The sunshine state: a week long sojourn along the coast and among the swamps of South Florida

Days 1-2: Fort Lauderdale

We touch down on the runway at Fort Lauderdale at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day, and spend upwards of half an hour waiting for the rental car guy to pick us up and take us to the offsite facility. One of the joys of traveling anywhere on Christmas, the only day in America when everything is well and truly closed, even McDonalds.

We emerge from the rental facility with the small silver car that will be our mobile home for the next seven days, and arrive at Lauderdale by the Sea – a series of vacation condos minutes from the seashore – with the whole day ahead of us, though it’s too early to check-in to our rooms. Hastily changing into our shorts in the bathroom of a Walgreens, we step into the sunshine and onto the beach, cool grains of sand slipping through our toes. Impressive beachfront condos line the shores, and a long boardwalk extends into the ocean. The water is cool, but not chilly, and with the sun beaming it’s nothing short of heavenly – okay, at 85 degrees, it’s a little warm. But having fled from 30 degree weather in NYC only to be met with the same in California, I’ll take this heat any day. It’s a public beach, but located so far from downtown Fort Lauderdale, it practically feels like we have the whole beach to ourselves.

Around eleven, the tourists start pouring in, and we break for lunch. Luckily, the restaurants in this area are geared for tourist season, and are mercifully open to feed hungry beachgoers, even on Christmas. After a few mimosas, we check-in to our room, freshen up, and decide to check out the more touristy parts of Fort Lauderdale with a trip to Las Olas Beach (“The Waves” in Spanish). Oh boy. We’ve definitely left the geriatric, retiree community behind. Here, youngins’ flock to cheesy beachside saloons and Hooters.

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After a day of beach fun, we decide to check out the Fort Lauderdale Riverwalk. Along the way, we spot Millionaire’s Row, a bed of grand homes along the waterfront. It was a haven for the well-heeled and wealthy back in the ‘70s, when becoming a millionaire was actually a notable accomplishment.

But it’s after getting lost while driving that we become aware of some of the massive wealth inequality in this Florida beach town. Just blocks away from the glitzy riverfront and million-dollar condos are hospitals and housing for very low-income communities and homeless individuals wandering the streets. While the weather here may be warm year-round, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way for economic or municipal support for those in need.

We descend upon the river for a pleasant evening boat ride – although it turns out to be far from that. Our boat operator, let’s just say, is neither of a fan of our California origins and an ardent Trump supporter. He proceeds to rail against Governor Jerry Brown and champion the soon-to-be-president. The man’s smug tone is enough to drive Mom and Dad into a tizzy, and before I know, we’ve launched in a full-on debate. Now, I may have my political inclinations, but I don’t think it’s a smart idea to get into a heated discussion with the guy manning your boat! Oh well…we survived.

The following day, we wake up bright and early to catch the sun peeking up over the blue horizon while we wait on the beach, wind gently whipping through our hair. It’s a lovely sight. Walking along the beach, we hunt for seashells in the frothy waves and tiptoe around colorful jellyfish that have washed ashore. Then, we head off to more glamorous shores. Our destination: Palm Beach. Trump territory. We decide to avoid Mar-a-Lago. But Palm Beach is pleasantly absent of any orange looking politicians. The waves ambush you from the left and right all at once. Mom and I take turns giggling as the waves rush in and out over our calves.

Day 3: Miami

Little did I know that I would be returning to Miami for the second time in a year. Don’t get me wrong, I love the great weather, impeccably clean beaches and friendly vibes, but it’s not the kind of city I want to go back to frequently. South Beach is still, well, South Beach. Hordes of inebriated twenty-somethings and spring breakers descend upon the main thoroughfare along the beach, giant margarita cups the size of my head in hand. Unsurprisingly, it only took a matter of minutes before my dear parents grumbled about the madness of young hooligans. Going to Miami with one’s parents is like venturing to Las Vegas before you’ve turned twenty-one – which, I have also done, funnily enough. It’s not something I would recommend. We managed to make a fun time of it though and reveled temporarily in the South Beach madness.

While walking along the beach, I saw a scruffy-looking, shirtless older man leading a group of avid runners down a long stretch of the beach. A friend of mine recently published a book called Running with Raven about a man named Raven who has run eight miles every day in Miami for the past few decades, amassing hundreds of followers or “Raven Runners” along the way. I thought: “Could it be him?” And as they passed by, I heard the words “Raven Runners.” It was! It was one of those moments that made me realize what a small world we live in. Anyway, I encourage all running, beach, Miami, and human interest story enthusiasts to check out Running with Raven. It’s a terrific summer read.

We cap off the night with some traditional Cuban fare and head to the hotel.

