Saturday, February 17, 2007

We fly out - eventually

We awoke at 4.30am to shower and eat before leaving for the airport at 5.45am. It was freezing outside - literally.

We arrived at Sanford at 6.30pm - but were faced with further delays. The plane's wings were frozen -- and the airport had no de-icing equipment! The pilot pointed out that this was the first time in his career that his plane had been grounded in Florida due to ice on the wings.

So they moved the plane out of the shade into the early morning Sun and waited for it to defrost.

We eventually took off at 10 o'clock. Fortunately, there was a strong tail-wind on the way home and the flight took a remarkable 6 hours 55 minutes to get to Manchester.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Last day

We got up at 9am to finish packing and went for breakfast at Denny's. Our flight back to the UK was due to leave at 2.30pm and we planned to check-in at Sanford Airport around mid-day. But Denny's was very busy and we were late checking out of the hotel (11.15am) and then we got caught up in a huge traffic jam on the I4 due to an accident involving several cars. We eventually arrived at the check-in at 12.45pm - only to be told that the flight had been cancelled until tomorrow morning. Our crew had been grounded in a north American airport due to the severe weather that was still affecting most of the United States.

The travel company were good, arranging transport to a local hotel where we are to stay tonight and fly out tomorrow morning. But we waited ages for transport to the hotel, eventually arriving there at 5.30pm.

I tried to hire a car to go back to Cape Canaveral to see the launch of the satellite but there wasn't a single car to be had from any of the hire companies at the airport. So we finished up watching the take-off on a TV in our hotel room.

Our room is fine and we had a nice dinner. We have a very early rise tomorrow morning at get a flight out of Florida at 7.30am.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Kennedy Space Centre

We both awoke around 5am to the sounds of screaming coming from next door. It sounded like someone was being murdered. A girl was screaming "You're killing me Dave" - quickly followed by "Stop it Dave, I can't take any more", "Do it to me Dave", "You're huge Dave"... you get the idea. This went on for a couple of hours. No kidding. It wasn't funny after the first 10 minutes. We eventually had to phone reception to ask someone to come up to ask them to shut-up. I then spent the rest of the day avoiding Dave, who, if he was half as big as his girlfriend inferred, would make mince-meat of me.

At least it meant that we were up bright and early to head off to Kennedy Space Centre. We left at 9.30am and arrived at 11 o'clock. Yesterday's sunshine was replaced with cloud - and it was a lot cooler (mid-sixties). But the Space Centre was excellent.

We started with a coach tour of the area (it's spread over several miles). You can get on and off the bus as you please. Each stage has a theme and the first stop was the Apollo Mission. We saw the actual control panel used to control the flights, watched movies about some of the missions (including Apollo 13) and saw various (genuine) artefacts related to the missions (such as moon rock).

The next stop was the Space Shuttle where I watched a truly wonderful 3D movie about the space station.

The place closes at 6.30pm and we were among the last people to leave. We came today because there was meant to be a launch of a satellite but it was cancelled (for 24 hours) due to the cloud. We were disappointed to miss it. But the day itself was brilliant. One of the best.

We got back to the hotel at 8pm and did a little packing before heading off to Perkins for dinner. We go home tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Quiet day in Orlando

After the exertions of the last couple of days, we took it easy today. We had brunch at Denny's around mid-day and spent the afternoon at the Florida and Festival Bay Malls since we had some presents to buy. It was sunny and windy but pleasantly warm (72F) and not a cloud in the sky.

We headed to Downtown Orlando around 6 o'clock because Margaret wanted to take some photos of the city skyline at dusk but we got held up in a huge traffic jam (caused by a car accident) and arrived too late to see the Sun go down. But we still got a few nice photos of some well-lit buildings.

It is Valentine's Day so we ate at a nice restaurant in Downtown and had a walk around the city centre before returning to our hotel around 10pm.

America remains in the grip of severe weather. Although Florida has been OK (a little colder than normal maybe but nothing very unusual for this time of the year), the rest of the country has been in deep-freeze.

