In South Georgia, on Interstate 75 for Florida and Miami, billboards dominate the terrain, touting pecans, peaches, and peanuts. Closer to Tifton, just beyond the sign boosting the “historic” downtown, spa advertisements take over – there is Lucky Spa, No. 1 Spa, Tokyo Spa (Truckers Welcome). South Georgia is, it appears, about more than fruit and nuts.
Across the state line, roadside scenery quickly changes. North Florida apparently has stricter rules when it comes to billboards. They are there, but not in such numbers. Real estate, a classic Florida sell, is available, at least until horse country starts. Then the interstate cuts through expensive terrain, home to thoroughbred horses and their moneyed owners. Billboards aren’t as welcome.
Ocala comes and goes as a fierce thunderstorm hits, then it’s the tollway heading east, horse culture giving way to Mouse culture as Orlando looms. I skirt Disney country to the south, leaving its tourist attractions to those more enamored of rodents and their fascist creators than I am. Back into desolate agriculture country, finally leaving the turnpike for a room in Okeechobee.
The next morning, I head east for Interstate 95, making contact in Palm Beach County at rush hour. Just before 8 a.m. two guys in a convertible speed around me, top down, golf clubs filling up the back seat. This is the Florida I remember.
On the outskirts of Miami, I get off I-95 in favor of Biscayne Boulevard. Little River, where I briefly lived before leaving Miami, is now a Caribbean enclave, a Little Haiti with its bright colors, street-front food vendors and storefronts blaring reggae – or on one occasion, Aretha Franklin. But the seeming prosperity is only evident for a couple of blocks; empty buildings and caved-in roofs speak to a desperate poverty only a few steps off the main drag.
Right onto 36th Street (not easy as Biscayne is torn up with a construction project), to see what remains of the North Dade Athletic Club. There’s the building, sadly boarded up and graffiti-splattered. Not surprising, as the joint’s heyday was 30 years ago.
On to downtown, where new high rises crowd Biscayne Bay. The Herald is still where it was when I worked there – but part of the building is rented to a school. Across the McArthur Causeway to South Beach. No dogtrack, no Turf Bar, just sleek, airy hipster hangouts instead. But the pedestrian traffic seems to be the same mix, enough weathered retirees to offset the weathered beach habituees that have called it home for decades.
And just south of the causeway, tied up at the Port of Miami, is my ship, the Jewel of the Seas. Time to ditch the car and board the boat.
As the ship slips through Governor’s Cut, South Beach to the left, Miami is spectacular in the rear-view mirror, like most cities beautiful from a distance, not so much from street level. Miami is a tropical metropolis, sunny funkiness edging toward heat-induced rot.