We Went To Florida

“I just don’t understand,” The US Customs agent said with an an exasperated sigh, as he leaned out of the window of his booth at the end of the Buffalo’s Peace Bridge, “who goes to Florida for just four days?”

“Well, we do,” Jeremy explained, “we don’t have a lot of vacation time, so we get away when we can.”

In the agent’s defense, Jeremy had left out the fact that were initially headed to the airport, when he inquired about our destination, so he may have assumed we were driving south. Even after we clarified that detail though, he was still skeptical. I handed over our itineraries, and he rifled though our printed tickets and hotel reservation confirmations shaking his head as though he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Now, we’ve encountered some crusty people at customs (both American and Canadian) over the years, but this was the first time I’ve ever thought we might actually be denied entry. After what seemed like and eternity, we finally convinced the border guard that we were just taking a vacation, and not on a nefarious mission in his homeland, our adventure began.

Key West was wonderful.

It sort of reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans, but without out the smell of puke and debauchery. It was a party town with dignity. The atmosphere was lively, but clean and refined.

The architecture here is a charming mix of Victorian gingerbread mansions, European colonials, and shuttered wooden shotgun cottages, painted in weather beaten pastels.

What really amazed me, is that so many of these building have stood here for over 100 years. Considering their vulnerability to the elements, there is no doubt these houses were built to last.

Also, there are chickens everywhere. They just wander the streets clucking and crowing. We witnessed many of them crossing the road but their real motive for doing so, remains a mystery.

We made it our mission in Key West to sample all of the top rated key lime pies and Cuban sandwiches.

The best pie is from Sandy’s Cafe and the best sandwich came from Five Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop.

Obviously, our trip involved a trip to the Hemingway Museum.

It’s a gorgeous house. It’s so breezy and peaceful here. I can see how it would inspire great writing.

The museum is well known for it’s polydactyl cats, and they are everywhere.

The cats who reside here are all descendants of Snowball, a six toed cat given to Hemingway by a ships captain. The polydactyl gene is hereditary, so many of the cats here have extra digits.

Kitty thumb!

The cats we came across ranged from friendly to indifferent.

This guy was all “Ya, I have a lot of toes. What of it?”

Watch your step.

This furniture belongs to the cats. It’s just like our house.

Seriously, if Gwendolyn could type, there would be a sign like this on our couch. She’d really prefer it if we stayed off the furniture.

The drive though the keys was lovely.

There’s some interesting history here.

These are ruins of an old railway that once served this area. It was a massive undertaking by industrialist Henry Flagler, who’d moved to Florida in the late 1800s, and saw opportunities for improved infrastructure. After linking the Florida coastline with railroads, he embarked on the ambitious task of extending his rail line to all the way to Key West. At the time, Key West was a populous city with thriving industries that included salvage and salt production, as well as serving as a major coaling station.

It took 7 years to construct, but it didn’t last long. The route operated for only 2 decades, until 1935, when a hurricane damaged major sections of the railroad.

It was the heart of the great depression and the railway company was facing financial difficulties, so it was never repaired. Instead, what was left of the bridges were sold off to the state of Florida, who used many sections to build a highway though the keys a few years after the hurricane. Over the years, many of these sections have been replaced with modern bridges, but you can still see parts of the old railroad.

Apparently, there are plans to repair and reconnect Flagler’s original railroad as a multi-use recreation path, and I really hope they do. I love it when communities find creative and useful ways to preserve history.

Our last night was spent in Miami Beach.

I think Stephen Fry was bang on with his description.

I loved the art deco architecture though, and our hotel was fabulous.

The Park Central Hotel was built in 1937 when Miami Beach was the hot spot for the rich and famous. In fact, many of the unique hotels on the Ocean strip were constructed in the late 1930s. When tourism declined the the late 60s and 70s, the area became derelict. Some were torn down, but many of these structures were saved in 1979 when the area was designated as historic district.

The Park Central was the first of the neighbourhood’s hotels to undergo restoration in 1987. It’s a Modern hotel with that vintage flair, which I love so much. Plus, we were treated to an ocean view.

Great views usually cost extra, and as budget travelers, this is a perk we don’t often get to enjoy.

The bathroom has the original pink and black tiles.

I love this fan so much!

When we arrived, the beach was pretty crowded.

