A winter escape to Florida


When we planned this trip to Florida (Feb. 2-7) several months ago, we had no way of knowing how truly awful the weather was going to be here in Iowa while we were away. In south Florida, while we were basking in sunny, 75- to 80-degree days, all hell was breaking loose back home: below-zero temps, heavy snow, and a freakish 50-car pile-up on I-35 right outside of Ames.

We just sighed and put on more sunscreen. I mean, what can you do?

Our trip began on Friday. We flew into the Fort Lauderdale airport and drove to Miami. We had booked an Airbnb in Miami Beach for a little mid-winter getaway. Neither Dave nor I had ever spent much time in Miami, and we thought it would be fun to explore the area, go to a couple of national parks, and enjoy the warm weather.


Our one-bedroom apartment was on the third floor of an older building (above, just behind the palm tree) on Collins Ave., a main road that runs the length of Miami Beach’s north and south beaches. I liked our location; we were surrounded by small restaurants, food markets, and drugstores, and the beach was just a block and a half away. Parking was free – if you were willing to park in the residential area a few blocks from the main streets. We found a Greek open-air patio, a Cuban restaurant, upscale Mexican food, and a great pizza dive all within about six blocks. We shopped for breakfast food and snacks in a small grocery store. Everything was really convenient.

Now, if I had to do it over again, I probably would have, instead, booked a small boutique hotel in South Beach, just a few miles down the road. (How much would that cost, I wonder? I didn’t even consider it.) South Beach (below) was a lot of fun.








We walked past block after block of pastel Art Deco architecture, strolled on the public beach, and ate lunch outside at one of the many, many sidewalk cafes along the pedestrian Española Way, below. (We shared the most amazing porcini mushroom pappardelle pasta dish, with crusty Italian bread, a fresh mozzarella salad, and wine.)


That afternoon, we ventured into Miami and took an art walk in the Wynwood Art District, below. As you can see, the area mostly features graffiti-based murals. I would have enjoyed this more if it hadn’t been raining.





We also drove through Little Havana, which was a really intriguing area, below. We parked our car and walked along one of the main streets, stopping for coffee in a cute Cuban coffee shop and enjoying the lively music that seemingly came from every shop, bar, and restaurant. We would have stayed longer, but it began to rain heavily, and the wind was fierce, so our umbrellas were no help at all. (But at least it was a warm rain!)



On our second full day in south Florida, we drove to the visitor center at Biscayne National Park and boarded a boat that took us on a three-hour tour of the park.


Biscayne is about 95% water, so a boat is definitely necessary if you want to see much of anything. We booked our $39-per-person tour on the Pelican Island Skipper through the Biscayne National Park Institute. There are mangroves and reefs and a series of small keys in the bay; we stopped at one of them – Boca Chita Key – and took a short hike, climbed to the top of a lighthouse, and enjoyed the beach and the yachts in the small harbor.






The institute offers other experiences as well, including snorkeling and paddling. (A bonus surprise: A hazy view of the distant Miami skyline, below.)


As we were fairly far south already, we decided to visit Key Largo, because that seemed like a cool thing to do. We did absolutely no research (except looking at the map), and we were disappointed when we got there. We didn’t find much to like, but we did find a small café with an outdoor patio, where we were entertained by tiny lizards. And, of course, I ordered key lime pie.



This put us a little behind schedule, because we were hoping to drive through the southern part of Everglades National Park. I’ve wanted to see the Everglades forever; I wasn’t sure how much damage the park sustained during the recent hurricane season, so I was happy to see that most of it appeared to be pretty much unscathed.




We took the park road near the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Every few miles along this 38-mile drive, you can turn down a small road and end up at a trailhead that takes you on a short loop hike. It was already late afternoon, so we only made it about halfway down the main road. Some of the hikes are as short as .2 miles. The longest one we took was .8 miles. All are easily traversed; most are boardwalked.










All of the walks were lovely, although the Anhinga Trail (all pics above) was by far our favorite. There we saw birds, alligators, and fish in the freshwater marsh, and, eventually, the soft colors of sunset. We would have stayed longer, but it got too dark.


The next day we hit the northern part of the Everglades, driving along Hwy. 41 to the Shark Valley Visitor Center and walking the Tram Trail and Otter Valley Hammock Trail.




Alligators greeted us with toothy smiles all along the Tram Trail, and we saw egrets, herons, ibis, and other awesome birds. We also heard the constant splash of the walking catfish, but we never actually saw one.










I could have stayed all day. On our way out of south Florida we drove through Big Cypress, a designated national preserve, where we saw more gators, below.


Later, we took a quick hike on a palmy, ferny trail through a Panther Preserve, below. It occurred to me, while we were hiking, that putting human trails inside a panther preserve might not be the best idea, but I assume it’s safe? We obviously didn’t get eaten.



We didn’t have a lot of time to explore during this leg of the trip, because our destination was Orlando, and it’s a long drive to get there, no matter how you do it. I was the navigator, and I was trying to take the most direct route straight north, as opposed to going to the east or west side of Florida, where the interstates are very much out of the way. The road we were going north on most of the day (Hwy 29) was SLOW and went through a lot of little towns and through orange groves and I thought we’d never, ever get there.


When we finally arrived at our destination – one of the many Hampton Inns in Orlando – we made a quick change and then hurried to Disney Springs for dinner and some shopping. Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) has changed a lot over the years, and it was barely recognizable to us with its new parking garages, high-end shopping, and new bars and restaurants.


We snagged a table at House of Blues with no waiting, and then we dropped over a hundred dollars on a tiny bag of gifts at the huge Disney store.


We had a little free time the next day, so we decided to visit Epcot, a Disney park we’ve grown to love. We got there so early that we didn’t even have to take the tram from the parking lot; we purchased tickets and were in the park before it actually opened. Once we were in, we headed directly to the Soarin’ ride. We knew it had recently been updated from a “flight” above the California coastline to a “flight” around the world. I always enjoyed it before, but now it’s a gazillion times more amazing. You dip and glide above Sydney Harbour, Iguazu Falls, and the Great Wall of China, soar above polar bears and whales, and swoop over the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower. We loved it.

After riding Soarin’, it was still a good hour before World Showcase would open, and we didn’t have anything else we wanted to do in Future World, so we decided to ride Test Track – in hindsight, a stupid mistake. There wasn’t a wait time listed at the standby entrance, and the line didn’t look very long, so we hopped in. We finally boarded the stupid car an HOUR after waiting in a ridiculously slow-moving queue. Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded standing in line for an hour, but I didn’t even want to ride this damn thing. I kept looking for an exit, but once we were in, we were stuck. I became very grumpy. And very glad to finally get out. (Oh, by the way, the last 20 seconds of the ride is pretty fun. The rest is meh.)


After that, I didn’t have the patience to stand in another line. The only other thing I really wanted to ride was “Frozen Ever After” in the Norway section, and the line was consistently running 45 minutes or more. I decided I could live without it.




Instead, we ate pizza and drank wine in Italy, shopped in Germany and Mexico, ate ice cream in France, and drank a beer at the Rose & Crown in the UK. We watched little kids meet their favorite Disney characters. It was a gloriously warm, sunny day, and we spent much of the afternoon just strolling from country to country.



And now we’re back in Iowa, where it snows every freaking day. I am ready for spring!


1 comment so far

  1. Tim & Janice Coble on

    Looks like a fun winter get-away!!

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