Ah Florida, home away from home of sun worshippers. It’s a huge state, but is probably identified in the popular imagination with a select few iconic images. I’ve just returned from four days on the Gulf side- St. Petersburg to be exact-and realized that Florida not only reveals itself to you, it reveals quite a bit about where you come from too. Everyone you meet down there seems to be a Florida veteran; I never heard a single visitor say “Wow, this is my first time here and it’s quite a place”. Instead, they will tell you why they prefer the Gulf side to the Atlantic side, or why it’s better drive down the I-75 than the I-95 or why the Phillies’ stadium in Clearwater is so superior to the Jay’s digs in Dunedin, or why Honeymoon Island State Park is a better place to swim than St. Pete’s Beach. It’s almost as if everyone learned the hard way and having perfected holidaying, wants to gift you with the benefit of their knowledge. I will say this about Florida: people in the service industry know how much tourism means. With one very minor exception, every individual I encountered in a hotel, restaurant, or store was friendly, helpful and attentive. Of course, I expected certain features that you just don’t find in Canada: gun shops that look and advertise like convenience stores, expressways that seem to suddenly terminate and become roads; highway ramps that loom over residential and retail areas; beer and wine prominently on sale in grocery stores, drug stores and dollar stores, and traffic lights that are so slow you need to keep an extra can of gas handy in your vehicle. Some elements are surprising. Billboards advertising vasectomies in huge block letters, bail bonds so in demand that they are trumpeted on bus benches, huge highway billboards luring you to a particular emergency room and providing the average wait time! I guess it’s all just a little more open down in Florida—want to sue somebody? want a particular operation? want help keeping out of jail? It’s all on public display and usually billboard size since everyone seems to be in their cars better than half the day. I also came across something that was new to me, though it might not be to Florida—cafes that don’t have mens’ or womens’ rooms, but rather just restrooms that can be locked and used by either sex and by the full spectrum of genders. Perhaps this is a way for smaller eateries to anticipate coming legislation—their two restrooms can be accessed by all! I also don’t remember Florida being such a craft beer capital. Any self-respecting diner offers at least ten craft beers and most have closer to twenty. I also stumbled upon a beer that I’ve never heard of before, but is apparently a well-established Pennsylvania lager called Yeungling. My Blue Jays’ ticket stub entitled me to a free domestic beer at a local establishment; the choice was Bud Light or Yeungling. That kind of dictated my preference as any choice between Bud Light and something else is invariably going to result in the something else (curdled milk might make the call tougher). The Yeungling draft was really enjoyable; so much so, that I went to order it a couple of days later, whereby I learned that it is pronounced by locals as “Yingling”. In four days, I didn’t have a bad meal in the Sunshine State. I attribute this fact in part because I made a point of asking locals where to eat. Their recommendations never let me down. Once, on St. Pete’s Beach, I referred to Yelp, and it directed me to a Deli called Barracuda that was only 250 metres away. The food was delicious, the price was right and the service was phenomenal. I also had a great experience at the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg. I had been there over thirty years ago when it was housed in a much smaller space; its current home is a geodesic wonder. Our tour guide, Diana, only showed us about five paintings, but was so informative that it took the better part of an hour. Not a single person opted out of the tour; in fact, it grew to a rather unwieldy size because Diana was able to connect Dali’s fascinating life to the paintings. As a bonus, the museum also had an excellent Frida Kahlo exhibit on display. You feel a bit better about lounging by the pool or walking on the beach if you can sandwich in a little learning about cultural icons along the way.
The cliché “it’s a nice place, but I wouldn’t want to live there” probably works for me when I think about Florida. Great beaches, excellent restaurants, palm trees, arcing dolphins, those cute gulls, outdoor patios and Blue Jays’ baseball can keep my interest for a week or so. After that, I fear the land of the car, the billboard, and the know it all veteran traveller would get a bit oppressive.