North America

Florida, USA

Itinerary: Kennedy Space Center – Cape Canaveral – Fort Lauderdale – Miami Beach – Miami – the Florida Keys – Key West – Everglades National Park – Sanibel Island – Sarasota

Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral

While in The Netherlands winter is approaching, I travel to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean for a road trip in the Sunshine State: Florida. At 6:30 p.m. local time I arrive at Orlando International Airport. The customs officer is the kind that likes to chat, which makes the line move quite slow, but after I get the required stamp in my passport, I can go get my luggage. Fortunately, my backpack has arrived safely. Another customs officer checks my passport one more time and then I have to hand in my luggage again. Huh..? After a corridor and a door it becomes clear why: there’s an extensive security check upon arrival as well. All in all, it takes me almost an hour and a half to enter the USA. I’m all for security, but I think the Orlando double check is absurd.

I report to the Budget desk to pick up my rental car. I booked a ‘compact’ (because a small car in the USA is always big enough). The lady behind the counter tries to sell me a ‘midsize’, but I don’t think that’s necessary and I don’t want to pay extra. When I get to the parking garage, it turns out that I have been given a blue Ford Fusion. A mid-size. When the ‘compacts’ are gone, you will automatically receive a larger car, but at the price for which you made the booking. Good thing I said ‘no’ to the lady behind the counter, because otherwise I would have paid more and gotten the same car…

I leave Orlando for what it is and take the Beach Line Expressway (Florida 528) straight to Cocoa Beach. This small town is an hour’s drive from Orlando on the Atlantic coast, near Cape Canaveral. It was a long journey and according to my biological clock it is now 3:15 a.m., so when I’m checked into my motel for tonight, I go to sleep.

Sunshine State? Not on the first day of my visit. It rained heavily last night and against all forecasts it’s a cloudy day. When I go for breakfast, I pass an information desk of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The man behind the desk tells me it’s a good time to visit KSC: it’s still early in the season (so not crowded yet), the Space Shuttle (which will soon make its last flight) is on the launch pad and, weather permitting, the launch of a Delta rocket is planned for this afternoon. A real launch, it would be a great experience to see that!

Kennedy Space Center

But first spend the day at the Kennedy Space Center, which is a half hour drive from Cocoa Beach. KSC, along with Cape Canaveral (where the launches take place), is located in the midst of the Merritt Island Natural Wildlife Refuge. This is a large nature reserve on the Atlantic coast. The entire area is owned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), but KSC only covers a limited part of the area. The rest is a protected nature reserve. NASA facilities are scattered throughout the area, which is largely undeveloped and home to many birds, alligators and manatees.

There is plenty to see and do at the KSC visitor’s center. First up is a 3D movie about the International Space Station (ISS), a spectacular movie with NASA footage from inside and outside the ISS. After the movie, I sign up for a bus tour of the NASA grounds. The bus takes you outside the visitor’s center, and includes taking a look (from the outside) at the immense Vehicle Assembly Building, where rockets such as the Apollo and the Space Shuttles are assembled. From a lookout tower you can overlook the KSC site. From here you can clearly see that you are in the midst of a nature reserve, where here and there large buildings and launch pads protrude above the vegetation.

From here, the launch pad with the Space Shuttle can also be seen. From a safe distance though, because a propulsion rocket completely filled with gas is an explosive object and you don’t want to be near it when it is launched. The bus tour also takes you to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where after an introductory film, you enter a hangar with a life-size replica of the Apollo rocket. This rocket fulfilled the dream of President John F. Kennedy, who shortly before his untimely death expressed the ambition that the USA would put a man on the moon within a decade. The Apollo is immensely large (111 meters long). When you stand at the bottom, near the huge exhausts, you feel very small.

Delta rocket launch

The exhibition is one big tribute to the astronauts and the missions to the moon. The real landing module of the Apollo 14 is also on display. Back at the visitor’s center I take a look at the replica of the Space Shuttle Explorer and after lunch I join another highlight of KSC: the Rocket Launch Experience. This is a lifelike simulator, where you take place in a recreated capsule (the real Space Shuttle contains three astronauts, in this somewhat larger version you sit with forty people). On a large screen you can see what is happening ‘outside’ (the ignition of the engines and such), inside you are first brought into the right position (meaning your seat reclines) and then a launch is simulated by means of sound and vibration. It’s like experiencing a real launch, where you first shoot through the atmosphere at 3,000 miles per hour and then are launched into space at a whopping 17,000 miles an hour. It’s a ‘shaky’ experience!.

