Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Travel Rewind: The Gold-Plated Swamp (2002)

Travel Rewind: The Gold-Plated Swamp (2002): (The second of two trip reposts from long ago, in honor of my most recent trip to the Sunshine State.)

What kind of idiot goes to Florida in the middle of August?

Look, the day I left Michigan it had been in the 90s for most of the past three weeks, so exactly what sort of heat was I avoiding by staying up north? Besides, I had some long neglected family down there, I was about to collide with my company's use-it-or-lose-it vacation policy, and I really needed some distance from my life to get myself back into the groove of fiction writing. Combine this with off-season rates and it all made sense. I wanted to see Sanibel Island and points south, so I arranged to fly into Ft. Myers, drive north to Sarasota for a couple of days for the family visit, then back down to Ft. Myers for a week of gulf-coastal exploration.

After a blessedly uneventful flight on Delta, I picked up my rental car from Alamo with an equally blessed eventlessness. For the heck of it, I rented a Jeep Wrangler.

A Jeep Wrangler is an intentionally crude vehicle. Road and wind noise are deafening. The engine howls in pain at the mere thought of acceleration. The ride will induce you to pass blood in your urine. Parts just fall off -- quality control is vintage 1970s American Motors. The tires whine at the slightest turn of the wheel. And it sucks gas faster than Michael Moore sucks chocolate shakes, primarily because it is somewhat less aerodynamic than a block of cement. All this is part of the genuine military, off-road, old-fashioned, no sissified luxuries, Jeep mystique (except for the CD player, A/C, automatic transmission, cruise control, and so forth).

But: the top peels off, the doors pop off, the windows zip off -- and in that condition there is no better way to tool around southwest Florida.

The first stop was Sarasota, a city I've visited many times over the years and it's become a pleasant surprise. It used to be a bunch of strip malls and fairly nasty restaurants and a lot of old folks driving around at 30 miles an hour no matter the speed limit. Now it's gone fully upscale. There are any number of fine restaurants, high-tone shopping malls that pride themselves serving the nouveau riche, and the place is crawling with latest model German sedans, and I don't mean Volkswagens (all going 30 miles an hour).

I stayed at the Holiday Inn on Lido beach, a lovely stretch of sand on one of the keys just off the mainland. I was only staying for a day or two, so I didn't much care about where I stayed and the description sounded decent, plus I got a good rate. Remembering the Holiday Inns along the highways from family road trips when I was a mere lad, I honestly didn't expect much. I was pleasantly surprised. The Lido Beach Holiday Inn sits directly across a lightly traveled shoreline road from the Gulf of Mexico. About a ten minute walk will get you to St. Armand's Circle, a terrific little shopping/dining location situated around a large circular turnaround in the road. No Holiday Inn is a Hyatt or a Ritz, but this one had a lot going for it -- a lounge in the lobby, a nice restaurant on the top floor where you could sit and watch the sunset, a decent pool, and, like I said, a prime location. Given the great off-season rates I can see it being a great place for a family on a budget to spend a week. I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again.

One of my all time favorite Sarasota activities is the Ringling Museum of Art, founded by John Ringling of Ringling Bros. Circus fame. Lest you think that's the equivalent of the Krusty the Clown Opera House, understand that John Ringling was a great patron of the arts and the Ringling Museum is probably the premier fine arts institution of the South. Yes, there is a Circus museum on the grounds, but it's much deemphasized. The art museum is loaded down with great works. You are hit with a series of towering Rubens upon entrance -- the collection is heavy on Old Masters. In the center is a beautiful courtyard filled with classical statues. It's really quite picturesque.

Another gem is Ca d'Zan, the Ringling family mansion. Probably the best way to describe it is that you could just picture Jay Gatsby wandering around on the terrace amidst scores of revelers. Everything about the house is ornate in the extreme. The guided tour gives you the impression that that partying never stopped and no expense was spared. I had been through the house years before when it was in an advanced state of disrepair, but after a long and expensive restoration, it's a site to behold.

All this is situated among verdant pathways with enormous banyan trees at every turn. It's a wonderful spot for a museum junkie like me to spend a day.

Following a 2-hour freeway ride in the Jeep (not a pleasant experience), I was back in Ft. Myers and checking in to the Sanibel Harbor Resort, which would be my base of operations for explorations south.

I cannot recommend Sanibel Harbor Resort. Have you ever seen Singing in the Rain? The premise is that there is this famously beautiful actress who made her fame in silent pics, but along come the talkies and everyone discovers her voice is cringe-inducing. That's what Sanibel Harbor Resort is like. It is unbelievably beautiful -- the grounds, the views -- and filled with friendly employees, but scratching that pristine surface is like nails on a chalkboard.

