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Friday, May 26, 2006

Florida 2006, Part II

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.)

Comments (13)


I spent ten days in Florida back in March, but with a very different experience. We spent a week in Orlando, including several days at the various Disney parks. However, the highlight of our trip was the time we spent in South Florida, camping in the Everglades (thankfully before the recent alligator attacks - less paranoia), driving through the Keys, and taking a boat tour out to the Dry Tortugas, where we were able to do some snorkeling.

Florida is a nice place to visit, but it doesn't take long to start missing the forests and mountains of Oregon.

When I was 17, I graduated early from a boarding school in Exeter, New Hampshire, and hitchhiked to Florida with an American friend, also from Saudi Arabia. We went down the east side past Daytona and then over to the Gulf of Mexico, and a place called Marco Island. We had many an adventure, since we were often viewed as potential runaways by the police. We actually had one of those scenarios where the cop drove us to the edge of his town and told us not to come back - that sort of thing. We had a network of contacts from Arabia, but we also camped out a lot, and worked odd jobs like one night when we were on this grate over this gigantic pit, opening up the bottom of railroad cars. Overall it was a total blast and my friend made it back to school late, causing a rule change for future post-grads at the prep school. Afterwards, I was holed up at a farm in Massachusetts and the night before my 18th birthday my father cabled me from Arabia, giving me permission to hitchhike alone. The next morning I was gone, hitching all over America, having tons of adventures. I ended up doing this for over 25,000 miles over the years. I even hitched through a town called Portland, Oregon not knowing I would end up living here. These were my American adventure years, and going to Florida at 17 really kicked the whole thing off.

I'm willing to bet that Jeb Bush-early summer program is a nod to the large hospitality industry in Florida. Give the kids enough time to apply, interview and train before summer break tourists even arrive.

Welcome to Florida. Ron Jon's is a Florida icon. Be sure to check out Ron Jon's Surf Shop just down A1A.

BTW, the late May dismissal of students is not a Jeb Bush creation. It's been that way for a while. Of course, the kids go back to school in early August; they still get their 180 days of classroom time. My wife, a teacher, says that JEB! recently signed a law that requires school boards to start school near the end of August. Of course, our schools perform poorly on national tests, but it's not due to lack of class time.

I've never gone out beyond Miami when visiting Florida (which is also a yearly event for me), so my experience is a bit different when checking out the skin in that state. Not a lot of bloated whiteness to speak of in South Beach thanks to the fact that we are usually outnumbered by foreigners and ex-pats. I fear the rest of Florida would just depress me.

Jack - I agree with your comments on french fries. If you want great seafood with no deep fat fryers in sight, then come on over to Newport & check out Sharks on the Bayfront. They steam or saute everything. Nothing is fried. I think it's the best restaurant in Newport.

I lived in the Tampa area for five years. Don't miss much about it (except in February) but a good grouper sandwich, Cuban food and WMNF (kicks KBOO's a*s) are high on the list.

You should be reading some Charles Willeford while you're down in Florida. The 4 books on Hoke Mosley are great, so is "The burnt orange heresay".

Jack, Wendy's? I can't believe you feed the kids that S@#t!!! Watch out for the finger chili!

Jack your legs look as delicious as they did in the 70's!

Milk bottles are making a comeback.


I'm glad you took advantage of our wireless network at Wahoo Coffee. Sorry we missed you on Sunday, but we close at 3pm. Thanks for stopping by the shop and I am glad you enjoyed it. If you need any coffee beans, we ship all over the country. Go to our website and email me.



We'll definitely see you again when we get back that way, Bob. Thank you.


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