TV in America

We watch TV first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Most of it is the usual trash but one programme caught our attention - the Nancy Grace show on CNN. At first I thought she was just the usual loudmouth TV interviewer/presenter but I grew to like her. She has a pretty unique style - very firmly on the side of the public/victim and putting "experts" in their place if they say a word out of line ("I thought you were a lawyer - so when did you become a medical expert?").

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Everglades and Naples

Margaret rose early to take some pictures of the water in early morning. I didn't even hear her get out of bed.

We were both up and out by 9am. The first thing we did was arrange an airboat ride. There are literally dozens of places to book a ride; we choose Speedy Johnson's - and he lived up to his name. The guy bombed through the rivers and swamps. The ride takes about an hour and because the boat is literally blown through the water, it can go through incredibly shallow water-ways.

The "captain" of the boat told us that there were lots of alligators in the canal that runs alongside Highway 41 (the main road from Naples to Miami) so that's were we headed next. Highway 41 is some road - long and straight and hot as hell on a warm day like today. We headed towards Miami for about 40 miles and then headed back towards Naples and stopped off at a couple of viewing places to look at the alligators. They were everywhere!

A few miles before Everglades City we stopped off at Joanie's Blue Crab Cafe for breakfast/lunch. This place has character! The walls were covered with photographs of semi-naked women. Even the toilet had character (and more photos).

Around 3pm we left the cafe and continued on Highway 41 towards Naples, arriving there about 4 o'clock. Naples is some town. Absolutely beautiful - and very affluent. We went down to the beach and walked along the pier, where we saw a fabulous sunset.

Naples is a beautiful town - and the residents want to keep it that way...

We began the journey back to Orlando at 7pm, eventually arriving home about mid-night. We've had a wonderful couple of days.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Heading to the Everglades

We headed off early for the Everglades. We decided to go the direct route via Interstate 4 and Highways 27 and 29. We stopped for brunch at the Swamp Cabbage Cafe in LaBelle, about 200 miles south of Orlando.

We arrived in Everglades City at 3pm and booked a room for the night in the Everglades Motel. It wasn't particularly cheap ($100 for the night) but it was clean and well equipped. In spite of its name, Everglades City is no more than small town so you're not spoiled for choice.

We didn't hang about the motel and went for a boat ride around the Everglades, which took 90 minutes and was a bit bland since the boat was too big to go into any of the narrow water-ways. It wasn't helped by the weather, which had turned cold and overcast. But we did spot a few dolphins.

We had dinner at the Seafood Depot, which is a lovely wooden log-cabin restaurant about ½ mile from our motel. The food was great. We had a drink after dinner and met up with an English couple ("Kev" and "Tel") who were both in the mid-sixties - and drank like fish. He drank brandy like it was water and the girl serving the drink kept refilling his glass. I thought that she was just being friendly - until she presented him with a $73 bill.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


I started today with a work-out at the hotel's gym, which is small but well equipped.

Around mid-day we headed to Cassadaga, a small town about 20 miles north of Orlando, famous for the number of psychics that live there.

On the way there we stopped at a small town called Lake Helen, which has lots of pretty lakeside houses. We had late afternoon lunch at the Cassadaga Hotel before heading back to Orlando around 5pm.

In the evening we did a laundry to get some clean clothes for the coming week. Dinner at Denny's. Back to room at 10pm. We leave for the Everglades early tomorrow morning.

The weather in February

The weather at this time of the year is a little up-and-down. In fact, it can swing quite dramatically from day to day. February is one of the driest months of the year and, so far, we have seen very little rain - but it can be quite cold (60F) one day and very warm (75F) the next. It can seriously swing by 10-12F in 24 hours. And the weather forecasts have been pretty unreliable. We've planned some days based on the weather forecast only for it to change the night before - and I mean from "warm and sunny" to "cool and overcast". I don't think that we'll go home with a tan but, on the other hand, the weather hasn't stopped us doing anything and we're heading for the Everglades tomorrow which should be bug-free, rather than infested with mosquitoes, so there are some definite advantages to going at this time. And the place (especially the parks) is incredibly quiet compared to most other times of the year.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Donna Summer

We didn't sleep well. Around 5am we were disturbed by our neighbours who decided to shout at each other for three hours. They weren't fighting - just "talking" - very loudly. The guy made Barry White sound subdued and the women laughed like a hyena.

