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North America » United States » Florida » Panama City
November 1st 2007
Published: November 11th 2007
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Yes, This is FloridaYes, This is FloridaYes, This is Florida

The ex-Spanish hotel, now Flagler College, in St Augustine
Florida, with a population almost the same as Australia's, is a unique U.S. southern state. Being a haven for retiring Yankees from the north and Cubans and Mexicans from the south, it doesn't feel like the rest of its confederate flag-flying neighbours. Even the southern-drawl seems to disappear down here, where the environment turns to flat marshland and over-developed beaches.

Being a surfer, people always ask if I'm afraid of getting attacked by sharks. I often state the fact that you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning. Well in Florida they have both the world's highest rate of shark attacks and people getting struck by lightning!

So as we made our way down to our first Florida stop, St Augustine, Shazza was keeping a watchful eye on the rain clouds forming above. The pretty little city is the oldest in the USA, having started as a Spanish fort in the late 1600's. The main fort (Castillo De San Marcos), which was later occupied by the English during the War of Independence, still stands in decent condition on the edge of town. Alongside it, the small Spanish-themed city was interesting to stroll around, in between the torrential
Castilla de San MarcosCastilla de San MarcosCastilla de San Marcos

The fort that was never sacked
showers.

After one night at a pirate-themed hostel (in tribute to the pirate history of the area), we made our way down the coastline, checking for possible surf along the way. We had a deal that I would get to check the coast for surf, if Shazza could go to Daytona Beach- famous for its car racing. Originally started as a race on the hard-packed sand beach, Daytona has now moved to a massive Nascar track inland a little way from the coast. For a couple of dollars, you can still drive a section of the beach and pretend you are in one of the pioneer races. Needless to say, Shazza was very keen to get some sand between her tread and impress the big trucks on the beach with her tight turning circle (in all honesty, a VW Golf is not the most suitable car for driving on sand).

That afternoon, we continued onto Orlando and a hostel on a highway near Disney World. Probably the most and commercial and spread-out city I've ever seen, Orlando is completely centered around tourism. Apart from Disney (which is pretty much a city in itself), there are a handful of
Daytona Race TrackDaytona Race TrackDaytona Race Track

Just picture lots of cars going really fast around in one direction
other amusement parks and some 100+ golf courses. Staying at the hostel was another Aussie (Jason) who we had first met at our hostel in NYC. He was spending several days at each park and had a ticket to Universal Studios for the next day. I haven't been to an amusement park for years, but decided to re-live my childhood and join him. I managed to get a $50 ticket to both Universal parks from a ticket office that bought and re-sold unused tickets (no-one pays retail for admission in this city). Being a Tuesday and out of season, there were practically no lines all day, as we moved our way around all the rides on offer. The best one involved "2 dueling dragons" (side by side hanging roller coasters) racing around separate tracks and at one point steaming at full speed towards each other, before peeling off into backwards loops at the last second. The best sight of the day, however, was watching the space shuttle Discovery launch from Cape Canaveral, 100kms away. The impressive smoke stream and bright red flames were over quickly as it left the earth's atmosphere.

Inspired by the shuttle launch, the next morning
Shazza's Day at the BeachShazza's Day at the BeachShazza's Day at the Beach

Taking in some sun before going for a swim
Shazza and I drove down to the cape to visit the Kennedy Space Centre. After entertaining my inner kid on amusement rides, this day was about entertaining the older kid in me, the one that still wants to be an astronaut. The 2-part centre was amazing to visit, with all sorts of artifacts from previous NASA missions and prototypes vehicles. They had several simulator rides, including a gravity machine (that pulled 4G's), one imitating a buggy ride on Mars and a new and excellent shuttle-launch simulator. Tour buses took you out to view the shuttle launch sites and preparation building, followed by the building that houses the world's biggest ever rocket, The Saturn 5. Used for the Apollo missions, the rocket was suspended from the roof and dwarfed the tourists walking under it. The last stop on the tour was a look at crew's working on the latest additions to the International Space Station. The Canadians will be proud to hear that the giant robotic arm built by their country is still performing its key duties. There are rumours that they were now building a giant hockey stick to accompany the arm. Unfortunately Australia is not one of the international
Racing on Daytona BeachRacing on Daytona BeachRacing on Daytona Beach

At a cracking 10mph
countries involved in the project (apparently used beer cans are not a considered space-durable material).

