Dave Barry

Vacationland USA: Why go someplace normal?

(This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, November 22, 1987)

Remember the Dark Years, when national magazines kept publishing lists of the Most Desirable Areas, and South Florida always ranked below the moons of Uranus?

Well that's all over now. The tourists are starting to dribble back, and we think we know why: because South Florida is not boring. We think the tourists are getting just a little bit jaded after going, year after year, to AdventureThemeParkLand World to watch robots sing Yankee Doodle. They want something different. Verging on weird. They want South Florida.

Unfortunately, the regular tourist guides try very hard to make this sound like a normal place, like it was Dayton, Ohio, with palm trees. We think this is a big mistake, not to mention impossible, which is why, at our own expense, we are publishing this special New Improved Tourist Guide to South Florida, representing nearly 15 minutes of exhaustive research. Please do not even bother to thank us. We are just glad that we could help.

HISTORY OF SOUTH FLORIDA

South Florida is an area rich in history, dating back approximately 375,000 years to the Bodacious Period, when a group of retired Neanderthals arrived at a location near what is now Miami International Airport, only to discover that the entire region was approximately 700 feet beneath the ocean surface, contrary to what they had read in the brochure.

This was followed by the long and richly historical Crustacean Period, after which South Florida dried out some and was once again visited by humans, this time a tribe of Indians (although of course they did not know that they were Indians, as they had not been discovered yet), who had walked over from Asia one day via the Land Bridge (now Interstate 10). They arrived to find a land that not only was teeming with fish and game, but also had no laws against bingo, so they stayed and formed a culture, traces of which survive today in the form of burial mounds, fragments of pottery and the Golden Glades Interchange, an enormous and very mysterious jumble of stones that some archaeologists believe may have been built as a temple to Woheenie, the God of Afternoon or Evening Thundershowers, although nobody really knows. The only thing that is certain is that it was never intended for automobile traffic.

The next major historical thing to happen to South Florida was the arrival of the Spanish explorer Juan "Ponce" de Leon, who was looking for the legendary Fontainebleau Hotel, of which it was said that if you had a drink there, you would get another one for half price if it was between 4 and 5:30 p.m. Instead, he found the Indians, and he had the following historic encounter with the legendary Indian chief, Humus:

PONCE DE LEON (in Spanish): Do you speak Spanish?

HUMUS: I took a couple years in high school.

PONCE DE LEON: Good. Listen, what we would like to do here is take your land and convert you all to Christianity and slay you by the thousands with swords, OK?

HUMUS: Of course. Also you'll probably want the gold, right?

PONCE DE LEON: The gold?

HUMUS: The huge, dazzling cities made entirely out of gold.

PONCE DE LEON: Oh yeah, right. Where are they again?

HUMUS: OK, you want to head straight inland, bear right at Opa-locka, then just keep on going straight until you see huge dazzling golden cities. You can't miss them.

PONCE DE LEON: Thanks! Listen, we'll get back to you, OK?

HUMUS: You bet.

And so these hardy explorers set off on foot into the area that we now call the Everglades, but that the Indians called Kowabunga, meaning "Place of Armor-Piercing Mosquitoes." Tragically, they died before they found any gold, but their quest was not in vain: The confused, meandering "Trail to Nowhere" that they hacked through the desolate swampland wilderness was later chosen as the route for the Dade County Metrorail system.

Despite this early setback, Spanish explorers continued to come to South Florida and spread Western culture among the Indians, who were highly susceptible to it because they had no penicillin. The Spaniards were soon joined by English settlers, who irritated the hell out of the Spanish by speaking English, which led to the signing of the Treaty of Something in 1783, under which Spain gave Florida to England in exchange for Cuba and a second-round draft pick.

This was followed by 1784, then 1785, and so on until 1845, when the people of Florida joined the union and selected Tallahassee as their capital, apparently unaware that it is located in Alabama. This was followed by the Civil War, in which South Florida was to play a crucial role, thanks to the little- known but courageous actions of Maj. Dwight LeKelp, who, on the night of April 4, 1861, after receiving word of the outbreak of hostilities, headed north from Miami with 150 men. By marching day and night, they were able, in the predawn hours of July 1, 1864, to reach Daytona Beach, where, in what may have been the turning point in the war, they forgot which side they were on.

