Day 6 – 1 March – Sunshine, shells, Bald Eagles and attack of the lime

Time to catch up and the sun has come out so we could fold the car roof away electronically and commune with the cold, fresh air. We started the day with a long, fast walk on the beach, east towards Sanibel Lighthouse on the southern end of the island. It was a sunny day so the anorak-clad Stoopers were out in force and the beach a little crowded. We and the odd jogger had to be careful about collisions as you apparently don’t have to give a signal before stopping and backing up if you are preoccupied with seashells. Last time we were here was just after Hurricane Charley hit and forced a mandatory evacuation so we had a nose around to see what had changed. There was extensive damage and a lot has been rebuilt. The local community has taken the opportunity to refurbish many of the older properties so it’s looking very cheerful and refreshed in some parts. The meander along Captiva Drive that runs north off Sanibel on adjoining Captiva Island – a road that was simply made for convertibles – used to be, in my view, one of the best in the world. It was tall trees and palms overhanging the road; a deep, green tunnel through tropical vegetation and dappled sunlight. It was devastated by the hurricane and has lost a lot of its magic even though the vegetation is making a comeback. There are a huge number of Realtor signs there now; the crunch has affected people in a lot of places and I wonder if the hurricane broke a few hearts, too.

The Sanibel Bean is still going strong and Doc Ford’s sports bar, new last time, is established now. HD sports on the screens; chicken wings and ice-cold Sunset Ale at the bar. Some new housing, too.

We had to pick up some provisions. The things we’d picked-up at Jerry’s deli as we arrived needed supplementing so we headed to Bailey’s General Store, which is the main and biggest supermarket on the island.  We’ve frequently used Traveller’s Cheques as a means of securing money on holiday but the lady in Travelex at Heathrow showed us the exciting new system [actually, I don’t know how new; it may be old hat now] of using a pin-protected debit card that you top up beforehand with your credit card. It has all the safeguards but you don’t have to go through the issues of signing cheques, having excess cash from large denominations, carrying passports and so on. Simple, no? We’d used it frequently in Miami and just had to swipe and sign the receipt – yes, dead easy but, er, couldn’t we do that with our credit cards anyway? Well, in Bailey’s they wanted us to enter the pin code and, of course, that was back in the car. I waited with the bags of provisions, trying to make conversation with the less-than-sharp check-out guy while Anna went to find it. It was clear that the couple following us in the queue – the guy, in cap, long shorts with turn-ups and belted waist, was huge – were just a little irritated as I explained to the check-out guy that we’d not needed a code thus far. His colleague, a pleasant but slightly bovine lad who had assisted in the packing was sympathetic – ‘I have one of those debit cards and they are always giving me problems’. I explained that there wasn’t a problem, but that the pin code was in the car; the debit card had replaced our Traveller’s Cheques. The check-out guy, trained in service etiquette, immediately offered to take a cheque and cancelled the card swipe. I explained that the card replaced the cheques, to which he replied, ‘You lost your travel cheques?’ I said I hadn’t; I needed a pin-code. He asked if I’d lost that and I said, ‘No, my wife has just gone to get it.’ His face clouded over and I think he suspected she’d gone back to our condo or even Heathrow for it and replied, ‘I am at the end of my shift and have to close this check-out.’ The couple behind grunted; I gave a ‘this is a misunderstanding and we’ll sort it out in a moment’ smile but received cold stares in return. They suggested they move to another check-out but the check-out guy just looked blank. His colleague told me again about how much trouble debit cards were as Anna arrived with the code. We duly punched it in and the transaction was rejected. The guy behind quietly mumbled something like ‘….the hell!’ I said to young Mr check-out guy, ‘Didn’t you cancel the transaction when you offered to take a cheque?’ He replied, ‘Oh yeah.’ So I swiped it again and again it was rejected. ‘It must have timed out.’ So I swiped and punched the code in again. The couple behind, who had started moving away, came back thinking that my punching in the code would end the affair. It failed again. I turned to Anna to check that I’d got the right code but she’d taken the trolley and left the store. The guy behind let out an exasperated groan and began moving off. I couldn’t raise a smile out of him or his wife in acknowledgement of the obvious problem I’d caused them so I swiped a credit card, which worked. That’s when the angry guy lost it and threw a lime at the check-out. It bounced with a clunk in front of me and I caught it [that part was pretty cool, actually] and handed it to the check-out guy. He looked at the counter, the lime I was handing him and then up at the roof – as did the packing guy – and said, ‘Where did that come from?’ I said I thought it belonged to the guy on the next check-out, the one who was waiting here. They clearly couldn’t work out how a lime belonging to a guy two check-outs over could fall from the ceiling so they shrugged and let it go. I grabbed my receipt and left, fast, leaving them debating where the lime had come from and looking skyward. I expect the couple behind us were just fed up with the cold weather spoiling their holiday but there was room for a little more humility.

