USA East Coat road trip to remember
Thu 20 Jan 2011
“Dropping into New York on New Years Day would sound like one day too late for most people, but this merely set the scene for an amazing East Coast road trip.”
A murky evening presented itself as post blizzard New York woke up late from new year's celebration and avoidance of cold. The Maple Leaf service from Toronto had been a 13 hour comfortable ride that extended a little too long due to the lack of amiable company in the adjacent seat for the long haul. Greeted by travel companion Marta at train station was a welcome face in a big city that was completely new me. Having not seen her for 16 months was additional reason to be warmed hearted at her platform based reception.
A couple of days of New York was fine for me on the first look. The cold weather made the place a little less appealing, with incentive from everyone to return in the summer. New York is otherwise a celebration of multiculturalism at its finest. Crowded subway trains or walking a city block yielded every language of the world and a population that was busy getting on with their lives in close quarters - with 8 million other residents that demands tolerance and understanding … and this was ever so evident at street level. This contrasts starkly with the walk by of the WTC / ground zero site, where the USA rebuilds a testament to their fortitude and new buildings climb skyward. The epicentre of extremist action versus US foreign policy fuelled by the price of oil was a place of reflection for those lost in the rubble of 9/11 and ingenuity of the terrorist act that got the entire world's attention.
New York otherwise ruffles its megalopolis plumage that must be seen, Empire State, Wall St, 5th Avenue, Times Square, Statue of Liberty and absolute evidence of a 24/7 city. Complete in this situation with trash stacked high on the curb, lately revealed by melting snow with rats dining on a 4 day old feast, thawed just in time for supper. It is all part of the New York experience.
Time to head south. The rental car of choice courtesy of online deals from Hertz included a $300 “one way fee” for the destination Miami Airport and attempts to save the environment were foiled at the last moment by lack of availability. After some gregarious Australian antics in the reception and furious pointing at a Porche 959 as a substitute vehicle (even though it was clearly privately owned) yielded a Volvo c70 convertible for the same price as the Toyota Prius. $30 a day now provided a vehicle worth $125 per day, a free tank of gas and waiver of scratch damage to make me happy. Hertz seem to have some inspiring customer attitude policies that will show itself again late in the story.
Fully kitted, European and slippery, the c70 also had the Hertz specific GPS that guided me to pick up my bags and travel companion and found the highway south with ease.
First stop was New Jersey to drop by friends from Whitsunday cruising of old, Mary and Megan, complete with school classes dumbfounded by Australian accents and the truth that we do have cell phones and malls in the sunburnt country.
Evening fall saw us in Washington for sunset photos at the capitol building, Washington monument and wander the parks while the fitness set jogged in near zero temps. Overnight with friends in the homeland security business was an insight into the human side of work in the field, while the tasty dinner at Busboys and Poets was smoothed with a bottle of Penfolds Thomas Hyland Shiraz.
The following day of Washington included a lonely planet suggested lunch of Spanish tapas at Jaleo and site-seeing that ended late enough to be caught in traffic standstill for 2 hours. The wait was worthwhile the Congress Library internal décor was probably the architectural highlight of the trip. The ornate ceilings, statues of learned figures in history and circular reading room that we could gaze upon from a glass separated balcony almost inspired further studies.... I did say almost.
Overnight with co-pilot's friends at Charotteville was all to brief. The lovely young recently married couple, were just too nice. The friendship with Marta formed around their housing and assist on her arrival in the USA 6 months earlier. Their generosity once again on display their house was open to us, along with the friendship.
Charlotteville was a great start point for the blue ridge parkway, a famous drive in down an ancient formed valley, the high hillsides made for a rich rolling vista as we drove toward Knoxsville and overnight stay with a prior sailing family. Along the way was Abingdon, which was important in US civil war. The army hospital from the time is now a classy hotel. Lunch of yummy soups and coffees at the ONLY place open in town was a relief. The primary functions of the town appeared to be hosting the dead or nearly dying - an unfortunate reflection on country towns the world over. A coffee shop chat with locals suggested Pratt's Hams in a town south as a tasty gift for the coming nights hosts. The deviation was not disappointing, as it formed a latish dinner shared with our hosts (add sounds of eating delight yourself).
All too early it was time to mount up in the Volvo for another leg south. Next stop was Jacksonville for two nights with sailing friends Wolf and Joan who lived creek side just off the centre of the city. Their great place and back yard to the tidal creek was a great setting for tall stories of the sea and adventuring. Wolf was inspiring at his life long dedication to exploring the world and included glider-planing the length of Sweden, smuggling borrowed children into Cold War Poland, and van travels across the USA and Europe in the one cruising machine that had been shipped across the Atlantic three times. The local adventure included canoeing along the stream amongst quiet suburbia, swamp and bird-life. The tex-mex dinner at La Nopalera Mexicano just nearby yielded amazing tastes at 1/2 the price for equivalent foods in Aussie.
