Self-drive road trip in Florida with American Sky
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American Sky is like an Octopus with its tentacles reaching far and wide over the United States of America, and the 'Sky is really the limit' when it comes to booking your trip to the USA. Whatever you chose to do, self-drive or take a conducted tour, whatever your needs are, American Sky will pull out all the stops for you to have a successful trip 'state side'.
With the help of efficient, organised and knowledgeable travel consultants we chose to do self-drive around Florida and the Florida Keys. Planning is crucial as Florida is a massive state and unfortunately you cannot see it all. Distances on paper look fine but the actual 'doing' it is much harder so plan carefully.
We landed in Orlando coming in from a cold rainy Manchester in January to be greeted by the sun and warmth of the Florida weather. We picked up a car from Alamo Rentals, there are lots of signs pointing you to the pickup area, but when in doubt ask an airport worker as it is a large airport. The collection of the car was quick and trouble free and the choice is plentiful. We had booked an economy car and chose a large black Nissan car which was a pleasure to drive. Orlando isn't the easiest place to get out of but after one wrong turn we were off on the I-95 South West to Clearwater. If you have the time or haven't driven an automatic car in America before, my advice would be to stay overnight near the airport and acclimatise yourself before setting off. After the long flight a good night’s sleep works wonders.
Staying at the Opal Sands Resort was excellent, a high rise hotel set on the Clearwater Beach within easy reach of the main pier. This hotel is used for business people with a good conference centre, but it is also perfect for the long or short stay tourist. The hotel has a large bar area, a good restaurant and has easy access to the beach where there is a sunset bar which is very popular. Florida is well known for its fabulous sunsets and they do have many bars and vantage point for people to gather to watch the sun go down.
Outside the hotel there are local buses that take you around the pier and beach areas and to downtown Clearwater. The weather is generally very good and it is a lovely place to walk, run or jog along the bay area. It is a safe, family resort with a fishing quay. If you wish to hire a boat to go out and do a spot of deep water fishing this is a very good place to be. The pier area is buzzing each evening for the sunset watching, with fire eaters, music and craft stalls. The beach is beautiful and is cleaned daily and if you are lucky, you will see a pod of dolphins gliding by as you sit on your balcony in the mornings whilst having your first cup of coffee.
American Sky will sort out everything for you from flights to hotels and transport, so all you have to do is decide where you want to go and how far. The hotels we went to were excellent and well positioned by the beach. Our next stop was Naples and the La Playa Hotel did not disappoint. A colonial style building right on the beach, the rooms where beautiful and to watch the sun set with a glass of wine from your balcony was a dream. Three swimming pools glisten to entice you in on a hot winter’s day or walk along the beach for a few miles to burn off the calories.
If you ventured downstairs for pre-dinner drinks, seating and fire pits were provided on the beach to spend time with your fellow guests. The food was very good but do remember that the price of food is much higher in Florida than it used to be as the dollar has gone up due to Brexit and the cost of food in a high class hotel will come at a price. However, if you want to be a little more casual, drive down the road to the Lighthouse Restaurant that is set on the bay and enjoy the laid back atmosphere of the bay area.
Naples is a beautiful town but very expensive. Take a coach tour from outside the hotel and enjoy the commentary of the driver telling you how rich the people that live there are! It is quite an experience, make sure you stay on the bus to the main streets to see exclusive shops and restaurants, the driver will advise you of the stops and shops that are worth a visit.
Our road trip was now getting up the momentum as we set off down the Tamiami Trail to the south side of Miami. Give yourself time to stop awhile on the trail and visit the Welcome Center about half way across in the Big Cypress Swamp where we saw a manatee just floating around the river and a crocodile which did cause a stir amongst the onlookers. Florida Keys was our destination but don't underestimate the time this journey will take, it is a long way from Naples to Key Largo and took at least 5 hours to get there with stops.
Key Largo is a place that fills me with romance as the African Queen boat (from the iconic film) is still moored at Mile Marker 100. This is the main inlet at Key Largo where many fishing boats and a glass bottom boat goes from. Mile Marker - yes the Keys are numbered from one at Key West up to a hundred in Key Largo. The African Queenboat does still take passengers for a short run down to the sea on a daily basis; the times are 10pm, 12pm and 2pm so if you fancy a boat cruise and turn back time, pretending you are Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn, then this is the place to be. Our hotel in Key Largo was at MM 85. The Dove Creek Lodge was situated on a beautiful bay alongside a bar and restaurant called Snappers so after a long drive it was good to chill out and have only a short distance to walk for dinner.
