Sunday 22 October 2017

Fab Florida has the edge

American holidays

The iconic Daytona Beach boasts beautiful sunsets best seen from its historic pier, while it's also a good idea to hire a beach bike to explore some of the 23 miles of coastline
The iconic Daytona Beach boasts beautiful sunsets best seen from its historic pier, while it's also a good idea to hire a beach bike to explore some of the 23 miles of coastline
Eco tour: St John's River
Having only recently learned to swim, John found the Crystal River a thrilling experience
John at Daytona Speedway
John Greene

John Greene

'If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up space."

Captain Denis has probably delivered the same line thousands of times, but it's a fair bet he scores a home run every time he uses it, thanks largely to a combination of his soft southern drawl and his lofty perch on the pilot's chair of a good old-fashioned Floridian airboat.

It helped, too, that at that precise moment we were setting off from a rickety wooden pier on the shore of Lake Cypress for our first close-up of some native wildlife, and one particular animal which looms larger than any other in this crazy, wonderful state: the alligator.

There's just no getting away from alligators in this part of the world, so it was fitting that, on our first morning, we were straight into it at the Wild Florida resort, where I even got to hold one of these great creatures. Onlookers commented that I looked remarkably relaxed in the small alligator's company, having practically frozen earlier when invited to hold a supposedly adorable sloth. (Sorry, I just don't get the whole sloth craze.)

Having only recently learned to swim, John found the Crystal River a thrilling experience
Having only recently learned to swim, John found the Crystal River a thrilling experience

My fascination with alligators goes back a long way, to those black-and-white Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, and remembering the way Weissmuller would emerge from some river or other alive, and pretty much unscathed, from a terrifying death roll with an evil alligator, which would not be so fortunate.

Alligators are part of everyday life in Florida - right down to the alligator fritters (alligator meat in batter) which seem to appear on nearly every menu - and it is fascinating to watch how people co-exist with what to many of us is a terrifyingly menacing creature. Yet, up close and personal, it is their stillness that draws you in. The signs dotted around rivers and lakes, 'Please do not feed or play with the alligators', are definitely not directed at the locals.

Anyway, the airboat roared as we pulled away and we were officially off and running on a week-long adventure to experience the diversity of life in the sunshine state - from the fast and furious world of roller-coasters and high-speed cars, to the slower, more sedate universe of the sloth and the manatee; from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, across highways and byways, soaking up the smells, sights and sounds of this state of extremes.

Lake Cypress didn't disappoint and was the perfect start to a high-octane few days. Our first base, the Omni Orlando Resort at Championsgate in Kissimmee, is right in the heart of theme park heaven. This is, after all, the theme park capital of the world. And, with many of my best years behind me, it was time to make my first ever visit to one such park, well, two actually, Seaworld and Universal.

These offer very different experiences for families and over the course of two days my inner child was unleashed. Being honest, I'm not one for roller-coasters but I couldn't leave either park without doing at least one, so one it was: I went for Journey to Atlantis in Seaworld, which was a blast, and a splash; and, the Dragon Challenge in Universal, a baby roller-coaster but more than enough for me.

It was the 3D rides that really left a lasting impression, particularly The Simpsons and Spiderman in Universal, one producing howls of laughter the other a little more terrifying. In Seaworld, the Turtle Trek is a more sedate 3D journey telling the life story of a turtle in vivid detail.

The food in Florida - as is often the case in America - can be an assault on the senses, and can go from the sublime to the ridiculous, but the one thing it is never, is dull. If you get the chance to gorge yourself in the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen in Universal then take it, and worry about the consequences later . . . you're on holiday. The specialty milkshakes are a sight to behold. I went for the Marshmallow Crisp, with vanilla ice cream, rice krispies, marshmallow fluff, fresh whipped cream and extra rice krispies!

We were also fortunate that our stay coincided with the Seven Seas Food Festival at Seaworld, which meant the park was dotted with stalls representative of street food and craft beers from all over the world and as you moved around you could enjoy tasters at your leisure.

