A Florida diary… the group heads for Fort Lauderdale and the Keys
9 days in southern Florida… days seven, eight and nine

Day Seven ~ Friday, May 8, 2009

Richard and I start the day in an unquestionably perfect vacation way… by eating slices of key lime meringue pie as part of our breakfasts.

An audible is being called for the day. We had been kicking around all sorts of possible ideas for our final days on this trip. At one point we even debated the possibility… quickly laughed off as being hysterical if we did it, but just too silly to actually attempt after spending two nights in Key West… of a same day up-and-back trip to meet some friends that were in Orlando.

The decision is… we’re heading over to Naples.

It’s going to be a great day of nothing for us. We’re going to look at some houses… enjoy some driving around without any true destinations… and we’ve mentioned even wrapping the day up by pointing the car toward Miami and giving South Beach another shot.

The drive begins with us moving along Alligator Alley… with a big “route 75” and a question mark written in my notes next to that. We’ve got plenty of sawgrass around us, gators in sight, and the road meandering along the very edge of the water.

As we arrive in Naples we decide to park and start in Tin City. The stores are kind of neat, with us picking up a few trinkets. And then we spot the shop for the Naples Winery.

We all take part in a tasting, and it really is different and very good. All four of us agreed that the sangria topped the list of options. Tasting as a group, but making some selections individually, at least one of us tried offerings such as watermelon, peach, banana, orange and key lime wine. If you’re scoring at home and fruit wines such as some of these sound interesting, for us the watermelon, peach and banana were the best of what we sampled… but we did have some differing opinions on good or really good. Stick with the sangria and you can’t go wrong.

The Riverwalk Restaurant is picked for our lunch stop, and overall it’s a nice place. We are sitting right next to a marina… with boats and pelicans all around. The clam chowder was pretty good… but it was the setting that seemed to satisfy us as much as, if not more than, the food. (Richard would later note in our “Best of...” column that this restaurant was one of his favorite places on the trip. Worth mentioning. But the notes from the day show none of this being said during the meal.)

We stop and pick up cookies at a Tin City bakery counter (I didn’t write the name down, but an investigation seems to confirm it was almost without a doubt The Serious Cookie Company), and the chocolate chip ones were really good. Then we drive out toward the Gulf of Mexico, near Gulf Shore Boulevard and something in the vicinity of 4th Street. (I think.)

We’re window shopping in a way… driving past the houses and comparing each one with the next for view and landscape and anything else that comes to mind. We drive past the Venetian Village and then head over to Marco Island.

For a casual afternoon, all of it was alot of fun. Along the way to Marco Island we saw some smoke in the distance. According to what I found out later, there were some fires in the area.

And now ladies and gentlemen… we are about to leave the region of Naples… greet the return of No-no… and offer to you a wonderful example of what not to do on an evening in southern Florida.

Or… in a shorter sentence… stay away from Casa D’Angelo at all costs, because it sucks. (Oh wait… sorry about that... maybe the people in Fort Lauderdale have no clue what should qualify as even halfway palatable, good Italian food. Hey… Del Vecchio’s is still in business as far as I know. We thought they sucked too… early on in this trip. But given the great food we’ve had, I’m giving a pass to Fort Lauderdale and their tastes when it comes to food. Many of these places were brilliant. In our opinion… Casa D’Angelo sucks.)

On to the story…

We’ve decided to head back to Miami after all… and Mi Luv U is pulling us along the road past Coopertown Airboats. It’s a pretty astonishing drive actually. To try and describe the scenery just doesn’t capture the true realities of it.

See… the way we had heard the story… the government got involved. And, as you can imagine just from hearing that phrase, it means things are all messed up. But time marches on, and now it’s all messed up in quite an amazingly strange way.

The Everglades are a swamp. And, unless your family name is Disney, the record doesn’t show many success stories of a person or group taking over a swamp and building anything of great significance.

(I’m probably wrong on that… reaching for the joke and forgetting some wonderful swamp-related projects… but bear with me on this one folks. It’s the Everglades. Ok?)

