It always seems this way somehow. You get up early to go on holiday and, somehow, the weather is really nice. The air is either all crisp and with a tangy substance, or just heating up with promise of the day to come. And it’s great – as if being afforded a small tease of what’s to come.
It’s holiday time! Yay! God we need this! We like our holidays and, whilst Florida is a regular (and kinda worn-out) holiday, why not?
Things are sorted. We’ve got everything we need. Everything is booked. Time off work sorted. Pets are being looked after. House is being checked on from time to time. Car has been lent to my brother-in-law. Lights are on a timer. Everything is packed.
We just need to get to Manchester now.
I think it was my brother-in-law who took us there, and then kept the car afterwards (not for ever, you understand) but, either way, we got there with plenty of time to spare. Flights from Manchester are normally 10-ish in the morning, and it’s always best to get there before check-in opens so you’ve got plenty of time. We manage it easily, get through check-in and into security.
Now, a quick thing to put here. If you’ve got someone picking you up when you get back, as we had, make sure they remember where they dropped you off. That way, when you have got your baggage and everything, at Manchester you can just go up a level to the “arrivals” bit and find them there. They may have to do a few circuits as they can’t stop and wait for you, but it beats them having to park up and pay the extortionate parking charges.
Security is, as usual, easy. Take off shoes, belts, coats and put them all, as well as your hand luggage, mobile, keys and wallet in the little tray to get x-rayed. Then go through the metal detector and, if required (for some reason it normally is with me), adopt the position.
Terminal 2 in Manchester has changed in recent years. When you get through you’ve got a few shops, before one HUGE duty-free shop that you HAVE to go through, before getting to the main concourse, where there’s even more shops. One would despair at the amount of shops, except that it means you have some scenery – something to look at. We do our usual of grabbing some breakfast at one of the places there, having a wander around some of the shops and pick some drinks for the plane. I do consider getting a book, but I’ve got enough to read. I was tempted by The Life Of Pi – this was before I knew they were making a film of it. Still tempted to see it, and read it. Don’t know which I’d do first. Hmm… may be a book to get, if I see it cheap enough.
Flying is… well, flying is never really a pleasant experience, and this certainly wasn’t the best we’ve been on. A Thomson plane, it wasn’t overly large and the entertainment system was lacking. Unless you wanted to pay extra you were relegated to a few films, none of which particularly interested me, and were played on continuous loops. Oh, you could choose which you wanted to watch on your own seat-back TV (or turn it off), but the ability to pause, rewind etc at will is reserved for those willing to pay. As was the Avengers movie, which I did see at the cinema but wouldn’t have minded seeing again. I think I watch one or two movies, having a bit of a read in the meantime. Food – passable, the usual airline fare. Stuff which is supposed to seem oh-so-great but in tiny portions, or very extravagent but warmed up in a microwave. Which, let’s face it, is all they can do really. They’re not going to have people preparing stuff on the plane, that would be impractical. Drinks – I was offered one, which I was taking up before I asked “is it free?”. Nope – I’d have to pay extra or drink water, or the supplied tea/coffee (which I don’t do). Good thing we brought our own.
So, flights over, thankfully. Everyone can move again, move those muscles, stretch a bit and marvel at being on solid ground again. And this is something – whilst I always consider getting up in the morning on your holiday before leaving for the airport officially the start of the holiday, it’s not quite real until you get there.
We’ve flown into Sanford by the way. Orlando, or at least the Orlando area, has two main airports – and Sanford is definitely the smaller of the two. It’s only used by a handful of carriers and is a bit out of the way, but it’s good enough.
Queue to get off the plane, thanks-for-flying from the staff and walk down the umbilical airbridge thing and we’re on solid ground. The Americans do air conditioning very well, which is something that we’ll come to in a bit. At the moment, everyone’s making our way past the nice, bright windows full of blue American sky and green American grass towards the immigration bit.
At this point, I need to stress something. This is hugely important. Keep your documents together, in a folder or something like that, in baggage that is kept by a responsible adult and always on their person.
We use a large A4 plastic wallet with a sealable button, kept in our hand luggage which is always on us. We’ve never had a problem with it. Unfortunately, one family did. One of their passports was missing, last seen apparently in Manchester when someone got it out. Though that does make me wonder how they got on the plane… in any case, they were very worried, understandably, and staff came to help them search and also search the plane. We didn’t see the outcome, but my wife noticed them again later on in the trip, unfortunately minus two family members – I assume a child, and an adult to take them home and look after them. I would have thought that, if the British Embassy were contacted, they would be able to provide some sort of temporary replacement, but I know nothing about these things.
So, immigration control (they’re nice and friendly), then getting bags, going through the nothing-to-declare bit and out into the terminal. We’ve got a car booked, so it’s over to the building where the car desk is.
