Return to Florida Part 1

This is the first of two blog posts on our stay in Florida in November-December 2021, written from a Brit’s perspective. It covers travel to Florida Breeze Villa and life there. The second post is here.

A picture gallery for this part is here.

We are saddened that so many people have lost loved ones and have had their lives disrupted by Covid. We are fortunate to have not so far contracted the virus but we were unable to visit our Florida house for 21 months until November 2021.

Florida Breeze Villa

We have owned our house in Florida since September 2001. It is on a beautiful golf course development called Southern Dunes which is on US route 27 about 7 miles south of its junction with Interstate 4. It is a typical American house with open plan living area, 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, a large double garage and a pool.

Pool at Florida Breeze Villa

Pool at Florida Breeze Villa

We bought the house before it was built and are so glad we chose a premium plot facing south over the golf course and not one of the many other houses where the pool area looks straight out on to the back of another house or a 6-ft wall.

Golf course from pool at Florida Breeze Villa

Golf course from pool at Florida Breeze Villa

It’s a very peaceful location where guests can just relax by the pool or go to the Orlando theme parks or visit some if the beautiful Florida State Parks where you can see alligators and plenty of birds, or just indulge in the national pastime of shopping if only to marvel at the variety of goods on sale.

Deciding to Return to Florida

Covid was just on the horizon when we left the house in Florida on 17 February 2020, not knowing that we would have to wait so long to return. Time passed and vaccinations began to make the Covid situation much better. In September 2021 there were rumours that President Biden would open up the USA to fully vaccinated travellers in November by rescinding Trump’s 20 March 2020 ban on foreigners from entering the US except for specific exceptional circumstances which definitely didn’t include us.

So we took the plunge on 21 September, the last day of a British Airways sale, and bought some round trip tickets from Gatwick to Tampa for 18 November returning on 9 December. There would be no change fee but we accepted that we would have to pay the difference if we changed the dates for travel.

We were really looking forward to eating our meals outside by the pool.

Pool deck at Florida Breeze Villa

Pool deck at Florida Breeze Villa

Covid Test Before Arriving in the USA

The US government was for once much better organised than the UK (although that isn’t very difficult if you follow the current chaos management in Downing St) and gave plenty of notice for paperwork requirements. Instead of true paperwork we used an app called Verifly where you can upload all your documents, including passenger locator form, vaccination confirmation and entry requirements. We had to do a lateral flow test within 3 days of travel supervised by a Zoom call from the provider. Martin found a recommended online provider testingforall which cost £29 each. The whole process was very easy and the kit came very quickly after we ordered it. We just needed to upload a photo of the negative result placed on a unique identification card which came with the kit. The certificate came by e-mail within 20 minutes.

The Flight and Car Rental

The flight itself was OK except for the smallest helpings of food I have ever had on British Airways. A big thanks to our elderly friend Audrey who had given us some of her flapjacks, which are renowned throughout Nidderdale, for the flight. The crew were very strict about mask wearing. The flight was completely full, but after three hours the person in the window seat next to us was taken away by a flight attendant “to see the cabin services director about an earlier conversation” and never came back. We could spread out and had a good view as the plane circled over Tampa Bay before landing.

Our flight was the only foreign one at Tampa and the airport was very quiet. We found our way via 2 driverless trains to the car rental compound. Hertz had mostly been charging £100 for a one-day rental but Martin had found a deal online for less than half that. In fact there were plenty of available cars in the huge Hertz area of the garage. They let you choose your own car within the size you have booked. A very pleasant man on the exit gate checked our licence and rental agreement.

Getting to our Florida Home

Then we found that the traffic at Tampa had got worse than when we were last there in February 2020. We were right in the rush hour and more than once were stopped dead on a 5-lane highway. It got better once we were past Lakeland. The next evidence we saw of the huge growth in Florida was road works making a new and much larger exit to the backroads route we take to the house from Interstate 4.

After a quick visit to Walmart to get some breakfast essentials we were finally at our Florida home. The house had been very well looked after and all was very clean, thanks to Mandy and Tom our property managers.