Among other things, they provided a wired in-room internet connection but the only Ethernet cord they provided was about two feet long and the jack was beneath around the back of a night stand so effectively I had to sit on the floor and use the bed as my desk. They left the sliding door to the balcony open one day and I came back to a room full of mosquitoes. They left the door to my room wedged open for several hours such that anybody could have walked in and stolen my $3000 laptop. And to finish up, they completely ignored my pleas for redress to management. NEVER STAY AT SANIBEL HARBOUR RESORT. [update: I am bitter about it to this day - dam]

Just across a short toll bridge sits Sanibel Island. About half of Sanibel Island -- the side of the island facing the mainland -- is protected wildlife habitat. On the rest of the island development is strictly controlled and there are obviously extensive regulations controlling commercial ventures. There is effectively one long two lane road that runs the length of the island. It is along here that most for the commercial activity goes on. Shops boutiques, restaurants abound, but are for the most part set back from road, with small, tastefully done signs and cute names like The Hungry Heron and the Lazy Flamingo. My personal favorite was the sushi at the open air Key Lime Caf‚.

The beaches are the same broad, white sand, clear green water beaches you get throughout the southwest gulf coast. They are especially prized for shell collecting (not a big hobby of mine), and one of the largest shell stores in the world, Sanibel Seashell Industries is located on the island. Beach parking can be expensive by the hour, or you can go the route of buying a permit. Either way there is no guarantee of space availability.

One thing about Sanibel: they do not make it all that easy just to drop in for a visit. Traffic is horrendous in-season (they say), and parking is tough and expensive. And it's three bucks and a bit of a wait in line just to get on to the island from the mainland. This is undoubtedly done intentionally to make sure anyone visiting does so out of desire and not whim, making a visit to Sanibel a planned event and something to be done with a certain sincerity. Probably this helps them maintain the island and keep the riff raff away. It works. Despite the development and numerous resorts, some of significant size, it retains a little, hidden away, tropical island feel that accounts for its charm and popularity.

Telling facts about Sanibel Island: 1) There is a $500 fine for littering. 2) There is a $500 fine for feeding an alligator (it's a bit worrisome that such an activity needs to be actively discouraged). 3) There is only an $80 fine for not yielding to a pedestrian at a crosswalk. It's all about priorities.

I can't think of a better place to spend a day bopping from beach to bar to beach in a Jeep Wrangler with the top dropped than Sanibel Island.

Ft. Myers Beach, immediately south of Ft. Myers proper, would have to be considered the area's party focus. A resident described it to me as a "former Spring Break destination" and I could see that. (Like everything else, spring break has gone upscale from gulf beaches to exotic Caribbean and Mexican destinations.) Whereas the rest of southwest gulf coast pushes hard to focus on the upscale Ft. Myers Beach is all about fun. It's definitely a younger crowd. The beaches, though still broad and white sand, are swarming with active folks; Frisbees, beach balls, and various objects are being tossed about; Boston Whaler-esque boats are flitting back and forth; and there appears to be an unbroken line of beach bars about half a mile long -- something I saw nowhere else along the coast. There's even a beachside Hooter's. You won't see that on Sanibel. Ever.

Accommodations at Ft. Meyers Beach are of the mostly of the motel variety -- right on, or across the street, from the beach. There don't appear to be any big resorts (but the motels probably treat you better than Sanibel Harbor Resort anyway -- sorry, bitter moment). As you move further south, there are a number of larger buildings labeled as "beach clubs," with severe-looking parking attendants to prevent beach crashers. "Beach club," as it turns out, is a euphemism for time-share condos. Cute.

I can see where Ft. Myers Beach would be an ideal destination for a family road trip. Check-in to an inexpensive motel. The kids play in the water while Mom gets all nice and tan while reading the latest Grisham, and Dad sneaks away for an afternoon Bud Light or two at the Hooter's beach bar. Work in a day trip to a shell store, a couple rounds of miniature golf, a parasail ride, a fishing expedition, and lots of snapshots with a disposable camera and you got yourself a family vacation to make Chevy Chase green with envy.

The furthest point south I reached was Marco Island. It barely rates a mention. In marked contrast to Sanibel, Marco Island appears to have been leveled of anything resembling nature then re-populated with megalithic condominium high rises. It has one publicly accessible beach, Tigertail Beach, that was mis-located on my map and if it wasn't for my laser surgery flawless vision I never would have seen the microscopic roadside sign to point me in the right direction. The rest of the beaches -- none of which you can see from the road since they are blocked out by the high rises, are for residents only. By the time I got to Tigertail Beach it was late afternoon so I passed on the three dollar entrance fee and decided to drive around the island to see the sights. There are none. Just huge buildings and a bunch of strip malls. Basically, Marco Island is your standard land-locked suburb dropped on to an island off the gulf coast.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Head back north again from Marco Island and your next stop is the heavenly city of Naples. Where to begin? I liked Naples so much I went twice.

Central to Naples are the 3rd Street South shopping district and the 5th Avenue South shopping district, both filled with boutiques on a par with Rodeo Drive, and many, many fine restaurants with sidewalk cafes or open air bars. Naples is one of the wealthiest cities extant. I grabbed a sidewalk lunch and wandered about a bit to get my bearings, then walked down to the beach.

