Sarasota, Florida: The road trip continues north

Three days in Naples, Florida was more than enough, so it was time to get back into the rented Jeep and head north. Next stop: Sarasota.

After the sprawling suburb that was Naples, we were looking forward to a bigger city – we do love a big city. We were going to have to wait some time, though, since Sarasota, although its downtown does sport a high-rise or two, isn’t really a city either. With a population just shy of 58,000, Sarasota was incorporated as a town in 1902. A few older buildings remain in the downtown area, including a mission church.

We checked into the Westin which is, in fact, located downtown, and walked the urban landscape. It didn’t take long!

The view from our room at the Westin
The Westin’s rooftop bar

The Westin itself is a very pretty, modern hotel. It did, however, have a few “issues.” The elevators were a nightmare – the waits were horrific. And the entire place seems to be understaffed. From the single person at the front desk to the fact that our room wasn’t cleaned until 5 pm the next day (after we called twice) to the wait staff running around the restaurant at breakfast like chickens with their head cut off. All in all, they do have a management problem.

The following morning, we headed across the bay to St. Armand’s Circle, a collection of restaurants, bars and shops.

We then carried on to see the beach through a residential area of laid-back, sometimes quirky little houses until we reached the beach.

A long stretch of white sand, the beach is located along an outer island that can only be reached, as we did, by crossing over a series of bridges that connect a series of keys. It was the weekend, the sun was shining, and the beach was busy.

Then it was time to stop for some rehydration (a beer) at ChaCha Coconuts, a funky little bar on St. Armand’s…

…before we headed back across the bridge toward our home-away-from-home. By the time we arrived back at the hotel, we had walked 15.5 kms. All in a day’s vacationing!

The map shows Sarasota’s downtown connected to the keys. We walked there and back!

Spending two nights in Sarasota was a good way to see the city. But more than that would have been too much. Next stop: downtown Orlando!

Naples (Florida): The road trip continues!

If you thought about getting in your car and heading west from the Florida Keys through the Everglades to the gulf coast, what would you expect to see? Crocodiles crossing the road? Panthers peeking out from behind mangrove swamp? Thick bush towering over the sides of the roadway? Well, that’s what we were expecting when we set out from Key Largo (first stop on the recent road trip) to Naples. Instead, what we saw were flat sawgrass marshes, mangrove marshes and lots of signs to beware of panther crossings. Oh, and then there was that line of traffic and no place to pass. But, then, that’s what road trips are all about.

We set out from Key Largo and the trip through Everglades National Park was actually quite a boring couple of hours. We arrived in Naples to find ourselves in automobile city. The traffic was unexpected and the fact that this is a city of cars not pedestrians really did surprise us. Since we are “walkers” (no, we do not have walkers), we found ourselves the only people out walking almost wherever we went except “downtown” where locals and tourists alike walked from the (many) parking lots to restaurants and the odd boutique. Surprising to us, that’s all there really is downtown.

Patty gets such a kick out of the “Florida style” ala Gretchen Scott (here) and the storied Lily Pulitzer. Not her style but quintessential Florida.

When we thought about Naples, and what we’d heard from people we know who winter there, we expected something more cosmopolitan than a town with a population of around 20,000 and miles upon miles of suburban sprawl. That explains the need for driving everywhere!

We, on the other hand, actually walked the kilometre-and-a-half from our hotel to the mall where there was – not kidding – no sidewalk or pedestrian access. Really! We had to tread in the roadway to even get near the place. But the parking lot was enormous! Clearly, they do not expect anyone to walk. And we walked much farther. It’s the only way to see a place. We did, however, join the locals by taking our car downtown so that we could walk in that area.

Downtown Naples

We drove down Gulfshore Boulevard to downtown (we walked the boulevard the next day) past incredible mansions.

We parked at 12th street then walked for two hours. The downtown is really just a few streets of small, upscale boutiques and some rather nice restaurants. We had lunch at the Ridgway Bar and Grill where the food was delicious and the outdoor, covered patio was a lovely way to sip a glass of wine with a leisurely lunch.

We walked to the Naples beach which is a very long public beach.