Apparently some U.S. government officials thought they could dry up the Everglades and turn it into some valuable, really primo real estate.

And then changed their minds.

If you check out the Coopertown Airboat article, you’ll see I talk about the Malaluka trees. That is part of this whole story of drying out, filling in, not drying out, staying put story.

We are in the middle of a day of driving that goes from alligators in the water along the side of the road to huge homes on the Gulf, and then we return to the wilderness. We’ve got turtles crossing the road and we pass shacks that sure as heck look like someone should be sitting out front playing a banjo. There’s water all over the place… and yet, it’s the middle of a drought and there’s no water in sight.

Quite honestly it’s so amazing a collection of opposing images, changing scenery and fabulous sights that the mind almost doesn’t register any of it.

A few turns and we’re traveling in the neighborhood of Coopertown again… having left route 75 and maneuvered over to route 41. And we decide to stop at the Miccosukee Resort. Well… I guess you call it a resort. They do.

The decision to stop was really based on four things. Number one… they had this big sign nearby about free play for new player’s club members. Number two… we saw the sign when we drove by the resort before on the way to Coopertown, but then lunch and an adventure to find those crazy CSI people led us away before we could stop that day. Number three… now we start getting to the really good reasons… Ellen and Terry were looking for a rest area if one happened to show up on our travels. And number four… I promised that maybe there would be ice cream involved if the three of them behaved. (They did… but we played and ran… no ice cream.)

The reality of that resort wisecrack I made is this… it looked like any of a number of hotel chains I could rattle off, except it had the tribal emblem out front and a rather nice statue and water feature at the entry. The word “resort” really doesn’t work, but because they have palm trees, I believe they are legally allowed to use it without embarrassment. And, since the only table games are poker… and to my knowledge they can’t have official slot machines… and… well… they call it gaming, but the gas station down the road a bit probably could make a good case for offering as diverse a collection of “gaming options” in state lottery and scratch tickets as the Miccosukee do in video pull tabs and poker.

Ahh… but all of us qualify for membership in the player’s club as new accounts, that means free slot play… you know, if they had slots.

We signed up for accounts, got our free play, and left with just over $30 in cash we didn’t have when we arrived. (Terry won a bit… I scraped by… Ellen and Richard used their free play and ended at zero.) So… while I can’t recommend the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming experience to you for any significant reason… I can tell you that if they offer new member play to you, and you find a decent machine, it could fill up your gas tank for the investment of a few minutes.

Oh yeah… the rest rooms. Umm… let’s just say I would keep driving down the road to the next available option for that.

We’re back in the car and cruising toward Miami. We’re planning on arriving just after 5pm or so… and we are locked in on South Beach. This time… as opposed to Sunday night’s casual drive around… our goal is to get into the area, find a good place to eat, and perhaps settle in for an evening of letting South Beach carry us in any direction it wishes. We’ve got no place to be tomorrow, and we’re willing to stay out all night if the fun sweeps us away.

Ellen wants Italian food for dinner. She claims she’s going through pasta withdrawals. So as we begin to close in, Terry takes Mi Luv U and asks about Italian food. We get a couple of options and find they are fairly close to each other.

And that’s when the SUV incident took place.

Apparently… based on what we could see, what we experienced, and the visual clues from our surroundings… we had arrived at the great end-of-day rush on the day care centers.

Now I am willing to admit I know nothing about Miami. I wanted to back then. I really wanted to spend some time there and see the city. I still do. So you may tell me that there are no day care facilities… or that they have special afternoon procedures and I must have been seeing something else. And you may have a point with that.

It’s irrelevant though.

Or… well, more appropriately… so be it. The truth is…

No matter what road I turned on, we were brought to a crawl by slow moving traffic. At one point, an SUV comes up along the driver’s side of our car… literally no more than two inches between its mirror and the side of our vehicle… swings out a bit to avoid smashing our mirrors together… and then, without any sort of signal or warning, pulls slightly ahead of us and swings hard right, cutting us off.

The driver pulled the car to the side of the road, moved about twenty feet further up, flipped on the hazard lights and got out. She then sprinted into the building. There were kids playing in a yard at the building, inside a fence. As far as we could tell, she didn’t want to pay extra for being late for the kids.