No, we haven’t crashed. You remember what I said about the Americans doing very good air conditioning?
You don’t realise how good it is until you spend even half a second without it.
We’d been in the airport and the air was a nice temperature. Hell, even on the airbridge it’s a nice temperature. And our bodies get used to it.
Get to the doors to go outside however, and they automatically open, and you’re immediately hit by a soft wall of heat. Imagine opening your oven when it’s on full-blast. It’s like that, but moreso. And all over you.
Welcome to Florida.
Of course, we’ve been before and expected it. When we went in 2009 with my wife’s nephews, they were pretty damn surprised.
Right then. Over to the car guys. Can’t remember who it was with, but fortunately they don’t try and upsell anything to us, which is good. Find the car, take some photos of it in case they decide we’ve damaged it, and we’re off, off into the blazing Floridian sunshine.
No we’re not.
Whilst it’s normally nice and sunny in Florida, it does occasionally like to rain. And when it rains, it rains for a very short period, but very heavily. And it’s decided to suddenly batter it down now.
So it looks a bit grey – not the welcome we wanted, but hey-ho – it’s still hotter than our summer, which was abysmal, featured many floods and days and days of overcast skies. The weather was only nice for the olympics, which I still thought went pretty well.
The “official” route which everyone recommends to get from Sanford to the general Orlando area (Sanford is a fair bit to the north) involves a toll road. I wonder why. But it’s easy enough to take some regular roads to get onto the I-4 and just carry on down there. That’s the route we take, which heads over the top of Orlando itself. Takes us about an hour, if not a bit more.
We left the airport at probably about five-ish, local time. Our villa is in an estate just a mile or so north of the junction between the I-4 and highway 27.
The I-4, I’ll briefly mention, is a big interstate that basically goes from Tampa in the west to Daytona in the east, with Orlando basically being central. It’s easy to navigate – so long as you know your exit number it’s easy to get on and off at. Interstates in America seem a lot more free-flowing and with less dense traffic (and of course less roadworks) than here in the UK. From Sanford, you get onto the I-4 through a few regular streets, pass through Orlando itself, then past International Drive. International Drive comprises of lots of shops, hotels, the two Universal Parks, all the SeaWorld parks (SeaWorld, Discovery Cove and Aquatica) and Wet n Wild. Shortly thereafter it passes close to the Disney resort, which has LOTS of exits for the different parks and attractions (I always think that the Disney resort is about the size of a small English county – it probably isn’t but it seems like it is, but more on that on another day), and shortly after, around exit 50-ish, is highway 27.
Highway 27 goes from north to south, from somewhere to somewhere else. It seems to be a regular highway, with various businesses on it’s length, Wal-Marts, restaurants, take-out places, strip malls, and so on. However, it’s popular with tourists like us for one main reason.
For those not in the know, a villa is basically a home you rent whilst you’re on holiday. Generally, villas in Florida are spacious enough, have lots of facilities and usually a swimming pool. And, as we want a nice bit of luxury, even though there’s only the two of us, we’ve got a villa.
The villa is located, as with most villas, in a gated community. It’s pretty nice – find the turn-off on highway 27, and it all becomes a very nice estate with lots of plants, security and nice-looking houses. Sometimes a lot of people think America has a lot of “cookie-cutter” houses – homes which all look exactly the same. Which, to me, seems completely false. From what I’ve seen, houses in America are all pretty varied – one house may look slightly different to it’s neighbour, or even completely different. Here in the UK, homes mainly look exactly the same. I know that my house looks mainly the same as next door, and as the rest of the street, and even the rooms and suchlike will be in the same place, and the same size.
In any case, the villa we’ve got is BLOODY HUGE! Well, not the biggest we’ve been in, but definitely nice and roomy. It can sleep up to 8. A quick run-down with some pictures, though I’ll mention that I’m cheating on the pictures – we took them on a much later day, but I’m posting them now.
From the outside, the villa is deceptively small. It’s got a driveway and a garage, which we don’t use except for when I have to go and check the fuses (I’ve found, over the years, that circuits in American villas aren’t the best of things, and so one of the first things I do in any villa is find the fusebox). Go in and you’ve got a nice lounge with an old CRT TV, weird wrap-around sofa, and a dining table. To the left is a kitchen with a breakfast table, and the door to the garage (which is BLOODY HUGE – I like those words).
On the right of all this is a door to the first bedroom area, consisting of a twin bedroom, a bathroom and a double bedroom. All pretty nice, though I don’t really notice any curtains. There are blinds. Seriously, what is it with Americans and a lack of curtains? 90% of the time, when we watch American TV and there’s a sex scene, there are never curtains present, or they’re always left open. Even in the middle of the day. Maybe we Brits are too self-conscious, but seriously!
