In 2019 our normal 6-8 weeks in Florida in autumn became only 2 weeks because of various matters at home and the election. As we have found before, some things needed attention in the house, not least of which was to find out how to deflate several large inflatable pool toys which guests had left in the garage and on the pool deck.
It was great to see some Florida sunsets again.
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We did manage to get out and about a bit and saw plenty of Florida wildlife.
Using up some Avios points we flew from Manchester to London and then to Miami on BA, who have definitely gone downhill since we last travelled on them. Armed with our new B1/B2 visas we had no trouble entering the US this time.
Miami International Airport is right in the middle of the city. All the car rental companies are now in an off-airport compound with a huge multi-storey garage. To get to it, you don’t have to go outside and hump all your baggage on and off a bus. You just have a journey of about 5 minutes on the Miami Mover, a driverless train which delivers you straight to all the car rental desks.
At Hertz Martin was informed that he has gold elite status – although we haven’t rented a car from them for years. The agent sent us straight out into the garage, telling us to choose our car and drive out. The guard on the exit printed out the rental agreement for us. What a contrast from some countries where it takes ages for the agent to fill out and print out the rental agreement
After a night in Miami we drove up to Florida Breeze Villa and for once arrived in daylight.
Papayas and other trees
I could barely believe my eyes when I went outside. Readers of this blog will know that papayas are by far my favourite fruit and getting one to grow in Florida has become an obsession.
Last March we bought a papaya which was about 1 foot tall and planted it next to our lemon tree.
By the middle of November it had grown to over 10 feet tall and had over 20 papayas on it. In fact there was another tree right next to it which looked like it had grown from the same plant.
These are not the kind of papaya you can buy in a supermarket in the UK, but maradols which grow up to about 1 foot long. Mission accomplished so far, but sadly none of these fruit were ripe enough to eat when we left in early December but I live in hope for our next visit.
These weren’t the only healthy papaya trees. I had also planted some seeds from a fruit and there were 3 more trees, 2 of which were up to the roof of the pool screen.
The papaya had dwarfed our lemon tree next to it, but this still had plenty of lemons on it. These are meyer lemons which are not true lemons. They are round, not lemon shaped, but have all the other characteristics of regular lemons and are very juicy.
I live in hope, too, for some olives on my olive tree. It, too, had grown a lot but I believe it can be years before they fruit. But I don’t really like olives anyway. I got the tree for the pretty leaves.
The Americans really go to town on the “holidays” as they call the Christmas period. Inflatable snowmen and assorted reindeer and the like occupy people’s front lawns and many houses are festooned with lights. I took some pictures of the inflatables for sale in Lowes, the huge diy store near our house.
Fortunately for us, the singing ones across the road from us collapsed every day and were rarely able to perform their tunes.
We have also been infected by the Black Friday sales in the US where there are much better bargains than in the UK. We have given up going to Orlando on Black Friday as the car parks at all the malls soon get full, but there are some nice shops in Lakeland which is halfway to Tampa from Florida Breeze Villa.
Last year I treated myself to a Fitbit Versa there. This time it was more mundane, with some things for the house and a few clothes. I really wonder how Kohls can make any money when they give you a voucher for $30 when you spend $100 on several items whose original price clocks up to over $300. So we got another $30 worth of free clothes 2 days after Black Friday at a Kohls nearer home. That’s done for clothes shopping for another year.
Highlands Hammock State Park
Our one trip out was to Highlands Hammock State Park, which is in Sebring about one hour’s drive south of Florida Breeze Villa. It was one of the first places we went to after we first bought our Florida home over 18 years ago. The only thing which had changed since then was that the park was surprisingly quiet, although this was the Sunday after Black Friday when perhaps people were still indulging in the national pastime of shopping.
A hammock is the Florida term for a stand of trees growing on land which is very slightly elevated from the surrounding area. One of the major features of the landscape in Florida is how much the vegetation changes with only a few feet change in the elevation. The reflections can be magnificent in swampy areas.
Highlands Hammock was also one of the first state parks in Florida. The roads and facilities in it were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which was set by up President Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s to create employment after the 1920s depression. The park has an excellent visitor centre highlighting the time when it was built and what life was like for the workers. There was also a volunteer on hand to give us a very helpful (and rather lengthy) talk about it.
Next was the tram tour. What the Americans call a tram is really a kind of trolley pulled by a pickup truck.
You can drive on some roads in the park, but the tram takes you on some tracks which are normally closed to visitors. There were plenty of birds once we left the main park road. The most common ones in Florida tend to be ibises, and anhingas which open their wings to dry off every time they land.
We travelled for some time alongside a creek and saw plenty of little turtles.
Then we came across a huge alligator just across the creek about 10 feet from us. The guide spotted more alligators further on but this guy was a giant. He just eyed us rather disdainfully and carried on dozing.
Further along there were at least 10 large black birds eating something on the track. I was convinced they were vultures but the guide referred to them as buzzards. Back home I looked in the Florida bird book and found that what the Americans call buzzards are actually turkey vultures. Perhaps they just don’t like the connotation of the word “vulture”.
The guide also told us bears had been seen in the park – the Florida ones are smaller than the ones further north in the US. They had even captured a Florida panther on camera one night. We live in hope of seeing these, preferably when we are in the car.
After the tram trip, we did four of the park’s “hikes”, in all of just over one hour. These are mostly on boardwalks about 18-24 inches above the ground to avoid the swamps (and the alligators) On a ground level hike we stopped by a huge and very old oak tree.
Snow in Celebration
Celebration is a small town built by Disney in the mid-1990s near the Disney theme parks. All the houses are built on elegant palm-tree lined avenues in the old colonial wooden style with rocking chairs on the porches. Everything in Celebration fits this theme. It’s very pleasant but does have a rather artificial feel.
Every day in the run up to Christmas it snows in Celebration on the hour between 6pm and 9pm, lasting about 10 minutes. After a belated birthday dinner for me (nice-tasting but probably hormone-treated steak), we went to watch the last snow of the day come out of the top of the lamp posts in the main street.
It was actually quite cold and people were muffled up, in contrast to the time we went many years ago when little kids in shorts and t-shirts were leaping about in it.
So it was back to the cold and rain and election horrors in the UK on United Airlines via Newark to Manchester with another frequent flyer ticket.
If you ever go to United’s Terminal C at Newark, don’t expect just to get a bit of cash out of your pocket to pay for a cup of coffee. There are hundreds of little tablet screens all over, where you can order food and drink which is brought to you, with a hefty sales tax and 18% tip added. If you can bear to walk just a few yards to one of the food concessions and order coffee at the counter you get a receipt with a QR code on it and have to take the receipt to a card only pay point before collecting your coffee. The 18% is still added.
But Newark has been much upgraded since it was our local airport when we lived in New Jersey. All three US airports we came through, Miami, Orlando and Newark definitely put UK airports to shame.
You can find more about Florida Breeze Villa here.
Picture gallery: Florida in Autumn 2019: Papayas, Gators and Snow
Click to enlarge