Eating Breakfast and Watching the Sunrise

With the 5-hour time difference of course we were up early the next day and were eating breakfast by the pool in the dark and watching the sun rise which is one of my favourite occupations in Florida.

Sunrise at Florida Breeze Villa

Sunrise at Florida Breeze Villa

Even in the middle of winter it’s daylight from 6.50 am until 5.50 pm in central Florida. There was a bit of rain on our first three days but it was sunny most days with just the occasional cloud. The average temperature in mid-November is about 25C. One morning it became misty after dawn and steam was coming off the pool.

The Garden

The garden did need some attention. A creeper weed was covering our lemon tree and the small hedge next to it. My Norfolk Island pine Christmas tree was about 8 inches tall when I bought it about 12 years ago. We repotted it and repotted it until we couldn’t find a pot big enough and so planted it outside the pool screen. It was now about 14 ft tall and had 3 trunks, one of which Martin cut down.

Norfolk Island pine - from 8 inches 12 years ago

Norfolk Island pine – from 8 inches 12 years ago

This created a big pile of branches but there is no charge to have your garden waste taken away in Southern Dunes. You just pile it by the kerb on what is called yard waste collection day, but it being the USA there are rules and regulations on how to do this: “Limbs are to be neatly stacked at the curb and can be no longer than 5 feet in length”.

My olive tree had also grown a lot and needed tidying up. As Martin tackled it he was spooked when he got hold of what he thought was a branch which slithered away up the tree. Our Florida wildlife book identified it as a racer snake which is not venomous. It was about 3ft long.

And – there were papayas on two trees. Readers of this blog will know that we have become a little obsessed with growing maradol papayas which can be up to a foot long with a diameter of about 5 inches. One of our trees grew from a seed we planted in 2018 and was now about 18ft tall. The fruits are absolutely delicious, but would any be ripe before we left? And how on earth would we get them down?

Papayas at Florida Breeze Villa

Papayas at Florida Breeze Villa

Climate change seems to be coming to Florida. November is the end of the rainy season and everything is usually very green, but parts of the golf course were brown in spite of being watered regularly by huge sprinklers – they do make sure that everyone knows this is recycled water. We saw more succulents on sale at the garden centre and more front gardens in the houses near us have been taken over succulents and other dry-weather plants. Every house on Southern Dunes has sprinklers installed on a timer and we want to continue with our tropical plants such as ginger and trinette (a kind of schleffera).

Ginger plants and trinettes

Ginger plants and trinettes

There were just a few flowers on one of our hibiscus plants.

Hibiscus flower at Florida Breeze Villa

Hibiscus flower at Florida Breeze Villa

Food Shopping

For the first time since the pandemic began we found ourselves having to go food shopping in person. In this area there are no grocery deliveries like we have in England. There is a Walmart store on route 27 only 12 minutes walk from the house, although almost nobody except a few Brits ever walks there. This store is a classic case of Walmart denuding the centre of the nearest town Haines City where there are plenty of empty shops, and it’s fair to say that Walmart does not have the best of reputations, but you can buy almost anything you want there at very good prices.

There is a huge food section where we always look for our favourite orange juice Florida’s Natural which is distributed all over North America from their processing plant at Lake Wales 15 miles south on route 27. In the last few years there has been a noticeable increase in hormone-free and antibiotic-free meat at Walmart and in other stores. Walmart stocks plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and a good range of non-perishable foods. Brits should beware of the bread which often has 3g of sugar per slice.

We avoid the the “international” section which does have a few items for home-sick Brits. Martin seems to be having a second life operating the self-service checkouts. If you go to a checkout with an associate (the term “assistant” is never used in the USA), they will bag your items, using far too many free plastic bags.

A few years ago an Aldi store opened about a mile away on route 27. This is not so well-stocked as the British ones but they now have a range of European cheeses and deli meat, excellent fresh salmon and a delicious key lime Greek yoghurt – we often end up buying all their stock of this.

Another grocery store nearby is Florida-based Publix which is more upmarket than Walmart and has a wider range of foods, including sparkling water which we drink a lot of. Publix has a second person at each checkout, just to pack your shopping.

