Saturday, November 07, 2015

[Travel] Florida, Man

The top three places designed to separate you from your money, in order of effectiveness:
  1. Washington D.C.
  2. Las Vegas
  3. Orlando
With respect to me, I pay my taxes conscientiously and visit Vegas at least once a year, but Orlando -- not so much. I tend to show up every few years, either due to my day job or as a brief stop in a multi-locale trip. And every time I come I realize that me and Orlando are cordially at odds.

I refuse to dump on Orlando as overly commercial. Yeah, it's there to squeeze and manipulate you for profit -- so what? Are you so incapable of self-control that you are Disney's bitch? When you complain about commercialism you are either saying you are being victimized, or other, less amazing people than yourself who don't know any better are being victimized. So you are either a mental weakling or an arrogant prick. I have no quarrel with Disney (or Universal Studios, or whatever else is in Orlando), I totally respect the hustle.

No, my quarrel with Disney/Orlando is more practical than theoretical. First, let me say I have never in my various visits mastered the roads. I don't know what it is. It might be lack of grid structure. It might be that they give you no warning about street names until you are right on top of the street, instead only labelling intersections by what resorts are in which direction (Google Maps doesn't really work that way). Whatever it is, I would bet that I have missed a solid 40% of every turn I've needed to make while driving in Orlando. Typically I realize I am in the wrong lane to late and I overshoot because I can't make it across the beautiful, smooth, eight lane streets in time. Then of course I have to drive into the next county before I find a legal way to turn around. Now, I have driven in cities all over the country; I have maneuvered winding, nameless mountain roads on Maui, I have navigated the on the wrong side of the road around Grand Cayman, and I have done both simultaneously on St. John. I have done high speed bumper-to-bumper in L.A. and low speed bumper-to-bumper in Manhattan. I have gone off road in Death Valley. I am well experienced driving in strange places. So while I know the designers of Orlando devoted an enormous amount of effort to road planning and they have public transport second to none, I still have to figure there are holes in their game.

Secondly, it is not a place for grown ups, and despite evidence to the contrary, I am a grown up . That is of course, my personal issue. For example, the one Disney park that is not totally oriented for kids is Epcot. At least there you have a long walk through various "countries" where you can sample the food and drink of the "natives". Now the food selections are fairly cliche but at least they are well made, and Disney wrote the book on service. The booze is not really special. But it's not like there is a place to gather and watch the game or any such thing. There is actually a pub in the "country" of England but it's absolutely not intended for gathering at the pub, more for showing you what a place for gathering looks like if you really wanted one, but Disney clearly can't imagine why would you want to do such a thing in a theme park. As limited as it was, it was packed with grown-ups.

And even this veteran of dropping unseemly money in Vegas balked at the $100 entry fee on top of $20 parking just to enter Epcot. Wowza.

There is an area of Disney that does work for adults -- Disney Springs, formerly Downtown Disney, formerly Pleasure Island, or sumething. There are interesting restaurants here, with actual bars including a very cool looking one that is part sushi restaurant part bowling alley called Splitsville. Over at Universal Studios I believe they have an analog called Citywalk. Anyway, these are cool spots, but nothing you can't get in many places.

The fact is I simply have no need to use Orlando as it was intended to be used: with the family in tow and purchasing multi-day passes, spending time in hour long lines for 5 minute rides, generating videos of the kids dancing around with the various characters. I have to admit the times in the past when I did this with Kate and Anna were worthwhile. So I am cautious to characterize it as "not for me" rather than a scam. Like I said, I respect the hustle.

So I was delighted to hightail it out of Orlando in the morning and be body surfing on Siesta Key in the afternoon. My new happy place in Florida is Siesta Key Village. Siesta Key regularly gets named the best beach in the Continental U.S. in this or that poll. It earns it. The sand is like talcum powder and the beach flows seamlessly into the Gulf very gradually and it undulates such that sandbars can form many yards out into the sea. Folks can wade out to them for fishing purposes giving the impression that they are standing on the surface of the water. Wildlife abounds; pelicans bomb the waters, and do seagulls. The fish respond by swimming close, but not too close, to human bathers. Geckos swarm on the heated asphalt, scurrying to safety when they sense footsteps.

The a short walk from the beach, the Village proper is a classic beach town; a walkable few corners with alternating open air bars, beach gear rental desks, and souvenir shops, but also some hidden gems -- a place to get breakfast in the back garden, a homey used bookstore. And of course, it has the advantage of being about fifteen minutes from the heart of Sarasota where you can get anything.

I spent a too-short couple of nights at Siesta Sands on the Beach, a terrific little hotel, convenient for a couple of longish beach walks and a an afternoon of amazing body surfing. Interestingly, this is the exact activity I engaged in 43 years ago during my first trip to Florida. And it was just as memorable (I hope).

From there the last stop on the tour was Crystal River, about an hour north of Tampa. Crystal River part of an area called the Nature Coast. You see, Florida has named coastal areas, like New York City has neighborhoods. The Gold Coast is the area around Miami, the Space Coast is named for Cape Canaveral, St. Pete is in the Sun Coast, etc. The Nature Coast constitutes much of the area of the Gulf where the peninsula curves into the panhandle. It is called Nature Coast because it is largely undeveloped, or at least what passes for undeveloped in Florida Coastal terms. It is as close as you can get to what might be referred to as "Old Florida" on the coast (there is still lots of "Old Florida" inland), although it is quickly morphing from genuine "Old Florida" to polished "Old Florida" for those who want to feel like they are in "Old Florida" but still have wi-fi and craft beer.

