Day ‘whatever’ – back home.

So that’s it, another year over, an new one just begun. No, sorry, that’s a different time of year….

So, that’s it, the end of our ‘big’ holiday for 2015. It’s been great. Not quite the highs (for Liz and myself at least) of last years epic, but close enough to make it all worthwhile. And for the kids, this years holiday probably exceeded last year (not enough roller coasters in California for them)

The last couple of days in Florida were somewhat punctuated by the weather. Tropical Storm Erika hit on Sunday evening, and killed off Monday as a final day for us. In fact we did actually venture out to Naples beach on Monday morning. We spent all of 15 minutes on the sand and then the darkest, most ominous skies came over together with distant lightening so we decided the sensible option would be to head back to the car:-

Sam, still enjoying the beach on doomsday.

We spent the rest of the day bumming around Naples & the Coastland centre avoiding the (at times) torrential rain. In a typically Floridian fashion, by the time were back in Marco, the weather once again had turned ok. We spent our last evening at Snook’s a great seafood restaurant that overlooks the main bay of the Island. We had visited earlier in the week, but the rain had prevented any such view… On this night the weather had eased enough for us to see right across the bay to the main bridge servicing the island:-

whilst we were admiring the view in the fading light Sam shouts, “dolphins!”. Once again, for the *3rd* time this week we witnessed a pod of dolphins frolicking in the water waters of the gulf. Not so close to us this time, but easily visible across the bay:-

So in a week we have seen numerous dolphins, a manatee, several alligators, a raccoon and too many exotic birds to mention. It’s been almost as good as a trip to Dudley zoo.

Tuesday and Wednesday we had the long journey back to England. I am not a great traveler – for reasons of boredom as much as anything. After 2 hours on a plane I am usually ready to eat my own head, so the thought of 9 hours over to Frankfurt and then another 1 1/4 hours back to Brum did not appeal. That said, it was actually ok apart from having to jog / speed march / run for about 40 minutes through Frankfurt airport to get from our arrival stand to our departure stand. The published layover was 1 hour 15 mins, but due to taking off around 35 minutes in Orlando we knew it would be tight on time to make our connection.

We ran upstairs. We ran downstairs. We ran on travelling walkways. We ran up and down escalators. We pushed a middle aged American out of the way at the bag security point. We were speed marched through security points and onto a shuttle bus to the awaiting plane about 5 minutes later than it was scheduled take off. We ran up the stairs to be greeted with…. an almost empty plane. Ok… I spoke to the flight attendant and she said there were *70* people from the Orlando flight due on the Birmingham flight and they wouldn’t leave until they were there as it wasn’t worth flying otherwise…. Well, er, thanks for letting us know. So we sat on the plane for another 30 minutes until all the other passengers meandered on!

We arrived back in Birmingham only 25 minutes late or so, so all good really.

And at the point, I must end this blog…. Nothing more to write, back to the everyday.

Until next year, goodbye.

p.s. you will notice the top image of this post is Toll End bridge over the canal in Tipton. It just proves that beauty can be found everywhere. Sometimes I think we feel we have to travel 1000’s of miles to see all that is good in the world. Yes, we are fortunate to be able to do these trips, but they are by no means essential…

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Day 13 – Airboating in the real South.

Florida, despite being the southernmost state, is not what you would call the ‘deep south’. In much the same way that Cornwall is largely colonised by people from all over the UK (and Europe) Florida is exactly the same way. When you visit a theme park in Orlando, every member of staff has a name badge with their home town / state / country on the bottom of it. VERY few employees are from Florida, let alone Orlando. People come here from all over the US for the year round weather, cheap property & blossoming tourist industry.

Orlando is pretty much Disney & Universal town. They dominate the tourist landscape. Marco is a bit like Solihull-by-the-Sea. Most people here seems to be professionals courtesy of the high (for Florida) property prices. But how far do you have to travel if you want to see the ‘real south’? Not far at all…. About 20 miles across the Everglades from Marco is ‘Everglades City’ (pop. 400). I have read somewhere that in the US you can call any community a city if they have an airport / landing strip. Everglades has one and is therefore a city. But it not what we would know as a city, more what we would call a 1 horse town.

On our previous visit to Evergaldes city we were shocked that one guy working for one of the airboat tour companies was berating one of his customers for being a ‘damn Yankee’. Yes sir, despite being over for 150 years, the civil war is still alive and well and raging here. Welcome to the real south.

Why did we visit here? Well despite a population listed as being 400, there appears to be 350 airboat tour operators here! Seriously, apart from a couple of churches, gas stations and a K-Mart, every other business is airboat-related. Why, you ask? Well the clue is in the name of the place – you have direct access to the 100’s of miles of channels, streams, mangrove swamps, canals & waterways of the Everglades. We looked at tripadvisor etc. to try to distinguish between the different companies, but they all offer 1 or 2 hour tours, and all charge ~$40 for the 1 hour tour. What helped me decide is that the one we went with in the end (Speedy’s) was the only one that didn’t offer:

  1. A free alligator head to every customer
  2. An alligator show back at their HQ
  3. ‘Hold a baby gator’

Again, I want to see alligators… It’s just I want to see them in their natural habitat just being the nasty, vicious swines that they are.

