Too Much Sunshine: Michael and Dan Tour Florida, May 3-16, 2012
Daniel Emberley, May 2012
Two sets of friends had invited us to visit them in Florida, so Michael and I decided it was time to do a proper Florida road trip. We saw Miami twelve years ago, and had been in and out of Orlando several times for family commitments and Disney. However, we’d not given the many cities in the state proper attention, and Harry Potter was calling us. We loved the fresh fruit, the wildlife of the Everglades, the St. Petersburg beaches and the Overseas Highway to Key West. We hated the high cost of culture, the sun, heat, and humidity, and the society of strictly divided rich and poor with as little possibility of change for the poor as possible. Our analysis is that Florida is socially Appalachia, with a veneer of Jersey Shore and nuggets of gated community affluence. It’s common, when not downright trashy. Would we move there? Heck no. Did we have fun? Hell yes. Details follow, for those so inclined.
Thursday, May 3
To our surprise, the cheapest flights to Florida were in and out of Orlando, direct from National. I’d expected Ft. Lauderdale or maybe Tampa, but no. US Airways got us into Orlando International, the old McCoy Air Force base (hence the MCO on our bags), and Hertz onto the freeways. We drove due north to Winter Park. It was time for lunch, and Michael had a Post review of a restaurant called The Ravenous Pig. This turned out to be the best meal of our trip. Although the tables were booked, they seated us at the bar with a view into the kitchen: a live show! A Bloody Mary with house-pickled garnishes, fried chicken livers and okra, and smoked pork sandwiches. In a gift that kept on giving over our two weeks, the check was a third less than we would have paid in D.C.
The Morse Museum of American Art is the gem of Winter Park; it has one of the world’s best collections of American decorative arts, and the best collection of Tiffany. We’ve seen great Tiffany at the Chrysler in Norfolk, and in the Queens Museum in New York, where the glass was made. The Morse, however, has preserved large chunks of Tiffany’s Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall, plus his award winning chapel for the 1893 World’s Fair (later the campus of the University of Chicago). All interlarded with lamps, windows, plates, and fountains from other projects. Impressive. We especially liked the way they showed their collection of Arts and Crafts pottery on a high shelf, like a frieze, around several of the galleries. A favorite piece was the American Magnolia window in the chapel.
Winter Park is a bit of cultured society plunked into the morass of central Florida. It was founded by affluent New Englanders in the 1890’s as a winter resort, with one of the few good private schools in the state, Rollins College. Unfortunately, in a pattern we saw in other rich enclaves, they don’t want you there. We found it impossible to park anywhere near the college or the neighborhoods, so did a drive through and took off. There is a lovely small church by Ralph Adams Cram, Boston student of H.H. Richardson, and a boat tour of the twin lakes in the center of town. On the outskirts of Winter Park is Eatonville, where the black servants were allowed to live. Again, that’s a pattern we would see repeated across the state. The Fair Housing Laws may be in effect, but that doesn’t change the history of what areas are rich and which are poor. Eatonville is the home town of Zora Neal Hurston; we genuflected as we zipped past on the freeway.
We hit a Target for trip essentials (cooler for my insulin, Little Debbie’s, water), and found ourselves on Colonial Avenue, in greater Orlando’s Asian community, passing Michael’s aunt’s restaurant. Totally fortuitous, the family was out of town, but he would catch up with them on our return.
A note on highways, tolls, and supposedly “conservative” government. Florida has gotten rid of cash tolls. Not the tolls or the plazas, but the ability to pay in cash. Instead your license plate is photographed as you drive through, and a bill sent to your or your rental company’s credit card. That provides a nasty little surprise to tourists two months later. Worse, for residents, it’s a regressive tax on everyone, all the time, that can be raised whenever the unelected highway departments feel like it. If you want a social service, like a bridge or road that works, raise the taxes and pay for it. Don’t pretend you’re “cutting taxes” and then sneak them in other ways.
We checked into the Loew’s Royal Pacific Resort on the Universal Studios campus. This is the least expensive of Universal’s on-site resorts, with a South Pacific/island/possibly Asian theme. It was like a mini-theme park itself, with decent hotel rooms, a collection of restaurants, and a capacious pool. It reminded us a little of Miami’s Fountainbleu, but maybe that’s because we so rarely treat ourselves to resort accommodations. A big plus of the Universal campus, versus Disney’s, is that one can walk easily between the three resorts, the fake downtown, and the two theme parks, which are clustered along a long lake so that you can nab a ferry back when your feet give out.
We walked over to City Walk, the nucleus of the campus. This has more of a neighborhood feel than the Los Angeles original. It’s an outdoor mall selling things we don’t need and can easily find in D.C., a major movie complex, and cluster of theme restaurants. We chose Pat O’Brien’s for dinner. This must be licensed by the New Orleans Pat O’Brien’s, but is many degrees down on the culinary scale. Still, it was good for theme park food, we recommend the crawfish nachos. We walked off our po’ boys exploring the other two resorts, the Hard Rock Café (oddly pseudo-Spanish-colonial revival) and Portofino Bay (Italian lake village). The landscaping along the walks is first rate, with clusters of ibis, cranes, and ducks adding life to the scene. This was our first exposure to salamanders, which are everywhere in the state, constantly around but not a problem. One can only imagine what the bug population would be like without them. As opera singers serenaded us from the Portofino Bay balconies we caught a twilight ferry back to City Walk and the Royal Pacific.
