Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Florida Reboot

Florida Reboot: (photos on Smugmug) You sit at the gate. The passengers are all loaded and belted in. The plane is fueled up and ready. The crew is ensconced in the cockpit. Yet you sit at the gate. You are waiting for parts. Not parts for your plane, but for another plane that happens to be at your destination. So you sit for an extra half hour because your first duty as a passenger is to mule spare parts for Northwest Airlines. Despite the hundreds of dollars you paid for your ticket, your vacation is not their priority; they are just giving you a lift because it happens to be convenient. Just another day as Northwest's bitch.

The whole trip was not shaping up as planned. I was going to fly into Orlando, barrel across the state to the Gulf coast to visit family in Sarasota, then barrel back across the state to the Space coast -- Cocoa Beach, specifically -- to catch the shuttle launch and enjoy some ocean time. Well, shortly after I had locked in my reservations, the shuttle launch got delayed a week. So much for that. Then my mom went into the hospital a few days before I left. She was out by the time I got to Sarasota and nearly fully recovered. (Frankly, at age 84, it's remarkable how healthy she is and how sharp she is mentally.) And any flight to Orlando is going to be filled with rugrats, and rugrats are known to be little germ factories. Sure enough, lying in bed my first night in Florida, a killer head cold descended upon me; the kind where you can feel the phlegm sloshing around between your ears. (Yes it's gross. Deal.) So my Florida vacation began with my planned activities hosed, and both me and my Mom under the weather. Weather which, by the way, was heat indexed well into the triple digits every day. The humidity was truly oppressive. Honestly, the place was like a sauna.

However, I would not be much of a traveler if I let such little annoyances slow me down. That's why God invented nasal spray and air conditioning, I suppose. After getting family duties situated I found myself with a free afternoon in Sarasota and used it for a visit to the Ringling Museum.

Although I have been to the Ringling Museum several times, it's been a few years since my last visit. Time was, the Ringling was one of the premier art museums in the South. It still is, I suppose, but its development hasn't gone as I would have hoped. The first thing that I discovered is that the price has gone up. You used to be able to get into the museum for $8 and I think there was one day of the week when it was free. No more. $25 to get in. That is more than MOMA or the Met in New York City. Ye gods!

I am not opposed to the price per se. My problem is that the money doesn't seem to have been spent on the Art museum. The grounds, which are extensive and are like a little city park in themselves, seem better maintained and manicured. The Ringling's Gatsby-esque historic home, Ca d'Zan, is nicely restored and worth a tour. A fine dining establishment has been added (that should be self-financing, though). But it looks to me like most of the resources have gone into the circus museums (with an expansion coming in 2012) which are the least interesting part of the complex to me. Why not devote more to the Art museum? The collection does not appear to have changed at all since I first visited probably 20 years ago.

That is not to say that the collection is short on fine works. It is loaded down with wonderful old masters and bits and pieces of other things. But the lighting is troublesome. It is often a struggle to position yourself so as to avoid glare. It's bad enough that it really interferes with viewing. There would a good place to spend some money. The museum courtyard is filled with stunning casts of classic bronze sculptures and is a remarkable space in itself, but like the museum, though well maintained it hasn't seen any improvements.

Griping aside, I spent a fine if somewhat sweaty afternoon wandering the grounds past lily ponds and flower gardens, then back around Ca d'Zan overlooking the bay. I cooled down in the museum taking some time to fill my camera here and there. Even at $25 it's a good way to spend the afternoon. A calm oasis in the midst of ever more crowded Sarasota. If find I have a special attraction to the place, having used it so often over the years as an escape zone whenever I'm down that way. I give it a slightly hesitant recommendation.

After one more dinner with the family, I rose the next day and darted across the state from Gulf to Ocean. After a little over three hours I was pulling into Cocoa Beach.

Compared to places like Sarasota, Naples, Miami Beach, even Key West, Cocoa Beach is a bit downscale. It's a beach town more along the lines of Key Largo or Ft. Myers Beach or Panama City Beach. (I'm getting positively encyclopedic in my classification of Florida cities). I can see why it is a popular destination for families, though. A cheap flight into Orlando gets you within an hour's drive. You can find a nice inexpensive hotel right on the beach (Doubletree in my case), many even have kitchenettes. There are plenty of cheap eats around. All sorts of little beach stores on every corner, surmounted by the original and sprawling Ron Jon Surf Shop. Kennedy Space Center is a short drive away for a day tour. You can easily run up to Daytona Beach if you need a redneck fix. And there are water parks and miniature golf and all that sort of stuff. You can lounge by the pool or take a chair out to the beach while the kids raise hell. Great way to spend a final week of summer vacation, provided you can handle the heat.

In fact, I was here on exactly such a trip as a child over 35 years ago. Actually, I was a little north of here in a lesser known place called Ormond Beach. What I remember best from that trip is spending what seemed like hours doing nothing but flopping around in the warm surf, wrestling the breakers, and the feel of the sandy bottom that stretched out endlessly into the ocean. And that's what I found again. The warm, buoyant salt water, the waves crashing around me, the smooth sand -- it was the Atlantic Ocean I remembered from childhood, and to this day I am quite clear on the visceral experience.