There was a Celtic match on today so I went hunting for an Irish pub to watch the game. I found one about a half mile from our hotel. It felt strange to be watching a football match at 10am in the morning. The place was a bit of a dive and you had to pay ten bucks to watch the game and the game itself was pretty poor - but at least we won.

We decided to visit an affluent suburb of Orlando called Winter Park. If last night (at Dixie Stampede) was Hicksville then this place was pure middle class America. Beautiful houses, lovely parks, fancy shops and expensive schools.

We did a tour of the lake; the boat sailed past some seriously expensive houses on the lakeside.

Every Saturday evening, Universal Studios organises a Mardis Gras, which is a colourful procession through the streets of Universal Studios culminating in a concert. Tonight's gig was Donna Summer.

We had a bit of a dilemma, choosing between watching the parade or getting a good position for the concert.

We decided to miss most of the parade and get a good position to watch the gig.

Her set was a bit odd - it was short and omitted some of her most famous songs, including Love to Love You. At one point her husband came on and sang one of his own (instantly forgettable) songs.

But it was warm, I was drunk(ish), we were on holiday, and Donna played some of her hits including I feel love. It was wonderful.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Dixie Stampede

Another warm and sunny day. The warmest so far (78F).

We had a relaxing day spent shopping in the Florida Mall, which is about six miles from our hotel. We also visited the factory outlet shops at the bottom of International Drive. The combination of cheap US prices and a great exchange rate (almost $2 for £1) means that the prices are absolutely brilliant.

In the evening we went to Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, which is a sort of dinner and show. I write, "sort of" because it's Western-style - which means that you get your dinner on your lap and your drink in a can. It was mostly Good Ol' Boy stuff with lots of American flags on display - and I didn't hear a single non-American voice. But it was good fun and nobody took it too seriously.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Driving in Florida

We're doing a lot of driving while we're here so I thought that I'd write something about driving in Florida.

It's pretty straight-forward to drive here. You get used to driving on the right-hand side pretty quickly and the roads are generally in good condition and very wide (up to 10 lanes in places). The toll roads are pretty cheap (typically 50c) and very quiet.

The hire cars are nice (mostly new) and even the small ones (we hired a "compact") are pretty big by European standards. And car rental is cheap. Petrol is brilliant - $2.20 per gallon (a little higher out of town, around $2.40-$2.50). So, overall, driving is very inexpensive... which might explain why Americans would drive to the end of the lobby.

But American drivers are not courteous. It's legal to overtake on either side - and they do - at high speed - on your left and right! It can be a little scary. And they don't let you change lane - so don't think that you can just indicate and move - they'll ignore you. You just have to push out into the lane that you want to get to.

Daylight driving is OK but night driving is a bit of a nightmare because so many of the signs are positioned right at the junction - too late to turn off in poor lighting conditions. You'll see cars routinely cut cross three lanes inside 100 yards to take a turn-off. I'm not surprised that I've seen lots of (small) accidents since arriving.

Merritt Island

Today was even warmer (around 75F) and sunnier than yesterday. We drove to Merritt Island, which is near Cape Kennedy towards the east coast. It's about 60 miles along the 528 (a toll road) and it took us about 90 minutes to get there from Orlando.

In fact, we drove to Titusville where we had breakfast before driving on to Merritt Island, which is connected to the mainland by a couple of spectacular bridges.

We stopped at the wildlife sanctuary, which we drove around and got some great photos of wildlife.

There was a huge variety of birds inside the park...

and some great places to see them...

The sanctuary has a fabulous walking trail inside it (about five miles long) and we walked some of it before turning back due to lack of time. You could easily spend a full day here.