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Days 4-5: The Keys

For the third day in a row, we wake up early enough to see the sunrise. How on earth am I managing to do this while fueled by the three-hour time difference between California and Florida? I should still be in bed. Oh well. The ethereal pink, blue and yellow rays over the horizon make up for it. Central Beach is a little calmer than South Beach, to say the least, and less of a tourist trap, though no less charming. The cleanup crew and a few other odd beachgoers are the only ones with us to greet the rising sun.

After that, we spend a lazy few hours in the hotel room before checkout, stopping by a shopping mall en route to the Keys – a set of islands connected only by U.S Route 1 off the coast of Florida – for lunch. And funnily enough, as I discover while perusing in the roadside tourist shops, the Keys were once the site of a dramatically unsuccessful secession effort. They have their own flag and everything. I imagine the ongoing ballot effort for California to secede will be similarly fruitless – if it ever takes off the ground – but hey, in this political climate, who knows what will happen?

But unbeknownst to us, all the tourists in South Florida are heading down to the Keys today for the New Year’s Eve festivities. There are also two cruises taking off from Key West the following day, and what’s normally a three hour drive winds up taking six hours. Not good.

Stress levels are rising in the car and we stop by for some therapeutic treats at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo, which reportedly has the world’s best key lime pie, according to Travel & Leisure. It doesn’t disappoint. Tangy and sweet all at once, coated with a crumbly but firm graham cracker crust, it’s definitely a dessert designed by the gods. But what might be even better than the pie is the lively décor of the place; license plates donated by guests from all over the country and the world coat the walls, and foreign currency from Venezuela to India dots the ceiling.

We make another pit stop in Key Largo at the John Pennekamp State Park for a glass-bottom tour. Dozens of different kinds of colorful fish and coral pass beneath our feet. The Keys, as it turns out, is one of the few places in the world where you can view coral beds like this. One of the others is the Great Barrier Reef, which sadly, is not faring too well.

Before we departed on our boat ride, our tour guide had only rule: don’t drop anything. Of course, I promptly break this rule. Leaning over the guardrail to catch a better view of a school of blue fish, I watch as my sunglasses drop to the glass with a dramatic clink, and I swear, everyone turns and looks straight at me. The tour guide guffaws over the microphone: “Those are a goner!” Good thing I bought them on discount.

In between the harried drive through the Keys – thanks Dad for being the designated driver throughout this trip! – we find some time to appreciate the sun setting over the famous Seven Mile Bridge, with deep royal blue seas flanking us on both sides. Simply majestic.

By the time we finally arrive in Key West and deal with the ridiculous parking situation and drunk tourists on the island, we’re all fed-up and cranky, and a few tears are shed. But we make up in time to head to Sloppy Joe’s, a bar that the famous writer Ernest Hemingway famously frequently during his many years on the island. Being a literary geek, I couldn’t pass this up. Apparently, Key West also has a “Papa” contest – “Papa” being Hemingway’s nickname – where people vie for the title of best Hemingway look-a-like, beard and all? Oh my. Alas, I don’t have a chance to sample a Hemingway dacquiri, as the rowdy crowds at Sloppy Joe’s are a little too much for my parents – and frankly, for me too.

So we depart on a walking tour down Duval Street, the main thoroughfare in Key West. One of our first sightings is the giant red high heel monument hanging from the top of the Bourbon Street Pub, and in which celebrity drag queen Sushi sits every New Years as the shoe slowly lowers at midnight (Key West’s version of the NYC ball drop). Helpful signs along the street indicate historic sites of rum-runner gangs during the Prohibition era, and places that were rebuilt after a devastating fire in the late 1800s.

At the end of the street is a large statue of a water marker with the words ‘Southernmost Point of USA, Cuba – 90 Miles.’ Next to that is another statue of a man who supposedly peddled his wares at this exact spot and greeted approximately 11 million visitors to the southern shores of Florida over the years, reportedly by blowing into a conch shell. Something tells me this is an urban legend, but it warms my heart. If only immigrants received such a hearty welcome today.

It’s a welcome respite when my head hits the pillow. Sleep comes quickly after a long, long day.

The next morning, I continue to bask in the literary nerdiness of Key West with a guided tour at the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. A curious white cat perched atop the gate greets us. It’s one of 53 cats presently residing at the Hemingway House; the museum employs a full-time veterinarian to care for them. These cats are the descendants of one original six-toed matriarch, spawning generations of furballs with extraneous digits.

But while the cats may be fun to pet, the real fun comes from hearing tales of Hemingway’s eccentric genius in the home where he created 70% of his novels, including famous works like The Old Man and the Sea. That covers the genius part. As for the eccentricity…well. Throughout his life, Ernest Hemingway suffered from nine concussions – one which he incurred by accidentally pulling on a chandelier rather than a toilet chain – three divorces, four wives, numerous affairs rampant alcoholism and depression, electroshock therapy that left him bereft of his memories, and finally, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. It’s the sobering story behind the creative madness that Hemingway espoused.

