In the process of an eternal quest towards finding myself, I decided to go on a solo travel to the sunshine state “Florida” in the winter of early 2015. I knew there was no way all of Florida could be done in 5 days; I had to set my priorities for which a bit of homework were required. I read few articles to get a clear idea of Florida’s geography before booking my flight tickets. As I had just 5 days of vacation and wanted to visit 3 major cities (Miami, Orlando, and Tampa) along with NASA, I made up my mind to skip Key West (Southernmost tip of US) for this trip. Once I had a rough idea of what I should visit during my trip, I booked my flight tickets, rental car and stay accordingly. I prefer to book my stay in advance using Airbnb/Couch surfing or any traveller hostels because for solo travellers it works out pretty inexpensive. You also get to meet a lot of interesting people which is critical when travelling alone. For me, travel is not just to visit scenic places, but to meet new people, open to new experiences, learn new things, and educate myself.
I continued my homework whenever time permitted till the travel date arrived. I read a lot of blogs, googled articles for possible tips for solo travel, and gained sufficient information about places to visit near each place where I would stay. I prepared with my camera bag and one carry-on bag with my clothes, tripod and few containers and food for an emergency. Since my flight was early in the morning from Kansas City, which is around a 3 hr drive from the place where I stay, I started around 12 am. This ensured I would reach the airport early and make sure to get a nap before check-in. The flight was pretty long including layover before a connecting flight. It would be a long day of travel to reach Miami.
I could see the breath-taking colourful view of the city filled with lights on the seashore when air hostess announced that flight is about to land in few minutes. The weather was pretty comfortable; temperature was around 65 degrees F which was most comfortable weather in winter for a person staying in Northern part of US. My host Kathy was keeping in touch with me as soon as I landed. I completed all the formalities for the rental car which I booked in advance and started driving to her place Kathy’s place was a cozy stay near Miami South Beach with bunk beds. It reminded me my hostel days in Bangalore when I was studying my masters. As soon as I entered the house, two puppies including the hosts, Nat and Kathy, gave me a warm welcome. There were a few guests sitting on the sofa smoking hookah and watching TV. Nat and Kathy spoke to me for a while and left for the day. I started socializing with the other people who were staying there. They were all staying for a long time. They worked in restaurants and pubs in Miami Beach. A few of them were bar, dancers. Their nationalities included Brazilians, Mexicans and Chinese. It was a completely different world which I had never experienced before. Before this experience, I looked at bar dancers as really different people, maybe even a little strange. However, after visiting with them, I have come to know them as just normal everyday people. They are as normal as you and I. During my 2 days stay there; I socialized with them as much as possible. We would roam around the beach together at night, and they would share their experiences, lifestyle etc… They were really nice people.
Day 1: Everglades National Park
“Everglades National Park” is predominantly known for its ecosystem, wilderness, geography and site of ethnographic resources. Which is around one hour drive from Miami towards the south of Florida Bay? On the way to Everglades National park, I saw a lot of farming lands with different varieties of vegetables. Later on I read few articles regarding rich farming traditions in Florida. When most parts of the US shut down their agricultural activities for winter, Florida still contributes its best to grow seasonal vegetables. For the one who considers Florida as Disney World, beaches and party, I would suggest visiting countryside of Florida too.
I stopped at the park visitor canter to get a National Park map and get an idea of what to visit for that day. I followed the map and drove towards the Anhinga Trail. This trail is a very beautiful trail along the water body; especially a photographer could find a lot of good landscapes, birds and Alligators to capture. I photographed Anhinga’s and a few other birds in their natural habitat. Photography was bit challenging since the light was getting too harsh. Especially when capturing birds or animals focussing on the eyes of an object makes a lot of difference in creating lively expression to the photograph. I did get a chance to avoid the sun and captured few landscapes along with a variety of the patterns in the cloudy sky with the reflection in the water. This trail is good to visit at sunrise or before sunset. After spending good amount of time on this trail, I hiked on the west lake trail in Everglades National Park which is known to be largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere takes you through a beautiful mangrove forest with different species of mangrove trees. There is a nice wooden path made on top of the huge roots of the mangroves which takes you to the edge of West Lake. At the end of the trail, there is a nice view of West Lake.
After hiking west lake trail, I started driving towards Flamingo. On the way, I stopped at a couple of overlook trails which had beautiful landscapes. Along with the mangrove forests, Everglades National Park is enriched with Gumbo Limbo trees, pine trees, mahogany trees, a river of grassland which is habitat for different species of birds and mammals.” Pa hay okee” Overlook trail offers such a marvellous view of “rivers of grass” which even offers good landscapes to photograph. I drove all the way to “Flamingo Visitor centre” which is on the shore of Florida Bay. I visited a small museum at the visitor centre, walked along the trail on the sea shore. On the way, I met a few bikers and hikers coming back to the visitor centre. Other than that, the trial was so quite with the exception of birds and breeze. There was an hour left before sunset which I spent on the seashore.
