When I was a kid growing up in the Northeast more than a few years ago, I thought Florida was the promised land, paradise and the most exotic place I could imagine – all rolled up in one. I was in my twenties before I ever made it there but I had long dreamed of turquoise water, coral reefs, palm trees and warm tropical weather. Later I visited Florida a few times on business and on a vacation and my dreams remained intact. About forty years ago we relocated to Ft. Lauderdale with a job. While there are more than a few people who don’t care for Florida, we loved it.
At the time we moved to Florida, Ft. Lauderdale airport was a single, one-story cinderblock building with twelve parking meters out front. The movie “Where the Boys Are” was still inspiring spring-break college students to the degree that we wouldn’t even try to get to the beach during spring-break because of the traffic and mobs. By late June each year many neighborhoods were all but abandoned and restaurants, if they were open, had few customers. Jump ahead a couple of decades and things have really changed. More business meant more employees. More employees meant more families and that meant more children and all that meant a growing year-round economy. Things were changing and not all for the better.
When I was in the Navy I was a diver and fell in love with coral reefs. In all the forty-eight mainland states only Florida offers coral reefs. If you’ve never glided over or thru a coral reef you have missed one of life’s great experiences and you should try it as quickly as you can. Many people plan trips to tropical places for the beaches and warm water but for very little extra money and effort a coral reef is only a short swim away.
The main attractions in Florida are fishing, boating, beach-combing and diving. Everything is focused on the water. After we moved to Florida, for a number of years every Sunday morning would find us at the beach. It started with breakfast and the Sunday paper, progressed to beach combing and sunbathing and ended with an onshore dive at a nearby reef. It just didn’t get any better than that.
Soon we discovered the Florida Keys and now we had a get-away place for weekends. In those days summer was the best time to go to “the Keys”. Like the rest of Florida, summer was off-season and hotels were cheap. As Florida residents we could frequently find deals at four star hotels that included breakfast and dinner for two for less than a hundred dollars a day! The Keys were everything we loved about Florida and more.
Just recently we spent a week in the Florida Keys. With the exception of Key West it has been over ten years since we’ve been in the Keys and that was way too long. Last September hurricane Irma rolled over the southern Keys as a category four storm. That explains the question mark in this title. Category four hurricanes are incredibly destructive and it always takes time to recover. Part of this trip was to see what progress has been made. This post is presented in four parts:
Less than an hours drive from Disney World is another theme park with a lot of appeal for the three to eight year old set and it won’t bust the budget. Located on the grounds of the old and iconic Cypress Gardens this Legoland has a decidedly Florida flavor.
While it has a few nice thrill rides like an old fashioned roller coaster and a drop tower ride, the bulk of the entertainment isintended for a more timid crowd. Lego cars and a Lego train ride. A
mechanical Lego horse track and bumper boats and even a pretty tame coaster. On the first visit our grandson was six and he had a great time.
Everybody loves Legos and the senior citizens in the group were drawn to the Lego constructed settings. They included the monuments of Washington D.C., Key West Florida and the Kennedy Space Center. In addition there were pirate fleets and Star Wars scenes all amazing layouts. As you travel thru the park there are Lego built full size animals and characters at every turn. Monkeys sit in trees, deer and otters stand in a woodland with a lake and waterfalls. It really is a lot to take in.
There is also a water show at the lake where the water-skiers of Cypress Gardens preformed but this time it is Lego characters on skies and in speed boats . A fast paced action story that kept the kids attention. All in all a good time was had by all.
Legoland also has two themed resorts attached to the park with one focused on the thrifty traveler. We spent a night there just to see what the resort was all about and it more than gains the approval of its intended guest demographic – young children aged two to ten.
The rooms are in cinderblock duplexes that, with the bold painting scheme, look just as if they are made of giant Legos. Each room has a king bed along with a kids room with bunk beds. Decorations are all Lego and beach themed. The duplexes are clustered around villages with a playground in the center and a central lighthouse
building with a restaurant and swimming pool. In the evening the restaurant features photo ops with meet the Lego character times.