The whole "being an astronaut for the day" tired me out, so we drove down to the small coastal town of Cocoa Beach for the night. Famous for where 8 time World Surfing Champion Kelly Slater grew up, the area supposedly has the coast's best surf. After seeing the quality of surf he learned in, it is even more remarkable that he dominated the sport on the same scale as Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher or Michael Jordan. The beach was still nice for a swim, and if you did need any surfing supplies, the massive Ron Jon Surf Shop is open 24 hours.

Sticking to the coastline, we drove through another famous (and flat) surf spot, Sebastian Inlet, and down to the super-rich area of West Palm Beach. Without any public access to the beach or any parking, we simply drove past the massive sea-side estates for a sneak peek inside. That night we went down the road to crash in North Miami Beach with a friend of Reece's.

Early the next morning Shazza and I headed for the bottom of the
Look What We Caught!Look What We Caught!Look What We Caught!

Jaws at Universal Studios
country, driving along the Florida Keys. The chain of small islands are linked by a series of bridges, left over from the railway that used to run down there. Claiming to be the diving and sport fishing capital of the world, there wasn't much evidence of either with the stormy weather about.

Its been fascinating to see the change in architecture as I've travelled down the east coast. Starting with the Scottish fishing huts of Nova Scotia, to the Irish farms of P.E.I. the elegant French buildings in Quebec Province, down to the white houses of the New England area, the big industrial skyline of NYC, to the historic Philadelphia, the modern, power buildings of D.C., the beach houses along North Carolina, to the classic southern buildings in Charleston and Savannah, to the early Spanish city of St Augustine, to the art deco hotels of Miami and now the Caribbean influence of The Keys.

Our plan was to go all the way to lively and liberal town of Key West for the night, before driving back in the morning. As soon as we made it to town, however, that plan went out the window. It turned out that
The HulkThe HulkThe Hulk

One of the best roller-coasters in the park
every year for the Halloween weekend, they hold a festival called 'Fantasy Fest'. A local described it to me as a big week-long Halloween street party where you can buy cheap beer and walk along the street looking at the body-painting shows and live music. Sounds good in theory, but in reality it was Spring Break mixed with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras- for elderly people! All along the main street were dozens of topless or completely naked men and women of all ages- above 40. Some were body painted, many were cross-dressed and plenty wore strange costumes. It was such a bizarre sight to see on a Friday afternoon at the southern tip of the USA and only one block from Ernest Hemingway's old house. I couldn't work out if these were the people that missed out on their spring breaks in college, or the ones that could never let them go, but as entertaining as it was for a few hours, I didn't need to see what they would get up to after dark. Not having seen any of the afternoon events (thankfully), Shazza was confused why we'd driven all the way down here and were
Shuttle LaunchShuttle LaunchShuttle Launch

Watching 'Discovery' launch over at Cape Canaveral
now heading back north.

After dinner at a typical "Keys" seafood restaurant, we made it to a hostel at Florida City, that seemed very tame after the day's sights. The relaxed hostel was situated on the edge of The Everglades National Park- the huge and last remaining area of swamp land in the state that hasn't been reclaimed for farming or construction. It also had canoes for rent and great advice on spots to go in the park. A guy from Atlanta (Chris) was also keen to do some exploring and we went into the park for a paddle along a marked water trail, through mangrove trees and past a couple of alligators. After that we took up the hostel manager's dare to trek into a tree canopy area off the main road. Following what we thought were human paths (later realised they were "gator slides"), we waded through the thigh-deep water to get some photo proof of making it to the eerie, central pond.