Friday, May 4
This was our big theme park day. There are two Universal theme parks, the Studios and Islands of Adventure, both reached by bridges from City Walk. The whole enterprise might have gone belly up except that the corporation squeezed a Harry Potter village between their old Jurassic Park and Mythos sections of Islands of Adventure. That drew crowds, and has remade Universal as a competitor to Disney. It’s hard not to compare the two companies. Both provide a controlled, enjoyable experience of parks, hotels, shopping, and restaurants. Disney leads in history, warm feelings, and greater number of places to go. Universal themes and handles crowds better. The Universal rides tend toward scarier roller coasters and wetter flume rides. Unfortunately, Universal’s intellectual property does not have Disney’s cultural resonance: can Jaws and Spiderman compete with Mickey and the Princesses? A Gasoline Alley restaurant? Really? Universal makes up for this with irony and more comfortable spaces better designed for the crowds. Many of their waiting areas are worth seeing for themselves, never mind the ride at the end.
I would not take a kid to either place until they were at least 13, able to understand ride queues and be trusted alone on the transport between hotels and parks. Every 4PM sees streams of tired parents leading over-exposed children out of the parks when the kids would have been happier at a less intense, and cheaper, swimming pool.
We took advantage of our childlessness to visit at one of the slowest seasons. By staying on property we got into the parks an hour before the general public, and our room key acted as an Express Pass that let us jump to the head of any lines. That, plus skipping some of the coasters once we realized we weren’t enjoying them, let us see most of both parks in a day, with some mopping up the second morning. If you’re planning on doing Universal, I’d schedule two days, with an on-property stay if you can swing it.
Like everyone who visits now, we started at Islands of Adventure, making a beeline for the Harry Potter section at the furthest point from the entrance. There are three rides here, all roller coasters. The best part, however, is the recreated town of Hogsmeade and school of Hogwarts. The school is the waiting area for the main coaster, where you pretend to join Harry, Ron, and Hermione riding brooms. Fun, and worth it. We made an unintentionally illegal entrance to Olivander’s Wand Shop via other stores, but the nice guards let us go without a punishment spell. Butterbeer is a buttery flavored birch beer, get it frozen. Pay the extra to get it in a commemorative mug, you can’t get these any other way. Pumpkin juice has a base of apple, with apricot and pumpkin flavors mixed in. Wandering the streets of Hogsmeade is a blast, more involving than being on a movie set, less than immersing your imagination in one of the books.
Walking around the other villages of Islands of Adventure, you can sense why the park wasn’t making it. The Dr. Seuss area is fun, as is the Ray Harryhausen-Sinbad-centric “Lost Continent” area. Lunch at Mythos, supposed to be the best restaurant in a theme park anywhere, was surprisingly good, with a Greek myth theme that makes no sense but is enjoyable. The Jurassic Park area just seems tired, and the cartoon section unfocused. Again, though, what can you do with Little Lulu and Hagar the Horrible?
We retreated by ferry to our hotel, took a nap, and emerged in late afternoon to see how much of Universal Studios we could see. To our surprise, we did it all. The park was built to serve as actual movie and television studios, like the original in Los Angeles. That function is long gone, but the infrastructure still constrains the park. The New York City zone was fun, as was World’s Fair, which replicates a couple of buildings from 1965 Flushing Meadows. We can recommend the Shrek, Mummy Returns, and Simpsons rides. The San Francisco Disaster show is stuck in the 70’s and has pleasantly passed into the zone of camp, well worth doing. In a pathetic show of our age we most enjoyed the Lucille Ball tribute: a gallery of stills and clips, no “adventure”, just a well-curated tribute to her career.
We tried to do dinner again in City Walk, but most of it was roped off for private graduation parties. Annoying. We retreated to Jake’s Airport Lounge in our hotel, a bar themed to a 1930’s adventure flick. Fun, decent bar food, and a good Manhattan. Michael chilled in our room while I caught the poolside lantern lighting festival, a kind of mini-luau with a hula dancer, band leader, and fire juggler. I left when they started teaching kids the hula, but enjoyed the free show.
Saturday, May 5
We used our early entry privileges to get to Hogsmeade for breakfast at the Three Broomsticks. A better English breakfast than we had in London, without the snippy matron we experienced there. We re-rode the Harry Potter ride, hung out in Lost Continent, and caught the Poseidon’s Fury show, which was impossible to schedule Friday.
Checked out of the resort and headed up International Drive by the new Convention Center. This area has been completely redeveloped since Michael’s Dad lived here. It’s no longer tawdry, but instead corporate chains in antiseptic surroundings. Away from the Convention Center, though, we saw for the first time how the recession has been depressing Orlando. Lots of closed businesses, and an entire mall where we could not find one place that was serving lunch. Depressing. And that was before we hit the Ponderosa for lunch.
I had a note to check out the Mercado, a Mexican-Spanish themed mall. When we drove by, it was a construction site. One stucco cupola clued us in that we had the site right, but the rest of the mall had been demo’ed down to the concrete foundations.
We drove south and west to Kissimmee for Eli’s Orange World, the World’s Largest Orange. Actually an orange-painted concrete dome housing a tired and dying souvenir stand. Picked up some Valencias and fled. Skip it.
Webb’s Citrus Candies on Highway 27 in Davenport is better. They make and sell a variety of candy, but their specialty is turning citrus juices into rectangular sugar-coated jellies. Surprisingly tasty. They also have a rack of Florida fruit wines, distilled from the juices of local citrus and deciduous fruits, not grapes. Sounds sweet and terrible; we brought back a Chardonnay made from peaches, but are saving the pleasure to share with our friend “I only drink Chardonnay” Linda.
We had plans to see the Florida’s Natural Grove House Visitor’s Center in Lake Wales, but it has short hours on Saturday, and had already closed. Likewise, we decided to skip the Disney Wilderness Preserve in Poinciana. This is land the Disney Corporation traded for the rights to more intensely develop their parks and Celebration. It’s run by the Audubon Society and is supposed to be very good, but we decided it was too hot and sticky to take in.
Instead we drove through orange groves and cattle ranches south to Haines City. Never Never Land sold surplus Disney rides, dishes, and towels. The GPS took us through a shanty town of tar paper shacks to an area of concrete pads that may once have held warehouses. That company is long gone. Why does Michael lets me take us places like this? It was worth driving the back roads to see where the really poor residents of the Orlando area end up. Like Kentucky, but in a swamp.
