Another iteration of what is getting to be my standard Thanksgiving trip: A few days in Florida visiting family and exploring the Gulf coast, then over to Vegas for some football betting, including a day or two of a road trip somewhere out West.
Leg one this year was spent on Manasota Key which is about an hour south of Sarasota and an hour north of Fort Myers. It is certainly not one of the more renowned areas of the Gulf, but it may be an underrated gem. Gaining access involves passing through the suburb of Englewood, which is not an especially wealthy area -- not that it's bad, just not the high end stuff one usually finds in the area -- then crossing the bridge over the sound leaves you roughly in the middle of the Manasota Key. To the south are the smaller, older homes, and various motels and inns. To the north the homes reach up into the millions. I headed south.
My base of operations was Weston's WannaB Inn, a very Florida place if there ever was one. I pulled up to the office only to be greeted with a sign saying they would be back in fifteen minutes; people forget that away from the major tourist meccas, Florida is still the South.. Weston's maintains quite a number of buildings on both the beach and the sound side. Bright, solid colors are the theme throughout. Lounge chairs are peppered along the beach and around the pool. The rooms are clean, the folks are friendly. The wi-fi worked...intermittently. It's a real sweet out of the way place. The beach is absolutely perfect. I had a gulf-facing balcony which was pure pleasure to sit on and enjoy the breeze and make you forget about all the activities you were planning. Weston's goes on the list for future consideration.
Weston's is as far south as you can go on the key before you hit the entrance to Stump Pass Beach State Park, which extends about a mile and a half to the tip of teh key. The park features a walking trail through the swampy woods to the end of the key, along with openings where you can reach the sound to launch a canoe or fish. At the very end of the Key, across the channel is Don Pedro Island, an island of vacations homes only accessible by boat (it's on the list for the future). From the tip of the key you can walk the gulf beach all the way back to Weston's. Along the way are these strange denuded trees angling up in various direction like makeshift abstract sculptures. Of course, this being Florida, the wild world is never too far. The little geckos and crabs scurry away at your approach. The pelicans and the osprey dive for fish. A fellow fishing right off the beach in front of my room landed a little baby shark, probably three feet long. For all Florida's glitter, there is no mistaking that it is veneer over the wild swamp.
Speaking of wild...I did an obstacle race through the swamp. This would be my fourth obstacle race, and probably my worst result. It was a 10k through a the Tippecanoe Wilderness Park near Port Charlotte. Footing was muddy and terrible. The obstacles were tough -- I failed on the monkey bars which is unusual for me. From my first step I was never in the zone; each step was leaden, each obstacle a chore. Still, I finished and got second place in my age group, an outcome indicative of the number of people actually in my age group. Even as I look back I don't know what my problem was. It was a good race setup, if rather disorganized. There was a full meal and entertainment at the end, which was a step up from the usual lukewarm bottled water and stale muffins. Everyone was very friendly. I don't know what went wrong with me. The problem is that every time I have a bad race I worry that the degradation is permanent -- that it is indicative of my long slide into old age. So the start of my trip was a bit of a downer.
But who can stay down when you have the beach and Gulf and so much to explore. I visited Venice, which is lovely in an almost Savannah-GA-moss-covered-trees sort of way. It too has a lovely beach. My other point of exploration was Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, a very high end place that cost six dollars a bridge toll just to access. It was even higher-end. Obviously very tightly controlled building with the north end filled with condo developments and the south end a State Park. Sandwiched in between is the town of Boca Grande, a quaint place of shops and restaurants. When i say it is very high end, I especially mean the Gasparilla Inn, which is the flagship resort on the island and known haunt of the rich and famous.
Gasparilla and Boca Grande are nice, but they are one of the few places I have been to on the Florida Gulf that I would call uninviting. Parking is difficult and/or expensive; restaurants further from town, where parking is especially sparse, have guards out front to chase people away. (I can't imagine a more soul crushing job that sitting on the asphalt in the baking Florida sun telling people they can't park in your lot.) The atmosphere is very controlled, many of the condo developments are not only gated, but fronted by concrete walls. It all just seems like they are saying, "Fine, you have a right to be on the island, but we're gonna make you pay."
That, of course, is all mere impression. I'm sure the great mass of people love Gasparilla unconditionally. And a lot of the heavy-handedness is probably due a mass influx of humanity into a confined area especially in the Spring for tarpon season (which is like deer season up north). Come to think of it, my beloved Sanibel and Captiva are little different. Not that it matters anyway because I could never afford to live there. Although I certainly would if the opportunity presented itself, and I would probably come to love it.
