Miami, Florida, USA (30th Apr 2008)
Our first day in Miami pretty much followed the same routine we had become accustomed to on all our first days in new cities in the USA.We were up early to get to the airport, we had a relatively pain-free flight where for a change we weren't sitting together and then we had a torturous two hour bus ride to get us to our hostel. We were staying in South Beach in Miami Beach and the hostel seemed like it ticked all the standard boxes that a hostel should do. Not having much energy thanks to the 5am start we made a quick trip to the supermarket up the road before getting an early night.
When we arrived in Miami Beach we knew that scuba diving would once again be an option for us and we quickly learned was that great dive destinations were closer than we have ever imagined. The Miami area boasts one of the highest concentrations of underwater wrecks anywhere on the planet and thanks to an active artificial reef program, they also have their fair share of reef systems too, that coupled with excellent conditions and cheap deals meant the umming and aaarring was short lived and we decided to do another trip, our third in as many months. So after a lovely lie in on our first full day in Miami we went for a walk to find a dive shop we had read about online called Tarpoon Diving. It turned out to only be a fifteen minute walk from the hostel and was situated right by the marina, the place looked promising. The shop sold everything a diver could want and after a quick look around a young guy asked if he could be of any help; we told him we were interesting in doing a dive in the next few days and he outlined the options for us. Finally we decided on a four hour trip the following Sunday on which we would do two dives, one wreck dive and the other a reef dive. This place seemed a lot more credible than the company in Hawaii as they actually asked for our dive certification cards for a start and trusted that as certified divers we would be ok going down as a buddy team rather than going down as a group or needing a dive master; all in all it just seemed much more professional. The kid in the shop gave us a range of options that we could choose from on a variety of days and we ended up going with his recommendation of a two tank early morning dive which included one reef dive and one wreck dive.
Feeling happy with our decision to continue our diving adventures in Miami we walked back to the hostel along Ocean Drive to see some of the Art Deco Architecture that the area is so famous for. The Art Deco District is the largest collection of Art Deco architecture in the world and comprises hundreds of hotels, apartments and other structures erected between 1923 and 1943. Mediterranean, Streamline Moderne and Art Deco are all represented in the District. As lunchtime had already been and past and there were so many nice looking restaurants and cafes along the front we thought we would sit down and have something to eat. We were happy to find that all the food on the menu of our chosen cafe was half price as it was happy hour and so we ordered a pizza and a burger and when the option of a drink came about we thought what better place to enjoy a Mojito as we were probably the closest we were going to get to Cuba. The food was delicious as were the cocktails but when the bill came things went rapidly downhill and we realised we had been fooled; out drinks were $20 each! It seemed the half price food menu was a cheap trick to get you in there so you would order drinks not really being too sure of the price. We reluctantly paid and walked away, shaking our heads in disbelief and made our way back to the hostel where we needed to recover from the shock of a very unexpected expensive dinner, which we spent the rest of the evening doing!
Yet again we found ourselves waking up nearer lunchtime which wasn't really a problem as we had already decided that Miami Beach would be a place we could relax and just slow the pace for a little while. So what better place to relax than the beach itself we thought. The white sands seemed to stretch forever and having already heard that each section of beach has its own particular crowd (the gay crowd/ the families/ the 'pretty people') we walked to what we thought looked like a pretty normal section and made ourselves at home. We spent the afternoon alternating between baking ourselves under the sun and messing around in the sea which was initially freezing cold but as the waves began crashing around us it became a welcome refuge from the heat.
For a change we were up and out early for what turned out to be our most eventful day in Miami so far. As South Beach is quite a pedestrian friendly area we set out on foot again in search of the Holocaust Memorial but happened to come across an area called Lincoln Mall, a pedestrian strip full of cafe's, bars and little boutique shops. We walked the entire length and back taking in the atmosphere and doing a bit of people watching which is always entertaining, especially in a place like Miami! We realised the memorial was only a stone's throw away from the mall as when we began walking again the memorials focal point, a bronze sculpture that depicts Holocaust victims crawling up a huge open hand to freedom, came into view. The hand sits in the centre of a reflecting pool and initially we thought that that was all there was too the memorial but as we investigated further we realised there was a lot more to it than that. We started off by walking around the back of the hand through a covered walkway that served as a memorial in its own right as the names of those being remembered were etched into the walls. The path then turned and we were lead down another dark walkway that was pierced with sunlight and echoed with the sound of children singing and then crying as we reached the base of the hand. It was here that we were confronted with the reality of the Holocaust as the sculptures really portray the horrors with emotionally broken faces and bodies so skinny that they were basically just bones. As well as the sculptures that were clinging to the hand itself there were individual pieces scattered around the open space below depicting babies crying, parents reaching out to their children and finally two emancipated bodies laying face down on the ground, all bringing you that one step closer to the atrocities. Our last experience of the Holocaust Memorial was continuing round to the front of the hand through the Arbour of History where a series of black granite slabs are etched with the photographs of the tortured Holocaust history. Although it's not the kind of thing everyone would like to visit on their holidays for us it was a must see and was well worth it, for the artwork, the history and for that little reminder to be thankful for what we have. On the way back to the hostel we walked along the beach which was lined with 5* hotels and so saw what kind of holiday you could have in Miami if you had the money, luxury pools, spacious balconies overlooking the sea and limousines to take you anywhere you so desire, although there are numerous restaurants right on the doorstep.
