The Great American Road Trip – Part 3 – Louisiana and Florida

Mandeville, Destin, Seaside, Crystal River, Orlando, St Pete Beach, Key West and Miami

  • Louisiana

Our first stop in Louisiana was at Breaux Bridge, the self-proclaimed Crawfish Capital of the world.  We chose the crawfish platter at the “Crazy ’bout Crawfish Cajun Café”, a festival of all things crawfish.

It turns out Crawfish isn’t that nice.

If you’ve not tried them, they are a bit like a tiny prawn (shrimp), that has grown up in a swamp, and that’s exactly how they taste.

So all Crawfished out we moved on to our overnight destination. We we’re lodging just outside Mandeville, a town just across the bay from New Orleans. We had chosen Mandeville for our Louisiana stop rather than New Orleans as we wanted to experience a real Louisiana town, rather than a tourist hotspot, and definitely not because we were intimidated by the appalling crime rate in the Big Easy.


Mandeville was beautiful and made all the more spectacular by the dense fog that blanketed the town on the morning we arrived. The old plantation style houses, Spanish Moss covered Cyprus Trees, and waterfront were transformed into a perfect horror movie setting. It looked like a scene from “Silent Hill”, which is ironically anything but a perfect horror movie.

Mandeville Louisiana
Mandeville Louisiana
Mandeville Louisiana
Mandeville Louisiana

The Tammany Trace, a scenic biking and hiking trail, connects Mandeville with the nearby Fontainebleau State Park, an attractive 2,800-acre park located on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. A nice spot for a tramp through the wilderness occasionally interrupted by alligators, snakes, and various creepy crawlies.

Lake Pontchartrain Louisiana
Lake Pontchartrain Louisiana

Having survived the state park we popped back into Mandeville for a bite to eat before heading on, with a slight regret that we hadn’t allocated more time to Louisiana. If Mandeville is anything to go by we’d definitely sold ourselves short here. 



Destin was neither of our first choices, we actually wanted to stay in Seaside, but the budget said otherwise.

Actually Destin turned out to be a pretty nice place, with a fantastic unspoilt and uninhabited beach partnering a crystal clear sea and a pretty Harbour Walk area, sporting plenty of places to eat and drink. We also got very lucky on the accommodation paying just $70 per night at the Hilton Home2 Suites. We don’t often give a shout out to hotels, but this place was incredible for what we paid, a real suite with a kitchen and sofa, and immaculately clean. Do bare-in-mind however it was off-season and the place had only just opened, so you may struggle to grab the same deal.

Destin Florida
Destin beach Florida


Seaside is every bit as cute and quaint as it looks in the movie “The Truman Show”. The quintessential seaside town; but how could it not be with a name like that? Seaside hosts shops, bars, restaurants and more than its fair share of art galleries, all impeccably clean and manicured and if that’s not enough, it also boasts what was probably the whitest powder sand beach, and crystal clear water, we have seen anywhere on our travels to date.

Truman's House Seaside Florida
Truman’s House Seaside Florida
Seaside Florida
Seaside Florida
Seaside Florida
Seaside Florida

Crystal River

Our only reason to visit Crystal River was to see the Manatees, and it’s clear that this is the towns major draw. Personally I’m not really sure why these docile sea cows are such an attraction, they don’t do a great deal. For the most part they just hang about at the bottom of the water, looking a lot like big rocks. But for reasons I can’t quite fathom, we both wanted to witness this, so we bought our passes to the 3 Sisters springs and boarded the tour bus (the only way to get there as there is no parking at the springs). The tour bus passes though the centre of Crystal River before reaching the springs. As it happens Crystal River has a pretty old town area, which we were quite unaware of when we booked our accommodation on the outskirts of town.

3 Sisters springs features a boardwalk area around 5 natural springs where Manatees visit to warm themselves during the winter months, as well as a large wetland walking area. As it happens we had fallen lucky with the weather, that is for the rest of our trip, not for Manatee spotting purposes. The sun was blazing and the temperature was in the 80’s. That said we did see a couple of adults and a calf. Apparently on colder days the springs are teaming with them.