We had a great day. We headed home via Highway 1 through Cocoa Beach (where we had dinner) and onto Orlando.

When we got back to the hotel room, the TV was full of news about the death of Anna Nicole Smith who died in the Hard Rock Hotel in Holywood, near Miami.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ocala National Forest

Today was beautiful. Hardly a cloud in the sky and mid-seventies.

We headed for Ocala National Forest which is about 80 miles north of Orlando. It took us a couple of hours to get there and we arrived around 1pm.

The forest is huge and is bisected by Highway 40 so we drove along this road for a couple of hours, stopping off at places of interest. The forest is famous for its natural springs and we stopped at Juniper Springs to have a look.

It was beautiful and we stayed there for a few hours.

The springs were disappointingly small but the park itself was outstanding.

If you keep going along Highway 40 you come to Daytona Beach, which is the way we came home. We didn't stop at Daytona but headed south to Cocoa Beach were we stopped for dinner. By the time we got there the Sun was going down, but it looked nice.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Back to Universal Studios - this time with the Sun!

I started today with a jog around International Drive. It was pretty chilly first thing this morning (mid-forties) and it took me a little while to warm up. This was my first outdoor run since last year's half marathon when I hurt my knee and it flared up again this morning. I sort of limped back to the hotel room but I managed around five miles.

We headed back to Universal Studios around mid-day by which time the weather had improved significantly. This is our first warm and sunny day (70F).

We started with lunch at The Hard Rock Cafe - which is the largest HRC in the world. It was pretty spectacular inside.

We did a few of the rides that we missed yesterday - including ET and Back to the Future and strolled around the park in the sunshine.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Universal Studios

Today started with an early rise - we were going to a time-share presentation. So we headed out to Westgate near the Disney parks. Westgate is a huge complex that sells time-share property in Orlando and the deal was that we had to sit through a time-share presentation to get discounted tickets for the parks.

We arrived at 8am and were met with our very own personal salesperson who proceeded to give us two solid hours of the hard sell. There were around 20 other couples going through the same thing at adjacent tables. Her pitch included giving us a tour of the resort and then sitting us down to do a deal there and then. My line was simple: it's very nice (it was) but we would have to think about it before making a decision. She had obviously heard this a million times before and hotly pursued an immediate sale by continually offering us new deals. I held my line. She eventually gave in - only to be replaced by another women who made a last-gasp attempt to sell us a holiday. We said "No"... and were unceremoniously dumped out of the resort with a voucher for our discounted tickets and a five year ban from setting foot on Westgate property!

Were the cheap tickets worth going through this experience? That depends on how much you value your time. We saved a small fortune on tickets (I'm talking $200) - and that's good value for two hours of your time. But if money is no object or you have children, I wouldn't recommend it. But for grown-ups capable of saying "No", it a good way of avoiding the very high prices of tickets for the attractions.

By 11am we were inside Universal Studios. The weather was overcast, quite cold (low 60's) and windy. The park was as quiet as it ever will be and there were virtually no queues for the rides.

We had a great time! We got around just about every ride in the park including Twister (so-so), Men in Black (not bad), Shrek 4D (good), Revenge of the Mummy (scarey!) and Terminator 3D (brilliant).

We stayed until the park closed at 6pm.

America is freezing. Chicago was -20C today. And Florida doesn't feel much warmer!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Quiet Sunday

Another cold(ish) day with cloud and temperatures in the mid-sixties. So we decided to visit Downtown Orlando today.

Downtown is the business part of the city but it also has some nice parks and town houses. We headed for the business area around 1pm. Our hotel is very convenient for Interstate 4 (I4) and it only takes a couple of minutes to get onto the motorway - and from there it's a 15 minute ride to the centre of Orlando.

We arrived at Downtown at 1.30pm and after parking the car explored the city. The streets were very quiet so we took lots of photos of the buildings - some of which were pretty spectacular.

