Travel & Leisure

Southbound To The Sunshine State!

When my 4-year-old daughter (Jade) asked, “Mom, when are we going home?” It dawned on me that Georgia was not exactly on her mind. Within the past six years, my family had bounced back and forth between the states of Tennessee and Florida like a ping-pong ball. We’d known numerous faces and called several places home. Our most recent move to the metro Atlanta area from Fort Myers was neither anticipated nor embraced by the children. My oldest two daughters whimpered. They pleaded. One accused my husband and me of lying. “You guys said we weren’t going to move again anytime soon!” They even asked us to carry on without them. I couldn’t blame them. I too had grown accustomed to the diverse culture, ethnic cuisines and tropical ambiance of South Florida-a bit reminiscent of the good ol’ days in Nigeria…a Nigeria gone by. To calm their apprehension, we promised them a yearly reunion with all those friends who once waved goodbye.

So, during the first week of summer when hotel accommodations were a tad more affordable, we loaded the minivan and headed south to the sunshine state to revisit some of our old stomping grounds. Tampa! Fort Myers! Naples! Fort Lauderdale! Miami! Orlando! Ready or not, here we come!

THE JOURNEY

Monday

TAMPA

At the crack of dawn we took off from Woodstock; hopped on I-75 South toward Atlanta. Four hours later, despite the routine traffic congestion between Tifton and Valdosta, we cheered and waved at the Florida State Line sign.First on our hit list was Tampa, and we were gunning for it.

The city of Tampa is located on the west coast of Florida, 180 miles southwest of Jacksonville, 200 miles northwest of Miami. Two bodies of water (Old Tampa Bay and the Hillsboro River) that ultimately flow into the Gulf of Mexico border Tampa.It is also home to Busch Gardens; a very trendy family friendly theme park that features roller coaster rides, entertainment and live animals. (www.tampagov.net).

We made it to Lettuce Lake Parkin Hillsborough countyjust in time for a pee break and a bite to eat. The park offers a wide range of recreational activities and a 3,500-foot boardwalk, which winds through the boondocks and brings you up close and personal with some of the wild life in the vicinity. But, its unique highlight is a 35-foot observation tower that overlooks the Hillsboro River. When my 12-year-old daughter (Sidney) was just a preschooler, she used to race up to the top to watch a few daredevils canoeing next to alligators. Unfortunately, the tower, the reason for our stop, was temporarily out of commission. Hurricane Charley had seen to it. We gathered around under a shaded pavilion in the playground area to share some Fuji Apples, String Cheese, Almonds, Gatorade and Plantain Chips! Afterwards, Jade dashed off to check out the slides. Milaka chased after squirrels with a tree trunk. Out of the blue, dark clouds accompanied by a few drizzles began to edge in. “It’s time to go!” I called. We were all out there in the wide open; within the confines of the Lightning Capital of the world, and I wasn’t about to wait around for what might follow.

We detoured west on route 275 for a 5.5-mile cruise across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge-Florida’s largest, and the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge. Sometime in 1999, a group of daredevils attempted a”pendulum swing” off the bridge. The plan? They would go back and forth on a rope attached to the cast-off point. When the rope snapped, plunging them 60 meters into the water, broken bones and neck injuries were all they had to show for it.In addition, during the last scene of the crime flick, The Punisher , which was set in the Tampa Bay area, (the hero-Frank Castle) was seen standing outside his parked car on this bridge as he proclaims “I am the Punisher!” I tried a bit of history 101. The children were not interested. The mesmerizing view of such a large body of water from a high vantage point was obviously more enchanting. Down the road, we merged back ontointerstate 75.Destination? The City of Palms. By the time we pulled up to Best Western Coral bridge Inn & Suites; our favorite extended stay hotel, the kids were fast asleep!(http://www.point-travel.com/ )

Tuesday

FORT MYERS

This gateway to the Gulf of Mexico is positioned on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in Southwest Florida (SWFL). Seasonal visitors find its rich culture and tropical atmosphere attractive. Many residents stick around for the same reasons in spite of the typically hot and muggy weather. Our hotel offered daily complementary breakfast that included eggs, Belgian waffles, cereals, pastries, juices, yogurts, fresh fruit and milk. But we were more interested in half a dozen Dunkin Donuts, located about a Frisbee throw from our Inn. Sidney and Mikala nibbled at the powdered variety. John and I sampled Boston crème, Old- fashioned blueberry and extra large cup of coffee with cream. Chocolate with sprinkles was an instant hit with Jade.

To start the day, we rock, paper, scissored our way to Jungle Larry’s Caribbeans Gardens. Tucked away amid midtown Naples, this 52-acre zoological park with a rainforest backdrop features live exhibits, wildlife, boat tours, and a botanical garden.

To burn off some excessive sugar and caffeine, we hiked the shaded walking trail, which loops around the serene Lake Victoria. The most distinctive underscore of this SWFL tropical gem, is the “primate expedition” Catamaran (boat) tour- our family’s favorite attraction. As we cruised through islands inhabited by Apes, Lemurs and Monkeys, we caught glimpses of free roaming primates who amused us with their hilarious antics.The cream of the crop was watching my little ‘Tarzan” Jade trying to imitate them.

Next, it was time to meet up with some of our Puerto Rican and Jamaican friends at Ritz Carlton’s Gumbo Limbo restaurant for a late lunch. After a round of Grouper Sandwiches and Key Lime Pie, we strolled down to the sandy white Vanderbilt Beach for some splish splash action. Some of us surfed, kayaked and searched for seashells. Others built sandcastles and asked to be buried in the grainy white stuff.Fun in the sun was the name of the game and we all played till we dropped. By dinner time no one was in the mood for food.So, we hung around to watch the golden sun fade to a thin red line as it disappeared over the ocean before calling it a night.

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