Crystal River Florida
Crystal River Florida

The springs, and surrounding wetlands are pretty, and even Manatee free they are worth a visit. Just watch your step, there are alligators in the wetlands, and having almost tripped over one before he hot footed it into the lake, we counted our wildlife-spotting excursion a definite success.

Universal Studios

Well actually International drive, but there’s only one reason we’re here, and that’s to visit Orlando’s second best Theme Parks. Soz Universal, but we both know it’s true.

That said, since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, the divide has reduced significantly, and we were keen to see if the expansion into Diagon Alley had made up further ground.

It had, but only a little. As it happens Diagon Alley is very similar to the Wizarding World, and the Gringot’s Mine train, a similar experience to the Forbidden Journey, just not as good. I guess you’d have to experience the Hogwarts Express to know for certain, unfortunately its another $50 to do this, not something we could justify on a travellers budget.

One thing we did like was Knockturn Alley, a dark and spooky area tucked away right at the back of Diagon Alley.

Diagon Alley Universal Studios Florida
Diagon Alley Universal Studios Florida

I’m not going to go cover the parks on this posts, there’s already a ton of stuff out there on both Disney, and Universal, besides we’ve already covered our favourites in a previous blog “5 of the best at Orlando and Walt Disney World”

St Pete Beach

We stopped off at John’s Pass for lunch on our way to St Pete Beach. The area consisted of a small village of gift shops shouldering a waterfront boardwalk hosting several restaurants. The whole area had an air that perhaps it had seen better days, or perhaps it had just lost its way, with a Hooters restaurant sitting uncomfortably with a turn of the century fishing village theme.

St Pete Beach itself was one of the bigger disappointments we experienced during our road-trip. The resort was entirely unremarkable, a little run down and the beach was more shell than sand. The not so appealing water was divided from the beach by a border of red seaweed, and an abundance of dead molluscs, and crustaceans.


Accommodation options for the Everglades appear to be Everglades City on the West side, and Florida City or Homestead on the East. We choose Florida City as we wanted to get an early start for the next leg into the Keys.

The plan was to drive the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades stopping off at the Shark Valley Visitors Centre en-route. Then do the “Flamingo” trails on the second day. However this plan was scuppered when we reached the visitors centre only to find the car lot full and vehicles filling the grass verge as far as the eye could see.

Had we done a little more research we may have chosen a different base. As we approached our hotel the local scenery inspired Leanne to check out the crime stats for the area, something we immediately regretted. This unease did not dissipate when we checked in to our hotel and found the door limiter latch had been broken off! No doubt having been kicked off by an Uzi wielding meth-head.

Having survived the night we were keen to get into the relative safety of an Alligator infested wilderness. We pulled back the curtains to be greeted by the perfect manatee spotting weather, just one week too late. So we donned our winter clothes and set off. As it happens, the sharp drop in temperature and accompanying drizzle turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As we pulled in to the Royal Palm Visitors Centre we were one of only 5 cars in the car park. The weather had not dissuaded the vultures however, who eyed our rubber bits with eager anticipation, fortunately we had been tipped off about their penchant for car munching and grabbed one of the complimentary tarpaulins.

The Anhinga Trail, was definitely the trail for gator spotting. Not 2 minutes out of the car and we were face to face with a 13 foot beastie. This was the first of 12 alligators we saw along this short trail, as well as a couple of turtles and a huge number of birds including the Anhinga from where the trail gets its name.

Everglades Florida
Alligator at Everglades National Park

Working our way along highway 9336 walking the majority of the trails along the way, we eventually arrived at the Flamingo Visitors Centre, and the end of the line. By this time we were both a little beat and the weather had taken a significant turn for the worse. We grabbed something to eat and were just about to head home when we spotted a small crowd gathered at the waterfront. Reluctantly we decided to brave the weather and investigate.

Manatees! A decent group of them, including a mother and calf, were at the surface of the water’s edge. It looked like they were trying to suck the barnacles off the harbour wall, though I couldn’t swear to that.

Manatees Everglades National Park Florida

The Everglades had been a great success, though not a beautiful day in the traditional sense, I doubt we’d have enjoyed the same peace and serenity if the weather had been better.

