Unexpected Orlando: The Florida Road Trip Continues

It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been back from our winter road trip through Florida for a few weeks and the world has changed so dramatically. So, who’s interested in reading about travel when travel is verboten? Since we love to read about travel even when we’re between trips, we’ll continue to share recent experiences. The next stop on the latest road trip was Orlando.

What comes immediately to mind when someone says “Orlando, Florida”? If you’re like us, the words conjure an image of a certain mouse and a theme park. Of course, Disneyworld is the destination for so many people who venture inland in Florida from one coast or another. But not for us.

We were last in the Orlando area when our son was three years old. He’s now over 30 so you can tell it’s been a while!

Breakfast with Minnie all those years ago. This visit would be different!

However, the last time we were there, we stayed on the Disney site in their Polynesian Village hotel. This time we weren’t going anywhere near the Magic Kingdom. We headed straight from Sarasota to the Grand Bohemian Hotel in downtown Orlando. We did, however, stop at two outlet malls. One of them was mind-boggling.

The International Premium Outlets in the Orlando area was the largest outlet mall we’ve ever experienced. The parking lot was unbelievable. In fact, much of the parking there is paid parking if you can believe it. The place was so big, we just wandered around marvelling at the sheer number of shops then left with not a single purchase. We then set out to find our hotel – through hideous traffic.

The main draw for us in the city of Orlando was the Grand Bohemian Hotel itself. Across the street from city hall and the municipal buildings, the hotel is part of the Kessler Group of hotels, now owned by Marriott. It’s part of their autograph collection which consists of an international collection of quirky and often historic properties. Who would have believed that this was in the middle of Florida?

When we checked into the hotel, it became obvious that we’d have to step up our wardrobe a bit from places like Key Largo and Naples if we didn’t want to stick out here. The hotel was populated mostly by business people in suits. We do enjoy stepping up our wardrobes, so this wasn’t a problem.

Orlando was something of a surprise to us. With a population of over 2.5 million, Orlando is the third-largest city in Florida. Dating from the middle of the nineteenth-century, the city still has reminders of what it might have been like in the 1800s. In the Church Street station area, the old train station is still there alongside saloons and other historic buildings.

We spent a lovely morning walking around the parks in the middle of the city, Lake Eola Park being the prettiest. With its piped-in music, swans and various bird species, the lake is a wonderful urban oasis.

But one of the most striking aspects of downtown Orlando is its variety of public artwork. We certainly appreciated it as we expect the locals do as well. One of the things we noticed was that despite what might come to mind when thinking of Orlando, we didn’t see a single child and there actually seemed to be very few tourists around. There’s no doubt, though, that this is a convention city.

We spent two nights in Orlando – long enough to see the city. Then it was off to St. Augustine, the oldest city in North America.

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!

Grand Old Hotels: Some are grander than others

There’s something so romantic about the idea of those grand, old hotels of yesteryear. The long, low buildings with those wrap-around porches overlooking a tranquil lake, palm plants in the lobby where a string quartet plays. And the guests are elegantly attired and enjoying a serene holiday away from the heat of the city. Epitomized in that 1980 film Somewhere in Time, these hotels have always held an allure for us. Remember that movie? Just look at the hotel!

Well, that hotel, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan is still on our bucket list, but we’ve visited a few others and have just returned from one that we thought might be the luxury experience they advertise. We have just returned from The Sagamore Resort in upstate New York.

The Sagamore Resort with its porch facing Lake George, New York.
The entrance to the Sagamore. This is the historic hotel where we stayed, but there are many modern “lodges” on the resort property.

When we first visited their web site to book, we were enthralled by the drone footage of this incredible resort on a private island on Lake George. And there was the iconic hotel design. It was love at first sight. They refer to themselves as “Lake George’s premier luxury resort” and with a price tag of nearly $800.00 a night for a water view room in the main historic hotel, how could we go wrong? Let us count the ways.

Being on a summer road trip, we had just come from the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, another of the grand old hotels that we have visited many times.

Their grounds are not nearly so grand as the Sagamore’s, but their main historic hotel rooms are wonderful and the price? We paid less than $300 (Canadian) for what turned out to be a far superior room and a more luxurious experience. But, what about the Sagamore? Our story covers the good, the bad and the very ugly.

Let’s start with the good bits. When approached, the staff are, to a person, attentive, friendly and personable. From the valets parking our car to the housekeeping staff, we had not complaints in that department. Then there was the food. It was exceptional for hotel dining. We enjoyed La Dolce Vita, their main dining room as well as al fresco dining at The Pavilion.

