Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Travel Rewind: Babylon on the Make (2003):

Travel Rewind: Babylon on the Make (2003): (The first of two trip reposts from long ago, in honor of my most recent trip to the Sunshine State.)

Sometimes it can seem like everybody in the State of Florida is on the make. Two of the three hotels I stayed at had valet as their only parking option. All of them added a "resort fee" or something similar, on the order of $10-$15 dollars a day, which is supposed to cover all sorts of miscellaneous expenses. But then you find out that there are various little things it doesn't cover -- health club access here, a lounge chair on the beach there, the very generous gratuity added to your bill -- and you begin to wonder if you're being scammed.

You're not, really. Nobody's trying to hide anything from you for the most part. They're all pretty straightforward about what charges cover what services. But the whole business of nickel-and-diming you endlessly just naturally raises your scam shield.

The incessant hand in your pocket at the hotels I can accept. Like I said, they are honest about it and you have a sense of what you are paying for. Since they all do it, it's really no different financially from raising the room rates and including everything. Hotel management probably feels it gives them some flexibility when it comes to dealing with complaints and serves as a way to make people acknowledge all the services that are available to them. My counter argument is that it can give you feeling that you have been bled. But psychology aside -- it's six of one, half-dozen of the other.

Where I can't accept this is from auto rental companies. Auto rental companies nickel-and-dime you just like anyone else in the travel industry, but they push and spin all their add-ons like a telemarketer on a deadline. A typical exchange when picking up your car:

Rental Guy: For only $10/day I can get you an upgrade to a nicer vehicle -- with four doors.
Me: Doesn't the one I reserved have four doors?
RG: Let's see. Oh, yes it does. But they're smaller.
Me: Do you think I look fat?
RG (confused): Um, no.
Me: Nevermind. No thank you.
RG: OK, here we go. I've got you down for added insurance to cover you in case of mishap.
Me: I don't need it. I have that through my Amex card.
RG: Well, it's only $8 and with this we won't even call your company. If there's any damage you can just walk away.
Me: $8 total or $8 per day?
RG: That would be per day.
Me: No, thank you.
RG (shaking his head like I should know better): Then I'll need you to initial that you've refused it. Would you like to pay for your gas now?"
Me: No, thank you.
RG: If you pay for a tank now, the price is only $1.75 per gallon. If we have to fill it when you return the car it's a lot more expensive -- three dollars per gallon more.
Me: Or, I can just fill the tank at the Citgo station across the street before I return it. That's probably the cheapest of all, don't you think?
RG (shaking his head again): Then I'll need you to initial here also.

I really have serious issues with industries that thrive on squeezing people who don't know any better or are caught off-guard when confronted with mealy-mouthed half-truths. This includes the idiots who leave me voice mails about how they happened to be in the neighborhood installing satellite dishes and they are sure sorry that I missed the opportunity to get in on their deal. This claim would hold more water if I didn't get that same voice mail every other day. It also includes timeshare hucksters who provide those scratch-and-win tickets for a special value on some property. Of course, your chance of winning is approximately 100%.

I know of what I speak. Many years ago I worked briefly -- very briefly -- as a car salesman (the champions of mealy-mouthed half-truths). If you find yourself in an industry like this, I strongly advise you to get out of it. It will scar your soul.

But anyway, I was in Florida for a while. Let me tell you about it.

The plan was three nights at the famous South Beach, followed by a drive down the Keys for two nights in Key West, followed by a drive in the reverse direction back up to Palm Beach for two nights before heading home.

Miami Beach is rightly famous for its Art Deco style architecture, and some of it is striking. It's a real blast from the swanky past and very much responsible for the unique South Beach-pastel couture vibe.