Not content to rest on these laurels, South Florida then entered a period of rapid postwar development, as increasing numbers of plucky settlers, lured by the promise of year-round humidity, erected a series of thriving settlements along the coast, only to see them destroyed by the Great Hurricane of 1891. Undaunted, these plucky settlers rebuilt the settlements, and continued to rebuild them after the Great Hurricanes of 1893, 1894, 1897, 1899, 1902, 1905, 1908, 1909 and 1911. In 1912 industrialist Henry Flagler, who was so plucky that he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time, built a railroad all the way to Key West, thus attracting hurricanes from as far away as the Fiji Islands.

But South Florida continued to thrive, and by the 1940s it had become a major destination, not only for retirees looking for a place where they could learn to drive, but also for tourists looking to have "fun in the sun" and stay in dozens of comical but architecturally important "art deco" style hotels that fortunately have been saved from extinction by the same federal law that protects the snail darter.

The tourism boom peaked in the '50s -- The "Golden Age" of South Florida -- which was followed by . . .

THE MODERN ERA

We seem to have run out of space here, so unfortunately we cannot discuss the Modern Era in depth, except to say that everything is under control now and Miami is poised to take its rightful place as a thriving, vibrant, truly international city with many exciting places for you, the visitor, to explore, although we urge you to use your common sense because some areas can get a little too vibrant, if you get our drift.

THE CLIMATE

South Florida boasts a year-round climate, divided up into four unique and distinct seasons that offer "something for everyone":

SPRING: This is a great time to "shake off" those "winter doldrums, " with high temperatures around 92 degrees, a relative humidity of 96 percent and a chance of afternoon or evening thundershowers.

SUMMER: This season is extremely popular among local residents who don't have houses in North Carolina, offering afternoon highs reaching 92 degrees accompanied by a relative humidity of 96 percent, frequently offset by welcome afternoon or evening thundershowers.

FALL: As cooler air patterns blanket the nation, South Florida's daytime highs drop to a comfortable 92 degrees, with a corresponding relative humidity in the 96-percent range. Don't be surprised if you see thundershowers in the afternoon or evening!

WINTER: This is when South Floridians finally get the opportunity to break out their fashionable "dress-up" woolen outfits and get great big perspiration stains on them as they enjoy afternoon high temperatures in the 92-degree range accompanied by air with a relatively humanoid moisture content of 96 percent. Also they get rained on in the afternoon or evening.

LANGUAGE

By law, the Official Language of South Florida is English. Unfortunately, since this law is printed in English, a great many residents have no idea what it says. So you will find it helpful to know certain basic conversational Spanish phrases, such as:

Ola.

("Hello.")

Me llamo ----------------.

("My name is ----------------.")

No soy comunista.

("I am not a Communist.")

Este es mi amigo.

("This is my friend.")

El no es un comunista, tambien.

("He is not a Communist, either.")

Ninguno de nosotros somos comunistas.

("Neither of us is a Communist.")

FOUR THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER SAY IN SOUTH FLORIDA

1. "What is that stuff? Baking soda?

2. "Oh yeah? And what are you gonna do about it?"

3. "I don't know, I think you have to admit Castro has done some good for Cuba."

4. "Help! Police!"

GETTING AROUND SOUTH FLORIDA

South Florida is an automotive paradise, blessed with a modern and efficient system of roadways, forming a vital transportation network that is used each day by more than one million South Floridians, nearly eight of whom have insurance. South Florida's roadways also boast the world's largest permanent fleet of blinking traffic barricades, many of which were placed in position over a century ago, before any actual roads existed, by an early settler known only as "Bob."

If you're planning a tour of South Florida's highways, you'll want to experience the Sawgrass Expressway, a spacious and convenient superhighway that was recently constructed at a cost of many millions of dollars to solve the problem of where large commercial jets might land in an emergency without fear of hitting anything. The Department of Transportation has suggested that this road also might be used for automobile traffic, but no local resident that we know of has ever driven on it, because nobody knows where, exactly, the Sawgrass Expressway goes. Quite frankly, we don't even know where it is. That's why we want you, the visitor, to experience it, so we can find out if you come back alive, or mortally wounded by mosquitoes, or what.

