Tuesday 31 July 2012

Sawgrass Recreation Park - Airboating in the Everglades

For some reason, risking our lives to see an alligator at the Blue Hole in the Florida Keys wasn't enough for Lori. She wanted to get out on an airboat in the Everglades and look for more gators. I'm not sure why as my wife is far, far too young to remember Miami Vice, but mine is not to question why (at least not out loud), so off we went to Sawgrass Recreation Park.

Sawgrass runs a whole variety of boat tours into the Everglades, but the most common one is a half hour tour through a little bit of swamp to whatever area the alligators have been spotted in that day. It's only $20 per adult and $10 per child (and there's a coupon available on their website), so we bought our tickets and jumped on the next boat.

There was a really quick safety briefing ("The emergency exit is the way the alligators ain't!") and we were off. It was a super smooth ride, and nowhere near as loud as I thought (They provide earplugs, but I found them unnecessary. Taylor Swift was far louder.) Sure enough, it only took about five minutes and our Captain was powering down the engines so we could all get a good look.

Now I'll admit that it was kind of cool to see two alligators out in their natural habitat, but I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Gators don't do much. Really they just kind of sit there and look at you, giving off a rather annoyed vibe. Kind of like my kids. Maybe that was the problem...we just happened to stumble upon teenage alligators. Whatever the reason, after a few minutes of circling and letting everybody take as many pictures as they wanted, we left the teenage gators to do whatever it is that they do (I think I heard complaining and sarcastic comments as we left) and headed back.

There was a brief stop on the way back for a quick lesson on the Everglades and to feed the birds that frequent the area...

The natural food of the Everglades...Cheez-Its.
Then we headed back to land. Now if our day had ended there, I probably would have felt like we got decent value for the money, but Sawgrass Recreation Park also has an exotic wildlife attraction attached to it. Admission is included with your boat ride and there's a fairly decent array of animals to see. During our visit we saw panthers, wolves, bobcats, snakes, and of course, more alligators.

Sure, I'll pet the alligator

But I'm not going anywhere near that thing!
The ever-popular Everglades Bobcat...
The even more popular Everglades Bunny!
Sawgrass Recreation Park was a great visit for us, and more importantly, my wife has now had her fix of searching for alligators. Combine that with the "far, far too young" comment from the first paragraph and hopefully I'm back in the good books. At least until the next time that I refuse to take an alligator she's holding. Those things are slimy!

Written by Steve Pratt

Monday 30 July 2012

Blue Hole on Big Pine Key

When it was decided that we were heading to South Florida for our summer excursion, Lori had two items on her must do list. She wanted to see the Florida Keys, and she wanted to see a wild alligator. I, as all husbands do, decided to try and combine the two.

A little reading told me that the Blue Hole on Big Pine Key was the place to stop. Located right off Key Deer Rd (and conveniently only a couple of minutes from the No Name Pub), the Blue Hole is really more of just a little pond with a very short trail wandering around it. There's a small deck that looks out over the water, which we were led to believe was where an attendant would be standing. The only one near the platform when we arrived was this guy:

Oh well, we don't need supervision...We're grownups! Off we went to the platform and sure enough, within a couple of minutes, here came a gator.

This gator is obviously used to having humans around, as he made a beeline for the platform as soon as we'd made enough noise to announce our presence. Pretty soon he was right in front of us:

And then he was right under us. Everybody kind of laughed when the alligator swam under the dock, but after a minute or two, it occurred to us that we were out on a platform. If the alligator swam under the deck and then came up on the other side, we were trapped. Can you tell that we're brave wilderness types? We got off that platform extra quick and made our way back to the van, convinced that every twig snap was the alligator chasing us right back to the parking lot.

Amazingly, even this near death experience didn't satisfy my wife's desire to see wild alligators. A couple of days later I found myself out on a boat in the Everglades looking for more. The lesson here is, if your wife is easy to please, the Blue Hole will get the job done for you. If she's not, you might as well head straight for the swamp. No point risking your life twice to satisfy the same desire.

Written by Steve Pratt

Friday 27 July 2012

Walking Duval Street in Key West

Although I appreciated the relative peace and quiet of staying at the DoubleTree Grand Key Resort on the east side of Key West, we still felt somewhat obligated to at least visit the west side of the island, and in particular, take a look around Duval Street. We decided that night time might provide a little too much of an educational opportunity for our kids, so after a good night's sleep we got up in the morning and hopped on the DoubleTree's free shuttle to the north end of the island.

The plan was to walk the mile and a quarter length of Duval Street and end up at the southernmost point of the continental United States. At least that was the plan as Lori and I understood it. We may have explained it a little differently to the kids. I believe the exact terms used were, "It's only a couple of blocks." Go ahead and sue me. I'm not running for Parent of the Year.