We talked Ellen down from her conniption, eased her breathing, and… still guided by Mi Luv U… turned on to another street.

And stopped.


Not moving.

At all.

Suddenly a police-led motorcade came through, we think from some sort of car show… or something… something useless and pointless… and trapped us on the side of the road… and… and… and…

(And what does that taxi think he’s doing? Seriously… where is he going? Because there is no room for us and us alone in this spot already and unless he think he can drive on the roof of our car then… oh dear lord he is going to try and drive on the roof of our car…)

I shift into reverse, use the two feet of clearance that I have behind me to move and turn a bit, and then manage to pull out of the way of the cab that the driver has now placed exactly where I was. I have zero clue how I pulled it off, because it was all instinct, action and reaction. If I had stopped to really think, I would’ve been hit.

Ellen has her eyes closed, her fingers ripping my headrest out of place, and her knees buried in the back of my seat.

Yet again, we find we are being given reason upon reason to just adore Miami.

We are essentially driving parallel to the ocean and a few streets away from the actual coast. I’m looking for parking, but Ellen… I think with her eyes still closed… is telling Terry and Richard that she needs to see the restaurant before she can decide if that’s where she wants to eat. So, we’re not parking since there really aren’t any spots, and even the ones we are finding are more than a half-mile from any of the restaurants. (And… you know… if Ellen doesn’t like what she sees… that’s a half-mile to get there, a half-mile back with nothing but a parking ticket to show for the effort.)

After passing both of Mi Luv U’s thoughts, we decide on the first one and I make a u-turn. Heading back we cannot find a single parking spot. Not… one… spot. At all. We’re starting to get fed up with Miami once again… but realize it’s a Friday night we’re trying to give it extra effort to make it work. Miami… we want to like you… really we do.

I’ve decided I’m going to drop the three of them off and just find a spot, when another cab cuts us off… and that’s it, Ellen’s had it… so has everyone else… we’re gone.

(Some day Miami… I will be back. You will have a chance at redemption. Some day. For now… in my experience… you rank below Los Angeles for friendliness to tourists, and they have none.)

(Oh… wait… LA has In-N-Out Burger. Uh-oh Miami. that changes the rankings.)

As we drive north, Terry is checking Mi Luv U every five minutes or so to find out what new places we might be approaching. For some reason I don’t recall, a place called Pizza Roma in Aventura gets a nod from all of us. We pull off the highway… find it… I drop Terry and Ellen off and go to park the car with Richard. As I’m pulling in to a spot, he taps me on the shoulder and asks if I think that’s the girls standing outside.

It is.

Hi No-no!

Ellen went inside.

Remember a moment ago when she said she needed to see the place before deciding… well, she saw it.

Apparently she and Terry walked in and decided it wasn’t what they had hoped. They scanned the menu quickly and were going to come out to discuss it with us, but then someone behind the counter called out at them with something close to “oh sure, just leave” in a really annoying and sarcastic way, so they decided that was exactly what they were going to do.

Now it’s getting late.

Mi Luv U has Casa D’Angelo listed as an option for Italian food. The parking lot is packed… the place looks clean… and we’re hungry. We go in and see all sorts of awards and press clippings on the wall.

All of the signs are good… which we should have taken as a hint that something weird was being put in motion.

See… we were really dressed as a “warm day spent in south Florida as a tourist” group. Shorts… maybe even flip-flops for the ladies. And most of the guests at Casa D’Angelo were in slacks and shirts. We weren’t turned away… but immediately upon learning we had no reservations, menus were picked up and we were quickly led through the main dining area, between some really jammed closely together tables, and virtually into the next plaza.

We were outcasts.

As the food started coming out, it had no flavor. None. A sheet of paper at least tastes like paper. This food had zero in it to taste. Bland just doesn’t work as a description.

Three of us hated our dishes. Just didn’t like them. They weren’t cooked well and they lacked anything appealing. Richard had ordered short ribs that he thought were cooked just fine, but they too had no seasoning. An order of zucchini flowers that we split was also viewed in the same light… preparation looked good… but just nothing to it.