On the brighter side my birding list is growing and without any serious efforts. Seventy-eight species in six days isn’t great but it’s not bad either. A couple of highlights – the Bald Eagles at the Bayous have two fledged eaglets in the nest that are about ready to fly and, on the windswept beach an immaculate Thayer’s Gull stopped by to watch the Stoopers. For those that care, you can just make out the pale underside to the primaries and the dark pink legs.

Day 5 – 28 February – Doing the Sanibel Stoop

Florida has something of a reputation for being the final destination of the retired, the infirm and the snowbird. In many ways, Sanibel Island is a microcosm of this and while it’s difficult to determine the average age of the multitude before you it’s clear that most people have grey hair and an aged disposition. The island is essentially a place to retire and live out your later years in a friendly, benign climate or pursue a not-to-strenuous activity in some winter sunshine. The economy has developed in support and, consequently, the driving forces are real estate, recreational shopping, investment and, of course, healthcare. You feel as if you’re surrounded by older people but actually that doesn’t do the island justice. There is an active resident population but it is overwhelmed by an influx of visitors that flows in and out like a sedate and soporific tide. Vehicles, cycles and pedestrians alike creep along at glacial speed. The symbiosis that exists between the local economy and the visitors means that pharmaceutical sections in the supermarkets are the largest you’ll ever find and the selection of liquidised food is second to none.

Sanibel is a barrier island, which is a long and low strip of land running parallel to the coast, just of Fort Myers. It was joined to the mainland by a causeway and bridge in 1963. Until then it had been served by a ferry and could only be visited by the determined few. The causeway meant that access was then available to the ubiquitous SUV but the residents, to their immense credit, involved themselves in developing a Comprehensive Land Use Plan that sought to avoid overdevelopment and balance the island’s ecology. No chain franchises are allowed – so no McDonald’s, IHOP or Starbucks. As a direct consequence more than half the island comprises managed conservation areas and this is what makes it so attractive. The largest of these is the JN ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Essentially, the landward side of the island is mostly mangrove fringe around tidal inlets while the seaward side has long, white sandy beaches that are world-famous for the quantity and variety of seashells that occur. There are several distinct habitats that support a wide variety of tropical native plants. These, in turn, support extensive birdlife, several breeding pairs of Bald Eagles, generous numbers of Roseate Spoonbills and a huge variety of wildlife that includes manatees, crocodiles, alligators and bobcats. You can see dolphins every day. It’s almost – but not quite – possible to get away from people.

Sanibel was named by the Spaniards in about 1768, a few years after a harbour was first indicated on contemporary maps. There’s a well-documented history of pirates using the island and local mythology suggests that there is still buried treasure waiting to be discovered. I suspect that if there is any it’s under a ‘vacation rental by owner’ or a golf course.

But it’s the seashells that do so much to give Sanibel its singular character. On any day and at any time the long beaches are filled with people wandering back and forth, heads bowed and rooting around in the sand. Each carries a plastic bag or bucket; sometimes a net or even an old hat – any form of container. Brown-skinned locals, jaws set in an expression of deep concentration and dressed in ripped-off denims and windcheaters, mingle with northern or European visitors in beachwear. Together they move in somnambulant synchronicity in performing the macabre dance known as the Sanibel Stoop; stroll, turn, bob and pick. I can’t work out if shelling is a pursuit that attracts people who have slow movements, bad posture and sloping shoulders or if the Stoop causes it. Literally thousands of kilos of shells must be picked up each day; the unburied treasure of Sanibel Island that sometimes delivers a rare Sundial, Junonia, Nutmeg, Scotch Bonnet or Lion’s Paw. But in the tradition of all holiday romances the affair is often short-lived and the dance over all to soon; the back of the beach, where it joins footpaths, car parks or condominium gardens is littered with sad little piles of discarded shells.

