Landing in Miami, the realisation hit me. It was nearly seven years since I’d last set foot on US soil. After many happy holidays in the western States, it was time to head East. I was curious, would a Florida road trip be the same as my previous US experiences?
Remembering to drive on the right, whilst trying not to left-foot break or change the imaginary manual gears with the door handle, I nervously crawled out of Miami airport in my newly collected hire car in search of Le Jeune Road. I found it quite successfully and promptly joined the stream of traffic … in the wrong direction …
It was dark as I peered into the haze of car and street lights seeking a suitable place to turn round, tired after a long flight from the UK.
I eased up to the next red light.
Then I remembered.
Road trip travel reminder no 1: It’s ok to turn right at a red light if there’s no oncoming traffic
Really? Do I have to turn? But I’ve got the State Trooper behind me! This anomaly of road rules has always freaked me out, and over the coming days I breathed an audible sigh of relief whenever I came across a junction with a “no right turn on red” sign. Phew.
Forty-five minutes later, and red light/right turn trauma safely negotiated, I was safely ensconced in my AirBnB place in Coconut Grove, Miami. I picked this area on recommendation, as I’d been told it was a walkable neighbourhood with a choice of restaurants all within a couple of blocks.
Sure enough, the following morning and decidedly jet-lagged, I wandered two blocks to a “nice but not too fancy” café place serving full-on American breakfasts. Yum.
No sooner had I ordered the kind of breakfast that would feed King Kong, when a table of suits made themselves at home at the table behind me.
Apparently the leader of the suits was a Senator. A Senator! At breakfast! In the same kind of breakfast place I was at! This kinda stuff just doesn’t happen in the UK …
Reminder no 2: The lack of “class system” when compared to the UK
OK, so the mystery Senator hadn’t ditched his suit and tie for this “down with the people” venture; but still …
There’s absolutely zero chance of David Cameron ever eating at the same kind of “nice but not too fancy” place as me in the UK unless it was a PR stunt. Though to be fair he probably doesn’t have drunken chicken cravings at 2am.
Even though we in the UK pretend we don’t really have a class system; it’s there.
After a couple of days exploring the artsy side of Miami, it was time to head south.
As I pushed my wobbly trolley round the isles of a Winn Dixie supermarket in my quest for supplies for a couple of breakfasts and picnics, I realised something I hadn’t before …
Reminder (and kick in the backside) no 3: US supermarkets don’t cater for those on their own
Sure, diner portions remained crazily large, but I gave myself a little virtual slap for having been so oblivious to the realities of solo supermarket shopping on my previous (non-solo) road trips Stateside.
The bagels … pack of 6. The cream cheese … the smallest tub was twice the size of the regular sized tub in the UK.
Two days into my bagel/cream cheese diet, and the smallest car I’d been able to rent was blinking at me from the dashboard. Repeatedly.
“Petrol”, it said, “feed me petrol.” It had managed a mere 300 miles before this impatient request.
Road trip travel reminder no 4: The cost of petrol (gas)
At $2.30-$2.70 a gallon, a full tank of petrol (gas) was a quarter of the cost of filling my smaller car in the UK. Although my car back home would’ve managed 150 more miles before it needed refuelling.
Cheap fuel sounds great on the surface, but … is it contributing to my fifth reminder?
Reminder no 5: Urban sprawl
From Miami all the way south 35 miles / 56 kilometres to Homestead, urban sprawl lined the highway the whole route. An evening stroll in anywhere other than an urban area was pretty much out of the question, as a lack of pavements (sidewalks) scuppered a desire to ditch the car for a spot of gentle exercise.
Fortunately in Key West, cycling or walking were the de-rigeur ways to get around town.
Cycling and walking are also far more fashionable in the US National Parks – yay!
Which leads me to the fifth and find thing I’d forgotten about road trip travel in the USA …
Reminder no 6: I love the National Parks
Arriving in The Everglades, knowledgeable rangers imparted expert advice on the best trails to take, the birds I’d see, plus useful facts, such as: “how far to stay away from an alligator” (15 feet, apparently).
My $10 entrance fee included a very handy map and information sheet, plus free car parking and more ranger advice than I could shake a stick at – all valid for seven days throughout the park. Whether I wanted to be ten minutes or ten hours from my car; there was someone I could ask.
This system’s in place throughout the US National Parks (although fees may vary), and it really helped me get the best out of The Everglades.
The good, the bad and the see-it-both-sides of Florida road trip travel
I found the US road trip experience to be much the same as my West coast experience seven years ago. This time though, the negatives bothered me more.
For me, urban sprawl (as opposed to urban development) is ugly as well as inconvenient. The fact my own home is only minutes walk from local amenities including shops and restaurants really brought this home.
My travel in the intervening seven years in countries where families struggle to put food on the table means the potential for such massive food waste (whether from the supermarkets only stocking multipacks or the diners serving portions no human could ever possibly eat) is – to me – completely inexcusable. The US certainly isn’t the only country guilty of this, but it was certainly the country where – as a casual visitor– it was incredibly obvious.
Don’t get me wrong though, the US has got a lot going for it as a tourist destination.
The spirited feel of the country means the belief that anyone can make it to Senator (or at least have breakfast with one) is alive, kicking and very much in action. And incredible outdoor adventures await you from East to West; once you’ve got past the urban sprawl.
As a road trip destination, the US is a pretty straightforward one. Just don’t mess up at the red light 🙂
Have you visited the US recently? Have you noticed changes for better / for worse in other US states? Share your views below.