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The rarely updated blog of Joel Dixon

Viewing blogs tagged Miami

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 20/12/2017 06:23:54

My overly-awesome girlfriend Paola was already completely on-board with my crazy dream of flying to America to play hockey with my childhood idol (also note that she was Florida's only "babe" referred to in the title of this blog). Even so, I was more than happy to include a location on our itinerary that was more of a sweetener for Pao, after a few weeks of the biting Winter weather. We said goodbye to Taylor at the airport (he was going straight back to Australia) and hopped onto a plane destined for Florida. A very pleasant experience (more so than the fact that we successfully transferred between planes in Atlanta with only 10 minutes available) was that our plane in New York was slightly delayed to have the wings de-iced before takeoff, only to land in Fort Lauderdale in the midst of some glorious sweltering weather.

I don't have any photos of the weather when we landed in Miami - but the painting on our hotel room wall is a fairly accurate representation

Hiring a convertible in France was 100% worth it, even though I only had one day with weather nice enough to drop the top, so we decided to do the same for our Florida road trip - settling on a Ford Mustang. I was concerned that it was early March, and we had just seen some crappy weather in New York, but thankfully the 4 day forecast was all smiling suns wearing dark glasses - and the drive from Fort Lauderdale down to Miami was very pleasant. Well, the weather was pleasant - the other drivers were crazy. Similar to Toronto it seemed that speed limits were merely casual suggestions, and the road signs were more concerned about slow drivers keeping to the right-hand lanes than being so bold to request people stick to sensible speeds.

We arrived at the Hotel Coloretta in the Art Deco district of Miami a short 10 minute walk away from South Beach (but far enough away to afford us sleep). As we checked into the hotel I could tell Pao was going to feel more at home here - everyone seemed to speak Spanish more-so than English, so I was happy to take a backseat and let Pao take care of things for a while. We arrived in the late afternoon, threw our bags in the room and looked for somewhere to eat. We were advised to check out La Locanda, a small Italian restaurant in the area, and I'm very glad we listened. The meal was amazing, the service was the best that we had experienced on our whole trip, and finally we could enjoy a delicious espresso. I called over the manager to let him know how much our waiter contributed to our delightful meal and after some initial confusion (I guess most people call him over to complain) we had a brief chat about who we were and where we came from. It turned out that the small Italian town he grew up in was very close-by the town that Paola's family originally comes from. This seemed to please the manager greatly as he instructed the waiter to bring us all a shot of Limonata (delicious even though it wasn't Danny DeVito's brand) as we continued chatting. He seemed like a genuinely great guy and gave us a few tips about the area before passing us his card and suggested we come to his restaurant anytime. A++ would buy again.

Yum Yum Yum
My mouth still waters at the thought

I thought the night would just keep getting better when I found some of the incredibly delicious Chewy Wonka Spree that I first discovered in New York years ago in a nearby Walgreens. I bought a few packets (plus returned before we left Miami to buy a few more later) and stored them in my luggage to bring back home. The night took a turn as far as I was concerned when we decided to take a walk towards South Beach to see what was going on (being a Friday night). I think this was also the beginning of Spring Break, as the beach and adjacent Ocean Drive was frenzied. So many teens and young adults crammed on the beach and streets (closed off to cars) and the people were acting like they desperately needed this weekend to be the best of their lives. We walked past a few small skirmishes before deciding that turning around and heading to bed was an excellent idea for two aging travellers.

Not So Cereal
I have no photos of the crazy Ocean Drive, so instead enjoy this photo of crazy delicious cereal in the US

I have heard the terms "Key Lime Pie" and "Florida Keys" bandied about throughout my life, without having a single clue as to what they refer (except that Key Lime is green - and I assumed it was a type of lime). So while planning our time in Florida I did a quick google and discovered it encompases two other terms I had heard but never had defined: Key West and Key Largo. We dedicated Florida's day two to the Keys, and it turned out to be a perfect justification to hire a convertible. The drive was relaxing, not too fast (apparently the Keys are the only place in Florida where speed is vigilantly monitored) and was complete with incredible views.

Pao didn't tell me she was taking photos...

Half Smile
... which is why she is smiling and I am not

We started as early as we could rouse ourselves out of bed, headed straight for Key Largo and went to the top-rated breakfast diner in the area. I'm still not 100% certainly what biscuit refers to in relation to an American breakfast - but it was 100% delicious. Even the coffee was great, the first time I've had a filtered coffee that didn't cause disappointment. We didn't stay long as we had a bunch of driving ahead of us, taking two hours to get from Key Largo to Key West. We stopped at Sombrero Beach on the way, which Pao loved and I thought was nice - but it was still a beach (in my opinion, the most overrated land form).