The reviews I read on tripadvisor were not promising. There has been very little rain here this summer and this increases the salinity of the Everglades water. This is turn keeps the gators away as they are freshwater creatures. Most reviews over the last month stated they hadn’t seen any alligator activity at all. Despite this we headed out this morning fairly early as tropical storm Erika was due to hit in the afternoon. We drove past numerous airboat operators… a bit like this

and found Speedys well, speedily. Sitting out the front were a few good ole’ boys chewin’ baccy. Actually they were reading the paper, but I’m trying to keep up the illusion. We paid our $$ and had to wait 10 minutes or so for Captain Kevin. Speedys boats are only 6 seaters and we would have the boat to ourselves as not many people were around – the weather wasn’t looking great and this was a Sunday morning – churchin’ time!

US Flag – check. Pick up truck – check. Chairs on the stoop – check.

We set off with our ear protectors and ponchos at the ready. Ear protectors because these boats are generally powered by 1970’s American V8’s… with no exhaust… And ponchos because Captain Kev reckons the storm would hit before we got back. The first part of the ride is taken at walking pace so as not to create a wake and disturb the ecosystem. After 5 minutes or so you are far enough into the ‘glades for them to open up the taps – and boy do these things move. I think we were up to about 50mph on the straights.

Within 10 minutes I had spotted the first alligator, as had Kev. Unfortunately it dived when we approached (not surprised. These airboats sound like *thunder*) and Kev said it would stay under for 5 minutes or so and he didn’t want to hang around for it. He also said he had seen 6 gators this morning – more than he had seen in the previous month.

We didn’t have to wait long to see another, and this one was good enough to pose for us:

10 minutes later, we came across another one… pretty lucky to see 3 within an hour by all accounts. There are plenty there, they just don’t like people or airboats much. We had a few high speed runs around the creeks and then we had to head back. Whilst we were idling back into the dock, Kev turned off the engine and coasted right up to another airboat with it’s engine off. There was an enormous manatee slowly cruising through the dock area. Unfortunately I had packed my camera away, but we could see the size of it by it’s enormous tail slowly and gracefully powering it through the water. We were very lucky indeed.

We came back to out house early by our standards as Erika had oviously begun to head in. The sky was black by mid-afternoon, the wind (we haven’t seen a breath of wind for nearly 2 weeks) had worked up and the rain had started. Within a couple of hours we were treated to some of the best thunder and lightening I have ever seen:-

and that was pretty much it for the evening….. The kids wanted pizza so Sam and I headed off to the local pizza place and got *absolutely soaked* despite parking right outside the front door of the place. When we got back to the villa Sam proceeded to slip and fall over on the drive thus making himself wetter than if he had jumped in the bath. The pizza was rather splendid though. Every cloud…;-)

Sunshine state? Yeah, right.

Day 12 – Don’t pull the tiger’s tail

Marco, being the select, upmarket community that it is, has 2 public beaches – despite being an island and surrounded by water and beaches. Look, the irrevocable proof is here:-

A couple of days ago we went to South Beach, today we decided to go to Tigertail beach. You pay $8 to park, walk through a small, secluded area with a cafe, toilets, etc. and you are then presented with a tiny, muddy, ultimately disappointing  bay facing what looks like a wooded island about 100 yards in front of the ‘beach’. What you don’t realise at this point is that this is Tigertail lagoon – you have to wade through this to get to the beach proper. No problem, it’s only about 100 yards across this thigh-deep water (see the top image of this post). We gathered our belongings up high like a tribe of Africans carrying water back to the village (we had iphones / wallets / car keys in our back pack) and set about conquering this aquatic barrier. We waded across and through the wooded area to be greeted with another strip of pristine white sand, the clearest, greenest ocean you will ever see and virtually no people on there at all.

Again, it was a beautiful morning with seriously high temperatures hovering around 100f. We sat and read and bathed in the ridiculously warm water for a couple of hours. And what did we see within 15 minutes of sitting on the beach? More bloody dolphins. They are becoming a nuisance now. You wait 40-odd years to see them in the wild and now you can’t get away from their incessant clicking and whistling. Leave me alone already!

I then asked the kids if they would like an ice cream or drink from the cafe back near the car park. Of course they did, and Liz wanted a drink so we headed back to cross the lagoon again. Only this time the water wasn’t thigh-deep. The tide had come in and it was now chest deep for me, and shoulder deep for Sam… I walked across carrying my $20 bill above my head as if parading the world’s worst trophy. The kids had an ice cream each and I asked for a sprite to take back for Liz. The guy at the cafe then tells me they don’t have cans / bottles, just a dispenser with no cap for the cups. As I didn’t want to carry an open drink across the lagoon I cancelled the sprite and we sat and ate the ice cream in the shade of the cafe’s tables.

