Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tamiami Trail takes visitors to Florida from Everglades to beaches; it's a route worth following for a quick getaway

Travel ranked high on my list of things to do when I retired, and I realized that along with many foreign lands much of America remained unexplored by me. That and concerns about international conflicts took me to Florida in late August to visit the Everglades
After flying into Tampa and renting a car I drove to a cousin’s house in Punta Gorda on the Gulf Coast. The next day he and I set off for an air boat ride in a swamp near Everglade City, and what a rush that turned out to be. I declared it to be the most fun I’d ever had with my clothes on when I tipped the air boat captain.

After roaring and spinning through the murky water and marsh for a half-hour, we came to a stop in the swamp. The captain blew a whistle and an 11-foot alligator swam up to the side of the boat close to where I sat. His 9-foot girlfriend soon joined him, and they both opened their mouths for the captain to toss them marshmallows. Giant teeth lined their mammoth jaws, and they greedily swallowed the treats. I imagined how quickly one of my feet or hands could disappear into their bellies.

When we arrived back at the air boat dock my cousin and I took turns holding a three-foot long alligator. The softness of his skin and his docility surprised me, but I guessed show-and-tell demonstrations and marshmallows had tamed him.

Later, we went to Everglade City’s Island Cafe to eat fried alligator tail, and it truly did taste like chicken. Then we took a tour of the city’s tiny museum and a cruise of the small town where the historic Rod and Gun Club Hotel offers guests a taste of “Olde Florida.”  The hotel and its veranda sits near the bay in a lush setting featuring fish, reptiles and exotic birds.

On the way back to Punta Gorda I decided I’d had enough of the Everglades and my reunion with my cousin, with whom I went to grade school more than a half-century ago. Relatives tend to quickly get on each other’s nerves so I headed north to Sarasota and the Sandcastle Resort on Lido Beach for a relaxing few days before I went home.

So I jumped back on theTamiami Trail constructed in the early 1900s takes vehicles from Miami to Tampa, You can take the scenic route through all of the beach towns, which I did, or travel the big highway.
The Sandcastle is an old Helmsley Hotel that is perched on a white sand beach splashed with lime-colored waves. Leona Helmsley used to winter there so I felt sure it would meet my needs. The hotel upgraded me to a beachfront room without extra charge, and I left the balcony door open all night so I could listen to the waves.

My first afternoon there, I went to the pool bar, where an attractive group of happy people lounged and listened to exotic music. The bartender, Missy, who started working there 17 years ago, quickly revealed herself to be a fun host with a large following of hotel guests who visit the resort every year as well as locals. I spotted six gay guys at the bar, and a sociable married man sitting next to me bought me a drink. As he mentioned how much he and his wife “love” gay people, I knew then I had put my vacation back on track.

The people around the bar talked about Leona Helmsley and her husband living in the resort for months at a time and how the hotel staff would carry her elderly husband out to the beach in his hospital bed to spend 15 minutes under an umbrella. She wore pressed khaki shirts and shorts every day, they said.

Contrary to everything I’d read about Leona Helmsley, employees at the resort said they liked her. “If you did your job, she appreciated you,” one employee said. When she died she remembered resort employees in her will, she said.

I spent the next five days on the beach, at the bar and on the balcony, sometimes ordering drinks from room service. The resort proved to be as they say, “gay friendly.” For lunches and dinners I took the hotel shuttle down the road to St. Armand's Circle, a quaint and expensive collection of boutiques and restaurants. A friend with whom I went to journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin decades ago lives in Sarasota, and we went to lunch a couple of times. Columbia, a Cuban restaurant in St. Armands' Circle, served me the best food I had on the trip.

One day as I sat at the resort café near the pool, a tall white bird that I speculated to be a crane joined me for breakfast, literally. He helped himself to some scrambled eggs and sausage. I learned his name was Fred. He and his girlfriend flew in one day several years ago, but when she flew out he stayed. I guess he liked the food.

One of the best treats turned out to be the weather. Every afternoon about 6 p.m. a thunderstorm shattered the peace of the beach and thrilled me to no end. Five years of drought had left me promising to never, ever complain again about rain for any reason.

Sarasota has an LGBT community and gay bars for those who desire that scene, but I felt no need to go and search for them. In my experience, gay bars tend to be much of the same worldwide. I didn’t need any more entertainment than the resort offered me.

As it turns out North Lido Beach near the Sandcastle Resort is known as the gay beach so that probably has a lot to do with the gay-friendly atmosphere. Sarasota seems to be laid-back, full of cultural offerings, hosts a gay pride festival annually and is home to several LGBT organizations including a church. It’s not one of your big progressive cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Miami , New Orleans or Dallas that boast massive LGBT communities, but it manages to provide a pleasant home, according to the LGBT residents and gay-friendly straight residents I met.

Returning to Texas saddened me after my excitement in the Everglades, my days of luxury in the resort and the splendor of the Gulf beach. I doubt that I’ll ever return there because so many other destinations await me, but I’ll always remember it as a great respite from the Texas heat and drought the summer of 2014.

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