As we leave the restaurant I realize something that makes us feel like we’ve been kicked in the stomach. Down the road… barely a few miles… is J. Alexander’s. The quest for Italian food and something we hadn’t tried blinded our search, and in the end… we got a lousy meal.


Day Eight ~ Saturday, May 9, 2009

We’ve decided to try something a little different and unusual today. We’re headed to the Monkey Jungle. And I’m going to tell you here… right at the start… this is one of the strangest, craziest, most unpredictable experiences I’ve ever had.

The Monkey Jungle is… well… it is so many things. Let’s see if we can create some imagery just along the drive to get there…

Have you ever driven past a farm in April… May… June? You know… depending on where you live and what’s being grown… during those days when the crops are visible, but really haven’t filled in. Or perhaps you’ve passed a field where the grass is growing high and dry. The idea here is that the land is open… the meadows and grounds are filling in with something. In some places tended… in others a bit wild.

These fields aren’t amazingly large. One… two… ten acres. Not gargantuan and vast and unending openness. Instead… big but with trees… perhaps a house or a pen with animals… in a sense with some sort of definition, a field perhaps enclosed by a natural boundary.

Have you ever driven down a broken road? Maybe it’s dirt… perhaps it’s paved with potholes… but it hasn’t been cared for in quite some time. And of the few people that travel it, you believe they prefer it exactly as it is.

You’re starting to get the idea of where the Monkey Jungle is located. In the middle of everywhere, it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s near nothing identifiable. The drive to it consists of roads that would create a feeling of being lost. It is, basically, exactly where you would never expect it to be.

Inside the place is full of crazy elements that defy expectations.

You can purchase food for the monkeys, and deliver it to them in a variety of ways. While walking in a cage… a path from exhibit to exhibit covered in fencing that keeps the free roaming animals separate from park guests… bowls hang from chains. If you even look like you’re placing food in the bowl,. Monkeys will begin assembling on top of the cage, waiting to pull the chain up… along with the meal. In other places tubes and such provide the format for delivering the food. And during your interaction with them, you often find that they’ve already learned what you’re still trying to figure out.

A fairly diverse group resides at the Monkey Jungle… including King the gorilla, parrots, and other assorted wildlife.

Overall we had a good time. But there were different elements of the park that seemed a bit off… and to this day, I’m not 100% certain why. For some reason (or several), it just seemed wrong to be there. In ways that I have never encountered before. Here’s one element as an example… admission prices.

Without using any coupons, admission to the park runs $30 per adult. That price doesn’t include the monkey food. We finished up our experience in well under two hours.

I’ve gone to zoos all over the country… in fact, while I won’t say I’m any kind of well-seasoned international traveler, toss in Toranga and Featherdale in Australia, the Toronto Zoo in Canada, and Xcaret in Mexico, and I’ve been to zoos and wildlife habitats all around the world. I don’t recall feeling like I overspent for an experience that was finished so quickly in any of them. In fact, I know I’ve never felt that way before.

Is that a fair assessment? Probably not. Let’s play naïve… the Monkey Jungle doesn’t have the business volume of any of these other places, and caring for animals is expensive. The money probably does go to the monkeys.

Still… on instinct… something was off about the Monkey Jungle. All of us had a good time there… all of us were glad we went… and all of us have been talking about different parts of this experience many times since our return home. But I doubt if we will be recommending the place to our friends.

Danger Charters and the Dolphin Research Center? Absolutely.

Chima’s and J. Alexander’s? You bet.

The Monkey Jungle? As a good way to spend some time? Eh… not so much.

Ok… quiz time… quick…

After driving these roads to get to the Monkey Jungle… would you expect to find a good Italian restaurant pretty much right around the corner?

Neither did we.

But Capri Restaurant was the place we ended up selecting on the fly for lunch… and a very unexpected good time was had by all.

Now if you head over to the web site, you’ll see some pictures. And you’re going to say that this place couldn’t possibly be serving decent food when everything about it screams stereotypical-bad-Italian-design.