Some adults might be critical of the discount character of the Lego Beach Resort but the intended target customer seemed thrilled with their time there. It was like kindergarten recess during a vacation…
While on a short drive around Central Florida this week, we stopped at Blue Springs Park in Orange City for a hike. Without expecting it, we got there as several animal rescue groups were preparing to release a manatee back into the wild.
The release that morning was a female who had been rescued weighing under six hundred pounds. She had completely recovered and had gained about three hundred pounds in rehabilitation. There were a number of organizations involved in the release including Sea World, The Jacksonville Zoo and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. While we were there a group of volunteers lifted her with a stretcher and walked her into the waters from the spring. As she was placed in the water there were a number of other manatees swimming nearby including several babies.
Blue Spring is one of the major water sources feeding the headwaters of the St. John River and 102 million gallons of water flow out of Blue Spring into the river every day. The spring is a designated manatee refuge and the
winter home to a growing population of West Indian Manatees. The outflow from the spring measures 73° year round and is a popular spot for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving. Contrary to a number of reports swimming or diving with the manatees is NOT permitted.
In 1856, the spring and surrounding land were purchased by Louis Thursby, a Gold Rush prospector turned orange grower. He built a large plantation-style home for his family on the property. It is located inside the park and is open to the public.
There are a number of good hiking trails inside the park and and additional activities include kayaking, fishing, camping, and wildlife watching. There are also cabins to rent and St. Johns River Cruises and Tours operates boat tours from the park dock daily at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. It is a two-hour narrated nature and ecological cruise on the beautiful and historic St. Johns River. For fees and reservations, you can call (407) 330-1612 or (386) 917-0724.
On the western side of Tampa Bay is a peninsula that encompasses four cities. St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo and Dunedin. In addition to spectacular beaches the area is well worth a few days just visiting the key sites.
We spent three days seeing the sights last July while staying on the waterfront in Dunedin. All the attractions were about a half hour drive away. Dunedin has a great downtown area with good shopping, restaurants, a wine café and a sunset celebration on the pier next to our hotel every evening.
In addition to a couple of great tropical gardens the area has a world-class aquarium, a major art museum and a couple of overlooked gems.
A botanical paradise in the midst of a bustling city. As St. Petersburg’s oldest living museum, this 100-year-old garden is home to some of the oldest tropical plants in the region.
Unwind as you stroll through meandering paths, lush with exotic plants from around the world. Explore cascading waterfalls, beautiful demonstration gardens, more than 50,000 tropical plants, and flowers.
Maybe other cities have an Italian deli like this one but I doubt it. If you have the time look this one up. From fresh roasted coffee to delicious deli selections, gourmet baked goods to handmade pastas and specialty cheeses, Mazzaro’s is more than a one-of-a-kind Italian gourmet market – it’s one of the Tampa Bay areas favorite culinary destinations.
Come experience Florida’s Best Aquarium and one of the “top 5 kid-friendly aquariums in the country”! Whether exploring “the great outdoors” while inside our cool, air-conditioned facility or coming face to beak with one of our penguins, The Florida Aquarium is a fabulous destination in the Tampa Bay area.
Located on a pier right next to The Florida Aquarium make time to visit a real piece of WWII history. Welcome aboard the American Victory Ship and Museum, a non-profit 501(c)3 organiztion! As one of only 4 fully-operational WWII ships in the country, the American Victory Ship is a true American icon and is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. Come aboard and witness virtually the entire ship including cavernous three-level cargo holds, radio and gyro rooms, hospital, galley, weaponry, steering stations, flying bridge, signaling equipment, wheelhouse, mess halls, crew cabins, lifeboats, the Captain’s quarters, cargo equipment and the engine.
This modern marvel celebrates the life and work of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and features works from the artist’s entire career. The collection includes over 2,000 works from every moment and in every medium of his artistic activity including 96 oil paintings, many original drawings, book illustrations, prints, sculpture, photos, manuscripts and an extensive archive of documents. Founded with the works collected by Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, the Museum has made significant additions to its collection over the years.
Come for the beaches but spend a little extra time exploring.
Florida has become one of the largest destinations in the U.S. for people taking cruises. While passengers come from all over the U.S. and even the world a large number come from the Southeast and especially Florida. The close proximity to the Florida ports offers a number of advantages to cruisers from the region but it also presents some interesting challenges. The following is as complete a rundown on how to get to your cruise ship regardless if you come by planes, trains or automobiles. Okay, maybe not trains.
