The Holiday Road Trip - Wisconsin to Florida

This was supposed to be a leisurely holiday vacation to South Florida, flying out of Milwaukee over the week just after Christmas. Unfortunately, with a foot of snow on the ground and warming temps, fog closed our airport long enough to wreck havoc on our travel plans.


Travel Plans Turned Upside Down

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on December 29, 2008

As we were running errands on Friday afternoon, I became increasingly concerned about the warming temperatures. Earlier in the week SE Wisconsin had received another six inches of snow, just in time for Christmas and holiday travel. With about that same amount on the ground, most seasonal purists were more than happy that we'd have a white Christmas. We certainly didn't "need" another six!

I had once before been grounded during the winter with fog created by rising temps. Seems a painful payback that we endure when the weather becomes unseasonably warm immediately after a sizeable snowfall. I knew the signs and could practically forecast it without the knowledge or skills of Willard Scott.

Waking up at 5:00am on Saturday, I got into the shower and proceeded to check out the airline's flight status for the morning. Sure enough, "CANCELED" was scrolled across our flight info. After a 30 minute wait on the telephone, I was finally speaking with an agent with AirTran Airlines. She broke the bad news . . . it would be Monday afternoon before they could get us to our original destination; or any other major airport in Florida! YIKES!!

I went ahead and allowed her to rebook us for Monday morning itinerary, and proceeded to contact my car rental company to confirm our change in travel plans and hopefully retain my great rental rate in spite of the delayed arrival and schedule change. Not so fast, however. I am told that they could not assure my rate nor even the availability of a car. The young man went on to say that even if we were to arrive on time that afternoon, there was a highly likelihood that there would be no car for us, anyway, period.

I felt like I was living that Jerry Seinfeld episode about why making a reservation doesn't reserve you a car with certainty. The agent explained that the auto manufacturers had withdrawn inventory from a majority of the rental companies operating in Orlando and didn't have cars for anyone.

Because we were flying into Orlando in order to save on the airline tickets because Ft. Lauderdale was more than $300/ticket more, having a car was essential. Our vacation destination was not Orlando and even if it was, anyone who has been there will tell you that unless you're staying INSIDE the Walt Disney World Complex, you will need a car. Our timeshare exchange was in Ft. Lauderdale and we needed to be assured we could get there and get around without issue.

It was at this point in time, around 6:45am, that I realized that if this vacation was going to happen, we were going to have to drive to Florida. That would be 1,450 miles or approximately 22 hours drive time according to Mapquest. Once the reality had set in on David, we were ready to pack the van and hit the road.

Our route took us south from Milwaukee, through Chicago (thankfully it was a slow Saturday morning - - just fog & rain); east on the tollway to I65 south. Passing through Louisville and Nashville, we stopped in Chattanooga for the night. With 750 miles under our belt, we figured we were about halfway there.

Sunday morning we woke up to rain, which we endured through to approximately Atlanta. While the skies were mostly clearing, the roads were becoming a real nightmare. With road construction and lane closures, coupled with the snowbirds trying to get home to Florida from home "up north" we were in for a long travel day.

After crawling some three hours from Macon to the GA/FLA stateline, things picked up for a few miles but subsequently jammed up again. It wasn't until we were on the Florida Turnpike did our drive resume to the posted 70mph speed.

We finally arrived at the Wyndham Palm Aire resort at 10:30pm, after logging another 750 miles over the course of nearly 15 hours! Needless to say, we were zonked and ready for sleep. Everything at check-in went smoothly and we were in bed by 11:00pm.

It was a long couple of days . . . but alas . . . we "arrived alive" and could look forward to the coming week (give or take) in sunny South Florida.

Fun Way to Learn About the Everglades

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MilwVon on January 1, 2009

The Everglades Day Safari is based over in Ft Myers, but also serves visitors staying on the Atlantic Coast in and around Ft. Lauderdale. We were picked up at 7:15am at Ft. Lauderdale Beach with another guest and after another stop at the Weston Vacation Villages Resort for four more, we were off for our day safari in the Everglades. The large 15 passenger van was quite comfy with just seven passengers for the day.

