3 Months On The Road In The USA (Pt 8)


In Autumn 2015, my wife and I went on a fantastic trip for 3 months around the USA. Since then however, I’ve not been as productive as I’d have liked as to date I have yet to finish writing about the trip, so this post is the 8th and final one…

After more than 10 weeks on the road, we had already covered quite a lot of the East and West Coast.

We had just visited Memphis, Nashville, Savannah and Charleston in Part 7 and next we were looking forward to our last leg of the trip – Miami, Key West, the Bahamas and Cuba.

Miami
Miami is one of those places that I’d always been curious about as I’d always heard so many things about it and like so many things on our trip, my experience of this city had mainly been through the pop culture of TV, films and music.

We stayed at the really nice Blanc Kara hotel just around the corner from South Beach, which really is quite beautiful and understandably one of the most famous beaches in the world. The sand really is that white. One of the things I loved that surprised me in Miami was the natural light. The constant sunshine really does seem to make everything just that little bit brighter here. Maybe that’s why seeing a man walking in the sea with a parrot on his shoulder didn’t seem that strange here.

Another highlight of this city was the architecture. In Miami’s Art Deco Historic District alone, there are more than 800 art-deco buildings built between 1923 and 1943, many of which have been used in TV and films over the last few decades and one of the joys being there is just driving around looking at them. Read here for more info on Miami’s Art Deco history.

Our biggest surprise in Miami was visiting the Vizcaya Museum & Gardens which we’d previously never heard of and which for us, was the highlight of our time in Miami. Built between 1912 and 1922 and with more than 50 acres of gardens designed in the Italian Renaissance style and native forest, it was a complete contrast to the Floridian/Hispanic blend we had seen until now.

I recall sitting in the sun on a bench in the gardens at Vizcaya while brides-to-be were having their pre-wedding photos done and I was looking at the wonderfully odd and beautiful stone barge that looks like a shipwreck come to life. This was one of our most favourite places on our USA trip possibly as it reminded us of Venice and Italy, which are both close to our hearts.

We had a few days in Miami and one of those was a Saturday night. Imagine you’re in the beach/nightclub capital of the USA with South Beach and a thousand bars on your doorstep. What would you do? Go to some superclub? Cocktails on a hotel rooftop overlooking the sea? Well, we went to the launderette. Not a club, but an actual place that does laundry. We didn’t have many chances to do it on our trip so when the opportunity arose, we jumped at it.

Maybe it was the fact that we were tired as we were getting to the end of our trip, but neither of us really connected with Miami. We found it very shiny, glitzy and good-looking but in quite a superficial way. Not really our bag. Having said that though, you can’t have a trip to Miami without talking about the fantastic classic cars which were everywhere.

Key West
After a couple of days in Miami, we drove down to Key West which we were curious about, having very few reference points other than some pretty sunsets, Ernest Hemingway having lived there and key lime pie being ‘invented’ there.

We stayed at the delightful, family-run Merlin B&B, wandered around some pretty streets, had some key lime pie and enjoyed some of the charming architecture. We also went to a Cuban restaurant on Sunset Pier called El Meson de Pepe to give us an idea of things to come in a few days when we’d actually be in Cuba.

On the whole though, Key West left us both a bit cold, perhaps epitomised in the kitsch and rather soulless tourist toy-town, main drag Duvall Street area. However, I do highly recommend a delightful Israeli restaurant called Mam’s Best Food that we happened to walk by that made some fantastic hummus.

Typical Key West house

To be fair, after more than 10 weeks on the road, we were also quite tired at this point and lacking in tourist ‘energy’, so maybe if we were to go back another time, we’d see Key West in a different light. Either way, next we were driving back to Miami to get the flight to our next destination.

The Bahamas
When we were originally planning this trip, we couldn’t fly directly from Miami to Cuba, so we had to choose between Jamaica and the Bahamas as a connection point and as a friend had recommended it as they had spent a lot of time there, we chose the Bahamas and I’m glad we did as we loved it.

What’s not to like?

We were only there for a couple of nights so didn’t have a lot of time but we loved what we saw. We stayed in a lovely Airbnb called Honeymoon Cottage with a wonderful sea view and found it to be an excellent location to go exploring. The capital Nassau was inevitably very touristy with an enormous cruise ship berthed for the afternoon but our favourite things on this island were the conch and its accompanying dining experience, walking on Love Beach and the views from Compass Beach restaurant in the evening.

It turns out that conch is indigenous to the Bahamas, so on our first night, we walked along the coast as our Airbnb host had recommended, to sample Dinos’s Gourmet Conch Salad which is the most popular dish at Dino’s restaurant which is essentially a roadside shack. So we ordered and sat at the bar with a couple of cold drinks. Like most people, I presumed they would have a stash in the fridge in the back somewhere, but when they say fresh, they mean it as we saw the guy go into the sea to actually get the conch. Though this sounds like a good idea, you need to be sure you’re not in a rush as we ended up waiting at least 45 minutes to get our conch salad. But hey, you’re in the Bahamas, the sun is shining and someone has just popped into the sea to get dinner for you. That’s a nice situation to be in.

The morning after, we went for a walk and then on the coast along Love Beach. As we were walking down the road back to our Airbnb, a bus pulled over and asked us if we wanted to get on as there wasn’t a bus stop for a while. He looked a tad bemused when we said we’d rather continue walking. Was nice of him to ask though. Later that day, when we were travelling on a bus somewhere else, we also noticed how people getting on the bus called the driver ‘uncle’. I’d heard about this before and so I figured that 70% of the bus passengers were not blood-relatives getting family freebies, but simply showing respect to the older bus driver.

