A change of plans in Florida leads to new friendships.

So it is the 1st of November. Willow managed to get the 1st of the month punch in and as a result was sat quite smugly, sipping her cup of tea. We were currently in Orlando and so were preparing a trip to Universal Studios, as that seems to be ‘the thing’ everyone does when visiting Florida from England.

Feeling like we should make the most of our time here, I had done some research and learnt that Costco offered three day passes for $150. Now that was more time and money than we would have preferred to part with, but it was exceptional value compared to a stand alone day pass.

To compensate, we reassessed our plans. Now this is what Willow lives for. It wasn’t long before she had a calendar in one hand and a note pad in another. What resulted was completely different to what we had originally discussed driving in, but now it would allow us to fit so much more into our short time in Florida. Her plan was as followed.

  1. Drive to West Palm Beach that evening.
  2. Drive to Miami the following day (2nd)
  3. Drive to Key West (3rd)
  4. Spend a day in Key West (4th)
  5. Drive to the Everglades and spend a night there. (5th)
  6. Drive to St Petersburg to see Frank Turner (6th)
  7. Chill (7th)
  8. Drive to Bug Jam (8th-10th)
  9. Universal Studios (11th-13th)
  10. Drive to Pensacola
  11. Five Finger Death Punch, Three Days Grace, Bad Wolves concert.

This plan was a masterstroke, fitting everything in that we wanted to do, but wouldn’t have achieved if we stayed in Orlando for the Studios.So off we ventured, We just had the small matter of heading back to the VW store to collect our second replacement petrol cap. So our morning consisted of a drive to Costco and then back to the VW shop.The Costco store didn’t sell a hard copy of the voucher, apparently it could only be purchased on their American website, which we couldn’t register on with our English account. The customer service operative did reassure us however, that we could phone up and buy the tickets over the phone. Maybe this would be the prompt we needed to actually buy an American sim card (It wouldn’t be!) So we left, safe in the knowledge that at some point we would have to order the tickets.From Costco, we collected our new, shiny petrol cap (that I am not replacing again!) and headed to Florida’s east coast, first aiming for Cape Canaveral, hoping to spot me some space ships.

Big firework

It’s almost the 5th of November

During our time spent with Garry and Heather at the VW gathering in Asheville, they introduced us to the app Van Alert. Here you could message hosts how would allow you the convenience of parking on their driveway, also giving you access to facilities such as water, showers, washing machines and sometimes, if you’re really luck, WiFi.We decided to give it a try. We had messaged a host on the way to Savannah, but never received a reply. Today lady luck was smiling down on us. We found a host named Victor, who lived in Port St. Lucie. Victor quickly replied to our message with a number to call him on, and was over the moon to have us as his first ever guests as a host.So we followed the A1A, all the way down the coast down to Victor’s.We couldn’t have timed out arrival any better, we actually overshot his drive down to his house, just as we did, a blue high top VW bay pulled out behind us, before quickly turning back around.Following the van, we were greeted by the biggest smiled greeting I had ever received. After the introductions were over, Victor quickly grabbed his phone a recorded a video, which we posted on a Facebook group named BayPride. Apparently not only was Victor an administrator for the group, he was fairly popular in the Florida VW community. On the video, he asked people nearby to get in touch to offer us further places to park on our long drive down to Key West.

New van fwend

Victor then went on to show us his beast of a VW. Equipped with every gadget you could ever require during a VW roadtrip. And I thought we were well equipped. Me had a shower and Aircon!

The beast!

We spent the rest of the night with Victor and his family. His wife Shilo and his young daughter Kenzie. Victor’s kindness didn’t end with us parking at his lovely home, he invited us to use his shower and even bought us a veggie Chinese. All because we owned a VW camper!Victor told us that although he had owned his van for many years, he had actually took it on his first ever road trip out of the state a few weeks ago. He talked with so much passion about how he one day hoped that take him and his family on a bigger road trip in his beast.The next morning, Victor and his family had to leave early. They were heading to their second home, just outside of Tampa, as he wanted to do some work there before putting it up for sale.His kind generosity apparently hadn’t ended, he left his house open to us so that we could catch up on our outstanding dirty washing collection. Not only that, he donated us a card that would give us access into any national park. Once again, through our new lifestyle, we had met such a kind and generous person who had enriched our little adventure.