Whilst we were sitting there, another (wet from the chest down) family arrived and the man of the family ordered a Budweiser – which came in a can.. Aha! I’ll get Liz a cool beer to drink on the beach, so I bought a can as the kids finished the last of their ice cream. Then I noticed the:-

signs about the place – completely forgetting about America’s really very strict alcohol laws. It is easier to buy a handgun than a 6-pack in many states.

What do I do? Do I drink the beer and return to Liz reeking of booze and yet telling her I couldn’t get her the Sprite she craved so? Do I leave the can at the cafe, cross the ever deepening lagoon, get Liz, recross the lagoon all so she can have a small can of American lager?

No, I decided to make a run for it like some latter-day prohibition runner. The thrill was enormous, and the risks low as I had a cunning plan to use Millie as my mule. We wrapped the contraband can in her towel and made a break for it across the lagoon to freedom. The sweat was pouring off us as we feared the hand of Eliot Ness grabbing our collar before we could make it across, but our resolve was strong and our progress swift. When we reached land at the end of our run we were buzzing. We had got one over on the mighty federal government of the United States. Liz swiftly drank the beer and held aloft the crushed can in a defiant show of freedom – where better than in the face of the land of the free.

Britain 1 America 0.

Victory was sweet indeed.

Within minutes of our epic journey the weather turned. Was this some kind of divine punishment for my transgression? I didn’t want to hang around to find out. The skies blackened and the wind picked up within a couple of minutes. Tropical storm Erika was beginning, her arrival no doubt hastened by a single can of Bud Lite.

We got back to car in double quick time and within seconds the heavens opened. But we didn’t get wet. We weren’t hurled into the air like Dorothy in Kansas. I set the air con to a nice 73f and we drove back to our house.

It seemed today was a day of wins.

Day 11 – Miami, nice.

We have been to Florida 5 times now, but never down to Miami – the fourth largest and eighth most populous city in the US (5.5 million). Today we decided would be the day we finally made the trip across the Everglades to this metropolis.

There are 2 routes you can take from Marco to Miami. The quickest, but longer route is via generic Interstate roads, the other (that we took) route is to take the arrow-straight US41 which cuts through Injun’ country with the wilderness of the Everglades on both sides of the road nearly all the way there.

Screenshot 2015-08-28 at 22.32.19

On the 70 or so miles of this road you pass maybe 30 inhabited properties, a couple of Native American reserves and 3 or 4 campsites. That is it. No fuel, no rest area, just swampland as far as the eye can see all around. We have absolutely nothing like this at home, you are never more than 10 miles from a Tesco Express.

The drive, up until about 15 miles from South Beach was a very easy one. I overtook 3 or 4 cars en route and never had to drop below the permitted speed. Then we hit the outskirts of the Miami metropolitan area…. and traffic hell.  There are toll roads all over the place in Florida, and I don’t mind paying one bit. The usual fee is something like $1.50 or $2 and it is worth every penny. The only trouble with the toll roads in Miami is they are unmanned and do not take cash. They have numberplate recognition or you can use EZ-Pass (a little electronic transceiver that sits by your rear view mirror. Being in a hire car, we had neither option so the only route we could take was the slow route… Eventually it took us a little over 3 hours to do the 105 miles to South Beach. Half of this was the last 10 miles.

We parked up and went for a walk through the ‘art deco’ district which is a pretty amazing place. It is the hang out area for the perennially beautiful people of Florida, so as you can imagine we fitted in almost without trace. Eventually we strolled the entire length of Ocean Drive, the ‘prom’ as we would call it at home although it’s about as far removed from Blackpool as it is possible to get in a coastal resort (no rock, kiss-me-quick hats, giant sweet dummies or rotating postcard display units).

After less than an hour the same problem we had in Naples reared it’s head – trial by sweat. Again, the temperature was up to over 90 and the humidity was 100%. It doesn’t feel like hard work to walk, but you are sweating like a pig doing a marathon in a shell suit after a very short space of time. There’s no end of choice of places to sit and eat / drink, all of which have covered areas with fans blowing water mist. We sat down in one of them and Liz and I had a cheeky cider each each and the kids had a lemonade. $25!!!! Including 18% service charge or tip. Now, tipping….

I am not adverse to tipping here in the US, I know it’s part of the culture and I respect it. The perceived level of tipping is 15-20% of the total bill. Again, I am OK with this and I generally go somewhere in between these 2 values. What I really object to is the fact that it is percentage based rather than a fixed, per person value. Here’s what I mean:-

We go to a restaurant as a 4 and each order a drink and a cheaper main course from the menu. The bill comes to say $60. The ‘expected’ tip is therefore $9-12. Ok.

The next night we go back to the same restaurant and order 4 drinks plus a lobster each. The bill this night is now $120 so the ‘expected’ tip is now $18-24…. Why? The server has provided *exactly* the same service on both nights and yet I am expected to tip more because I have ordered a more costly dish? I don’t get it. I pay it, but I don’t get it.

Why not say 4 people are eating, the expected tip is $4 per person *regardless* of what you order? Funnily enough, this is the convention in buffet-style places, you are expected to tip on a per person basis, not total bill.