Although I didn't stay there, when I am one of the rich and famous, my first hotel choice would be The Delano. I'm not much for favoring a hotel because of its decor or style. The now famous boutique hotels really don't do anything for me. I want service. I want convenience. I want amenities. I want easy access. I have no desire to stand in the lobby and admire the fashionable furniture. And yet I was amazed by The Delano. Huge white flowing curtains and tapestries are everywhere in the lobby -- and when I say huge I'm mean something on the order of three stories high. They are used both as d‚cor and as separators. The use of clean white sheeting is a brilliant touch for a hotel (where clean white sheeting is symbolic of all sorts of positive sensations). The furniture is all cushy, living-room style furniture, again mostly white and very inviting. As you walk through you notice the front desk -- a very simple little table. Move further on and you see a sushi bar tucked away in one corner. Yet further, an off in an alcove is a fine looking bar. Further still begins the restaurant; it is located half indoors and half outdoors. The soft separation between the areas gives you the sense that it's all one big space yet you always know where.

Outside, after you pass through the outdoor tables of the restaurant, there is a garden with the usual trappings and a fairly comfy hammock. Then comes the pool -- they're big on infinity pools down there. Beyond that is the poolside bar surrounded by comfortable lounge chairs and a bunch of what might be called daybeds, but are really oversized ottomans. Between the pool bar area and the beach is a tall wooden fence with a gate that is closed after sunset.

It's beautiful enough to make me just want to be there. And that from Mr. I-only-want-practical-and-functional. It's definitely where I would stay, if I could afford it, but even off-season discounts are out of my reach.

There are three major points of interest for the tourist in South Beach (apart from Art Deco watching). The primary destination is the beach, which is very nice, if well-trodden; the water warm, clear and shallow. It is the Atlantic Ocean as I remember it from age 11.

Next, there is what is known as the Lincoln Road shopping mall, which is really a street that has been closed over for several blocks and is lined with a mishmash of crappy souvenir stores, high-toned boutiques, and restaurants with outdoor seating. About half way through there was a big screen that was running fashion shows -- models cat-walking up and down the runway for your entertainment while you have alfresco dinner. South Beach is about two things and high fashion is one of them (although everybody still dresses in shorts and t-shirts).

The third point of interest is Ocean Drive a few blocks of roadway famed for its restaurants and clubs, most of the open air variety. There is an extended area just across the street, where nets are set up for impromptu beach volleyball. There is what must be the world's largest and most complex sandcastle. Just beyond that is the beach. I'm told that during high season the place is loaded with colorful people -- a guide I read said it was the place to people-watch and it's where E! Wild on South Beach would set up their cameras. But obviously not in September; it was pretty dead. A walk down the street mid-afternoon elicited offers of a drink on the house from the proprietors, just in the hopes I'd stay for more. But I can see where the Ocean Drive might get a little crazy on busy nights. There is an energetic vibe about the place. Surprisingly, I spotted only one bar that was obviously trashy. It was called Mangos, and out front they had a huckster with a couple of friendly parrots on his shoulder, working the passers-by. And some girls in bikinis doing nothing but standing there. Naturally, I went in for a drink, just to cool off a bit.

The next three paragraphs include a critical discussion of women's breasts. If that bothers you, please skip ahead.

The other thing that South Beach is about, besides fashion, is women's breasts (the two are symbiotic in many ways). Sunbathing topless is de rigueur -- which makes the place feel rather Caribbean or French or something. Beyond that, and not to put too fine a point on it, I have never seen so many fake boobs in my life. And it's not subtle work; it's cartoonish, like the fevered dreams of adolescent boys. Tiny, wispy little girls that look like they just inflated their personal floatation devices. Fifty year old women who, considering the sagging and drooping elsewhere, appear to be mechanically suspended by their gravity defying breasts. Even the mannequins in the shop windows are top heavy.

