Cycling is a great way to take in a dose of southern comfort in the Sunshine State
That’s the place!” my fellow rider remarked as we cruised into Miami along Ocean Boulevard on our road bikes.
I glanced to my left and saw a towering white home lined with perfectly trimmed hedges and tropical vegetation — what set it apart from the dozens of others like it is a small number at its entrance — 461.
Made famous by Eric Clapton’s 1974 record 461 Ocean Boulevard, the home on the front of the album’s cover has been replaced but the widespread intrigue around the address remained.
We continued riding, as couples in convertibles and mysterious figures in SUVs drove past. I became distracted by the plethora of expensive yachts dotting the harbour to my right, comforted by the fact I am never too far from water in South Florida.
As an Australian who grew up in the outskirts of Perth, Miami was in some ways a huge culture shock but in others it felt like home.
The tropical environment was akin to Broome but without the slow pace of life. I spent 10 days in Florida, staying near Fort Lauderdale and exploring its busy coastline.
I travelled in mid-February and, being my first trip to the US, I braced myself for potential cooler weather. But Florida’s proximity to the Equator meant jackets were near obsolete.
“It’s not normally this hot at this time of year,” a bartender at Florida’s famous Hollywood beach remarked.
I got the feeling the hordes of tourists on the sand nearby did not share my desire to escape the searing sun, given I had travelled from a scorching Perth summer.
Tourism is one of the highest contributors to Florida’s economy, a fact that was abundantly clear as I wound my way through its streets on my bicycle.
Everywhere I looked there were foreigners looking at maps, retirees enjoying long lunches or people from other parts of America enjoying the region’s warmth.
It was little wonder the sunshine State attracted so many US tourists at this time of year, when much of America was blanketed by an arctic freeze.
My two-hour bike ride into Miami was rewarded with some of the region’s famous Cuban food. After winding through the city’s streets for a while I pulled into a Latin restaurant known for its selection of decadent pressed sandwiches.
I devoured a media noche — a grilled sandwich filled with bolo ham, pork, pickles and Swiss cheese cased in Cuban bread, topped off by a sugary espresso-style Cuban coffee.
Food was a highlight of my trip to Florida and, as always when abroad, I tried to sample as much of the local cuisine as possible.
My long anticipation to eat a slice of keylime pie — a creamy, tart dessert filled with the South Floridian fruit — was satisfied during a trip to a local grocer in the town of Davie. I was not disappointed by its unique taste, a perfect blend of sour and sweet, and soft texture — I’d certainly recommend it to any sweet tooth visiting the area.
I also dined at a small Spanish tapas restaurant in Miami, where the city’s South American influence was clear. My fellow diners ordered in Spanish while I lamented my inattention at language lessons several years earlier.
“Me nombre es Claire” was about all I could remember, aside from describing my job title as “periodista”, i.e. journalist.
A trip to a Peruvian restaurant near Fort Lauderdale was my first experience of that country’s cuisine — I found it similar to Spanish food I’d tried at home, with delicate flavours and a hint of spice.
Cycling is always my main form of transport when I’m overseas and riding my bike around South Florida had its challenges but allowed me to see parts of the State I would not have by other means.
The traffic-laden roads meant I had to keep my wits about me but, luckily, my Floridian friend guided me through the endless metropolis of Miami’s surrounds.
I managed to get some mountain biking in, which was where I caught a glimpse of the country’s infamous fauna. Riding to a local mountain-bike park in Davie the paths were lined with iguanas perched in trees and on water pipes. Dubbed the “chicken of the trees” by some, the reptilian non-native was abundant in the State’s network of canals and waterways.
My friend chuckled as I hurriedly reached for my phone to capture the first iguana I saw. “You’ll see plenty of those,” he remarked. He was right.
My search for an alligator in Floridian waters was successful and I must admit unnerving. I was cycling along a popular running track along a canal very close to houses when an unmistakable snout appeared on the water’s surface.
It is not uncommon to hear about alligator attacks in Florida and a quick Google search told me one of these occurred near the very trail I was riding on. A woman was dragged to her death while walking her dogs in a Davie park last year. I felt safe on two wheels though.
My last night in Florida was spent at a rodeo, the most American experience I’ve had.
Women on horses wearing Stetsons and holding American flags circled the arena as people in the crowd put their hands on their hearts, steely-eyed as the Star Spangled Banner played.
The rodeo itself was a marathon of misbehaving horses throwing off riders into the sand and agile cowboys trying in vain to tame fired-up bovines.
Outside the entrance was a group of animal rights protestors.
If there was one thing I took away from the American people I met in my travels, it was they have few qualms about speaking their minds. But I learnt quickly not to mention politics.
During my 15-hour flight from Sydney to Houston — the second leg of my three-part, 36-hour journey — I had meaningful conversations with at least four Americans, who told me about their lives and reasons for travel.
An overtly friendly Texan couple next to me wanted to hear all about my life as an Aussie but when I broached the subject of their country’s polarising leader it was glossed over. Perhaps it was the sleepless night I’d had between Perth and Sydney or the altitude that resulted in my lack of a filter but I very quickly learnt the error of my ways.
I returned to Australia with a discombobulated body clock and a hunger to explore more of the US.