Thursday, January 27, 2011

Road Tripping Florida

Florida: The Sunshine State
 Among the images that pop into your head when thinking of Florida are palm trees; beaches; Brits and booze.  Florida's entire identity is based around the aforementioned, and it still reigns as the top destination to flock to during the winter months.Just like the birds do, I flew south for the winter to escape the brittle cold for a brief yet beneficial week to see both my friend Deanna and a new state. 

It seems that the inclement weather in Europe, namely the U.K. has rubbed off on Atlanta and New York. I was due to fly out from JFK to Gainseville with a layover in Atlanta, Georgia. The day before I checked my flights on and saw the flight status box filled in an alarming red, reading: canceled. Quick thinking was due, and I called my friend explaining the issue. I was able to change my flight destination/time for free; Deanna suggested I fly into Orlando thus we could go to Island of Adventure (Harry Potter Land) first and then we'd have time coursing around Gainseville and Jacksonville. 
At JFK, there were only THREE scheduled flights- and mine was one of them. The terminal was scarce with people, and of the few scattered passengers were holidaymakers perusing a 'Floride' book. Pasty white and swathed in layers, Florida is a great destination for this time of year. 
How can you pass this up?
The View From Deanna's Aunt/Uncle's House
With a smooth landing and a chain of palm trees on the runway perimeters, I knew I had departed the Northeast and arrived in the Southeast.
Now, one may assume that the climes were favorable in this part of the country, but I hasten to reverse your thinking: it was cold. A mere 12' does not sound particularly delightful does it? Still, it's certainly a whole lot better than -10'. 

I was ready to slip into bed after Deanna and I were skirting around the same roundabouts and highways in Orlando- we were a little lost! And with a lengthy catch up session, some chili and a warm shower the day came to a close, as did our eyes.

And we were up before the sun for Island of Adventure. With every minute that ended, the sun would increase in burn and blazed through the windshield. I knew this would come in handy considering it was a chilling 5' that morning!
Floridian Morning
It was 'Island of Adventure' day- aka Harry Potter Land!!I have never been a die hard fan of the sorcery tales, but anything that is recreated down to a 'T' from a movie always sends a buzz. We got up super early to get to Universal Studios in time for the opening- and to push and shove (on my part). Because it was a Thursday, and at the start of the day the crowds were not swelling by the minute; it was far more relaxed and orderly than I had anticipated. I certainly didn't feel relaxed and orderly when I handed over $87 (tax incl.) for my entrance pass however! To be fair, I knew the amount before hand so I didn't get a shocking surprise but it always hurts a tad when you hand over a sum like that! I did in fact splurge even more on goodies and food- so no complaints allowed!

Of course, since the opening of Harry Potter in May 2010 the main appeal of Island of Adventure has shifted from everything to just Harry Potter. People were flocking without a doddle straight for Hogsmeade. 
My aforementioned disinterest in Harry Potter made a sharp 180' when we arrived in this spectacular recreation. The attention to detail, as mentioned repeatedly by Deanna was 'incredibly detailed and thought of'. It's more than just a village or a town, it's a work of art. It really is superb, you genuinely feel like you are a member of Hogwarts and that you should don the ever so stylish cape and scarf. And as you snake your way around the town the film's music score travels along with you. The classic John William's composition tinkles and chimes appropriately as we window shopped and feasted our eyes on the intricate features of Hogsmeade.
This part of the attraction was very funny: when you go to the bathroom, Moaning Myrtle's voice lingers as you pee!! The whole experience mirrors and echoes every last corner of the book. 
Inside the castle, we were fortunate enough to whiz through the entire thing to get to the simulator ride. Normally, it would take you up to 90 minutes to get to the ride. All the rides we went on, had a maximum 10 minute wait. I thought we had totally outsmarted the system, only to realise it was in fact a Thursday and it was still early. 
But if we had to have waited that long, the endless preoccupations along the walls, up in the ceiling etc would have sufficed. Along the walls are motioning pictures of the various characters- they pop out at you and speak. There was one section whereby a wall was checkered with picture frames, and the people were jabbering at you in tandem, putting you in a dizzy spell until you stepped into the classroom! The classroom had a line of chemicals; books and Harry, Ron and Hermione sitting waiting for us. The 3D trio spoke to us in the vernacular, as if you were the only one there. If you are enticed by this sort of thing, you would naturally suspend any element of reality around you and be allured by this fantasy. I didn't pay too much attention to what they were saying (particularly as I didn't have time, I was being rushed by the excited folk behind me!) but they were warning me of something. 
I couldn't get any appropriate snapshots, because the dark lighting would have developed an eerie, murky print- would have been fitting though. 
And right before the ride, Professor Dumbledore offered his luck to us in preparation for the game. 
The ride itself was a simulated ride. We were not out in the open, nor did we cork-screw around the castle. The ride was modeled after a Quiditch match (not sure what team I was on) with evil interventions: Dementors; dragons; snakes and spiders. It was magical to say the least. The 3D aspect of it was phenomenal, you were put right there a part of the action and a part of a massive legacy. I cannot imagine what an unwavered fan would feel in this instance. Deanna had made a key point about the cost of this excursion if you had a couple of kids- ouch and yikes. 

To put our churned stomachs back in position, we went to get some Butterbeer (mistake). This wizarding beverage is, in simple terms like butterscotch- with infused shortbread and other sickly sugary stuff. 
I didn't actually get any, but Deanna did so I slurped a bit of it to test the waters. Hmmmm, WAY to sweet for my liking. It's a kind of creamy soda if you like, but I refused to continue with a candied headache- there were so many rides left! I guess if you have butterbeer with a food type that is at the other end of the food spectrum, thus savory, the butterbeer becomes a natural partner.

