Sitting here at 2 am, fire on and wide awake with things going round in my head; an imminent redundancy for my husband, a new guide dog and work stresses for me, it’s hard to believe that it’s less than a week since we returned from Florida with temperatures in the high 80s, and that’s at night! It was well up in the 90s during the day.
We travelled as part of a group of 22 people, half of us blind or partially sighted, the other half fully sighted, who would act as our guides for the 10 days we were out there. We stayed in Orlando, Miami and Key West. Until we were there, I don’t think I had stopped to comprehend the sheer size of the USA. I mean, we all know it’s big but experiencing big is something else entirely. In the UK you can travel from one end of a county to the other in a couple of hours or so by road, but the state of Florida is massive in comparison! Four hours between Orlando and Miami, and a further four hours onwards to Key West.
I could write a day by day account of where we went and what we saw, but felt I really wanted to write my impressions of being in America. I’ve written too many accounts of exactly what we did on school trips in my time and I’m afraid if I wrote an account, that is what it would sound like!
Orlando was very geared up for tourists as I expected it would be. We did two of the theme parks, Universal Studios and SeaWorld. We could have also gone to Disney, but decided that two days was enough. Universal was lots of fun, big scary roller coasters, water rides and lots of noise. SeaWorld was more tranquil, but I have to say I didn’t like it. We saw a couple of the shows, killer whales, Sea Lions and an Otter, but I don’t really feel comfortable with performing animals. There were also some polar bears which bothered me a little. Don’t get me wrong, the animals at SeaWorld are very well cared for and have excellent conditions. Their welfare is absolutely paramount. I just have a problem with animals in captivity which is my problem and my opinion.
Our last day in Orlando was spent relaxing by the pool at our hotel and doing a bit of shopping. I have to say, having heard about the American standard of customer service in shops and restaurants, I wasn’t disappointed. People were only too happy to talk to us, describe things, show us things and read menus. When you walk into a shop over there, it is only a matter of a few seconds before someone is there to help. A far cry from shopping in this country where you can walk in with a guide dog and be totally ignored. There’s none of that standing just inside a shop listening to try and ascertain where the counter is.
We also visited a couple of restaurants which my husband had been to when last in Orlando which he had enjoyed, the Olive Garden and of course, Hard Rock Café. The food in both these restaurants was fabulous with a lot of variety to choose from, and the cocktails were second to none!
Miami was a real surprise for me. We stayed in a hotel two blocks away from the south beach and everywhere was so laid back and quiet. Even when we got to the beach after we arrived for a swim, there were very few people on it. The water was so warm and clear. We’d never get a beach like that in this country in the middle of a city. It’d be full of idiots getting drunk and generally being antisocial.
Whilst in Miami we visited the Everglades which was fascinating. We went out on an amphibious boat which took us along channels of water amongst the abundant vegetation which grows there. We did see an alligator whilst we were out there. Afterwards we had a short talk about alligators and were given the opportunity to hold one. He felt very strange. Cool smooth skin and a body that felt as though it was full of that gel stuff that ergonomic wrist rests are filled with!
Then for two days in luxurious Key West. By far the nicest hotel but everything just that bit more expensive. It is where you go in Florida if you have plenty of money and want to have a good time. Whilst we were there my husband and I went for a meal to celebrate our wedding earlier on this year. We promised ourselves we’d treat ourselves to a meal for two whilst in Key West. Our tour guides found us a fantastic Italian restaurant called Antonia’s. There we were made to feel very special. They didn’t so much read the menu to us but discuss it with us, recommending particular favourites and describing dishes as they went. I’ll see if I can get the menu to post here as my describing it wouldn’t do it justice! My husband had the best steak he’s ever tasted and I had linguini with shrimps which, if served in this country, would have been called king prawns. For dessert I had Key Lime pie which was delicious, and my husband had a coconut cream pie which the restaurant had won awards for.
In Key West they have what are known as Pedicabs. These are a type of rickshaw I suppose. The driver sits on a bicycle style seat at the front and pedals, whilst the passengers sit side by side behind. I don’t think I’ll ever forget travelling to the restaurant in one of these on a lovely warm evening, travelling through streets full of people, music and the smells of cooking from the various restaurants we passed.
I was surprised that the beach at Key West wasn’t actually as nice as Miami beach. There was a lot of seaweed in the water which I always find off-putting and quite a stagnant smell about the place. We had a very interesting trolley bus tour around the town with a great commentary by a very amusing guide. We also spent a wonderfully lazy afternoon by the hotel pool before going out on a sunset cruise with all you could eat and drink, followed by a very lively evening with lots of cocktails at a local bar.
So, would I go back? Absolutely. Florida has made me want to travel to other parts of America as I think I’m going to grow to love the place.
Eating out was far more expensive than I imagined and I got caught out a few times as the tax is always added on at the end, as well as gratuities. However, taxis seemed to be ridiculously cheap. I find American people so much more friendly and outgoing. We had an incident in a restaurant where we were sorting out our money using the Looktel Money Reader app for the iPhone to distinguish the various notes. A couple came up to ask about it. At no time did we feel patronised, it was simply friendly curiosity with a little admiration thrown in!
The person who left the most lasting memory for me though was a tour guide who came out with us a couple of days from a company called Gatortrax Tours. His name was Buddy and he was probably the most enthusiastic guide I have ever met! For our coach trip to the Everglades, mindful of the fact that half the group were blind, he brought many samples of the various grasses and palms that grow in the area. He also brought us sea grapes and pickled hearts of palm to taste as well as shells to look at. He clearly loves nature and is just dying to share it with everyone.
The company we travelled with are called Traveleyes and their web site is at www.traveleyes-international.com
If you’d like to hear some audio accounts of the holiday, go to http://audioboo.fm/tuffen007 where my husband has posted some recordings.