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!

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.

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!