Florida has four major cruise ports; The Port of Miami, Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale, Port Canaveral at Merritt Island (sometimes called the Orlando port) and Tampa. Each one has its own environment that makes getting to your cruise ship different for each port.
The port is some distance from the airport but there is generally a fixed taxi fare for the trip of about $25 (plus luggage fees and tip). There are also a number of shuttles as well but expect to pay between $15 and $20 per person for these. A cruise ship transfer at last check was over $15 per person.
The nearest major airport to Port Canaveral. Expect to pay over $100 for a taxi to the port which is a 47 mile trip. There are a number of shuttles that charge as little as $15 per person. Booking a transfer thru your cruise line can cost above $35 per person. At last check Disney offers a bus service from Orlando airport and hotels at Disney World to their cruises at $35 per guest.
Port Everglades is only about 2 miles from the airport and while the airport taxi stand will usually quote a flat fare of $20 to the cruise ship if you go with the meter on, it should cost less and if you are going from the ship to the airport it should cost about $15 with tip (no delay exiting the port because of security). The cruise ships also offer transfers but they average $16 per person, which for two people makes a taxi the better choice.
If you are going from the Miami airport to the cruise terminal, current taxi charges are a $27 flat-rate fee. That’s not per person. So if you are traveling with a family of four, that’s just $7 per person (or $14 round-trip) — not a bad deal. Buying a transfer from your cruise line will cast around $17 per person though or $68 for four.
Rental Cars (In City)
Often people will fly into the port city a day or two early and if that is the case it is a good idea to rent a car. Depending on the city rentals can be very inexpensive and give more flexibility on how you get around. Be sure you check with the agency and make sure you can drop the car off near the port.
It is common in Miami for rental car agencies to allow a rental to be picked up at the airport and dropped off somewhere else in Miami. At between $25 and $40 a day this is a very economical way to get to the cruise port with the advantage of seeing some of Miami in the process. In the case of Avis and Budget*1 they both have drop-offs near the port with free shuttle service to your ship, which saves the cost of a short taxi ride.
While it is possible to also pick up a rental car at the airport in Tampa and drop it in the city, there are no drop offs really near the port. When we come in to Tampa on a cruise it usually costs between $10 and $20 to get a taxi to the nearest rental car location.
Because the port and airport are so near each other, unless you plan on spending some time in the area before your cruise, there is little reason to rent a car. It is also worth noting that Avis and Alamo have free shuttles from their airport locations to Port Everglades and back (you must have a copy of the rental car reservation to board the shuttle though).
It has become popular to rent a car for the one-way trips between Orlando or airport and Port Canaveral and the rental agencies have been very accommodating in recent years. A recent check showed three agencies (Avis, Budget and Alamo) offering cars between $50 and $75 per day for the one-way trip including free shuttles to the ships in Port Canaveral.
One Way Car Rentals
Even if you live within convenient driving distance to a port, sometimes port parking can become an expensive proposition. This is especially true if the cruise is longer than seven days. Except for the Orlando – Port Canaveral connection, one-way drop-off fees can make renting a car very expensive. The one notable exception to that is if you live near Orlando. Because Orlando is the number one destination in Florida the rental car companies are always trying to balance their inventories and are usually not charging drop-off fees between Orlando and major Florida cities. Renting a one-way car is our normal method of getting to and from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando. We have rented cars for as little as $29 from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale. One trick is to make reservations way in advance and check the rate a few more times before the cruise.
Back in the day buses were good, inexpensive transportation between cities and there still is a number of options for economical fares. MegaBus offers a one-way ticket from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale for $26. The problem with them as with most bus service is that you have to get to their terminal and to your destination at the other end. This can be a major additional expense impacting the economy of bus transportation. We should also note that some people live in communities with active travel groups that normally arrange charter buses as part of a cruise package
Parking Near the Ports
Most parking structures inside the various ports are owned and operated by the ports and, on average, are fifty percent higher than private services near the port. Over the years there have been some interesting fights between these venues. Mostly it has been the ports trying to make it difficult for the private lots to compete and survive. Generally private enterprise finds a way.