The road soon open up further. Jacksonville is Northern Florida and ashamedly we had covered numerous East Coast states in a eye blink. Having organised someone to stay with in Key West called us southward and we were soon cruising the “keys” with the roof down just on sunset. The famous USA "progress" had encroached complete 1st first services all the way across dozens of small islands with 4 lane bridges, fast food, gas, van parks and boating services all the way to the end of the line - Key West. The seemingly small island has 25000+ residents in a densely populated city, exaggerated by tourist influx. Mostly by car, tourists flock for a photo beside the missile-tipped monument at the most southerly point of the USA (Cuban reference?), a walk of the famous Duval street at sunset to catch street performers in cold windy conditions and savour a relatively expensive Mojito or two.
Dining hot spots included the marina side Hogfish bar and restaurant and authentic Cuban food at El Siboney. With seaplanes and helo's booked out, the other aquatic adventures were past up in favour of chilled relaxation on nice beaches under a warmish winter sun.
All too soon the time in Key West was over and the roof was down as we headed north in the mid morning. Complete with overhead sunshine we memorably cruised the islands and bridges back to mainland. This was a 2nd ticked box from the list of top USA drives.... with the very next leg was also a wonder drive. Having another sailing contact to stop by in Naples FL (why does the USA have every major city of the world represented in their city names? - Is it so they can see the world with out leaving the country?) The course was set along 41, Alligator alley. A near perfect road through the Everglades was absolutely amazing in the c70, with the odd burst well beyond the speed limit, the European car was nothing short of “way cool”, made sweeter by effortless power bursts to overtake on with 1 lane each way. Melted with “Down to the bone” playing from iPhone through the Aux jack car hifi, The phone blue-tacked to the dash board for convenient (and safer) fiddling.
Naples is a city of wealth by appearance – wide perfectly paved streets around the main estuary. Homes, apartments and rich folk everywhere, further evidenced by all new cars, and boats parked at the back of homes. Advertising the most golf holes per capita, Bill Gates is supposed to have a home in the vicinity also. The beach-side was amazing too and Naples Pier. Parking cheaply 100 m from the wharf, we were able to walk out to the pier with the only drama was dodging the many friendly people keen for a chat. To the West was the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the setting sun, over the top of a distant sailing cat, later identified as our very own Aussie made Seawind 1000.
The west coast of Florida is overlooked by the tourist masses (thank god), as a more relaxed attitude, traffic ease and nicer people frequent the west. I theory I have is that people on west coasts are able to watch the sun set over water, and this is the reason that west coasters all over the world have a different attitude to life... Seriously. Find me a west coast community where the people are MORE caught up in life than their equivalents on the east coast. Perth versus Sydney, Portuguese versus the rest of Europe, LA' ites, -v- New Yorker, Vancouver -v- Toronto. Go on prove me wrong.
The last days of this trek were completed by nights in Fort Myers with property investing folk. In the business of purchasing “foreclosure” homes at 1/4 the original $240000 price, they are cleaning up the mess left by recent time greed that caused a local building explosion that raised more dwellings in 3 years than the previous 40! Stories of abandoned properties with open doors, air-con going missing and vacating mortgage anger visible through punched in walls, power points torn out and toilet pans removed. "Lehigh Acres" is ground zero in the global financial crisis and now has an all new 1/2 price investment opportunity contrasted with easy parking, beachside bars, with affordable drinks over a be-speckled sea complete with pier and setting sun. Gaze in wonderment and consider a property bargain before the absolute must property price correction (upward).
The final day and night were filled with wildlife stops on the 41 for sunbaking gators, teaming birdlife and overly officious volunteer park lover types, couple with lunch time beers in a bar in little Havana where the local folk had the appearance of caged zoo animals playing dominos for the tourist camera. Elsewhere a cigar smoker sits liked a fixed ornament in front of a cigar shop. Destined to die by the sword with that behaviour, we stepped behind the facade and got talking to Abraham, former 8 year jailed Cuban, he had somehow got to the USA. His gregarious and tactile nature welcome with stories from a hazy memory even included travel to Europe and elsewhere. A truly fitting experience of the locality.
Finally the crush through high rise Miami and wrong turns onto small condo studded islands in the absolute centre. Miami Beach was alive with a festival for the Martin Luther long weekend, vastly crowded but contented, a final feed of Cuban and side step the urge to purchase cigars for gifts before a short sleep in a sub $100 genuine roach motel (complete with roach), and a pre-dawn drive to Miami International.
A fitting and final part of the east coast experience courtesy of Hertz. The fabulous European convertible was dropped with the announcement that the “return it empty” option had not made it onto the contract and so by the letter of the contract I was due for $100+ extra charge (as the tank was bone dry “We are on vapours Mav”). Some hasty phone calls and available time to return to the Hertz desk (shuttle ride included free) found some empathetic, but non-talkative attendants that scribbled on receipts, typed on computers, and finalised the account to hand over a corrected bill that not only dealt helpfully with the expected fuel account, but included an extra gratuity much to generous to announce here that leave me a Hertz worshipper for some time. Combined with the exotic car upgrade at tiny price, terrific ride company, wonderful people to stopover with the USA East Coast driving adventure was all that was expected and much much more.