After a walk through the ‘rocket garden’ and the obligatory gift shop I’m done. The big question of course is: will the launch go ahead? The man I spoke to this morning pointed out the best place to watch the launch: there is a pier at Port Canaveral and from that pier you have a beautiful view of Cape Canaveral. So guess where I’m heading? An hour before launch, a huge rainbow appears over the Atlantic Ocean, ending in the ocean on one side and exactly at Cape Canaveral on the other. A sign from Mother Nature that the launch is going ahead?

Half an hour before the launch I speak to someone who has already seen many launches and according to him the launch has not been canceled yet. The launch of the Delta rocket has been postponed several times, but tonight it won’t. With dozens of others I see the rocket being launched from the pier. It’s already dark (the sun sets at 5:30 p.m. and the launch is at 6:00), but when the engines are ignited the whole sky turns orange-red. Then it gets dark again and a bright orange-red beam of light appears above the horizon. Just a few seconds later, the Delta rocket has disappeared into the clouds, but the sound is still audible and moments later, the rocket briefly appears as a speck in the sky. Amazing to experience a ‘live’ launch at Cape Canaveral. A unique start to my trip!

Fort Lauderdale

After breakfast I put my things in the car and head south, towards the beautiful weather. The first part I still drive on the A1A along the coast, from Indialantic I take the 192 to the west and from Melbourne the 441 to the south. This is a long thoroughfare down the heart of Florida, past ranches with names like ‘Saddle & Gun Ranch’ and ‘Capital R Ranch’, and past small towns like Yeehaw Junction (who comes up with those names?), until I get to Okeechobee. This town is located on the lake of the same name. I’ve been on the road for three hours, so I stop at Lake Okeechobee for a break.

Lake Okeechobee

After Lake Okeechobee I drive east again, to the coast, and from Boca Raton I take the A1A again, which is called Ocean Boulevard here and runs parallel to the coast. Hotels and resorts alternate with the huge villas of those who can afford to live right on the Florida coast. At 2:30 p.m. I arrive at my destination for the day: Fort Lauderdale. The weather is beautiful and after a long drive, I’d like tot enjoy it a bit. I park the car at the boulevard and put my towel on the beach a little further on. With the sun high in the sky and the cooling ocean breeze, it’s a good place to relax.

In the evening I walk from my motel to downtown Fort Lauderdale, a walk of just over two kilometers. It’s a nice walk, but downtown Fort Lauderdale isn’t really worth it. It is quiet on this Monday evening. I walk about a bit, take some photos and then decide to walk back.

Palm-lined Las Olas Boulevard connects downtown Fort Lauderdale to Fort Lauderdale Beach. On your way to the coast, you pass residential areas separated by canals (which is why Fort Lauderdale is called the ‘Venice of Florida’). The houses are huge, the cars in front expensive and in the water are sailing yachts and motor yachts, some even larger than the houses they are next to. Some boats are really ridiculously large.

Fort Lauderdale

At the end of Las Olas Boulevard you come back to the A1A, which here is called Seabreeze Boulevard. I park my car at South Beach Park. A pedestrian promenade runs along the beautiful boulevard where you can jog, cycle and skate. Between the palm trees you look out over a beautiful beach with a life guard house every hundred meters and of course the blue water of the Atlantic Ocean. If you didn’t have the ‘beach vibe’ yet, you will get it here. After a cup of coffee (okay, two) I head for the beach. Provided with water, sandwiches, book and travel guide I relax for a while.

Miami and Miami Beach

I am leaving Fort Lauderdale on the A1A again. As I get closer to Miami, the high-rises on the coast increase. Hotels, hotels, apartments and… more hotels. And a Starbucks! That always makes me happy. Time for coffee and a sandwich. Once in South Beach I park the car on Ocean Drive. Just to be clear: Miami Beach is not Miami’s beach. Miami is the city on the west side of Biscayne Bay, which separates Miami from Miami Beach, a separate city on the other side of Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach has its own atmosphere and South Beach is the place to be.