Parking at the port garage inside the port is currently $17 per day and they charge for each portion of a day (that means full fare for the day you arrive and the day you leave). There are at least four dedicated private lots with shuttles near the port that average under $10 a day based on 24 hour days. There are also companies that contract with some local hotels for parking spaces and provide van service to and from the port.
Parking at the Port of Miami currently is $20 per 24 hour day with a daytime rate of $7. Because the port is located right in the heart of downtown Miami it is difficult to find reasonable rates nearby. There are a number of companies offering reduced rates but it would be recommended that you investigate where these lots are and how much security they provide.
Parking inside Port Everglades currently is $15 per day but offers a location right next to the ships. Because the port is located near the airport there is a great deal of parking available in the area. There are official remote lots associated with the airport with shuttle service to the terminals as well as more than a few private lots not far away. Again it would be recommended that you investigate where these lots are and how much security they provide before reserving.
Notes & Links:
*1 Avis at Port of Miami with Shuttle to Cruise Ships. Address: 99 Southeast 2nd Street, (Cruise Ship Passengers Only), Miami, FL,33131. Phone: (1) 305-379-1317. Hours of Operation: Sun 8:00 AM – 2:00 PM; Mon – Fri 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM; Sat 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Miami Budget location with a free shuttle to the port. 89 SE 2nd St, Miami, Florida.
If you travel west on Florida State Road 24 from Gainesville to where the road ends, you find yourself in a bit of old Florida. Out in the middle of nowhere on Florida’s northwest coast is the little village of Cedar Key with its’ population of around 700.
A post office named “Cedar Key” was established here in 1845 and by 1860 Cedar Key became the western terminal for the Florida Railroad, connecting it to the east coast of Florida. The town grew as a result of the railroad but in the late nineteenth century when shipping terminals and a railroad line where built in Tampa, the town got passed by.
At the start of the twentieth century, fishing, sponging and oystering had become the major industries but, when the oyster beds played out, the town became primarily a draw for sport fishing. It probably looks much now the way it did sixty years ago but, behind the façade, there have been some changes. The town now has a thriving art community and attracts tourists to the galleries and shops and fishermen to the Gulf.
We made our first ever visit to Cedar Key in July of this year and, while the town has its’ appeal, summer is not the time to go as a good deal of the town is actually closed. When we went looking for a cup of coffee in the morning we simply could not find anything open. The town has a few coffee shops and a donut shop and they were all closed for vacation when we were there. There are only a few hotel/motels in town and none of them received much in the way of inviting reviews. The one we chose, The Beach Front Motel, was basic and nowhere near a swimming beach.
You arrive in the town as Florida 27 turns into D Street. It crosses 2nd Street which is the main thoroughfare and offers a number of nice shops. If you turn left on 2nd Street and in a block make a right on C Street you will find yourself heading toward the Gulf and Dock Street.
Back in town at the corner of D and 2nd is Tony’s Seafood Restaurant which is famous for award winning clam chowder. That was where we went for our first meal and we were not disappointed as the chowder was remarkable. You can also take some cans home with you or mail order later. If you are looking for white tablecloths and atmosphere in Cedar Key you’re probably going to be disappointed.
Along the waterfront on Dock Street there are a number of gift shops and five or six restaurants worth considering. We tried Steamers Clam Bar and Grill which offered a fairly extensive menu including lots of fresh seafood in both small plates and entrees. They also featured a nice selection of local craft beers and a full bar.
Cedar Key is not the sort of town you just discover since it is so far off the beaten track. There is very little in the way of a beach to draw people and nothing like a resort area vibe. Unless you are into fishing, it’s hard to think of a reason why you would spend more than a day here. There is one recommendation we would make, however. If you are spending time in north central Florida say near Gainesville, Cedar Key is an excellent choice for a day trip. It is less than an hour and a half drive. It has a character that reminded us of the Florida Keys thirty years ago – a laid back place with good seafood, fishing and salt air. The town has a vibrant art colony and the galleries and craft/gift shops are worth perusing. Also, in winter when more things are open, we were assured that we would find more to make a trip off the beaten path worth the time.