Vic and his family

With our clothes once again clean, we made tracks towards Miami. With no appealing free campsites available on any of our apps, we once again contacted hosts on Van Alert. There were three in the Miami area, so hopefully one would respond to us.By about midday, only one had returned our message. Apparently he was unavailable, so we made the decision to head to Miami beach after a trip to Aldi and slum it there.As we were making our way to the beach, Ian, the host who had messaged us earlier, emailed us to inform us that his plans had changed and that we now had a place for us to park the van. Not wanting to risk a noisy night in Miami Beach car park, we made a slight detour towards Ian’s… And boy, weren’t we glad we did!We pulled up outside of Ian’s gated house, once again greeted with a warm welcoming smile. Ian opened up his gate and showed us to our parking spot in his tropical paradise of a garden. Ian quickly showed us around is garden and informed us that we were welcome to use his toilet and shower facilities and that we were welcome to stop in his spare room, which contained a double bed and air con. As the weather was still blisteringly hot, we were very greatful for a night in cooler conditions.

Two hosts in two nights

Ian explained that he didn’t initially answer our phone call because of our English number. Just like in England, he is inundated with bogus phone calls and so assumed that our call was more of the same. We couldn’t blame him and said we’d have done the same in his position. I am so very grateful that his plans changed and we were able to get the meet him.We then spent sometime getting to know our new host/friend better. Ian was a kindred spirit just like ourselves. He was very knowledgeable about VWs and told us about some of his most recent visits down the west coast with his son. Hearing about the beauty of the West sure got me excited for the second half of our American stay.

Ian’s project

Whilst all this was going on, we had let Aimee outside on her lead, much to Ian’s amusement.Ian had installed an outdoor shower, which I thought was ingenious! Showering under the stars. It would have been perfect, if not for the pesky mosquitos that were enjoying a full course meal on our legs.

Outdoor shower… Say no more!

Before we headed to bed, Ian spoke to a close friend of his who lived in Key West and arranged for us to stop at his property the following night.The next morning, Ian invited us Brit’s inside of his home so he could recommend some of the magnificent places he has visited in his van over a cup of tea.

This guy is a proper legend!

Follow the tea trail to find Willow

It was mind boggling to hear about how many places Ian had visited with his son and to see the awe-inspiring pictures of his own road trip. We would definitely be busy when we headed west.With our maps full of suggestions, Ian showed us some of his artwork. Not happy with being a knowledgeable guy about VWs and road trips, he’s pretty handy as an artist as well.

Knee replacement… VW style

That’s a business card

Sadly, it was time to move on from Ian’s and make our way down to Key West. I couldn’t believe how fortunate we were to have two amazing hosts, two nights in a row. I could have gladly spend a whole week sharing stories with Ian, and hoped that one day we would get a chance to meet… I didn’t realise that we would be meeting him again sooner than I thought!To get to Key West from Ian’s house, we would have to take Route 1. The drive would take us at least three and a half hours, longer if we stopped along the way. I think in an ideal world we would have slowly made our way down over a couple of days, stopping to enjoy the fantastic weather, golden beaches and the stunning Gulf of Mexico sea. Due to our visa timeline restrictions however, this was never gonna be possible, and as a result it did leave me feeling resentful to the hard border controls currently in place in the States. On the bright side, it gave us another excuse to one travel back to see an amazing state and people.We had been driving about an hour when I swerved to avoid an animal in the road. To my surprise it was a massive iguana! It didn’t end there though… The whole side of the road was also filled with iguanas of all sizes, basking in the afternoon heatwave. I couldn’t help but scream with excitement, confusing Willow, who hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on outside.We immediately pulled over at the first opportunity, and headed back to the iguana sun lounge to get a closer look.The iguanas were the most exotic animal I had ever seen in the wild, and made me realise two things.