Yeah… we though so too. But they are.

Around the corner from Capri is the Robert is Here fruit stand. We spent some time here, with Mumbles trying to figure out why we didn’t find a place like this earlier on our trip.

We’re kicking around ideas for the remainder of the afternoon… and there’s really only one thing left.

Heading back to the Keys.

See… Terry has seen these mailboxes she likes. She doesn’t expect to get one, but they are all over the place in the Keys. Dolphins and manatees. And she wants to price them and find a place that can give her the costs with shipping involved. So far… most places are either sold out or don’t ship.

Add this to a wind chime she loved, and the only “what haven’t we been able to do that one of us wants to do” topic coming up results in Mi Luv U swinging the car off for Key Largo.

It turns out to be a fun, do nothing drive on a sun-drenched afternoon. We’ve got The Coffee House playing, and we’re laughing and relaxing, and the trip is just wrapping up in a very low key way. We don’t find a mailbox… but end up with two wind chimes. I also find a cute alligator to add to our unusual wildlife shelf at home.

The time has arrived… we’re setting in the directions to the Ramada and heading off for the last night of the vacation. (I’ll save the Ramada story for tomorrow.)

We decide to head to Flanigan’s for dinner. There is zero reason for this. Basically we used Mi Luv U to pull up local food options, started scrolling down the list and tossing away name after name. Flanigan’s was the first place we considered that not one of us immediately eliminated.

Turned out to be a decent choice.

I ordered garlic buffalo chicken strips that were just fabulous. And all of us seemed pretty happy with our meals. Was it Chima’s? No. J. Alexander’s… The Square Grouper… Carolina Ale House? Not at all. But it was pretty good.

On the way back to the hotel we’re dropping off the rental car. We’ve confirmed everything about the shuttle from the hotel… both after this errand and for the morning… and there isn’t any real need to have the car available.

As we ride back to the hotel, all of us are beginning to crash. Even after some slower days near the end, there was an adrenaline rush still going on. Now… a ribbon in place on everything but the flight home, and none of us behind the wheel… the vacation’s over depression sets in.

Day Nine ~ Sunday, May 10, 2009

We dropped the car off last night, and it’s travel day… so you’d think there might not be much to talk about. I mean really… considering that in Las Vegas the fun of travel day was returning the rental car… what could be left?

Ladies and gentlemen… I present for your consideration… the Wreck of the One-Night Ramada Stay.

Back when we began planning this trip, there were several parts of it being considered or developed at the same time reservations needed to be made. One of the things Ellen and I spotted in our efforts was that we could actually add an extra day to our trip for very little cost… the plane tickets and car rental were working out to the same total regardless of our choice of Saturday departure times or Sunday departure times.

Sweet. An extra day of vacation! All we needed was a hotel.

Well, those parts that were in motion soon came into focus, and when our original hotel idea collapsed, we were left still needing a place for Saturday night. One of the hotels under consideration was the Ramada… nice price… close to the airport… seemed about as good as anything else we were finding. If not better.

We booked it.

(Oh… the lessons learned about on-line shopping from hundreds of miles away.)

Now… keep in mind… we were staying here for one reason… to sleep. Really. That’s it. We weren’t here for a week and setting up base camp. We hadn’t chosen it because it was the hotel next to a national park or monument or tourist attraction we were visiting. We didn’t care about a bar or a pool or any type of convenience or amenity.

It was a place to sleep. The price was right. The name was familiar. A trifecta of singular purpose.

The problems were discovered over time. If we had walked in and immediately seen the showerhead, and the extension cord, and knew about the air conditioning, then sure… maybe we would have argued more at the front desk or tried to get our money back while changing hotels. But instead we hadn’t jumped in the shower yet or experienced the air conditioning… and we had returned the rental car by the time several things became evident.

And when those things hit us… we just wanted to go to sleep.

And so… the list of fun…

After returning from dropping the car off, we each head off to our respective rooms. As I sit on the bed and reach for the remote to the television, there is a knock on the door. It’s Richard. The air conditioning isn’t working in their room. They had turned it on when we left, thought the room would cool off nicely while we were away for an hour or two, but have now returned to find their room muggy and warm and… well… it’s not working. Ellen wants to know if we’re having problems before calling the front desk.