In fact, the Ocean Drive strip was pushing my crowd anxiety to it’s limits, so we opted for a late dinner a few blocks away from the water.

The next morning, I discovered the best time to enjoy Miami Beach is at 7:30 AM.

Then, very early the next morning, we were back in Canada, where the sun hasn’t been all week. I miss the sunshine, but at the same time, as always, I’m glad to be home. There’s really nothing like sleeping in your own bed after being away.

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Roughing It

There was a time when I loved camping. Every summer, I couldn’t wait to air out the tent, pack up the car and hit the road. We had all the gear. Over the years we’d collected all the creature comforts for a perfect camping weekend. All packed, the back of our hatchback looked like a mobile Coleman outlet. Then, one year we didn’t have time to get out during the short Ontario summer. Instead, we rented a heated cabin with indoor plumbing during the off season, and that was it. We were done with camping.

Earlier this year, I was browsing the internet for some unique ideas for a corporate sales meeting (it’s part of my job), and came across Long Point Eco Tours. What really caught my eye was the glamping in their wilderness suites. I miss camping, but I have no desire to pitch a tent, sleep near the ground or walk half a mile to pee at a spider infested comfort station. Luxury camping sounded like a great alternative, so I reserved a fancy tent for us last weekend. Then, early Saturday morning, we set out for the north shore of Lake Erie.

We stopped for lunch at The Arbor in Port Dover. If you’ve never visited the region, I’ll tell you a bit about this restaurant. It’s a seasonal, outdoor, fast food joint and a local institution. According to the sign, it’s been around since 1919, and driving down here for foot-long hotdogs was an annual tradition for my family, as far back as I can remember. In fact, until just a few years ago, I always made a point to get down here once a year. It fell off my radar though. Summers got too busy, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t even really like hot dogs. Still, when I’m here, I have to get one. Anything else would just feel wrong.

When The Arbor comes up in conversation, my Mom will tell you about the time a bee landed on my hot dog, and my initial, irrational, reflex was to hurl it across the parking lot like an outfielder. I don’t remember exactly what happened next. I suspect I got an ice cream cone and spent the rest of the trip sulking in the car.

F*cking bee.

Next, we moved along to the beach. This is truly one of my favourite parts of Ontario. So many wonderful memories of summer as a child took place around here.

When I was very young, my grandparents had a cottage here. It was a just a little shack, right on the beach. You can catch a slight glimpse of it in this old photo. Like my grandparent’s house, it was built by my Papa and has that arts and crafts meets mid-century modern flair that he put into all his handiwork. I love the diamond motif on the shutters.

I still remember playing on the soft beach in front of the cottage. For years, when I’d looked back on the back on the black and garnet sand here, I thought it had something to do with pollution – after all it was Lake Erie in the late 1970s. It was infamously contaminated by heavy industry back then. It turns out though, it’s just minerals – so, there’s no need to call in Erin Brocovitch.

My grandparents sold the cottage in the early 1980s, but this region remained a destination for our family. Our friends still had cottages here and docked boats nearby. They’d often invite us out to cruise around the lake on sunny summer afternoons. Then, later on, as a teenager, I’d come here with my friends to spend the day at the beach or camp.

This area is not just significant for me though, it’s also a UNESCO biosphere reserve and an important location for bird migration. Countless species of fish, reptiles and amphibians, as well as rare plants, can be found here.

Thankfully, we didn’t encounter anything slithery.

After a walk along the beach, and then around the sand dunes at Long Point Provincial Park, we checked into out tent.

The beds were comfortable, and thankfully they were outfitted with electric blankets. We cranked those suckers up to eleven before we went to bed. It was the only heat source, and dang, it got cold out there on Saturday night. Of course, the real selling point for me here was the plumbing. The end of the tent was sectioned off with canvas and a zippered door. Through that door was a toilet and sink, along with fluffy towels and cozy terry cloth robes. Then, through another zippered door at the very back of the tent was a private outdoor shower. Indoor plumbing is the best!

There was also a trail that started a few feet from our front door, so we went for a hike.

On Sunday morning, we woke up bright and early to the sound of gunfire. We weren’t under siege. It turns out, it’s just open season on ducks right now and we were right beside a huge marsh. It’s funny though, I didn’t see a single duck anywhere. They’re keeping a low profile right now, I suppose. Wouldn’t you?

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Vegas!