They call this a full day safari tour because there are four components: airboat ride, nature walk, Big Cypress drive and boat tour; mostly along the Tamiami Trail (US Highway 41). While the two boat tours met our expectations, we did feel that the nature walk and Big Cypress drive aspects fell short of the published literature.

Our first stop was in the Miccosukee Indian Reservation for our airboat ride through the Shark River Slough, a sawgrass freshwater ecosystem within the Everglades. The 20 minute ride out to a small hammock (island) containing several chi-kees - thatch topped dwellings built by the local natives for their living quarters. Here we walked around and learned about how the Miccosukee people lived in the past and today. Here we were able to observe some local wildlife including a turtle and several alligators. There were native artisans selling their hand-made jewelry items here as well.

Upon our return to the airboat dock we received a short presentation of other animals found in this area of the everglades including snakes, geckos and young alligators that were approximately four months old.

With potty breaks behind us, we continued our drive tour through the Big Cypress area of the Everglades via the westbound Tamiami Trail. Our next stop was at Clive Butcher's gallery, a nice location to see some of the local plants found here. Inside the gallery, visitors had the opportunity to view and purchase photographic art taken in and around the Everglades. Butcher and his wife are photographers who bring still photos to life. Many of the pieces were limited edition, signed and number . . . and all were quite expensive! We took a pass on buying a piece of art to take home with us.

As we continued our drive west, our guide Michele continued to tell us about the Everglades ecosystem and the animals that call this area home. At the Big Cypress visitors' center we pulled off onto the shoulder of the road to view several large alligators basking in and soaking up the sun's warmth. Further on down the road about a mile or two, we pulled off where there was a nest of eight or nine baby alligators. While there was no momma to be seen close by, we were assured she wasn't far away and to get too close would be asking for trouble.

Moving on down the Tamiami Trail, we made the left turn towards Everglades City where we would have the opportunity to shop for books about the area and have lunch at the Seafood Depot a block away. The hardware store where we stopped for books, also seemed to be a nice little tourist trap with a lot of local teeshirts, hats and postcards.

With a 12:30pm lunch appointment, we arrived at the Seafood Depot on schedule. Earlier in the day we preordered our lunch from a selection of hot and cold sandwiches or the salad bar. Served with a small appetizer of alligator nuggets, homemade garlic bread and soft drink of our choice; lunch was a pleasant experience. I was actually impressed that with our tour group and the other one from the same company stopping here at the same time, that everyone's food was prepared correctly and served hot.

Well fed and rested, we were next heading over to the Everglades National Park site where we would take our 90 minute boat tour of the Ten-Thousand Islands - - a narrated nature ride from the dock out to the closest edge of the Gulf of Mexico. On our way out we saw several manatees coming to the water's surface for air. Further on out, we picked up a dolphin that wanted to play in the wake of our boat.

Throughout our entire day we saw a lot of birds including blue herons, egrets, wood storks, red shoulder hawks and osprey. It was especially interesting to see some of them spreading out along the canal on Hwy41 to dry out. You see, some birds cannot fly with wet wings so they must dry them before heading out elsewhere for the day.

After our boat trip out at Everglades City we headed back to Ft. Lauderdale via Interstate 75, approximately an hour's drive back. We were dropped off at 5:15pm, which did make this a full day. Many were tired and took advantage of the return trip to take a nap.

All in all, we did enjoy the day and felt it was worth the $140 price tag which also included the price of lunch. If you shop around, you can pin down discounts of between $10 and $20. Including (optional) gratuities for our two boat guides and Michele, the day was $145 per person.

