North America

On our last night Mark’s old friend Mary Ryan from Tom Harkin world drove down from Fort Lauderdale for dinner with us. The big smiles suggest how much fun we had.

We love Miami Beach. There is just something about the colors, the sunlight, the beach, the people, the architecture, the Latin pulse – the whole thing. Mark says there’s no place on earth where he’s just happier. So after all that road trip from Duluth and all the visiting friends we settled in to a full week in Miami Beach.

And after a week there it’s possible I love it even more than I did when we arrived. We stayed at the Shore Club, once perhaps the hottest spot in South Beach. It’s where we spent our brief honeymoon in 2004 (while Mark was deep into the Kerry campaign) and we’ve been back several times since then. We weren’t inclined to stay there this time – the scene can be just too young for us – but it was priced much lower than other hotels. So we booked our week there.

The view from our hotel room. Nothing not to like here!

And then we learned why it was priced so much lower than other places. Over the years, the hotel has kind of gone to hell. It had the feeling of a hotel that the managers had quit taking care of because they figured they would sell it. Actually, that’s exactly what happened: there was a plan a year or so ago to do a serious renovation and connect it to high-end condos. That plan fell through due to a lack of financing, though, and for now then it’s still open as a hotel. A hotel that no longer has the sizzle it once did. And a hotel that now charges a mandatory “resort fee” for stuff that used to be included in the price of the room. Resort fees are just a way to hide the true cost of a hotel. They suck.

One day’s activity from my AppleWatch

After we got over the modest disappointment, though, we settled in pretty nicely. The pool is still nice, the beach is fabulous. It still has a great feel in the lobby and great views from our room. (They kindly moved us to a higher floor when we asked.)

What do you do in Miami Beach for a week? Normally you go for nice runs and walks, alternate between pool and beach, and explore the restaurant scene. We had an additional mission though: explore real estate. We’re starting to be pretty serious about finding a home again, someplace we would live maybe half the year while still exploring the world the other half, and Miami Beach is one of the finalists along with New York City and Paris.

We kind of randomly reached out to an agent who was listing one property that intrigued us and she set up two days of pretty intense house hunting. It turns out that she actually knew little about the South Beach market (OK, she didn’t know anything about it) but she still did a good job of setting up tours of maybe a dozen condos. It was all pretty exciting and there were moments when I could see myself making an offer then and there. We’re actually not ready to do that yet and of course it would be insanely stupid to be quite that spontaneous. The fantasy was attractive though.

Yeah, South Beach is beautiful

In the end living in Miami Beach is probably not likely. The climate is wonderful and there is a lot we love, but ultimately I think we would get bored living here. Late in the week we reached out to an old college friend of Mark’s who is a real estate agent here (Mark was initially reluctant to do so as doing business with friends can be a mistake) and he had great insights for us, suggesting that our ideal situation of finding a run down unit and designing our own space was definitely possible. Still, after a burst of excitement about living here, now we’re both skeptical. After stops in Key West and Boston we’re planning on spending two weeks in New York and we suspect we’re going to find that a lot more appealing than Miami Beach, more interesting.

And then our week was over. It’s a place we’ll always return to but for now it’s off to Key West.

The Shore Club pool isn’t quite the scene it once was but it’s pretty nice

The pool at night used to be a big party zone. No longer the case but still pretty.

The pool is still the site of an occasional fashion shoot

Why were hotel prices so high? Two of the biggest and best hotels on Collins Avenue – the Raleigh and the Ritz – were shut down, presumably the result of last year’s Hurricane Irma. This is – or was – the Ritz. I guess if you lose that many hotel rooms prices go up.

One day while eating lunch we started chatting with a local sitting at a nearby table. She turned out to be seriously annoying, maybe drunk, but before we lost interest she insisted we had to go over to Miami to see the public art in the Wynwood neighborhood. She repeatedly compared it to Soho in Manhattan. So I went there. Some of it was impressive, but it was no Soho. Not even close.

Another shot from Wynwood

We love the weather in Miami Beach. We love it in the heat of summer and we love it when storms move in. Especially if it gives you a double rainbow.

