Sunday, 15 April 2012

Greater Fort Lauderdale – Fun, food and frightful driving


United Check in at Lansing is painfully slow, largely down to both of the staff dealing with some problem or other. One is making a phone call, while the other abandons everyone else in the long line and just looks helpless. United just don't have a clue and, even worse, they don't care!
In Chicago, the gate transfer is easy and I while away my time between flights in the lounge.

As seems to be the case in United lounges, the food offering (as well as the surroundings) is pretty spartan, despite it being breakfast time. I ask at the desk what the catering will be in First Class en route to Washington and onward to Fort Lauderdale. The comment comes back : 'Eat as much as you can here'.
They weren't wrong. Between 11am and 5.30 pm, United and US Airways offer plenty of gin and tonic, but just snack baskets of crisps, nuts and biscuits. Just as well I secreted a couple of bananas and an apple into my bag.
The journey to Washington actually turns out to be really enjoyable. My travelling companion is a 17-year old Serbian from Belgrade, Aleks, who is on a tour of the States with his dad and several other members of his family. Aleks, who is intelligent, charming and engaging, speaks impeccable English. It turns out that he is at school in Switzerland and studying for the International Baccalaureate.
I look up Serbia on my iPad and realise just how little I know about the country. Embarrassing, really. Aleks knows so much about Scotland, Europe and a lot else besides. He isn't scared to question and challenge me, which I like. He promises to read my blog and I ask him to promote it to my new Serbian audience. As far as I know, he'll be the first follower in that country, although, with my audience fast approaching 15000 readers, people in many countries are now reading it.

United have sent me a little note with my boarding passes. Changing planes in Washington will be an absolute pain, involving going out of the security area in one part of the terminal and then re-entering it in another.
But it's nonsense. There's a well-signed little shuttle bus which takes me right there. As helpful, friendly, US Airways' Lisa says to me 'I won't even make you take off your shoes'.



US Airways won't let me into their lounge in Washington. Being a First Class passenger on their airline isn't enough. I have to pay $450 to belong to their Club. Or, says Carole Cloyd the lounge manager, have an American Express Platinum Card. Their entry rule is prejudiced against non-US travellers. Every other airline in Star Alliance grants you lounge access AND feeds you properly in-flight.
The lack of catering on the flights and their unwelcoming attitude to premium customers at the US Airlines' lounges is something I will take up with Star Alliance. The American airline members of that grouping really let down the product. While I am a great advocate of the value of the Business Class Round the World ticket, the perks for using it within the continental US truly are minimal.

I recommend Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport over Miami. Bags come to the carousel a lot quicker, plus there's a really fast and frequent shuttle to pick up your rental car from a state of the art facility nearby. In Miami, it's miles away and takes ages.
Today, plane to car is especially swift and I am pleased that National Car rental don't try to sell me more than I have booked on my Europcar account. I am in my Nissan Versa and on the road within 40 minutes of landing.



I stop by Publix to pick up some groceries. As always in American supermarkets, I am astounded by the size of everything, as well as the countless offers to get you to buy things. Hence I buy two packs of Thomas' English muffins (a product I don't think I have ever actually seen in the UK!). My friend Ken in Michigan swears by Bays Muffins and, having tasted an alternative, he is clearly a man of taste. I am also intrigued by liquid egg in a carton, which I have never encountered before; it turns out to scramble really beautifully. Having travelled all day without real food, I am starving, so I buy a large roast chicken for $9.99. The chicken comes with a choice of two 16oz side dishes, with a large choice of various coleslaws, potato salads etc., a pack of bread rolls and, wait for it, a GALLON of cold tea. Incredible. It lasts me for more than three complete meals; the tea I donate to the guest fridge at the Desoto Inn (www.thedesoto.com).



Steve, Josias and the rest of the team have been extra specially busy since I was last here a year ago. They are always trying to make improvements to this lovely little oasis. There's a colourful pain job, making the accommodation units look rather like seaside huts in the UK, a splendid new entrance and parking area, lots of new planting in the lovely gardens and a lot more besides.

Steve is celebrating the arrival of his Medicare card. It's a big deal in the USA. He reckons that he will save $5000 a year now that the Government will pay for his healthcare as a retiree rather than him having to fund it through a private scheme.