Speaking of mortally wounded, another "must" automotive experience for any visitor to South Florida is South Dixie Highway, which is a heavily traveled, high-speed, six-lane highway that, through a hilarious error in planning, has been routed right through the middle of the world's longest strip shopping center. Keep a sharp eye on the median strip, and you'll spot dozens of small picturesque villages formed by pedestrians who, unable to get all the way across the road, settled down, and now survive by licking Egg McMuffin containers tossed to them by thoughtful commuters.

But the epitome of the South Florida driving experience is Interstate 95, especially in downtown Miami, where you will find a driving experience very similar to the hilarious Walt Disney World attraction called "Mister Toad's Wild Ride, " in the sense that it keeps you constantly entertained through a series of sudden, wacky, unpredictable hazards, the difference being that in "Mister Toad's Wild Ride" these hazards only appear to be life-threatening.

The procedure for driving on I-95 through Miami is very simple: Whatever lane you are in, get out of it immediately, because in 1/4 mile it will either end or go to the airport. This means you'll be doing a lot of lane-changing, so you should learn the standard South Florida Driver Signaling System:

SIGNAL: Left-turn signal flashing.

POSSIBLE MEANINGS:

1. "I intend to turn left."

2. "My left-turn signal is flashing."

3. "Baby on Board."

SIGNAL: Right-turn signal flashing.

POSSIBLE MEANINGS:

1. "I intend to turn left."

2. "I am changing radio stations."

3. "I intend to stop suddenly and back up to the previous exit."

SIGNAL: Neither signal is flashing.

POSSIBLE MEANINGS:

1. "I intend to turn left."

2. "I have a gun."

If you would rather "leave the driving to somebody else, " South Florida also offers a modern and efficient mass-transit system, featuring over 8,500 spacious and well-maintained buses that in 1983 were melted down and sold for scrap to raise money to build the high-tech, space-age, extremely litter-free Metrorail system, which sits high above the streets and whisks as many as several passengers each day to convenient destinations such as, um, such as . . . ha ha! Did you ever experience one of those situations where you just had so many convenient mass-transit destinations in your mind that you couldn't get one to come out? That's what we are experiencing now. But take our word for it, there are scores of them, plus in downtown Miami you can transfer from the Metrorail system to the totally computerized People Mover system, which will whisk you around a convenient circle about 150 yards in diameter back to the space-age convenience of the Metrorail system.

NOTE: Do not attempt to eat Armour brand Vienna sausages on the convenient Metrorail system, OK? Never mind why. Just don't.

SIGHTS TO SEE

* DOWNTOWN MIAMI -- This once-sleepy subtropical town has exploded with activity in recent years as it has emerged as a major international banking center, a fact that we travel writers like to point out with breathless excitement, as if tourists are going to flock here and open Guatemalan checking accounts. Going hand-in-hand with all this exciting banking activity has been the construction of a spectacular skyline consisting of tall buildings, as well as the spectacular new Bayside waterfront shopping complex, where you can experience the pleasures of shopping in a complex located next to a waterfront. You'll also want to take a stroll and admire the spectacular outdoor downtown skyline, after which you'll want to sprint back to the Bayside waterfront shopping complex.

If you drive west out of downtown Miami on Southwest Eight Street -- the famous "Calle Ocho" -- you'll probably be killed by oncoming traffic, because it is one-way east. So instead we recommend that you take Seventh Street (the famous "Calle Seventh Street") into Little Havana, where you can enjoy a cup of delicious Cuban coffee, thus insuring that you will never sleep again. Then you might visit the famous Tamiami Gun Shop ("We aim to please"), which could by itself easily defeat Libya.

