Florida Keys (The Lower 48)

For Mr & Mrs W – a few years ago now we decided to do a twin centre holiday in Florida – we had a week in Orlando and then a week in the Keys to chillax!  We stayed in Key Largo and used it as a base to explore the Keys.

The keys are a loose archipelago of islands that go all the way down to the Caribbean.  The thing that really struck me was that the Floridians in the Keys were even more laid back than the rest of the state – it felt like we were in the Caribbean – they were positively horizontal.  Water sports are really the theme of the keys from diving, snorkelling, canoeing, boating to fishing. 

We stayed close to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – the first underwater park in the USA.  I would recommend the 2.5 hour glass bottomed boat tour which really gives you a chance to see what is beneath the water – we saw barracuda and sea turtles a plenty.   The other key activity for us in Key Largo itself was the swimming with Dolphins at the Dolphin Plus Centre (already featured in its own blog).

On one of our days out we went to Islamorada (more fishing for Mr K) where I really enjoyed feeding the giant Tarpon at Robbies Marina (www.Robbies.com).

Marathon is the starting point of the Seven Mile Bridge which connects the gap between the islands.  Hubby and I loved our drive across the bridge – a great place to watch the sunset and with viewings of numerous osprey and pelicans.  

We took a short detour at Big Pine to call at the National Key Deer Refuge.  Key Deer are like mini Bambis – so cute with little white tails.

Finally arriving at Key West.  Key West is one of the strangest cities we have ever visited.  It doesn’t feel like a City – it feels like a big holiday resort and we did all the tourist things – we ate Conch, we had our pictures taken by the Cuba landmark, we saw Hemingway’s House and the cats, we saw many Hemingway look a likes, we went to the Aquarium and we ate at one of the cutest Hard Rock Cafes I have ever seen.  We finished our day at Key West at Mallory Square – where they hold a torchlit sunset street party.

Orlando with infants

Today I am blogging for my friends who are all going to Florida this Autumn (Fall) with their infants who are all aged under 1 yr old.

What to bring?

Firstly, if you forget something don’t worry – just bring yourself, the baby and any can’t sleep without items.  Florida can provide the rest (usually cheaper than the UK) from nappies (diapers) to clothes and sunscreen.  Some things you  might want to consider though – for mealtimes, a collapsible cooler with plastic cups, bowls and utensils and some resealable bags that you can fill with food you know your baby will eat.  Prepare a simple first aid kit for the journey to Florida.  Once you arrive there is a Walgreens and CVS at just about every mile marker plus Walmart and Publix both have excellent pharmacies.

Florida law requires that all children under 3 must be in a car seat.  Car hire companies are legally required to provide car seats if you reserve them in advance – they have an additional charge so you may just want to bring your own with you.

Villa JK is well equipped with a cot, high chair, stroller, cot bedding, infant bowls/utensils so you don’t need to pack these.  If you want to travel really light there are some hire companies  that sell supplies for delivery e.g. www.babiestravellite.com, www.babysawayrentals.com and www.travellingbabyco.com.

Florida caters for the needs of every age demographic in your family – theme parks to zoos, museums and attractions, beaches, aquariums, wildlife encounters.  At Villa JK you have the pool and also at the clubhouse there is a tot lot – suitable for toddlers.

Eating out – most establishments are happy to make a kid’s meal by request. You will usually get better service with infants earlier in the dinner hour (by 6pm).  We have found most parents have felt entirely comfortable at the all you can eat restaurants like Golden Corral and Sweet Tomatoes where should your infant decide to have a tantrum nobody will tut!

We think in terms of theme parks the ones that we would recommend for this age group are Animal Kingdom where the under 5s seem to love the Affection Section, the Boneyard, Character Greeting Trails, Discovery Island Trails, Festival of the Lion King, Finding Nemo – The Musical, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Maharajah Jungle Trek, Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade.   We also recommend Seaworld where they adore One Ocean, Blue Horizons, Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island, Clydesdale Hamlet, Elmo Show, Manatee Rescue, A’Lure, the Call of the Ocean, Pacific Point Preserve, Penguin Encounter, Pets Ahoy, Shamu’s Happy Harbor and Wild Arctic (without the ride) and last but not least Magic Kingdom where the Under 5s enjoy everything in Fantasyland which is currently undergoing an extensive refurbishment – meaning some attractions may be closed but new ones may have already opened up in their new locations.  They also love Buzz Lightyears Space Ranger Spin, The Enchanted Tiki Room (a personal favourite of mine – fun and lovely in the air conditioning), Liberty Square Riverboat, Move it! Shake it! Celebrate it! Street Party, Tomorrowland Transit (another of my favourites – seriously!!) and the Walt Disney World Railroad.  And the even better news – under 3s are free!!