As we said before, we had booked to do a "reef and wreck" diving trip, and to give you a better of a better idea of the sites we dived, here is a brief summary of both the sights. We didn't get a camera for this dive but we have included some photos we found online to give you a better idea of things.
Wreck - Belcher Barge
This is something we had wanted to do ever since we got our certification. The Belcher Barge is a 200 (ish) foot steel barge which lies upside down in 60 feet of water (just above our dive limit); the barge was sunk by explosives in 1985 on purpose to create an intermediate dive site and although we didn't, you can enter the wreck through several holes in the barge's bulkhead. The barge was loaded with concrete pipes to add to the exploration of the dive but during the sinking process, it turned and landed completely upside down and the pipes rolled off to the side of the barge.
Reef - Atlantis Memorial Reef
The Neptune Memorial Reef is meant to be modelled on The Lost City of Atlantis and will be the largest man made reef ever built, covering more than 600,000 square feet of ocean floor. The site is being billed as the first underwater theme park in the world; it is designed as an artificial reef, with concrete statues, columns, domes and arches. The reef serves many purposes from being a training ground for students of marine biology to an underwater theme park that is complete with no admission charge for all scuba divers. Besides being a great SCUBA diving location, the reef will serve as a memorial for the "dearly departed" and for a fee (up to $7000 for those who want to be placed inside the base of a lion statue for all eternity) people can choose to have their cremated remains mixed with cement designed for underwater use and fitted into a mould, which a diver then places and secures into the reef. A copper and bronze plaque is installed with the person's name, date of birth and death and there is even a line for a message. One such weirdo who became one of the first takers was a 93 year old diver called Bert Kilbride who called himself "The Last Pirate of the Caribbean" and he had the privilege of being placed on the top of a column which holds up the reef's main gate, because of his contributions to the sea! (Kilbride was named the oldest living scuba diver in this year's Guinness Book of World Records). Weird stuff aside, it is in a great location, only 3 miles of shore and the temperature makes it an easy site to enjoy.
We had choose to do the early morning dive because they are usually better in terms of marine life and the sun isn't too hot when you're out on the boat, the only downside is that this meant we had to be up and out before seven to make it down to the shop in time to get all our equipment ready, something we are gladly getting less used to. We managed to get down to the dive shop early so we had a nosy around the marina for a few minutes before realizing that the dive shop had a side door and everyone else was already inside getting sorted. We knew already that this place was a bit more professional than the people we did our diving with in Hawaii, so much so that at one point it looked like Kara wasn't going to be allowed to come on the trip. The woman who owned the shop was checking people in and had asked to see our certification cards and this is where the problem came. The kid we had booked the trip through had already seen our cards and said we didn't need to bring them on the day, so Kara left hers at home in her purse but this proved not to be the case and it took a lot of sweet talking and finger pointing but we managed to convince her we weren't just making it up and she agreed to let us come but not before a good long lecture.
We were happy to find out that the shop had a proper boat, not like the Hawaiian company, but then again it wasn't quite in the same league as the one in Australia, but it was a lot better. On the boat we got given the standard boat safety talk and some spiel about the US coastguard, but pretty much as soon as the skipper had finished talking we were on our way. On this trip we had to setup all of our own equipment, which wasn't a problem for us, actual, we prefer it that way, but it seemed that not everyone on the boat should even have their certification. The young girl we met in the shop, Jamie, looked like she had never put her equipment together ever in her life and she managed to put the hoses on back to front and didn't even know which bit went in your mouth!!! We couldn't believe how she managed to get nearly all the steps wrong, and is a certified diver, its not as if its the world's safest sport at the best of times! Anyway, we had both managed to sort our own stuff out and do our buddy checks just in time as within a minute of being ready we were moored and ready for the first dive. First came the reef, and after a big step out to the horizon off the back of the boat and an OK signal to the deck we were off on another adventure. It's a pity the same couldn't be said for everyone on the boat though, our new pal Jamie had to get back on the boat because she freaked out and couldn't equalize properly and the one guy we thought would be running the show (all his own professional high end equipment) also had to get back out and was being sick all over the place!