* MIAMI BEACH -- Once the booming center of the Florida tourism trade, Miami Beach fell on hard times a decade or so ago when an alert security guard noticed that the actual beach, per se, was missing. But today, thanks to a panoramic and breathtaking amount of federal money, there's a totally new beach, plus there are a lot of hotels, especially the world- famous

Fontainebleau-Hilton, which recently spent $40 million to make itself look more tasteful, but which, trust us, is still well worth a visit. And while you're on Miami Beach, you'll definitely want to see the famous Art Deco District, featuring a number of older hotels that at one time we thought were tacky but that we now recognize are very beautiful. While you're in the South Beach area, those of you who love fine seafood will definitely want to stop at Joe's Stone Crab, which is justly famous around the world for its long waiting lines, which is why you might have to actually eat someplace else.

If you enjoy looking at rich people, you'll definitely want to head for the north end of the beach, to the exclusive Bal Harbour Shops, where you can pay $2 an hour to park in a lot filled with Jaguars that, if Jaguars ever had bumper stickers, would express the sentiment: "My other car is a Lear jet." Inside, you can walk around feeling like a street person and peering into stores with names like "Renee LeSnot, " including one store that -- we are not making this up -- sells expensive high-fashion designer-label distressed-denim outfits for 6- month-old children, who of course are just going to mess in them.

* CORAL GABLES -- This lovely city west of Miami features beautiful neighborhoods, bike paths, parks, playgrounds and many fine stores and restaurants.

You are not allowed in.

* COCONUT GROVE -- If you're looking for something "off-beat, " you'll want to visit this arty Bohemian district, where visitors can "make the scene" and engage in a wide variety of zany counterculture activities, ranging all the way from going to stores and shopping for clothes to going to restaurants and eating food. The weekend is "party time" in the Grove, as thousands of fun-lovers from all over South Florida gather to look for places to park.

Nearby is the world-famous Vizcaya, an Italian renaissance mansion where visitors can conduct "hands-on" experiences with light, sound and electricity, and . . . no, wait, we are thinking of the Museum of Science, where you also can see a hissing cockroach the size of a Fiat.

* THE EVERGLADES -- This is without question one of the most spectacular sights in all of Florida, well worth a lengthy visit. Among the sights you won't want to miss are several hundred billion stalks of grass, underneath which, according to knowledgeable experts, is a vast quantity of important nature. Be sure to take one of the relaxing airboat rides to remote wilderness areas where, if you're lucky, you'll spot additional stalks of grass. Afterward, while you're trying to recover your hearing, be sure to stop at one of the area's many authentic tourist attractions, where you can watch a Native American wrestle an authentic alligator that appears to be very depressed.

Our absolute favorite Everglades attraction, however, is Frog City, on the Tamiami Trail just a little bit west of mile marker 83 (watch for a sign that says "Frog City Attractions"). Unfortunately, every time we go there lately, Frog City is closed, but we still like to stop and look through the fence at various things that we think might be attractions, such as a tree and an object that looks like it could possibly be a chair.

Just east of Frog City is Coopertown, which features the famous Coopertown Bridge, which you'll recognize because it has a sign that says: "This is the Famous Coopertown Bridge." We recommend that you stop and walk across it; then, if you think you can handle the additional excitement, you can walk back. On your way back to Miami, we recommend that you stop to eat at The Pit, which has good barbecue, a jukebox where you get five plays for a quarter and a real nice chicken sometimes walking around.

* BROWARD COUNTY -- This is one of the most exciting and fastest-growing counties in all of Florida, having gone in recent years from being a quiet, semi-rural area to one of amazing progress in the form of "construction" crews using huge machines to reduce the entire highway system to pieces of rubble no larger than olive pits, as part of a massive taxpayer- supported improvement project scheduled for completion long after all current taxpayers are dead. A "must" for the visitor is the drive north on Interstate 95 past the Fort Lauderdale Airport, where it looks like the planes are going to land right on your head, then up across the New River Bridge (currently being torn down so it can be put back up again) where local motorists traditionally slow way down because this is the Highest Point in South Florida, from which, on a clear day, you can see as far as the next exit.