Life here really revolves around two things: beach life and nightlife. The A1A is called Collins Avenue here, but the most famous part of South Beach is Ocean Drive. Along this boulevard, only separated from the beach by ‘the promenade’ you will find the pastel colored hotels in art deco style that everybody has seen on television. Cavalier, The Carlyle, Leslie and Cardozo are a few fine examples of the art deco style Miami Beach is known for. The entire stretch between 7th street and 14th street forms the art deco district.

Miami Beach

After my lunch (tip: Le Sandwicherie) I wonder what I will do this afternoon. Beach, beach or beach? The kilometre-long wide white sandy beach is attractive and so I spend two hours at the beach again this afternoon. In the evening I decide to go out for dinner for a change. A five-minute walk from my hotel is the Espanola Way, which likes to pretend to be an ‘authentic’ (sure…) piece of Spain: a small street with all Spanish restaurants and attractively lit terraces. The tapas at Tapas y Tintos are highly recommended.

The next day is Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday in the USA. Most people are off and shops are closed, so downtown Miami is deserted. Well, downtown Miami isn’t that interesting anyway. A few historic buildings (the Dade Country Court House and the dilapidated Post Office), a few museums and cultural venues, and Bayside Park, a park on Biscayne Bay. And of course there’s always a Starbucks when you need one, even on Thanksgiving Day.

Miami Beach

Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, south of downtown, is home to many Cubans who fled their country after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Miami has a large Cuban community and many Miami residents have Spanish as a second or even first language. The heart of Little Havana is SW 8th street, which here is called Calle Ocho. On 13th avenue you will find a number of monuments, including an eternal flame in memory of the Cuban Americans who fought in the dramatic invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, intended to overthrow Castro (at which the USA miserably failed). Via the A1A (here McArthur Causeway, in Miami they have a knack for giving one road different names) which leads over Biscayne Bay across a few large bridges, I drive back to Miami Beach, where I spend a few more hours on the beach with a book. (Seriously, I’ve never spent so much time on the beach during a trip!)

The day after Thanksgiving Day is called ‘Black Friday’ in the USA, because that day a huge sale starts. Many people have a long Thanksgiving weekend off and ‘Black Friday’ is massively spent on shopping. I am strolling along Lincoln Road, South Beach’s shopping street, but most people are at the big malls on the outskirts of town, so Lincoln Road isn’t very busy. I don’t do much: drink coffee, stroll along Ocean Drive, read a book on the beach, get a sandwich at Le Sandwicherie, an ultimate relaxed day. The pizza I have for dinner has the size of two and I end the day with a walk along the water. The climate is surely the most attractive of Florida. In Miami, the temperature rarely drops below fifteen degrees. The disadvantage is that between June and October you have to deal with tropical storms and that you occasionally have to brace yourself for a hurricane.

The Florida Keys

I leave Miami on US 1, the federal highway that runs all the way from Maine in the north of the USA along the east coast to Key West. It is not entirely clear when you have left Miami behind you exactly, because the entire area up to the towns of Homestead and Florida City is actually one large urban area (400,000 people live in Miami itself, in the ‘greater Miami’ a total of 5.4 million) . You reach Homestad after an hour’s drive. From there, US 1 continues toward Key West. I take the left turn onto Card Sound Road toward upper Key Largo. Leter it turns out that that road rejoins US 1 on Key Largo, so it doesn’t really matter which road you take.

Key Largo

In any case, the Card Sound Road runs straight through the mangroves. My destination today is Key Largo, the largest of the upper Keys, where I will visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The USA has many national parks and wildlife refuges, but Pennekamp is the only park that is underwater. The park encompasses 75 square miles of coral reef off the coast of Key Largo. For 25 dollars you can take a 2.5-hour boat trip. A modern catamaran takes you several kilometers out to sea. It is a beautiful day for a boat trip in this protected part of the Atlantic Ocean. The catamaran has glass panels in the bottom, so that you can admire the coral reef and the fish that live there through the clear shallow water. You can also go on diving excursions, but for non-divers the glass-bottomed boats are a perfect invention. The view of the coral is beautiful and we see dozens of fish.