In true Harry Potter style, we went to have lunch at 'Three Broomsticks- a big lunch hall to eat the most British of things. A choice of Shepard's Pie with Fish and Chips were two of the many British dishes.  
The Lunch Hall
You'd think that with a belly full of battered cod we would have given the next ride an hours wait. Nope, us Muggles gobbled and went. We literally did an ebb and flow of rides, because the waiting time was a pathetic 5 minutes with each ride. 

Jurassic Park Was Water Ride. Brrrrrrrrrrrr
Because it was a breeze to get on the rides, all that was left to do was to explore the place till our legs gave way. 

In total we conquered 3 major rides, of which we had two servings of each. Six tummy twisting rides. 

Chamber of Secrets Car
Would you believe we left my 4pm? We had circled the park a numerous amount of times, stocked up on food and exhausted the rides. We certainly got our value for money, with the exception of some of our cheeky extras!

This part of Orlando is very much the commercial, touristy side and thus lacking in organic beauty. As Deanna switched from 'park' to 'drive' to begin our 1.5hour road trip to Gainseville we left behind the overbearing tourists (I was one at the park) and entered true Florida. 
The scenes through the course of the drive were not culturally rich- but if you can appreciate a sky imbued with color and feeling, it can be very rich. 
An Overlap of Shades
It was simply fields after fields with the odd isolated house within a radiant sea of green. 
And on our travels, a very fitting car sign passed us by, and I couldn't resist a snapshot:
Floridian Mantra
Approaching Gainseville, the vibe of Florida had done a complete 180'. Gainseville's profile was raised predominantly by UF- University of Florida. The town is dominated by the students, I didn't see one single person beyond the age of 25, even in the immediate vicinity. 
It is so much a student town, that there are sorority's and fraternity's. A stretch of sorority houses are on 'Sorority Row' where the rival houses can be seen from every window. 
Tri Delta

Kappa Delta
These houses didn't fall short of any expectations I had. I knew they were going to be grand and lavish- the interior designs are quite regal and 'proper' nothing is out of place as far as I could see. The girls commit to a 'chapter' meeting every Sunday (as far as I am aware) where they discuss sorority matters, namely events etc. It is very much about empowerment and establishing relationships, I don't think I could ever be a part of a sorority because it would mean being too 'cliquey' and having to live in a 'dorm' style house with lots of girls. I do however think that if a sorority is devoid of gossip and bitchiness and was run the way it was in the past, the value of the experience would still be upheld. 

The next day we were on the road again, but this time to Jacksonville- Deanna's hometown.
Before we did head out though, we stopped to devour a fatty American breakfast. 
Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel is very much a Southern thing, the whole restaurant/shop is a representation of 'Old Country' style living. It is a Southern chain that sells comfort food to typically hungry drivers who have been on the road. You can find them located on the interstate highways, much like the rest stops we have in England, and everywhere else in the world. The added country feel comes in the form of a checkers game provided at each table, and lots of produce that come packaged in a homey style, with homey contents, notably classic food and home items.
A Gun And A Deer's Head.

Nostalgic Merchandise
 Honestly though, it is 'eat heavy' at its heaviest. A hollow stomach filled with heavy duty food. uuuuuff. What made it worse, was that we had a 2 hour drive. Sitting down of course.

The road to Jacksonville was similar to that of the road to Gainseville from Orlando- pockets of beauty and ghetto. In all, it was really scenic with the typical palm trees, cop cars hidden to catch you out and a few lakes thrown in here and there. Upon our arrival in Jacksoville, Deanna's dad: Robert (Ned Flanders) gave a lovely show of hospitality as we meandered their beautiful home while he introduced me to each room.
Beach Houses in Jacksonville
Deanna's Gorgeous Home
Sunset in Jacksonville
For the entirety of our time in Jacksonville, we simply laid low and had a chill out and recuperated in true southern style. 
There was one day, where the typically sunny state was dispelled with an atypically cloudy gloom.But that was OK, it was the Golden Globe Awards evening, so the misty glaze outside had no effect on my excitement!  

And on the following day, the weather was in our favor to go and simply explore downtown Jacksonville, where we went to a yummy cafe: 'European Street' and went back in time to Deanna's school: Episcopal High School. Peering through one of the classrooms, I saw a sign that read: 'Homework is due at the start of the period. PERIOD' I teeheed at the wonderful thing, that is the American Educational System. .....And then back on the road we were...

Different Routes
On our travels, I found this superb 'interstate' section. These to me, are very 'American' as the highway system elsewhere in the world do not follow the same pattern. I love seeing these around, especially since in Manhattan, we don't have them.

On a change of track, we had our lovely companion: Beckham, touring Florida with us. Beckham is a gorgeous, lovingly devoted companion who showers you with love and kisses. 
He is the best man in the world. And the best part is, you can say whatever you like to him, and all he will do in return is kiss you. 

Deanna Feeling The Love

He really is a wonderful dog, honed with charm and loyalty. I am a big doggie fan, so a loving dog always makes me happy.

And before I knew it, the end of my Floridian holiday was here, after one full week. 
I primarily went to see my good friend Deanna, whom I met in London last year on her exchange! And being a resident of Florida, she was the perfect tour guide to a self-proclaimed newbie. 
Thank You.

Best Wishes,

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