In the aforementioned Mangos, all the waitresses are pretty and wear bikini tops -- the overwhelming majority has had "work done." Mangos is an equal opportunity employer; the waiters are also clearly hired based on how much they look like male models, but thankfully, they are fully clothed. Periodically, they play a bit of salsa and one waiter and one waitress would hop up and the bar and dance to it. (This only served to put me in mind of the old Lone Star Steakhouses back when the wait staff would periodically start line-dancing amongst the tables. Annoying, really, when they should have been bringing your food.) Then, of course, the parrot guy is wandering around, trying, and failing, to be glib and clever while having his parrots climb on to your shoulder for a snapshot that he will happily sell you (another Floridian on the make). In that kind of scene I would have expected the audience to be wild revelers and drunken schoolboys. Nope, the crowd was indistinguishable from your average Bennigan's or Max 'n' Erma's patrons. Imagine, all that money to have "work done" and you still end up surviving on 11% tips from the common, suburban rubes and tourists.

Now let me say quite unselfconsciously that I have no problem with cosmetic surgery. If I could go under the knife and come out looking like Sean Connery circa 1963 I would not hesitate. I'm also fine with breast enhancement, as long as it comes out looking good. Women who have a more, let's say, voluptuous body type can carry it off. Women who have small and subtle touch-ups can come out looking pretty good. But the South Beachers take it too far. They are no longer doing it just to look and feel good about themselves. They are doing it to draw attention to themselves from the world at large. They buy themselves hugely exaggerated breasts for the purpose of being able to say "Made ya look!" But since they all seem to go to the same extreme, it ceases to be attention-worthy. It's a viscous cycle that only ends up benefiting MTV and their newly pubescent audience.

And that all I have to say about women's breasts.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about South Beach. People were friendly everywhere I went. Despite my little breast tirade and the selective camera work on E!, the majority of people are dead normal looking. The beach is sweet. There are good restaurants and bars. And yet, I never actually settled in anywhere -- never got comfortable. It seemed like it could have a real Caribbean coolness to it, but there's really too much of a sense of effort, and perhaps pretentiousness, to make it a laid-back tropical locale. Maybe it would have been more fun in-season. It's a good spot for a couple of days of sun and fun, definitely worth the visit. But after three nights I was ready to leave and did so, not feeling like I missed out on anything.

One thing about driving around in Florida: you will get caught behind someone going a good 20 mph below the speed limit. This may seem like reasonable caution on the part of a senior citizen who understands the need for extra reaction time, but it has nothing to do with that. They are not intentionally driving 20 mph below the speed limit. They are intentionally driving 30 mph, regardless of the speed limit. This only becomes worthy of an aneurism when the speed limit is 50 and your mind tries vainly to fathom the reasoning behind this behavior and draws the erroneous conclusion that they are just being cautious. The fact is they just drive 30 because they don't care about the rest of the world. They pull out into traffic without looking. They cruise through stop signs with nary a glance. They stop dead in the middle of the road when they get confused. Their right to do these things has been vigorously defended in court by the AARP. So they get in the car and depress the accelerator to a point where the engine noise doesn't intrude upon that Perry Como CD they bought for $2.99 at Target; it just happens to be about 30 mph.

When you are driving US 1 to Key West, you will get caught behind one of these people. It doesn't matter how clever you are or how well you plan things out. You can't pass them or dodge them and flipping them off is completely futile. No matter what you do, it will happen. This is, so far, the only practical application I have found for yoga breathing.

US 1 to Key West is generally thought to be one of the most beautiful drives you can take. And it is, for a portion of it. As you cross Seven Mile Bridge, the view is as impressive as it is in all the post cards and magazines. But it's really only in the western part of the keys where you can see the ocean and/or gulf from the road. For the first half of the journey you are ambling down a road that looks no different than any other road in touristland -- lined with various crap shops hawking three t-shirts for $15.95 and greasy looking restaurants that will sell you the "captain's platter" for $6.95 before 4 pm. Not that I'm against crap shops and greasy restaurants, but it's not what you are expecting from a visual of the Keys. This is where you really don't want to get caught behind the guy with his pants hiked up around his armpits and the full-coverage, cataract sunglasses. (Do note that once you are off U.S. 1 things get a bit better.)

I checked into the Wyndham Casa Marina which is a longish, but quite pleasant walk to the far end of Duval Street, the point of action on Key West.