Great Fast
Drinkable filter coffee, but unfortunately no grape jam

Pao Car
Pao certainly liked the car

No Hats
Sombrero Beach - less hats than I was promised

When we eventually arrived at Key West we weren't particularly hungry, but decided to eat anyway (as you do while on holidays). We had not already decided on our lunch venue (one of our scheduled spontaneity appointments - who says I plan too much?) so we walked around looking for something that took our fancy. We decided on Pinchers, a crab restaurant that looked lively and strangely familiar. I had never been a fan of seafood (simply because I never gave it a shot) until I went on a trip to Byron Bay with work friends. I had some kind of seafood sampler and loved every single serving. As there was no crab in that selection - I took Pinchers as a great chance to tick off another food experience. I'm very happy that I did, as it was mouth-wateringly great (at least, I assume some of the mess covering my crab bib was water from my mouth). A blue crab was the most delicious, and also an equal struggle to find the morsels of meat within the pinchy shell. Even more delicious was the "boom boom" shrimp (nothing to do with slapshots) that had the perfect level of spice (for me at least). We took a short walk to the top-rated Key Lime Pie store in the area (it turns out key lime pie is a sweet lime pie made using key limes - a most delicious form of the citrus fruit). My stomach relented and allowed me a few bites of the pie (amazing as expected) before we rolled back into the car and started our journey back to the hotel.

A rare photo taken before we started eating. I made up for this by not taking a single shot of the key lime pie that we loved

As I had spent the majority of the day driving and eating, I was getting very sleepy as we made our way back towards Key Largo. I thought a takeaway coffee might help keep me awake, so we both looked out for a cafe as we drove eastward. There were numerous signs extolling "Cafe Cubano" that we completely ignored, being unsure as to their meaning (I assumed they were for cafes that sold Cuban sandwiches - something else I knew very little about - along with a crappy coffee so as to qualify for the designation of "cafe"). After driving around an hour without any alternatives we decided to give "Cafe Cubano" a shot (so to speak) - mainly so that I could take a break from driving. When Pao returned, and awoke me from the slumber I immediately entered, she was holding two small polystyrene cups along with 4 tiny plastic thimble-sized cups. We had no clue regarding the tiny thimbles and decided to sip directly from the polystyrene cups resulting in what could only be adequately described as a Cuban Missile Crisis in my mouth (is that comment in poor taste? Probably poor taste).

A sample of the tiny cups we were given

The coffee was incredible, and it didn't just feel that way due to the numerous bad coffees we had been assaulted with until that point. A quick google told us that it was a hot and strong espresso coffee (made with the espresso machines brought over by Italians) with demerara sugar that had been whipped into a foam before being added. It turns out Cafe Cubano is a social activity shared with friends (or even strangers) which is why each coffee come with 4 to 6 thimbles to help distribute. It also turns out that drinking Cafe Cubano along with some Key Lime Pie is probably the greatest food-based activity anyone can do in the Sunshine State (at least, the US one). We loved our coffee so much we just had one each - no need for a tiny thimble delivery system. The rest of our time in Florida we looked for Cafe Cubano every place we went - thankfully the sizeable Cuban contingent in the area meant this was more often than not. The coffee kept me awake just long enough return to the hotel, where we both immediately passed out from exhaustion.

As we drove towards the Zoological Wildlife Foundation on day 3, I was increasingly worried that I had put the wrong address in the GPS as we were travelling through a regular suburb with almost no indication that a zoo was nearby. Thankfully when we arrived at the address there was enough signage to put me at ease, so we parked the car and headed inside. I had checked out the website months ago and decided on two "experiences" that seemed to be fun - a sloth encounter and a tiger encounter. I figured a general tour would be superfluous to our requirements (and expensive at $80 each) - I was happy to be led to a sloth and tiger, given the requisite petting time, and then returned to the car park. As soon as we got there the staff pushed hard to sell us on the general tour, explaining that the money goes towards animal conservation. I caved - and I'm so glad I did because the general tour was probably the best part of our day.

We walked around the grounds, seeing some of the larger animals as well as some very cute high-fiving otters. At the end we were taken to a large pavilion with a heap of animal friends for us to interact with. We were able to scratch an incredibly cute owl behind the ears, hold a (baby) gator and cup an oddly beautify armadillo that had rolled up into a ball. By far, the best part was when a little monkey (named Oliver, appropriately my nephew name as well) came to visit everyone and climb over our necks and heads. The feeling of a little monkey scampering between Pao and my heads was pretty awesome - and disappointing when our time was up. Then again, we did get to move on to our sloth introduction.