As a Brit in America what you may not know is that the government charges servers tax on their tips – whether they receive them or not…! So lets say a server serves 6 parties of Brits in a night with a total spend of $400. None of them tip because they don’t believe in it. The government here would tax the server on a presumed tip of 15% of the total takings so they would pay tax on $60 of non-existent tips…. In *theory* they could lose money for a nights work as they generally only make a very small minimum wage ($5 / hour in Florida as low as $2.13 / hour in many states!).

Here is the definitive guide to tipping (don’t watch if you don’t like profanity):-

Whilst were sitting drinking our drinks, I suddenly noticed something about Sam that I have never noticed before. This sometimes happens to all of us I’m sure, you notice a freckle or mole you’ve never seen before, or maybe the shape of an ear and thought to yourself – ‘I’ve never seen that before’. In a nutshell, I suppose that is the wonder of children. They are constantly surprising and delighting you. What did I notice about Sam that I haven’t noticed in the 10.9 years of his life thus far?

He has massively long forearms. Seriously, he is like a praying mantis. What, you’ve never noticed either? Well take a look at the photographic evidence my pedigree chums:-

Millie, creeped out by Sam’s tentacle.

pass us the salt Sam. Off the next table.

Anyway, South Beach and Miami in general was glorious, take a look at some of the photos I took here:-

The drive back home (at least to get out of Miami) was equally as tortuous as the drive in, if not worse. Trying to avoid the toll roads was a complete pain in the you-know-what. Eventually I gave up with the sat nav and just headed west as far as I could. Eventually we managed to pick the Tamiami Trail once again after another 1.5 hours of battling (admittedly Friday rush hour) traffic. In some ways it’s nice to know it’s not just us who have to do this battle every week.

Day 10 – the unexpected things are the best things.

We are getting lazy, pure and simple. Today I didn’t get up until 7am, totally outrageous I know. Next thing I will be wearing my slippers & dressing gown (not that I own either) to Tesco and watching Jeremy Kyle all afternoon.

Or maybe the relaxing nature of Marco Island and specifically this house are having an effect on me. Maybe I am actually…. relaxed? It’s the weirdest of feelings, not one I am accustomed to. Usually I would be working to some kind of timetable, a meeting in Newcastle at 9:30 or training someone on the south coast from 8:30. But here, there’s really no reason to get up and out with any kind of urgency. That said, surely we want to make the most of this place whilst we have the opportunity. Within weeks of getting back home the clocks will be put back and we will have 4 months of darkness and damp to look forward to. Sorry to mention it, but it’s gonna happen.

The weather was patchy at best this morning, not cold (it’s never cold!), but rain and storms interspersed with sun and extreme heat. Very ‘Florida in August’. We decided to pay a visit to Naples today, it’s not far – 12 miles or so and from what we both remember it’s a very upmarket, quaint city. I think I read somewhere it has the highest per capita Cadillac ownership anywhere in the US. Read into that what you will. As soon as we set off the heavens opened. As beautiful as it is here, grey clouds and rain really remove the lustre from the place. You could be in the middle of Kettering in October. Actually, no, you couldn’t really. That’s ridiculous. As we approached Naples it was still bucketing it down so we decided to head the ‘Coastland Center’, a very typical US mall with all the same stores that every other mall in the US has. As you enter through Sears, J C Penny, Dillards etc. you could be entering a mall in Ohio, Maine, Kentucky or Hawaii – they are all identical. This is both good and bad. You know what you are going to get, but the lack of variety makes it a pretty dull experience.

We had a brief wander around and then went outside to check the weather – blazing sun, 90-odd degrees again. So we got in the car and headed downtown. I have very vivid memories of playing cards under the pier at Naples when we came in 2000, not for some illicit gambling purpose, more just to get some shade. We parked the car right opposite the beach and headed off to go to the pier. Which was shut. Until December. So we strolled along the near-deserted beach for less than 50 yards. As soon as we started walking, what should we see – a small pod of dolphins no more than 10 yards from the shore. How absolutely fantastic to see these majestic creatures just hanging around in their natural habitat rather than performing ball tricks for us at Seaworld. They are simply *fantastic*. I quickly got my camera out to try to get some good shots, but they do not act to any human desires, they simply surfaced as and when they pleased, and I’m very happy for that to be the case.

Here’s what I managed:-

that is a dolphin fin, not an old tyre in the water

Liz was more excited than I have seen her in long while (finding 2 Gap outlets this trip not withstanding), and rightly so. They played and dived and surfaced for a good few minutes right in front of us. We followed them for a few minutes just walking down the beach. It seems even dolphins get slower in these temperatures.

Talking of which – after the dolphins had moved on, we went for a walk around the ‘Old Naples’ area which is full of boutiques you’ve never heard, selling brands you’ve never heard of, for prices you never thought you’d see in your life. They were pretty empty. I’d imagine they only need to sell 1 scarf a week to make it worth their while. It is very pretty though and the architecture is very colonial. Again, I tried to get some decent shots, but my eye was just not in:-

Naples pier. Closed.