Duval Street starts roughly at the Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S. It's not really the southernmost point in the continental U.S., since there is quite obviously land going a bit further south. Furthermore, it's not even on the continental U.S., it's on an island just off the continental U.S. -- specifically Key West. (You need not fear for the future of pedantry as long as I'm around.) From there, it's a straight shot for what must be nearly a mile of nothing but open air bars, boutiques, crap shops, along with a girlie bar and a "bathhouse" just for good measure. Let's just say Duval Street is not the place to bring impressionable youngsters. Even if you could steer them clear of the dens of ill-repute, so to speak, the crap shops keep inanely obscene t-shirts in the windows, and the bars feature live entertainment of the foul-mouthed variety.

Still, Key West is not without its charm. Away from Duval Street there are some lovely shoreline areas. The residential streets seem fairly quiet and quaint. Even Duval Street ends in a spot called Mallory Square where crowds gather to watch the sunset and be entertained by street performers and local artisans.

I arrived in Key West in the late afternoon and had the entire day following to check things out. I had high hopes, I spent the late afternoon hanging out in the resort by the pool and wandered out for a quick bite of dinner at none other than the genuine Key West version of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville (not particularly impressive, even the margarita). The next day I had planned to do the full tour of Duval Street, hit the crap shops to buy some crap for the folks back in Michigan, and see if I could get out on the water somehow. Ominously, I noticed a preponderance of Harley-Davidsons but I just figured it was typical of the keys.

The next day, Bike Week was upon me in full force. Bike Week is when bikers, I would guess 99.99% Harley riders, gather to ride up and down the street, show off their bikes, and hang out in the bars. It sounds like a recipe for violence and terror from a '50s exploitation flick, but it's not. The bikers actually seem to be more mild than wild. The majority appear to be solidly into middle age -- presumably because you have to be at least upper middle-class to afford a Harley, never mind have one modified into a wicked looking chopper. Although many are big on leather and scruffy facial hair, a good third of them looked like they had just spent the morning mowing the lawn in their Bermuda shorts. All in all, a pretty decent crowd, with a couple of unfortunate traits.

One thing they all have in common, besides motorcycles, is that they are uniformly fat. I mean f-a-t. I worried that Key West would crumble and sink under their collective bulk. Seriously guys, eat a salad now and then, the shocks on your bike will last longer.

Another thing they all have in common is the odd fetish for making as much noise as possible. I think I can understand the attraction of motorcycling -- flying down road, the open air, the hint of danger and rebellion. But where does the noise come into it? Many of these folks just seem to revel in sitting curbside, revving their engines -- engines that have actually been modified to be noisier than a standard Harley which is ear-splitting enough. Good grief. Guys, get it through your heads, you're not the Hell's Angels. You're middle-class, middle-aged, middle-heavy posers. You look as silly pulling that bad-boy act as I would trying to pick up college girls on spring break in Ft. Lauderdale. Almost, anyway.

Despite the biker intrusion I did finish my circle tour of Duval Street, including crap shop purchases. The most notable stop was Sloppy Joe's, famous for being a Hemingway hangout half a century ago. Actually, it's moved to a new location since then. And the old location is now a new bar, Captain Tony's, whose claim to fame is that it is in the location of Sloppy Joe's back when it was a Hemingway hang out. Such is the vague nature of commercial myth-making. In any event, I can confirm that the sloppy joes at Sloppy Joe's (the original name at the new location, not the new name at the original location) are most excellent -- very effective use of dill.

My excursion out on the water was fine. I had hoped to get on a boat to the Dry Tortugas and get some snorkeling in, but it was too long a trip and too expensive, so I settled for a glass bottom boat tour of the reef. It was a fine way to kill a couple of hours. Nothing too amazing about the reef -- it would have been better through a snorkel mask -- but it was a pleasant trip and a good overview of some of the interesting history of the island while I worked on my tan.