Down at the bottom, on the mooring block we soon relaxed and as it did last time, it all just felt so natural and easy so after the mandatory OK to each other we went off on a 190 bearing to find the Belcher Barge. It didn't take us very long to swim over to the wreck and it felt surprisingly shallow even though it was as deep as we had ever been before, we just figure that it was because the boat itself stood off of the sea floor a good ten foot. The sea had a mild current which pulled us towards the front of the boat, but because we had learned it is best to swim into a current at the start, we headed towards the rear. It only took us about 15 minutes to swim around the boat and check out all the different types of marine life, the most impressive being a sting ray that was absolutely huge. After sitting and watching the sting ray flap around for a while we decided to swim over the top of the wreck to get a better look at the decks of the barge. As we mentioned earlier, it is possible to penetrate the wreck but we chose not to because we have no experience with it and wouldn't know how to deal with an emergency, so we will wait till we get our Advanced certification and maybe do some wreck in the future. All in all the dive lasted about 35 minutes which isn't a bad amount of time given the depth we were at and we both thoroughly enjoyed our first ship wreck dive and we will defiantly be looking at doing another wreck dive in the near future.
Before we even had a chance to sit down the boat was once again moored at the "Lost City" and we were quite excited to see just what the developers had managed to create. The dive started the same as the previous one did and we could just about make out the city as we descended down the line to the sea floor. The first thing you come across is a set of huge gates that are guarded by a pair of lions followed by a welcome plaque thanking the various public agencies and officials who granted the permits required. A central podium holds a bronze sketch of the completed reef which when we approached was being guarded by a big gray snapper. Through the gate and into the main area it is clear to see that they are putting a lot of money and effort into this project, there are loads of columns (which are intentionally tilted and cracked) statues and classically styled buildings/rooms some of which contain a few of the memorial plaques and casts. After circling the exterior and going in and out of all the rooms/tombs and admiring some of the art work they have created we decided to swim through some of the smaller passages and in between the main monument in the centre so we could get a better look at everything, this is how our dive ended up getting cut short. We were having a great time bobbing and weaving, that was until Kara snagged her ankle on a statue that sliced her open like it was a scalpel and although it wasn't too painful it made swimming awkward and we had to surface after 30 minutes, which was still was a good dive length and the main thing is that we had seen everything and Kara was OK.
Back on board the crew managed to save Kara's leg and luckily she would have to have it amputated, meanwhile the other girl Jamie still only managed a short dive on this site and our boat "Pro Diver" was still being sick over the side, which the fish loved, for them it was diner time! The ride back gave us a chance to get some decent photos of the city skyline from up on the top deck
During the course of our stay in Miami we had gotten talking to a Canadian guy who was staying in our room. One day he suggested going out to Disneyworld for the day and before we knew it we were getting up at 6am to go and rent a car with him and two of his friends. The only car the rental company had to offer was a Dodge Calibre in a fetching burnt orange colour which turned out to be frustratingly slow, especially for Mark who is used to a lot more power. As Mark was the only one who had volunteered to drive it was left to the rest of us to navigate which ended up going horribly wrong as an easy three hour drive slowly turned into a five hour slog. We were surprised how few road signs there were for the Disney resort and as a result we took wrong exit after wrong exit and ended up paying nearly $10 in road tolls! After what seemed like a lifetime since we left Miami we saw the first Disney sign which turned out to be the entrance, we all cheered we were so happy to finally be there.
We soon parked up in the Goofy car park and caught the shuttle train to the ticket counters and then caught the monorail to the entrance to the park, and we thought getting there was hard work! Something we hadn't been expecting to happen was having our finger print taken as we swiped our tickets, probably to stop theft of tickets or people sneaking in or something like that. Anyway we had made it to The Magic Kingdom and that was all that mattered, we had both been there before, Mark when he was fifteen and Kara when she was four but it was like visiting for the first time all over again. We entered the park along Main Street and were instantly greeted by a performance in which freakishly happy people were dancing and singing in fancy dress; it was a sure sign we had entered the world of Disney which was then confirmed as we walked towards the iconic Cinderella's Castle. We made our first port of call 'Tomorrow World', in particular the ride Space Mountain which is one of the more famous and adult friendly rides. After a relatively short queue we were blasted into outer space past planets and shooting stars before we plummeted and climbed and twisted and turned our way to the end of the line, all of which happened in the dark and sparked a few outbursts of frightened delight. Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin was next on the list and turned out to be a variation on the Haunted House ride we know and love so well. We were shown to little carts that held two people and had oversized green shooting machines attached to the front, the aim of the game being to shoot as many X's as possible which was made even more fun when we realised the cars swung all the way around. Mark got the most points of course and wouldn't let Kara forget it! Our last stop in Tomorrow World was Stitch's Great Escape which was interesting... we reported for duty as new security recruits in the Galactic Federation Prisoner Teleport Centre where our job was to guard Stitch but really all we did was sit in a round room while we got shot with water pistols and blasts of steam while strobe lighting made us feel slightly dizzy. We came out more confused than when we went in!