Day 4 – 27 February – The ‘Glades

When you travel west from Miami there are two main routes – US Highway 41 and Interstate 75. The first,  known as the Tamiami Trail, is the smaller two-way, slower road that allows you to stop along the way at river crossings, fishing areas, Indian Villages, campgrounds and Everglades access points. Or Joanie’s Blue Crab Café if you aren’t into salubrious but love strawberry smoothies. The second, Alligator Alley, is a divided high-speed link and is fenced either side throughout its length. There are service points for natural breaks but the road is essentially a ‘get across as quickly as you can’ route. The fence is for wildlife management and intended to prevent animals being killed on the road. The Florida Panther, a race of the Mountain Lion, is just about hanging on here with a small population so any measures taken to maintain the numbers is fine with me. I find this road is frustrating and a little boring as it’s not possible to stop if you see something interesting and the other vehicles are moving at ferocious speed.

We drove the Tamiami as crossing the Glades without stopping to gawp at alligators and more birds than you can count is unthinkable. Construction of US41 commenced in the early 1900s to link Tampa and the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida and, after a lot of interesting detours involving boundary changes, local politics, private enterprise funding and general New World entrepreneurialism it was formally designated in 1926. I love driving it. The road is bounded by canals, ponds, saw grass plains and hardwood hammocks and wildlife abounds. Alligators bask along the side of the road and the birds occur in hundreds. Eagles and hawks, storks and egrets, ducks, kingfishers and any number of LBJs [little brown jobs – and there are a lot of them here] are everywhere.

So, having decided to keep the convertible after wedging a suitcase into the boot and the remaining bags into the back seat we set off in bright sunshine. The Tamiami [said to get its name from a contraction of Tampa and Miami] is a suburban road for about thirty kilometres out of downtown, with numerous signalled junctions and murderous traffic. It takes ages to get into anything resembling wilderness and, despite having driven it dozens of time, getting out of Miami always seems to take longer than planned. It continues to fray tempers until, almost as if you cross a line, development stops and Everglades begins. That point is marked by a huge hotel/casino run by the Miccosukee Tribe of Native Americans. Unfortunately, with the open space came the rain. And it rained most of the way across so the car roof, the cause of more than a little bad temper and discomfort, stayed in place. We braved the weather once, to walk a short boardwalk called the Kirby Storter Wayside Boardwalk. We were soaked to the skin with warm torrents but it stopped just as I got back to the car and, like magic, the trees and sky filled with birds. From a single point next to the car I saw Black and Turkey Vultures, Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped and Pine Warblers, Loggerhead Shrike, Killdeer, Great-crested Flycatcher, Limpkin, Wood Stork, White Ibis, Great Egret, Tree Swallow, Belted Kingfisher and Broad-winged Hawk. The place is magical.

From there it was a dash to the coast and Sanibel Island, just in time to see the sun disappear as the clouds broke up and blew away in the freezing air.

I really did expect it to be warmer than this.

Day 3 – 26 February – Get out of the Richmond and get a car

We had enough of the dull old Richmond and moved up Miami Beach to the Miami Beach Resort, a larger and altogether happier drinking hole. Nice place, actually. The weather is holding and we’ve picked up the car, a brand-new White Sebring convertible with an electronic roof that folds into the boot at the press of a button. Clever us – we didn’t ask and weren’t told when we rented it that the oh-so-smart folding roof shit means that you can’t get any bags in the boot. But that will not stop us cruising through the Everglades in head-scarved splendour tomorrow.