Exploring done, no decisions made, other than coming to the realization that a place on the gulf for me probably means a condo in a building as opposed to any kind of house. I would love something beachside -- that would be the dream. My room at Weston's was beachside and there was nothing like the steady gulf breeze to cool me and falling asleep to the sound of the surf. But beachside will mean compromises. I can only file it away for now.
The next step was a couple of night in Sarasota visiting with family. I have spoken of Sarasota many times before. It is a truly great little city. Terrific arts community and surrounded by fun and interesting things to do. Realistically, Siesta key or even Longboat Key would be ideal for me with beach side living but easy access to Sarasota, but expensive doesn't begin to describe it. I remain in discovery mode.
Florida covered, we move on to part two of my vacation with a flight to Vegas. But first a travel note. I have, perhaps surprisingly, not registered for TSA Pre. No reasons other than the inconvenience of being required to showing up in person at an office to do so, when the office nearest me is about a half hour drive, and since I'm usually upgraded to First Class nowadays the security lines are less daunting. But you can be assigned TSA Pre status even if you're not registered. And literally all three of my flight legs (to Florida, to Vegas, back home) I got the TSA Pre assignment. I don't know the formula by which they decide this. Perhaps they just assume that a 50-something guy who's never broken the law and has flown hundreds of similar legs on Delta is unlikely to have suddenly become an Islamic fanatic and just happens to want to blow up the same flight he would normally use to go on vacation. But whatever the case, TSA Pre is nice. No taking off your shoes and belt, no laptop removal. A small but pleasing little benefit.
So back to Vegas, about which I won't say much, this being my 13th (?) Thanksgiving in town. I stayed at the relatively new Delano for the first half. Delano took over one of my old favorites, THEhotel, and gave it a highly styled lobby and a room refresh. It's a terrific place, although it is about as far south on the Strip as possible, making Strip-trolling a bit more challenging. Although different from the stark modernism of THEhotel, I can't see that it is any better. The lobby is certainly more striking -- Delano excels in lobbies. The lobby of the Delano in Miami Beach is astounding, and a central social hub for the city. But the all white decor of the rooms is, non-objectively, less attractive that the more traditional decor of THEhotel. Still, if you're inclined don't hesitate. It's an all around excellent hotel. Oh, one other stand out -- the wi-fi was blazingly fast -- even faster than my home set up.
Part 2 was at the Trump International. I have always shied away from the Trump as it is technically "off-strip", but I came to see that it is really only technically. A three minute walk through the Fashion Show Mall or along the street next to it gets you to the north end of mid-strip, i.e. Wynn. The Donald's place is absolutely top notch. I was in a very basic room and it was fine a suite as I've ever had in Vegas. Huge bathroom, expansive sitting area, plenty of closet space, fridge and microwave. Two big things: (1) the bottled water on the counter, for which most places charge ridiculous prices if you open, was free and got replaced daily, (2) housekeeping did actual housekeeping -- straightening things and folding clothes that were left out, whereas most places it's just vacuum and make the bed. Great stuff, and given it's "off-strip" status, cheap too. I'm giving Trump my highest recommendation for Vegas, and that's saying something -- after all, I've been at this for 14 years. It is almost certainly as good a value proposition I've encountered.
Apart from the hotels I did little new in Vegas this visit. I stuck to my rails -- bourbon at the Mandarin Bar, a high end burger at Holsten's (the Rising Sun Burger, now my new favorite), I had delicious plate of lasagna bolognese at Sinatra, visited the new SLS casino (nice, but don't go out of your way) and blew some money in the sportsbook, which could be it's own essay (and maybe will be). Just a typical Vegas Thanksgiving, happily anonymous in the crowd and the flash.
Aside: I do need to do something about the football wagers. For years my system based on DVOA from Football Outsiders had served me well, but the last two years it let me down seriously. I needs re-thinking. Plus I need to get to Vegas early in the week to catch the lines before they completely rationalize. I also, need to bet at Westgate where they have more varied line, spread, and teaser options. Mostly, this is just a note to self.