Lakeland is the site of the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings under one owner, the campus of Florida Southern College. It is impressive, with lots of crappy collegiate architecture, but the FLW core well preserved at the lake’s edge. Still used for their original purposes, the buildings house classrooms, theaters, and administration, all connected by covered walkways in Wright’s concession to the Florida sun. It works surprisingly well. An interesting use of colored glass set into concrete blocks, and lots of deep overhangs providing shade. A focal point of the old campus is Wright’s Water Dome, a circular fountain recently restored so that jets at the perimeter meet in a shallow dome shape. The town of Lakeland is lovely, clustered around two lakes a few blocks apart. Driving the Lake Trail we saw swans, ibis, geese, and ducks.
Sunday, May 6
Walked across the parking lot to an IHOP for breakfast. They’ve changed the menu, it’s pretty good. Or maybe we’re just old enough to start liking it. No, take away the rice pudding!
All over Florida everyone was very nice. Not always bright, but nice. At the entrance pavilion to Bok Tower was a typically inane message about where to buy tickets, like, maybe right here, where through the glass doors is a big desk labeled “TICKETS”. We made a joke about it, Michael pointing to the words with his finger. I went in to pay our entrance, and asked for an adult and a student ticket, since Michael was working his UDC ID card for all it was worth. The kind ticket woman said “Oh yes, I could tell he wasn’t a native speaker by his sounding out the words on the door.” We almost fell over laughing; Michael proceeded to play the foreign exchange angle anywhere he thought it would give us a discount.
Bok Tower and Gardens were built in Lake Wales by the publisher of the Ladies Home Journal, Edmond Bok. The tower is a nice piece of Art Deco tropicalia, with sculpture by Lee Laurie, who also worked on the National Academy of Sciences. It’s surrounded by a graceful Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. garden. The complex has absorbed a neighboring estate built for the head of Bethlehem Steel; we liked the house at least as much as the gardens. Michael got a chance to get up close and personal with an orange tree. I was taking his photo when two women approached and launched “The Competition for the Stupidest Thing Said in Florida”. “Wot caina tree is that? Caint be no awrng tree, ain’t got no awrngs awn it.” Um actually, this is an orange in my hand. It’s a Valencia. “Wot? Ain’t no awrng, ats all green ‘n puny.” It’s just not ripe yet. The season for Valencias is over, you can see ripe ones above where the ladders could reach. “How cum they’s all the way up thar?” At which point I pulled Michael away. The Competition will sadly continue below.
Tampa’s just an hour and a half west of Lake Wales. The Tampa Museum of Art has a slick new Stanley Saitowitz building on the bay, but not much of a collection. A boring Romare Bearden show took up most of the gallery space. A highlight was John Cage’s “33 1/3”; a circle of old record players and bins of LP’s that visitors can select and play DJ with. We pulled some of our favorite ‘80’s music, plus some Tony Bennett and Caribbean. The dissonance and occasional moments of harmony were quite lovely, and fun.
The TMA is part of a developing cultural campus. Unfortunately the whole thing is too large, unshaded, and inaccessible to be a success. The only people we saw had brought their kids to play in the interactive fountain. We walked around the bay to the old downtown and Henry Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel.
A side bar on Florida geography and history. The northern part of the state is essentially Georgia. The coasts continue on lines of sand bars, islands, and ancient coral reefs from St. Augustine to Key West on the east, and St. Petersburg to Florida City on the Gulf. In the middle is essentially all Everglades. Yes, that middle now includes Orlando, acres of orange groves, truck farms, and cattle ranches. That land was created out of shallow swamps that were drained after 1920. The part of the ‘Glades that is protected in the national park is just the southern third, at best, of an enormous freshwater plain that flows slowly to the Gulf of Mexico. When Yankees developed Florida, they primarily stuck to the coasts. Henry Flagler (more on him below) built his railroad down the Atlantic side, drawing millionaire tourists from New York and New England, and Henry Plant his down the Gulf, pulling people from the Midwest. Even today you’re much more likely to find retirees from Cleveland and Chicago in St. Pete, and from NYC in Boca or Delray Beach.
Both Plant and Flagler built luxurious hotels at the stops they developed into cities. The Tampa Bay Hotel is a Moorish fantasy of minarets and domes, with a grand Victorian concourse. In the 1890’s it was used as U.S. Army headquarters for the Spanish American War and the invasion of Cuba and Puerto Rico. The University of Tampa has most of the space today, but a good chunk of the first floor is now the Henry B. Plant Museum. They do a good job explaining the restoration and the history of Florida to WWII.
The other big tourist attraction of Tampa is Ybor City. This is a former Cuban/Hispanic neighborhood where the cigar industry was centered, now gentrified into a nightclub and restaurant district. We ended up not getting there, as we were never near when we wanted to eat.
The Tampa Bay area is huge, with four substantial cities (St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa, and Sarasota). Getting from place to place by car is gorgeous, with impressive bridges and causeways connecting the peninsulas and islands with the mainland. It has the best beaches we saw on this trip. Lots of recreational boating. A McDonalds had its own pier where you can pull up in your cigarette boat when you get hungry for a Big Mac.
Our friends Robert and Victoria Austin live in Seminole, just west of St. Petersburg and a short walk from St. Pete Beach. They were putting us up for the next couple of days, and we wanted to get them a gift bottle of wine. We pulled into a Publix, a large Florida grocery store chain that often has a large liquor store attached. Many Floridians appear to be upholstered in naugahyde, presumably from too much sun, cigarettes, and drinking. Outside the liquor store, two classic examples were getting into a fight, but we ignored them on our quest for a vinho verde. We started walking the aisles when our second contestant in the Stupid Things Competition introduced himself with a “Cain ah hep yew?” Yes, we’d like a bottle of Spanish white, please. “Wot? Wot cuntry’s that frum?” Um, Spain? By which point I’d found the Spanish wine section (not bad, actually) and sent our friend on his way.