Magaluf it is not.

All very nice, but no Ethel Austin?

We would have looked to have looked around a little more, but the heat was unbearable. Even Sam complained, mind you he was wearing jeans… and a hat!

In typical fashion we came back home for pool time later in the afternoon, a necessary indulgence.

Right, I wonder if I can get Jeremy Kyle on cable….

Day 9 – first beach of the holiday

When I were a lad, holidays meant one thing and one thing only – the beach. I suppose this is a consequence of growing up in the Black Country as far away from water as you can get in the UK. The only time I ever felt sand under my feet was when they built the new estate down the road and we played in the piles of builders sand. Maybe it was cement now I think back… come to think of it, my shoes always weighed about 3 stone each by the time I got home.

For my family, holidays were usually taken in Weymouth. We would hire one of the beach huts for the 2 weeks we had there and spend every minute from dawn till dusk either in the hut or on the beach. Consequently if you were to play word associations with me, holiday would invitably invoke beach. Fast forward the kids being pre-teen and again for my family holidays meant (typically Cornish) sand and sea. Places like Porth beach, Watergate Bay, Porthpean and Meanporth have been our home away from home for the last 10 years or so.

Last year we visited Las Vegas and California and despite renting a condo right on the beach at Dana Point, we only visited that particular beach once. We also spent a morning at Laguna beach making a sum total of 1.5 days of a 14 day trip. 9 days into our 14 day trip this year and we have visited a beach for the first time… We took the very short drive down to the south beach area of Marco, parked the car, and walked the 100 yards or so across the board walks to be greeted with the whitest, finest sand I have seen in my life. The stretch of visible beach was about a mile long and they were maybe 50 people on it in total….

not my picture, selfie stick doesn’t go quite that high.

a busy day at South Beach

We pitched up with the chairs and umbrella supplied with the house and went for a dip in the gulf to cool off – except… It was probably warmer in the water than it was on the beach. Without doubt the warmest water in which I have ever been swimming, even warmer than the pool at our house.

Despite it being a cloudy day, it was still as hot as… We spent 3 or 4 hours there reading, shelling and discussing the meaning of life,  er, swimming. I’m annoyed I didn’t get any photos as I left my camera back at the house. I’m also annoyed as this will be one of the last opportunities we will all get to spend time together on the beach. Millie doesn’t care for it much now and I can see that Sam isn’t far behind. Maybe future holidays will be more city-based which I look forward to, but a little piece of me is sad that the simple pleasures of the beach are being lost to teenage wants.

In the evening we went to a local bar / greek food place. It was utterly empty when we arrived and there only 2 other people in there when we left. The owner came over to talk to us asking if the food was ok etc. (it was. Made all the better by unexpectedly having a lamb kebab.. In Florida… Bonus.). He was a really nice guy from Michigan called Kirk and he was telling us that the next few weeks are the complete dead time for the tourist industry in south Florida. The local kids are back at school, and the snowbirds don’t arrive until October / November. That would explain the complete lack of people around Marco. He asked where we were from and when I said Birmingham (couldn’t be arsed to explain Black Country / Worcestershire, it’s just easier to say Brum) he said ‘that’s where Black Sabbath are from!’ in a totally night-before-Christmas, childlike excited way. We discussed music briefly and he explained he was a musician and had lived all around the US but had settled with a bar in Marco – of course I had totally missed the fact that a 1/3 of the floor space in his bar was devoted to a stage with mike stands / amps etc. set up all over the place.

At this point I knew I had him. We have a secret weapon that can be used in the US to great effect. Grown men of a certain age go weak at the knees and become doe-y eyed within seconds. They will be at your mercy forever more and this proved to be the case with Kirk. Time to unleash….. the ‘Plant’ bomb.

me: you must like Zeppelin, right?

Kirk: oh yeah, they are mine and my wife’s absolute favourite band

me: (casually) yeah, we live about 2 miles from Robert Plant. He drinks at the pub opposite our house and I have been to his house to fix his computer. Liz sees him in Tesco Express regularly.

Kirk: REALLY? FOR REAL? Oh my god, can you get me his autograph?

And so it went on. For about another 20 minutes.

Putty. In. My. Hand.

I had to show him where we & Plant live on google maps on his phone! He was like a 10 year old kid again with excitement. He gave us one of his CD’s which he asked if we could get signed for him!! Brilliant. Make no mistake, as huge as Zeppelin were in the UK, in the US they are still the biggest band ever. Robert Plant in particular is revered as some kind of god. To put it in context, he said one of his friends was from Liverpool and had grown up in the 60’s with Beatles. He was like, ‘yeah, whatever’ about this, but was super impressed that I could get the printer of an ageing rock star going.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

When we finally returned back to the house, Liz and I spent a couple of hours sitting outside by the pool enjoying the thankfully cooler weather and watching the best light show you will see this side of the Northern Lights – the strobe-like Floridian lightening storm. Whilst we were sat outside, we *think* we heard the sound of dolphins blowing through their blow holes. Several previous visitors to this house have said they have seen dolphins in the waterway at the rear of the pool. Unfortunately it was just too dark to see anything and the only torch we had was hopelessly underpowered. Oh well, maybe we will be lucky enough to get a glimpse in the daylight…

Day 8 – Paradise, found.

