When you drive inland from Tampa Bay, after you labor your way past the long line of hideously dense residential development right on the freeway, the countryside gets pretty rural. Lots of cows and horses munching away next to I-4. And some serious wetlands -- gator habitat, no doubt. Not a whole lot going on. Before we took the cutoff to bypass Orlando, we stopped at what has to be about the bleakest Wendy's in America. Dave wouldn't have approved.
It was roaring hot and sticky, and the locals were making pained faces about it, but when you're a tourist from Portland, Oregon with a nice pool in your near future, it can't get hot enough. We slid all the way around Disney World and paid toll after toll and we buzzed on through to the Space Coast. As you approach the Atlantic, the expressway narrows a little, and when it hits the coastline just south of the Kennedy Space Center, it hangs a right and turns into a fairly standard American commercial strip, beach hotels and such on your left.
Just before that turn, there's an exit for the cruise ship launching stations. The big ones run out of here -- Disney, Carnival -- along with some lesser lines and some short-hop gambling cruises. If you take the cruise dock exit and head east past the oil storage tanks (there just for a nostalgic hint of the Jersey Shore), you hit the two-year-old Ron Jon beach resort, which was our Atlantic coast destination. A big roomy two-bedroom condo just off the beach (free shuttle tram all day long -- and no, it's not aerial) runs you 200 clams a night in May. Once you're settled in a bit, the run to the nearby liquor store and supermarket is an easy routine.
The main options at this place are pool and ocean. Both are so fine, you don't need much else. The pool complex includes a couple of toddler pools, a "lazy river," a big folks' pool with a volleyball court, and a fairly hairy water slide. In the afternoons a duo plays soft rock -- in a way, they're like the middle school music teachers from Saturday Night Live, but a little less goofy and with a beachier feel. Along with the Buffett you get some Creedence and maybe Tom Petty.
The ocean beach is five minutes' walk away, pure white sand and warm, healing waves, with a long gentle slope out into the breakers. There's a tendency toward riptides here, but the surf was tiny the whole time we were on the scene.
The resort has all manner of on-water stuff for kids to do. Magic shows, arts and crafts, and a wildlife safari show that gets the tarantulas and alligators right on your lap. (Most curious, but nonetheless reassuring, part of the gator display: the electrical tape around their jaws.)
If the spirit moves, there's an exercise room and a massage therapist. But let me tell you, people, there are few customers for either. America has gone to pot physically. All of Florida seemed to be a gigantic obesity clinic, and we're talking patients of all ages. They say Americans are going to live a lot longer, but I don't know. Fully seven out of 10 vacationers we saw were strokes and heart attacks waiting to happen. You just looked around the resort, and you saw what Rome looked like right before the empire fell. A bunch of soft, overstuffed whales. A bunch of hungry Arabs could kick our a*ses in a Riyadh minute.
We didn't let any of that bother us. We took full advantage of the excellent facilities and ran ourselves ragged with swimming, beachcombing, miniature golf, beach jogging, and hours in the indoor kiddie play area. We ventured down the road to the funky Cocoa Beach Pier a couple of times. Not much going on there, even on Friday "beach band bash" night. A couple of timeshare salesmen hustled us, but we weren't biting.
It was a real joy being with the kids so much, but I experienced an interesting phenomenon more than once. There were quite a few youngsters there who were running around unsupervised, and they seemed fairly starved for adult attention. Our two swimmers were shrieking "Watch this, Dad!" over and over with great gusto, and within a few minutes some other child, a complete stranger, would be over with us showing off as well. It wasn't competition among the kids as much as it was just wanting to be seen and acknowledged by a grown-up male. I didn't quite know how to react.
With a nice, well equipped kitchen, we ate most meals "at home," saving money and waistline inches. There's a fine coffee roaster in town called Wahoo Coffee (named after the fish, not the U. Va. rooters), and he's got the wi-fi going all day and night. We stopped by on a Sunday afternoon only to find him closed, but our older daughter and I staged an impromptu tailgater on the van -- I on the laptop, she on her art pad.
What restaurant fare we had in Florida was heavy. I don't care if I ever see another French fry. But the local fish was plentiful and first-rate. They're grilling grouper, mahi-mahi, and something called triggerfish, and they know what they're doing with it. There's a joint called Grills tucked in near the cruise ships, which has got the right combination of party atmosphere and grub.
It was the end of the slow season down that way, and we didn't meet with big crowds for much of anything. In fact, on weekdays, we had most of the place to ourselves. However, just as we were wrapping up the trip -- the Wednesday before Memorial Day -- all manner of school-age kids appeared. We were informed that the school year in Florida had just ended. It's a Jeb Bush program, I guess -- no child left in the classroom to learn anything.
Life is good when your biggest problems are the sand in your bathing suit and the menu choices at Grills. When the big project is showing a five-year-old how mini golf works. When you're goofing off, physically beat, slurping down a frozen strawberry daiquiri with a sleepy eye on the basketball playoffs. Wondering how hot it will be tomorrow. Beach first, then pool, or the other way around? Which day should we do Disney? How low should we turn the a.c. down to tonight? (To be continued.)