We’re not.

We call the front desk.

Two dilemmas here. First, if we want to have the unit looked over, it’s going to be a while before they can send someone up. (Meaning likely after we are asleep.) Oh they’ll note the problem. And there won’t be any questions about damages or other mysterious charges. Richard is just being told that the only people on duty already have some work they are taking care of, and it will be at least two hours before they can stop by. (And yeah… we found that amazing. Told up front… don’t worry, you won’t be billed. As if they knew about the problem, had a reservation they didn’t want to cancel, and just hoped it would work out. Oh yeah… didn’t want to lose the reservation… that brings us to…) Second, the hotel is packed and there are no other rooms available. At all. Full house, with everyone checked in.

Ellen arrives as we finish collecting the information and decides they can open a window, hopefully cool the room down a bit, and just don’t feel like staying up to have someone knocking on the door to try and fix it an hour before they would have been getting up anyway.

Richard and Ellen leave. I grab the remote again.

Television doesn’t go on. I try removing the batteries and putting them back… I try the front of the set… I try… oh heck, I’m tired, and this room is hot and muggy with the air conditioning working … look… it wasn’t plugged in.

No really… the television set was unplugged. Along with everything else along that wall.

Once I finally get it turned on, I go to adjust the volume, but the volume button on the remote is broken. And then the channels can’t be changed. The power button on the remote does work though.


I shut the television off.

I go to set the alarm and notice something kind of funny. I mean… well… when was the last time you were in a hotel room where an extension cord was being used for the clock-radio unit on your nightstand?

(Now I share all of that from yesterday with you now in order to set up what actually happened on this day. Because Terry and I did get to sleep last night. But for these reasons and others, we weren’t impressed at all with Ramada as we drifted off.

Are any of these factors huge on their own? Maybe not. But I remember going to Las Vegas way back in 2005 and staying in a quite that had two fires in the span of a week. Were they small fires? Yes. Explainable fires? Yes. (To a degree.) Still, there’s never been a fire that I knew of in any other hotel I’ve ever been in.

A broken air conditioner… items unplugged and television not working… power for the room supplied by extension cords… we’re making a list here. And eventually… lots of small things add up.)

I wake up before the alarm goes off and decide to get in the shower. As I open the bathroom door, I’m hit by a wall of air so hot and muggy I felt like I was opening the door on a car that had been left in direct sunlight for seven hours on a 110-degree August day with near 100% humidity. (Not kidding. You know that feeling when you dump the hot water and pasta into the colander in the sink? Hotter than that. My glasses completely fogged over.)

When I finally get to the shower, I find controls that just don’t make any sense. They don’t start the water… they don’t adjust the tub or shower… they don’t… well, I’ve never seen this kind of design before. And while wondering if King and his friends came over to the Ramada from the Monkey Jungle to do so contract work, I notice that the showerhead is mounted about 4-feet off the floor.

(Are you beginning to see what we went through? It was just one thing after another. And if you aren’t convinced of it… one final note…)

We go down to the lobby to meet the shuttle bus. There’s one outside, that looks like the same one from last night, and we figure it’s the one that will be bringing us to the airport. We’re still a few minutes early though, and the hotel front desk is ten steps away, so we decide not to knock on the door and wake the driver. Or should I say, the guy sleeping inside the bus that we think is the driver? About two minutes before we’re supposed to leave, he stirs and opens the door.

As we drive to the airport, a few turns and stops cause a can on the floor to begin rolling around. It’s an empty beer can. Can I prove anything? No. And I wouldn’t try. (Heck… the reason you use these shuttles as a passenger is because you’ve been drinking. Right? Seriously… go to Vegas and tell me I’m wrong. It could have been a can from any of several people. But there wasn’t one rolling around the night before when we were coming back from returning the car. And we have this list that’s taking shape. Sure… some of them are little thing… I’m just saying.)

Hey… at least the most annoying woman in the world and her party of four aren’t on the plane home.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com