Mickey Mouse Free Florida

by Isabel  Conway

p1020989A first timer might believe Florida is 90 per cent theme   parks   and   golf resorts, Golden State   attractions relentlessly   plugged by the travel   brochures.

But it is easier than you think to forget about   ‘Mickey’  and his mates   as you  go   alligator spotting in the Everglades, cruise down the Florida Keys  in a convertible with the hot wind in your hair or parade your new plastic surgery among the bodies beautiful  along Miami’s  iconic SoBe  (South beach).

 Yet, and here comes a confession, the lure of   shrieking  shaking , adrenaline excess   did prove irresistible just the once  at  a serious museum  devoted to  scientific discovery and ecological research.  I just had to spin like a “human hurricane”  inside   Fort   Lauderdale’s fascinating   Gizmo City at the Museum  of Discovery and Science,   and experience the weightlessness of space on a ‘Manned Maneuvering Unit’.    

Fort Lauderdale was our launch pad for  the perfect antidote to the thrills and spills of the Sunshine State’s numerous theme parks – a foray into the Everglades followed by one of the world’s great road trips, down the Florida keys to where the road ends at the southernmost point on the North American continent.  The city happens to have a very handy connection by scenic water taxi  ( to   South Beach, Miami famed for night life,  bizarre and exotic people watching and art deco architecture . That took the hassle out of travel  on the multi lane fast moving  Route 95 , negotiating Miami’s urban sprawl and pricey parking options . 

Now one of the world’s busiest cruise ship ports Fort Lauderdale (  for hotel deals and attractions) has   a long   pristine beachfront. The place is full of high rise condos, glittering waterways and a Millionaires mile  of Hollywood style mansions  and  neo Italian Palazzos screaming new money.   

As we set off to check out gracious colonial style   Bonnet House museum and gardens, a throwback to 1920’s refined prosperity and  modest Stranahan House, beautifully preserved  and officially the city’s oldest structure ,dating back to Indian trading days  and the odd massacre,  now dwarfed by skyscrapers, who should we spot  slipping inside a mysterious building with blackened out windows near hip Las Olas boulevard  but actor Alec Baldwin.  

The stars of the Everglades – an estimated 2 million of them – are undoubtedly the’ gators’ even though there are  thousands more exotic  species between animal, bird, plant and insect life  in this unique place so impenetrable and  strange and yet so close to  civilization..

p1020958For decades Florida’s developers and   landscapers   encroached on the wetlands and swamps, draining and dousing them with insecticides   and upsetting the fragile eco-system here to   make way for golf courses, shopping malls and condo developments. It is said that far too many tourists just drive through or skirt around the Everglades on the highway locals call ‘Alligator Alley’  which connects   Tampa on the west with Miami  to the east. They may stop briefly at a alligator lookout for photo opportunities. A glance in the rearview mirror of towering saw grass receding behind them in the distance and they think they have seen the Everglades.

Everglades city, a large sleepy village, is the centre   for  adventures  like canoeing, edging a skiff in among one of the deserted 10,000 islands, hiking along the wildlife  board walks, fishing,  even wading through the swamps if you dare come that close to the ever present gators or water snakes, not to mention the biting insects.  A renowned Florida naturalist and preservationist David Harraden,   pioneer of guided eco tours( )into backcountry owns a charming old  guesthouse  the Ivey House Inn (  with a resident mocking bird who guarded the premises during our visit. The bird was fond of swooping down   to welcome visitors making a sound like a ringing telephone.   

There are several   ways of driving south to connect with the ‘Overseas Highway’   US Highway 1 which begins at Florida City – recommended in guide books as the more scenic and less congested route .  The drive down the Florida keys, an extraordinary feat of engineering made up of over 50 bridges linking the ribbon of islands, along the archipelago curving from Biscayne Bay to Key west   is  a must do sometime for all visitors to the Sunshine State..

Tempting Seascapes   on both sides are framed by pines, palms and mangroves all begging  further exploration and   a   couple of days idling away the time.   Snorkeling   and diving enthusiasts can enjoy a wonderful world of wrecks and colorful   reefs which team with marine life on cruises  run by all kinds of vessels  from picturesque marinas all the  way down the keys.   The end reward, Key West , full of, fun and atmosphere is where Ernest  Hemingway, Harry Truman, Tennessee Williams and  Blackbeard the pirate, among the notables, used to hang out down here.

p1020968Being Key West and the end of the road the sunsets at Mallory Dock are a daily marvel. The crowd gets larger,the little old cookie lady arrives by bike and does a bustling business. Locals show off their parrots and pet iguanas, a juggler entertains the crowds and a man calling himself   the *Great Rondini   is wrapped in chains and padlocked only to miraculously free himself within minutes to a big round of applause.  Once  the blood red sun becomes a sliver of gold and disappears beneath the horizon everyone applauds again and drifts off. Some are heading for more cocktails at Sloppy Joes, Hemingway’s favourite hang  out or another watering hole. Others are off to one of dozens of restaurants in old town specializing in locally caught seafood  followed up by a slice of legendary  Key Lime pie.  what finer way to end a day.

*Best Time to go:  The best time to visit the Everglades (  is between October and March during the dry season when the scourge of mosquitoes has ended. Florida is renowned for its winter sunshine and pleasant temperatures.  The famous Fantasy Fest, Key West’s answer to mardi gras is held from October 21-30 when the  world descends and parties hard  for ten days and nights.

*How to get there **

Aer Lingus ( operate direct flights from Dublin-Orlando, connections to Miami, Ft Lauderdale and Ft Myers or hire a car to get to the Everglades (approx 200 miles south of Orlando. Delta Airlines from Dublin or Shannon to Atlanta with onward connections ( and Continental airlines ( from Dublin and Shannon to Newark-New York with onward Florida connections. 

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