Our last night was at Compass Point beach restaurant as we’d heard about the lovely views and although the views surpassed our expectations, my favourite thing was this sign outside the restaurant. Although technically they were telling you to be careful as theft was a problem in the area, it was done in a very cute, local way.

We loved the people, the landscapes, the sunsets, the weather, the food and the general laidback-ness of the Bahamas and hope to go back one day to explore further. The next would be our final stop on our 3-month trip.

Cuba
One thing to note here is that we did this trip in late 2015. Obama was still President of the USA and relations between the USA and Cuba had thawed and were even starting to look ‘friendly’ at the time.

It takes more organising than normal to get to Cuba and find accommodation, but like all good things, a little patience and tenacity helps.

We’re not really beach people so we didn’t want to go to the more popular places such as Verdadero as we wanted to go beyond the resorts, so we booked an apartment (casa particular) via email in Old Havana and were looking forward to it as we’d always wanted to visit Cuba. However, when we arrived, we were surprised to find that our bedroom had no window, there was no water available for more a few more hours and also that we were actually sharing the apartment with another couple. Not the best of starts perhaps, but on reflection, we were only staying in this place for a couple of nights and thought we would embrace our situation and make the best of it. After all, we were in Cuba!

We walked around Old Havana taking in the atmosphere and the colours which were phenomenal, probably helped by the magnificent natural light here. This city is full of incredibly grand buildings with an intriguing blend of colonial art deco architecture and though some have survived the test of time, many have sadly just been left in ruins.

We did many of the usual tourist things you do in Havana such as walking along the Malecón (8km promenade with wonderful views of the Atlantic), visiting the Castro museum where you can see one of his uniforms, having a mojito or two at restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio made famous by Ernest Hemingway and mooching around the second-hand book market in Plaza de Armas.

While wandering around Old and New Havana, a few of the other things that caught our eye were cigar-smoking women in brightly coloured dresses selling opportunities to take their photos, yellow bike taxis and lots of ‘young people’ hanging around outside international hotels using the wifi as internet access is quite expensive here.

Normally I’d be writing about the food as I have throughout this 3-month trip, but to be honest, there seemed very little to write home about in this respect. We always seemed to have a variation of pork and potatoes wherever we went, however we most definitely indulged in quite a few mojitos to compensate which resulted in a fun night at a bar in Old Havana dancing along to the band. And I’m really not a dancer but when you’re faced with a fantastic Cuban salsa band playing in a bar in Old Havana after a few drinks, you just go with the flow…

I’d like to think things have improved since we were there in 2015 when we were quite struck by the poverty in the Cuba that we saw. At the time, there was a definite sense of both optimism and nervousness about the potential impending American wave of commercialism. In 2020 though, if the tourism industry can get past the political situation and the relationship with the USA, things will hopefully improve for the local population.

After a few days in Old Havana, we also wanted to see another part of Cuba on this trip, so we decided on the lovely town of Trinidad and after a 6-hour bus trip through some of the lushest countryside we’d ever seen, we got to our casa particular Casa Colonial which was charming. The family who ran the place were wonderful and couldn’t have been more helpful and friendly. Trinidad is a small place but its old colonial history and friendliness, we much preferred it to Havana. You have the history, the colours, the atmosphere, but without the downsides of a ‘big city’.

After a couple of nights in Trinidad, we returned to Old Havana for a couple of nights to stay at the more traditional Hotel Florida.

Havana and Cuba in general are very visual places, so here are a few pics to give you an idea of the city and country.

After a week in Cuba, we flew back to Miami and then to England to see family and friends and then back home to Spain.

Summary

And that’s it!

This is the final part of my post about our 3 months on the road in the USA (and Cuba). Our trip ended in December 2015, so it’s only taken me more than 4 years to write about our incredible trip but it’s been fun for my wife and I to relive the experience through shared memories and photos.

If you want to read about the other parts of the trip, you can read it here.

It was very much the trip of a lifetime. My favourite places were Portland, Seattle, Big Sur, Venice Beach and Provincetown, whereas my wife preferred Charleston, Santa Fe and the architecture of Chicago. Though we had been to New York before, we both still loved it, especially as we have some close friends there, however the big surprises of the trip for us both were undoubtedly New Orleans, Nashville, the landscapes and ‘big nature’ of places like Yosemite Park, Mono Lake and the Valley of Fire (see Part 4 for more info) and the southern states in general where we’d love to go back to explore further.

There were many highlights on our trip and here are just a few pics:

Conclusion

I remember one time when we were at the Vizcaya Museum in Miami, we took some time to have a coffee and reflect on the trip and life in general. We had seen some incredible places, had some fantastic experiences, met some wonderful people and seen some old friends on the way.

At that point, we had been living and renting flats in Granada for 2 years after having lived in London nearly 20 years. That afternoon, as we were nearing the end of our trip, I remember having this strong urge to want a permanent home again. Wanting to recreate this feeling of calm serenity I had at Vizcaya and feeling grounded in our new home wherever that may be.

That was November 2015 and it’s now May 2020. We left Granada in 2016 and have been living in a small village in Almería in the south-east of Spain for 4 years. We have a lovely home, a beautiful garden, an adorable dog called Grace and a tranquil lifestyle in (pretty much) constant sunshine.

I’m writing this post as the world is going through the experience of the coronavirus and I feel fortunate to not only have had this 3-month trip, but also to live the life we live in the place where we have chosen to live.

So, there you go. That was the USA and Cuba. When things return to whatever the new normal is going to be, where next? Wherever it is, I’m looking forward to it…

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