The key adventure here was in between the Vegas parts when I blasted out of town and into the desert. My vehicle for this adventure was a black Ford Mustang. Since it was a rental, I'm sure it was only the six-cylinder version but that's still over 300 horsepower and it was a phenomenal car for barrelling along the desert highways. A bit noisy at low speeds, but it really came into it's own on the highway. Coming up on a string of RVs at 75 mph and needing to pass them on a two lane road, I just stuck my foot down and flew by them. I glanced at the speedo before ducking back into the right lane and I was touching 120, just like that. The ‘Stang was utterly composed, I had no idea; I would have guessed 90-95 tops. It's a bit of a throwback, manual headlights, simple instrumentation (which is nice), also a bit of a rattle here and there (which is not). I can see why folks love them so much. The GT models must be scary fast.
So like I said, I was barreling south through the desert -- the Mojave to be specific -- past the "town" of Cima (actually a closed general store and a trailer in the back), through miles and miles of joshua trees and scrub (last place you want to have a break down) to the railway stop of Kelso (a fine place to stop, with little museum) and on through numerous hardscrabble desert rat settlements. The first sizeable place you reach coming back to civilization is the town of Twenty-Nine Palms which seems to be trying too hard to be thought of as a desert oasis vacation destination. An hour-ish beyond that and you reach the string of real desert oasis vacation destinations starting with Palm Springs and extending through it's sisters, Palm Desert, Indio, and La Quinta, all along the Coachella Valley.
One the striking attributes of the desert is how humans have created completely out-of-character places seemingly out of nothing. So you travel miles and miles through desert scrub and ramshackle towns and suddenly you're in neon shine of Las Vegas among otherworldly resorts, then you're out in the scrub again for hundreds more miles, then suddenly you're in the green golf mecca of Palm Springs among pristine country clubs. The contrast is striking.
My crash joint was Homewood Suites in La Quinta, but all the towns along the valley are pretty much interchangeable. The streets are broad and flat and there are enormous gated golf communities peppered throughout. I was a bit jealous. I have never played golf, but there are an extraordinary number of people who make it the center of their lives -- they buy homes next to courses or join expensive clubs. They travel to any interesting course they can would like to play, kind of what I have done with running the past couple of years. I can't really blame them. Golf courses are inherently vernal, attractive places and the most beautiful ones will drop you in your tracks.
Even though I have never been moved to take up golf, when I see such enthusiasm by huge numbers of people I wonder if there is something I'm missing. Is it reasonable to take up golf at age 54? I would only be interested in getting good enough to not embarrass myself, and to understand the attraction of it. If I liked it, maybe that's an alternative retirement for me: buy a house in one of the golf clubs out here in the Coachella Valley. Like Florida, it gets way too hot in the summer (but it's a dry heat, right? yeah, right) but at least out here you can take a run up into the mountains for a break.
And, even though it wasn't more than mid-70s, that's what I did. In the mountains just outside Palm Desert is an escape town called Idyllwild. I believe the elevation is in town is on the order of 5500 feet, but the surrounding roads and hiking trails can cross 8000. It's about an hour's drive up one of those winding, edge defying mountain roads into town, where it looks more like a forest town in the U.P. than the California desert. The pine woods are thick and the air is thin and cool. Much of the core area is rustic, though obviously very well maintained. It's filled with shops and restaurants; no doubt it is overrun during the hot months. It was moderately busy on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, mimicking a cool early fall day in Michigan, but not so much that there were no parking spaces or seats at the bar.
Also in the area are a bewildering array of County, State, and National Parks, all with different rules and regulations. I had intended to do a hike and after some slapstick attempts to find the trailhead outside town, I discovered it was really inside town, more or less -- not that there was clear signage. As a result, I paid for parking at a place I didn't want to be. I eventually found the trailhead and started up these steep switchbacks on my way to Tahquiz Peak -- brilliant views all the way -- only to encounter a ranger about half way there, who told me I couldn't hike without a permit, and gave me an obviously rehearsed lecture about trail safety. Not wanting to be scolded, I smiled and apologized and turned myself around and headed back to town where I settled for a seriously tasty steak sandwich and beer at a local restaurant. Frustrating, but not so much to turn me off Idyllwild. (A cabin up there will play into to my Palm Springs retirement fantasy as a matter of policy.) I can see making it the middle of my Vegas sandwich in the future. It's the sort of place that warrants more exploration than a day trip. I suspect there is more the a day trip of stuff to find up there.
So that was another of my classic thanksgiving weekend Western swings. Not the best and not the worst. I racked up more new sights, visited more locales, generated more ideas, and lost more football bets (grrrr!). There are times I wonder why I come out here every year, and the answer is that I'll know why when I'm here. Or more properly, I'll know why when I'm about to go home, because I'm always glad I came.