Apart from a monstrous hi-rise a couple of blocks away, this area of North Hollywood has managed to beat off the developers and is all the better for it. Laid back, totally peaceful (apart from the constant yacking of the ladies next door!) with a beach to die for just a few steps away.
With an estimated 34,000 rooms to choose from in the Greater Fort Lauderdale area, I really am spoilt for choice. But here at the Desoto, guests are just spoilt.


From the beach, I watch the comings and goings from nearby Port Everglades. With more than fifty cruise ships coming and going each week, it's the busiest cruise passenger port in the world. The world's biggest cruise liner, Oasis of the Seas turns round on Saturday, her sister ship Allure the following day. Like clockwork, week after week. But the Caribbean is full to capacity of such giants, which is why the Mediterranean is attracting so many more vessels.
Unusually, there's a lot of seaweed on the beach; there are rumours that some of it might be radioactive from the Japanese Tsunami, but nobody seems to be at all worried by it and I can't believe that the American authorities would just leave anything really nasty lying about. At least I hope they wouldn't....

The tourist office in Fort Lauderdale (www.sunny.org) is doing a clever 'Defrost your swimsuit' promotion, complete with an iPad app which rather cleverly puts my head on a very fit-looking young man's body wearing very skimpy Speedos. Hence, my friends have a field day when I post my new look on Facebook. Jessica at the CVB is much more kind. She says 'The beach looks good on you'. Nothing about my body at all. Hmm. Very diplomatic.

Steve, Josias and I head out for a meal at the California Pizza Kitchen. We decline desserts, because the red neon sign at the local KrispyKreme is lit. I am told that this means hot doughnuts, just off the production line. I would have taken them to eat at home, but that's apparently not the done thing. Eat them hot in the car for the best experience is what I am told – and what we do!



Having slept on my spectacles in New York on the first, totally jet-lagged, night of my trip, I head to Pearle Vision in the Oakwood Plaza to seek a solution. Store Manager Wendy Nixon expertly bends my frames into some semblance of their original shape and now I can put my head forward without my specs falling off. A deserved mention in despatches to Wendy.
There's so much to do in the area, that I always struggle to decide. But the Jungle Queen river trip (www.junglequeen.com) is something I have planned to do for ages. Unfortunately, the heavens open as I arrive and I am marooned in my car for twenty minutes while the tropical storm passes. As the skies clear to leave us with a hot and humid afternoon, I board the boat with a minute to spare.


The trip on Fort Lauderdale's New River and linked canals doesn't disappoint. We sail past luxury houses and boats, many owned by big names and local entrepreneurs. A lot of properties and giant cruisers are up for sale, many repossessed by the bank; the financial crisis still bites hard, although there is clearly a lot of extreme wealth about.
The patter from the Captain on the Gypsy Queen is corny, probably not wholly accurate, but it's fun. We stop for an hour to see some parrots and monkeys in cages and some alligator wrestling. 

This involves a large Seminole Indian called Jonathan straddling a poor beast and encouraging the crowd to 'holler' their approval. The alligator has very large teeth indeed, while Jonathan wears some round his neck, which he has presumably extracted from other beasts. It all looks very dangerous and, to my mind, rather unnecessary in this day and age. All very well when the local Indian tribes were looking for food, but just to show tourists, no. Jonathan clearly eats very well indeed without gators. That, apart, it's an enjoyable and informative trip.


I manage to get to Stranahan House (www.stranahanhouse.org) which I have tried to reach for several years. I was booked on a Sunday night ghost tour last year and am again this, but the minimum numbers were not reached and David Greig the friendly and welcoming weekend manager says looks like happening again, so I have hedged my bets and come to visit a day early.
Stranahan House is the oldest property in town. The publicity leaflet, the plaques and the website all say it dates from 1901, but Charlotte the elderly volunteer guide is adamant that this actual house is from 1906. But she does get a bit muddled at times. At one stage she points at a feather duster proclaiming 'This was for beating their rugs'.
The tour is quite interesting, with some really nice items on display, but I rather feel the all-adult party is being given the same spiel as they give to schoolchildren, which really doesn't work well with the audience.
I would have loved more time just pottering and looking, rather than being lectured to like a five year old, but I must say that sitting on the upstairs balcony overlooking the river is an absolute delight and worth the entrance money alone.