Margaritas on the deck at The Pavilion.

But the pièce de résistance had to be the wonderful Grill at the golf course. Off-site, it was serene, peaceful and served wonderful steaks. And the service was impeccable. And the grounds are lovely (we enjoyed them as long as we stayed away from the pool, beach and anywhere that was populated – more about why in a minute).

A cruise on the Sagamore’s “The Morgan” is included in your resort fee. We highly recommend taking advantage of this.

So, those were the good bits. Now for the bad bits.

The room. Furnished in an historic style, the room was just a very ordinary, tired-looking hotel room. For the price, we have had so much better. Can we talk about dust encrustation on parts of the bathroom and dust in the crevices of the old dressers – and there were lots of crevices. The carpets were not fresh either. But the bathroom had been renovated and was acceptable (except for that dirt).

Patty enjoying a glass of champagne (which we brought with us) in our $$$ room. Yes, that’s how small it was.

The hotel is old so the noise tends to permeate, but that wouldn’t have been a problem if it were not for…the ugly bits.

The place was crawling with children. Loud children. Whining children. Children running amok through dining rooms, hallways, outdoor walkways, the “beach”, the pool. You name it, they made the experience like being in Dante’s ninth circle of hell. We chatted with a young couple from Boston who had just arrived and were surprised to see so many children. You see, they had read the promotional material and had left their children at home with the grand-parents for a brief, romantic getaway. At that point, it wasn’t looking so romantic to them.

Overall, we tend to be able to have a good time wherever we go, but this was such a disappointment that we will not make that mistake again. It is not a luxury experience in any way, shape or form. It is just expensive. We will head to The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in the off-season and hope for that serene experience.

Cruise diaries: Cienfuegos, Cuba

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Sunrise as we approach Cienfuegos.

Whenever most Canadians think about Cuba, they think, sun, sand and all-inclusive resorts. Throw in a day trip to Havana, and you’ve got a winter get-away. However, that’s not how we travel these days. So, that recent trip to Cuba that we inadvertently discovered ourselves on found us touring the historical cities of this Caribbean island. You last found us dashing to the excursion desk on the Silver Spirit as the ship left Santiago de Cuba, so that we could cancel any and all future group tours. After spending the day with the Cuban guide and a bus load of Americans who seemed to have an odd relationship with one another, we did not relish a repeat performance. Cienfuegos would be on our own.

After spending the next day in Georgetown, Grand Cayman (an unprepossessing port call if ever there was one these days), we sailed into Cienfuegos with the sunrise.

 

After a leisurely breakfast in the dining room, and knowing that the bulk of the passengers had already gone ashore, we made our way to the tender and stepped ashore in Cienfuegos.

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Of course, this being Cuba, we had to go through immigration for the second (but not last) time. A ship’s crew member ashore pointed us up a street just outside the “port area” and so we walked.

It wasn’t long before we realized that this was the road less traveled – by tourists or anyone other than locals. The streets were lined with crumbling buildings that held the shadow of a former glory with their Spanish architecture. But these days, they are sad collections of what appeared to be residences.

We were lightly accosted by a local “taxi” driver who assured us he could take us to the town square. We protested that we prefer to walk (which we do), but he kept returning on the off chance that we had changed out minds. This happened at least five times through the morning. Who could blame him, though? There was no doubt he could have used the fare.

We finally emerged into the historic town square, after having missed the turn affording us a bit longer walk through the not-for-tourists area!

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Located some 250 km from Havana, Cienfuegos has a population of 150,000 and has a town centre that is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its collection of neoclassical buildings comprises six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century.

After cruising the town square, we walked through a variety of city streets teaming with locals. Where were the tourists? Nowhere to be seen.

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As we walked along, an older man who appeared to be North American, stopped us and said, “do you speak English?” We thought that he was going to ask for directions.

“Yes,” we said, “we’re from Toronto.”

“Oh, I thought you might,” he said. Of course, we didn’t look local.

In any case, he proceeded to tell us that he’s from just outside Toronto, and he spends the winters in Cienfuegos. What he wanted to tell us, though, was that we shouldn’t miss a chance to step inside the new Melia hotel that had just opened a block or so ahead. He told us it had a terrific view.

We took his advice and visited the hotel. What’s interesting is how different it is from the rest of the town as we had experienced it. New and shiny, the hotel is clearly trying t attract tourists for winter holidays.

We then made our way back to the ship, just in time to enjoy a drink on the deck! Next stop: Havana!