American Road Trip: Florida’s Many Faces

It is a shame that the majority of visitors to Florida limit their trips to the Orlando theme parks and Miami because the Sunshine State does indeed have many different faces that should be explored.

I have been to Florida many times both for business and pleasure so the only reason for this trip was to be able to begin my journey in Key West, the southernmost point in the US, then travel all the way up the East Coast to Maine.  I’d also been told countless times that I just had to check out the Florida Keys.  I was frequently and enthusiastically assured that they were nothing like the rest of Florida and well worth a visit.  So in this update I will cover off my current trip from Key West up the eastern side of Florida but I will also mention some other places I’ve been before that I think are worth a visit.

After a disgustingly early flight from Dallas I arrived at Miami International to collect my car then headed straight for Key West.  According to Google it would take me about 4 hours and I was looking forward to this unique drive I’d often seen featured in movies and tourist brochures.  Being still fairly early on a Sunday morning the first part of the drive wasn’t too bad but things got very congested once I got on the Overseas Highway which is the famous drive down the Keys you have probably heard of.   The congestion never let up until I got north of Palm Beach the following day.

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Whilst it is interesting to drive over the sea and there are some picturesque views, as a driver this just wasn’t enjoyable.  There was too much traffic, most of it moving too slowly, and too few places to pull over to enable me to enjoy the views.  There are very few passing lanes and there is only one way in and out, so once you get into the Keys you are pretty much stuck.  Even worse, I had to drive with the knowledge that I had to repeat it all in the opposite direction the following morning.  Perhaps if you were a passenger or managed to find a quieter time to go then it would be amazing but I was decidedly underwhelmed.  If I could have a redo then I would fly in one direction then drive the other, in fact I have no idea why I didn’t do that in the first place.  We live and learn…

After what seemed like a week of driving I arrived in Key West and checked into my blissfully cool and peaceful budget resort.  I decided I had to at least have a drive around before I napped and was glad that I did.  Key West is a pretty and quirky town that definitely feels more like the Caribbean than the US.  In fact, in Key West you are closer to Cuba than Miami.   It is jam packed with restaurants, bars and live music but they are catering to the laid back party crowd so it is definitely not a stuffy place.  There is interesting architecture and you are never more than a few minutes from a warm sandy beach.  I’d definitely be up for returning with a few friends in tow to enjoy the food, music and nightlife.

That night I wasn’t in the mood for any solo partying so I passed out early before heading north up US1 in the morning with my only goal being to get as far north as possible because I was covering ground I’d already seen before all the way up to Titusville.  Unfortunately that didn’t work out as planned.  The traffic was awful the whole way, I witnessed a horrific road rage incident I’d prefer to forget in Miami, got stuck in traffic due to accidents, dodged the horrendously angry and dangerous Miami drivers then had a huge wasp fly into my car on I-95 (those that know me will understand the significance of that).  So in the end I only got as far as the city of Stuart despite driving almost constantly for 7 hours.

I was determined the next day would be better and would take me all the way to Georgia.  It was better but I didn’t quite make it due to having to shop for supplies and because I had been doing a Goldilocks with my rental car.  The first car Hertz gave me was great except that it had no USB or AV connector and there was no way in hell I was driving for 6 weeks all the way to San Francisco without my music.  In Key West I switched that out for a Nissan that had a USB plug but didn’t brake properly, had embarrassingly slow acceleration and when I used the wipers in the rain they made creaky horror movie noises and basically turned the windshield into something resembling a steamy bathroom mirror.  I thought it might prove to be a tad dangerous in the many rain storms I would no doubt drive through between Florida and California.   So in Melbourne I switched it for my third car, a Hyundai Accent, which was just right.  I especially like the Wisconsin plates.

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The aspects of Florida’s Atlantic Coast that most annoy me start to disappear when you hit the Space Coast north of the Palm Beach area.  Although the coast is still littered with strip malls and big box stores, the pace is a little slower, the beaches a little more accessible and people are noticeably more chilled out.  Due to my previous life in the space business I have made several visits to the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral Area, many of which were failed attempts to see a Space Shuttle launch.  In 2011 I finally succeeded in seeing one for about 30-seconds before it disappeared into clouds. I’d been drinking at a dive bar that offered a great view of the Shuttle launches all afternoon with friends, so in all honesty I don’t remember those few seconds in a whole lot of detail but we did have a good time and it was quite a sight to see.

In any case I love this area of Florida for its space history and all-American seaside charm so I was tempted to stop for yet another night in Cocoa Beach but instead forced myself to get further north, eventually winding up in the chilled out seaside town of Flagler Beach which is just north of Daytona.  I checked into a dive motel and for $69 I got a balcony with views of the Atlantic so I was happy.

