The Sunshine State

I’m now back in Annecy, my return flights from the US via Heathrow having passed without so much as a minute’s delay. I finally managed to get to sleep around 3:30am last night, having spent the previous afternoon desperate to go to bed.

Other than New York in 2016 I’d not been to the US in years, and had forgotten how big it was. When my brother said he lived in Miami I assumed he actually lived in Miami, not a town called Weston 40 minutes away by car. The Russian I was meeting was staying in Pembroke Pines, which when I looked on Google maps appeared to be just next door to Weston, possibly within walking distance. It turned out it was a 20 minute drive down a 5-lane highway. When you visit the US you need to seriously recalibrate distances in your mind, especially if you live in a medieval town in the French Alps.

Miami wasn’t what I expected. For a start, we didn’t really go there. We spent some time on Hollywood beach, which was really nice, but that isn’t Miami. Miami itself seems to be a collection of high-rise office blocks and the Miami you see on TV is on a huge sandbar called Miami Beach. That consists of a rather ordinary grid of concrete streets filled with cafes, restaurants, and shops which I am told turns pretty wild at night, alongside a beach which is much like any other in Florida. We spent a few hours there overheating and getting lost before visiting the Vizcaya museum and gardens. Built around the time of WWI, this is what passes for an ancient monument in Miami. The other thing about American cities is there is often no city centre, or at least one you can wander around in. Outside of the North East they seem to be a collection of buildings and if you want a particular one – be it a restaurant, office, or shop – you drive to it, park outside, and go in. The only place you can park the car and wander around is inside a strip mall. This is convenient, but doesn’t make it easy when you’re tasked with entertaining a Russian for an evening, especially if she’s the one driving.

As planned, I rented a car and started driving north on my way to Pensacola. American hire cars don’t come with satnavs so I had to use Google Maps on my phone. I’d never used this before and it worked perfectly, but because I’d first used the phone in Nigeria the default voice was Nigerian English and it turned out to be harder to change than you’d expect. So for 20 hours worth of driving all my directions were delivered in a heavy Lagos accent. Once again the sheer size of America became apparent with instructions such as “Merge onto I95 and continue straight for the next 272 miles”. I drove from Fort Lauderdale airport north on I95 and stopped the night somewhere near Cape Canaveral after 3 hours of driving. The next morning I drove due north to Jacksonville then turned 90 degrees left and drove due west on I10 for 5 hours. The 700 mile drive from Fort Lauderdale to Pensacola involves a single, solitary left hand turn. Little wonder Americans think autonomous cars are feasible. The Florida panhandle is dull in the extreme – mile after mile of forests of tall, thin trees – on a dead straight road. Fortunately the experience of driving on American roads (in an underpowered Nissan) was new enough to keep things interesting. I am amazed by what Americans are willing to tow along the highways at speed. I passed pickup trucks doing 70mph in the middle lane towing giant boats behind them. I passed at least three accidents where more than 4 cars had piled into the back of one another like a concertina. I don’t think I’ve seen more than one of them the whole time I’ve been in France. Either American brakes are rubbish, they don’t understand stopping distances, or they spend a lot of time not paying attention.

I had a good time in Pensacola with my friend “Leisure Suit” Larry, who is quite a character. We met in Kuwait in 2004 and got on like a house on fire, despite him being 25 years my senior. As a teenager in the sixties, he’d joined the US army as a paratrooper “in order to raise hell”, serving in Vietnam, Okinawa, and the Dominican Republic. Now retired, Larry was an old-school maintenance man, and had worked in almost all the US states, and visited them all. In addition, he was working in Iran when the Revolution happened, Syria when Reagan slapped sanctions on the country, Basra when the Iranians bombarded it and Algeria when the US bombed Libya back in 1986. Diplomats soon learned that if Larry turned up to work in their country, the regime’s days were numbered. He’d turned up in Venezuela to be a plant manager only to later discover the chap who was supposed to be doing the job had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom in the jungle. His boast was he’d never been around at the start of any project: he only got called in when it was in the shit and all the money had gone. In Pensacola I stayed with he and his wife, to whom he’d been married for 53 years. That’s some effort.