We’re back from Las Vegas, and I will preface this by saying we had a fabulous time with our friends last week. Their wedding was also lovely, and a good time was had by all in our little party of four.

Our trip got off to a rocky start though. As much as I love to travel, I get antsy before we leave to go anywhere. I was especially stressed out by this trip for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was our first trip since Maya, our cat, had been diagnosed with diabetes. We used to just leave the cats with a big bowl of food and water and they’d be fine for a few days. Now she needs daily insulin shots, so we hired a pet sitter to look after her and Gwendolyn while we were away. We’d met the woman who’d be taking care of our beasts, and I was more than confident she could handle the crotchety old kitties. Still, I was apprehensive about leaving the well being of our four-legged family in the hands of a stranger.

We were also tired. I’d had a lot to, both at home and work before we left and my anxiety was not allowing me a restful sleep. Meanwhile, Jeremy hadn’t been feeling well and was also restless. He was having kidney stone issues that seemed to just get worse as the week wore on. Finally, on Friday morning before the sun was up, I took my pain stricken husband to the hospital for the third time that week. At that point I wondered if we would even be going, since our flight to Las Vegas was the next day.

The hospital managed to fit Jeremy in for surgery that afternoon and when picked him up he was feeling good. It looked like we were going after all, so Saturday morning we were on our way to the airport, weary but optimistic. We landed in Las Vegas on schedule and met up with the bride and groom who’d arrived a few hours earlier.

Some advice for the first time visitor to Las Vegas: hand over your wallet and bend over. This may sound vulgar but there really isn’t anything tasteful about this place. I’ll admit, it’s quite a spectacle, but the ostentatious resorts, grossly overpriced, yet mediocre restaurants and countless billboards with scantily clad women offering good times, got tiresome pretty fast. Not to mention smoky casinos and tacky attractions. There ‘s a million different ways to fritter way your money here, and even though we didn’t gamble or see any the expensive shows, we still managed to spend a fortune, just on the basics.

One thing that I did love about Las Vegas was our resort. When we were planning our trip, I’d talked the bride and groom out of the Bellagio and suggested booking at the Tropicana instead. The later had rave reviews on many travel sites, but the room rates were dirt cheap – and we all know how much I love a bargain. After a few days in Las Vegas, it was a compromise we all agreed added to the overall enjoyment of the trip. It was perfect.

The Tropicana is one of the older hotels on the strip and over the past few years it’s undergone a multi million-dollar renovation. It’s comparatively small next to most of the other behemoth resorts in the area, making it cozy. The location was great too. It’s located at the far south end of the strip, not quite off the beaten path, but far enough away from the city center crowds. It was also bright, clean, and had a Starbucks right in the lobby.

The hotel also had a fabulous pool and quiet little café, where we had most of our meals. My favourite part of the property though, was a vintage two-story hotel motel wing they’d left behind after the renovation. It’s unoccupied but it gives the property a touch of retro Las Vegas. It was a nice touch in a town known for imploding their history.

We spent most of our trip wandering though the famous lobbies, casinos, and shops on the strip. We also spent a bit of time downtown – Glitter Gulch, parts of which, I recognized from movies. After having been there, all I can say is that Las Vegas is where culture has gone to die.

I guess it just wasn’t our kind of place. We’re glad to have seen it for ourselves. We can now check weekend in Vegas off our list of quintessential life experiences, but overall, we were underwhelmed.

The Venetian. It’s just like being in Italy!

The flower bouquets dangling from the trees in the Palazzo were actually really pretty.

Of course, our real reason for the trip was the wedding. Despite being in Vegas, they decided to take the classy route. Not an easy thing to do in that gaudy place. The wedding was at a tasteful chapel, and then afterward they’d hired a limousine to take us to the steakhouse at the Bellagio for dinner. Our table overlooked the “lake” where their famous fountain show takes place. According to our server, George Clooney and his pals hung out there during the filming of Ocean’s Eleven. I’m sure he was full of crap, but we were suitably impressed, nonetheless.

Now blissfully married, or friends honeymooned, while we returned home in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Thanks to a suitcase full of heavy-duty pharmaceuticals, Jeremy survived the trip, and is now convalescing at home. We found the cats happy and healthy after our absence, and I quickly returned to the grind. I could have used a longer break, but at the same time, I’m happy to be home.

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