Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Anybody seen my shaker of salt?

After nearly a week of wasting away down here in Margaritaville, I don't mind saying I was ready to get out of the heat and humidity and the swarms of mosquitoes and get to a place -- Savannah, Ga., our current location -- where Florida is in the rear-view mirror.

Not that it's not beautiful and all, and we definitely had some fun, but the Sunshine State turned out to be one of the bigger busts so far on Pie in the Sky II. In fact Michelle coined a new state motto, which I won't repeat here just now although I can say it refers to a spot where the sun don't shine at all.

After we left New Orleans a week ago Monday we headed for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the seaside towns of Biloxi and Gulfport, for three days of R&R and poker. We had a good time there and even won a few bucks, and we enjoyed talking to the locals about the fortunes of the area. The coast was devastated by Katrina -- it hit there even harder than New Orleans -- but is rebuilding now with a bunch of new casino/resorts and more optimism than seems warranted. This shot was taken from our room at the Isle of Capri, the end of the Biloxi casino stretch, looking west.

"This place can still be bigger than Las Vegas," one old guy, J.B., said to me across the poker table. "We've got everything they've got, plus the beach."

I didn't mention that you might say the same thing about Atlantic City, and it hasn't exactly put The Strip out of business. Plus, as we've seen, one bad storm down here can wipe out years of gambling profits. But old J.B., 83 years and counting, was a sharp operator. Turns out he used to own all the land under the Beau Rivage, Biloxi's big Bellagio-style casino, and he recently turned a fourfold profit on a one-bedroom condo that he bought just before the reconstruction crews came in and that he then resold several months later.

Almost every property on the Gulf Coast not already claimed by a casino was for sale, and many lots that had held houses or small businesses looked abandoned.

The disparity between the fortunes of the big gambling corporations and almost everyone else was pretty apparent.

On Thursday we drove east and south into Florida, taking a really scenic, back-highway route along the water until it got dark, then we headed inland and spent the night in Lake City, before heading south again the next day.

Along the way we noticed that all the new home construction along the water is going even taller, taking no chances with the next storm.

On Friday Michelle drove all the way down the Gulf coast of Florida, then all the way across the state along Alligator Alley (we didn't see any), around Miami and down to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, our first stop in the Florida Keys. We hadn't slept in the Excellent Element since Santa Barbara -- thanks to friends, sponsors, Freda and some roadside fortune along the way -- so we were looking forward to camping out in this lovely spot. Even at the late hour we arrived, though, about midnight, you could break a sweat just sitting there, it was so hot. And we were both stunned by the number and ferocity of the bugs -- mosquitoes and smaller, nearly invisible, bitey things they call no-see-ums.

We made up our bed in the car but didn't really sleep at all. By morning we both had dozens of bites we're still scratching, and we were surprised to find that our campground, dark when we arrived, was less a beach than a tropical jungle. I don't know exactly what I was expecting of the Keys -- lots of blue, lots of white, I suppose -- but Pennekamp park was all green and overgrown and alive. Cool and everything, nature, but swampy.

We decided to skip the snorkel tour, the park's main attraction, and head right for Stop Two, Bahia Honda State Park, in about the middle of the 100-mile-long chain of islands. Much more like what I had imagined. Beautiful green-blue water so shallow and warm and buoyant that you feel like you're in a Corona Beer commercial. Long, inviting beaches. Less jungle growth, more sand and sky.

Even on this day, though, the reality couldn't quite match the postcard. We drove out to the end of the archipelago, to Key West, and both found the little town phony and pretentious and overpriced. We tried snorkeling back at our campground, but my stupid three-week trip beard prevented me from getting a good seal on my mask, so we ended up canceling another coral-snorkeling tour. I still feel bad about that. And by night so many mosquitoes had returned, and the temperature and humidity both stayed so high, that again we couldn't get much sleep in the car.

Although we had the campsite reserved for two more days, we got up on Sunday, Mother's Day, and decided to hightail it out of the Keys, up through Miami (above) and to Jupiter, Fla., for the night. We spent last night in Jacksonville, near the Georgia border, before heading into Savannah this afternoon.

This place didn't really do it for us either. Maybe we're at that three-week trip blues point, or maybe we caught Florida on a bad week.

Tomorrow's a new day. Hilton Head and the Carolinas await.


kateco said...

nothing bites like florida when its biting

LaSue said...

Oh, I must say that I never saw what the "snow birds" saw in Florida. The water and beaches are nice, but anywhere else is hot muggy and swampy. Get you some calamine lotion and keep heading North.

freda said...

hot, muggy and swampy sure beats freezing cold with snow up to your butt. but that's just my opinion. and I must admit I hate mosquitos. sorry Florida didn't thrill you, but let us know what you think about Hilton Head. nice pics.

Jim Thomsen said...

I'm with you on Florida. I visited for the first time last year, and found it stifling, unfriendly and altogether too banana-republicky. When I heard about the massive wildfires sweeping the state this week, my first thought was: "Good. If any state could use a do-over, it's Florida."

I too drove all the way to Key West, and still think of the Keys as I see it on my map: "The frozen pee stream of Florida's penis." The drive was surprisingly uninteresting after the first round of gee-whizzery.

donna said...

Yeah, Florida definitely isn't for wimps who show up with milky white skin and think they're gonna camp out next to the swamp. It's the tropics, baby! You guys are like the tourists in Carl Hiassen's novels.