Saturday, December 19, 2009

Back to Miami, Part 4: Lazy Days in Florida

A retrospective series on how I missed my trip to San Francisco and found my way back to Miami from Atlanta, traveling as a single woman alone, using only public transportation to visit friends and do some backyard tourism in Florida.

In Part 3, I wrote about how I made it back to Miami on Greyhound bus, Amtrak and Tri-Rail. Here's what I did in between.


The natural side of Florida. Picture courtesy of jimbowen0306.

An old friend of mine from high school moved to Tallahassee for college and never came back to Miami. She still lives in the state capitol with her husband and two kids, so it was catch-up time. The rest of her family moved there too and as her father had recently passed away, it meant much for me to see her mom, who has always been my second American-pie gringa mama.

When things got too Cuban for me at home during my rebellious teenage years here in Miami, I could always seek peace and quiet (plus great liverwurst sandwiches) at my friend's home. Her parents always treated me like I was part of the family. I enjoyed vicarious American Christmas holidays with them -- we never had fresh baked cookies and English-language carols at home, but my friend's family didn't have roast pork either -- so I had the best of both worlds growing up here in Miami.

And we had history here. Kids, parents, everybody was involved in Coral Gables High School Band. My friend and I participated in three Orange Bowl parades and half time shows, as well as countless Coral Gables High School football games.

My friend used to say I brought out the Cuban in her and I always joked that she brought out the American in me. This trip was only the third or fourth time I've seen my friend since high school, but as always, it was if no time had passed.

I didn't do much touristy stuff in Tallahassee and that was just fine. The first night, I stayed at The Governor's Inn where my friend is a manager. The boutique hotel is charming and offers a great continental breakfast.

Across the cobblestoned street, there's a classic college pub where I enjoyed a drink after my long Greyhound ride, playing career adviser to the sexy blonde bartender who was graduating from FSU and wanted to be a sports psychologist. She showed me the page where she had posed for a campus charity calendar. I hope she wasn't using that as a resume item for graduate school.

On day two, I stayed at my friend's house and enjoyed some real Southern hospitality for a few days. My friend's home is on the outskirts of the city in a neighborhood surrounded by forests. Actually, her home is practically in a forest, so the sound of cicadas and other critters at night was intense. What stars we could see through the dense canopy shone bright in the dark sky.

It was great to just kick back at night outside, surrounded by huge pines and oak trees. BBQ and beers and talk was all we needed. Another culinary highlight was making Cuban black beans for the family and finding dragonfruit, of all things, in a suburban Tallahassee Publix.

By day, I watched Spongebob Squarepants with her kids, hiked in the woodland part of their property and cooled off in their huge inflatable pool, which was filled with fresh spring water from the Florida aquifer. It's hard to explain, but the water felt silky smooth and was so refreshing, I thought maybe, just maybe, this was the whole fountain of youth thing, though I didn't look any younger after dipping in the pool.

I also had a touching conversation with one of her sons about the trials and tribulations of being a sixth grader -- unloyal crushes, bullies, assholes. Yeah, those are the typical situations we all have to deal with through life, son.


Canoeing near Deland. Photo courtesy of anoldent.

After a few days and two Greyhound bus rides later, I ended up in Deland.

My friend Doug from Miami Beach 411 and his roommate Dave graciously hosted me for two nights at their home in Deland, a sleepy but quirky little town in Central Florida, close to Daytona. Home to Stetson University, Deland is definitely a college town but seems even more old Florida than Tallahassee.

The first thing we did was stop at a 24-hour Walmart for wine and snacks. The last time I had been in a Walmart was in some remote part of Texas during a long-ass road trip from Miami to Colorado. Walmart late at night in Central Florida is surreal, especially if you've just spent half a day on Greyhound buses. Our cashier was at least 80 years old and wore as much makeup as dearly departed Tammy Faye Baker. God bless her though, she was sweet as pie and as charismatic as Tammy Faye. You don't get that kind of customer service in Miami.

The next day, we went canoeing in the St. John's River out of Hontoon Island State Park. I rowed up front while Doug rowed in the back. It's said that you can always test the resilience of a couple if both can row together. Doug and I weren't a couple, but we did pretty well, even in the stifling heat. Battling against the current was rough, yet we managed in some kind of awkward choreography.

The canoe trail along one of the branches of the river was beautiful. Gorgeous homes and lush trees flanked the north bank of the river. The south bank was completely wild with native flora. At one point, we came upon a row of towering cypress trees, their knobby roots sticking out of the water. Save for glimpses of homes and the occasional pontoon boat docked in someone's back yard, the scene was almost primeval.

We didn't see much wildlife, save for one alligator, which seems to have spooked Doug. The river was wide and deep; no worries about close contact with gators here.

I was horrified, however, when I got my period unexpectedly early, midway through the two-hour canoe trip. (Hey, this is a single woman's guide to chronic living, so it's completely appropriate to mention menstrual mishaps here!)