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My final day in Florida was by far the best.  I did a bit of Googling and stared at my gigantic US map for a long time before deciding to follow the Florida A1A Scenic Highway that I figured would take me almost all the way to the state line.  It was a fabulous decision if I do say so myself.  From north of Daytona the Atlantic Coast changes even more dramatically.  Things slow right down and get distinctively more Southern in culture.  People don’t drive so angrily, their lips and boobs tend to be their original ones and long gone are the seemingly endless strip mall lined boulevards.

In Florida, like many popular coastal areas, it is very hard to find a drive that actually hugs the coast and enables you to view the ocean from the road.  The simple fact is that most of the beachfront that is accessible by road is occupied by houses or hotels.   This is compounded by Florida’s flat landscape because there is no way you will ever get elevated enough to see the ocean from roads that are further back from the coast.  So whilst the A1A didn’t hug the ocean the whole time, there were plenty of pretty quiet stretches where you could enjoy sea views and pull over right on the beach.  The inland parts were also pleasant with forest and dune landscapes.

The route takes you through the city of St. Augustine that offers interesting architecture and some rich history.   I would tell you all about the history but unfortunately I wasn’t in the mood for that kind of thing, so after a quick jaunt around the main square I kept going.  I did however notice history that went all the way back the American Revolution because the only place I did stop at used to house a British prison.  As in the British kept American prisoners of war there.

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After leaving embarrassing British history behind I soon found myself skirting around Jacksonville and before I knew it my GPS was telling me to drive onto a ferry.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Luckily it was only $6 and a fun short ride over St. Johns River from Mayport to Amelia Island where you hook up with the A1A again.  In fact, the ferry is part of the A1A Highway.

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The relatively short drive to Fernandina Beach was very pretty with glimpses of silver sandy beaches, reedy estuaries and pretty stretches of road arched with moss covered trees.   Fernandina Beach is the northernmost town on Florida’s Atlantic Coast and pretty much the end of the road I was on so I set course for Brunswick, Georgia and said a fond farewell to Florida and her many faces.

Not all of these are from this trip but here are my all-time favorite Florida finds…

The Space Coast:  It only takes about an hour to get from Orlando to the Cape Canaveral area where you can indulge your inner space geek at Kennedy Space Center.  Even if you aren’t a space geek this place should fascinate.  This is where any manned American space mission launched from and if you weren’t lucky enough to have VIP seats to watch the lunar missions in the 60’s then you were probably parked up somewhere in Cocoa Beach to watch the truly awesome Saturn V rocket speed off to the Moon.  Read any 1960’s astronaut autobiography and you’ll see this town fondly remembered often.  There is a great beach along with plenty of places to eat and drink.  It isn’t fancy but it is fun and there are plenty of other towns, beaches and estuaries in the area to explore.

Sarasota:  I have no idea why Sarasota isn’t a more popular destination and maybe that is a good thing.  This is a beautiful city on Florida’s Gulf Coast that is known for art galleries and boutiques as well as it’s beautiful beaches and waterways.  I think this is my favourite Florida city.

Orlando:  Not the theme parks but the actual city.  Very few people bother to check out downtown Orlando because they assume that nothing can compare to getting drunk at Epcot or having your photo taken with Mickey.  Wrong!  Downtown has been lovingly revamped to something that is very easy on the eye but more important is the nightlife.  Believe it or not but the downtown area offers great restaurants, the odd boutique hotel with the obligatory funky lobby bar a-la-New York, plus great dive bars and live music.  What do you think all those Disney workers get up to after hours?  If you like a good night out then ditch the resort bars and head downtown.

Alligator Alley:  I feel like a bit of a fraud for including this because this road that connects the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of Southern Florida is quite possibly one of the most boring drives on the planet.  However, the first 15-minutes of driving through the Everglades are pretty cool because, you know, it’s the Everglades.  And there is always the possibility that you may see an actual Alligator.  I’ve driven Gator Alley in both directions numerous times and after that first flush of excitement I spend the rest of the time trying to figure out how to teleport so I don’t have to do the rest.  But it’s kind of like the drive down to Key West; not the most exciting thing in the world but something I’m definitely glad I’ve done.  And most importantly, it will get you from Miami to the pretty cities of Naples and Sarasota.

And last but not least, the A1A Scenic Highway and Key West as mentioned in my main blog post above.

Something you should know:  There are only two speeds people drive at in South Florida…20 under and 30 over.  So you’ll either be stuck behind someone going painfully slow or have someone angrily tailgating you even if you consider yourself to be speeding in terms of how normal people drive.   There doesn’t appear to be any middle ground.

My Biggest Regret:  Doing the Overseas Highway (US 1 in the Florida Keys) in both directions.  I definitely should have flown to Key West to collect a one-way rental and then drove north.  I think the drive would have left a better impression if I had.

Songs I played the loudest:  Lots once I got a car with audio but I really wanted to announce that I am now up to the C’s on my iPod.  Only took about 5,000 miles.

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