If you missed the first installment of my post-camp Florida travels to Orlando, FL, read all about it HERE! After a crazy, rainy week in Orlando, it was time to pack up and head to the west coast for some much needed R&R (rest and relaxation!), and hopefully some sun.
A Megabus with working WIFI!
The first thing we did was head to downtown Orlando to catch the Megabus to Tampa (yes, Megabus is a thing in America too!). The journey took a couple of hours and the trip cost us around $5 each; so although it wasn’t exactly a glamorous experience, it was a cheap and cheerful one! Megabuses over in the States have free Wifi (that actually works!), which is an added bonus to the price.
We arrived at the bus station in Tampa and it was in a pretty dodgy area – definitely not a great first impression! We quickly caught an Uber to our Airbnb that we had booked to stay in for the night, before our trip down the west coast began. This was the first time I had stayed in an Airbnb where it was just a room in someone else’s apartment. The host was nice, and gave us our own key to come and go, but it was an awkward experience as the flat was pretty small and we felt like intruders! Still, it was cheap and we were only there for 1 night. Both of our stomachs began to rumble (nothing new there, we’re both always hungry!) and there was a Mcdonald’s down the road, so we decided to venture out. This was Ria’s first taste of an American Mcdonald’s – and she couldn’t believe the size of the portions! Welcome to America, sis!
The following day we headed to collect our rental car.. We hired the car from Fox Rent a Car, as they were one of the cheapest companies around and didn’t charge too much extra for drivers under age 25 (I was only 23 at the time). The majority of hire car companies in the U.S. charge around $15 -30 per day for renters under the age of 25, depending on your age. – make sure you read the fine print before hiring a vehicle! We chose to hire a small economy car with AC (essential now the sun had finally made an appearance!!), but when the man at the desk saw the size of our suitcases, he upgraded us to a slightly larger car free of charge (and the two of us managed to fill that, it’s a good job he did!). Hiring a car is definitely one of the best ways to get around in America, and generally not too expensive either.
Our first trip was a short drive from Tampa to Clearwater Beach on the west coast. It was Labor day weekend in the States (a HUGE holiday over there) so the beach was PACKED when we arrived, but we managed to find a spot to sunbathe and relax. Clearwater beach is one of my favourite places in America; the sand is beautiful, the water is clear and warm and sun was HOT! Yes, finally it was time to work on the tan that had been fading for the last week or so in Orlando. After a few long, hard hours sunbathing, walking down the pier and visiting the tourist-y shops, it was time to grab something to eat. We went for (more!) delicious, American pizza at Extreme Pizza (the name says it all) and then set off to our next Airbnb for the night. As it was so expensive to stay on the coast due it being a public holiday, we stayed a little further north of Clearwater in Dunedin for the night. Our host told us lots about the nearby ‘Caladesi Island State Park’, and told us it was a must-see while we were in town.
The next morning we set of to check out Caladesi Island. We caught a ferry ($14 each round trip) from Honeymoon Island to Caladesi island, and the views were great on the way out – we even caught sight of a few pelicans on the way there! The island had been slightly battered by Hurricane Hermine, and a lot of the paths around the island were closed due to flooding or fallen foliage, but the beaches were still as beautiful as we had been told! The down side to the trip were the seagulls on the beach! If they saw you take any food out of your bag, they became really aggressive and weren’t scared off easily like normal gulls. One seagull even stole a crisp right out of my fingers!!!!! Just as I was putting it towards my mouth, it flew overhead and took the crisp (biting my fingers and drawing blood in the process!). Ria thought it was hilarious, of course. The beach on Caladesi Island was rated number 9 out of America’s best beaches in 2016, and it’s easy to see why.
We stopped at Casa Tina, a cute little Mexican in downtown Dunedin for lunch before setting off on our travels again; this time south to St. Petersburg. We arrived at the NICEST Airbnb and were greeted by Kris, the super friendly owner of the house. It was beautifully clean and smelled WONDERFUL – and the bathroom was well stocked with toiletries and fresh towels. We were in heaven. The Airbnb was around $5-10 per night more expensive than the previous ones we had stayed in, but it was totally worth it. My advice would be to pay that little extra, the difference between the rooms is incredible. Here is a link to Kris’ place. It’s really close to the beach, and she has lots of beach equipment (chairs/ umbrella/cool boxes) that she is more than happy to lend you during your stay. Here is the review I left Kris on the Airbnb site… #airbnbgoals.
