Florida - Fort Lauderdale
My love affair with America began many moons ago, when I was a mere 4 years old. I owe thanks to my Dad who loved visiting different places, never the same spot twice. After some intense lobbying from my older brothers (cheers Lochlann and Colm), coupled with years of vacationing in the beautiful Emerald Isle, my Mum packed up the ole reliable tan leather suitcases and we touched down in Florida for 2 weeks of white beaches, Disney, alligators, space center, sharks, roadtrip madness… now, you see where I get it from!
Little did I know at the time, that I would one day bring my own toddling whippersnapper to visit the glowing Sunshine State.
We breezed into Fort Lauderdale shortly after Christmas, in a hot mess. People passing for prunes dribbled down the streets as they melted in the sun. We flaked out in our hotel room for a while, collapsing amongst some fantastic 1960s curved furniture with colours so bright you wanted to pinch them. The Victoria Park was a small affordable hotel channeling the 1960s with happy-to-help staff, budget boutique, right up my street.
It was a stroll from the beachfront which was an obvious first point of call, even just to be lightly lashed across the face by a sea breeze. As we sauntered by the beach, joggers slowly drifted by (clearly unhinged in that heat!). If you concentrated on the conversations of passersby (an art I have perfected) there was a distinct ring of a New York accent floating about. Florida is, afterall, a favourite spot for New York retirees.
|Sun, Surf n Snowman|
The sand was remarkably clean and healthy looking for such a heavily populated spot. Perhaps it was the delicious breeze but I could have stayed there for the day, poodling along the boardwalk, dipping into the shadow of the trees for a break from the sun.
On one such ‘break’ a historical sign caught my eye. I was shocked to learn that the beach had been a ‘whites only’ beach until the 1960s. Black civil rights activists had staged “Wade In’s” during the 60s, they would wade into the sea from the beach as a demonstration in protest of the one designated “coloured beach” that had no access or facilities. Thankfully the Wade In’s lead to desegregation of the beaches.
Segregation was not the only injustice in Florida's past. The Seminole tribe of Native Americans were the first inhabitants of Florida. They were unceremoniously kicked off their land by the presumptive nominee of the whiteman (topical joke, forgive me). In an act, which as an Irish person I can only describe as ‘more power to your elbow, g’wan ya good thing’, the Seminoles took the US to court in the 1970s for this land stealing and won a big settlement. The tribe now own the Hard Rock Cafe and Casino chain!
Our poodling brought us to Las Olas Boulevard, it’s famous for shopping but more importantly it is the backbone of the city’s canal network. Venice, eat your heart out! Literally every second street was a canal, with enormous houses fronting the water where their gigantic boats are moored out front. It was time to give our hot feet a break and board a water taxi.
|Taxi with a whambam view|
This is an absolute ‘must-do’ in Fort Lauderdale. The taxi swings you up and down and around the canals. The driver spews out history and gossip about the canal and houses as you slide past them. There are 165 miles of canals, that’s 3 times the size of the Venice canal system. The story has it that some wealthy Floridian came back from a visit to Venice and thought something like “let’s do this! -and let’s make it BIG! Go ‘mericaah!!!”. Similar to the Venetians method, the Fort Lauderdale canals were built using reclaimed land.
Who on earth lives there? The man who invented Alka Seltzer, Sonny and Cher (back in the 60s), the man behind Blockbuster video, the Wendy behind Wendy’s burgers, the creator of Miami Vice, yer man from the Bee Gees. I’m not sure they’d make today's A list and probably don’t know what Instagram is... but I bet they do ok.
There are houses with water slides direct from the bedroom to the whirlpool below. Ones with rooftop swimming pools and basketball courts. It's bizarre to think these rich and famous (if it was the 80s) folks don't mind taxis drifting past their houses with an explosion of camera clicks.
Now that we had earned our sea legs, we scooted off the next day for a jaunt along the world famous Everglades.
|Alligator on board|
|Alley Oop side the head|
For those not in the know, the difference between an alligator and a crocodile is that alligators don't bear their teeth, they are solitary creatures that move slowly most of the time and don't attack humans unless provoked, oh and they are only found in America (so our guide said). Crocodiles, however, bear their teeth with a closed jaw, and have been known to attack humans - 2,000 attacks a year, in fact. It’s a shame the distinguishing feature between deadly and harmless lies in a close examination of the jaw, who gets that job?!
The place was staffed with volunteers, so you knew they were genuine animal lovers motivated by concern not a pay cheque. We got to see a baby alligator up close. The volunteer told us that baby gators are actually born red and yellow, the green look is bacteria algae that attaches to them. I found this titbit fascinating and repeated it to everyone I saw for the next 2 weeks.
I followed it up with some other gems, such as, did you know an alligator uses its back like solar panels to attract and keep in heat. It’s body is so flexible it can whip around in half a second with its jaws open and use its tail to scoop prey into its mouth. They can crush up to 300 pounds. And last but not least, female alligators can feel vibrations in the water to detect what's coming towards it. There ya go, something to think about next time you’re swinging your mock-croc bag around town with your alligator shoes!
|tape up, tear down|
Given my new interest in gator facts, I seemed to have maneuvered myself with Roisin in my arms to the front row. Before I could say ‘deathroll’ I saw my hand going up, volunteering to hold the little baby gator. Before anyone calls Child Protection Services, the alligator's mouth was firmly taped up. It was so soft and deadly gorgeous. The panther, however, definitely wanted to eat Ro.
Before Dom ends up retiring me to a wild animal reserve myself, one last Florida fauna fact - everyone associates flamingos with Florida but they are not native to Florida, AND (last fact) their pink colour is actually brought on by an allergic reaction to shrimps which make up most of their diet!
On our last day in Fort Lauderdale we pretty much spent all of it in the Discovery and Science Museum; A brilliant spot to while-away the hours, which had a nice hum of people, but not too many, there were children to senior citizens racing from the hurricane exhibit to the interactive fighter plane to the frighteningly lifelike statue of a massive shark. There was a medical section where you test your resting pulse mine was 115 (thanks to a heart condition) and Dom's was half that at 56. Opposites attract :)
|Daddy n' Daughter kicks|
Florida was a fascinating place, with more exotic animals than you could shake a stick at (please don’t!). I can see why New Yorkers retire there, but hopefully that’s a while off, I have to live in New York first ;)
There’s another reason people go to Florida, to get on a cruise, that was our next stop… the Caribbean...