Day 16 was a long day of driving – we started off in Atlanta and, around 8 hours later, emerged tired but satisfied into Florida.
Florida has several Welcome Centres near its border; look out for signs that boast of baby alligators or 14′ ‘gators, pecans, maps, discount theme park tickets and best of all – free orange juice. We stopped at two places – a Visitor Centre and a Welcome Centre – to get our fill of free juice. It was delicious, and we were even able to pose with a dolphin.
The welcome centres are great if you don’t know what to do and want to pick up some flyers or maps, and there are discount tickets from Disneyworld and Universal Studios but only if you meet certain requirements. They had deals for citizens of several countries, but the UK didn’t count so sadly we weren’t able to get anything.
We headed to St Petersburg, Florida, because an old friend of mine from university lives there. It’s just beyond Tampa, and we were lucky enough to drive across the bridge connecting the two bits of land just as the sun was setting over the water. It was pretty late by the time we got in to my friend’s flat, and I felt sad that we wouldn’t get to see much of St Petersburg as we were heading to Miami the next morning.
Still, we drove and walked around for a little while, and it seemed like a really nice, chilled place. You could definitely tell that we were in Florida with the palm trees everywhere and the gentle humidity. We wandered around near the waterfront, where you can apparently see dolphins quite often if you watch for a while.
We stopped at a bar called Canopy, where we had a nice local beer and some coconut shrimp wraps. The bar overlooked the city and had some cool live music playing. The following morning, I also walked over to get some coffee from a cool looking cafe. It was all very charming, but sadly that’s all I really have to say about it for now as we headed off pretty early.
The next stop was Miami, and to get there we needed to drive through the Everglades, which is a national park in South Florida made up of tropical wetlands. One of the popular things to do there is to take an airboat tour; in other words, to ride on a boat that is moved along by a giant propeller at its back. The main motivation behind these rides is to spot alligators, so we decided to give it a go.
We found a tour through Cool Destinations where we could have a 30-minute airboat ride for $20 or so each – one drawback was that the destination was not revealed to us until we had paid! It turns out to be at the Sawgrass Recreation Park, which is almost in Miami. The park has a few animals – alligator, turtles, peacocks, and a few panthers.
Despite having to pick a time when we booked and rushing to get there for 2pm, we were told at the reception desk that there was no need to book for a certain time and that we could have shown up whenever. She gave us some green wristbands and told us to explore until our number was called, so we walked around a little and found a food truck.
It seemed a little dark to order alligator tacos at a place that was supposedly a wildlife
reserve for the same creature, but we went for it anyway. While we waited, we watched a peacock strutting his stuff – he opened up his tail for us! I reflected on how strange nature was; these birds can’t fly very effectively because of the weight of their tails, which have evolved to attract mates. As we tried to get the perfect photograph of the peacock showing us his colours, a blackbird hopped out of a nearby bin with a chip (fry) in its mouth.
The alligator meat was tasty and, surprise, surprise, tasted like chicken. Everyone always says that things taste like chicken, and it turns out they’re right.
Our number was eventually called and we boarded our airboat with another 20-30 people. We were given earplugs because the propeller fan got very, very loud. Our tour guide took us out across the swamp at an exhilarating speed, slowing down wherever there were alligators. He stopped for a while and started to tell us a few stories, for example where airboats were invented. He also took a nearby cattail and stripped it down to the white insides, showing us that it could be used as gauze if you had an injury – in fact it’s more absorbent, apparently!
We wandered around a little bit longer looking at the animals, before deciding it was time to head over to Miami. At this point, we had set our navigation to avoid tolls, and we didn’t know what madness and confusion lay ahead….