Woke up extra early today – 5:00am for you bed-heads…! Jet-lag still hasn’t gone away completely, so I’m using the time in the morning to write this blog and drink copious amount of coffee.

Nothing to rush for this morning, we had to be out of our villa by 10:00, but we couldn’t get into our Marco house before 4:00 (it’s about a 3-4 hour drive between the cities). We all had a lazy breakfast and Liz laundered the last of the towels & sheets. We then all sat around in silence for about 45 minutes reading. All 4 of us. I don’t remember that happening once in the 10 years we have been 4! We were almost… dignified instead of the usual Clampitt-like mob that descends on a town and basically ruins it for everybody else.

In 2003 we came to Florida with Millie for the first time. She was around 18 months old. Again, we had a 2 centre holiday with a week in Orlando and then we moved on to Clearwater Beach on the gulf coast staying at a hotel there. The drive to Clearwater is much shorter than to Marco, about 90 minutes, and we arrived at the hotel a little too early to check in. The guy at the desk very kindly said we could use the hotel pool whilst we were waiting, so we got our swimming gear out of the car and decided to have a quick dip. Liz sat and read for a while whilst I entertained Millie in the water (there was a pattern forming there already!).

We had been in the water 15 minutes maximum when I sat Millie on the top step of the pool ladder. As I was manoeuvring her there, I thought that’s odd, there appears to be a squashed tomato on the step. I lifted her up and clear of it only to realise it was first part of a rather large, loose ’emission’ from Millie herself. I basically threw her out of the water and quietly tried to call Liz over. But the emission didn’t stop there, she was obviously enjoying the freedom.

Liz went into the reception area to discretely tell the person at the desk that there had been a minor ‘accident’ in the pool. I was still in the water advising people not to get in. A minute later a guy with a walkie-talkie and megaphone came out on to the pool deck with a ‘Roy Schneider in Jaws’ style ‘get out of the water! NOW!‘ to the many dozens of people in the pool. Within a minute the pool was empty except for myself. I tried to explain to the guy what had happened but he was having none of it. He made no bones about telling me the pool would have to be shut for 24 hours now and partially drained… I tried apologising but he completely dismissed me.

I got out of the pool and went to find Millie and Liz. They were in the poolside changing room and the sight that greeted me when I first opened the door is one that will live with me for the rest of my life. You know when people see the slightest bit of excrement anywhere and say ‘it’s like a dirty protest’ – well believe me, this was. Liz had taken several pure-white towels from the pool and used them to ‘clean up’ Millie. It was horrific. Within 30 minutes the hotel’s pool guy had arrived who was a young British guy, he was very cool about it saying this happens every day somewhere in town. He explained that they have to drain 75% of the water out of the pool and then sterilise for 24 hours… Great, you’re really making me feel better. All the hotel residents had to use the (by now very packed) pool at the adjacent hotel.

And all this before we had even checked in.

So when we say the Clampitts are in town, we really mean it.

We had packed up  and decided to head off and maybe stop on the way if we were way too early. The drive was an uneventful one, there are basically 2 or 3 turnings between Orlando and Naples, the majority of the 225 mile drive is arrow-straight Interstate roads. We stopped for a quick toilet-break at one of the rest areas you see over here – they are unmanned picnic areas / toilet blocks and vending machines. Although the one we stopped at had the added frisson of ‘beware of alligators’ signs all around. Not something you see at Hopwood services (although there are plenty of snakes & sharks inside trying to sell you a Cotton Traders fleece for £50). We carried on towards Marco, but we would have arrived 2.5 hours too early to get in, so about 40 miles away we noticed another large outlet park much like Belz in Orlando. We pulled off the Interstate and decided to have a mooch and maybe get some food. The layout and design of the place was almost identical to the Orlando outlet, but with about 0.005% of the people. Seriously, we drove around the car park at the Orlando outlet for the best part of 15 minutes trying to get a space. It was like Merry Hill on a wet Saturday afternoon…

Here, we just pulled up right outside the front door and had a stroll around the shops and the kids had their favourite frappucinos from Starbucks. It was sooo relaxed compared to Orlando – hopefully this was indicative of the week to come after the crowds, madness and extreme heat of last week. After an hour or so we decided to carry on and try to get into our rental house despite still being 90 minutes early.

The instructions to get in had been somewhat vague, the lady who owns the place is a Vietnamese immigrant and I’m guessing her first language isn’t English. I’d also had a security alert about her account from Homeaway (the site I use for rentals) a couple of weeks ago which she had explained away it a slightly vague way again. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but worst case, we could just find a hotel for the week. We found the address, pulled up on the drive thinking ‘this looks a bit grand’, and then entered through the open side door….

