Off the shores 20
Exploring Florida Keys
Discovering Sikkim Girls
Rajiva Shanker Shresta
Coming all the way from Sikkim in the Himalayas curious seeing endless offing of waters this journey was something unique. Winter days looming large in Pennsylvania, Rachna and Vimal planned holidays to sun soaked beaches and parks in Florida Keys seen in map like fascinating little dotted projections into the Atlantic, a superb gift from the Mother Nature. Tourism is the biggest industry in Florida, which consists of the best amusement parks in the world, high end beach front resorts, and national parks. Destination Florida Keys we proceed further towards the Southernmost Part of the US in Key West!
Day 5 Miami Beach
Orlando stay had a wonderful finish previous night in the Disney’s Animal Kingdom from the brilliant score by Arnav to get a nice Teddy Bear in his second attempt of three footballs off $4.
Miami Beach was our next stopover and night halt at The Catalina helped us to see the wonderful evening with a Happy Hour treat but we dine out at Thai House. We checked out of the hotel by 11 after a fulfilling breakfast for the long journey southwards and Rachna asked us whether we should upgrade their status to 4-Star for the Excellence in previous years by the TripAdvisor helping them reach 5 next time. We had unanimously given full marks - not only comfortable stay and delicious food but their hospitality and cordiality at their Maxine’s Bistro & Bar that deserved them rated so. Coming back after changing our clothes for the journey, we found that the suitcase which Rachna used previously missing that made us to go searching for it. No, it was taken out by Vipin along with his own and left near the car with Arnav but while they got theirs kept in the trunk, ours was left like that. A great relief to find it back and thank the hotel management once again as we depart. We drive along the beach with no convenient parking space available and had long way to go with many activities in mind to keep us occupied to get best out of the trip.
We stop to have coffee at the beautifully located Duke Deck Café on the Atlantic shore in the town Lantana. We decide to go for parasailing that was not possible when in North Carolina last October and stop at Key Largo. Seeing the parasail atop in the sky Arnav wants to quit but reaching at the spot we find that it is for people 9 to 70 years in age and quite easy as Vimal and Rachna tell us from their previous experience. Coming to know we had done paragliding, Vipin feels it much easier for us to go for it. We book for 3’o-c’lock slot and go for our lunch. We reach late to find another group already getting into the boat. They take six at a time and I offer to quit but Vimal makes way for me. Made to sign an undertaking for parasailing at own risk, we get the dress to wear and harness with a life jacket in the boat. We three - Rachna, Ranjana and myself - decide to go first parasailing taken to a height of one thousand feet waiving our hands with some drops and rises in the air to get down back on the deck but before this a thrilling splash in water to get our feet wet. Sapna, Arnav and Vipin go next but are wet up to the waist by the splash to make her change the dress. Finding it much easy and joyful Arnav turned brave volunteering to take it again next time. All happy but Vimal more with we having accomplished yet another rare feat while here but to enjoy the most together was the Expedition Everest in Disney’s Animal Kingdom the previous day.
Day 6 Key West - Southernmost Point - Marathon
The southernmost spot in continental America, Key West is a tropical blend of beautiful waters, exotic foliage, wonderful restaurants and lodging facilities, history-enriched attractions and thrilling outdoor activities. Visitors immediately enjoy the Caribbean feel of the island nation called “The Conch republic.” Since its founding in 1822, Key West has gone through many phrases, from pirates to poets, and carries the creative touch of such iconic former residents as Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. You can view treasures from shipwrecks, discover the haunts of your literary heroes, marvel at the unique Caribbean architecture and dazzling gardens that bloom the entire year around. From delicious cuisine to delightful shopping to spectacular events, including sunsets and sea adventure, Key West offers sun-drenched hospitality and entertainment. You’ll discover why President Harry S. Truman, while relaxing in his summer White House, one wrote, ‘I’ve a notion to move the capital to Key West and just stay… Key West is closer to Cuba than Miami, which is 150 miles while Cuba is just 90 miles away. Key West is a small island, measuring 2x4 miles. The highest point in Key West is Solares Hill at 18 feet above sea level. We are located at confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico and are surrounded by incredibly beautiful waters. Key West is the only city in the continental America to never have seen a frost! The coldest ever recorded for Key West was 41°f in 1981. Combine an annual average low temperature of 73°f with wonderful sea breezes, and this island can truly be described as ‘paradise.’ There are more bars per capita in Key West than anywhere in the country! Key West really knows how to party! But, we also have more churches per capita than any city, so we are also able to slow down and give thanks to the friendly, welcoming and wonderful ‘One Human Family’ community we share together! … As a subtropical island, Key West is home to thousands of species of beautiful birds, flowers and reptiles that are just as unique and colourful as its two-legged residents!”
It was a long drive to the Southernmost Point passing through a number of State Parks in Florida Keys to with names like Plantation Key, Long Key, Duck Key, Grassy Key, Pigeon Key, etc. mostly straight highway at places just two-lane passage lined by green bushes and water seen on both the sides. Vipin thinks that such reclamation must have been man-made but when as this stretch was there since long to find the historic Seven Mile Bridge no longer in use except for some portion used as Tourist destination while broken somewhere in the middle to make way for the Channel while the Highway Bridges had a hump or two to let in passage for the bigger boats. The Seven Mile Bridge is only 6.79 mile long as found mentioned in one of the floor tiles seen through the window of Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium on Duval Street of Key West known for iconic former residents Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. We could not make to Experience the strangest place in all of Key Long. Odditorium is of the odd, bizarre, and unusual featuring over 10,000 sq. ft. of exhibits, encompassing the entire second floor of the historical building, with over 500 exhibits in 12 air-conditioned galleries and outdoor balconies. It being Christmas Eve the place was gradually picking up the festive mood with people exchanging greetings and nightclubs warming up the environment gradually as it got darker. We decide to visit The Café for some vegetarian fare and Vimal shares with us that the fish or shrimp fall into such a category, very much like to the certain section of the people in Tamil Nadu or many in neighbouring Kerala going well with beef as well. We had otherwise known eggs being taken for vegetarian meal in some parts of the country. Yes, Vipin-Vimal both were telling us and we too agree how wonderfully the coconut and palm tree covered landscape matched quite similar to their homeland Kerala lush-green with waterways. There was The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory to walk along hundreds of living butterflies and colourful birds but our timing there could not match with theirs as they closed by 4 and next day Christmas holiday. We reach Marathon Hyatt Place for the night.