We took Interstate 275 across Tampa Bay on a causeway that can’t be more than a foot above sea level. Cool. The Austins treated us to delicious grilled mahi mahi, a Black Forest torte imported from Germany, and live entertainment by their son Alex, who reprised parts from his violin recital that morning. It was great catching up: Robert and Dan lived in adjacent dorm rooms at Chicago, and reconnected last year when the Austin’s daughter Anastasia started at Brandeis.
Monday, May 7
Our friend Eleanor Allen had come down from D.C. to share this part of the trip; she was staying at the Postcard Inn on St. Pete Beach. The beach communities on this barrier island are a lovely blend of 1950’s retro and later condo towers, we enjoyed the drive down.
This was a St. Petersburg day. First stop was the new Salvador Dali Museum. The building is pretty cool, a blue glass worm spiraling out of a simple stone box. Inside a helical staircase and elliptical skylight create a massive space that evokes Dali’s spirit without the details the artist used in his own museum in Figueres. Interesting. A much better collection of work than we saw in Spain; the best paintings came to the States, and many of those have gravitated here. The audio guide is fun, divided into a path for adults by curators and a separate one for kids narrated by Dali’s moustache. I skipped between them; they complemented each other rather than competing. There are Philippe Halsman photos and video by Dali as well as the expected paintings and prints. Outside a garden incorporates the artist’s ideas in a logarithmic courtyard, maze, and tree you could tie your museum-entrance wrist band to. Fun.
We got lunch at Pickles Deli on Central Avenue, the main shopping and office stretch, then headed back to the waterfront for the Morean Art Center’s Chihuly gallery. The Morean has a permanent installation of glass art by Dale Chihuly. Expensive, as all the art museums in the state were, but we worked our various discounts. The usual ceiling, chandeliers, and forest-type pieces one expects from a Chihuly show, well displayed. Across the street is the St. Petersburg Museum of Art. A large collection of second rate art by first rate painters, and first rate art by second rate painters. Eleanor was art-ed out and hung in the adjacent park; as she said when we met her after, she “dodged a bullet” with that one <smile>. They had an okay show of Soviet photography, but nothing worth paying for.
The third entry in our Stupid Florida competition occurred in the Museum’s gift shop. The St. Pete Museum has a version of Monet’s “Houses of Parliament”, their only Monet. An overweight couple came into the shop. Him: “Ahm lookin fur a pitcher of the Castle, that Castle pitcher.” Her: “Honey, that’s the Moan-Ay Castle.” The sales clerk is confused: “Do you mean the ‘Houses of Parliament’? I have a print of that over here.” “No, the Castle, Moan-Ay’s Castle!” Wife looks at the print: “Honey, thaytzit. Et was built as a castle, but naw they call et the Parlor Mint.” “Wayl, ah calls it the Castle.” I ran; somewhere in the U.K. Charles Barry and Pugin are turning in their graves.
We took a detour down The Pier. This was built in the 1970’s as a hoped-for symbol of the city, a restaurant and shopping complex in an inverted concrete pyramid at the end of a long pier out from downtown. Eh, the views are good, but on driving down and back we decided it wasn’t worth paying the parking to walk around.
Further west on Central Avenue is a gallery district leading up to the once gay nightclub strip of Grand Central. We walked the galleries, which were okay, catching an excellent peanut-butter-and-jelly muffin at the Morean’s craft center for hot glass and pottery. Then we drove Grand Central; not much worth walking in a club district in the midafternoon. Eleanor needed to mail a letter, and I saw something called the Open Air Post Office on our map, so we headed over. This is cool, just what it says, a 1920’s post office with teller windows and P.O. boxes all open to the street under a Spanish tile roof.
Back at the trendy and hip Postcard Inn we hung out at the bar between beach and pool, watching people who are younger than the music being played acting like college kids.
For dinner we joined the Austins at Dockside Dave’s in Madeira Beach. I’d wanted grouper sandwiches, and they were excellent here. For dessert Alex excitedly suggested a walk to Kandy Kitchen. This is a blast, more candy crammed into a small house-turned-store than you can imagine, plus ice cream. I got a frozen peanut-butter-filled chocolate covered banana, since the doctors tell me I should eat more fruit.
Tuesday, May 8
We were meeting up with Eleanor at St. Petersburg’s Sunken Gardens. In the 1950’s this was a top tourist attraction, a garden laid out in a former quarry. We were early, so walked around the 1920’s bungalows that had been built with stone from the quarry, sweet. The gardens are intimate and compact. If you could only squeeze a half hour of nature into a Florida trip, this is a good place to do so. They were almost bulldozed a few years back, but have been put on the National Register and are now run by the city. Well worth saving.
I used to teach the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in my demonstrations at the Building Museum; it was one of the first cable-stayed bridges erected in the U.S. It runs from St. Petersburg south across Tampa Bay. The passage in the middle needed to be high and wide enough not to cramp the port facilities all around the Bay. It is sensational. Piers run from either end for fishermen, giving you a place to park for a good look.