More information can be found on their website at www.ecosafari.com or by calling 1-800-472-3069.
Everglades Day Safari
Corner of Gladiolus and US 41
Fort Myers, Florida, 33908
(800) 472-3068

The Start to Our Road Trip Home

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MilwVon on January 10, 2009

With 1,500 miles and approximately 25 hours of driving ahead of us, we thought we'd leave a day early so that we could take a leisurely cruise through the Everglades along the Tamiami Trail, Hwy 41 from essentially Miami to Naples. While we enjoyed the ride along this route a couple of days earlier during our Everglades Safari Day tour, it fell short in terms of opportunities to stop along the way to take photos of the alligators and birds found in and around the waters of the canals.

David served as an outstanding driver, tolerated my wish to stop at several areas to shoot photographs and to enjoy the view in a bit more intimate manner. At one point where we stopped, there must have been 15 or 20 alligators laying around on the shoreline, basking in the sun. Because they are cold blooded animals, it is essential for them to absorb as much heat during the day as possible. It is this need for ambient heat that drives them to crawl out onto the roads to get heat through their bellies . . . and often run over by cars and trucks driving through the area in the middle of the night.

If you make the drive across the Everglades in this area, be sure to pull all the way off the roadway. I couldn’t believe the number of tourists that would only pull off halfway, leaving their rear ends out in the lane of traffic. Good way to lose that rental car . . . "Hertz isn't going to be happy" to quote Shep Smith of FNC.

As you drive along the Tamiami Trail, there are several areas of Everglades National Park that you can visit. One of the most popular is the Shark Valley area. Another is the area at Big Cypress Nature Preserve. If there is a disappointment in this ride, it is the fact that visitors are teased throughout the area by "Panther Crossing" signs. As an endangered species, and one that is nocturnal, seeing a Florida Panther is a rare experience. Locals living in the area for their entire lives report that they've never seen one. Still, as we drove through, I thought "How cool would it be to be treated to such a rare wildlife sighting?"

There is little in the way of gas and food along this route. Most of what you will have available are part of the Native American reservations . . . or the tourist areas that specialize on the airboat tour market. Our view is that unless you're spending the entire day in the area; plan to eat on one end or the other of Hwy 41. You may find packing a picnic lunch to be a fun way to enjoy the area without getting caught at high priced facilities. Everglades City near the far western end of Hwy 41 is one place along the trail that provides some nice local restaurants like the Seafood Depot where we ate during our safari tour earlier in the week.

All in all, this was a great way to begin our journey home to the land of the cheeseheads.
Everglades National Park
Various Visitor Centers
Everglades National Park, Florida
(305) 242-7700

It Was Destiny!

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MilwVon on December 30, 2008

When we checked into our timeshare resort on Sunday night, we were given unit 777. As recreational gamblers who enjoy a night at the casino, I told my hubby that this was a good omen, especially since at least one night at the Hard Rock Casino was on our agenda.

We spent a rather leisurely day around the resort our first day, so dinner and a night out seemed appropriate. After dinner we ventured the 30 minutes south to Hollywood, FL to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

I remember when the Seminole tribe bought the Hard Rock Casino and thinking "damn they must have a lot of money." Well now that I've been to their casino in South Florida, I can see that they are certainly MAKING a lot of money!

We arrived at approximately 8:15pm. The parking lots were a zoo - no parking anywhere close to the main entrances. Even the parking deck was full. We ended up parking out in a make-shift parking area with temporary lights run on back-up generators.

Once inside the place, it was a mob of people. The line to get a players' card was at least 50 people deep. They were offering a great deal for new members, $50 in gaming cash plus a coupon for a free lunch. We had planned on getting a card too, but not when you have to stand in line for what was at least an hour.

The vastness of this place cannot be overstated. It is simply huge inside! Slot machines, both the old fashioned reel type as well as the new fangled electronic ones were as far as the eye could see. Good news here . . . they even had a huge section of nickel and dime machines.

