Return to Florida Part 2

This is the second of two posts on our visit to Florida in November – December 2021 written from a Brit’s perspective. It covers what we did while we were there and our return to the UK. The first post on travel to and life at Florida Breeze Villa is here.

A picture gallery for this part is here.

The National Pastime: Shopping

Shopping is truly the national pastime in the USA. Black Friday started online on the Monday before. I don’t understand how any big stores stay in business in the US. As an example, I needed to get some new towels for the house. They came to $111. When I checked out I was informed that I had saved $197. I then got an e-mail from the store with a coupon for $30 off my next purchase.

On Black Friday itself we went to Lakeside Village in Lakeland about 40 minutes from Southern Dunes. This is by no means a village in the British sense but a shopping centre which, unusually for the US, has real streets and shops opening on to the streets. Our trip was really just to look at the huge range of items on sale in the two department stores but Martin bought two pairs of good quality slippers reduced from $30 to $9. There is a nice Greek restaurant Louis Pappas nearby. In contrast to the locals we walked there and ate an excellent meal outside.

I needed some new hiking boots and so another day we went to Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Orlando. This is an enormous outdoor shop where you can buy anything connected with outdoor pastimes. A huge display faces you as you enter complete with stuffed bears and a Florida panther.

Inside Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World

I easily found boots to replace the ones I bought there several years ago. We had a quick look round the rest of the store avoiding the large section on guns.

Orlando Premium Outlets is a discount shopping mall across the road from Bass. We paid a quick visit there where I bought some good quality socks from Columbia. They were placed in a strong plastic bag which was far too big for them.

I don’t really need this large plastic bag

Thanksgiving and Christmas – The Holidays

Thanksgiving is officially the start of what is called the “Holidays” in the US. We bought a new Norfolk Island pine which was about 18 inches high and decorated it with just a few baubles and some lights. Plenty of people go to town with decorations on the outside of their houses. Some have tasteful lights but huge inflatable Santas and snowmen are the norm. There was even a 10ft high inflatable Mickey Mouse dressed for Christmas round the corner from us.

No comment!

Most of these inflatables keep collapsing and we watched with interest to see whether they had been inflated again as we drove or walked past. At least the singing inflatables across the road from us were not there any more.

Thanksgiving Dinner

We usually try to do Thanksgiving in a small way. I bought the smallest frozen turkey breast we could find. It weighed 8 lbs. It tasted good. There were no fresh ones and so I didn’t look too hard at what else was in it. Food labelling is actually rather good in the USA although the “serving sizes” are always huge. We had cornbread stuffing, beans and roast sweet potatoes (without any marshmallows with them!). I made some cranberry sauce and planned to try this again for Christmas in the UK if I could find fresh cranberries (I couldn’t).

We don’t eat many sweet things, but dessert at Thanksgiving is always a pie. Walmart do some very good ones and we do like their pecan pie which was only in a large size this year. It claimed to have 8 servings at 520 calories per slice. It lasted us 6 days and had still not reached its best by date.

We ate all of this meal outside after dark, accompanied by some Californian wine. We had total of 15 helpings off the turkey including some for lunch with salad. I threw away the rest which was probably another 4 helpings. It cost just under $18.

Visit to a State Park

The Florida State Parks are little known gems. Some have narrated boat trips where you are almost guaranteed to see alligators. The birds are amazing and you can see manatees in some parks on cold bright days in winter. All the parks have well-documented hiking trails where the vegetation changes with every 5m or so difference in elevation. You rarely meet anybody outside the immediate visitor facilities.

We always try to visit one or two parks when we are in Florida. This time we only managed one little trip, to the rather grandly named Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park which is just a few miles south of Southern Dunes. I don’t know who Allen David Broussard was, neither does Wikipedia. There is barely a creek there and almost certainly no catfish, but it’s very peaceful and you can walk on sandy trails up and down hills (only little ones) without meeting anyone.

We went there several years ago and did all of the long (5.5 mile) hike which goes up to a viewpoint looking over Lake Wales Ridge. Since then it has become an official state park and a larger notice board has appeared including a bear warning notice.

Bear Warning at Catfish Creek Preserve State Park

Bears in Central Florida?? When you drive south from Southern Dunes on route US27 there is a bear warning sign just as you reach Highlands, the next county. There is a similar sign at the southern end of Highlands on route 27. We always thought it was something of a joke if bears only live in this county in Central Florida. Just before we came back to the UK I looked at the Florida State Parks web page for Highlands Hammock State Park and saw a yellow warning for a “nuisance bear” at the top of the page. It had been trying to help itself to whatever food it could find in the campground. We ate a picnic there two years ago.

