It’s hard to believe that more than 40 years have passed since I last visited Florida.
Back then, still a teenager and as one of a 4-girl dancer/backing singer troupe to the then popular and rising star, Peter Gordeno, I arrived in Miami; the second stop of our first USA tour. For the duration, we were lodged with a wonderfully hospitable and protective family in the leafy suburb of West Palm beach:
while performing each evening at the impressive Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood Florida –
alongside fellow entertainers such as Paul Anka, Bobby Vinton and Englebert Humperdinck. It was a thrilling and glamorous time.
First impressions then were of ones of awe, filled as we were with eager excitement to experience first hand the America we’d only seen in movies; skyscrapers, drive in movies, huge everything (cars, roads, T bone steaks, pancake stacks with maple syrup, cheesecakes, etc) and sunshine! To get to the white sandy beaches as often as possible, to soak up the sun and enjoy, even in January, the balmy semi tropical weather, was paramount.
Tall swaying palms, reaching up into the impossibly blue unbroken skies, danced gently above the seemingly endless strip of ice-ream coloured art deco hotels and resorts that lined the shores, completing the perfect picture of paradise.
If there was any disappointment it was simply that there were so few people of our own age around. Florida, I soon realised was the winter playground of wealthy, ageing mostly New-York retirees. A whole generation of hard-working World War II (and even WWI!) survivors whom, almost without exception, sported leathery, deeply wrinkled sagging skin; the result of years of austerity, excessive smoking and relentless sun-worshipping (this was long before the days of health warnings, Botox and fillers or plastic surgeons on every corner). The balding, hairy-chested and medallion-ed men were constantly enveloped in clouds of black acrid smoke from their fat cigars held by even fatter heavily be-ringed fingers – each sporting over-generous waistlines that bulged over their gaudy, crimpelene golf shorts. While their skinny, elegant, over-coiffured, blue-rinsed and scarlet-taloned wives (or widows) wafted about in gaudy flowing kaftans and jangled heavy gold charm bracelets that weighted down their mahogany-coloured and crepe-y, bony arms.
That said, everyone we met was incredibly kind and friendly and seemingly appreciative of our show, particularly the hotels helpful ‘hospitality’ officers, with names like ‘Sugar’ and ‘Honey’, who spent much of the day ginning vacuous smiles while insisting everyone ‘Have a nice day” through brilliant white and even teeth. For a 19-year-old, optimistic and full of the joys of life:
well, it was all rather depressing really…..
So it was with some reservation this January that my husband and I accepted a long-standing invitation to visit our Canadian relatives who, now retired themselves, swap their cold, snowy Montreal winters for sunnier, healthier climes and their fabulous Condo. on Florida’s western shores .
Weary from the long (10 hour) flight, arriving at, processing through (the most frustrating border control!), and finally getting out of Miami Int. Airport (over 3 hours later!) was an experience I hope I never have to repeat! Likewise, collecting the rental car (unbelievably sans sat. nav!) and finding myself hurtling along a six lane, poorly lit and badly sign-posted freeway in driving rain, heading for 45 minutes in totally the wrong direction, is something I never hope to experience ever again! If it wasn’t for the fabulously kind lady we met, once we could pull over and ask directions, who lead us all the way back to our hotel in her own car, we’d probably still be trying to navigate the fast and furious spaghetti junctions even now! Thankfully, a comfortable night’s sleep followed by a huge American breakfast cleared the air which had become decidedly heated and blue both inside and outside of the car! The comfortable hotel (just moments from the airport as it turned out) is about to undergo a complete refurbishment and having admired the stunning artwork in the lobby, I was sad to hear it too would be disposed of shortly so I thought I’d post some of it here for others to enjoy before it disappears. (If anyone knows the artist please drop me a line.)
A new day, a new start. Under blue skies we hit the (correct, this time) freeway bright and early and headed west, all the way across the flat Florida heartland to Naples on the Gulf Coast.
We followed the Everglades route – but alas, with high protective fences on either side, alligators were nowhere to be seen.
We arrived in the comparatively new and exclusive gated community of Pelican Bay, nestling gently behind the mangroves and shoreline, just over 2 hours later.
Aptly named for there are certainly plenty of Pelicans – manatees, alligators and dolphins too but they’re more camera-shy!
Most noticeably there was not a fat cigar or blue rinse in sight!. Instead, we saw incredibly fit, slim, healthy and lightly glowing (but suspiciously taut and youthful!) 60+ year olds, cycling, jogging, swimming, playing tennis, driving golf carts and briskly walking their dogs along the wide avenues of beautifully manicured gardens of what is arguably a picture perfect paradise for retirees. – well for those lucky enough to afford it, that is.