Low Five
I'm sure this was a genuine attempt to give fives, as opposed to hoping for an edible treat

Camera Hog
I often forget that owls are birds since they are such awesome creatures

I can only assume someone had just farted

The chance to meet a sloth and a tiger filled me with joy, but also concerned me a little. I've always wanted to pat a tiger (or giant kitty if you will) but have heard horror stories about how the animals are treated in the countries that afford such opportunities. I didn't want any animal drugged just so I can give it a belly rub. Going on the general tour really helped to allay these concerns, as the passion of the trainers and foundation towards the animals was very apparent. They don't force artificial breeding situations just so they can acquire more animals, although if happy little accidents happen - that's fine too. They also spend a lot of money getting animals out of bad situations (generally celebrities buying exotic pets and are later unable to care for them) and the trainer was very forward in displaying his displeasure of that mistreatment. I very much hope that our visit resulted in a net positive for the animals, because it certainly did for me.

When we approached the sloth, she was holding onto a tree branch upside-down and it was very awesome. The laziness she displayed when casually taking apple slices from our hands and guiding them to her mouth, before slowly chewing and swallowing her treats, was everything I wanted to see in a sloth. Her fur was pretty rough, but still great to pat, and our allotted time was gone before we knew it. Unfortunately we couldn't see a white tiger cub as they were too old to have visitors, but we did get to play with a liger cub which was just as great. Patting a little liger kitty was amazing, certainly an item very high up on my bucket list. Even better was when the cub's favourite trainer happened to be walking past, because our new friend got incredibly excited and started begging to be played with. The trainer came over and they had a quick game together, so amazing to watch. Although we spent twice as much time (and money) as originally planned, we gained once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I won't soon forget!

Hanging Around
Actually holding the apple up to her mouth showed more energy that usual

Toy Distraction
Distract with a toy, go in for a pat

Pao Toy
Pao clearly knew how to play with a liger

While once-in-a-lifetime experiences on holiday are always great fun, I think it's a worthy goal to also have a few innumerous-in-a-lifetime style experiences as well. It can be hard to achieve, but being able to experience day-to-day life in a travel destination is something that I like to attempt if I have the time, trying to get a brief insight into urbanity. With this in mind we drove to a nearby mall so that Pao could do some clothes shopping. It turns out that mall-shopping is just as boring in Miami as it is in Melbourne, although I did get another cafe cubano which helped a little. It was interesting to see the mundane parts of life in the US, but it was also mundane (fancy that). For lunch we drove to another great recommendation from a newly-found friend and bought a few delicious sandwiches at La Sandwicherie and ate them on South Beach.

Good Cell Service
A good sample of the mundane - how I remembered where we parked the car

Our day reverted to fantastic travel fun, as we caught up with an old friend of mine that moved to nearby Jacksonville and was spending the weekend in Miami. We acquired tickets to the World Baseball Classic match between the USA and Canada. The stadium was mostly full and cheering for the US, but apparently the match between the Dominican Republic and Colombia was much better attended and far more rowdy (which is understandable considering the number of Dominicans and Colombians that live in the area). We had a fine time eating a hotdog, watching a home run and cheering when required - but it certainly wasn't as enjoyable as the other game we saw back in Japan. With the USA team easily beating the Canadians, we left early to beat traffic (something I'd never do if it was a game involving my Penguins) and headed for a brief walk up Ocean Drive on the Sunday night. Certainly not as crazy as the first time, it was still very busy and packed with scantily clad women and shirtless guys showing off their crazy vehicles. We were going to checkout a local dance club, fortunately the massive line convinced us on an early night instead (phew!).

Night Ball
Ok, maybe "mostly full" is overselling it

Our final day in Miami was easily my favourite, certainly as far as food was concerned (by a very wide margin). I'd go as far as saying it was the best food day of my life - and I'm very excited to see if something will overtake it one day. My friend from the night before suggested Big Pink, which just happened to be around the corner from our hotel. While the breakfast was the weakest meal of the day, it was pretty darn delicious even though the serving sizes were too big (a usual occurrence), forcing us to waste. We had a brief mid-morning snooze on the beach before heading into Little Havana for a walking food tour.

The walking part of the tour was pretty incredible on its own - Little Havana had an awesome lively atmosphere especially around Domino Park. It was very clear where we were with so many dominoes forming part of the decorations, even the local McDonalds wall incorporated dominoes in their design. Watching the old Cubans getting angry while playing dominoes at the tables had a real similar feel to watching Italians playing scopa. We were told there was no betting allowed for these games, but pencils and paper was provided for people to keep track of how much they would owe each other if they had been betting (which, of course, they were not). We also loved the old man sitting out the front of the cigar shop, smoking cigars constantly (apparently a form of marketing for his brand), but the best part of the tour was the food.