The Keys are a string of small islands that hang off the end of the main land, a dual carriageway with small townships and bays off this main road. Key Largo isn't just a place like a small village, it is a series of areas from MM100 to MM80 then comes the area of Islamorada, Marathon lastly Key West, but on the way is the Seven Mile Bridge a magnificent bridge construction along the Keys, there is no stopping on the seven mile bridge but has look outs and photo stops at either end.
Key West was the end of the line - literally. The next land mass is Cuba approximately 90 miles away. Key West is a wonderful place to visit with the fun factor included, visit Duval Street to see what I mean. Our hotel was the Southernmost Beach Resort which is a big, sprawling hotel, set on a beautiful beach area. We upgraded to a sea view room and it was certainly worth the extra. Beautiful, modern rooms, a shared balcony, with a happy hour for a rum punch it all sets the scene for a perfect sunset.
The hotel has three swimming pools set over three sites, two across the road from the main building also, lots of sitting areas and access to the beach. It is a very popular hotel and does have the tour bus stop right outside, it is worth getting the bus for the commentary and Key West is bigger than you think. Visit Hemingway's House where the great man lived and wrote many of his books. Duval Street is a must and a very popular area, lots of bars, cafes and music venues are to be found in this lively area. Mallory Square is where most people head for to see the sun go down, and this place is buzzing, so be aware of your purse or wallet.
The journey continued back up the Keys to Islamorada, just down the road from Key Largo. The Islander Resort, a Guy Harvey Outpost was a motel like complex with large terraced type houses that had a lounge, kitchen, dining room, downstairs toilet and two double bedrooms upstairs with a family bathroom plus washing facilities with a washer and dryer for guests to use -,a home from home. A short walk to the swimming pool that overlooked the Bay of Mexico, and near enough to one of the best restaurants on the Keys, the Lazy Days restaurant, fabulous food and excellent service.
Our next stop was Fort Lauderdale and this is not an easy journey as it is busy with traffic and short of road signs. We should have turned on to the Turnpike but missed it due to the lack of road signs but carried on up Interstate 95 up to Fort Lauderdale, not a problem but the traffic lights in Florida can be rather frustrating as most roads are crossroads and the lights have to work four ways so add extra time on to your journey.
Fort Lauderdale, a city for the rich and famous. A city set on the waterfront that is busy with beautiful yachts and expensive homes. We stayed at the Hilton Marina Hotel, a good functional hotel that has many visitors that are going on cruise holidays from Fort Lauderdale as it is a short distance from the cruise port. However, the Hilton Marina Hotel has a charm of its own, it has a beautiful pool with a pool bar next to it. The smaller yachts moor up for the night on the inlet of the hotel and the views from the highrise hotel are spectacular. We had breakfast included in the deal at the hotel but there are restaurants just a short walk away, if you are fit, if not, take the car.
The Hilton is a short walk to the water taxi that takes you to the lovely areas of Fort Lauderdale. The cost of the water taxi is $26 for the day but if you are there just for the evening it is $16 after 5pm. The route of the water taxi is from stop 1 to 12 on the map and the Hilton is at number 6 and is a terminus to go up or down the river. We got off at stop 4 where we had a short walk to Las Olas Boulevard, turning right we visited the Caffe Europa for good food, good ambiance and excellent service.
Las Olas Boulevard is the 'Rodeo Drive' of Fort Lauderdale, expensive shops and restaurants are bursting out of this street and the glamour, well it is a great people watching place. The water taxi will take you to Number 12 stop where there are restaurants and bars, but remember you have to get the last water taxi back to your hotel so check the time of the last taxi (varies for time of the year) or else it will be a rather expensive taxi ride back to your hotel.
The start of our ride home (or should I say next adventure as we added a cruise on to the two week road trips) was to take our Alamo car back to Miami, the road signs are good to Miami Airport but don't miss the turn that says return cars, that is the one you want and it is very straight forward from there. We then took the shuttle to the cruise port where we started another adventure on a Caribbean Cruise.
'Choice' is a good word when you get to be a senior traveller. We have got the time and space to travel when and where we wish and American Sky certainly gives you that choice. Whether you want to go it alone and do the touring yourself or be with like-minded people on a conducted tour, American Sky will have a package for you. The only problem you will have is choosing which one! Enjoy.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Sky.
For more information call American Sky on 01342
886158 or visit www.americansky.co.uk
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