We got dropped off at the north end of Duval Street just as the rain let up. A promising start to the day!

It didn't last long...

In our infinite wisdom, we took shelter in front of a window filled with giant cookies...

The boy settled in to play some Angry Birds...

But the girls decided that some things were just worth getting wet for...

We thought about riding the Conch Train, but to be honest the people on it didn't look like they were staying a whole lot drier than us, so we kept on walking...

No...No I didn't...

Thank goodness for pet immigration laws (and credit cards with less that $1500 in space on them)...

By the time we reached the Southernmost Point, the weather had cleared up and we were able to enjoy a few minutes of sunshine...

Of course, by the time we left to drive home...

This post is a part of Photo Friday at Delicious Baby and Friday Daydreamin at R We There Yet Mom. If you didn't get here from one of those sites, you should really go check them out. There's people there who would have walked both ways on Duval Street. I believe these people are called 'elite athletes', and they're probably all in London right about now.

Written by Steve Pratt

Thursday 26 July 2012

DoubleTree Grand Key Resort in Key West

I'm kind of like a chameleon of my environment. Wherever I go, I can blend right in with the setting, and you'll be hard pressed to tell that I'm not an actual local. In Washington, I fit right in with the power brokers. In Vegas I was hanging with the high rollers, and when you put me on a ski mountain, I can easily be mistaken for a Nordic guide. So what happened to me when I arrived at the Doubletree Hotel in Key West? My beach bum nature just seemed to rise to the top, and my inner Jimmy Buffet came pouring out in song...

It's Five O'Clock Somewhere
It's only half past twelve. But I don't care,
It's five o'clock somewhere.

Actually it was almost exactly five o'clock when we staggered in to the DoubleTree Grand Key Resort, fresh off our dinner at the No Name Pub. The DoubleTree is at the far east of Key West, leaving it well separated from Duval Street and all the craziness that Key West is famous for. It does offer an hourly shuttle into the chaos if that's what your plans call for, picking up and dropping off at both the North and South ends of Duval Street. For a family visit though, we found it nice to be away from the center of activity, and by activity I of course mean drunk people.

I Used to Have Money One Time
I used to have money one time
Life of adventure and crime
I used to have money one time
Now I ain't got a dime.

OK, it's probably not quite as bad as that, but Key West is not a cheap place to stay, especially on a Saturday night in the summer (How about another round of applause for my planning skills? Lori: "Hon, let's try and avoid the party crowd while we're in Florida OK?" Me: "Sure babe, how about Key West on Saturday night?") The DoubleTree had the cheapest rates available, which made me a little nervous, but I'm guessing that the rate is mainly based on the hotel's location as it's a nicely maintained property with a real island feel to it as soon as you walk in. Parking is included in your rate, and Hilton Gold and above get free internet (which was good) and free breakfast (which was great!).

This Hotel Room
This hotel room got a lot of stuff
A laundry bag and a shoe shine cloth
Thirty-two hangers and a touch-tone phone
Well a light that comes on when I'm not home

Apparently I'm a little tougher to impress than Mr. Buffet, as thirty-two hangers and a touch-tone phone just aren't that impressive to me. I did however, very much like the look and feel of the room. Again it feels very "island-y", even having a ceiling fan which I'm sure helps create a tropical atmosphere, but which we never used as the air conditioner worked just fine. The room also sported such "toes-in-the-sand" features as...

...a work desk with high speed internet, and...

...a 40" LCD TV. This is a perfect combination for me, as I only want to feel like a beach bum, I don't actually want to be one. I have work to do and sports to watch. Not necessarily in that order.

10,000 Seats and One Bathroom
lyrics unknown

Nobody seems to know the lyrics to this small, forgettable song, which seems appropriate as the bathroom in our room could adequately be described using the same adjectives. The sink area and vanity counter are outside of the bathroom, which is nice, but other than that there's not really a lot to say about the bathroom. It's still probably more impressive than the thirty-two hangers though.

Knee Deep
Never been so happy
Never felt so high
And I think I might have found me my own kind of paradise

Our balcony overlooked the pool, which provided a peaceful, tropical feeling....until you opened the door. As soon as you opened it all you could hear was yelling and shouting from the people who I can only guess were too drunk to find their way to the free shuttle for Duval Street. We kept the door closed and it felt just like we were in a tropical paradise.

So I'll put on my Bob Marley tape
And practice what I preach
Get Ja lost in the reggae mon
As I walk along the beach

The DoubleTree is located right across the street from the ocean, but there is no beach to speak of. There is, however, a super wide sidewalk that runs all along the coastline, making for a fantastic place to go for a walk. With the waves coming in and the ocean breeze...if you don't need to have your toes in the sand, it's a perfect place to sit and watch the world pass by.