Although it is about 40 miles from the coast, there are fragments of shells on the ground in the car park at Catfish Creek. This part of Florida, right in the middle of the peninsula, was once an island.

Shells 40 miles inland at Catfish Creek

A little bright green lizard was sunning itself on the picnic table.

It was 28C this time and we only did a short walk. You are walking mostly on wide trails with soft sand underfoot and so it’s hard going.

Trail at Catfish Creek

The alligator warning sign was still there but the creek and pond had dried up and the alligators must have moved on.

We were unable to identify these little plants.

Anyone know what these plants are?

On the way back we stopped briefly at Lake Marion where there were wonderful cloud reflections in the water.

Cloud reflections on Lake Marion

Papaya at Last

With the aid of a stepladder and a rake Martin picked one of our own papayas early in our stay. We cut it open the day before we left to find it was unripe with the seeds still white. But we couldn’t not eat some papaya this time and so we cheated and bought a small one from Walmart. We ate it all in two days, with one helping accompanied by luxury vanilla ice cream from Publix.

Papaya

Papaya at last

Coping with Covid

Ron DeSantis the Republican governor of Florida believes he is the heir to Trump and wants to be the next President of the United States. In mid-November he signed bills which restrict or ban local governments within Florida from mandating vaccines for employees and ban school districts from mandating masks. Businesses and hospitals which flout this law can now be fined.

However about half the people in any shop we went into were wearing masks and the number of mask wearers increased when Omicron appeared on the horizon. Some stores have turned the air conditioning cooler to keep the air circulating. We even needed sweaters in Walmart.

Omicron and Departure Tests

We were due to leave in the evening of Thursday 9 December. At its usual announcement time of 6.30pm on a Saturday the UK government put out a statement saying that travellers arriving in the UK after 4am on the following Tuesday must have a certified negative Covid test with 48 hours of departure. Later they changed this to 2 days.

We had 4 days to organise this including Sunday. There was nothing more online. Martin phoned British Airways and waited an hour to speak to a lady with an Indian accent who knew less about it than we did. Posts began to appear on various Internet forums by Monday and we did get an e-mail from BA telling us we needed to get this test.

There was no Covid testing site at Tampa airport at that time and after more online research we booked tests for the Wednesday morning at Orlando airport. This required a round trip of 76 miles but they charged what appeared to be a more reasonable price ($69 each) with a wait of less than an hour for the result. We could have got this done at the drug store chains Walgreens or CVS but they were charging $139 each for non-residents with no guarantee on how long you have to wait for the result.

The airport site was run by Advent Health, which is one of the large healthcare providers in Florida, and turned out to be in a shop at one end of the huge terminal. Plenty of people without appointments were milling around with their luggage as they were due to fly on Wednesday night. We did not have to wait long for the test but were concerned that we were not asked for any ID.

Waiting for the result was chaotic as we were among the now larger crowd milling around outside the shop. One of the staff kept coming out with a bunch of certificates and calling out names. There was no check on ID then either. Anybody could have taken our certificates. At least we had the right documents and uploaded them to complete Verifly as soon as we got back to the house.

The flight home was fine, except for a long wait to check in at Tampa. At that time BA only had five flights a week there and consequently very few staff. There was no separate line for people with Verifly and some people appeared to be being turned away. We had three seats for the two of us and slept quite a bit on the plane, after a meal of stodgy pasta and tomato sauce for which the flight attendant was very apologetic. It seemed that this was the only main course loaded by the caterers. We arrived at Gatwick at 7.20 and headed off for breakfast as soon as we could.

Arrival PCR Test

We also needed to do an arrival PCR test which we had booked with Eurofin which is a Which? recommended provider. This was reasonably priced. The address they gave us was an Asda store just south of Croydon. We expected to find the testing site within the store but after having to ask twice, we found it was an 8ft square portacabin at the far side of the car park with just two guys working there.

They checked our passports and the test was done promptly. You are allowed to travel home while waiting for the result including staying overnight. We were told to expect the result the next morning and so after a sandwich lunch by the Devils Dyke went to the hotel we had booked in Angmering. The results (fortunately negative) arrived at 3.30 am and we were on our way home on the Saturday.

As we watched the rapid spread of Omicron we realised how lucky we had been on this trip. We had three wonderful weeks in Florida and didn’t catch Covid in spite of mixing with far more people than we had done since Covid emerged. I have no idea when we will get there again, but it will definitely be something to look forward to.

See Return to Florida Part 1 for Life in Southern Dunes

Picture Gallery for Return to Florida Part 2

Click to enlarge

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