Escaping our ordeal without getting bitten by the poisonous, underwater snakes or gators, the manager rewarded us with a treasure map for another challenge. The challenge was to take the canoe over to
NASA Saturn 5 RocketNASA Saturn 5 RocketNASA Saturn 5 Rocket

Still the world's largest ever rocket, full-sized replica
the Keys and take another paddle through a tight course that passed an rusted, semi-submerged bus (dumped there years ago by a hurricane!) and out onto the bay to watch the full moon rise. With clouds blocking our view, we didn't see the moon, but did spot a couple of small sharks and some amazing small fish spawning. Looking like underwater fire-flies, the tiny fish would pair up and glow a brilliant blue for a few seconds then fade out again. Our "treasure" was the location of Alabama Jack's Seafood Restaurant, home to the best 'Conch Fritters' on the coast (meat from the conch shells mixed in a tasty batter).

Having had our share of wildlife (including way too many mosquitoes), Chris, Shazza and I drove up to Miami Beach the following day to check it out. To get to Miami Beach, you have to pass through the expanding downtown of Miami, and then drive along a road with cruise-ship terminals on one side and celebrity mansion islands on the other. The beach itself is a plain-looking white sand beach that makes Surfers Paradise, Australia, look pretty special, but the buildings and vibe to South Beach really set it
Serious FirepowerSerious FirepowerSerious Firepower

The rocket's thrusters
apart. Miami's beautiful people stroll in from the beach to eat some local seafood and drink mojitos, while tourists take photos of the palm tree-lined streets and classic buildings. With the whole South Beach Art Deco Area historically listed, it means the hotels, bars, shops and restaurants all still have their 50's and 60's low-level, pastel coloured buildings.

After lunch at the the tastiest, outdoor sandwich bar we headed back to the hostel. In the morning Shazza and I did one of the "must do" tourist activities and went to the local alligator farm. The feeding show displayed how dozens of well-fed gators would react if someone fed them regular servings of chicken, and the smaller cages had hundreds of baby gators, being grown for their skins. It was pretty fun to go on the air-boat ride through the glades, especially when they spun it 360 degrees.

That evening I went back to South Beach, this time to stay at a hostel just a few blocks from the beach. The most social hostel I've stayed at yet, it was strange to meet so many people who were just hanging out in Miami for long periods. Some of the
Cocoa BeachCocoa BeachCocoa Beach

This is what the greatest surfer of all time grew up surfing
mostly Australian and English residents had even reduced their stays in places like NYC (down to 3 days!) just so they could hang out and drink with the rest of the hostel crowd for weeks. Unfortunately just after I arrived, so did Tropical Storm Noel- which caused some serious damage in Puerto Rico and Cuba. Even though it stayed well off the Florida coast, it still brought regular heavy showers for a couple of days, meaning we were all stuck inside. It did somewhat clear for Halloween and we were able to do some shopping for costumes, along with the hoards that rival Xmas crowds. I went as the rare creature- 'the Aussie that can't swim', involving some cheap kid's floaties. It seemed that Halloween for adults here is an excuse for the guys to dress up and look as silly as possible and the girls dress up as skimpy as possible. It made for interesting people watching on the night as hundreds of people lined up outside clubs to get in. Rather than battle my way with the chaotic crowds (wearing floaties didn't help my cause), I went to the smaller bar owned by the guys from US reality
Fantasy Fest ToddlersFantasy Fest ToddlersFantasy Fest Toddlers

Just some of the strange group uniforms on show
show Miami Ink and had a fun night/ morning.

A combination of too much sun and being left alone on Halloween led Shaz to get into the Miami way of life and get a tattoo. I was shocked to see it, but luckily for her they come off a lot easier on glass.