The Ringling Museum in Sarasota has a quite good restaurant where we got lunch: panini, chicken salad, and pasta Alfredo, washed down with prosecco. The Ringling is officially the state museum of art. It was built by John and Mabel Ringling, the circus managers, as their winter retreat. While scouting Europe for performers John would often check out the local art galleries, and Mabel became a connoisseur of gardens and Venetian architecture. The result is a multi-museum complex. Their house on the water is a pseudo-Venetian masterpiece of color, light, and how to entertain guests in high style. We loved the tinted glass windows in the great court, the multi-colored marble terrace, and the ceiling painting of “Dancers of All Nations”. The art museum surrounds a lushly landscaped courtyard filled with reproductions of classical and Renaissance sculpture. It has one of the continent’s best collections of Old Master painting. Looking to escape the heat we unintentionally entered from the rear, so started with a contemporary James Turrell sky space, then into a Rubens print exhibit and Sanford Biggers quilt show, then walked backwards in time through the Baroque masterpieces to the Italian Primitives. It was exhausting, so we got Key lime pie at a café on the grounds under a banyan tree. A circus museum tells the business and social history of circuses, especially in the United States, including the Ringling’s personal railroad car. The logistics of running the circus are fascinating. The highlight is a model of a circus both in performance and on the road; it’s extensive, detailed, and introduces a sweet drama as the light changes from “day” to “night”. The visitors center houses a Renaissance theater relocated from Venice’s hinterland. One of the best museum complexes in the States, a highlight of Florida.
We said goodbye to Eleanor and drove south to Fort Myers. Checked into a Holiday Inn Express in a development called The Forum, which wants to be Framingham, Massachusetts or Sugar Land, Texas. Bajio Mexican Grill there is a chain out of Utah. Dinner was good, it is worth watching for if it comes to your ‘hood.
Wednesday, May 9
The Fort Myers area is home to several areas of high-end retirement, like Naples, Sanibel, and Pine Island. The draw for us was the Edison & Ford Winter Estate. Thomas Edison built a winter retreat here before Henry Plant had even brought his railroad this far south, taking a steamboat down the Caloosahatchee River. When former employee and apostle Henry Ford became the Model T king he bought the house next door, The Mangoes. Today the sites are managed as a single historic, cultural, and architectural site. They provide great examples of “cracker” architecture, houses built to take advantage of and work with Florida’s climate. Neither is extraordinary in the nature of the Newport “cottages” of the same time, but demonstrate a different way of being rich. With the lab buildings that Edison had built to keep him tinkering and the grounds Minna Edison planted, they form an alternate approach for how Florida could have been developed. We found it lovely and pleasant, with the historical/scientific side a bonus. Edison unsuccessfully researched alternate rubber sources here, and while the science did not succeed, the variety of plants (mangoes, figs, avocado, banyan) are a testament to what can grow in the subtropics.
We got lunch in Fort Myers at a former Quiznos that has been turned into a kebob place. Don’t bother looking for it, it is so not going to last, but the falafel and hummus in the screened porch space were great. In North Fort Myers is one of the fabled tourist traps of Florida, The Shell Factory. This purports to be the world’s largest souvenir stand, and it may be. Sanibel is one of the best places to find seashells, and presumably once this was a stand selling local beach-combed finds to tourists. Now, it’s trashy without managing to be campy, and most of the shells come from India. Toilet seat decals – really. A sign reads “shoplifters will be prosecuted”, but as Michael asked, who would want to?
We recovered our sanity in the Everglades. South and east of Naples, they stretch to the ocean with no substantial settlements until Miami. The first formal sign is entrance to the Big Cypress Swamp. Their visitor’s center is fronted by a long artificial gator hole, well supplied with alligators, jumping fish, birds, and turtles. This was a good time to see wildlife, the end of the dry season, when life all over the Glades retreats to gator holes to wait for the rain. It also means there are almost no mosquitoes, hallelujah. The Everglades was created as our first National Park specifically for the preservation of plants and animals, rather than to save a dramatic view. It reminded us of the Smokies, in that you drive around it and into it from the perimeter, going to different viewing stations rather than to one big thing, like the Grand Canyon. At Shark Valley we skipped the tram that takes you ten miles into the swamp, but instead walked the mile hike nearest the parking through the “river of grass”. From the boardwalk it looks like a prairie, but then you realize there are 3-20” of crystal clear water below the grasses. We learned to identify cypress hammocks and where the salt water plants yielded to hardwood trees. A few inches in elevation make all the difference here.
We pulled into the Miccosukee Indian Reservation, but as it was end of day missed the ‘gator wrestling shows and air boat rides. The shop was enough for us. Heading south to Homestead you see just how trashy Floridians treat the land they’ve drained from the Glades, which here is mainly military bases and gardens for landscape plants for Miami. We checked into an HI Express, and had dinner at The Mutineer on Route 1. Good conch fritters and grouper, better than we’d hoped.
Thursday, May 10
We’d debated taking the ferry from Fort Myers to Key West, but ahead of schedule, Michael decided to follow our friends Doris and Lill’s advice and drive the Overseas Highway. We’re glad we did. There are moments of trashy beach development, but for the most part Route 1 shows incredible vistas on the various Keys you cross and the bridges between them. Every so often you see a bit of the original Flagler railroad bridges that were used for just a decade before a hurricane wiped it out.
In Key West we pulled into the free parking by Fort Zachary Taylor and walked into town for lunch: salad with tuna, lobster roll, and Bloody Mary. Key West was once a smuggler’s paradise, a site for English privateers, a pristine island vacation retreat, and a gay sanctuary at the tip of the continent. Today it is tawdry, the worst of Ocean City only less accessible. The people who come here and never leave look dissolute and potentially dangerous. There is more to happiness than drinking and sex. Is there even happiness in just drinking and sex? What a waste.
The legend is that chickens set free when cock fighting was banned went native. However they got there, wild chickens roam the streets of Kew West, making Michael very happy indeed.
Hemingway’s House is a simple and charming cottage set up as a shrine to the writer and his wives, and played with the three-toed cats. We walked Duval and the side streets, past beauty and ugliness, schlock pretending to be art, bars and t-shirt shops. Whatever was once gay in Key West has been whittled down to two bars and a guest house. The housing stock is cool, it’s great to see Key West cottages in their place of origin.
The Truman Little White House has been restored by a developer who turned most of the former military base into attractive townhouse condos. It’s a good basic Navy house without pretension but with history. Lots of chintz, and a boorish guide whose pitch was so gender-discriminatory we’re surprised he’s allowed to give tours.