We then went looking for somewhere to get lunch. There's a nice park in the centre of Downtown and we walked through this on the way to Starbucks, where we had coffee and cake. The cafe is in a lovely part of the town with some old picturesque town houses. Right across the road a blues band was playing in the forecourt of another cafe.

We headed back to the hotel around 5pm and went out for dinner at 7.30pm.

We came to Florida without tickets for the parks, hoping that we could pick up some cheap tickets here. But they're as expensive as back home. You can get really cheap tickets if you're willing to endure a time-share presentation - so we thought we'd give it a try. Our presentation is 8am tomorrow morning and we plan to go straight to Universal Studios after it.

We ate at Pizza Hut before returning to the hotel at 9.30pm. We're still suffering the effects of jet-lag and were exhausted when we got back to our room -- and we have an early start tomorrow.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

First full day

This is our first full day in Florida. Neither of us slept very well so we got up early and unpacked. The weather isn't very good - cloudy and not very warm (somewhere in the mid-sixties) and noticeably cooler than yesterday.

We walked to Denny's (on International Drive) for breakfast around 10am. Boy, American breakfasts are something. They're huge. I had a "Meat Feast", which is sausage, some other meat, bacon and two eggs - along with three pancakes topped with a big blob of butter - and all the coffee I could drink. I normally skip breakfast at home and have a coffee and (low fat) muffin around 11am. So this cholesterol mountain at 10am was a shock to my system. It cost $7 (£3.75).

When we arrived at the airport yesterday, the immigration officer got chatting to us and recommended the Mount Dora Art Festival, which is held once a year in a local town. It sounded good so we decided to give it a try. We had planned to take it easy for the first couple of days to let our system adjust the time difference. We got back to the hotel around 11.30am and headed off to Mount Dora around mid-day.

Mount Dora is lovely. Very American. We parked our car out of town and got a complimentary yellow school bus to the actual arts festival. There were lots of people sells arts and crafts - mostly jewellery and paintings. We didn't buy anything but had a nice time strolling the main street of Mount Dora and looking at the beautiful houses.

Margaret took lots of photos. We had lunch around 3pm at an old (and expensive) tea-room and got the bus back to the car about 5pm.

We got back to our hotel room around 6.30pm exhausted. The jet lag and the over-eating were kicking-in. We skipped dinner, watched some TV and fell asleep around 9pm.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Journey to Orlando

We drove from Glasgow to Manchester last night and stayed-over at a hotel near Manchester Airport (Britannia Country House). We got the 6am bus from the hotel (they leave hourly) to the Airport and checked in around 7.15am. Our flight was due to depart at 9.20am but actually took-off around 10.15am. We arrived in Sanford Airport at 2.20pm - about an hour later than scheduled. But otherwise the flight was fine. Orlando uses US Eastern Time (the same as New York), which is five hours behind the UK.

It was sunny and quite warm in Orlando (74F according to the pilot) and it felt much nicer than Manchester (which was cloudy and 45F when we left). There was no humidity and it felt comfortable.

Sanford Airport is quite small (similar to Glasgow Airport but a little smaller) so it took us very little time to clear immigration, collect our bags and pick-up our car from Alamo. The car is a "compact" - and I was upgraded to a four door version since I originally booked a two door car. It's small (by American standard) but looks fine and, of course, it's automatic.

The Airport is about 20 miles from Orlando but it's never easy finding your hotel on the first day - and today was no exception. We got lost, finished up in Sanford (the town, which is not very nice) and had to ask for directions. But at least it was day-time; arriving at night and trying to find your hotel is a real nightmare and best avoided. We eventually arrived at the hotel around 6pm. In spite of its name, the Best Western Movieland Hotel looks OK - and it has a great location being right on International Drive.

We didn't bother to unpack and walked a little of International Drive before having dinner at Perkins, about ½ mile from the hotel. We got back to the hotel around 9.30pm and collapsed on our beds (it was 2.30am according to our body clocks).

We did watch a little TV before falling asleep and discovered that tornadoes had hit Florida a few hours before we arrived, killing 20 people. We had no idea. And a town called "Paisley" took the brunt of it.