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