A tip for anyone spending time in Miami – have a drink or meal [the best rib-eye steak and fries ever] at Smith and Woolensky’s at South Point Park. The bar outside sits alongside the water and the cruise-liners glide past on their way to wherever around 5pm – get there at 4pm to beat the rush and watch the sunset and the Race as it struts its stuff. We couldn’t tell if we could see happy tourists waving ‘hello’ to us or inmates on prison ships calling for help but, well, the steak really is the best in town.

Swallow-tailed Kites beckon in the morning.

Day 2 – 25 February – Art Deco, the News Cafe, a memorable Setai dinner and sunshine

The sun returned after yesterday’s storm. Clear, blue skies but strong northerly winds bringing cold air down from the north. Nonetheless, the day here always starts with a stroll on the Boardwalk and a nose around the beach. The Boardwalk is a walking/cycling/jogging/skateboarding route that runs between the beach and hotels on Collins Avenue. It’s a busy and pleasant walk nearly 4km long but a big surprise was finding an eruv established there. For those of a secular persuasion this is a line of posts linked with a line [often fishing line for practical reasons] that establishes an area within which Jews are allowed to perform simple tasks on the sabbath; in effect, an ‘inside’ area designated ‘outside’. I’m pretty easy about a religion having its own special practices so long as they don’t affect outsiders or non-believers and, to be fair, this doesn’t seem to make a difference to the enjoyment of the beach or the replanted dunes. I wonder, though, if the same degree of tolerance would be demonstrated by Judaism. After all, this is a specific religeous incursion into public territory. From personal experience I’d say not and I know that in California a similar installation – again along a beach – has caused a lot of concern due to rare birds that nest there flying into the line. The local Jewish community didn’t seem to get that point and was unsympathetic. Funny how these eruvs don’t seem to enclose wasteland or industrial areas which would have minimal impact on the rest of society but, then again, wouldn’t be an attractive walk on a Saturday either.

What was and always is an attractive walk is a tour of the Art Deco buildings in South Beach. The style dates from Paris in the 1920s although the term only came into common use in the 1960s. The buildings; they comprise houses, apartments, hotels and some shops, fascinate me as an architect but the cultural background – the ‘roaring twenties’, the development of Florida and Miami and the collapse of the dream in the wake of the second world war – is so engaging, something too lengthy for me to bore with here. The influences are Greek, Egyptian and, I’ve read, Mayan, and the idea of painting a building pink, pale green or turquoise might seem unthinkable away from here but add bright sunshine and a pervading laid-back atmosphere and it works so well. It’s a joy to experience.

We made the News Café and had breakfast outside, listening to cool jazz in the sunshine between a Cuban couple – he was smoking a huge cigar and ignoring his sultry, dark-eyed companion – and a British couple – he was reading The Sun and she was tutting over the Daily Mail. As always, the eggs and bagels were perfect. After that, Lincoln Road for shopping and then a gentle stroll back up the boardwalk [carefully avoiding collisions with tight-bummed roller bladders of both sexes] and a rest on the beach.

Being a birder can be a pain, both for me and anyone I’m with. I can’t relax in case anything turns up [don’t let on but some parts of our holidays are awful; we have nightmares about being asleep on the beach when something weird and wonderful flies over] and, if it does, we have to point it out in the hope that some of our enthusiasm rubs off on anyone around. Results in spreading the word, so to speak, have been mixed but the sight of a Great Black-backed Gull late today was quite something. These guys are rare in Florida and have a long way to come from Europe for the reward of picking over scraps of pizza on Miami Beach. It kept me out until sunset and freezing it was. The storm I mentioned before is sending cold air down and it was a frighteningly Arctic 13degC by the time the sun went down.

Dinner was one of those very special experiences. The Setai Hotel on Collins is part of an Asian chain that is both select and uncompromising. It has a huge reputation and it’s completely justified. Actually, it’s also bloody expensive but most things in life are double-edged swords. The food, from a variety of Asian cuisines, was simply excellent; we had tuna sushi and lobster to follow. The staff was well-organised, quietly busy and efficient and couldn’t have been friendlier – about all you could ask. We were privileged to have the executive chef, Jonathan Wright, visit our table and spend an inordinate amount of time with us. We’d read Michael Winner’s review in the Sunday Times a short while ago so it was interesting to have a further reflection on what has been an ongoing dialogue between the two. Nuff said. Jonathan is a charming and sincere bloke and made the evening very memorable. Highly recommended.