After I get some groceries, I look for The Pelican, the motel where I will be staying tonight. The motel appears to consist of grounds with a number of separate houses with rooms. One of them is for me tonight. The Pelican is located on the waters of Florida Bay. Palm trees, a jetty, boats in the water and the setting sun. What a place to end the day!

The Florida Keys? For those who don’t know: the keys form a long string of islands south of the mainland of Florida. There are said to be about 45, most of which are connected by US 1, here referred to as the Overseas Highway. The distance from the mainland to Key West, the last of the keys, is 113 miles. On Key West you are closer to Cuba (90 miles) than to Miami.

Seven Mile Bridge

Initially I drive as far as Big Pine Key. Along the way you pass a few small towns and many motels, hotels, boat rentals and shops that sell fishing equipment. Fishing is clearly one of the most popular hobbies here. Bridge after bridge, I pass islets with names like Plantation Key, Indian Key, Duck Key, Grassy Key, and Conch Key, until I come to the largest bridge of them all: the Seven Mile Bridge. Yes, it’s a seven miles long bridge.

On the other side of the Seven Mile Bridge is Big Pine Key. There I visit Bahia Honda State Park, a small park with a beach. The Overseas Highway was built on the foundations of the Overseas Railway, which railroad magnate Henry Flagler built between 1905 and 1912. Thanks to Flagler’s railroad, Florida (until then a fairly inaccessible corner of the country) was opened up. In 1935, Florida was hit by a devastating hurricane, which also destroyed the Overseas Railway. In the years that followed, the Overseas Railway was replaced by the Overseas Highway, which was built on the old foundations. New, larger bridges were later built in a number of places, often next to the old bridge. In Bahia Honda State Park you will still find part of the old railway bridge, where the new road has literally been built on top.

I had planned to spend the night on Big Pine Key, but instead I decide to drive on to Key West. That’s only 15 miles away and there’s nothing else to keep me on Big Pine Key. And so at the end of the afternoon I arrive at the Blue Marlin Motel in Key West, an excellent motel with a (certainly for motels) nice swimming pool. At the end of the afternoon I walk to Duval street, the street in Key West with all the shops, restaurants and cafes. The terrace and the food of The Mexican Café are highly recommended.

Key West

The sun is high in the sky and it is about thirty degrees warmer in Key West than it has been the past few days. It clear you’re in the Caribbean. I have plenty of time to explore Key West. As mentioned, Duval street is the street of Key West. There are many bars, including the well-known Sloppy Joe’s Bar, The Green Parrot and Tony’s Saloon. In the evening it is said to be one big drinking feast (especially in high season). I guess those tropical temperatures make you thirsty. Besides bars,many tourist shops with (in my opinion ugly) t-shirts and Key West souvenirs.

Key West

On the south side of the island is a kind of large buoy that marks ‘the southern most point’ of the United States. Only the US protectorates are further south. Everyone wants to snap a photo here. Despite the fact that it’s very touristy, the Old Town of Key West looks quite nice. Many houses date back to colonial times or were built in that style. So many wooden houses, with verandas and shutters on the windows. On the north side of Duval street is Mallory Square. This square actually consists of two parts: the quay where the cruise ships dock and the part just in front of it, which is also a kind of tourist attraction, aimed at all those cruise ship passengers.

Lying by the pool later that afternoon, I hear that it has been snowing back home in The Netherlands and that people are already ice skating. In November! It is hard to imagine that it is so wintery in the Netherlands when you are lying in the sun by the pool and it’s thirty degrees. You can’t have been to Key West without eating Key Lime Pie, so I do. And in the evening I watch the sun go down on Mallory Square and end up at Sloppy Joe’s Bar foor dinner and cocktails. Do as the locals do, right?

Key West

The next day is a relaxed day. I start with a book by the pool, after which I drive to the shopping center on the north side of the island to get some groceries. Key West is the only part of the USA that has ever successfully seceded. That was in 1982, when US Customs established a checkpoint along the Overseas Highway to counter illegal refugees. Because residents of Key West also had to identify themselves, the island decided to secede. Thus, the Conch Republic was created. Of course, Key West didn’t really secede, but the spirit of the Conch Republic is still very much alive. It is now something of a nickname for the island, which is in many ways ‘different’ from the mainland US.