Crystal River and the Nature Coast in general, aren't typically renowned for their beaches. These coastal areas are mostly marshlands that give way to shallow waterways the weave through little island of mangrove and cypress -- areas often known as "flats". In the case of Crystal River, it is a spring fed bay area that flows in river form into the Gulf. The springs at the source emit perfectly clear waters at a steady 72 degrees year round. This makes for some interesting water-life, not the least of which are manatees. During the warm months, manatees wallow up and down the gulf coast, but when the gulf cools in the winter they migrate up Crystal River in search of those steady temperatures.

The best thing about manatee encounters is that they can be very interactive. The pups especially enjoy playing with humans -- grabbing with their flippers or gently nibbling at your swimwear. The adults are enormous and less inclined to interact, but quite docile. As they glide past you with long strokes of their tails you can gently pass your hand along their sides -- which feel a bit slimy. For the most part they just feed and go about their business pretty much ignoring the swarm of snorkelers floating around them. If Disney were to invent a wild animal, it would be the be the manatee -- big and goofy and completely harmless and occasionally friendly. No training or feeding required; it's just their affable nature.

This nature got the manatees population down pretty low in Florida back in the 80s. Less than 1000 were counted back then, but thanks to ferocious protection via three separate laws, the population has grown at least six-fold. Recent surveys suggest there are over 6000 in Florida and that is after a big die-off in the 2013 due to a bad "red tide" and a cold snap. The river guides in the area believe there are even more, often quoting populations as high as 8000. The guides themselves are equally protective of the manatees which is an interesting phenomenon. Like I said, this is Old Florida so the guides are not the smug hipster environmentalist do-gooders you see elsewhere. They are working watermen -- fishing guides, shrimpers, boat builders, etc., with beer guts and baseball caps. But they know the manatees habits, likes and dislikes, and even name the more familiar ones, and there is zero tolerance for harassment. They don't even let you were flippers while snorkeling in case you disturb them by kicking up silt.

Crystal River is worth a trip for the sole purpose of snorkeling with the manatees. It's a little over an hour north of Tampa/St. Pete and just shy of two hours west of Orlando. A day trip is quite possible, but it's better to stay the night which might give you the chance to kayak down the river and into Three Sisters Springs, an exquisite cove that could have been pulled right from a postcard of the Caribbean -- this is where that you get that heavenly clear water.

The settled area off the coast is loaded down with old school waterfront seafood restaurants with tiki bars and the best shrimp and grouper you have ever tasted. I do hope to get back here and do all this again sometime.

One quick sidelight to this trip. I spent a long afternoon in The Villages -- a curious place. The Villages is about 45 minutes northwest of Orlando. It is a planned community for active seniors centering around golf courses and an entirely prefabricated "downtown" area with shops and restaurants and even a town square. That makes it sound like an average retirement community, but it's something more in that it's absolutely huge. It counts as a full city -- in fact, it is the fastest growing city in the country. Entire communities have built up around it that do little but support the retirees, almost like a company town. Miles of paved pathways are maintained so folks can get anywhere in their little golf carts, some of which are tarted up like custom cars. The attraction of such a place for older folks is obvious. The Florida sunshine and low cost of living. There is virtually no crime. And the seniors I saw there all seemed quite happy and very active. I gather then tend to spend their mornings on the golf course and eventually make it over to the bars in "downtown" afterwards. They are a back-slapping easy laughing lot. Not surprising when you look at what they have there.

As you know, I have been on a kick in the past few years of following the assumption that if there is something everyone is doing, there is probably a reason for them doing it, even though the fashionable folks sneer at it. It was that kick that sent me to buy a big house in the exburbs. So as I gently begin considering options for my retirement it would seem The Villages would have to be in the mix. And yes, I could see myself retired here. During the more active years of my retirement I would expect to be travelling a fair amount so the proximity to Orlando works out. I don't golf, but I do drink, and certainly appreciate the conflict free style of living. There's a lot to recommend it. And I suspect the far end of my retirement, when I will be valuing convenient, high quality medical services most highly, would be well supported just due to market forces. What you want out of old age is to keep your life emotionally rich and stay intellectually engaged, but minimize the risks and downsides of general societal interaction. The Villages certainly can do that for you.

On the other hand I have always pictured myself somewhere like Siesta Key. I've always wanted to live on a beach. Again, the active phase of requirement would be well supported -- I'd probably buy a boat and proximity to Tampa and other airports are good for travel. Plus, the sunsets are not to be missed. I would likely be more engaged with the wider world, which sounds like a positive, but after a lifetime of engagement with the wider world it might be nice to not worry about locking my doors or fighting traffic. And often the images we have in our head, don't end up matching reality. This is why it can be good to follow the crowd who have already sorted that out.

I don't know. If I am still a fitness maniac like I am now, I really need a youth culture to have the facilities I want and there is no youth culture in Florida outside college towns and South Beach and maybe Orlando. Frankly, that would be an argument for staying put in Dexter, at least until phase two.

Anyway, I'm sure more communities like The Villages will be popping up. The population is aging dangerously fast. If you want to see the future, The Villages will give you a more accurate view than Epcot.

I just realized how often descriptions of my trips to Florida end up with ruminations on retirement and mortality. It's odd because they are usually full of activity and new discovery. The inevitable is, well...inevitable, but for now there is more to do and more to see and not just in Florida. This has been the enduring lesson of travel for me, since way back. Travel is motion and motion is life and life is the future. At least for now.