After sunset, I drove back to Miami. It was around 10 pm; I had my dinner and reached the same cozy hostel. Nat was waiting for me. He was interested to learn about India, because he was planning to visit the Himalayas soon. He even shared a lot of his crazy travel experiences with me. We had a pretty good conversation for some time. After he left, I went to roam along the streets of Miami South Beach which is famous for nightlife. I explored until 2 am, and one of my fellow guests accompanied me for a while.
Day 2: Key Biscayne Island
I started my journey around 5:30 am towards Key Biscayne Island which is barely a 20 min drive from the hostel where I was staying. This island is a small village which connects to Miami through a 7-mile bridge. It was still dark when I reached the Island Village. All gates to enter the beaches were closed. I drove along the small Island to figure out a good place to watch the sunrise. Except a biker who was wandering like me in the dark, the roads were empty until sunrise. We both found a place and waited until the gates opened. They opened the entrance gates right before sunrise. This is one of the most beautiful mornings in my memory. The sky was turning color slowly indicating Sun would soon show its face. I was walking slowly along accompanied by a cool breeze and waves. The beach was completely calm except a few people walking here and there. I could capture few breathtaking sunrise shots with surrounding shining with the golden rays. I chose this place, in particular, because usually on long weekends, Miami South beach is completely crowded. I wanted to spend my time with eternal silence except me and nature listening to each other. Since this place does not offer luxurious beaches, there were very few people walking here and there. It was a perfect place to get lost.
I spent time peacefully on the sea Shore of Key Biscayne Island till late afternoon and then started towards Melbourne, FL to the north. On the way I managed to visit Fort Lauderdale beach immediately after sunset before it gets completely dark. I spent some time walking along the streets where night life was about to start.
Day 3: Kennedy Space Center
My host JD in Melbourne gave me some useful suggestions to visit Disney World and NASA. I wandered around Melbourne downtown before heading towards NASA. Melbourne seems to be quite a town indeed it is pretty near to famous Disney City Orlando. Kennedy Space Center is around 40 min drive from Melbourne which is often traffic free except if there is launch in Kennedy Space Center. Kennedy Space Center offers a lot of exhibits, displays, and educational programs for the visitors. They also offers an educational bus tour across the KSC which takes visitors to different places inside the space center with an instructor explaining the history and future of space shuttles and launches., They also explain the failures and success of each launch as it took place in the history of NASA. One day is not sufficient to see NASA in detail for the one who is interested in space and artifacts related to space. You can even meet an astronaut if one is available the day you visit. I spent the whole day at Kennedy Space Center until it closes in that evening.
Day 4: Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World is a dream place for most of the people in US and visitors to The US. Obviously one cannot visit all the theme parks in Disney World in a single day. If you want to enjoy all the theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom), it is better to set 4 days aside for Disney world in your trip to Florida. After reading a lot of reviews on Disney Theme parks, I decided to visit Epcot. Epcot offers a lot of educational rides. I sat and did a bit of homework reading detailed reviews about all the rides which Epcot offers and shortlisted a few rides. I wanted to be sure and experience these in case it got too crowded. Since I reached the Epcot entrance early in the morning before it becomes too crowded, I completed most of the rides before evening. After that, I met my friends Pranavi and Travis who were also on vacation at Disney World. I enjoyed most of the themes related to different countries and dealing with spacecraft. “Living with the land” is a very nice show which showcases the future of agriculture and interesting horticulture techniques. I spent time in Epcot until around 9.30 pm, and then drove towards Tampa where I stayed with a beautiful couple Anne and Mike. I did not have much time to spend in Tampa, but I wanted to get a feel of all 3 cities in Florida during my visit. It adds one more hour drive to Miami for the route which I planned. Hence I planned to stay in Tampa for the night.
Day 5: Sanibel Island
I had a good conversation and breakfast along with Mike and Anne before leaving. I had a plan to visit Sanibel Island on the way back. Indeed Sanibel Island deserves more time, as part of my trip I visited this island to get a feel of shelling and the wildlife refuge beach. It was too sunny and crowded afternoon when I reached Sanibel Island. I could find a clear difference between Key Biscayne and Sanibel Island beaches. Indeed, both are beautiful, quiet and bit separate from the mainland, but Sanibel seems to have more variety of wildlife inside it. I could find a variety of shells and fishes within a mile I walked along the white sand beach and also a variety of wild plants along the beach. Whereas charm Key Biscayne is full of Coconut Plans with minimal shells and color of the sand is as normal as any other beach.
Few tips for road trip in Florida
- Learn the geography before planning the trip since Florida has a lot of unique beaches and places to visit.
- Choose the places based on your priority, different regions of Florida offers distinct activities.
- Since Florida has a lot of toll booths make sure to purchase E-ZPass while driving in Florida, especially when visiting different cities E-ZPass is critical.
- Be prepared to face traffic within the city and in the highways to enter the cities Miami and Orlando (especially on a long weekend in winter) in peak hours expect early in the morning.
- You may not find gas stations in places like Everglades National Park and few other urban areas. There are limited gas stations in some areas where gas prices higher than usual.