Wow! Just, wow! What a *fantastic* house this is. It is so homely, well appointed, well decorated and well equipped that I simply can’t convey it here – either with words, or even with photos. The place we had last week was great, but it was very much a ‘rental’ property. Nobody has ever lived there, it is just for vacationers like ourselves. This place on the other hand is so warm and so well equipped I would be happy to say here indefinitely. Property on Marco Island is very much at a premium and this place is massive. Looking on the property websites I reckon you are looking at the best part of $1m to buy something like this. It has the 3 beds / 2 baths / pool that you get everywhere in the US. But how many places have you stayed in with a private boat dock and mooring? I’ve tried to get some decent photos, but they really don’t do it justice:-

The rental details are here:-

http://www.homeaway.co.uk/p124850

We are very, very lucky people. I explain to the kids that I didn’t go abroad until I was 21 (for a week in Majorca with Liz staying at ‘Butlins on the Med’), but it’s very much in one ear, out the other. I know they appreciate it though, and they would be equally happy being in Cornwall for the summer. As beautiful as it is here, the real pleasure of holiday comes from being together as a family & not working for a couple of weeks. The location is largely irrelevant.

But when it’s as nice as this, well, it can’t hurt can it?

Day 7 – All good things must….

Today was our last day in Orlando. This is a mixed blessing, as we have had a great time here and the unknown of next week leaves you with a sense of foreboding… Again, the feelings of ‘will the house be as expected / actually there?’ are rising to the surface. The house here in Orlando has been great. Nothing flash, but in a really nice, quiet residential area which makes it very relaxing to return to after a long day. For anybody thinking of doing the Disney / Universal thing, take a look here, the rates are very reasonable (if not downright cheap):-

Dillon Way

The owners live in Solihull which also gives a sense of reassurance. I’ve emailed the owner, Gillian, several times over the last couple of weeks and she has responded within a couple of hours each time.

We went to Wet ‘n Wild again today at the kids request. Again, we were there about 10 minutes before opening, but something strange was happening… Usually, even being there 15 minutes before opening entails you joining some kind of queue. But when we turned on to the car park there were only 4 other cars there. We walked across to the entrance at 9:50 and there were maybe 15 people milling around, in complete contrast to Friday when we joined a queue of something like 200 people. It transpires many of the schools within the various counties of Florida have returned today. It looks as if it will be a quiet week everywhere.

We were the 2nd or 3rd group to enter so will had the choice of any one of the 100’s of loungers / tables they have there. We set up shop and Sam, Millie and myself headed off around the park to go on the various rides & slides. By 10:45 Sam had done *every* ride in the park! Early birds catching worms once again… We had a very quiet morning there and we headed off mid-afternoon as the storm clouds started to roll in. As we were driving away we saw our first rain of this trip. If you haven’t been to Florida in July / August, the weather is very typically glorious all morning accompanied by a huge deluge / storm every afternoon around 4:00 for about an hour or so. This has been the case on every one of our prior visits. This week has been *fantastic* – very hot, but very dry. I filled the car up on the way back to the villa ($35… how?) and we started packing up our stuff ready for tomorrows drive down to the very south west corner of Florida. As far south as you can get in the US without driving down the Keys. Or visiting Guantanamo Bay. From what I remember of my last visit to Marco Island in 2000 (very little as it happens) we should have a very relaxing week – in complete contrast to the madness and crowds here in central Florida.

So it’s bye-bye Orlando, maybe see you again before the kids are too old :’-(

Day 6 – Early birds do catch the worm.

I am an early morning type of person. I never used to be. One day one of the guys I used to work with said ‘why do you spend so much of the precious 48 hours a week you get off work in bed?’. Unbelievably, I’d never really looked at it like that before. I was drinking lots, getting back at 3 in the morning and not getting up until mid-afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays. I sort of vowed to make the most of weekends and get up early to do ‘stuff’.

During the summer when I had a motorbike I would regularly get up at 5-5:30 head out to Wales or somewhere on the bike, and be back for breakfast and the rest of the day with the family. Also I am regularly in the office for 7:30 despite having an official start time of 9. You just get *so much* done in this time before everyone else arrives. The downside of this is of course you are in bed earlier in the evenings. But since settling down with a family this is hardly an issue.

The latest I have been up here in Florida is 5:45. Liz’s latest lie-in has been until around 6:15. Some of you may recoil in horror at this but it does have it’s benefits.

Yesterday we were at the entrance to Islands of Adventure at 8:40am. That’s after breakfast together here at out villa and a 25 mile drive to International Drive. We weren’t alone there. By the park opening at 9:00 I’d say there was a crowd of 150 people waiting. Of these I reckon over 100 of them were Brits. This is always the case at the parks, the Brit -> American ratio in the mornings seems to be about 5:1. In the afternoons this changes radically. I presume that many American families like to take their time over breakfast and saunter into the parks nearer lunchtime. You can witness the phenomena quite easily for yourself.

