A sunshine state weekend

What better destination to start a new chapter than the land of extremes, where nothing is done in halves, opportunity is aplenty and where big truly is everything. With a B1/B2 visa in hand and flip-flops at the ready we were ready for our landing into West Palm Beach, Florida to join our new 30m floating home. After a short break from my first stint in the yachting industry I was back, but this time in the form of a sailing yacht with a worldwide itinerary beginning stateside.

Our working days were filled with getting used to the boat, getting it ready for our first guest trip and generally fitting in with American life. Mornings at drive through Starbucks, afternoons at batting cages and evenings out to the mall, though we tried not to be the cliché…

In true American style our first long weekend off was spent road tripping through this sunshine state. Being based in Florida for the month and having not spent any length of time in America before I was keen to throw myself into some true American road tripping – what I didn’t realise was how big one state can really be. Florida’s personality checklist is as long and varied as its slender peninsula shape, hosting everything from theme parks, tacky tourist traps, tropical getaways, and wild wetland highways to fashionable chic cities. Without further ado, no real plan (and definitely not enough time) we set off on our first road trip. With a tank full of super cheap gas and a free hire car (yacht expenses) Florida was our oyster.

Starting out in West Palm and driving the scenic coastal route south with short stops in Delray Beach and the yachtie capital of Fort Lauderdale, we made our way towards The Everglades starting our journey on “Alligator Alley”. It is ironic to think that Americans have engineered a way to witness wildlife without actually having to leave their air conditioned trucks and their 7/11 slurppy cup (apologies for the sweeping generalisation and to the true active Americans out there). I would describe it as road of nothingness with surrounding wetlands and the odd alligator chilling by the side of this fast 4-lane highway.

The Everglades are the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the US and cover millions of acres including marshes, mangrove forests and wetlands home to endangered species. With only a day to explore we did the tourist thing and hooked up with Captain Jack and he’s airboat tour. It was great fun having never been on an airboat before, swerving in and out of the mangroves at speed, unfortunately we didn’t see any gators (the water was too salty for their appetites) but we did come across some cute racoons. Part of the airboat tour ticket allowed us free entry into their ‘animal sanctuary’ where you could hug a gator – tacky? Never. After our exciting airboat ride and our roadside gator sightings we were back on the road, taking the scenic route up to Miami. Americans drive everywhere, you can get drive through everything – from your morning coffee to your afternoon cash withdrawal. If you need something you will be able to drive as close as humanly possible to it, so it was definintely a shock to the system when we went miles without seeing a gas station. An hour or so later, with an empty tank and our ‘what if’ stranded debates (would we kill a gator for dinner?) we reached gas. Phew, the trip continued.

Next on our ‘how to explore more than one part of Florida in a weekend’ mission was Miami. With various associated song lyrics and an eclectic mix of people, Miami simultaneously oozes tack and glamour. We decided to throw ourselves into Miami’s number one playground, South Beach. A long stretch of white sand backed by the famous skyline of Ocean Drive and surrounded by a colourful art deco neighbourhood. Balancing on the edge of tackiness and boasting a prime party atmosphere it is Miami’s day and night hotspot, lined with boutiques, restaurants and bars. The amazing beachfront properties add to its glamour and the bars overspilling with drunken tourists add to its Greek island culture…

After spending the night at an amazing Air B&B property in the Coconut Grove neighbourhood we were back to explore. After a sugary Dunkin Donut coffee lift we decided it might be fun to drive to the Keys. Because its America and everyone drives everywhere, it would be quick and easy with their huge cars and 4-lane highways right? Wrong. I imagined everything to be too fast and way too furious on American highways but again, wrong. With a 55 mph speed limit and an immense amount of miles to cover this understandably took time out of our exploration schedule but the journey was all part of the fun.

Once you reach Highway 1 it is a 113-mile drive down to Key West (the southernmost key). We were pleasantly surprised that driving down to the keys, (luckily for our tight schedule) the drive was half the beauty. This island chain connected by overseas highway and various bridges has to be one of the most picturesque drives I have encountered. Windows rolled down with bad American radio blasting we embraced true road trip style, with the Atlantic to our left and the Gulf to our right the clear blue waters dotted with islands provided a pretty amazing backdrop. Affectionately known as the “magic carpet” I can see why, from mainland Florida you are driving into quirky tropical landscapes with a Caribbean feel. We had a brief stop at Key Largo for a quick beach break but our eyes were on the main prize of Key West. Once American radio started to wear thin – I took to photography, stopping off for various Kodak moments my favourite one has to be the “Turtle hospital” – too cute and only in America. After what seemed like days in paradise we reached the southernmost point of the USA and closer to Cuba than Miami, Key West. The Cuban influence was evident within the laid back attitude, colourful surroundings and the vast amounts of rum and cigars on offer. Key West was a breath of fresh air from mainland Florida, it has a real exotic feel dotted with exclusive resorts and bins dedicated for coconuts! After a long day’s drive we had a well deserved tropical cocktail watching the sun-worshipers pack up for the day.

After fitting in as much as Florida as we could and the long ride back, time for another weekend off…

April, 2015 (Florida)

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