A warm Christmas in the Sunshine State – Florida!

Christmas this year was with family – cousins getting together in Florida! Coming from places like Columbus, Milwaukee and San Francisco, we were all eager to enjoy the warm Florida weather. We were a group of 8 adults and 5 children between the ages of 1-6 years. As most of the places of interest to the kids were in and around Orlando and because one of my cousins reside in that area, we chose to meet up near Orlando. Soon after Christmas Day, we set out to explore the rest of Florida.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is located on Meritt Island which is also a wildlife refuge. For this same reason, occasional sightings of Bald-headed Eagles, American Alligators and the like are part of the tour! The Space Center is spread out over a very large area and tour buses are the way to get to 3 of the most interesting places and also drive by the Vehicle Assembly building, which the 4th largest building in the world, by volume. The only place not covered by the tour bus is the Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is about 8 miles from the Visitor Center. All tours start at the Visitor Center and run like clockwork every 15min. Each tour can take 2-3 hours. The tours and the Hall of Fame are included in the General admission ticket.

The Shuttle Launch Experience is not to be missed as it is as close a simulation as it can be, to the real Astronaut experience during a shuttle launch. Other interests include IMAX movies, a ‘Rocket Garden’, an Astronaut memorial etc. We got a view of the launch pads and got to touch a piece of rock from the moon! I must mention that I also found the ‘Space Mud Icecream’ quite interesting. It was a small pot filled with icecream in the form of tiny dots. The chocolate flavored ones looked just like mud!

Ft.Lauderdale was the next stop on our map. This is one trip were we didnt make any hotel reservations and just bid our way to some very good deals in hotels like Hilton and DoubleTree, just a few hours in advance! Ft.Lauderdale is known as the ‘Venice of America’ because of the many canals that crisscross the city. Impressive looking boats are ‘parked’ along these canals, just like cars along the curbside. Ft.Lauderdale had a very pretty beach too, with a sidewalk for runners, parallel to the beach.

We decided to skip the city named Hollywood and proceeded on towards Everglades National Park. Everglades are wetlands that get its name from the long blades of grass that stretch as far as the eye can see. It is the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators co-exist. Crocs live in salt water and gators live in fresh water, both found in everglades. Everglades is also home to many non-native species like the Burmese Python and Iguana, whose populations have multiplied.

Only tour operators at the edge of Everglades National Park offer Airboat Rides. Airboats are flat bottomed boats that are propelled by air and hence make a huge din when they pick up speed. Some tour operators offer free earplugs. On the airboat tour, we got to see alligators lurking in brown muddy waters. At the park we visited, we were also able to hold a medium sized gator for a photo-op. Contrary to what I expected, its hide was neither rough nor slimy. It felt like holding a big smooth leather bag! We also saw a display of species of snakes in glass cases and peacocks, hens and other small flightless birds roamed the premises. On the menu in eateries in the area are frog legs, fried alligator tails, alligator sausages etc. Our free souvenirs from this place – a couple of gator teeth (a gator sheds many in the course of their life) and fossilized gator feet!

Miami Beach is not a beach, but a city – home to many celebrities. One such celebrity home is the Versace mansion, where Gianni Versace was shot to death in 1997. Of course, Miami Beach also has a vast expanse of beautiful beach known for its blue warm waters!

The drive down to the Florida Keys was beautiful., with turquoise water on either side. ‘The Keys’ are a string of islands in southern Florida, connected by a highway. Key West is the southernmost point of Continental USA. Key West is a very slow moving quaint old town with landmarks like the Hemingway home where Ernest Hemmingway (of the ‘Old Man & the Sea’, ‘Farewell to Arms’ fame) once lived. Other tourist attractions include the Robert Frost cottage, Truman House (which was used as the winter White House by President Truman), the Key West cemetery etc.

We also went on our very first Snorkeling experience in the Florida Keys, near Sombrero lighthouse. We were novices and did not venture far enough to see some good coral reefs, but we did see hundreds of fish and a jellyfish which floated very close to us. Some of the others in the boat also reported sighting a Sting Ray! We also spotted a dolphin at a little distance away from the boat.

In my opinion Florida has lots more to offer and you will need more than a few days to truly enjoy the sunshine state!

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