  1. enter park at opening time, measure the average queueing time – say 5-10 minutes
  2. spend a couple of hours visiting rides
  3. stop for coffee / snack etc. around 11:30 for 30 minutes
  4. step back into the park
  5. queue times will now be 45 minutes

The difference really is that noticeable. For someone arriving around lunchtime, I would estimate you would get onto 6 or 7 rides at best if you stayed until near closing time. That makes it a pretty expensive day out, coupled with the fact that queueing in 100 degree heat isn’t really the most sensible use of time or what I call a good holiday.

So yesterday we were amongst the first people to enter the park at bang-on 9. By 10:30 Liz and the kids had done *all* of the rides (6 of them I think) they wanted to do in Islands of Adventure and we caught ‘Hogwarts Express’ over to Universal Studios. We did another 4 or 5 (some of them multiple times) rides there and were done by about 1:00pm. That’s every significant ride in 2 theme parks in 4 hours. Bingo.

Despite wanting to be cool and adult, the kids still love just splashing about in the pool back at the villa. We are getting back most afternoons around 2:30-3:00 so they can have a couple of hours of fun before we go out for dinner. They love this time. Given a choice of staying later at the parks or coming back for a hour or two splash about, they will always take the latter option. We have been going for dinner at around 6, back to the villa for 8, and in bed for 10-10:30. In fact Millie has been going to bed around 9 most evenings (and has been the last one up each morning)! Teenagers huh?

So do early birds catch worms? I wholeheartedly believe so.

Day 5 – S.H.O.P.P.I.N.G. We’re shopping. (Think Pet Shop Boys, it works then)

So, you’ve worked the last 50 weeks to pay for your Floridian trip. Endless hours of grafting down a mine or maybe cleaning offices and factories 12 hours a day. Perhaps you are a blacksmith spending long days at the forge or a lorry driver travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles to afford your 2 week escape.

You’ve dreamed of white, sandy beaches & sipping cocktails at the pool bar. Maybe the odd dip in the calm, still ocean to re energise the bones that ache from 11 long months of toil. In the afternoon perhaps you might take a nap to leave some charge in your batteries for a long evening drinking and partying until the small hours. If this is what you envisage your holiday to look like:

DO NOT COME TO ORLANDO.

Seriously, the typical trip here is the complete antithesis of what I have described above. It really can be damned hard work. Most people come here for 2 weeks and visit one or another of the many theme parks every day (I’ve paid for a 14-day ticket, I’m going to get my moneys worth!). Which is fine if you are in England in August, but in temperatures hovering around 100f and humidity running at 100% pretty much all time, a pleasant stroll around a park turns into a battle for survival. We have visited Florida as a family 5 times now and for 4 of those trips we have made it a ‘2 centre’ holiday. i.e. we’ve had 1 week in Orlando, and then another week at a coastal resort to recover. We are heading to Marco Island on Tuesday for exactly this reason.

We decided to take a mid-week break day here in Orlando as well, so what do you do on a free day in the US? Why, shopping of course, because *everything* here is a bargain right? Let me tell you something…

It. Is. A. Myth.

It may have been the case 25 years ago when Florida first took off as a travel destination. You heard many tales of people taking empty suitcases with them to stock up on 501’s and their favourite Nike trainers. I have to say the first time we visited in 2000 there was an element of that, but now….I’ll say it again, it’s a myth. Yes, stuff is generally a bit cheaper, but don’t forget the 6% tax on *every* purchase. Factor the inflated cost of actually getting here now and there really are very few bargains.

At the end of International drive there is an outlet village which used to be called (and we still call it) Belz, but is now ‘Orlando Premium Outlets’. I think we have visited each and every time we have been and I can say that for the last 2 or 3 visits I haven’t purchased a single thing. After all, 60% off something is really only a bargain if you want it in the first place. A strange thing happens when we visit here. A new time unit is temporarily created. You still have your:-

  • second
  • minute
  • hour
  • day
  • month
  • year
  • century
  • millenia

But none of these units have the breadth or scope to measure the amount of time Liz will spend browsing in the Gap store at the outlets. I call the new time unit the ‘Gap Beard mm’. Here’s how it works – Liz enters the Gap store at the outlet usually with a ‘I won’t be long, I just want a pair of socks etc.’. I set the clock running, but not on my watch, the battery / mechanism would die before she returns. What I actually do is take a photo of my beard stubble. When she eventually returns, I take another photo of my facial hair (by now in full ZZ Top mode) and measure the length difference in mm. From that I can reverse engineer the actual Gregorian time units that have elapsed. Simple.

Yesterday however, the temporary blindness from the flash of the initial beard photo had barely subsided before she returned… I didn’t even bother measuring, but I’d guess we were at 0.00004 GB mm’s. This is first time she has dipped below double digits. ‘there’s nothing I want or need really’ she says. I am speechless.

After visiting Belz, we then drove down to the Florida Mall, the largest one in the area (if not all of Florida?). The same thing again, the only purchased was the kids buying some t-shirts from their favourite store – Hot Topic. And not because they were a bargain, simply because they are unavailable at home.

We were back at the villa by 2:30 for some family pool time having spent the grand total of about $90 on some trainers for Millie.

Shop till you drop? Hardly.