It’s a Tuesday in January and I’m watching a flock of pelicans dive for supper in the fish-rich gulf of Panama: the sun is so blinding I have to retreat into the air-conditioning of the cabin as it’s pushing 90 degrees on the balcony. In England there’s up to a foot of snow and Heathrow allegedly resembles a casualty dressing station in the Crimea so I thought I should write a postcard home.
I’ve done it so often and you, tolerant gentle reader have heard it enough that I won’t burden you with the details of the journey except to say if you’re aiming for Florida, Tampa Airport is a million times better than Miami, the Disney and diaper hellhole of Orlando, or changing in JFK. Apart from the fact you have to manhandle your baggage without the aid of a ‘cart’ which is helpfully not allowed outside the immediate customs area ‘for safety reasons’, it’s only a walk to the terminal and the car rental station where I’m allowed a free choice of Alamo’s finest and chunkiest SUVs. Having wrangled the 46kg suitcases down five flights of stairs this morning at home when the lift was – for the third time in six days - out of order, I swing them like Indian clubs into the massive trunk area and head for the highway.
Although I’ve printed maps I find the hotel mostly by guesswork and immediately form the impression I am the only ‘independent’ customer in the place since everyone else seems to be attending the National Convention of Assholes or somesuch. I’m hot and a bit irritable and after a few beers in the ‘executive’ lounge which has all the charm and polyester upholstery of a vasectomist’s waiting room wherein middle aged American men bullshit about sports to avoid the real purpose of their visit, I’m ready for bed. Eavesdropping at breakfast I discover the conventioneers are all water treatment inspectors, so I was close. All of them, even the women, look like Homer Simpson and under their uniformly oxford button-downs, it’s debatable who has the biggest boobs.
It is SO glorious driving down unfettered highways and over the long low bridges which hug the Reckitt-blue water of Tampa bay that I ask myself out loud why I don’t spend much more of the winter somewhere like this. My first stop is the Salvador Dali museum in St Petersburg where my appreciation is boosted by seeing how broad was the range of his work – like Picasso, he was an excellent draughtsman, portraitist and landscape artist before developing his signature style, and it was a treat to have lunch in the company of Tom O’Shea, the architecture ‘docent’ and discover both that we had designer colleagues in common and that he shares my view that the brand new building’s striking features have been dulled by committee planners and a surrounding of death by local authority landscaping.
A very brief stop at Ellenton ‘Premium’ outlet malls for a wee and a headlong dash through Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers and I’m on the road again heading for Sarasota. By early afternoon I’ve crossed the bridge onto the narrow spit of land which includes Longboat Key and am ticking off the retirement condominiums and golf resorts along Gulf of Mexico Drive to 1241 and my friends Marvin and Betty. They are effortlessly charming and welcoming and after a James Bond penthouse experience where the lift opens directly in to their apartment, it’s a pleasure to see them again after six months and enjoy their home filled with light, fine art and ceramics – there’s even a Dali sketch in the hallway. We chat until sunset on their balcony when it’s time to shower and change for dinner at the Hawkins’ in another grandiose patch of Florida real estate: their two and a half-storey ‘great room’ reminds me of a Kenyan game lodge with its plantation shutters, palm-shaped fans and clubby upholstery, and I’m guessing that’s an 84-inch television.
They’re generous hosts and pour three splendid Californian cabernets to accompany the steaks. We’re having a lovely and relaxed time when Betty’s cell phone rings to announce the demise of her elder sister. Whilst this is not unexpected, because she’d been ill and the doctors had anticipated it, the poise with which Betty handles it takes my breath away and fills me anew with appreciation of how my Jewish friends take such incidents in their stride, believing life is for the living. With barely a beat, she confirms what happened and moves the conversation on. We clink a respectful glass. L’Chaim, to life.
Sleep comes easily and after breakfast I hit the road again for the longish drive from Gulf to Atlantic coast and through ‘Alligator Alley’ across the Everglades where there’s a major python cull in operation. Needless to say, I don’t see one, or indeed much at all the traffic is so light but I do surf the radio stations and am alarmed how many phone-in shows seem to take calls from people whose sole preoccupation – in the aftermath of the elementary school shooting in Connecticut - is ‘what about them tryin’ to take away our guns’.
I hit Fort Lauderdale about 1pm and the Hyatt doesn’t have my room ready so I scoot off for ‘the best hamburger in South Florida’ and since there’s a ‘beauty parlor’ directly above it, get my hair cut by a funny and chatty platinum blonde called Delaine who sports stilettos, Capri pants and mascara applied with more enthusiasm than accuracy and is possibly ten years older than me. No ageism in the great retirement State. She does a very good job, and I also brave having my eyebrows threaded for the first time ever, which is an odd experience but not painful. It is all also extremely cheap, certainly compared to London.
Back at the hotel I ascend to my thirteenth floor eyrie – some dodgy upgrade I seem to have finagled – and almost immediately find Curt, Rhea, David and Peggy having a late lunch at the pool. We don’t have long to chat before changing again because we’re expected for dinner by Bazz and Moya, former cruise line entertainers, at their brand new bar and restaurant within the Hard Rock Casino complex. Driving there takes us through the more depressing parts of Lauderdale until what rises from the strips of tyre depots and discount liquor stores is something like the Emerald City of Oz, with soaring fountains, coloured lights, massive hotels, valet parking and a little bit of Vegas. We find their new bar ‘Piano’ sandwiched between a Hooters and a candy store and it’s an oasis of cool Savoy style sophistication surrounded by some pretty tacky neighbours. And Moya designed, built and painted it herself.
If it gets the footfall, it should do astoundingly well since there’s nothing nearly as classy for miles – except perhaps the wonderful restaurant where we have dinner and which specialises in grass-fed, long-matured dry-aged meat of the sort that cuts like butter and again makes me recall why I like visiting the USA, we just don’t get this in Europe, or if we do it’s at Goodmans where dinner costs more than my flight here. Bazz selects, and we drink, copious bottles of Marques de Riscal Rioja which nourishes my European heart into thinking that the Yanks may have the best meat, but we have the wine that makes their meat sublime. If that sounds like a double entendre, maybe it’s accurate too, but I was genuinely talking about food.
In a complicated game of you-take-me-here, I’ll-drop-you-there Curt and I shuttle our luggage to the dockside and our friends to the ship before ditching the hire cars and getting on board ahead of the crowd. The Silver Shadow is larger than the line’s other ships we’ve sailed on and it’s several days before we find our way confidently about the decks. It’s almost full with 490 passengers but fortunately not so totally booked that I couldn’t change cabins since mine had air conditioning which came directly from a smoking section of the crew accommodation. I was offered an upgrade several floors above the category I’d booked but opt instead for one midships on deck 5 which is the closest to the sea where you can still have a balcony and not get wet. It’s also about where the bow wave crashes so I get lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean, perfect for me.