We think that Legoland will be a must for this age group and will be trying that out this September so will blog about that then.   There are also special events for Halloween for the younger age group – Seaworld has their Halloween Spooktacular which takes place every weekend in October and Magic Kingdom has their Mickey’s Not so Scary Halloween on certain dates between Sept 11 and Nov 2, 2012 where kids can dress up in their favourite costumes and get ready to treat-or-treat with the characters.

Florida Love bugs

A few September’s ago, my friend Kath and I visited Florida in September. A beautiful month to visit, hot temperatures, kids back at school, sales and no queues. Perfect. Then to our horror there was an infestation of bugs and we had no idea what they were and whether they bit!

We discovered from talking to a local that they were Love Bugs. Love Bugs are small black flies with red heads and they are HARMLESS. They do not bite or sting. Locals consider them a nuisance because the bugs congregate in large numbers and can cause quite a splatter on your windscreen (shield).

There are 2 flights per year usually May and September. Peak flying time is 10am and they continue till dusk. You will know it is Love Bugs because the female grabs onto the male and drags him around so you see 2 bugs attached together.

Once we knew we weren’t in danger we grew quite fond of them and I am hoping that my hubby might get to see them when he visits Central Florida this Fall.

Key Lime Pie – Official pie of the State of Florida

My dad is a huge fan of the Key lime pie that is served at Pisces Rising in Mount Dora.  Key lime pie is a truly Floridian dessert made from key lime juice, eggs yolks and sweetened condensed milk in a pie crust.  The traditional Conch  version uses the eggs whites to make a meringue topping (similar to Lemon Meringue Pie in the UK).

The dish is named after the small key limes that are naturalized throughout the Florida Keys.  Key limes are more tart and aromatic than the common Persian limes seen year round in most grocers.

Key lime juice is a pale yellow hence the filling in the key lime pie is also yellow.  The reaction between the condensed milk and the lime juice causes the filling to thicken so there is no need to bake.

The origin of key lime pie has been traced back to the late 19th century in the Key West area, Florida.  Its exact origins are unknown, but the first formal mention of Key Lime Pie as a recipe may have been made by William Curry, a ship salvager and Key West’s first millionaire; his cook, “Aunt Sally,” made the pie for him. In 1965, Florida State Representative Bernie Papy, Jr., introduced legislation calling for a $100 fine to be levied against anyone advertising key lime pie that is not made with key limes. The bill did not pass.

In 2006 both the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate passed legislation {HB 453} and {SB 676} effecting that key lime pie is the “Official Pie of the State of Florida”, as of July 1, 2006.

Zipline Safari

Offered by Eco Safaris the Zipline Safari is a 2.5 hour adventure that starts with a short walk to the launch point which offers a breathtaking aerial view of the preserve at 55ft high.  The course includes 7 different zip lines, 9 observations platforms and 2 sky bridges over 3 eco-systems.  The longest run is 750ft and you reach a top speed of 25mph.  The final zip brings you back to ground level and a visit to the ‘wildlife interaction area’ which has alligators, a Florida panther and other animals.

Minimum weight is 32kg, maximum weight is 125kg.

http://www.floridaecosafaris.com

 

Sandhill Cranes

My favourite bird that I have seen in Florida is the Sandhill Crane.  We first came across them when we rented a villa which backed onto a Golf course, one May, and as we were sitting out enjoying the sunshine by the pool we saw a pair of birds with two chicks.  Since then we have seen them many times – including on a gas station forecourt on the US192 and at Bok Gardens in Lake Wales – and they always make me smile.

Most sandhill cranes live in freshwater wetlands which of course there are plenty of in Florida.  They are opportunistic eaters that enjoy plants, grains, mice, insects, worms or snakes (another reason to love them in my opinion).

The birds are naturally gray and their heads are topped with a crimson crown. During mating, pairs vocalize in a behavior known as “unison calling.” They throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song. Cranes also dance, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating but all year long.

The photo today is taken at Bok Tower Gardens.

Red Hat Society or the Red Hatters!

A few years ago when we were in Mount Dora a coach pulled up and a whole group of ladies got off – all wearing purple and red.  It really was a sight and to be honest they were making their presence known.   We had no idea what it was all about but we took a photo and went back to the villa to google it.  This is what we found out

While visiting a friend in Tucson a lady called Sue Ellen bought a red hat from a charity shop.  It was an impulse buy – cheap and she thought quite nice.  A couple of years after that she read  “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, which depicts an older woman in purple clothing with a red hat. Sue Ellen felt an immediate kinship with Ms. Joseph.  When her best friend’s birthday came up she decided to buy her a vintage red hat and a copy of the poem. It went down so well that she repeated it with other friends.

One day it occurred to these friends that they were becoming a sort of “Red Hat Society” and that perhaps they should go out to tea… in full regalia. They decided they would find purple dresses which didn’t go with their red hats to complete the poem’s image.  The tea was a success and the rest is history.

It arrived in Florida because one of the red hatters passed the idea on to a friend of hers in Florida who started a sister group.