  1. We were in a very warm part of the world.
  2. I really needed to travel more when I was younger.
Don’t see them everyday

I was pretty much captivated the entire drive down to Key West, driving between land and seven mile bridges. We seemed to have picked a perfect day as well. The clear blue sky illuminating the emerald waters of the Gulf sea.

Now that’s a view

We made it to Key West just in time for sunset, our only problem was finding a decent spot to watch it, striking out on what we thought we be the best spot, which was actually a harbour full of cruise ships as tall as large buildings.We did eventually find a spot at a small boat launch, and bought a beer from a small shack. Sadly, the horizon was full of clouds and so we were not treated with the spectacular sunset we had hoped for. We had made it all the way down to the Southernmost point of the United States of America though, which was a pretty monumental achievement in my book.

Ready for some sun set
Getting nicer

As it was getting late, we met up with Ian’s friend Richard, who had lived in Key West for years and owned a restaurant supply store with a funk artisan bakery/café as well.Richard took us inside to show us around, introducing us to his son Bob, who was temporarily filling in as head baker whilst they searched for a new permanent one.Bob kindly volunteered to drop off a freshly baked loaf containing mango at 3am, telling us that he’d leave it on our roof rack. Again, I can’t find the words to explain how surprised and honoured I was due to all of the kind support we have received from complete strangers on our trip so far. I sincerely hope that oneday I get a chance to repay everyone with the same kindness shown to us.With our spot for the night sorted, Richard kindly drove us to a bar named the ‘Half Shell raw bar’, which he strongly recommended trying.At the bar, we were served by the lovely Patrica and Misti, who kindly agreed to give us the same discount that Richard received for supplying Cuban bread.

These two were awesome!
That’s a lot of license plates
Some killer fish food

Although Willow is not incredibly keen on sea food, it was predominantly a sea food bar, and so she decided to expand her sea food horizons and try deep fried conch in a sandwich. Both Willow and I have previous hospitality experience, but neither of us had ever heard of conch, and so were slightly fascinated. Apparently, conch comes out of a very decorative shell, and has a similar texture/consistency to calamari.If you to, were like us and have never heard of conch and are now curious to try it; I wouldn’t bother… Try something else on the menu instead!It wasn’t even unenjoyable due to poor cooking. The conch we ate was cooked fine, however we both just found the meat to be bland and chewy. The only enjoyable thing about the experience was the seasoned batter it was fried in. I am glad I could take that hit for you taste buds.By this point, Richard had left, and so we walked back to Ruby, exhausted from the long drive down from Miami.Tomorrow, we would do a whistle stop tour of the island, before driving all the way back through the keys, to continue with our schedule.I woke up as excited as a child at Christmas and eagerly jumped out of the van to examine the roof rack for bread. Low’n’behold… There it was. A freshly baked loaf of bread.Now you may be reading this wondering why that is something to get so excited about. Especially as Willow has been making some delightful van made bread… Well, high quality artisan bread will set back Joe Bloggs here $5. Plus, it takes Willow an entire morning to mix, proof and cook the bread, not always ideal when you are on a time limit.As Key West is so small, we decided to get on our bikes, to allow us to see more of it in a short time frame. We also decided that it was time to start introducing Aimee more to the big bad world that she would be living in, and so she joined us in Willow’s bike basket.Aimee managed to stay in the basket all the way to the Route 1, 0 mile marker AND… The statue for the most southernmost part of the United States.

First major milestone!
Such a good kitten
Next milestone will be the west coast
Cat wanted in on the picture

It was here however, when she started to get fussy. It was a very hot day and I think we craved the cool familiar surroundings of her home. So we turned around and dropped her back at Ruby.

Whilst outside the van, Willow spotted two other loafs of bread that Bob had left us in the night, which I must have missed in all of my morning bread excitement.

From here, we headed off to visit Fort Zachary Taylor, a base located on the tip off the island built in the mid 1800’s. We had to pay a small but reasonable entrance fee, which was made all the more worthwhile with the free guided tour of the site which we received.I can’t remember the rangers name who have the tour, but he was very informative, teaching me more about American history in an hour, than I had previously learnt in my entire life.

