Florida: The Other Side

November 15, 2013 11:21 am

leu-gardens-florida“Children? Daddy’s going to the worst place in America,” said the man in the movie before leaving for Florida. But that’s just a little harsh. It’s not just a swamp where Mickey Mouse pops his head out whenever the hurricanes have recessed; it’s not simply an extended retirement complex with no seasons where a space shuttle will never again launch into the chasm of space. Certainly, for this author, it’s so much more than that.

One of the most welcoming and friendly places you could find, Florida doesn’t need seasons as the sun is always shining. Probably why everyone there is so happy. Even the octogenarians are out jogging and cycling while the rest of the population casually drives by in their monster trucks. There is no state tax, and even though they resent the expense, motorists pay the same price for their fuel that we did in 1988. The state is so big and neatly laid out that driving is the only way to get to an actual destination. Unless, of course, you own one of the thousands of beautiful yachts.

Be deaf to your little brats screaming for amusement parks and forget the usual destinations. Try something a little different, like the beautiful Leu Gardens with its stunning botanical arrangements, patrolled from the skies by eagles and ospreys. Or venture down to Cocoa Beach at sunrise and walk to the end of the pier where the huge pelican will pose for a photo with you, before snapping at your face.

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Speaking of beaches, and I’m not a beach person, I couldn’t help but drive along the clean white sand at Daytona. The water lapping at the shore is an alluring Bondi blue, with just enough contrast again the deep blue sky. As much as I enjoy being surrounded by scantily clad nubiles sunning themselves or bouncing around a volleyball net, I’m an explorer, and venturing away from the Ferris wheels and beachfront hotels brought me to the Daytona International Speedway, where each year crazy people drive around an enormous track at even crazier speeds while trying to not be crushed into a metallic kebab. It happened to be Biker’s Week during my visit, so I was treated to the sight of thousands of Harley Davidsons mounted by leather-clad people who had clearly never encountered a razor. The spectrum of coloured chassis was almost as brutal to the eyes as the roaring exhausts were to the ears.

florida alligatorsAfter a stunning sunset on the Daytona Pier, hunger might entice you to the endless array of fast food restaurants lining the boulevards like expectant sentries. And while indulging oneself on holiday is something of a custom, there are a few alternatives, although the portions are still generous. At Port Canaveral, Fishlips Restaurant is a bustling joint overlooking the water, with a bar, nightclub and veranda upstairs, and a menu abundant in delicious seafood, salads and ribs. The sumptuous Key Lime pie is even made by someone locally and not on site. Great service and terrific food; just ask for Lisa.

This author forewent all the usual tourist traps in order to find Florida’s most famous residents: alligators. And boy, did I find them, getting close enough to a huge specimen to keep my heart racing for the rest of the day. They’re everywhere, sharing the wetlands with a tremendous kaleidoscope of wildlife. Egrets, herons, otters, manatees, butterflies co-exist with humans in a vibrantly green and spacious wilderness. There can’t be that many places where you can see cranes or herons nonchalantly shepherding their young outside a gas station. And sitting on the edge of a pier on the Indian River each morning drinking a caramel coffee and watching the dolphins swim by is the best way to start one’s day anywhere in the world.

So I can fully appreciate why my friends there would give up their corporate jobs and leave the freezing winters to enjoy cruising in the endless sunshine with egrets and pelicans flapping around in the rear-view mirror. It’s a great life, and experiencing just a short morsel of it is enough to entice me back some day soon.

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