Domino Path
Yes, those moves all appear to be legal

Maccas Domino
Even the McDonald's sign put the right numbers together

He literally only got up to get another cigar while we were there

As far as the food went, we started with empanadas (delicious, even Pao thought so) and a cafe cubano (which had me on-side very early). This is when we discovered that the tiny cups were distributed which each cafe cubano for the purposes of sharing - which I found a little odd. A full-sized serve was around the size of a regular espresso in Australia, Pao and I routinely handled on of these each whenever we bought coffee (we were later told that Cubans would have many cafe cubanos throughout the day which made a little more sense). We followed this up with a mojito from a local bar, and it was easily the best mojito I've ever had - I think this was due to the subtle amount of mint they added (I'm too used to mojitos resembling toothpaste). The guava pastry from a small bakery and cubano sandwich from the Old Havana Restaurant were good, but I was expecting more from each if I was honest (especially the guava, being a huge fan from way back). The food tour really delivered in the home stretch, with guarapo juice (we watched as they squeezed raw sugar cane - so it was basically sugar juice, how perfectly suited for me) and finishing with ice cream from Azucar Ice Cream - both amazingly delicious!

Empanada, delicious...

Cafe Cubano
... Cafe Cubano, delicious of course (but serving size was lacking)...

... mojito, delicious plus musical accompaniment...

Sugar Cane
... sugar cane drink, you better believe that was delicious!

We drove straight from the food tour towards Naples which was our next destination. Even though we were completely full we had not yet had a Cuban-style burger - which apparently contained thin crispy fries as a topping. Fortunately for us (but not our stomachs) El Mago De Las Fritas, or the Cuban burger magician if you'd prefer, was on the way. I'm very thankful we put our bellies through the extra punishment, as a Cuban burger is amazingly great (and the place we went to also served cafe cubano).

Worth A Frame
We tried out some local soft and not so soft drinks while we were there

We chose to drive through the Everglades as I wanted to go on an airboat tour (as recommended by Police Academy 5). Unfortunately everything was closed, which made our route almost pointless (Everglades roads are very similar to regular roads). On a whim we stopped at a lookout near a very small river initially spotting some turtles on the side of the road. Thankfully we spent a bit of extra time looking, as it turned out we were close to a huge alligator relaxing in the water. Pleased with our brush with the wildlife of the region, we continued on.

Under The Bridge
We see you Mr. Gator!

I had selected Naples for this night as it is roughly half the distance between Miami and Tampa. I booked us into a Best Western that was very close to an IHOP (something that I Am Sam convinced me to try out) and had not planned to do much else in the area. We later discovered that Naples is actually the home of many Floridan millionaires, and we were staying in the worst part of the town. The hotel ended up being fine (albeit certainly bare bones) and we drove into the swanky part of town for dinner later that night (once our stomachs finally complied). We picked a seafood restaurant named Citrus and man-o-man did we strike gold. Pao isn't much of a seafood fan (but adventurous enough to give it a go) so we just asked our super knowledgeable waiter for his recommendations. His suggestions were excellent as we thoroughly loved our octopus starter followed by mains of macadamia grouper and a snapper. We couldn't stop talking about how incredible the food was and finished everything on the plates even though we weren't that hungry to start with.

As If We Needed More
As if we needed any more delicious food on this day

The next morning we stuck to our IHOP plans even though there were probably some much better options in the area, but I'm glad we did. I look for excuses to eat at Pancake Parlour in Melbourne, and IHOP was pretty similar (even the serving sizes were reasonable - probably tiny for US standards). After a very brief detour at a local Naples beach (looked nice, as far as beaches go), the rest of our day was spent driving up to Tampa. With little time to rest over the last week, we were super lazy when arriving in Tampa and just headed to our hotel in nearby Clearwater (we didn't even check out the city of Tampa). The weather had finally taken a turn for the terrible that evening (super windy with occasional rains) so we headed to a local pizza place where we watched that night's Tampa Bay Lightning game (the other diners were very into the game - which was nice to be part of) before getting an early night. Certainly a dour note to end our road trip, but as a whole we had an amazing time driving (and eating) around Florida.

Waffle Chomp
My first time having US-style waffles - I can see where Leslie was coming from

This is the 9th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017Game 7 - Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017Game 8 - New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017Game 9 - Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017Game 10 - Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017Game 11 - Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017

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