Naples beach

Unlike many tropical destinations, there are no hotels on the beach until you get much farther from the downtown area. Many lucky (and well-heeled) residents, though, do have beachfront houses and condos. There are lots of condos!

Three days in Naples was enough. On this road trip we have two and three-night stops. This one could have been two nights but we managed an extra 11 kilometers of walking on the extra day! Next stop: Sarasota.

Key Largo: First stop on a Florida road trip

What image comes immediately to mind for you when someone says “Key Largo”? Do you think of Bogie and Bacall in the eponymous 1948 film noir?

…or perhaps you’re more inclined toward the laid-back, beach-bum image created by the 1981 Bertie Higgins song?

Either way, Key Largo is something different. And it was our first stop in this winter’s Florida road trip.

We flew into Fort Lauderdale, rented a car and drove the almost two-hour drive toward the Florida Keys. The truth is that the drive is unbelievably boring and the traffic going into the Keys? Brutal. But at least Key Largo is at the top of the keys.

We pulled into the Key Largo Beach Marriott Hotel and got our bearings. Let’s start with location.

Great Florida vibe in the hotel lobby

Key Largo is less a “town” than it is a very long, four-lane highway running down the middle of a sandbar where, in places, there are a few streets between the road and the water on either side. Thus, if you’re trying to find a “downtown” hotel, close to everything, you’re out of luck. The Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort, however, is walking distance to a number of bars and restaurants in addition to what’s on the property.

This is what runs down the Keys from one end to the other. Art is heading south.

One of the nearby bars is The Caribbean Club that bills itself as the filming location for Key Largo the movie back in the late ‘40s. Subsequent research, however, suggests that the movie was almost entirely filmed on the Warner lot with only the opening scenes filmed on location in Florida. We’d have to go back and watch the move again to see if this bar really figures in. If it doesn’t, it probably should.

We took a walk north from our hotel one evening and were lured into two spots by the music wafting through the air waves along with the rustling palm trees. At the first one, the band was just finishing a set, so we moved on and stumbled into The Caribbean Club. Filled with a wide variety of laid-back, T-shirt-clad music lovers, we took a seat at the bar and ordered two beers. Strictly cash only. No credit cards.

We sat back and enjoyed the band and our beers and when the set was finished, we moved on. The life-sized statue of Humphrey Bogart at the door was more Rick from Casablanca in his white dinner jacket, but no matter. Atmospheric it was!

The three days in Key Largo were laid-back and rum-filled. There is no reason whatsoever for anyone in Key Largo to wear anything other than a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Since we don’t do downtime as well as many people do, one day we decided to drive to Key West.

Views from our hotel veranda

We’d been there twice before each for one day off a cruise ship and decided that we need to see the Keys in their entirety. Well, when people at the hotel heard we drove there and back in one day, they thought we were crazy. It took two-and-a-half hours to make it down the narrow highway to the end of the Keys and over three hours to drive back. Hideous traffic all the way.

Key West (images above of Papa Hemingway, his house and the southernmost-point-in-the-US marker after Hurricane Dorian) was mobbed by cruise ship travelers. We found a place to park, had lunch then headed back to Key Largo to mellow out a bit.

After three days of chilling it was time to get back in the car and head across the Everglades to our next stop: Naples, Florida.

Autumn Escape to Muskoka

Lake Rosseau

Ever since Barry Manilow made a “Weekend in New England” synonymous with escaping from the city to a place that could “take you away” the notion of fleeing the urban metropolis for even a brief sojourn to tranquility has resonated. And it doesn’t even have to be to spend time with someone you see only infrequently (as the song seems to imply). Our escape to the country this past week wasn’t a weekend (it was a mid-week sojourn which is even better), it was the two of us who spend all our time together (who better to accompany you to commune with nature) and it wasn’t New England (it was the Muskoka Lakes region of Canada). But that’s just splitting hairs. We had a wonderful time.