Key West

Florida City served its primary purpose of being convenient exceptionally well, and less than an hour from check-out we were in the Florida Keys. If you’re like me you’ll probably have visions of a stunning beach side drive rivalling that of the Pacific Coast Highway, I’m here to tell you the drive to Key West is nothing like this. Unless you are on one of the bridges that connects the islands the only giveaway that you are in the Keys is the fact that you are on a single carriageway. The drive is one of the least scenic, and most gruelling we had come across.

Our guesthouse in Key West was a quaint little place, just off Duval Street. And when I say just off, I do mean that. The property was accessible from Duval Street via a tiny driveway that was generally occupied by a ticket booth. The man in the booth had to secure all his wares and wheel his booth out of the way every-time someone wanted in or out. I think he may have just set up on the morning we left, as he did not look happy….

I think out of everywhere we visited Key West was the most like we had expected. We really enjoyed just ambling around the beautifully manicured streets enjoying the Caribbean style buildings. The place has a really nice vibe, as well as plenty of restaurants and bars, many hosting live acts.

Key West
Key West

The sunset celebration at Mallory square was the only let-down, being punted as some kind of evening extravaganza, with live entertainment, and dining options abound, it was a bit of a lame duck. There was live entertainment, but certainly not up to the quality we had enjoyed elsewhere in the States (including elsewhere in the bars in Key West), and with dining options limited to nuts, popcorn and hot dogs it’s not going to winning any culinary awards anytime soon. Add to this that the fact that you can’t see the sunset from Mallory Square due to the cruise ships that dock in the harbour and you’ve got 3 strikes.


We stayed in the heart of the Art Deco district just off Ocean Drive in South Beach. The location was perfect for exploring the pretty old buildings and close to bars and restaurants without being noisy. Our first stop was the beach. Perfect baking bodies littered a beautiful stretch of sand boarded by beautiful clean blue waters. We took a couple of pics of including the obligatory lifeguard tower shot, before moving on. Beaches aren’t really our thing, Leanne is a prismatic ginger-nut and if I lay in the beach too long, Greenpeace come along and push me into the sea.

We pulled a map off the web and ticked off the iconic landmarks, all of which can be visited on foot in a couple of hours. As a bit of a film buff the highlight for me was seeing the building from the famous chainsaw scene in the film Scarface. It was undergoing refurbishment and had construction boards up, and despite being flanked by 2 far more iconic hotels, I took more photographs of this than anything else in Miami.

Miami Art Deco Buildings

Miami Art Deco Buildings
Miami Art Deco Buildings

From a distance, evenings on Ocean Drive look like the place to be. Café’s line the pavement bathed in a neon-glow from the elegant historic buildings, smartly dressed folk sip wine and munch seafood, and live music escapes numerous bars, covering everything from salsa to rock. However walking down Ocean Drive you soon start to notice something, it’s subtle at first. “Wow, Margarita bowls are popular here”, then “isn’t the food at this place very similar to the last place” and then “hang on a minute isn’t this the same “special” as the last place had?”

I’m not sure if they are all owned by the same company or if it’s some kind of cartel, but it would appear the vast majority of the establishments that line Ocean Drive share the same menu and the same prices!

I guess it’s kinda funny that I loved the Scarface connection but this didn’t sit very well with me.

Last stop Disney.

No visit to Florida would be complete without a stop at the home of the world most famous rodent, and it was a fitting finale for our trip across America.

There’s no way I can relegate the happiest place on earth to a few lines at the bottom of a road-trip post. I’m not an animal! Disney deserves it’s own dedicated post, and guess what, you’re in luck.

So that’s it then. 5,000 miles, across 9 states, crammed into a Hyundai Accent along with all our worldly possessions (sure “Dollar Rent a Car” it’s clearly “similar” to a Ford Focus. Oh, apart from it being considerably smaller of course!) We’ve seen sublime scenery, eaten magnificent food, enjoyed stunning architecture, visited historic sites, and we’ve experienced clear blue skies, dense fog, snow, hail, rain, and blistering sun, and that was all in one day on route 66 between Kingman and Seligman!