There were hardly any empty shelves in any of these stores.

Do-it-yourself and Garden Stores

If you think B&Q is large, just imagine a store at least 5 times that size with every widget you can think of for sale at prices much cheaper than in the UK. This is the chain Lowes which has a store about 4 miles north on route 27. They also have a big garden centre where you can buy anything from a tiny cactus to a 10ft palm tree, again at much cheaper prices than in the UK. We have bought plenty of plants there: hibiscus, azaleas, an olive tree, a papaya tree and bedding plants which are in flower in November.

Papaya and olive trees

Papaya and olive trees

Walking in Southern Dunes

Southern Dunes is a large development but it’s well laid out and appears more spacious because of the golf course which winds between the houses. There are plenty of possibilities for walks. The weather was really warm in the last week and there were some spectacular sunsets, especially with reflections in Lake Joe just inside Southern Dunes.

Sunset over Lake Joe in Southern Dunes

Sunset over Lake Joe in Southern Dunes

We encountered the resident sandhill cranes on our walks around Southern Dunes. These two were engrossed in eating acorns from the holm oaks and didn’t mind us getting close for some photos.

Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

On another time there was a noisy standoff between two pairs.

Standoff: Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

Standoff: Sandhill cranes on Southern Dunes

Years ago we saw a fuzzy ginger-brown chick whose head was less than half-way up its parents’ legs, but we have never seen one since.

Car

We bought a Subaru Forester in Orlando in June 2005. It’s happy to sit in the garage doing nothing when we are not in Florida but it has also served us very well. We set off to Newfoundland in it two days after we got it, driving out along the Trans Labrador Highway into Quebec. We’ve done a 14,000 mile round trip from Florida Breeze Villa to Alaska and Inuvik in the Canadian North-West Territories in it.

At the Arctic Circle June 2007

At the Arctic Circle June 2007

We’ve also driven to Los Angeles and then up the Pacific coast to the Washington state line, returning via Yellowstone National Park, and to the Pacific on another trip to northern Mexico. Our Subaru also serves as a useful second owners’ closet housing more of our personal belongings when we are not at the house.

Picnic in Idaho June 2010

Picnic in Idaho June 2010

Fortunately Martin remembered to disconnect the battery when we left in February 2020. He got the car started and I managed to drive it the 15 miles to Winter Haven airport to collect him after dropping off the car we had rented at Tampa airport. It did not sound well. We managed a couple of visits to local shops before an appointment at 10.45am at Sports Subaru Orlando, some 30 miles away.

We have been there before and always had good service from knowledgeable people. They said it would take about 3 hours to check the car over and replace all the fluids. So we settled down in the comfortable well-spaced armchairs in the spotlessly clean waiting area. There was hardly anybody else there. I read a whole book and finally found out how to select my favourite drink at the complicated coffee machine. There were plenty of individually wrapped biscuits as well. The huge TV was showing a Netflix movie with the sound turned down. The wifi was excellent.

After 3 hours the service manager came in and asked us if we had seen the video. What video? They had made a video while checking out the car and e-mailed it to us. There is no equivalent of the MOT in Florida, but the tyres, battery and wiper blades needed replacing. By then it was 2pm on the day before Thanksgiving which is the major holiday in the USA. They said they needed to get the tyres from somewhere else but could probably do them on that day.

We were quite hungry and they sent us across the road (Orange Blossom Trail which is a major road in Orlando) to an unassuming building called Junior Colombian Burger where we had an excellent lunch on plastic tables. Back at Subaru we settled down to watch a movie. The car was fixed by 4.45pm. The credit card took a big hit but can you imagine any garage in the UK doing all this additional work on Christmas Eve afternoon?

Pacific Ocean, Mexico Sep2006

Pacific Ocean, Mexico, Sep 2006

Read more in Part 2 about our stay in Florida: shopping, Thanksgiving and Christmas, a visit to a state park and getting home.

Picture Gallery for Return to Florida Part 1

Click to enlarge

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