“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.”

Maybe when I turn 50 I will have a purple clothes and red hat party.

Around the World at Epcot

A couple of years ago hubby and I thought we would try this tour as we were always fancying a go on the segways.  It’s not a cheap tour $99 plus you have to have park entrance too as it is not included.  So what do you get for your money?

The first part of the  2-hour tour took place within Innovations – where we had a training session covering the basics of how to operate the Segway.  We did turns and ramps and importantly learned how to stop.  Once we had ‘passed’ this section we were then let loose on the park (in our tour group of course!)

We set off for a trip around the World.  We went round each of  the countries and had quiz type questions around the tour, being given some prizes.   Hubby tried his best to speed but basically this is impossible – don’t do this tour if you don’t like to follow instructions!  Our guide was very good and knowledgeable, we learnt some facts and noticed details that we had never known/noticed before.  We all stopped for a photo opportunity in Italy looking back across the lake towards the big golf ball.

At the end of the tour we were all given commemorative segway pins, a nice touch to a couple of hours of fun in the sun!

The facts – beginners are welcome (we were).  You have to be at least 16 years old and weigh between 100-250 pounds.  It is an outdoor tour in part so make sure you have your sunscreen and a hat!

Would we do it again – probably not but only because we have done it.  Would we recommend it – yes we would.

http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/tours-and-experiences/around-the-world-at-epcot/

Tampa Bay Rowdies

My husband has been a fan of the Rowdies since the 1970s.  The original club folded in 1993 in 2010 Tampa Bay Football Club was restarted, unable at that time to use the Rowdies trademark.  Our adopted US soccer team.  Last September we managed to time a holiday/vacation that coincided with a Rowdies game so we had a weekend/night in St Petes.

http://www.rowdiessoccer.com/

The Rowdies play at the Al Lang Stadium – very different to a UK football match as this is a baseball stadium.  It is also the only football match that I have been to where I could watch the sun set over the sea, planes landing and enjoy a lovely cool bud light on a lovely warm evening.

Situated on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront next to the Salvador Dali Museum and Mahaffey Theater, the iconic stadium used to be home to the Tampa Bay Rays for their spring training. Gates Open 1 Hour Prior to Kickoff for All Tampa Bay Rowdies Home Games.  There is lots of parking locally, as we were staying we just walked but if we wanted to we could have conserved our energy and caught the bright red and yellow Downtown Looper trolley for just 50 cents. The Downtown Looper passes by Al Lang Stadium, with a stop located at the Hilton, every 15 minutes, and circulates between all of the city’s hotels, attractions and major parking facilities.

We saw them play September 17, 2011 when they drew 1-1 against NSC Minnesota.  Was it the best soccer we’ve ever seen – definitely not.  Was it a great night out – it definitely was.  Would we recommend it and look to repeat it on another trip – absolutely no doubt.  

Busch Gardens, Tampa

Busch Gardens in Tampa offers a different attraction to the theme parks in Orlando – a cross between Animal Kingdom and Islands of Adventure, showcasing animals and amazing thrill rides.  The entire park is walkable

An hours drive from International Drive, it’s actually rated among the top 4 zoos in America.  It is advisable to arrive at opening if only to be first in line for the roller coasters.  Coaster lines only get longer as the day goes on and you really want to ride them before you eat.

Similar to Animal Kingdom it boasts a safari like section of Africa spread over 65 acres – you can go round it on a lovely train ride which also offers a rest for your feet and a breeze from the train movement, we like to take a turn after lunch while our food settles!

There are 5 big coasters – Kumba, Sheikra, Montu, Gwazi and the new Cheetah Hunt.    Kumba is the giant turquoise structure – 60mph, it loops and spirals and dives underground.  Sheikra is the giant steel structure – 200ft/62m high hitting 70mph, you get 2 vertical drops, go underground and of course loop – no floor  means there is nothing between you and the track but air.  Montu is an inverted coaster, 60mph, legs dangling with more twists and dives.  Gwazi – the bone shaker – Busch’s 2nd largest, a wooden classic coaster which doesn’t go upside down but still thrilling – watch you sunglasses and hats, our friends brand new holiday glasses rattled out of his shirt pocket never to be seen again.  Cheetah Hunt is the brand new ride – designed to create the thrill of a cheetah high-speed chase to catch its prey – figure of 8 tower and 130ft plunge – it takes your breath away (and in my case my voice from screaming!)

Apart for the rides, there are animal encounters – gorillas, cheetahs, tigers, orangutans, and then the savannah where you will see giraffes, zebras, rhinos, antelopes and elephants.

I’m not a huge fan of bird exhibits but Busch has a good one and I particularly like Lory Landing where you walk through a tropical aviary with lorikeets, hornbills, parrots and can buy a cup of nectar for $5 to feed the friendly lorikeets.

There are also shows and special events throughout the year – including Halloween.  www.buschgardens.com