Sunday, April 17, 2016

The thing we like about Florida is….

….well, there’s lots of things we like about Florida. First, it’s convenient to get to. From Lima to Miami my favorite airline LAN Peru takes only five and one-half hours. And I believe it is the least expensive destination in the USA from Lima. Going through Miami’s immigration process is a breeze, and at least on this recent visit the stop at customs had been eliminated.  I’m curious to know if that is a permanent situation. I never did understand what that stop was supposed to accomplish. After collecting your luggage you get on the Metrorail for a short ride to the car rental center, pick up your car and you can be at your hotel in less than an hour after landing.

There are lots of hotels near the airport. We like the La Quinta Airport West mostly because in our experience customer focus is outstanding. And it’s about half-way between the airport and Miami’s two big malls…the International and Dolphin malls. And it’s close to a Denny’s restaurant, where tradition dictates that we go for our first breakfast in the US and I pig out on a lumberjack slam.

Florida has a lot to offer for tourists. On previous visits we’ve been to Clearwater Beach, Coco Beach, the Kennedy Space Center, Orlando and several other destinations, but finding new places to visit is not a problem.  

Located on Florida’s west coast, Naples doesn’t have a lot in the way of typical tourist attractions. The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is worth seeing. The municipal pier is unremarkable. What Naples does have going for it is shopping. The Miromar Outlets and Tin City malls are impressive for their ambience and offerings. Visiting both of them can easily consume a full day. The city also has a wealth of fine restaurants…and some that are not so fine but pretend to be so. Our dinner at the popular Watermark Grille was worth the 20 minute table wait.

Our primary purpose for visiting Naples was to see Maribel’s uncle. Carlos left the village of Puerto Eten, Peru many years ago to take up life in New York. A few years ago he and his wife Mary had had enough of New York winters and moved to Naples. They have a daughter also living in Naples. Carlos is 90 and still in great shape physically and mentally. Both he and Mary are interested and informed about a wide range of subjects. We had some lively discussions about the presidential candidates in the upcoming elections in Peru and the US.

From Naples we drove to Key West. What should have been a five and one-half hour drive took eight hours. I don’t ever want to see highway 997 (Krome Ave) again, and I will never drive on US 1 through the Florida Keys on a Saturday. The 20 mile stretch between Homestead and Key Largo was the worst. Progress was measured in feet per hour. Inching forward three car lengths without stopping was cause for celebration. It was curiosity and the need to get out of the traffic for awhile that prompted us to stop at a restaurant in Key Largo.

I don't know what I was expecting to see in Key Largo; maybe giant sized statues of Bogart and Bacall on the edge of the highway welcoming visitors, or a cocktail lounge named Rick's Place, or a saloon called 'Here's looking at you kid', but there wasn't anything to set Key Largo apart from any other town in the keys. So much for romantic images.

In the end Key West was definitely worth the effort to get there. It is unlike any Florida city we’ve visited. The western half of the city; a small area of only 2.25 square miles is where everything is happening. There is the Ernest Hemingway museum (his bedroom in the photo), the Truman White House, a light house museum and many other attractions to see.

Without a doubt the most popular attractions are not what you would call cultural. Duval Street, with a total length of a little over one mile is the place to be. The street is lined on both sides with shopping boutiques and restaurants, every one of them with a constant flow of tourists entering and leaving. The northwest end of the street transitions from shopping to drinking and eating. It seems that every bar/restaurant offers entertainment in the form of a guitar playing man with a raucous voice booming from massive speakers. On the street it’s possible to hear three or four of them at the same time.  You’re also likely to hear chickens. Key West has a thing about chickens. They are everywhere, including on top of our breakfast table at the hotel, and crossing busy Duval Street. Drivers brake for chickens, and merchants sell tee shirts with that message among others. One of my favorites was:

“I dream of a society
where a chicken can cross the road
without its motives being questioned”

Captain Tony’s and Sloppy Joe’s were haunts of Hemingway in the 1930s and are very popular, as is the Hog’s Breath Saloon. At the top of Duval Street is Mallory Square. Hundreds of people gather there to take photos of the setting sun and to be part of the night life that springs up at sundown. Strolling the ‘harbor walk’ (photo) reminded us of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Two days in Key West was not enough. We could have used two more.

While there are 5-star hotels in Key West, the majority of the hotels are remodeled old houses, many of them located on side streets, and they are pricy. We stayed at the Albury Court Hotel. The service was good and the continental breakfast was a bit above average. Two negatives are that parking is not offered - you take your chances finding a spot on the street, and the room we were in was small.

Back in Miami, we spent our final night with an old friend from my Wisconsin days. Dino and his wife Sara Luisa are good friends that we see each visit to Miami. Following a delicious and humongous steak dinner (when it comes to steaks on the grill Dino is DA MAN) we sang up a storm until it was time to leave.

We’ll be back in Florida. There is the Florida panhandle yet to be explored and I’m sure cities like Pensacola and Panama City have attractions worth seeing.

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