We spent a morning at the nearby museum of naval aviation, Pensacola being the home of the US Navy’s air arm and the Blue Angels display team. This was impressive, filled with just about every aircraft that’s ever been used by the USN and models of each class of aircraft carrier. Here’s a pic of an 8 year old boy in the cockpit of a Phantom, which was surprisingly comfortable.

I was also surprised by how big the F14 Tomcat is: it’s not a small plane.

That afternoon we met up with one of Larry’s sons, a former US Army Ranger, on Pensacola beach and had a swim. Entering the Mexican Gulf is like taking a warm bath. The weather up there is a lot better than in south Florida: less humid and without the interminable thunderstorms which wreck the plans of tourists every afternoon in the summer months. In the evening we went to a extraordinarily popular Irish bar which was about as Irish as I am. The steak was good, though. Before I left Pensacola for the long drive back down south, Larry and I got a picture together.

Fifteen years is a long time, but in many ways not much had changed. I always meant to go and see old Larry again and finally I did. It was well worth the trip.


25 thoughts on “The Sunshine State

  1. This explains very well why American cars are so shit at going round corners but all have a good supply of cup holders.

  2. Not paying attention! The museum in Pensecola is good though; our daughter did her initial and intermediate training at the NAS there.

  3. I always enjoy it when you (and Zman) do travel writing.
    I’ve always thought that Florida seems like a very unappealing place to visit. At least without a specific reason, like you had. A very hot, sticky and boring place to be.

    Small typo to correct: Cape Canaveral.

  4. “they spend a lot of time not paying attention.”


    I am ashamed to say that I feel the same in the pesky new 20mph limits around here. It’s actually slow enough that you find your mind wandering and you are _less_ alert and I feel actually _more_ dangerous at the slower speed.

    Very long, very straight roads enclosed by uniform trees preventing even some view off the road will have a similarly mind-numbing effect.

  5. A Taiwanese manufacturing fellow I worked with called one day to say he would be in San Diego, California and wanted to drive up to San Mateo to meet me, as he had a free half-day.
    I had to inform him that it was 800 klicks each way.

  6. Satnav: I have an old European maps Garmin, but with the North America maps and the Oz/NZ maps on SD cards it’s done us proud for 2 US trips and 2 Antipodean ones. Only a few hundred grammes in the baggage.

    I’ve mainly driven on the West Coast with a bit in NJ and around Atlanta, but it really is necessary to plan for the distances. Apart from 405 in LA at rush hour, US driving (and Oz/NZ!) is a dream compared with UK. Once, driving to the Grand Canyon on I-40, I set the cruise control to 76 off the GPS (75 limit in Arizona), and an 18-wheeler stayed with me about 100 yards back for over 100 miles.

    Good to see the F4. I once flew the F4 simulator they used to have at RAF Wattisham – an interesting experience after only flying light aircraft!

  7. Too bad you didn’t spend an evening in Miami Beach, or South Beach, specifically. The three main magnets of feminine beauty in America are New York, Los Angeles and South Beach. Even as a jaded New Yorker I was all agog while strolling down Ocean Drive there.

    Don’t know if you’d have any meaningful conversations there, but for a short jaunt, it’s great!

  8. In a library I once saw a British travel book about the United States. The introduction told readers to limit what they planned to see as the country was so large. It pointed out that the distance between New York and Los Angeles was about the same as the distance between London and Moscow.

  9. Yes, the highways are brutally uniform, like an old car racing video game that only renders trees.

    RE the drivers: keep in mind that Florida, while full of native idiots to be sure, has the highest rate of tourism in the country and so has shit drivers from the world over, all equally numbed into stupidity by hours of crying kids and the aforementioned tunnel of pine trees.

    As far as the “Irish” bar…was it Houligan’s? I meant to recommend their baked-AND-fried wings as the best you’ll ever eat in a state with no income tax.

  10. Sounds like a great trip but in future lay off the underpowered Nissans and get something decent as it does help with the drives….me, a charger round town and a Utah for distance.