We passed the car on the walk to Fort Zachary Taylor. We should have driven; it’s a bit of a hike to the beach, and you have to pay to enter the grounds even on foot. The fort is mainly 1890’s over an original structure from the 1820’s. Lots of raw stone and gun emplacements, but enough interpretation so you know what you’re looking at. We’d been seeing salamanders on every sidewalk in Florida, but here there were three-foot long iguana-like lizards. There’s a beach on the other side that we skipped.
We’d picked a hotel for the price, not the location, on the far end of the island in 1970’s strip mall hell. We checked in, rested, and discovered they ran a shuttle into town, so we didn’t have to worry about parking downtown. Michael had read a NY Times review of a fish shack, B.O. Fish Wagon. It was close to where the shuttle dropped us, and had killer conch fritters and fried grouper.
We walked over to Mallory Square. Seeing the sunset at Mallory is a big deal, with tourists congregating from all over Key West to watch street performers and see the sun set over the Gulf. There were fire eaters and sword swallowers and caricature drawers, and rows of crafts stands. I sound like the opening of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” All family entertainment, but as performed by killer carnies. Creepy. We caught the shuttle back to the hotel before the sun hit the horizon.
Friday, May 11
Hopping into the car we started a last drive around Key West, but after just a block said “screw it”, and headed out on the beauty of the Overseas Highway. We had a last slice of Key lime pie at a stand in Key Largo, then headed north on the mainland to the Coe Visitors Center of the Everglades. We drove into Royal Palms and walked the Anhinga Trail to the Pay-Hay-Okee Overlook. Alligators, canvas-back and red-bellied turtles, amazing dragon flies, cypress domes. A great view up the Shark Slough over the river of grass. The rangers told us that what we had seen was all freshwater, and that for the full experience we needed to keep driving southwest to Florida City to see what happened when the Glades met the salt. We didn’t.
Turned around, exited the park, and stopped at Robert Is Here, a fruit stand just outside the entrance. I’d seen this on Food Channel; it’s a giant fruit and vegetable stand, bigger than DeVincent’s (for anyone from Waltham). Their specialty is fresh fruit shakes: half a blender of fresh cut fruit, another of soft serve vanilla, frapped with wooden paddles to force the mixture to keep going. I got peach, as they were in season, and it was amazing, starting like something to be eaten with a spoon, but softening until you could drink it with a straw. They are not fast, so order as soon as you get there, expect to shop for half an hour, and they’ll call your number when your order’s up.
We drove up to an HI Express in Doral, a neighborhood just west of Miami. Dredged out of the Glades in the last decade, it’s all new and shiny, home to nouveau riche Venezuelans fleeing Hugo Chavez and Columbians fleeing drug cartels. Latin Fusion Grill on Doral has fantastic Central American food, the best we’d tasted since Adams Morgan. Ordering we needed to dredge up enough Spanish for the bemused waitress to help us. Necessitamos Espanol, rapido! Sopa Gallego, a Caesar salad, roast pork, and a Cuban sandwich. The produce is so good in this state, everything tastes fresh, even slow-roasted pork.
Saturday, May 12
We started Miami in Coral Gables, one of the first communities of the city. It’s home to the University of Miami, golf courses, acres of fancy homes with heritage, and is one of the richest areas of the city. We did a drive around the Biltmore Hotel and the “theme villages” developer George Merrick built to emulate houses in France, England, China, and even South Africa in a tour de force of 1920’s eclecticism.
We had a date with our friend Maria Bishop at The Kampong. David Fairchild was a botanist, explorer, and son-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell. He is responsible for bringing then-exotic plants to North America like mangoes, avocados, figs, and a variety of citrus. The Fairchild Botanical Gardens are named after him, but The Kampong was his home and test garden. It’s the only mainland branch of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, whose other campuses are in Hawaii. Contact them to make reservations, which are required. The setting is stunning, with an arched courtyard leading from the house down to Biscayne Bay. The house is a great mix of Miami Deco and Florida Cracker, with spaces for living, entertaining, and performing scientific research; it’s filled with Indonesian and Indian art. The living room is where the Everglades Park was created in a meeting of scientists hosted by the Fairchilds. Our guide was in the Garden’s botany program, and concentrated on the plants outside. A shame, we would have liked fewer trees and more house, but did get to see the tree that gives the key note to Chanel No. 5. We ditched the guide to explore the lawn and pier, where Maria explained the Miami we were looking at.
We parked outside The Barnacle, the oldest house in Coral Gables and a city historic site, and got lunch across the street in Coco Walk, a trendy town-center-like shopping mall. The University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum is just a few blocks away. They have a good college collection. The Kress family (major founders of the National Gallery) donated an excellent set of Old Master paintings. The American work from after WWII is notable, with a Miami Dolphins player by Duane Hanson and an entire installation by Sandy Skoglund, an artist I’d only seen before in her photos. There’s also an amazing and partial wall mural by 1810’s Cambridge artist Washington Allston. They recently constructed a special pavilion for art glass, which shows very well. Totally worth seeing.
We got onto I-95 to Miami Springs, where Charles and Maria Bishop live. Charles and Michael had been in law school together; the last time we were in Miami was for their wedding. Now their daughter Diana is old enough that she was able to entertain us on her clarinet.
When we were planning this trip Maria looked at our proposed agenda and said we all had to go to the Mai Kai. This is a Polynesian-themed restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, perhaps the best example of the tiki boom that captured America after WWII. This place should be on the National Register; it’s got everything: drinks in souvenir glasses, South Seas themed rooms, mediocre Chinese food with pineapple, exotic gardens, gift shop, and a luau floor show with the best hula and fire dancing we’ve seen. Totally schlocky, very fun. Expensive, but we’re all glad we had the chance to experience it. If you are ever in Ft. Lauderdale, go; it is one of the great dinner theater opportunities in America.