And while I was on the theme of reliving memories, the next day I took a two hour run up the coast to St. Augustine, another activity from that childhood trip, although one I don't have any specific recollection of beyond the knowledge that it happened.

St. Augustine is a nice spot. The mythology indicates it's where Ponce De Leon discovered the Fountain of Youth. It is also the oldest existing European settlement in the U.S. It fits in the same broad classification as Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA -- a city that exists for its own history, although I don't think St. A is terribly attentive to historical fidelity. Some very old structures have tacky little signs and displays and some look like they have been turned into souvenir shops. In fact, St. A has a fairly concentrated commercial zone. Not that there is anything wrong with that, it's just not as genuine as somewhere like Charleston -- never mind Savannah, the queen of detailed restoration. Of course, St. A also has a fine Florida beach which the other two can't remotely claim. St. A is basically for strolling about, and that's what I did, checking out the fort and wandering the picturesque streets, eventually settling in for a late lunch of crab tacos al fresco. And, naturally, filling my camera. A nice little day trip.

For my last full day in Florida I thought about dropping the nearly $80 for a day pass to the Space Center. But then I thought otherwise. I'll wait for that until I can get to see a rocket launch. Better I should get in the water again, so I headed out to Cape Canaveral National Seashore. A long, long stretch of undeveloped coastline, thought to be the longest on the Eastern Seaboard, running along a barrier island, CCNS gives you the soft sand Atlantic beach but with a definite sense of isolation. Bordering the interior sound, there are some short walking trails in various places. I took one called Seminole Rest, essentially a little park tucked out of the way on the mainland. It was really just a short paved walk, but there are a couple of interesting historic structures, and I have never seen so fiddler crabs in my entire life. They swarm like ants along the shoreline and onto the trails, darting into the water when they sense your approach, balancing the risk of getting stepped on versus getting gobbled by fish.

From there I took the longest possible way around to get to the beach area through the city of New Smyrna Beach, which is what I get for driving around without a map. Entering the shore from the north entrance, the road leads south along the island with five designated stops with parking and beach access. As I passed these they didn't seem too crowded so I figured I may as well go all the way to the last one which, as might be expected, is exactly what everyone else thought. I had to circle a couple of times but I finally managed to squeeze into a space. And despite the cars, the beach didn't seem very crowded at all. Looking north I think I spotted a couple of folks far in the distance otherwise it appeared deserted. To the south lay the truly remote beach -- Klondike Beach -- which is only accessible by foot and extends many miles until it connects up with the road north from the south entrance. Not that I was going to make it all the way, but I figured I'd walk a while in that directions. Well, a few hundred yards down there was a small encampment of people with beach chair and umbrellas. Since this place is about all about isolation I wasn't sure why they had all decided to drop their beach towels in the same spot until I got closer. It wasn't just their beach towels they had dropped. It was their bathing suits. I had inadvertently stumbled on a nude beach.

I'm struggling for what to say next. First off, yes, I did whip off my trunks and go for a swim. I would never have sought this out on purpose, but when in Rome... and so forth. Second, I did not laze about on the beach; once I was done with my swim, I left. Third, part of the reason I didn't hang around is because nude beaches are majorly populated by wrinkly out-of-shape middle-aged men who enjoy wandering around with their giblets on display. The upside is that as a wrinkly in-shape middle-aged man, I must have looked like a friggin' Adonis. But really, if I wanted that sort of visual, I'd just join a local country club and hang out in the locker room. Fourth, I decided every parent should require their teenage daughters to spend an hour at a nude beach. It would give us the rest of us some eye candy, and the poor girls would immediately renounce men and enter a convent.

I guess it's another notch in the bucket list -- albeit a very, very minor one. A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again. I would not hesitate, however, to spend more time at CCNS and the associated Merritt Island wildlife refuge. It's a gem in that overly touristed area.

And that was pretty much it. A quiet drink by the pool back at the Doubletree (fully clothed), then up the next day for the flight home -- after an obligatory stop at Ron Jon's for a t-shirt. The flight back had to be one of the easiest of my life. No delays at all. I literally walked off the plane in Detroit on to a waiting terminal shuttle then immediately on to a waiting parking shuttle. I think I made it back to my door in Dexter from Orlando in about 4 hours. Stunning.

I do enjoy my Florida explorations, even in the middle of August. I actually prefer the middle of August as no one else in their right mind would put up with the heat and humidity. I have at various times in my life trolled throughout virtually all of the State. It was good to relive a bit of my first trip to there. Although I tend to think of traveling as something that I came to later in life, as I look back, it now seems the with respect to Florida this habit was formed in my childhood and has been ongoing ever since. Perhaps after more than 35 years it was just time to start over from the beginning.