  11. I was in Pensacola towards the end of June, and I went to the Naval Museum at the start of July. I’m pretty sure I saw the plane you sat in but I didn’t sit in it myself. Did you see the air show? Very impressive.

  12. “His boast was he’d never been around at the start of any project: he only got called in when it was in the shit and all the money had gone. ”

    Ha! I know that feeling all too well!

    I coined a term some time back ‘front end butterflies’ to describe all those who were very keen to be at the start of the job, but quickly moved on as the money started to get a bit short and making it work started to matter…

  13. The worst thing about staying behind and cleaning up, is that the butterflies have moved on to next project cutting corners, making easy calls and charging on, and when challenged, they say things like, “I never had to do that on the last job and it was fine then”!

  14. Bardon
    “I never had to do that on the last job and it was fine then”!

    Or ‘But that’s how we have always done it!’

  15. Funny you should compare the quantity of accidents with France. In three years of living there & spending most of that wandering the western half between the Belgian border & the Pyrenees, think I saw only the one serious. Somewhere in the boonies near Angouleme. Guy trying to do a left turn on a blind bend on an D road meeting an oncoming. Must have just happened when I got there as I was only about 5 cars back in the queue. Was considering getting out & rending assistance when the pompiers came past on the wrong side & the gendarmerie & an ambulance arrived from the other. In five minutes they’d ambulanced off the casualties, shoved the wrecks to the side & were sweeping glass & waving by traffic.
    Is that why I did’t see many accidents? They clear them up so quickly? Or are the French just bloody good drivers? I do notice, when you’re inside the town signs everyone deems to stick to the 50 limit. And adhere to the 90 between them. UK roads are like a racetrack & no Dago should ever be entrusted with any vehicle doesn’t have a leg at each corner. Dagos can contrive a collision on a road they’re the only car.

  16. In the US for the first time in a few years at the moment; family holiday . I’d forgotten how nice the folks can be, but how irritating the rules are. Tax is my number 1 gripe, why price stuff without it, when I have to pay it anyway? Service charges for no service especially when buying tickets online also induce a maniacal rage. The most fun I’ve had so far was debating with a security lady how close my 14 yo daughter could stand next to a slot machine whilst I spent a whole $1. It would appear the rules meant she could stand on some Lino but not on some carpet , despite the lino being closer , go figure .

  17. Tim,

    As transplant here, I’m interested to hear your observations about the great state of Florida – of which you have now seen quite a lot. For what they’re worth, here are mine.

    Yes, America is a big place. Not so much now, but where I used to live, near Philadelphia, I would regularly drive 80 or 100 miles in the course of a night out with friends, something I’d have regarded as insane when I was living in the UK. Now I understand why Americans zealously guard their constitutional right to cheap petrol! While Americans might drive a lot, driving standards are pretty low – and abysmal in south Florida. Hence the wrecks on the highway: they just don’t seem to understand the concept of maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front. (The Germans have a much better system: on the autobahns you can mostly drive as fast as you like, but get too close to the vehicle in front and you’ll get a ticket.)

    The Miami skyline looks the way it does for several reasons – like all skylines, I suppose. Miami Beach, which is a separate city, but is what most tourists think of when they talk of “Miami”, has one of the biggest collections of art deco architecture in the world. From your description of the place though, it sounds like you weren’t much impressed. Not surprisingly it’s protected and what new development is allowed cannot normally be more than 50 feet high. But no such height restriction exists in Miami proper, so that’s where the developers go to build their high-rise condos. As a result, the skyline there has changed beyond all recognition in the last thirty years and gets more like Manhattan on a daily basis. The results of all this have been practically all good, though. The deco architecture on Miami Beach – which I think is absolutely beautiful – is preserved, while downtown Miami expands its population without resorting to ever more urban sprawl and without gentrifying long-established adjacent communities, like Overtown and Little Havana. Other cities, I feel, have something to learn from Miami.

  18. On the topic of sunnier climes,

    Nigeria army-police shoot-out sees kidnap ‘kingpin’ flee in Taraba

    Soldiers in Nigeria have shot dead a civilian and three police officers who were transporting a suspected criminal.