We leave Toronto and head north toward what is referred to in the city as “cottage country.” This cottage country is situated on the southernmost edge of a landmass referred to as the Canadian Shield. This is a mass of some eight million square kilometres of pre-Cambrian rock face that all good little Canadians learn about in elementary school geography. We have to admit, it more frequently conjured images of flat masses of rock, and although this is the case way up north, this southern edge is largely forested. In the fall, it takes on rich hues of fiery red, vivid orange, vibrant yellow, and rusty brown. What really makes it cottage country, though, is the fact that the region is sprinkled with 1600 interconnected lakes and nineteen watersheds. That’s a lot of waterfront property!

The Muskoka region. We explored from Gravenhurst at the bottom around through Rosseau and over to Huntsville at the very top right-hand corner of the map.

As you can see on the map, many of the lakes are almost shard-like in their configuration, but among them are several sizable lakes. One of the three largest is Lake Rosseau – our destination. The drive north takes us almost three hours (only two and a bit if you don’t count the time it takes to actually clear the city!) and takes us past rolling countryside and lake after lake with cottages dotting the shorelines here and there. But don’t get the idea that these “cottages” are tiny substitutes for homes. There are a few of those, but so many of them have three-boat boathouses on the shore up from which you can glimpse the multi-million-dollar estates. These are the summer homes of the rich and famous, but mostly just rich. (The famous ones with homes here? These include Martin Short, Tom Hanks, Kate Hudson and parents Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russel, Steven Spielberg and even Justin Beiber if you must know.)

The day is rainy and cloudy, but we are never put off by the weather (remember the saying? There is no bad weather, only poor clothing choices. Amen to that). We arrive at our destination: the JW Marriott Rosseau Muskoka Resort and Spa to find that the staff all seem to have evaporated. There isn’t a bell-person or valet in sight. We haul our luggage in the door and once someone realizes that guests have arrived, the staff snap to Marriott-level guest service and we don’t have another complaint.

We arrive at the resort.

Our room has a wonderful view of the lake, a fireplace and a large terrace. Since the weather is a bit brisk, we don’t have much of a chance to sit out and meditate on the water and the clean air, but it’s wonderful nonetheless. Since it turns out that much of the resort is time-shared, the accommodation, regardless of size, seems to all have kitchenettes, eating and lounging areas. Our room was very spacious with a wonderful, large bathroom.

The living area of our waterview room…
Our fireplace…
Our view.

You could be forgiven for expecting this hotel to be a bit like the old-time grand hotels that we wrote about after we visited the Sagamore in upstate New York, but this one was actually built only ten years ago. This actually has a lot going for it since it means that the rooms are much larger and the bathrooms soooo much larger and better equipped.

Lake Rosseau waterfront at the resort.

With the nippy fall day, we really enjoy the two wonderful fireplaces in the lobby areas on the main floor – and a soaring atrium, a few other features that don’t come along with the old hotels. The hotel has two terrific high-end restaurants and we experience both. Teca, the Italian restaurant, is one of those places that make you feel as if you aren’t actually in a hotel rather dining at an esteemed restaurant anywhere in the world. The food and service are both brilliant. The Chop House is also a terrific steakhouse.

The resort from the water side.

So, here we are in Muskoka. What to do? The resort itself offers a few activities, none of which are the kinds of things we like to do, so we decide to explore the area. Each day we head out to explore another road and visit the three largest towns in the regions Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville. Bear in mind that the population of Huntsville, the largest, is something shy of 20,000. That being said, we manage to find great places for lunch and Patty finds at least four terrific little boutiques for a bit of shopping. When we arrive back at the resort, the staff have a wood fire burning out front. One day they’re asking us to join them to roast marshmallows. Another day they’re offering hot chocolate. There is hardly another soul around in spite of the fact that a convention has arrived. We love the solitude.

If it had been a bit earlier in the season, we could have boarded one of the vintage lake steamers from the dock at Gravenhurst to tour Lake Rosseau from the water. Maybe next time.

But the highlight of the visit was the young people working at the Marriott resort. They represented a variety of ethnicities and cultures yet seemed all to be acquiring the Marriott culture that is always something we look forward to when we visit other cities and countries. A weekend in New England? How about a mid-week escape to Muskoka? Done!