This guy knew his stuff
Not so big anymore

Supposedly, work began on the fort in the mid 1800’s and originally the fort was made up of three levels, two of which were later pulled down.Due to the start of the civil war, the fort was occupied before it’s completion. Florida, a southern state, rebelled along with some of the other states around them, but the troops in Fort Zachary were loyal to the union.

Big gun

Fort Zachary played a key part in preventing trade ships involved with New Orleans from being able to smuggle goods in and out of the Gulf.The fort would then be adapted during the Spanish-American war, with 200 of it’s pre civil war cannons being used to enforce new walls added to prevent damage from future attacks.We then were taught how ultimately the fort became obsolete, due to the development of cannons, and how the invention of the rifle cannon meant that an enemy could now easily blow up the gunpowder room, making the site useless.

Love a good cannon picture
Those lines won the civil war!
They must have known the Morrisons

During the early 1900’s, the site became used for training purposes over the world wars time period, before it was eventually closed.With the tour complete, it was time for us to head back to the van and head off, not before thanking Richard for all of his kind hospitality. If you are ever in Key West, be sure to pop into Coles Peace Bakery, and remind Richard of the two Brits who visited with their VW and their van kitty.

Must visit place in Key West
They have a few beers
Say hi to Richard

Our next stop on Willow’s Florida battle strategy was supposed to be the Everglades, but after continuing to speak to Ian during our time in Key West, he told us that he knew another couple who owned a VW, one of whom was a vet who was offering to give Aimee a free health check and some vaccinations. That was a very kind gesture, and we had already started looking into this, so we gladly accepted the invitation and headed back to his to spend another in his awesome company.

More driving
Look at that sea

The weather was so hot, that we were both really struggling with the intensity. So much so that we had to pull over about half way back to the main land. Even Aimee was feeling the high heat and humidity, but a quick lie down in a supermarket car park soon cured her.

It was here were I had received a reply from one of the other Miami Van Alert hosts named Rodolfo, who apologised for missing our attempts to contact him. As with Ian, he believed the calls from our English number were a scam, and so didn’t answer it. And he had not seen our email until much later. This finally convinced us that it was time to sort out an American number, which we bought on the way back up.

Finally back at Ian’s, we sat down in his man cave, and shared some more stories over a couple of beers. Talking with Ian was so easy; it was like we had known each other for years. It’s curious how a vehicle first made over 60 years ago can unite so many people, regardless of age, ethnicity or gender! I wonder if the main designer at VW realised the true potential of their bus when they first created it?

Chillin

Whilst we had been chilling with Ian, Aimee had been having a great time enjoying the freedom of Ian’s guest room. Darting from behind sofas. Squeezing herself into every orifice she could find!As great a time as we were having, eventually all things must come to an end. We still had a strict schedule to follow if we wanted to make the most of our time in Florida, and so we once again said our goodbyes to Ian and set off to see Marc and Eliana. Ian’s friends who too owned a VW, and had offered the previous day to give Aimee a free health check at their home.

Pulling up to their house, we were greeted by Marc and Eliana with welcoming smiles as they invited us into their home.To give you a bit of background information about Marc and Eliana… They are both have spent the last couple of years completing their own tour around North America in the 1978 VW named Valentina, for the purpose of seeing more of their country, and to spot different types of birds.Their house was a gallery full of images of birds and from their own adventure in the bus. It made me contemplate what images would be decorating our house when we returned to England.As grateful as we were for them both taking time out to help Aimee for free.

There was someone who didn’t appreciate part of the experience.Aimee was not happy about the first vaccination jab she received. Instantly letting out the most horrific wail as soon as Marc had finished the shot, before giving both a look of betrail, as if in this one instant , she was never going to trust us ever again.A minute later, she had a worming syrup and Eliana gave her some hand made toys with cat nip in and suddenly it was as if the whole experience had never happened!With the cat taken care of, we were given a tour of their VW baby, Valentina.

So much love for these two also!