Nearby, I grab a bite in busy Las Olas Boulevard at 'Gran Forno Pronto' (www.granfornopronto.com). It's fascinating to sit at the counter watching the speed at which they put their tasty sandwiches together. I chat to the friendly Mexican guy whose hands are a blur as he literally paints olive oil onto the paninis, ciabattas and bruchettas, before filling them with all sorts of tasty things. They're really busy, which is not surprising, because the product is great.



I have been to Bonnet House (www.bonnethouse.org) before but was disappointed then that they don't allow visitors to take photographs inside. Sadly, they haven't changed the photographic rules, so I am unable to bring you a glimpse inside. At the time of my visit, there were a lot of people waiting. Barbara, our octogenarian volunteer guide appeared to be so scary with the reading of the long list of visit rules and regulations, that the equally divided party suddenly became 9 of us and 17 of them.
To be frank the 1920's house, designed by American artist Frederic Clay Bartlett, is pretty uninspiring, made from painted breeze blocks which were made on site. Only the quality of the liberally sprinkled art sets it apart. But the lovely gardens, a rare oasis in the middle of Fort Lauderdale's concrete jungle, are delightful. As it happens, Barbara's bark was worse than her bite, but she sure plays the school ma'm well.
I can totally understand a don't touch rule, where items are delicate, but Bonnet House takes it to extremes. Having said that, a recent wedding event guest, in an apparent act of over exuberance, managed to break a delightful piece of coral into several pieces, so maybe they do have a point.
Interestingly, the exit survey asks visitors whether a self-guided tour would be of interest.
Yes please! And relax the rules about photography!

Talking of silly rules, I declined a bike tour in Hollywood which demanded not one, but two waivers to be signed, effectively meaning that if I had an accident directly as a result of a badly maintained bike, or the guide sending me in front of a speeding car, then any consequence or injury was totally my fault. (My American lawyer friend says such waivers are not actually worth the paper they are printed on and are largely produced to try and persuade people who don't know that fact not to sue for damages).


The Bonnet House garden runs right down to Ocean Boulevard and it is rather gratifying to watch the cars promenading, bumper to bumper, from your rather lofty and superior perch
.
While on the subject of driving, the standards here are woeful. Having driven in many parts of the world, Americans in general, and southern Floridians especially, have to be among the most dangerous road users on the planet. I have watched people reversing with a phone clamped to their ear, totally oblivious of anyone around them. They suddenly switch lanes with no signalling of their intentions; I even saw one car make what was almost a left turn from the slow lane right across to the fast lane of the six-lane Interstate. Scary. People text while driving, the cars don't seem to have direction indicators, it really is madness. Mind you, I have taken and passed driving tests in two American States, both which were so easy and over so quickly, that they could have been passed by five year olds.



A lovely thing about having local contacts is you get to go to some lovely things which ordinary visitors would normally never discover. Hence Steve and Josias take me to the Yellow Green Farmers Market in Hollywood for Sunday brunch. Their favourite eaterie there is ChillBar (run by Frank and Elizabeth Becker. Frank spends the evenings cooking steaks at the upscale Westin Diplomat Hotel. His undoubted talent is wasted there. The menu is astonishing in its creativity and complexity. 

Delicate parcels of exquisitely tasting organic produce. Frank, who has owned and run several restaurants, says the venture is great. 'Two days a week, eight hours a day. I can express myself here without the pressure and the horribly long hours of running my own restaurant full-time.'



I wander the market for an hour or more, picking up some wonderful olive oil as a gift for my next hosts, as well as some avocado honey from the Alexandra Kaufman's wonderfully stocked stall. (www.honeybee-z-ness.org). I mention that her accent wouldn't immediately suggest she is a Kaufman, when Chilean Alex explains to me that her real name is in fact Alejandra Victoria de la Cerda Arenas.



For the umpteenth time in only a few days, I realise that I have again been speaking Spanish.

Southern Florida is like that.


Lots of photographs from the trip can be seen at: https://picasaweb.google.com/113030621059953130627/AroundTheWorldIn60DaysBackwardsNorwichToTheUSA?authuser=0&feat=directlink