Doug and I are friends, but he's a guy and it's not like I was about to blurt out loud "Shit, I can't believe I just got my freakin' period early, right here in the middle of the Saint John's River, on a hot summer day, canoeing with a dude who probably doesn't know a tampon from Q tip," which is exactly what went through my mind. I was very concerned about the embarrassment I would experience were I to have an accident! But there I was, in a canoe -- nothing to do but row on.

There were other matters that were more important. Doug rescued his schizophrenic roommate from the streets a few years ago and is his caretaker. At first I was a little creeped out about the idea of staying in the same house with Dave, but actually he just kept to himself and was very well-behaved, almost child-like, really. He spent hours laughing to himself in a back porch and when he was with us, he barely spoke.

Doug has sinced moved to San Diego because he gets better government support there to take care of Dave. Doug is an angel, probably earning huge karma points in that big bank in the sky. How many of us would have such trust, compassion and patience?

On the last night, we had dinner at a great Thai restaurant followed by drinks at a very groovy wine and beer bar. I was off to West Palm Beach the next morning but not before stopping by a truck where a man was selling spicy boiled peanuts.


Some local friends picked me up at the Amtrak station just in time for happy hour at O'Shea's Irish Pub on Clematis. Later, they dropped me off at an old friend's house in Palm Beach Gardens. More catching up talk and sleep -- I wouldn't do much here.


I arrived here via Tri-Rail and took a taxi to the Hyatt Pier 66, one of my new favorite South Florida properties. Located by a luxury mega-yacht marina, the remodeled Hyatt has a lovely pool area with lush landscaping. It pleased my eye, because I'm sick and tired of South Beach being all concrete and silicone. And in spite of the luxury boats, the property itself is not over-the-top ostentatious. It's elegant, to be sure, but relaxed and just right. The room rates weren't bad either, and that was a relief, since I was traveling on the same budget I had planned for San Francisco. My room had a huge terrace and a fabulous view of the Intracoastal, Port Everglades and the Atlantic ocean.

It was great just to be on my own again, but that wouldn't last long. The marketing guy in charge of social media knew I was coming and we ended up throwing a somewhat impromptu sunset tweetup at the hotel's waterfront café. A few more local friends showed up at Pelican Landing, which is now one of my top ten waterfront establishments. It's off the beaten path -- you need to walk through the marina to get there. Try the fish tacos and conch fritters, if you go.

The next day, I took the watertaxi to the Stranahan House on the river. At $14 per person for a full day, I enjoyed getting about Fort Lauderdale this way -- I enjoyed it immensely, in fact -- and I didn't even take advantage of all the stops! The taxi staff is entertaining and you can even bring booze on board. It's absolutely and utterly ridiculous that Miami doesn't have a similar service on the bay between Miami Beach, Downtown, Brickell and Coconut Grove.

The Stranahan House is a must-see for locals and visitors.

The Stranahan House deserves a post all its own, but suffice it to say it's an essential stop in Fort Lauderdale. Home to one of the city's founding fathers, the house has been exquisitely restored with authentic furnishings and decorations. Our tour guide was a sweet lady -- a retired college professor originally from Eastern Europe -- who made the city's history come alive for us in a very relaxed, one-hour tour.

From the Stranahan House, I walked down Las Olas and then took the water taxi again to Downtowner Saloon, which had been recommended by some locals, for some refreshment. This is another new favorite, laid-back waterfront spot. I'd be returning there later that night with some friends to eat and I'll probably end up there again next time I'm in Fort Lauderdale. Try the clam chowder -- it's rich and actually tastes like clams.

The whole downtown riverfront area of Fort Lauderdale is quite pleasant, in spite of the fact that there is a penitentiary amid the expensive, towering condos. Miami is now only coming to realize the value of clean, well lit and beautiful riverfront areas, though clearly, both rivers have very different characters and functions.

Taking phallic imagery to a whole new level ... these yummy tapas-style plates dominated the brunch at Hyatt Pier 66. Well worth the indulgence!

The next day, I splurged on brunch at the Hyatt's Pier Top, a venue located on the top of the hotel tower that rotates 360 degrees every hour. Brunch was about $60 (with discount) and featured all kinds of all-you-can-eat mouth-watering small-plate goodies, as well as fresh sushi, a carving station, desserts, and of course, endless drinks. A light jazz duo accompanied guests but the real star of the show was the view -- simply breathtaking, especially on a clear blue day.

(Pier Top is not your typical restaurant. It's only open for brunch on Sundays and for special events. Call ahead for reservations.)


After such a sumptuous repast, going back home on Tri-Rail was quite the downer. But I made it to South Miami by train, metrorail and finally, by foot.

This trip taught me that it's completely possible to enjoy Florida without a car, though of course it's obviously more convenient to do the 2-axle Turnpike shuffle if you want to explore deeper without having to rely on public transportation. It also taught me that there's way more I want to see in the state and that you'd probably need at least a lifetime to see it all. I've got some years left. Bring it on!


One of my new favorite Twitter finds is @hiddenflorida, managed by Hilda Mitrani, a blogger for Visit Florida. She focuses mainly on everything not Miami and not Disney. Check her stuff out for Florida fun off the beaten path.

1 comment:

Ellie said...

Wow. I'm still digesting... that sounds .. epic.