Once we had seen their van, we thanked them for their kind generosity and then hit the road again. Aimee hadn’t enjoyed the experience and was sulking in the van, but she had some new toys out of it and so I doubted it would be long until she was running amok in the van…It wasn’t. I think she was playing with one of her new toys by the time we had left Marc and Eliana’s road!Our time on Florida’s east coast was over. No longer would we be watching the sun rise over the Atlantic ocean. But we were excited, because from now we would have the opportunity to enjoy the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, which Willow was getting desperate to see.We headed for an airboat tour that Willow had booked on Groupon (She had definitely checked the details this time!). I think Florida is synonymous with airboat tours of the Everglades, and as a kid I remember seeing wildlife shows, with explorers heading off in search of alligators.The north east of America had felt so similar to England at times, that we were both enjoying seeing something more unfamiliar than our usual travel experiences.

Gator hunting
Now that’s what you call a ride

As we sat on the air boat, I was desperately hoping that we would be rewarded with an actual sighting, rather than a tour of some weeds in a river.The giant motor roared to life, our ears were not really protected by the sophisticated ear protection (cotton wool) that we were provided, but I really didn’t care.

Soon we were darting through the Everglade canal, the greenery around me seemed a blur as it passed in the corner of my eyes.Our guide found a stop to kill the giant fan, and then went on to give us some background information.

It was intriguing to learn that the Everglades wasn’t actually classed as a swamp. It is a slow moving river. He also informed us that Florida was dependent on the water from the area and if it was to ever drop below a certain point, large parts of Florida would be evacuated for a large period of time to protect the ecosystem.

As fascinated as I was, I came to see some dangerous animals out in the wild. As the fan fired, we continued making our way round the circuit, and my hopes of actually seeing anything were fading.Our guide slowed down as we passed a resting spot for one of the gators… Empty. We pulled over again not far from here, this time for him to tell us about how a certain tree found in the area has medical properties, and apparently they are what’s used to create aspirin.

Apparently, a large pharmaceutical company made the state of Florida a very large offer to buy the land, but they were flatly turned down. Not long after, someone deliberately set fire to the trees causing devastating damage. Surely a coincidence!

Just as my hopes of seeing anything had almost faded, it happened.Our tour guide shot out of his seat, and pointed ahead of the boat. Two menacing, scaly eyes were snaking their way towards the boat.As the alligator closed in on the boat, the tour guide was telling us a bit of information about it. Name. Rough Size. Visible scars. All bits of information I was processing, but in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘The side of this boat isn’t very big!’

The gator swam past the boat multiple times, coaxed by the guide who was luring it back with marshmallows of all things.After a while, the engine fired up again and we were on our way. We were lucky enough to see one other alligator before arriving back at the main complex, so I can definitely say we got good value for money.

Before leaving, we also got an opportunity to hold a three year old baby alligator named ‘Snappy’. They really needed to be a bit more creative with the naming of their animals. I should have given them some advice about our naming strategies.

Stupid name for an alligator

Amazed with what we had seen on the tour, we were soon back in Ruby, driving straight, along Route 41. Eagerly peering out of the windows into the waterways along the road, hoping for another glimpse of an alligator, feeling that it would be more genuine if we saw one by ourselves.

The drive went on for hours, and although we both claimed to have spotted some sinister eyes sticking out of the water in the corner of our eyes, I was rather glad to arrive on the west coast of Florida.With signal back, Willow located a potential spot right next to water, and so we headed up towards Lovers Key State Park.

The spot was located next to a small bridge, but as there was hardly any traffic, we decided it would be perfect for the evening. As much as I had appreciated the kind generosity of our hosts the past four evenings, it felt good to be back on the road, fending for ourselves.

Beats Walmart any day
Ruby and Aimee
Nice views

We spent the rest of the evening, playing outside with Aimee on her lead. She has come a long way since we rescued her. She is no longer a small kitten afraid of the big bad world outside our van doors. It wouldn’t be long until she would be big enough to accompany us on more sizable walks.

Warmer in here
Creepy

Thinking back over the last couple of days; it seemed a long time ago when Willow created her master schedule of our Florida trip. We were about half way through now. From here we would have concerts, a VW festival and a weekend at Universal.

Florida was quickly becoming my favourite American state!