A few weeks ago we already decided on a destination for or 2009 summer vacation. Unlike previous holidays we have now chosen a less obvious destination where getting around will not be as easy as in the USA, Europe or Australia. Japan is still a mysterious place to us and we expect getting around will be a lot harder because of the language barrier and the fact that reading roadsigns will be near impossible.

I decided that GPS navigation would be the way to go but I failed to find maps for Tomtom. Time to look for a replacement for the trusty Garmin GPS12XL that was bought in 1999. A search on Ebay soon yielded a few possible buys. I choose a Garmin Colorado (new in box) that I could pick up from the seller not to far away. After some testing I bought a Japanese map for this unit. I’ve been using this map while preparing for our trip and and it looks promising.

Strange things happen at airports, to protect the “guilty” I won’t say where this happened but hey, if you read the blog you’ll know. Security in important but the liquids rule is in my view “over the top” however, we do abide by it. While checking in our luggage for a domestic flight it seemed that one of our bags was 2 pounds overweight (US$50 anyone?) . That our 2 other bags were 6 and 7 pound under the weight limit was of no importance. To remove the 2 pounds as fast as possible we took out a small bag with toiletries. Just as our bags disappeared on the conveyor belt we realised our mistake. Fortunately there were no +100ml bottles in there so we asked the security officer for a clear plastic bag. She said they were all out but to ask at the X-ray machine. They too had no bags and just let us pass with all liquids without any problem. We later realised we also had siccors in there. Security check???

Another change we noticed  was that these days a 10-15% tip is no longer considered enough. Now the rate is set at 18% and on top of that the server will write this on your check and put a circle around it  just in case you missed it. I was always under the impression that tips are given for good service and not mandatory no matter what. In one instance we visited a waterfront restaurant in Key West where the waiter dragged himself to our table to take our order, brought our drinks (again dragging himself to the table) then another waiter almost threw our plates on the table. When bringing the check we tipped far less than what he had written on the check so he demanded that we would tip him the full amount. I didn’t think of it at that time because I was shocked by the way he acted but I think the tip should have been: “Get another job”.

In all, Florida is still a fun place with lots to do and see. interaction with the locals was mostly a pleasure. We also noted that it was calmer than during our previous visits. According to the local newspapers tourist numbers were down because of the economy and high fuel prices.  At 70 – 75 Euro cents per liter ($4/gallon) we found gas to be dirt cheap (homeprice is over $8 per gallon). So even with the van we were driving transportation was very affordable. The cheap dollar made sure car rental was cheap too. Excursion prices were up a lot but here to the low dollar made up a great deal.

Florida to dropped on our “go-back-someday” list. Not a lot of the thing that are here can’t be seen or done elsewhere and the ever increasing requirements to enter the US  will make us think twice.

During this trip we were sometimes struck by the way things have changed over the years. Our first US holiday was in 1986,  our first and only visit to New York was in 1987 and we were in Florida in 1987, 1993 and 1999.

What we noticed when entering the US was that after all these years the immigration and custom officers were friendly, previous times we felt like we entered a maximum security prison instead of crossing a border. In New York a lot has changed when visiting the sights. Strict security to enter the Liberty Island ferry, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and UN.  Some of the security measures are so annoying that they influenced what we visited. Rockefellers “Top of the Rock” doesn’t allow videocameras and was scrubbed of our list of things to see and do. Even on the steet we were told by a Rockefeller “rent-a-cop” not to use a tripod (on a public sidewalk!).  New York was also the place where we were made feeling unwelcome most. The “officials” (police, customs, immigration, security at landmarks) however are doing their best to help out in a friendly way

In all, NY is not on our list to return soon. The hassle and inconvenience of checks is not worth it, holidays are supposed to be fun and carefree. This is no longer the case in this city that at certain places seems to be under siege. Police in full battle dress and heavily armed (Wall Street) does not give me a sense of security .

Another early morning. Most of our stuff was already packed and after we had breakfast we needed only little time to get going. We drove north to Miami International Airport where we returned our rental car and checked in our luggage. The first leg of our journey was by Delta MD88 to Atlanta. Anticipating what was to come on our next flight we ate at the airport McDo. Everything was set to be on time and by departure time, 17:15, we were waiting to be pushed back from the gate.  Instead of getting on our way the captain then announced there was a problem with the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) and we were not allowed to fly until it was fixed. It proved to be a small problem (switch off and on again…. Windows anyone??).  Unfortunately about 10 people who checked in didn’t make it in time to get on board and so we had a second delay while their bags were unloaded. Almost an hour late we were finally on our way and because of the advantage of the jetstream that gave us a nice tailwind most of the time, we landed in Brussels with only 5 minutes delay.