We discovered a Greek restaurant. The reviews were good but the feta cheese was bad. How can you have bad feta cheese in a Greek restaurant?

And Mark with a Perfect Manhattan toasting a nearly perfect city

Mark, Pam, & me toasting Mark’s parents!

Whew! This was a whirlwind; after leaving Savannah we made five stops in three days. Our first goal was St. Augustine, but first we had to make a lunch stop in Jacksonville. At some point after leaving Duluth, with the route all planned out, an old graduate school classmate with whom we’ve had very limited contact over the years noticed on Facebook that Mark & I seemed to travel a lot. “If you’re ever in Jacksonville,” she wrote, “let me know!” Well, Jacksonville is right on the way between Savannah & St. Augustine, so a couple of days out I suggested lunch.

It was fun to catch up with Mary Beth, however briefly. Just a brief stop, but given that the last time we saw her she was single and living in Boston, and now she’s married with two kids and has been in Jacksonville for 15 years, it was definitely time to catch up.

Mark, Mary Beth, and me after a too-short lunch. She was teasing me about wearing a sweater in Florida, but I like being warm….

Then it was on to St. Augustine, “the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement within the borders of the continental United States” as Wikipedia puts it so precisely. The original goal was just to see this old colonial city and spend the night but after planning it we learned that one of Mark’s old bosses – the campaign manager for Tom Harkin’s presidential campaign that was Mark’s introduction to the Harkin world – lived there. So we had dinner with Tim after spending a bit of time exploring to town.

Our first impression was that we were surprised just how touristy it was. I mean, I’d certainly heard of St. Augustine but I never thought of it as a particular destination. Well, it is. Founded in 1565 on the feast day of St. Augustine, it served as the capital of Spanish Florida for over 200 years. Besides the old history the more recent landmark was Flagler College, founded in 1968 and headquartered in what was once the grand old 19th century Ponce de Leon Hotel. Mary Beth had raved about the architecture and it was definitely worth passing through.

The old Ponce de Leon Hotel, developed by the industrialist and railroad baron Henry Flagler and now home to the highly regarded Flagler College

An interior shot of the old hotel

From St. Augustine it was down to The Villages, an age-restricted community in central Florida, largely to see Mark’s Uncle Bill & Aunt Debbie. We were both a bit skeptical of The Villages; we’re not really ready for a retirement community yet. Still, we were both a bit surprised by how nice it was. The Villages is a big and growing place; it has been listed by the Census Bureau twice this decade already as the fasted-growing city in the U.S. As Uncle Bill & Aunt Debbie showed us around it was obvious there was a lot to do and that it would be easy to be a genuinely active older person there. In fact, the one night we were there Mark & I went to a steak place for dinner where at 8:00 PM or so the bar was surprisingly full and buzzy. In an old folks home! We’re not ready to buy anything there yet, but I have a definite appreciation for it that was previously lacking.

Here we are with Uncle Bill and Aunt Debbie

One of the utterly amusing parts of being in The Villages is that pretty much everyone gets around in these souped-up golf carts, whether they’re playing golf or not. Here’s Uncle Bill in his cute little vehicle after our tour of The Villages.

The next stop was supposed to be Fort Myers, but again we learned of someone to visit en route. This time it was Mark’s Aunt Nancy, the recently widowed youngest sister of Mark’s mother. I’d heard a lot about Aunt Nancy over the years but had never met her; Mark, in fact, hadn’t seen her in perhaps 40 years. So we stopped at her winter residence in Spring Hill (summers are way up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), went out to a late breakfast, and caught up on the last four decades. She seemed like an utterly lovely lady, though the big takeaway is how difficult it must be to lose a spouse after thirty-plus years. Fortunately I’m older than Mark so he’s the one who’s going to have to deal with that!

Aunt Nancy with Mark & me

And then it was down to Fort Myers, where our great friend Pam lives. Just one night, but a great night hanging out in her house on a golf course, catching up on life and talking politics. Instead of going out for dinner Pam whipped out a great appetizer course, stirred some mean martinis, and then we grilled and roasted a simple dinner. Life doesn’t get better.

