Mickey Mouse Free Florida
by Isabel Conway
A 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 (www.watertaxi.com) 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 (www.sunny.org 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..
For 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(www.
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.
Being 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 (www.paradisecoast.com) 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 (www.aerlingus.com) 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 (www.delta.com and Continental airlines (www.continental.com from Dublin and Shannon to Newark-New York with onward Florida connections.