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Days 6-7: The Everglades

Alligators. So. Many. Alligators.

It’s a short drive from Homestead to the Eastern side of the Everglades National Park, where we’ll be spending the entire day. Upon entering the park, tourists typically head to the Ernest Coe Visitor Center – the park’s main entrance of it six visitor centers. A National Park nerd, this part of the trip is mainly for my benefit, but Mom and Dad cheerfully trudge along.

We start off the day with a 10:30 a.m. guided tour at the Anhinga Trail, named for the spectacular black-bodied bird that shows off by extending its wings for passerby. But first, an educational presentation by a feisty, middle-aged park ranger with a blonde ponytail. Gesturing towards a mostly bored-looking group of teenagers, couples and families with small toddlers, the park ranger illuminates the difference between crocodiles and alligators by holding up some scary-looking skulls with sharp teeth.

After that, we walk over a ½ mile loop of raised boardwalk over swampy marshes and lily pads, stopping to gawk whenever we catch an alligator peeking its head out of the water, or sunbathing on a patch of grass. On our way out of the park, we spot two alligators gamboling in the water, playing a watery game. Mom has a field day with that, and leaves with a beaming smile on her face.

Following a long drive down the coast, we end up at the Flamingo Visitor Center, where the temperature has suddenly plummeted and the wind sharply escalated, and we start shivering in our think jacket. We can only snag two tickets for the sunset boat cruise, so Mom and I sheepishly embark on the tour. Sorry, Dad!

While we don’t spot any playful dolphins, the view of the sun descending over the watery ocean horizon in vibrant hues of red, orange and purple truly takes your breath away. I couldn’t imagine someone I’d rather share this moment with than with my lovely Mom – and the dozens of other Asian tourists onboard. Oh, and how could I forget the giddy manatees – gentle gray giants that are often referred to as sea cows – palling around near the boat docks of the visitor center. While we only glimpse their backs heaving in and out of the waters, it’s evident they’re having a blast.

The second day: We hop into the multi-car tram and are greeted by a delightful elderly couple and tour guide duo, with the husband driving the tram and the wife narrating. Within minutes, I know it’s going to be a good ride when they refer to themselves as the “Bad Couple” with a reputation for leading tours that run notoriously over time. Their upbeat narration spans the history of Pangea to the evolution of the Everglades over time.

The park is a bird-lovers paradise. Pale ospreys, beautiful egrets, white ibis, great blue herons, black anhingas and pink spoonbills are just some of the birds that we encounter in the Everglades. Avian lovers, beware.

But of course, the real star of the show: the alligators. Apparently, late December, the start of the dry season, is the sweet spot to catch prime views of alligators. Although we saw a respectable four or five alligators yesterday, that’s nothing compared to what we witness today. Dozens – yes, dozens of alligators amble in the waters on the edges of the thin concrete road, mere feet from the tram. As bikers drive by, the female tour guide jollily refers to them as “Meals on Wheels.” Oh boy.

And yet, it seems that the Everglades have somehow managed to avoid any human fatalities due to alligators, which I find to be a small miracle in itself, given the number of foolish people that have perished by wandering into the hot springs of Yellowstone. Still, better put that selfie stick away and keep a respectable five foot distance between yourself and the alligator. Although they’re pretty unfazed by the humans passing by since they view us tall beasts as a threat, if you crouch down to their level, all bets are off.

After that, we decide on a spur of the moment to stop by the Micosukee Village, an Indian reservation located within the Everglades. They’re hosting an arts and crafts festival and we watch a dance performed by Micosukee youths. I’m a little wary of the alligator wrestling area – it seems almost like the animals have been injured and sedated for viewer entertainment, and I can’t get on board with that.

It’s a sobering history lesson when we come to Micosukee. I enjoyed the performance of traditional Micosukee dances and explanation of the tribe’s history in the small museum, and I’m glad that the festival provides a likely much-needed source of income to many native communities in the Everglades. Still, I’m a little conflicted: all the commercialization of culture in the form of free Micosukee T-shirts and peddling of wares seems a little exploitative. I only hope that people come away from these festivals with a more nuanced understanding and appreciation for the culture of indigenous peoples, instead of viewing them as bizarre customs of the “Other.”

Our last stop is the Oasis Valley Visitor Center, where we ask a woman about this rad-looking, old-school camera that appeared in one of the visitor center brochures. “Oh, that’s Clyde Butcher,” she says. “Drive down the road not ½ mile, and you’ll see his place. He’s the only one in this area that uses that kind of camera.” Following our instructions, we make our way to Clyde’s photo shop, only to find that it’s perched on a gorgeous cypress swamp. After a few selfies with the old camera, we bid adieu to the Everglades and to the warm, swampy gaze of the sunshine state.

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