On our way round to Frontier Land we happened to see the start of the Parade coming towards us so we stood and watched that for a while. It was at this point that memories of her previous holiday started coming back to Kara, especially when Mickey and Minnie and Tigger and Pooh drove past waving and singing. We didn't have time for too much reminiscing and as the sun was seriously belting down on us we carried on going to the only sensible option, Splash Mountain! This is another of Disney's more iconic rides and saw us plunging five stories off Chick-a-pin Hill in a 'Log Flume' type adventure. On any other day getting as wet as we did might have been uncomfortable and annoying but it came as a welcome refuge from the heat we even went so far as to splash each other on the way round even before the finale, besides, we were fully dried off in less than half an hour anyway. Next up was Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in which we weaved and ducked our way through an Old West mining town, having a 'rip-roarin', rootin-tootin' time. The ride is pretty old but still just as thrilling as some of the more modern rollercoaster's, if only for the fear you might whack your head on the entrance to one of the tunnels or be thrown out of the carriage on one of the sharper corners, luckily that didn't happen to any of us. No theme park would be complete without the Haunted Mansion ride which we learnt had recently had a bit of a renovation and although there was no thrill factor about the ride, the Doom Buggy took us on a ghostly tour of the mansion where we encountered séance's and even met a couple of hitchhiking ghosts! What stood out during the ride was the realism of the ghosts thanks to the 3-D special effects and audio animatronics; still it would have been nice to have let out a scream or two along the way!
Next we found our way to Fantasyland which turned out to be more for toddlers and younger children but we didn't let that stop us and headed straight for Mickey's Philharmagic. As were not too sure what kind of experience we were in for we were pleased to be handed a set of 3-D glasses and told we would be watching a twenty minute long animation, finally a break for our tired feet. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole day as we were taken on a truly magical journey by Donald Duck through a back catalogue of Disney Films including Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to name but a few. The show begins with Goofy running around behind the stage in front of us declaring that there is a problem just as the curtain is raised to reveal Donald Duck asleep...but not for long as he is soon send on a journey where he encounters Flounder, Ariel, Simba, Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, Aladdin, Jasmine, Mickey and Belle and we hear some of Disney's most memorable songs. The 3-D effects are undoubtedly brilliant but it's the pairing of the 3-D and other effects such as scents, vibrations and wind that make the whole experience truly unique and one that left Kara wanting to watch the entire Disney collection over and over again.
We made a quick stop for lunch at Tall Tale Inn and Cafe where we all enjoyed an unhealthy (but much needed) tea of burger and chips before making our way to see the Pirates of the Caribbean Show in Adventure Land. The ride began as soon as we entered the waiting area as the whole walkway is pirate themed but it was when we boarded the fifteen passenger boats that the fun really began. We found ourselves in the midst of the port of a Caribbean city under attack by a pirate frigate before turning a corner and witnessing a group of pirates in search of gold and adventure. There were pirates chasing women, pirates in jail, pirates fighting, drunk pirates, 125 figures in total and of course there was Captain Sparrow cleverly incorporated into every scene, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Johnny Depp himself thanks to the audio animatronics, a treat for all the girls on the ride.
The ultimate highlight of the day we all agreed came when the sun set and the crowds gathered to watch the famous "Wishes" firework display and presentation. The show is narrated by Jiminy Cricket and tells of making wishes come true using familiar Disney songs, the voices of animated characters along with meticulously choreographed fireworks. The show begins when Tinker Bell gets the pixie dust flowing as she flies from Cinderella Castle which provides a dramatic backdrop for the display and becomes integral to the show through lighting and effects. The entire show was twelve minutes long but it felt like much longer as we were all glued to the spot amazed by the spectacle unfolding in front of us. The synchronization between the soundtrack and the fireworks was unbelievable, right down to every syllable of Jiminy Cricket's narration which also featured Show White, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Ariel and Aladdin. In addition to the original theme, which is based on the children's nursery rhyme "Starlight, Star Bright" Wishes contains portions of 12 songs from 10 classic Disney animated features from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio right through to Hercules and Beauty and the Beast. Wishes is a must see for anyone visiting the Magic Kingdom whether aged 3 or 103 and really was a wonderful way for us to end our day of adventures at Disney. All that was left to do was drive back to Miami, which we did with ease compared to the drive there only travelling on two roads and not encountering a single toll road along the way.
After over 560 miles of driving we managed to get back to the hostel at about 3am just in time to have a shower, load up the car and catch one hours sleep before going to the airport. Mark was especially tired as he was the only one out of the five of us who went to Disney, who for obvious reasons didn't get a wink of sleep in the car and he was so happy to get the car dropped off at the airport and sleep in the terminal before our flight to Houston.