The next day the road trip down the West Coast continued to Sarasota, specifically to Siesta Key beach, which was rated the number 1 beach in the U.S. back in 2015. The beach there is huuuuuuuge, with white sand as far as the eye can see along the Gulf of Mexico. The water was warm but quite shallow and still – great for cooling off but not for surfing! We spent the day lounging on the beach, followed by lunch at a local restaurant. Then it was time to head to our next location; Fort Myers. We booked through Booking.com and stayed at the Howard Johnson Inn (the American equivalent of a Travelodge/Premier Inn). The decor in the majority of American hotel rooms is SO old fashioned – think dark wood cabinets, floral quilted bedspreads and TV’s before flatscreens became a thing. But we were only there to sleep, and it’s hard to see the decor with your eyes closed!
The next morning we had planned a trip that we were both SO excited about. I am a HUGE wildlife fan; Ria has spent many hours being forced to watch David Attenborough documentaries and has learned to love it too. Florida is famous for many reasons, but one of the main ones is the Everglades National Park, which is home to around 200,000 alligators. We drove deep into the Everglades to Wooten’s Everglades Airboat Tours. As the name says, you ride around on an airboat (presumably as the fan/motor is above the water so it can’t slice the alligators up into a million pieces!). The captain of the boat drive around the swamps like a crazy person, but it was great to see the alligators in their natural habitat. Florida is home to over 1.3 million alligators (they even live in Disney World!), so make sure to stay well away from ANY fresh water while you’re visiting.
After our Everglades trip, we spent the afternoon at the Mall (as I said in my previous post, there’s nothing me and Ria can do better than SHOP!) and then I took Ria for her first ever Walmart visit (confession: although I do love Walmart, I’m much more of a Target girl – their homeware department is SO much better!). Ria was in her element, especially when she reached the fabric section (check out her Etsy site – SewBowChic), and we easily spent at least an hour in there. The staff in the store had never heard an English accent (English people tend to stick to Orlando!) before and we quickly became store celebrities, with the staff radioing to their friends to come and listen to us speak. Americans are so cute!
We arrived at our next Airbnb in Bonita Spring – and we had picked well! The apartment was super nice, as were the hosts, Christian and Megan, and the place had a pool AND a jacuzzi (and a gym actually, but who cares about that when you’re on holiday!) on site. We spent a couple of hours chilling out before the long drive back to Tampa the following day.
Can I just take a moment to say that driving on the highway (a.k.a motorway) in America is TERRIFYING!! They all drive SO close to one another, plus it’s not illegal to undertake either. The drive back took just over 3 hours and when we arrived in Tampa, we decided to find out what we had missed the first time around (there HAS to be more to it than the dodgy bus station, right?!). Our first stop was Ybor City, where we had some lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings (great wings, funnily enough) and then wandered around the historic city, famous for its cigars and immigrant population.
We then walked through Channelside, Tampa (I think we were the only people I saw walking during the whole trip), past the cruise ports and the Florida Aquarium, and ended up walking nearly 2 miles down the famous Tampa riverwalk (we had to burn off those calories from all that pizza somehow!).
Our final day together quickly came around, and we spent the morning at the Tampa Zoo before catching the Megabus back to Orlando in time to catch our flights. I was flying back to Bradley International, Hartford CT, to visit Ben at college and Ria was off to Miami for a few days.
The West Coast of Florida is such a beautiful place to visit. My top tip would be to hire a car – life without a car is SO difficult in America, as things are so far apart and most of the roads don’t even have any kind of pavements (I’m not kidding when I say NO ONE walks in America!). Clearwater, Dunedin, Sarasota, Bonita Springs and Naples are all SO much prettier than grotty Orlando, and 100% worth a visit to during your post-camp travels this year.