I know it seems like beach after beach has the same monotonously perfect description: broad white sand, and clear green water. The beach at Naples was like that, only more so. I still can't describe why it was the best one of the trip. I don't know what it was. Maybe the water was just that much clearer. Maybe the sand was just that much whiter. Maybe it was the sight of folks strolling along the long pier, as opposed to the unbroken shoreline everywhere else. I just don't know how I knew, but I knew this was a special spot. I didn't have my bathing suit so I had to be content with a barefoot walk along the edge of the waves and promise to myself to return.

Back in town, I stopped for a quick drink at the excellent Yabba Island Grill. A friendly, open-all-the-French-doors restaurant designed to exude a strong Caribbean vibe, and accordingly, they specialize in rum. Now, lots of places have great wine lists. Lots of places have great beer lists. Lots of places have great lists of Single Malts. There are even plenty of places with excellent lists of Bourbons. But this is the first place I've come across that has a huge Rum list. This is not mix-with-Coke or blend-in-your-daiquiri rum. This is sipping rum -- meant to drink straight. So that's what I did, I tried one called Anniversaro from Venezuela; it has a delicious, complex flavor that made me vow to spend more time with quality rum in the future. Yo-ho-ho.

On my second visit I took a short time-out to visit the Naples Zoo. It's not a big zoo, really, but it was a nice diversion. There is a large central pond filled with alligators and turtles where they hold feedings every few hours. This amounts to someone dangling whole fryers from a rope, demonstrating how high the gators can leap out of the water to get it. It worked a couple of times, but the gators are so fat and happy they get bored. So to fill out the show, questions along the lines of "Does anybody know how long alligators live?" are shouted out to the crowd. Without exception, the children in the audience knew the answers to every question. They may not know who won the war of 1812, but they've got the world according to Animal Planet down pat.

Funny thing about southwest Florida: for all the development and commerciality along the coast, there are reminders everywhere that it is just a civilized face covering a palm and cypress swamp. You are, after all, on the edge of the Everglades. Anyone who has visited Florida can attest to the ubiquitous presence of those ever-so-cute little lizards. I was lazing by the pool one day when I noticed an injured fly on the ground struggling to escape the ants chaotically swarming about, looking to make a meal of it. Suddenly, one of those lizards darts out from under a bush and snags the fly with one bite, leaving the ants looking like they had been mugged. It was sort of like a scene from a National Geographic nature special in miniature.

Alligators loom large everywhere you go, from the signs prohibiting feeding on Sanibel, to the staged gator feeding at the zoo, where you are informed that the gators don't hesitate to take birds
and any other fauna that happens near their pond, to the fact that the highway that cuts across the Everglades to Miami is called Alligator Alley. South of Naples there are long stretches of road, what we would call 'country road' in the Midwest, with the cypressy, swampy, grass crawling almost up to the edge. A broken down Jeep, a man on foot, a snap of a tail, a lot of sharp teeth, and yours truly would have become just another tourist causality statistic. That is, if the gator left enough uneaten to be identified.

Back to Naples beach, this time with the appropriate gear. In the residential area just outside the Naples shopping districts there are a string of east-west streets which dead-end on small parking areas adjacent to the beach. I pulled the jeep into one spaces only to find myself without any change for the meter. No way was I going to waste precious beach time trying to find change for a buck so I just double parked.

I spread my towel, slathered on SPF 30 and lay in the sun. I realized I had been rushing around trying to be a thorough traveler ever since I arrived in Florida. I became aware of a tightness in my jaw and a worried furrow in my brow. I tried to read, but I couldn't keep my concentration. I tried to sleep but only drifted fitfully. I rose and went for a brief walk up the beach.

A largish family were chattering in some vaguely Eastern European dialect while their kids darted in an out of the water (imagine the Florida gulf coast versus, say, Belarus). A woman had her lounge chair placed at the very edge of the surf so she could tan while dipping her toes in the water. Two teenage girls walked by, complaining about boys. An infant boy cried out in terror when the surf got hold of his sand pail, until his father retrieved it. Some people sat serenely under umbrellas. Others, already too tan, lay drenched in oil, angled to maximize exposure. Out in the water, gulls dive bombed for unsuspecting fish -- completely submerging before arising with their prey not ten yards from swimming humans; more Darwinian nature amidst civilized luxury.

I waded out until the dead-calm water was up to my chin. Schools of minnow-like fish stayed in close proximity, hoping my presence would deter the gulls. I floated on my back allowing the buoyant salt-water to support me. The sky was bare and blue. And I found something I had been looking for. For a little while, I stopped.

Stopped wondering if the double-parked Jeep would get a ticket.

Stopped fretting over lousy hotels.

Stopped wringing my hands about what awaited me when I returned to work.

Stopped agonizing over my stalled writing career.

Stopped mentally preparing for the trip home.

Stopped plotting how I would do things differently if I could.

When I finally did pull myself off the beach and drag myself back home, I was able to see all the small events of the previous two weeks as part of the whole of a fine coastal tour, laced with all the enjoyment and frustration that are why we travel.

Even to Florida in the middle of August.