After dinner Charles and Maria took turns as tour guide, showing us the Las Olas shopping strip, the Finger Islands in Ft. Lauderdale, and then around their town. Miami Springs was founded by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtis in the 1920’s land boom. Its early architecture is in the Pueblo Revival style, a school of American eclecticism rarely seen outside of Arizona and New Mexico. Cool.
Sunday, May 13
The Morikami Museum outside Delray Beach commemorates the Japanese Yamato farming colony. A Japanese exchange student from NYU encouraged immigration of farmers from his home country to Florida. It never worked, for a variety of reasons including a pineapple blight, but many of the farmers did well selling their land during the Florida Boom of the 1920’s. One farmer, George Morikami, hung on despite efforts of the U.S. government to appropriate his land during WWII. When he retired he donated the land to Palm Beach County, which has created a series of Japanese gardens and museum buildings. We liked walking through the different garden styles represented, seeing the evocations of wilderness with plants, rocks, and water. One museum is set up like a Japanese house, using exhibits from D.C.’s old Children’s Museum – nice to see they went to a good home. The visitors center had a show of Cambridge artist Mariko Kusumoto’s amazing nested box sculptures, like Russian matryoshka nesting dolls but representing a sushi restaurant, or doll house, or circus. For Mother’s Day they gave us a free scarf!
Pollo Rico is a chain that sells Brazilian chicken. That’s chicken cooked in the style of Brazil, not plucked in an unmentionable area. We got lunch at one in Boca near the freeway, it’s good and inexpensive.
Back in Miami we went over a causeway and into Miami Beach. We’d tried to see the Bass Museum last time we were here, but they were just finishing up their Arata Isozaki addition. The original building is the former Miami Beach Public Library, a white stone Art Deco box at the head of a public plaza. The art is okay, but not memorable. We walked out past the Jackie Gleason Theater, around the Lichtenstein mermaid sculpture, and over to Frank Gehry’s New World Symphony Hall. It’s pretty boxy for Gehry, but looks like some twisty magic might be going on inside.
The best part of the walk was Lincoln Road. Ten years ago this was a tired retail strip with interesting Morris Lapidus paving and fountains. It has been recreated with high end retail, and is bustling with people and energy. I’m glad; it was a cool space that deserved to succeed. We got fresh juice from a weekend stand and French pastry at a bakery as we shopped. The Books & Books store is one of the best art/travel bookstores in the country. I wanted to see the new Herzog and DeMeuron parking garage at 1111 Lincoln. Yes, a parking garage. Miami Beach does a good job integrating public garages into their streetscape, with ground floor retail, hanging plants, etc. This takes the concept further, with different height floors, galleries on the parking decks, and a residence tucked into the upper levels with killer views.
The Wolfsonian was next, south on Washington Avenue. This is a museum of design and culture from the first half of the 20th Century. The permanent collection is as good as we remembered, but the temporary shows lacked luster. Since the car was parked, we took a walk along Washington Avenue, Collins, and Ocean Drive. There is definitely money in Miami, the Beach is looking good, and rich.
Monday, May 14
We started Monday in North Miami Beach, at the Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux. This medieval Spanish cloister was disassembled by William Randolph Hearst, brought to America in the 1910’s, and sequestered for fear of hoof in mouth disease. By the time Customs was done with it the packing was in a shambles, and the carefully marked stones so confused that no one thought it could be reconstructed. It sat in a Brooklyn warehouse until some rich Episcopalians rebuilt it in Miami. It’s a lovely space reminiscent of The Cloisters, but with tropical jungle instead of a view of New Jersey.
We drove south on Biscayne Boulevard, through 1970’s concrete junk architecture, then the stretch of 1960’s resorts and towers known as MiMo (for Miami Modern). South of that is the Wynwood Arts District. This and the adjacent Design District are at their best just a few weeks a year, during Art Basel, but are still a funky ‘hood worth exploring. We started at the Bakehouse Art Complex, expecting to just see the outside. However, the door was open, there were admin staff inside, and we strolled in. They busted us for trespassing, but when we explained that we wanted to see the art they bent over backwards flipping on the lights and making us welcome. A former commercial bakery, Bakehouse is like Torpedo Factory if the latter had cutting edge artists. Impressive.
Scattered through the neighborhood are several private museums. Affluent collectors warehouse their art here with restricted hours for public admission. It’s a great use of a former warehouse neighborhood. On a Monday morning in May none of these were going to be open, but we did drive bys of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, Margulies Collection, and Rubell Family Collection. These are the same Rubells who have renovated the Holiday Inn on South Capitol and are looking to turn the former Millenium Arts Center in D.C. into another home for their art. We hope they can make it happen. There are some restaurants and design stores scattered amongst the galleries and spaces waiting for a rehab. We shopped a little and checked out the murals at Wynwood Walls. This is a restaurant space in the courtyard between several low rise warehouses. The owners have commissioned contemporary artists like Shepard Fairey and Kenny Scharf to cover the warehouses with murals. I especially liked the calligraphy-inspired work of Retna. This was more and better art than we thought would be open to us, we were psyched.
Lunch was at La Provence, a nicer version of La Madeleine, then we continued south on Biscayne into downtown and out on Brickell. Brickell is lined by bank towers by architects Architectonica and others. This is where a lot of Latin America keeps their money. Not a lot to see from the street. We’d thought about riding MetroRail or MetroMover (the former is an elevated subway, the latter a free elevated train system circulating through downtown), but skipped it. It’s just not much of a system: the lines run between a major freight right of way and six-lane roadways, so you have to walk far through Miami traffic just to get to a stop. It’s such a shame. The initial development of Florida was along rail lines, and development could easily have built on that with connecting transit systems that run north-south on the high land and encouraged dense, linear cities. Instead they built Los Angeles-inspired webs of freeways that push people further into the Everglades.