Kissimmee is also where you'll find the picture-postcard town of Celebration, with its white picket fences, manicured lawns and streetscapes right out of a 1950s movie set. The town was purpose-built by Disney in the 1990s, long after Walt Disney had first set out his dream of building a model community.

After Kissimmee, it was time to head for the Nature Coast, and far from the madding crowd. Go west, young man, go west! Just 100 miles separate Kissimmee from the beautiful small town of Crystal River but in reality they are worlds apart. As enjoyable as the theme parks were, the change of pace was still welcome.

After an incredible evening meal at Katch Twenty Two, a small restaurant which is fast making a big name for itself beyond its relatively small catchment area, we checked in after nightfall to our hotel, Plantation on Crystal River. Even in the dark, the hotel oozed character and you could sense you had arrived somewhere memorable and an early morning walk the next day confirmed it was that and more.

By 7am we were chomping at the bit at the river's edge, and in one, long day in Crystal River we swam with manatees, spent several hours kayaking on the nearby Chassahowitzka River and cycled along a seven-mile stretch of the Withlacoochee State Trail, from Floral City to Inverness - by which stage the craft beers at the Pine Street Pub were extremely welcome. It was a day I'll never forget.

Manatees can measure up to 13 feet in length yet for their size they are incredibly gentle, peaceful creatures. I had an added buzz in that I have only recently learned to swim, so climbing off the boat to go in search of manatees was a thrilling experience for me and my initial fears about being out of my depth soon gave way to the joy of a close encounter with a pod of manatees meandering their way through one of the many springs which feed this complex water system, and which ultimately winds its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The springs guarantee a warmer water temperature all year round, which is what attracts the manatees. After our encounter with the manatees we stopped off for a final swim at a local landmark, the Three Sisters, where three springs meet, with its crystal-clear water. Hence the name!

Alas, our stay in Crystal River was all too brief but the fact that the next, and final, stop on our magical mystery tour of Florida was the iconic Daytona Beach and the joyous discovery that my hotel room at the Hampton Inn had a glorious view of said beach more than made amends.

Daytona Beach is about 50 miles east of Orlando and its name conjures up images of cars racing along the hard-packed sand, starting a tradition which endures to this day in the 125,000-seater Daytona International Speedway a short distance from where it all began - on the beach.

Beautiful sunsets are a feature of Daytona, and are best seen from the historic pier, while it's also a good idea to hire a beach bike to explore some of the 23 miles of coastline. I have a thing for lighthouses too, and so set aside a couple of hours to visit the nearby Ponce de Leon Inlet lighthouse, the tallest in the state. The inlet was originally known as the Mosquito Inlet, but the name change was felt necessary to attract more settlers to the area.

And then, in a flash it was all over. A whirlwind of a week in fabulous Florida had come to an end. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I left with incredible memories, and bursting to get back again.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Daytona Speedway

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John at Daytona Speedway
 

There’s just no getting away from speed in Florida. Roller-coasters will just never be my thing, but three laps of one of the world’s greatest racetracks at 170 miles per hour is not to be passed up.

St John’s River tour

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Eco tour: St John's River
 

For a totally different pace, the eco tour on St John’s River, which departs from near DeBary, is a bit of a hidden gem. It’s a gentle two-hour meander through the backwaters, focusing on history and nature.

Get there

Fly from Dublin to Orlando with Aer Lingus from €562.88 - aerlingus.com.

Universal Orlando Resort - universalorlando.com (Universal Orlando™ 2 Park Explorer Ticket: €275 per adult and €264 per child)

SeaWorld Orlando - seaworldparks.ie (3-Park SeaWorld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens Ticket: Prices start from €131 per adult and €126 per child). The Seven Seas Festival took place at SeaWorld Orlando every Saturday until May 13 and will be returning to the park in early 2018.

Based on travel in October 2017.

Omni Orlando Resort at Championsgate (from €215 per night) - omnihotels.com/hotels/orlando-championsgate

Plantation Inn on Crystal River (from €137 per night) - plantationoncrystalriver.com

Hampton Inn Daytona Beach Oceanfront (from €170 per night) - hamptoninn3.hilton.com/en/hotels

For further information on Florida visit: VisitFlorida.com

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