The USA is an incredible country, so beautiful and so diverse and I know we only scratched the surface. Tell us about your favourite places, and what we missed out on. If we get enough suggestions we might just do it again….

And if you haven’t read them already don’t miss the first 2 parts of the road trip.

The Great American Road Trip Part 1

The Great American Road Trip Part 2


5 of the best at Orlando and Walt Disney World Florida

We love Disney. It’s such a magical place, with awesome theme parks, sumptuous dining and great evening entertainment. As much as we love to experience exotic, far-flung places and cultures, we can’t go more than a couple of years without needing another hit. These are some of the things that have made the experience extra special for us.

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The best park

It would be easy to say everyone has their favourite, but I’m not sure that’s actually true, I can’t even get it down to my favourite two. So this is going to have to be the best 3 Parks in Orlando. And for the purists, yes I know Walt Disney World is technically in Kissimmee.

Animal Kingdom.

As well as having some pretty neat rides, and 2 of the best shows in the Disney Kingdom, Finding Nemo, and Festival of the Lion King, this is, in my opinion, the most pleasant park to amble around in. With lakes, mountains, and lush greenery, not to mention the abundance of wildlife it really is a beautiful place to take a stroll. Make sure you hit the Kilimanjaro Safari in the afternoon. Up until our last visit we have always hit this first to avoid the queues, this works but you also avoid all the animals. On our last visit we hit the safari about 3pm and our way was repeatedly blocked by Rhinos and other animals that we had been straining to glimpse on previous occasions. When the park opens head straight for Expedition Everest and try to grab a front seat, it’s an excellent example of Disney does it best.

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There are some big ticket star attractions at Epcot, such as Soarin, Test Track presented by Chevrolet (which was much better when it was GM Test Track), and the excellent, if vomit inducing, Mission Space, but for us, hands down, the best thing about Epcot is the World Showcase.

Eleven individual countries are represented in separate lands that circle the World Showcase Lagoon. Authentic shops, restaurants, and attractions, immerse you in the sights, sounds, tastes and culture of each land, even the cast members are indigenous to the countries they represent. The attention to detail really is astounding. From Bratwurst in Bavaria, to crunchy crab snacks in Japan, the World Showcase at Epcot really has it all!

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Universal Islands of Adventure.

In a move sure to anger the Disnophiles I have included a non-Disney Park. (How dare he? I hear you cry). Well for a long time, I have to agree there really was no comparison. No one did it like Disney, the other parks were just parks, but Disney was, and still is a magical immersive experience. Then came a bespectacled little wizard from England and changed it all. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (TWWOHP) really did raise the bar, and it’s not like Islands of Adventure was a bad park before this. Hulk Roller coaster, The Jurassic Park River Adventure, Dudley Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls and Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-rat Barges, among several others are great rides, but somehow it was still a just a theme park, albeit an excellent one. So what do you do if you need some magic? Bring in a wizard!

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It’s impossible not to be taken aback by Hogsmeade, it feels like you have been transported into a Dickensian world, with cobbled pathways, tinker shops, and a rustic ale house. And these are not just store front facades either. Choose a wand, or rather be chosen by a wand at Olivanders, purchase a chocolate frog at Honeydukes, or quaff down a pint of Butter Beer in the Three Broomsticks Tavern, they are all exceptionally detailed and fully functioning outlets. TWWOHP is also complimented by 2 excellent attractions Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, an impressive simulator, and Dragon Challenge, a traditional roller coaster.

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The best overall attraction.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

I’ve avoided saying ride, as I don’t believe that in the majority of cases “ride” really encapsulates the experience. I have considered the queuing area and pre-ride in coming to my decision.

That said Twilight Zone Tower of Terror wins on all 3 counts.

As the rope drops, follow the hordes down Hollywood Boulevard to the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Pass through the cast iron gates and in to the beautifully detailed foyer. A secret passageway leads you to an impressive boiler room where you access the service elevator that takes you on a ride to the 13 floor then sends you plummeting back down to a chorus of shrieks from your fellow passengers. There are a few twists and turns along the way that add to the excitement, and it’s never the same ride twice so repeated riding is highly recommended.