I had my sights set on playing my favorite table game, 3 Card Poker so slots were not on my agenda. One of the reasons for the huge crowds is that this is one of the only (if not THE only) casinos in Florida that is a full Las Vegas style gaming establishment. Most in the state only have slots (no thank you), poker rooms and off track betting . . . not my style of casino. In fact, there is one right across the street from our resort with those things, but we wanted a "real" casino.

As we wandered through the maze of slot machines and table game pits, it was clear that the Seminoles were racking in the big bucks . . . $25 to $60 at a time! I had never seen table minimums so damn high before. I did find a small grouping of 3 Card Poker tables with $15 minimums, so I found me a seat and swallowed hard. I typically choose the $5 games and will up my bets to $10 only when I get ahead a couple hundred bucks. I promised David that I would only play "a hundred's worth". LOL

Well I hit a couple of small payouts, flush, then a straight, then a pair. Then it happened . . . the elusive straight flush! WOOHOO! With $15 on the pairs plus bet, plus the bet against the dealer for $15 (plus ante of $15), I was chachinging in for a $850 win. It was quite exciting as that was the first big hand at the table in the hour I had been playing. Note: this casino had some of the best 3 Card Poker payouts for the jackpot hands I had ever seen. Ordinarily the straight flush "only" plays 40:1. Here they were paying 50:1 AND if it was a "mini royal flush" (Q, K, A) it paid 100:1.

When I got my bankroll up to $900 up, I got up and we headed for the cashier's cage. You may wonder about what David was doing all of this time . . . he was being the happy observer and cheerleader. He was still too brain-dead after the road trip from hell, so he didn't want to play blackjack, especially at $25 per hand.

A couple of other comments about the Seminole Hard Rock Casino . . . this is a very large, full service entertainment venue . . . every bit as big and glitzy as those you will find in Nevada. Billy Joel is the headliner coming into town later this week for a series of shows. Jay Leno is also going to be here this week.

There are a number of restaurants on the premises, everything from snacks to gourmet fine dining restaurants. If you are a guest staying in their hotel, I can see that it would be possible to spend your entire vacation here and never leave the grounds.

If you don't like crowds or find the high table minimums too rich for your blood (especially for an extended visit), you may want to choose another casino destination. More information may be found on their web site: http://www.seminolehardrockhollywood.com/.

As an aside, I did ask our dealer about the crowds as I was wondering if it was due to the holiday week. He said that it was always this busy and that table minimums are only low during the day or in the middle of the night.
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
1 Seminole Way
Hollywood, Florida, 33314
(954) 327-7625

Outstanding Fine Dining in Pompano Beach

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MilwVon on December 30, 2008

Once again, Restaurant.com has served us well. Before leaving Wisconsin, I had scored several dining gift certificates including one for Joe's Riverside Grille. Located approximately six or eight miles from our resort, it is also on the list of their recommended restaurants in the area.

We planned for an early dinner, arriving just after sunset at 6:00pm. They had some space inside, but given the outstanding weather (80 during the day!) we opted for their patio deck seating that was on the intercoastal waterway. It was the perfect spot for an outstanding dining experience.

Our server Michael was very attentive to our every need. My water glass was never more than half empty and he was right there to check in on us at the appropriate times.

The menu was much more expansive than their online version at Restaurant.com . . . a full page of seafood and fish delights . . . plus three non-menu specials (all seafood and fish). Looking through the 20 or so choices made it difficult to pick just one. As he went through the chef's evening specials, David was sold on the Cajun Swordfish immediately! For me, it was the Flounder Rockefeller.

His swordfish was prepared and topped with three nice sized shrimp and several scallops on a bed of yellow rice. My flounder was served with a layer of spinach and lump crab meat, with a nice hollandaise over everything. I opted for a roasted redskin potato for my starch. Both meals included a bountiful basket of homemade bread, a nice garden salad and steamed veggies with the entree.

Dinner was simply scrumptious - delicious and beyond expectations. To top off this most perfect night, we ordered a Bananas Foster to share. It was equally delicious and an outstanding ending to this wonderful dining experience.