Day 1 – 24 February – Boy, what a storm

Virgin Atlantic, as always, were a tremendous airline to fly with. Despite having to fly economy as all other classes were fully booked [probably due to BA’s impending strike] it was just easy. I think they understand passengers so much more than the competition. The interesting part was flying through the storm that hit the north-eastern seaboard of the States late in the day. We had the longest descent and the most turbulent sixty minutes through dark grey cloud I can remember. The plane was thrown about wildly and poor guy just along from me was noisily heaving nothing but air by the time the plane touched down. It was dry on the ground and chilly, but by dinner the heavens opened and all of South Beach was inundated by a tropical rainstorm. Maxine’s Bistro in the Catalina Hotel came to the rescue with burgers and cold beer.

The Richmond Hotel needed some serious upgrading when we first stayed there nearly ten years ago and the impression today, based on the lack of service at the door and the the shine on the worn carpets, is that its aging owners haven’t done a thing since. Well, apart from raking in the room charges, that is. The bed is comfortable but the place is sad and run-down. Pleasant enough staff but little or no facilities or service. A move is called for and The Richmond will remain just another Art Deco heirloom as far as I’m concerned.

Day 0 – 23 February – to London’s Heathrow and then Miami

We’re ready for the off. Weather reports for Florida are mixed; not too warm and a good chance of showers and t-storms. The last time it was that cold the Weather Channel told us it was the coldest day recorded in Key West – ever. Well, that record has been passed this year. Cold knees below those ripped-off denims and icicles on the beards of the Hemingway lookalikes. Will we be able to have breakfast outside at the News Café? The itinerary is more or less planned but nothing booked yet for Saturday.

Florida Keys and Sanibel Island

I’ve been going to southern Florida for fifteen years. I love the brightness of the sky, the sun on my back, the way they just relax and let it happen, alligators and egrets at every turn. Truth be told, I have no resistance to blueberry pancakes, baby back ribs and the Key Lime Pie they serve at the 7-mile grill on Marathon. Oh, and hot wings and cold beer at Hooters.

I’m off next week for another fix and will bore any readers with snaps of the sunset from Sanibel Island.

Change latitude; change attitude.

The idiocy of Celebrity

Read what used to be a ‘serious’ newspaper, listen to the BBC news or check your local newsagent’s middle shelf and take stock of how much room is being given to news, essential information and picture-stories about the clothes, lives and goings-on of ‘celebrities’. It’s not a new phenomenon but it’s continued to creep up on us and full-scale reportage of anything that has a hint of celebrity is now very much the norm. Last week and then again this week it’s been the alleged infidelities of John Terry, the now former captain of the England football team. I was astounded to see the unfolding of his removal from the captaincy take up nearly half-an-hour as the main story on the evening news. Pundit after pundit was rolled on and asked inane questions about the affair or the personalities involved and, given that neither Terry nor his alleged paramour were saying anything and that the laws of libel precluded anyone airing any really exciting speculation, there was actually very little to say. 

Before John Terry grabbed the headlines it was the continuing ‘are they together/aren’t they together’ saga of Brad and Angelina. Looking through the Sunday Times last week, I was confronted with another update on Brad, Angelina and, joining them in splendid unimportance, Jennifer Aniston. Once again, no one was saying anything in public so the ‘news’ was speculation. 

The fuss about John Terry started when he had his ‘super-injunction’ lifted. The failure of his attempt to stop the press reporting and no doubt speculating on his private life has meant that we’ve all had a generous helping of celebrity since. Granted that he is a competent and often fearsome footballer but as a personality, well, what is there to say? And why should who he is justify anything more than the slightest ripple of interest? The public consequences for him, his family, the English football team and various individuals were spectacular – according to the media – but are proving short-lived and of little consequence; I doubt very much that the winning of the World Cup this summer hangs on it. Regrettably, the private ramifications will likely be more significant. Mind you, according to this week’s instalment a reconciliation is underway.