Go back to the lounge, go forward and there’s a SECOND lounge! This one is more private, with a sofa and a few other chairs and lamps. It’s also got a counter from this lounge to the kitchen, and a nice HD TV. From here, there’s another door to the third bedroom – it’s quite big, with a king-size bed I think, and it’s own en-suite bathroom with walk-in shower and bath/jacuzzi.
Of course, there’s also a pool out back, with doors to it from the en-suite bathroom and also the second lounge. Very nice. The pool has a big mesh surround it – not over the pool, but basically the mesh surrounds it like another room, to keep out bugs. It works – to an extent. I suppose that if it wasn’t there it would be COVERED with bugs – as it is, there’s just a few. The pool is a decent size – you’re not going to do huge amounts of lengths, but you can have a good splash around and kids are going to love it. There’s also a few chairs and a lounger or two for sunbathing, as well as a table for the food and drink you’re not supposed to take out there.
So, why choose a villa over a hotel? I probably won’t have that much time to detail this later. Hotels are great if you like convenience – many of them are pretty close to the various parks and shops. They’re also pretty cheap. However, a villa is pure luxury – or at least it can be if you get a good one. You’ll still have restaurants nearby, as well as supermarkets. Of course, with a hotel they’re frequently within walking distance – especially if you’re on International Drive (which I’ll go into later on another day). If you’re staying in a villa, you really do need a car.
But a hotel is just a room. Okay, it’s two rooms – normally a bedroom with a sink and counter, and a bathroom with toilet, bath and shower. You’ll get some drawers and wardrobes, but that’s it. You may get an area to sit in, a TV which will most likely be a bit broken, and of course you’ll have the pool in the hotel.
A villa though – you can do what you want, when you want. No need to share the pool, fight for sun loungers, and have to wait behind other people for the dirty breakfast buffets. Go out, buy what you want in cereals, keep it in the kitchen or fridge or whatnot and just treat it like home.
Speaking of going out to get stuff for breakfast, that’s exactly what we’re doing now. We drop all our stuff off at the villa and go straight out, heading north on highway 27 a few minutes to… WAL-MART!
(cue Funhouse music with Wal-Mart instead)
Those of you who’ve read the Williamsburg section will know of Wal-Mart, but for those who don’t, Wal-Marts are traditionally INSANELY large supermarkets, and scarily enough there’s a lot of them. Our local Asda superstore, which is a large 24-hour store, is about a quarter of the size of an average Wal-Mart, it seems. They stock everything. You may think Asda stocks everything, because it stocks TVs and stuff, but Wal-Mart has a TV section the size of an actual TV superstore. They’ve got a clothes section, pretty large books and stationary section, games, toys, food (of course), and that other famous American past-time other than eating… guns.
Of course permits and cooling-off periods and registration are necessary, but yes, it’s perfectly possible to go and get an Uzi 9mm with your shopping.
They’ve got a bloody huge car park too. Yep, four times (about) the size of our Asda. Lots of entrances and exits compared to our one, which caters for Asda, Comet (now closed), a carpet shop, B&Q, McDonalds, a petrol station and an office block.
We go in and go to the fruit and veg section. Whilst Americans don’t seem to care much for their 5-a-days, we do. And even though I don’t eat them, I buy the biggest damn apples I’ve ever seen. Seriously, I think they’ve injected them with steroids. Get a few other bits and bobs – a few bottles of drink, some milk, cereal, and we’re done. For now, at least.
Putting everything in the car, we head for another American favourite beginning with W – Wendy’s!
We’re on holiday in America, the home of burgers, so why not? Wendy’s is basically like a regular fast-food restaurant, but BETTER. Here in the UK I think our fast-food places occasionally experiment with salads, but don’t really advertise them much. In America, salads, jacket potatoes, bowls of chilli etc are all regulars on the menu.
And nice they are as well. I do have the odd salad or two from time to time at Wendy’s, but this time go for a burger. I make the mistake of ordering a burger with mushrooms on, by accident. Oh well, I can stomach them – just about. But for afters we’ve got frosties – surely one of the best concoctions known to man. It is, basically, a thick and creamy chocolate milkshake to be eaten with a spoon. In all intents and purposes, a plastic cup of Angel Delight, but creamy. And very cheap and large.
We head back to the villa and get settled in some more, before watching a new episode of Private Practice. I must admit it is – was – a guilty pleasure of mine. Done by the same people who did Grey’s Anatomy, it’s a spin-off set in a private medical practice. Only thing is, it’s more interesting with better characters. Shame they decided to end it.
So, first day over. Not really a day where we could do much, but we know we’re probably doing a park of some sort the next day. We just don’t know what – yet.