After the boat trip I decided to make my way back to the Wyndham where I could relax by the pool away from Harley-Davidson's high decibel flatulence. While I was gone the Wyndham had been invaded by some convention of personnel recruiters and there was nary a chair to sit in by the pool. I went in for a dip, but it became clear after a while that poolside was a barren land wherein my butt could find no purchase. So I headed back down Duval Street to Mallory Square (I should have rented a scooter as soon as I arrived) to enjoy the sunset, snag a bite to eat from one of the local vendors, check out the locals, chill while looking out over the water, and grab a piece of genuine key lime pie. Nice. I get the sense that this must have been what Key West was like "before it was spoiled by evil commercialism," or at least without the bikers and conventioneers.

I have mixed feelings about Key West. Despite the annoyances, Key West still has a certain charm to it. It still has the feel of a special place in spite of the cheap fa‡ade. No doubt there are nooks and crannies of real interest if you had the time to find them, but as the saying goes, timing is everything. After a day and a half, I left Key West for the mainland, passing even more bikers arriving from the opposite direction. Again, I didn't feel like I was missing anything.

The next, and last, stop was Palm Beach. In stark contrast to the high fashion Babylon of South Beach and the squalorous tourist Babylon of Key West, Palm Beach is old school, old money Florida. If you're of a certain age, you've seen all the old pictures of Florida with the shiny shops along a street lined with evenly spaced palm trees and genteel folks walking around is stylish casualwear. That's Palm Beach. At least the "beach" part is, go a couple of streets inland and it's indistinguishable from any suburb in the country.

I intentionally scheduled Palm Beach for last because I figured after the chaos of the week I would want some peace and quiet. And that's what you get in Palm Beach. To a fault. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, going on. One of the central attractions of Palm Beach is Worth Street, claimed to be the country's original upscale shopping attraction. I really had no interest in shopping at Gucci or Tiffanys, but I thought I'd see what was going on and maybe grab a drink and some dinner only to find the place was empty. On a Saturday night, no less. There were probably a total of three humans in sight and no pub or casual spot to quench my thirst. So I drove around along A1A in the waning light of the evening, admiring the mansions and the views of the sea until the weather turned dicey and I headed back to the hotel.

At this point you are probably expecting to read that I had mixed feelings about Palm Beach. As I look back over this essay in its entirety, it reads a bit too much like a bad trip. It wasn't at all; it was a good trip. I saw and did things that I don't do at home. I broke whatever routines I was stuck in. I got a really wicked tan. But it is true that I hadn't experienced that vacation moment. There should be a point in every vacation of significance that makes you feel as though you are doing or experiencing something special. It can be a new activity or a moment of relaxation or a revelation of some sort, but there should always be something that is meaningful.

Back at the Hilton, with one day left before flying back and I still hadn't had that vacation moment. It had started to rain in earnest and I had overheard the expectation of more rain for the following day, which was to be my last full day in Florida. I resigned myself to spending the next day in search of a place to settle in and watch the football games, maybe get some writing done, and call it a trip.

Sure enough, in that way Florida has of jading you into submission then dazzling you into delight, I dragged myself down for breakfast the next morning to a perfectly sunny day and 5 foot waves curling just off shore -- boogie boarding nirvana. I must have spent three hours riding the waves to shore until I didn't have the strength to pull myself up on the board, only pausing to walk the ten yards to the bar for a quick drink. At one point, the water around me got all dark. Thinking it was a shadow, I looked up expecting to see the sun hidden behind a cloud, but the sky was clear and the sun was high. As I scanned the water I realized I was in the midst of an enormous school of fish (I'm guessing herring, but I wouldn't know). It was as if I could have just reached into the water and grabbed and armful of them. Remarkable.

And that was it. I was on vacation. Of course, I had to leave the next day, but you just need the one moment to make it work.

Back in Michigan it was time to crank up the thermostat and break out the fall jackets. But it's good to know that if you can blaze a trail through everyone on the make, there are still vacations to be had in Florida.