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The best place to stay

There are four main “tourist” areas in the Orlando area. International Drive, Main Gate/192, Lake Buena Vista and the Park hotels inside Disney World. We haven’t actually stayed in the Main Gate/192 area, as this offers the least appeal unless your only consideration is price. Even then there is very little difference between this area, and International Drive, which offers a more central location, and better local facilities.

Having stayed at the other 3 locations several times, including the best “Disney” location, which is on the Boardwalk, for us there is a clear winner, Lake Buena Vista, more specifically one of the hotels that are within steps of Disney Springs (formally Downtown Disney). Our particular favourite is the Buena Vista Palace, as this not only shares the best location directly across the road from Disney Springs, it is also geared towards conference attendees, and so serves as a respite from the hordes of screaming children that can be enjoyed elsewhere.

As the best way to get around the parks is to drive, it makes sense to stay in the area that offers the best nightlife, so you can park the car and walk to the watering holes. Disney Springs has a number of very good restaurants, including the excellent Wolfgang Pucks Grand Café, and we are starting to see some good bars returning following the great Pleasure Island purge of 2008. Some of our favourites are the bar at The House of Blues the Lava Bar at Rainforest Café, and the bar at Raglan Road.

Disney Springs is also the best area to access the Disney transport system. If you stay in a Disney hotel, and want to us the system to go to a different hotel, you can only do this by changing at Disney Springs, or at the Transport  Hub at Magic Kingdom. There are direct links to all the Disney hotels from Disney Springs.

Oh yes, one other thing, did I mention the price? The Buena Vista Palace is comparable in quality to the Disney “luxury” hotels, but costs less than the Disney “Value” range.

The best event.

Epcot International Food and wine Festival

Ok, I admit it. I’ve only included a best event section so I can talk about my favourite thing in all of the parks, The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.

This annual event runs from late September to early November, each year, and sees the already excellent World Showcase at Epcot truly turned up to 11. (Dates Just announced for 2016 September 14th through November 14th)

The 11 countries that normally make up the world showcase are gate-crashed by food stalls from the world over, as Epcot becomes an epicurean epicentre, and the party capital of Disney World.

On our last visit in 2014 there were 26 food and drink stalls, each purveying a variety of tipples and nibbles to represent their countries individual taste and flair. The number of booths appear to grow each year, which is great unless you intend to partake in the ever popular “eat your way around the world”, or the intoxicating drink your way around the world challenge. In addition to some excellent comestibles there is plenty of entertainment, spanning from cooking shows, to live music.

You can pick up a passport from the Festival Welcome Centre, which lists each of the stall and their offerings. This is handy to help you plan your visit, and also to keep a record of how far you get if you try the drink challenge, trust me you won’t remember. Hic…….hic……

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The best restaurant

Victoria and Albert’s

The majority of our travels thus far have been taken pretty much with an open ended budget. This has afforded us the opportunity to eat in some of the best restaurants in the world, from Venice to New York and from Hong Kong to Las Vegas. It may therefore come as some surprise that not only is Victoria and Albert’s the best restaurant we have eaten at in Orlando. It’s the best restaurant we’ve eaten in anywhere – Take that Harry’s Bar!

Located inside the Grand Floridian Hotel, with a single seating each evening, and one-to-one service, the beautifully appointed dining room host just 14 Italian linen draped tables. But the sumptuous surroundings, and impeccable service are not the story here. Please enter the Master of Pasta, the God of Cod, his Holiness of Eton Mess, the Chef de let’s party Mr Scott Hunnel.

We’ve basked in the glory of Chef Hunnel’s brilliance on 3 separate occasions now, each time choosing the Grand Prix tasting menu, so it’s no fluke. The first time I had the Foie Gras it felt like my brain had been rewired to allow additional space to be allocated to the taste sensation. From the Amuse-Bouche, to the Steam-Punk delivered coffee, without exception everything we have eaten here (which between the 2 of us is about 50 different plates) has been exquisite. So when I finally decided to drop down to one knee, after 10 years with my now wife, this is where I did it.