Georgia, though perhaps more colorful and saturated with verdure.
The weather was quickly worsening, and after a good shower in the afternoon we had to yet endure an uncomfortable sleep in the car, because Olya was assured that nearby noises were coming from some hungry beasts that have discovered their supper. Why oh why had I shown her the booklet featuring the local wildlife in all its diversity?..
Sore from yoga-style sleep, we were still geared up for cruising the downtown Miami and hanging around the Ocean Drive later on that day. The sun was high in the zenith when we reached the outskirts of Miami, so we could not wait to unload our stuff from the convertible, to finally take the top down. We spent most of the afternoon just running around in our sweet little ride.
I had told Olya a lot about the special Latin vibe at the South Beach, and how much she would enjoy the local color. We had our hopes high for plunging into this magnificent Spanish-speaking beach-and-restaurant culture for one evening. Actually, our next destination was the Keys, and we wanted to see the Miami nightlife so much that we decided to stay another day in Miami after we make it to Key West and come back.
Unfortunately for us, towards the evening we started seeing an unpleasant growing tendency. It was a Sunday before the last Monday of May, for all you patriots and holiday wizards out there. Yes, Veterans Day, which also coincided with the end of some Black Beach Week, an event that I am sure Veterans in this country would not approve of. Shitty hip-hop music, mutilated Cadillacs and the like, pointless bling, vulgar and ridiculous clothing—you can probably continue the list. It was a pitiful sight inflicted on my joyous memories; so Olya and I both spent the evening locked in our hotel room, escaping the display of one of the world’s dumbest cultures.
We knew that most guests would still be leaving in the morning, so we decided to explore a quieter part of town. Which is why we went to the Cuban neighborhood, and in particular to have breakfast at the El Pub Restaurant. From my prior visit to Miami, one of the best experiences had been that of having a cup of Cuban coffee at El Pub, so—being a huge coffee enthusiast—I knew I must have some more.
The restaurant is small and cozy, and not pretentious in any sense; still, the interior is authentically creative and welcoming. Naturally, the best part was food. For a steak and scrambled eggs, two portions of freshly made French fries, two long soft baguettes with garlic dips, and three cups of awesome Cuban coffee (one with milk) we paid 13 dollars. Not only was the food delicious, it was that cheap. I absolutely recommend to anyone who is going to Miami! Just keep in mind that the coffee is very strong; after two-and-a-half cups that I had for myself, I almost started shaking. We drove a bit more around the Cuban blocks; I bought a few cigars to later be enjoyed in good company; and we went on to discover the Keys.
The road to Key West is nothing scenic, just a narrow strip of land tossed in between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. I cannot say that it is very dull either. It is just a nice tropical road.
We came down all the way to Key West and took a long hike to see for ourselves how the Conch land lures so many tourists the whole year round. Besides the usual island establishments facilitating the efficient waste of time and money, there is a number of interesting stops for an inveterate traveler: another Believe It or Not museum, the southernmost point marker, a tall lighthouse, the Ernest Hemingway’s memorial home, and the famous—owing to promoted by Jimmy Buffett islander-type alcoholic retreat—Margaritaville Café.
After much of roaming about, we had to turn around and make for the Sugarloaf Key, before the gates of the KOA campground closed for the night. We were returning to Miami the following morning.
Oh yes, the second day in Miami was much better. And even more so the second night. In more than outright getups we found ourselves on the Ocean Drive, with lots of showing off and coconut-hunting to do :)
Between Miami and our next campground stop, we had a long connection ride ahead of us. First, we needed to drive West along the Everglades, on a so-called Alligator Alley. On top of the fact that there was positively nothing to see in that hundred-mile stretch, there was not a single gas-station either. Anxious and desperate, we were forced to slow down to 55 and turn our AC off, which is not a fun thing to do in Florida’s 90+ humid degrees of Fahrenheit. Fortunately, we made it to the other shore.
Yep, that is how bad it was:
The following two hundred miles were even sadder: it was not the fascinating or adventurous or historic type of America; it was a never-ending succession of retail stores, monotonous vegetation, and tasteless architecture.
The reward for the long drag on the West coast of the peninsula was prepared for us at our next halt. Very civilized yet natural and secluded, the Manatee Springs park greeted us by deer crossing the street right in front of our car. When we were setting up our tent, we saw an armadillo or two, as well as numerous squirrels hopping around. The dusk by the waters of Suwannee river was very dramatic in this desolate place. Our only concern was fearlessness of alligators or some ground predators in absence of people, but we managed to enjoy a marvelous night sleep after all.
Panama City Beach
A few of our friends were staying at Panama City Beach for the summer, trying to make some money for the academic year to come, so we were hoping to see them all and have some fun together. Our stay was free of charge, which was another big-fat plus.
In terms of sight-seeing, Panama City Beach is just an ordinary tourist spot, with very little amusement to a candid explorer. As a result, apart from partying with our friends and getting a dip in the ocean, our photographic record of the place was next to nothing:
The week was getting over, and we could not vacation for much longer; we needed some rest from our travels before I would show up at work on Monday. That was the end of the trip.
Our approximate itinerary is presented below (Florida is highlighted):