Of more interest, however, was a bit in the press about the appropriateness of the judicial decision and concerns that such super-injunctions would be cast out as they restricted free speech. Yes, there’s some truth there but I suspect that the concerns being raised (and the loudest were from the press) were more to do with a lack of access to celebrity than they were with gagging Fleet Street. After all, the reporting of issues that are genuinely in the public interest and having the democratic right to do so is very different from being unrestricted in telling the tale of who is shagging who. That holds even if the public wants to hear it. The point is, why should we have had anything more than a passing interest in who he has carnal knowledge of, where his wife has run to for solace (last week the Sunday Times carried a photograph of her on a beach in Dubai) or the personal insights of peripheral and patently unqualified figures such as footballers ex-girlfriends? Now this week, in the putative serious press and on the BBC, we were provided with a celebrity update that had more space than the quickly-forgotten Haiti earthquake, which was a very short month ago; he’s gone to Dubai and they are doing their making-up in public. There are rumours that the public show of affection was stage-managed but, wait a moment, wasn’t he trying to stop invasions of his privacy with the super-injunction in the first place?

An interesting documentary shown on Channel 4, The September Issue, told the story of American Vogue putting its September 2007 edition to bed. In it, a significant comment from Grace Coddington, Senior Fashion Editor, caught my attention. It was that Anna Wintour, the Editor-in-Chief, had been one of the first to see the dawn of the cult of celebrity and in doing so demonstrated the vision that has made her so formidable. The cover shoot used in the film had another celebrity, Sienna Miller, sporting lank hair and a marked lack of charisma against a series of Italian backdrops. The reason tired old Sienna was there was not because of any acting accomplishments or modelling successes (unless we count being topless for Pirelli as a success) or even because she was particularly beautiful; it was because she was famous for being a celebrity. And Ms Wintour had identified a need to put celebrity on the cover of Vogue as part of the ongoing success of the publication. 

It was astute and clearly right on the mark as far as identifying trends goes but why are we so fascinated with the lives of celebrities? It’s all nonsense to me and I’m trying to work out why it has such importance to the media. A couple of thoughts occur to me. First, it’s cheap news of course; an easy way for the media – I’m reluctant to write ‘journalists’ – to fill space and be able to headline it as news. Second, it seems to me that along with the aspiration to be famous, the study of celebrity is a favoured and comfortable retreat from the mediocrity of most people’s lives. It’s also easier on the soul and less taxing on the brain than thinking about serious issues, be they global warming, the good old economy or the manner in which the Western World is going down the drain. I also think a lot of people find it hard just coping with life from day-to-day. There’s never been so much pressure to look good, to achieve and to follow trends described so earnestly for us by the style media. In some respects, seeing rich, glamorous and, yes, famous people’s lives being raked over every day probably adds to that pressure. The more we are convinced of the necessity of hearing the latest celebrity news the more we seem to need another fix – they keep serving it up and an increasingly less selective audience becomes ever more ravenous for the next helping. Where they go, what they wear, were they drunk or involved in a punch-up? Oh yes, and issuing pearls of wisdom on world events.

Keeping a newspaper solvent or maintaining revenue – whether from advertising or a licence fee – requires a significant audience and you could argue that any means of achieving it is justified. Perhaps the cult of celebrity is a part of that justifiable means. As far as the public is concerned, certainly here in the UK at least, it is and we can’t get enough of it.

We’ve read that young people say that they ‘want to be famous’ and that they aspire to fame as it represents the greatest success in life. A survey taken of about 70 members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in 2008 found that over half, 53%, believed that their pupils idolised David Beckham and that Victoria came in as a close second. The underlying but significant concern is that their pupils felt it wasn’t necessary to achieve academically to be a celebrity. I’m scratching my head over this – how did we get to the point where a significant part of our society genuinely believes that success means being famous for being famous? And what happened to our once-revered media, when lead stories and so-called news involves the picking-apart of behind-doors infidelity and photographs of couples slugging out their relationships in public?  One thing’s for certain – I’m glad I’m not famous.