This part of Florida, with its exclusive tax breaks, boasts some of the most wealthy residents and expensive real estate in the country. Days of leisurely boating around the network of canals around Naples and Marco Island revealed the many multi-million-dollar, water-frontage homes owned by the rich and famous.
Then there were the mostly private, talcum-powder-soft and sandy beaches:
and sunsets which were simply spectacular:
as was the abundance of seafood:
and fresh, organic, locally grown produce. No excuse for not following a healthy lifestyle and diet here!
On first impression was it was all just a bit too perfect and, like the shallow, precarious, floating terrain that makes up most of Florida and is susceptible to sudden sink holes, I feared it might be lacking any real cultural depth too. Imagine my surprise then when on our first evening we were whisked off to watch the entire New York cast of the show-stopping, foot-tapping musical, ’42nd Street’, performing at Artis Naples; the impressive new local theatre/concert hall/cultural centre. We also visited the adjoining museum which, overlooked by a fabulous piece by the celebrated Seattle glass artist, Dale Chihuly:
housed an exhibition of origami-inspired metal sculptures by Kevin Box ,
Later in the week a night visit to Naples’ botanical gardens showed even more of Kevin Box’s work, strategically placed amongst the beautifully lit exhibition of exotic plants and foliage. A wonderful initiative that certainly drew the crowds in to see the stunning gardens.
Our amazingly generous hosts, Maureen and Alain, had gone over and above to make our stay magical and indeed it was. Every day they treated us to new delights and surprises and we were genuinely sorry and sad when the time came to offer our thanks and begin packing.
We waved our goodbyes and retraced our route to Miami, to catch a flight to San Diego (our next destination which I’ll write about after this).
A week or so later though we returned to Miami and had a whole day free to lose ourselves in the city before boarding our night flight home. So we took a cab over the causeway to Miami’s South Beach. On the way, we stopped off briefly to tick another item off my bucket list; paying my respects to Bee Gee, Maurice Gibb (my first serious schoolgirl crush!) at the peaceful Memorial Park laid out in his name.
That done, it was on to the famous Ocean Drive to enjoy a kerbside lunch while toe -tapping to the Latino, Jamaican, Cuban and Haitian street rhythms that engulfed us and the cacophony of all those spoken languages too, as we watched the fascinating mix of people – of all colour and ages – who now call Miami home – parading past.
Fast and furious, yet chilled and laid back, Miami has become a city of marked contrasts. The ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ co-existing side by side – but not with without the inevitable tensions. With the tragic shootings at Fort Lauderdale Airport less than a week previously and the street riots that broke out in Miami just after we left, not to mention the fact that probably everyone we saw was carrying weapon of some sort, a constant tension in the air was certainly palpable; I never really felt completely at ease anywhere in this city….
However, its elegant retro architecture;
the cruising stretch limo’s, Mustangs and vintage cars on every street corner;
the outrageous, unapologetic statements of ‘bling’ adorning the swaggering, beautiful bodies;
the fine dining and ridiculously enormous Happy Hour cocktails (this was HALF a mango Mohito!):
the cultural mix and of course the perfect weather, all combined, make Miami a seriously cool and vibrant place.
Returning here after 40 years, I thought it would be an indulgence in nostalgia; I was fully prepared to come face to face with yet another brutal reminder of my long-lost youth. It turned out instead to be a totally rejuvenating and invigorating experience. I was indeed reminded of that young, naive 19-year-old girl – but also of her still ‘as yet’ unfulfilled dreams and aspirations….
As a result any thoughts on our own impending retirement have been put firmly on the back burner. Florida has, undeniably some fabulous retirement communities and its becoming an increasingly popular destination of choice for many over 50’s from the UK where, sadly, the healthy lifestyle, high standard of living and Floridian weather just simply can’t compare (BBC ‘s documentary, ‘The Real Marigold Hotel – on tour’ episode 1 in Florida, captured the pro’s and cons of retiring in Florida perfectly). But for me, being neither particularly slim, sporty or hell-bent on disguising my age surgically at any cost, settling into what would be my penultimate resting place, is not one that appeals – on either side of the pond. Perhaps that’s because I’ve lived like a nomad most of my life or, more probably because having regularly frequented elderly people’s facilities for the past 6 years (while caring for both of my parents before they passed away) I feel I’m ready to give facing inevitable decline and death on a daily basis a bit of a break…..moreover, I’ve never really had any desire to live in the US so no, Florida is certainly fabulous but definitely not for me, not just yet anyway.
Instead, while I still can, I’ll forge ahead, onwards and upwards to embrace each next new adventure …… wherever it beckons – wobbly bits, wrinkles and all!