That was our race down Florida, then; a lot of family and old friends. Next stop is Miami Beach, one of our favorite places in the world, for a week on the beach. Sweet!

Set in the oldest public space in the U.S., here’s a Spanish history lesson for you. In 1812 Spain – which at that time still controlled Florida – briefly had a constitutional government. The new government sent a decree to towns throughout the empire to rename their central squares Constitution Plaza and to build a monument there. St. Augustine complied. In 1814, then, the monarchy regained power and ordered all the monuments destroyed. This time St. Augustine wasn’t so compliant and they kept theirs. This is believed to be the only Constitution Monument from that campaign left in the world!

We stayed, naturally, at St. Augustine’s St. George Inn, right on St. George Street

Another picture of Flagler College

One more

And the entrance to the hotel/college

Another grand building in St. Augustine

Aunt Debbie & Uncle Bill after lunch in The Villages

Bill & I are both Navy veterans, so we figured this was meant for us. And yes, I wore the t-shirt in honor of all these Michiganders!

What passes for a thoroughfare in The Villages

Enjoying hors d’oeuvres in Pam’s screened-in porch. We were honored to learn that this was the inaugural event for the new furniture!

Pam & Mark toasting my grill work. Or something else maybe.

Just one of an untold number of beautiful old southern buildings in Savannah

A short post here for a short two-day stop in Savannah. For many years now I’ve heard of what a beautiful city Savannah was and I’ve wanted to see for myself. As we plotted out our Duluth to Key West road trip, we figured this would be the one new city that we’d go to just to see it, no friends to visit or anything.

It was totally worth it. People weren’t lying; Savannah is an incredibly beautiful city, evoking all the charming and iconic visions of the Old South. Of course the Old South wasn’t quite so charming for all the people who lived here; one is reminded that Savannah was Gen. Sherman’s goal in his “March to the Sea” across Georgia in 1864. To our good fortune, and presumably theirs, the city surrendered to the Union forces before they had the chance to destroy it.

What southern city would miss the chance to honor the traitors who tried to destroy our country so they could continue to own slaves?

Sadly I didn’t get to enjoy or discover the city as much as I would have liked. On our last day in Atlanta I somehow developed a truly nasty blister on one of my feet and really just couldn’t walk for a couple of days. Still, I somehow managed to limp around a bit to enjoy the grand old buildings, the live oak trees (the name “live oak” refers to oaks that are evergreens, keeping their leaves year-round) with hanging Spanish moss, and at least a couple of the 22 squares in the historic district that give the city so much of its charm.

One of those squares, Chippewa Square, deserves special mention. I was pretty excited to just stumble on Chippewa Square, since my family is Chippewa. What the heck is this park doing honoring my very northern Plains tribe? Turns out it wasn’t. Instead it was a misspelled park honoring the soldiers from the War of 1812 who fought in the Battle of Chippawa in Chippawa, Ontario, today a part of the Canadian city of Niagara Falls. Too bad. One other charming story about Chippewa Square: it’s the spot where Forrest Gump famously sat on a park bench. How cool is that?

Oh, and speaking of charm, I loved being in a restaurant and hearing people order beer to go. Seriously. Us northerners take so much pride in being so much more progressive than those damned southerners. Go ahead and try to order beer to go in any of the great progressive cities I’ve lived in up north. Hell, until just a few years ago there were no sidewalk restaurants in Cambridge because the city wouldn’t allow beer or wine to be served in sidewalk restaurants.

Two days wasn’t enough for Savannah, particularly given how lame I was during those two days, but that was all the time we gave ourselves. Now it was off on another whirlwind schlep through Florida down to Miami Beach, thought of by some of us as the Holy Land.

A statue of James Oglethorpe, founder of both the Georgia Colony and of Savannah, in Chippewa Square. He was also the designer of the set of squares around Savannah that give so much of the charm to the city. The statue is by Daniel Chester French, the same guy who designed the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.

Parks and beautiful buildings

And one more

A big fountain