While I was originally disappointed to not be staying right downtown, a little time spent wandering around Duval Street the next day was enough to cure me of that desire. I prefer a little separation from the chaos when I'm traveling with my kids, and for that the DoubleTree Grand Key Resort was perfect. They shuttled us in and out of the city, and left us with a peaceful, relaxing place to lay our heads. As long as we didn't go near the pool. Apparently it's always five o'clock down there.

Written by Steve Pratt

Monday 23 July 2012

No Name Pub on Big Pine Key

"Uh Dad, there's a money wall in here!"

I'm not sure what my kids were expecting from their first visit to a pub, but I'm pretty sure this wasn't it. We had stopped on Big Pine Key in Florida to check out the Blue Hole and look for some Key Deer, but sometimes you need a little food to keep spirits high. I knew about the No Name Pub, and I'd tipped the boy off to my reasons for wanting to stop there, but the girls were slightly less enthused when I pulled up to the bright yellow building that markets itself as hard to find, yet only really takes two turns to arrive at from the highway.

"Do we have to eat here?"
"I'm not going to like anything at this place!"
"Honey have you lost your mind?"

Sometimes though, I have a clue what I'm doing. I'll grant you that the No Name Pub isn't exactly the sort of place that we frequent when eating on the road, but the looks on the girls faces when we walked into the pub were priceless. There's not just a money wall inside the pub. There's four money walls. And a money ceiling. It's like being inside the U.S. Treasury when the printing press explodes. 

According to the No Name Pub website, somewhere in the 70's or 80's, money started getting hung on the wall. Suggestions are that it was started by some of the "illegal money" making it's way through the Keys in those days (Obviously pre-Miami Vice. Tubbs and Crockett would have never stood for it!), but since then leaving a dollar bill with your own personal markings on it has become a tradition adopted by everyone who visits the pub. The walls are no longer thinly papered with dollar bills but layered, five or six deep in some spots. The ceiling has filled up, so now people attach their dollar bills to the ones already on the ceiling, lowering the head room in the pub by 6 inches each time. It's possibly the most flammable building I've ever set foot in.

I know what you're thinking though. How much money is actually stapled to the inside of this building? To be honest, I'm pretty sure that nobody knows. In a newspaper interview eight years ago, one of the bartenders estimated the value at between $65,000 and $75,000. I'd say that today the amount would easily extend into six figures. In fact, I challenged my son to try and figure out roughly how much money would be on the walls while we ate lunch (Look at me, sneaking math into his summer vacation!) and after a few calculations he came up with an estimate of between $100,000 and $200,000. Way to leave yourself room for error. I hope he's a little more exact when taking math tests at school.

While we downed our selection of appetizers and Key Lime pie, all of which was fairly decent, we pondered  how to deface our dollar of American currency to best leave our mark. In the end, our creativity was lacking, and we ended up with a monetary equivalent of an "I was here" sign, simply signing our names and adding the More Kids Than Suitcases logo so as to validate our charging of that dollar to our advertising budget (which to date consists of that one dollar).

The No Name Pub was definitely a fun experience. We left with full stomachs, a great story, and three kids who all now want to redecorate their rooms. Sadly, we live in Canada where the dollar bill has been replaced by a dollar coin, and it's going to take a lot longer for them to cover their walls in coin than it would with paper bills. There's also the little matter of where this "wallpaper" would be coming from as their original plan to charge a toll on people entering their room has already been vetoed by their mother (Even though they did offer us a SunPass). Still, it's nice to know that one of our random stops has made an impression on our kids. If you visit the No Name Pub, look for our impression on it at the table closest to the washrooms, and let us know if you find it. It's good to know that our advertising dollar is still hard at work.

Written by Steve Pratt

Friday 20 July 2012

The Bahamas Keep Moving

We didn't have the best of weather for our Florida visit, but what we did have were some gorgeous views of the Atlantic Ocean. When we weren't on our completely deserted stretch of beach, we were quite frequently just sitting on the balcony of our room, staring out into the distance.

One night I woke around 3am, and I just couldn't resist taking one more peek out the window. To my surprise I found that in the darkness I could see the lights from one of the Bahamian islands in the distance. I was amazed that I could see that far, and I debated waking Lori to let her take a look, but she had been pretty tired earlier, so I decided to let her sleep and I went back to bed.

I couldn't get back to sleep though. I kept thinking about the view and finally I decided that I would wake Lori so she could take a quick look. Fortunately, just before I woke her, I took one more glance out the window and much to my surprise noticed that the Bahamas had moved about 30 miles to the north. I decided that I really didn't need to wake Lori to watch the lights of a passing cruise ship. Most of all, I didn't need to be mocked for the rest of our stay about my super-powerful eyesight that could see all the way to the Bahamas. That could remain my little secret.