We rush and enjoy complimentary breakfast by 9.30.am. Establishments closed for Christmas, return leisurely stopping at State Parks, Morada Bay for lunch in the beach, reach Key Largo, Pinecrest Bakery and Holiday Inn for the night. Live music and Tiki Bar at Skippers Dockside make Caribbean food wonderful. Next morning, we take Glass Bottom Boat from the Dockside nearby to see the Coral Reef (the third largest in the world as informed during the tour by the hostess while conducting the show). Vimal brought some antihistamine along with the ticket. Since I had no complaint of feeling dizzy in such trips I take only a tablet and we reach the spot in 40 minutes on the sea. Hardly taken some pictures, I wait the ride to end, fun cut short having taken only half the dose of antihistamine.
On our way back stop at the Pinecrest Bakery yet again, third and last time before leaving Key Largo. Their Key Lime Pie was something not to miss every time we were there. As it was long journey back to Orlando we stop for coffee at Service Plaza and Canoe Creek Plaza. Complimentary copies of See South Florida visitor magazine and guide maps collected there made journey understandable finding out what beautiful places we were leaving behind. It was raining but by the time we entered Orlando it had stopped.
Day 8 Orlando again
Unexhausted, we visit Disney Springs round seven and looked around for an hour or so. It is also named Disney Downtown with many huge shopping mall merchandizing various products based on Disney characters. Dinosaur T rex with Legoland was something to keep the kids occupied and interested as they make out their own toy inspired to take home for free. We worked hard to give the best possible, was the one-liner from its founder Walt Disney I read on a wall there as we were coming out and see people still pouring in as it was season Holidays to go jubilant all night perhaps though they would close at 2 am. It was 9 when we were in the BJ’s for the dinner but waiting for over half an hour for the table. It was past 11 while checking in the Renaissance Orlando Airport Hotel for a comfortable overnight stay and Vipin were to leave the place early to airport to fly back to Houston by 7.55 am flight.
Did you know ~ “Not that what’s outside our doors isn’t totally cool, but what’s inside is pretty fabulous, too” and to find that in India, they were in Mumbai and Lucknow going to Bangalore planned. “Smoke Free – Breathe easy. Smoking is in our Not to do List” with a fine print “A $250 room recovery fee will be added to the bill for smoking in any guest room. … If you want to light up, come on down to the designated smoking area right outside the hotel entrance. You spend Life working, Discover the World as you go” says the Renaissance that has 159 properties around the world to end.
Day 9 Back to Philly
Food buffs tell that one should start the day with a breakfast heavy rather make it the best meal of the day and here we had the best fare in well laid out trolley in the comforts of our room. We checked out at 11 as per time fixed by the Renaissance Orlando Airport Hotel to head towards the airport for our 4pm flight. Instead of going around places we thought it better to be inside where the shopping arcade was not less than some of the best Malls in the US. During their usual hunting spree entering such place, Rachna came across to see Sikkim Girls decorating one of the shelves attractively. Waiting outside in the lounge I found the magazine Fresh Thinking lying on the table was sort of a product catalogue of their showroom Lush: Fresh handmade cosmetics. I find the Sikkim Girls described as the ‘Mysterious and intriguing fragrance, with Darjeeling tea and spicy, floral notes’ bottled at a price of $15.95 per 12g/0.4oz, $17.95 per 10 ml/0.3 fl. oz. and $49.95 per 30 ml/1.0 fl. Oz. Rachna could not stop herself from buying one of these more out in support to their enterprise making Sikkim Girls a brand by itself rather than making it a fanciful perfume out of the name. They said, ‘Breath of God – Critically acclaimed, complex and beautiful – deep cedar-wood, vetivert and sandalwood meet light lemon, melon and neroli – pure harmony’ again but for a price of $11.95 per 12g/0.4oz, $15.95 per 10 ml/0.3 fl. oz. and $64.95 per 50 ml/1.0 fl. Oz. This was Made in England – to remind me of our Darjeeling College batch-mates three Sikkim Girls vanishing in that part of the world way back in 1960s when sent for studying abroad by the Gyalmo in good old days of the Chogyal regime. The sketches depicted, however, did not resemble anywhere closer to any of these beauties even with their faint images I had in my fading memory till this day!
Bad weather back in Philly made the flight delayed by two hours by which time we would have reached but Karthikeyan was there to receive and reach home. It was around 10 and we thought to have our quick dinner on the way at Chipotle lest the eateries were closed. It was another 40 minutes’ drive back home after reaching us but he was in no hurry and we could just thank him one more time for all the trouble he took.
This is author’s personal account of memories updated to cherish and treasure often on a detour here and there en route to share the joy of the journey called life while in the US. Some names, places and events mentioned are just to connect with and no malice whatsoever intended. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org