Our dinner check including an 18% gratuity was $75, which we felt was very reasonable even though it did not include alcoholic beverages. With our $25 Restaurant.com dining certificate, our total meal cost was just $52. This is because we were able to pick-up this dining gift certificate during the recent 80% off deal thereby only paying $2 for the $25 certificate. What a wonderful value! I should reiterate, this meal was outstanding and would have been a great value at the full price of $75 for the two of us.
Joe's Riverside Grille
125 North Riverside Drive
Pompano Beach, Florida, 33062
(954) 941-2499

Dining at Southern Comfort Lounge & Grille

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on January 2, 2009

Southern Comfort Lounge & Grille
17 N. Ocean Blvd (A1A)
Pompano Beach, FL
954-786-6008

We found this restaurant through Restaurant.com and were pleased with our dining experience. Located in the Lighthouse Cove Resort right on the beach, this is really not a beachfront (or waterfront) dining experience. The restaurant is set back a bit and overlooks the resort's swimming pool and another restaurant's outside patio seating area.

The menu was somewhat limited but did provide for choices ranging from burgers and sandwiches to entrees including steaks and fish. As a bar (lounge) they did have a very vast assortment of appetizer offerings. Speaking of being a bar, they had outstanding adult beverage prices. David had a tall Jack (Daniels) and 7-up which was $3.50 and I had a pina colada that was $4.00. We were there around 6:00pm and they did advertise happy hour so perhaps we benefited from happy hour pricing.

For dinner David did the chef's creation mahi mahi while I had the coconut shrimp. Both entrees were served with a salad, our choice of potatoes and a mixed veggie medley. We both thoroughly enjoyed our dinners . . . and did choose a strawberry swirl cheesecake to share.

It was obvious why they are marketing through Restaurant.com as the place was really dead. Perhaps it was that we were early during the dinner hour . . . or the fact that it was New Year's Eve and folks would be going out to dinner later in the night. Not sure, but we pretty much had the place to ourselves with the exception of one or two other couples . . . and a small group of locals drinking around the bar.

This place also provides free use of the pool tables (there were two or three) if you are there as paying customers (dining or drinking). They also feature a Wednesday night poker league. I don't know much about that but you can find out more by making a call to them I'm sure.

Our dinner including the adult beverages, dessert and tip was $50. Considering our $25 g/c from Restaurant.com, we paid just $27 for our meals . . . an outstanding value!


NOTE: This was written as an "experience" and not a restaurant review because I could not get the IgoUgo site to allow me to add this establishment to their restaurant data base.

Stone Crabs - House Specialty

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MilwVon on January 10, 2009

I had never had stone crabs . . . heck never even heard of them before David's friend Marney suggested a visit to Capt. Eddies on our way through her area just south of Sarasota.

Stone Crabs are an Atlantic Ocean delicacy, available from October through March. Local swear about the way costs are driven up by the snowbirds who winter in Florida. You can even pay around $150 to $200 to have "dinner for two" shipped overnight around the USA if you need your stone crab fix. So you might ask, why all the hype? I know I wanted to know!

Capt. Eddies is a very family style type seafood restaurant, found right on HWY41 in Nokomis, Florida. From the outside, it looks like most other seafood shanty type restaurants in Florida, only it isn't on a beach. They have a newly remodeled TiKi Patio, but for our evening visit, it seemed a bit cool to be dining outside, so we asked to be seated inside.

Tables are a lot like picnic tables with long benches. Covered with paper placemats, you could feel comfortable slopping butter around with your seafood, fish and shelled critters. We all ordered the stone crab dinners. Guests have a choice of medium, large or extra large crab claws. We all opted for the large. Served with your choice of two sides, we all seemed to have varied tastes. I had the coleslaw and fries; David did the coleslaw and hush puppies and Marnie did the sweet potato casserole and coleslaw. All was delicious.