If you're a fan of nature, you'll want to pay a visit to the spectacular fish-viewing area at Port Everglades (go east on Route 84 into the port; bear right past the fire station and you'll see the viewing area very shortly on your right, with a little parking lot). There is probably no other fish-viewing area quite like this in the Free World. You have trucks roaring past you and petroleum fumes wafting into your nostrils, and there, in this little lagoon-like body of water in front of you, surrounded by a chain-link fence with barbed wire on top, is an extremely concentrated wad of wildlife, featuring turtles and huge mutant fish that have eaten an enormous amount of food hurled by the public. Also on hand, the day we visited, was a squadron of pelicans attempting to eat the fish but frequently unable to lift them. Many other birds also hang out there, because new members of the nature-loving public arrive constantly with bags of potato chips, pretzels, taco chips and other natural foods. There is also a picnic table.

No trip to Broward County would be complete without a visit to the unusual city of Davie, which is seeking to attract tourists by having a western motif. For example, they have put old-looking boards and a wagon wheel on the municipal water plant, so it looks exactly the way a municipal water plant might have looked in the Old West. Also they have a rodeo there, and at times, according to a local observer, "real cowboys ride real horses through major intersections while expectorating real spit." Another Davie highlight is Publix supermarket No. 252, where a couple was married recently in front of the cash registers after meeting in the meat department of Publix No. 210, also in Davie, during a singles night. We are not making this highlight up. Nor are we making up the Forest Lawn South Cemetery, which features a huge pyramid-shaped mausoleum, where sometimes members of the public come to meditate because they think the pyramid gives them special powers, although so far the mausoleum staff, which is very nice, hasn't noticed anything. The mausoleum is just about sold out, so a new wing is being built, with a sign that says: "Another quality mausoleum addition by National Construction and Marketing Inc."

Before you leave Broward County, be sure to check out the Seminole Indian Reservation on Route 441, where discriminating connoisseurs of vanishing Native American culture go to purchase cigarettes. If you have the time, visit the enormous bingo hall, where at virtually any time you will find many serious bingo players, often from other planets, playing bingo with the intensity of brain surgeons and eating nutritious snacks such as Milk Duds by the cubic yard.

* SOUTH DADE -- A very peaceful and relaxing spot to visit in this area is the Turkey Point nuclear generating plant, which we are sure is completely safe because otherwise why would the authorities even allow them to build it? To get there, head south on U.S. 1 or the turnpike and go east on 344th Street (Palm Avenue) about 10 miles, past signs with bullet holes in them, until you see a humongous looming mass of nuclear machinery that you may rest assured is completely safe, plus some signs directing you to a nearby wildlife conservancy and a picnic area, which we did not personally have time to visit because we suddenly remembered that we had an important appointment very far away. On the way out -- this is absolutely true -- we saw, looming up out of the swamp right near the plant, a 15-foot-high replica of a dinosaur. We don't even want to know why.

Not far from Turkey Point, on U.S. 1 at 286th Street, is Coral Castle, which may well be the strangest place in all of South Florida. It was created by a Latvian man named Edward Leedskalnin, who was engaged to marry a woman named Agnes Scuffs, but she rejected him and so naturally he moved from Latvia to South Florida and spent the rest of his life carving furniture out of coral. Admission is $6.75, which gets you a guided tour, plus you can sit on the coral chairs and soak up the weirdness rays that seem to be emanating from everywhere. In the gift shop you can purchase, for $3.50, a complete set of Ed Leedskalnin's extremely interesting writings on such subjects as women and magnetism.

* THE KEYS -- For those who love to get "off the beaten path, " we highly recommend a drive down the famous Overseas Highway, a miraculous engineering achievement that allows you to drive all the way down the Keys, mile after mile after mile after mile, usually behind a recreational vehicle with the acceleration capabilities of a department store, mile after mile after mile after mile, until you attempt a desperation passing maneuver or simply drive into the sea.

We hope, however, that you get at least as far as the famous and historic bat tower on Sugarloaf Key (turn west on the gravel road just north of mile marker 17; there's a sign there for an airstrip). This is a 30-foot-high wooden tower built in the 1920s by a man named -- we swear -- Richter Clyde Perky, who wanted to attract bats that would eat the mosquitoes, only the bats never showed up, despite the fact that Richter tried to lure them with special imported bat bait allegedly containing guano and the ground-up sexual organs of female bats.

If you can tear yourself away from the bat tower, you also might want to visit Key West, a very famous literary community where you can get all kinds of T-shirts.

(c) 1987, Dave Barry

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