The sunset tonight is even better than yesterday. I take a perfect picture (completely by accident) when a seagull (which of course doesn’t know what it’s doing) flies into my frame at just the right moment. Sometimes you have to be a little lucky.

Everglades National Park

I leave Key West early for the long drive over the Overseas Highway, back to mainland Florida. My next destination is Everglades National Park. The Everglades are larger than the national park and cover much of southern Florida. Contrary to popular belief (including by myself), the Everglades are not a swampland. It is flooded prairie (or grassland). In fact, the Everglades are one big, slow-moving river of grass, carrying water from Lake Okeechobee up north to lower south Florida and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. The area was once much larger, but has been increasingly threatened by agriculture, urbanization and pollution. In recent years, an extensive program to protect and restore the Everglades has been launched.

Everglades National Park

At exactly noon I arrive at the Ernest Coe Entrance on the east side of the park (there’s also a north entrance, I’ll be going there the next day). Here you can walk the Anhinga Trail, a path that takes you through a beautiful part of the park where there are many birds (including the Anhinga, after which the route is named). In the water you can constantly hear the splashing of fish and the alligators swim about. The Native Americans called this area Pa-Hay-Okee, which means a river of grass. This is also the name of a lookout point in the park, where you have a nice view of the flooded prairie. It looks like grassland, but you can’t walk there, because it’s all water.

I spend the night in Florida City, one of those places where you just want to sleep and then leave as soon as possible. US 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail, runs along the north side of Everglades National Park. Along the road are many advertisements for so-called ‘airboat rides’, trips with flat boats with a large propeller on the back that sail through the Everglades at high speed. They are not allowed to enter the national park, but also outside the limits of the park these boats are destructive to nature, so I won’t do that.

Everglades National Park

After an hour’s drive I arrive at Shark Valley, the north entrance of the park. In Shark Valley (don’t worry: there are no sharks) is a road where you can be driven around as a tourist in a kind of tram. Of course I’m not doing that. Instead, I rent a bike to cycle the 15-mile route down the grassy river. There is no one else to be seen, so I cycle in peace through this vast part of the park. Along the way you will encounter many birds and alligators. Some alligators are in the water, but others are in the grass right next to the road. I must say that I have never come so close to stray alligators! They don’t really like to be disturbed, but luckily they let me cycle past them undisturbed.

Sanibel Island and Sarasota

I leave Everglades National Park behind me and continue my way along US 41. I’m on my way to Sanibel Island. This island is located on the west coast of Florida, off Fort Myers, in the Gulf of Mexico. The road to get there is the 687, but it’s not very well signposted (or I missed a sign), so when I’m past Naples, it takes a while to find the right road, but via Fort Myers I eventually arrive at the 687, also known as the Sanibel Causeway. A large bridge connects Sanibel Island to the mainland.

Sanibel is a long, narrow island, where wealthy Americans in particular have beautiful large homes overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The island has a few beautiful beaches that are mainly known for the large amounts of shells that wash up here. Not just little ones, big ones too. I visit a stretch of beach on the south side of the island (which also has an old lighthouse) and one on the west side of the island, where the larger shells can be found and where you can watch the sun set. After checking in to the Anchor Inn, I have dinner at The Lazy Flamingo, a mix between a family restaurant and a sports bar.

Sanibel Island

My journey is almost over. The next day I drive from Sanibel Island to Sarasota. I park the car at the marina and walk down Main Street. There are many restaurants (name a cuisine and it is represented here), but other than that I can’t think of any reason why you should visit Sarasota. Or it has to be the nice beaches with fine white powder sand and views over the Gulf of Mexico. I spend a few hours at Lido Beach, on the island of the same name (Lido Key), say Sarasota-at-sea.

The next morning I drive back to Orlando via Interstate 75 and (from Tampa) Interstate 4. Back at Orlando International Airport I return the rental car. I have driven more than 1,300 kilometers. At the airport I again have plenty of time, because due to the snow in The Netherlands my flight will leave 2.5 hours later than planned. Luckily I have a book and my MP3 player, so I can kill the time until the long flight home departs. On Sunday afternoon I arrive back in The Netherlands, after a nice road trip in the Sunshine State.