A little about the stone crabs and eating them. You actually eat the front claws, which have a huge chunk of tasty tender meat. I was shocked to learn that the fisherman snap off the front claws of the stone crab and then return them (the body) back into the ocean where the crab will re-grow replacement front claws in about 18 to 24 months. Can you imagine? They tear off their legs and that's that. I wonder if PETA knows about this???

I found the flavor to be much better than lobster (which I actually don't care much for) and Alaskan King Crab legs . . . and much easier to get to. When served, the kitchen breaks open the claws making it relatively easy to get into the meaty area. They are served with nut style crackers and small seafood forks. Many people eat this seafood delicacy with a spicy mustard. For me, just as they are served was great. David enjoyed dipping in the drawn butter.

After dinner, we all agreed that we had to have Key Lime Pie. David and I had been in Florida for nearly a week and had yet to have some and now that we were working our way north and home to Wisconsin, this was our last opportunity. We ordered two slices to split between the three of us. It was fabulous! I could have done without the whipped cream florets on the top, but the others seemed to enjoy it.

I should say there are a lot of other fish and seafood choices on the menu so you do not have to have the stone crabs if they don't sound like your thing. I wish they had a website . . . or a published menu somewhere . . . but I couldn't find one. I would suggest that if you have questions you give them a call: 941-484-4623.

Also, because the menus had no prices on them for the stone crabs ("market price") I have no idea how much our dinners were as Marnie was insistent on our dinner being her treat. My guess is that they are probably pretty expensive given the prices I've seen on the various wholesale and retail markets on the internet that have pricing information. Whatever it was, we had a great meal with a wonderful friend . . . and would suggest Capt. Eddies again any time!

For more info on stone crabs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_stone_crab .
Captain Eddies Seafood
107 Colonia Ln E
Nokomis, Florida
(941) 484-4623

First Class Wyndham Timeshare Resort

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MilwVon on December 30, 2008

Palm Aire Resort and Spa is a mix of year round condos and timeshares within the Wyndham family of resorts. We used our 2BR Wyndham Kingsgate unit to exchange through RCI for this deluxe 2BR condo in Pompano Beach, Florida.

We were very pleased with our accommodations and the resort's amenities. The unit was spacious, with a very large living room with an adjoining dining area and full sized kitchen. The master bedroom had a king size bed with an adjoining master bath with a jacuzzi bath tub, an enclosed shower stall and nice vanity top sink. Also in the master bath area was the "skinny mini" washer & dryer.

On the other side of the living area was the second bedroom and another full bath. The BR had two queen size beds and plenty of space. The other bathroom was a standard shower over tub with a nice counter top sink with plenty of room for toiletries.

The three main rooms in the unit had ceiling fans (a must in Florida in the summer) and televisions. In the living room, there was also a nice compact entertainment center including a stereo system and DVD player. The living room also had a sleeper sofa upping the capacity of this timeshare unit to eight. Given the amount of space, this unit would be very comfortable for eight adults.

As for resort amenities, onsite activities include four swimming pools including a very nice pool for kids with a water slide, water volleyball and a shallow end for the little ones. Also free for use of resort guests is the 18 hole mini-golf course and a good sized sand filled volleyball pit.

In our building there was a small snack bar type cafe and full sized walk-up bar. In the main building guests can be pampered with salon and spa services including manicures, massages and aroma therapy treatments.

All in all, this is one of the best timeshare resorts we've experienced. The location is ideal, very centrally positioned in the oceanside community of Pompano Beach, approximately 15 minutes north of Ft. Lauderdale. Groceries are practically right next door, as is a large Super Walmart. The only unfortunate thing is that this resort is inland and about a 15 minute drive from the Atlantic Ocean beaches. Good news is that there are two other Wyndham timeshare resorts that are across the street from the beaches and guests at Palm Aire can go and use the amenities at their sister resorts.

All and all, a great vacation experience at Wyndham Palm Aire Resort & Spa.
Wyndham Palm-Aire
2601 Palm-Aire Drive North
Pompano Beach, Florida, 33069
(954) 972-3300

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