We can start counting the days until next holiday, 48 weeks away…….

We didn’t plan ahead for today. Just one activity was on our list for  a long time: a parasail flight. The company we choose opened at 10 and a little later we were there. No one else showed up while the boat was prepared so it was just us. We were geared up and left the dock, a few minutes  later we were hooked up to the parachute and the wind pulled us up 300m. The view was great as the boat became smaller beneath us. All to soon we were pulled back down and dropped off at the dock.

We drove To Robbie’s Marina. This a special spot as the  tarpon, big fish more than 1.5m long, hang out  in the marina. In the shop bucket with small fish are sold to feed the tarpon. These tarpon jump out of the water to get their food. We picked up another geocache nearby and began to make our way back to Key Largo. Along the way we stopped at a few more geocaches and the Wild Bird Center. This is a free attraction where all sorts of birds are taken care of. There is a large colony of pelicans and we were just in time to see a large amount of fish being thrown into the sea for the birds to eat. This also attracts tarpon (again) and we saw 2 nurse sharks coming within a few meters of us to get their free meal. Before we got back to the hotel we visited the John Pennekamp Park visitor center. By then it was time to begin packing our stuff for the trip back home tomorrow.

We planned a day trip to the Theater of the Seas in Islamorada. This is a small park has a dolphin, sea lion and parrot show and features sea turtles, rays, sharks and tropical fish. We spend about 3 hours here before driving back to Key Largo. Along the way we made several stops to find geocaches. After dinner we found a spot to watch the sunset. This place was infested with mosquitoes but after 5 minutes a pickup truck entered the dead end street spraying smoke. Within minutes there were almost no more mosquitoes and we could enjoy the rest of the sunset.

Another lazy day. Sleep in, breakfast, walk across the highway to the snorkel company to get our boarding pass. We boarded the boat by noon and 15 minutes later we left the dock for John Pennekamp State Park. We anchored at 3 different snorkeling sites with lots of fish and coral reef. The second location was at the famous statue of Christ that’s standing on the seabed. We were back at the  dock by 5 o’clock, just in time to shower and go to DJ’s Diner.

No need to rush today. We slept in, got breakfast, loaded up the car and took US 1 north. 25 Km from Key West we had our first stop, a bat tower. Once build thinking that bats would come and live in this 18m high tower and eat most of the mosquitoes this tower now serves no purpose. Next stop was Marathon where we visited the Turtle Hospital. Whenever sea turtles are found injured by boats, trash or disease they are brought here for treatment. After seeing a presentation about the workings of this non-profit organisation we visited the operation room and then it was time to meet the patients. After our visit we drove on to Key Largo where we checked in to our room.

At last a day when we didn’t have to get up early. We were booked on a kayak excursion that started at 10.30. After signing the disclaimer (no matter what, it’s not the tour company’s fault) we were given our kayaks for a 2.5 hour paddle on the calm warm waters of Key West. Along the way we travelled through narrow openings in the mangroves. We made frequent stops so the guide could point out the different kinds of birds and sealife. We saw some stingrays, spotted eagle rays a shark and some smaller fry. By 1 o’clock we were back at the dock, just in time to get a snack on the way to the hotel where we stayed a while to cool off. We went out again to find some geocaches but the ones near the city center were at locations that are to busy to “act suspicious”. We then settled for a few away from center and could only find one near the cemetary. One of the graves has the following inscription: “I told you I was sick”….

The only thing left was dinner and picking up our underwater pictures from the store. Then it was time to pack most of our stuff as tomorrow we move to Key Largo, the last stop before we go home. Plenty to do before then though .

Another early morning. Around 8 we were already at the Hurricane Hole Marina for a combined Dolphin watch and snorkel trip. We soon found out it was just us on the boat, just like a private charter. The only other “passenger” was Brandy the Labrador. We left the marina at 8:30 heading towards the Gulf of Mexico. After about 30 minutes we spotted the first dolphins. As the boat maneuvered a bit closer it were the dolphins who came to check us out. The dog almost went crazy as he very much likes to interact with the dolphins. Several times the dolphins swam underneath the boat popping up at the other side. After we got bored with them (yeah sure) we continued to a reef where we could snorkel for over an hour. The sharks that are supposed to hang around were not seen however, we did see a lot of rays, the largest was a spotted eagle ray that I was able to swim next to for at least 5 minutes. We returned by noon and after lunch went to the marina near Front street for a ride around the island on a jet-ski. This was great fun as the better part of the tour we could just do as we pleased making donuts in the water or just going full throttle over the flat calm water at 130 Km/hour. All to soon we were back at the marina. This sure was fun.