This post is a part of Photo Friday at Delicious Baby and Friday Daydreamin at R We There Yet Mom. If you didn't get here from one of those sites, you should really go check them out. There's people there who know that you can't see the Bahamas from Melbourne. One of them could have mentioned that to me.

Written by Steve Pratt

Thursday 19 July 2012

Country Inn & Suites in Kendall Florida

I'll be honest. I was bribed into trying the Country Inn & Suites in Kendall. The Country Inn chain has never been on my radar, not due to anything bad, but just because my radar screen can only hold so much, and it usually centers in on Hyatts, Hiltons, and Fairmonts. There's plenty of them down in the Miami area that I could have chosen from, but when the Radisson Big Night promotion (Radisson is the parent company of Country Inn & Suites) offers me enough points for a free night in Paris to try out your product, I'm in. In fact, I'm in twice (Lori and I booked back to back nights).

So how did it go? Well let me give you a couple of things to keep in mind before we go into details. Through my incredibly skilled trip planning, it had taken us almost 23 hours to get from our house in Kelowna to the Country Inn & Suites in Kendall. Yes, I like scenic routes. Needless to say, our mindset wasn't fresh and enthusiastic. That being said, our room had beds, which at that point would have made up for any shortcomings that a hotel could throw at us. Except of course, for the room not being ready when we arrived. Apparently the people in the room assigned to us the night before had broken a couple of things, so we were being moved to another suite. The front desk was very apologetic, and promised the room would be ready within a half hour, which it was. We killed the time by going to Burger King and trying the Bacon Sundae. I'm just loaded with bad decisions sometimes.

After the kids finished questioning my sanity, we returned and made our way back up to the room. The best way I can describe our 1BR suite is to take a normal sized hotel room, and put up walls to make it into a suite. If that sounds negative, it's not. For family travel, simply separating the rooms is a huge bonus. It means that the three of us who like to stay up late can, while the other two can get some sleep. It means that there's two TV's, thus stopping any fights over what to watch. It means that people have to actually get up and go to another room to tell me to stop snoring, and usually that's just too far for them to go. I got a great night's sleep.

Despite it's small size, the room still has it's amenities. Immediately upon coming in the door there is a mini-fridge, microwave, and coffee maker. There's also a work desk in the room, although in a bizarre bit of planning, there is no plug available at the desk. This resigned us to the couch with our laptops which wasn't an issue. The internet connection however, was. The Wi-Fi....well the Wi-Fi reminded me of myself in high school. It tested really well (10mb/s down, 5mb/s up), but it had almost a zero attention span. We fought a constant battle to stay connected to the server, although in all fairness we did have nearly a dozen devices connected at any given time.

What really impressed me at the Country Inn & Suites though, were the staff. Well, half of them anyways. The front desk staff were fantastic. Very friendly, super helpful, and most importantly, they knew what they were doing. Lori and I booked back to back nights and while some hotels can't seem to figure out how to do that without involving all levels of management, everything was handled quickly and accurately. The points for our stay (including the bonus points) had already posted before we arrived home from Miami. The part of the staff that didn't really impress me however, was the housekeeping, which is odd because we don't use housekeeping on short stays. I don't know why housekeeping feels the need to yell at each other down the hallways. It's 8am people, which is 5am where I just flew in from. Walk down the hallway and ask your question quietly please. Unless of course you're planning on applying for a job at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. In that case, just keep on yelling.

As for price, well you can usually get into a room in Kendall for around $100, but I hear you saying "Sure Steve, $100 plus what kind of fees and extras?" Well let's go over them. There's no charge for the internet (minus your therapy bills from going insane trying to actually stay connected). There's lots of free parking out front of the hotel. You even get a pretty good free breakfast complete with hot items (we had breakfast burritos) and great cereal choices (They had Cinnamon Toast Crunch!). All of that is included in your rate. The Kendall location does have one hidden fee however, and if your family is anything like mine, you can believe that this one is going to cost you extra. The hotel is located on the edge of the Town & Country Shopping Center. I guarantee you that's going to cost you more than any fee a hotel has ever charged you.

View from room
I'm leaving our stay with a fairly decent impression of Country Inn & Suites. It's not a luxury brand, but they certainly don't price themselves like one. I love not paying for internet/parking/breakfast, and overlooking housekeeping's enthusiasm early in the morning, I found the staff a pleasure to deal with. Have they squeezed their way onto my already crowded hotel radar screen? Probably. They might not be my first choice, but I'd definitely consider staying with them again if the situation was right. So I guess what we're saying here is that I can be bribed...with hotel points. Somehow I'm doubting that comes as a surprise to anybody.

Written by Steve Pratt