    The police say the officers were taking a man believed to be behind several kidnappings to a police station in the north-eastern Taraba state.

    The troops fired at the undercover police because they mistook them for kidnappers, according to the military. …

    The military described it as a case of mistaken identity.

    The police, however, said the officers were shot at several times by the soldiers “despite sufficient proof that they [were] police personnel on legitimate duty”.

    After the shooting, the soldiers released the handcuffed suspect, according to the police, who named him as Alhaji Hamisu, allegedly a “notorious kidnap kingpin” involved in high-profile kidnaps.

    The police have opened an investigation into what they call a “bizarre and unfortunate” incident.

    I imagine you don’t miss the need for personal protection?

  19. Sounds like a great trip but in future lay off the underpowered Nissans and get something decent as it does help with the drives

    If I were working I’d have paid the $200 extra for a Mustang.

  20. From your description of the place though, it sounds like you weren’t much impressed.

    We didn’t go onto the sandy part of the beach, so I missed the art deco. But probably I’d not have been impressed with it anyway: I’m a philistine.

  21. Late to this but I wondered how you got on over here. A couple thoughts:
    ” I passed at least three accidents where more than 4 cars had piled into the back of one another like a concertina.”
    I’m gonna say that is a bit unusual. Even for the miles (see next point) that you drove. Yet it doesn’t completely surprise me. Tailgating is most definitely a problem here. As a long time resident of Florida, and maybe it’s just my prejudice, but I find it more of a problem the closer you get to Daytona…or stock car season (late Feb. to Ihavenoidea). Though in my somewhat broad but very limited exposure to driving in Europe, I’ll take Florida drivers (who as someone else pointed out, come from damn near everywhere) to Italians or Irish.

    Curious how/why you went up I-95 through Jax to cut over to Pensacola. That had to add at least 45 minutes to an hour to your trip versus taking I-75/Turnpike. Was that Google’s idea or were you just looking to take a different route up and back (I think you mentioned Tampa at some point, though don’t see it here). Though when coming back from Georgia I sometimes take I-10 from I-75 over to Jax and down instead of continuing on I-75/Florida Turnpike because I-10 is less traffic. The Ocala area gets very congested in the fall as stores and similar start to stock up for Christmas and so much is moving via trucks anymore instead of freight trains. Though I understand some of that is in flux. As with damn near everything anymore, it’s complicated.

    Also, Weston not Miami…heh. Interesting how when coming from a long way aways metropolitan areas seem much more “local”. Weston is due west from where I grew up. While as kids we cheered for the Miami Dolphins, we didn’t really consider ourselves as being from Miami. We would go down there for football games and occasional swim meets and such but Miami seemed culturally different from Ft. Lauderdale (which is basically what Weston is…Weston didn’t even exist when I was living there…that area was just swamp or possibly open cow pastures). Miami had much more of a Cuban flair to it. Not that there weren’t a good number of ex-pat Cubans in FtL but there wasn’t as much of a critical mass. Actually I rarely ventured south of Port Everglades/FtL Airport. Hollywood itself was like a different place. When we kids went for long bike rides we never went past the port but mostly went as far north into the Palm Beaches as we could go in a day. The drive/ride up through the Palm Beach area north from Ft. Lauderdale is incredible. Past the big beach mansions and yachts and moneymoneymoney. Trump didn’t own Mar-a-Largo back then but it’s on that drive up A1A.

    Also, note that FtL and south/central Florida in general isn’t nasty hot/humid from about April to October, but in Weston itself you’re right up against the Everglades. The salt air sea breeze (I presume) is virtually nil. Living in Orlando, I miss that. When we take a weekender to a beach town, though still hot it doesn’t seem as oppressive as Orlando is.

  22. Curious how/why you went up I-95 through Jax to cut over to Pensacola. That had to add at least 45 minutes to an hour to your trip versus taking I-75/Turnpike.

    I had all day and I was trying to save money. An hour saved on a 10-hour journey over 2 days isn’t a whole lot.

Comments are closed.