South of Miami, the Deering Estate at Cutler is one of two winter retreats built by the International Harvester heirs (the other, Vizcaya, is grander; we’d seen it on our last trip). The property is run by the county. A boardwalk runs through a swamp of three types of mangroves, lined by the webs of Golden Orb Weaver spiders. Cool. It’s like walking through a nightmarish version of “Evangeline”; if the boardwalk hadn’t provided a reassuring note that we were on the right path, I would have bolted. The houses are easier to relate to, and have been well restored since damage by Hurricane Andrew. Charles Deering once kept an extensive collection of art here, especially Spanish Old Masters, most of which are now in the Art Institute of Chicago.
We had time to kill, so headed back to Miami Beach. Hung out on Lincoln Road, which was easier to shop on a work day. Nothing we needed, but definitely SoHo quality. Back on the mainland to Little Havana, where we met Charles and Maria for dinner at the Versailles. The Versailles is an institution, perhaps the most accessible point for Yankees to explore Cuban émigré culture. We loved it when Maria got down-and-dirty with the waiter in menu Spanish. Roast pork, yucca, Sopa Gallego, piccadillo over mashed plantains, and two types of flan. Muy sabroso! Gracias, Charles y Maria! We said goodbye to our friends, and hopped on I-95 to Boca Raton.
Tuesday, May 15
Addison Mizner created the resort of Boca Raton at the tail end of the 1920’s land boom, losing his shirt. I had a fantasy compiled from books on Mizner’s architecture and the Sondheim musical “Bounce” of what we would see. We didn’t. While Boca became a success, and followed Mizner’s plans, it didn’t happen until the 1950’s. There’s not a lot to see, just acres of gated communities with tile roofs. Eh. We drove around the shopping mall town center, Mizner Park, but were unimpressed.
My fantasies were redeemed up the coast in Palm Beach. We started at the Flagler Museum, housed in Henry Flagler’s Carrere and Hastings designed mansion, Whitehall. It would not be out of place among the Gilded Age mansions of Newport. In fact, a lot of millionaires who summered in Newport wintered in Palm Beach, brought down by Flagler’s railroad. The museum is well interpreted and covers the history, architecture, art collection, and use of Classical symbolism all while walking you from drawing rooms to pantry, guest suites to maid’s rooms to the Flaglers’ personal rail car. Flagler was an early partner of John D. Rockefeller; he’s the person who figured out how to set up Standard Oil so that it could work in more than one state. His legal structure is the basis of our multinational corporations. I’d always thought his money came from developing Florida, but as he said, “I would have been a rich man if not for Florida.” An amusing statement when looking at marble floors in a dining room that sits fifty.
A quick walk around the corner, along the golf course, is McLarty’s, which offers a decent lunch. It felt very straw hat and white duck pants, like what Ralph Lauren wants you to think he’s selling. Chicken hash, steamed artichoke, wedge salad and a burger. More old people in wheelchairs with attendants than we’d seen in the rest of Florida, maybe they were let out of their communities for the day.
We drove around Palm Beach, where you can’t really see the mansions behind hedges, privacy fencing, or both, but still fun. Parked at the ocean end of Worth Avenue, the main commercial stretch. This was where I got my Mizner fix. Addison Mizner created a world of high end retail along the main drag and down pedestrian courts that are a little Venice, a little Spanish, and a lot of money. This is what inspired the theming we’d seen from Universal Studios through Boca Raton. I especially liked the Via Mizner and adjacent Via Parigi, named after Addison’s boyfriend Paris Singer. The retail here is out of our league, like Madison Avenue on New York’s Upper East Side, but looked good.
West Palm Beach had been established by Flagler to house the servants. He built an entire town west of Lake Worth and made all the blacks move there. It has since grown into a prominent business center of the South. We were uncertain about seeing the Norton Museum of Art, but it was on our list, so we drove over. What a great surprise. This is one of the best art museums in Florida. Decent European paintings, good and varied American. An entire floor of Chinese, and another of art glass, with a temporary installation by Beth Lipman inspired by paintings in the collection. If you’ve seen the life-size buffet overflowing with clear glass fruit, meat, and dishes at the Renwick, that’s Lipman. They’ve got a small but beautifully installed Chihuly ceiling.
For our final afternoon we were on a quest. Cy, the friend watching our plants, had asked us to bring back a plastic astronaut, inspired by one he had as a kid. We’d been looking, but Florida has forgotten the space program so completely that we’d picked up an alligator bottle opener as consolation prize. We decided to make one last try, however, and zipped up I-95. The dry season ended with the only significant rain we saw. It came down buckets, with hail so heavy that even the trucks slowed down and we had to pull over to let the weather pass. In Titusville, just outside the security gates for Cape Canaveral, is the Astronaut Hall of Fame and Gift Shop. Five minutes before closing I ducked in while Michael parked, and emerged bearing Cy’s space toys as a trophy.
The Beachline (nee Beeline) Expressway got us to a final HI Express near Orlando International. I packed while Michael visited with his aunt and uncle at their restaurant. The next morning the nice people at US Airways got us uneventfully home to Washington, a land where the stupid statements come from the mouths of senators, not citizens.
What Did We Miss?
There’s a whole northern chunk of Florida that we missed: the Red Neck Riviera of the Panhandle, Seaside, St. Augustine. It has the whole Civil War/Confederacy thing, plus the capital in Tallahassee. Perhaps we’ll combine with southern Georgia, or Biloxi and Mobile. If we head this way again, we’ll want to see:
Gainesville, Harm Museum of Art, SW 34th Street and Hull Road
Jacksonville, Cummer Museum of Art, 829 Riverside Avenue
St. Augustine, Lightner Museum (former Alcazar Hotel), 75 King Street
St. Augustine, Flagler College (former Ponce de Leon Hotel), King Street & Cordova Street
Ormond Beach, The Casements (former Rockefeller home), 25 Riverside Drive