It was a little rough waking up the following morning, but I stopped in Miami's 'Little Havana' for a strong Cuban coffee to wake me up and a look at the locals playing dominoes in a small park. From there we drove across the swampy state to the Gulf of Mexico side and a planned stop at the Salvador Dali Museum in St Petersburg. The biggest collection of the extremely talented artist's work (think melting clocks) outside of Spain was well-worth the visit. A quick drive across the huge bay was Tampa and a night's stay at a very unique hostel. Described as Amsterdam meets Montreal meets Key West, the owner seemed like he'd had a hard life in each place, but kept a very homely place that even had a board-walk onto the roof. I went for dinner with a couple of locals in
Body Painted LadiesBody Painted LadiesBody Painted Ladies

Weird and wacky
the hip neighbourhood of Ybor City (famous for its cigar making) after asking for advice on where to eat.

Another night of less sleeping time than driving time, and I was off to explore some of Florida's west coast. A stop in nearby Clearwater Beach revealed it was much the same as the eastern side, with long white sands beaches and high-rise apartments. Determined to find something different, I continued up the "The Pan Handle" and towards Panama City Beach and the area known as "The Redneck Riviera". The affectionate name comes from being the beach area that is closest for many southern states to visit, but (at least at this time of year) is misleading. Rather than high-rise apartments, several planned satellite communities with low level houses run along the coast. Some might remember the perfect town from the movie "The Truman Show". It was filmed in 'Seaside' here and really is that perfect. The still, clear water of the gulf was more like a salt lake, with pure white sand shores and beautiful sunsets over the water. Driving just up the road though 'Niceville', stadium lights drew our attention and made us pull over. A high school
A Nun and Drag QueensA Nun and Drag QueensA Nun and Drag Queens

Just a regular sight in Key West at Halloween
football game was kicking off with all the brass band and cheer leading fanfare that comes with it. It was a welcome distraction from all the driving as we made our way out of Florida and into "The Deep South".


Movember
For those of you unfamiliar with the month of 'Mo-vember' (ie those from outside Australia), the month previously known as November has been dedicated to raising awareness of men's health issues- namely prostate cancer and depression. They do this by growing a moustache (and only a mo, no beard allowed) for the entire month and getting people to donate a few bucks to charity. It quickly achieved a cult following in Australia and is catching on around the world. I am doing my part to spread the word here in the USA as I travel around. In truth I'm only able to participate because the mo-area is the one area I can somewhat grow facial hair. If it was 'Beard-cember', I'd be supporting from the sidelines with the ladies. So for those with a couple of spare minutes and dollars, check out the link below for more info and to sponsor me as I aim to look
MilestoneMilestoneMilestone

Reaching the 3rd quarter of our road trip
like a dodgy pool cleaner by the end of the month:

http://www.movember.com/au/donate, enter my registration number which is 167176 and your credit card details. Or you can sponsor me by cheque made payable to the "Movember Foundation" clearly marking the donation as being for my Registration Number: 167176. Please mail cheques to: PO Box 292, Prahran VIC 3181. All donations over $2 are tax deductible.

Distance Travelled So Far: 13,700 miles
Spanish Known at This Point: "Un cafe Cubano por favor" (one Cuban coffee please)
Horoscope for the Week:
Libra (September 23- October 23)
Remember: No matter how bad things get, or how hopeless life may seem, you can always go home again and take it out on your family.





Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 29


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The Other Side of Key WestThe Other Side of Key West
The Other Side of Key West

Drinks overlooking the ocean
Everglades N.P. Canoe RouteEverglades N.P. Canoe Route
Everglades N.P. Canoe Route

On the lookout for gators in our path through the mangroves
Everglades Swamp LandEverglades Swamp Land
Everglades Swamp Land

"Just follow the gator slides into the canopy"
Gator FarmGator Farm
Gator Farm

Feeding time brings them all out
Air Boat RideAir Boat Ride
Air Boat Ride

Cramming in with the other tourists while the driver speaks to the animals
South Beach Art DecoSouth Beach Art Deco
South Beach Art Deco

Giving character the the beach area


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