The weather was nice and Amtrak fares are low and refundable, so I took the opportunity to go down to Florida once more. Tootie drove me and the folding bicycle to the Cary NC Amtrak station.
It was FOOD that seemed to be the center of all the major experiences on this trip. Tootie and I rarely eat in restaurants when we are at home in Chapel Hill. Even though we are surrounded by good places to eat the food just seems better if we cook it ourselves. But I really like to eat out when I go on the road. It started with dinner at the bar of Crosstown Pub, across the street from the Cary Amtrak station. Rare tuna with quinoa and roasted vegetables is a pleasant surprise for bar food.
Coming in from the north the train was an hour and a half late, so I had to sit around the station until almost eleven at night. I slept uncomfortably on the train. (the only savior: a full size pillow bought for $ 5.88 from Walmart; you can throw it away after the trip!) The next morning I got off the train at about 11:00 AM at the north Orlando suburb of Winter Park.
I put the bicycle together at the cutesy Winter Park station, new, built to look old.
My general plan was to bicycle in three days to my friend Bob’s house in Tampa, then tour Tampa and St. Pete for one day before catching the late afternoon Amtrak train home on the fourth day from Tampa.
Older parts of Orlando are actually quite attractive. I got lunch at BurgerFi; hamburger and broccoli were good. I read my Kindle.
Winter Park is northeast of downtown Orlando. I pretty much skipped downtown Orlando and looped around the city, going through miles of African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods, often unpleasantly biking on the sidewalk next to a major road. Eventually I was able to pick up West Orange Trail, an excellent bike path that extends twenty-two miles through this part of Orlando and its suburbs. Sometimes the trail follows regular highways.
Other times it meanders off on its own.
Several hours after leaving Winter Park the trail ran through the town of Winter GARDEN. I drank a latte at this local coffee house downtown. The people seemed almost too well dressed, friendly, and polite. I wish I knew what these people had in common.
I had booked an Airbnb in the town of Clermont, a little over thirty miles from my origin. Clermont is an older town on a bluff overlooking a lake.
Seventy-five dollars plus fees for a room in someone’s house is a questionable deal, but the deal is better when the owner is out of town and gives you a code to get in. I had the place to myself. He must be a pilot; everything on the walls and the furniture is about airplanes.
I get the feeling the Clermont area is populated with a mix of locals, visitors, and retirees from somewhere else. The downtown is off the main highway and struggling to keep relevant. Walking downtown to dinner that night, this shop was offering what it called Art.
Dinner was at the 801 City Grille, one of two restaurants in the downtown.
Eggplant Parmesan is troubling and frustrating to me because it was so good here in Clermont. When I prepare it at home I am meticulous because that is what I read the Sicilians or Campanians would have been. I only cook it July – November when I can get both local eggplants and local tomatoes. I almost always use local mozzarella from Chapel Hill Creamery. I dredge the eggplant slices in local eggs and with breadcrumbs I made from Weaver Street Market bread, and then fry the slices in extra virgin olive oil, before assembling the casserole and baking it. Yes, it is delicious. It is also a pain in the ass. It takes hours to prepare and makes a huge mess in the kitchen of our Greenbridge condo.
But in Clermont at the 801 Grille the dish arrived at the bar about six minutes after I ordered it. It was fearfully delicious. I know how these restaurants produce this. They have a pot of tomato sauce already on the stove. They take two factory pre-breaded frozen hockey pucks of eggplant and throw them in the deep fat fryer. After cooking about two minutes they cover the plate with cooked pasta, then the fried eggplant slices, then cheese, then tomato sauce, then more cheese. Lots of tomato sauce. Plated and ready to go.
Eggplant itself does not have much taste. The dish is really about the quality of the tomato sauce and its interaction with the cheese and the breading. The 801 Grille was firing on all cylinders this night. I could not get enough of it.
Of course the bartender was helpful.
There were only a few other people in the restaurant. They all seemed old, like me, but maybe more conservative.
Meanwhile, the TV blared Golf Channel with some older man patronizingly showing a younger blond woman how to swing a golf club.
I walked back in the dark to “my” house.
Biking out the next morning, south of the older town of Clermont newer subdivisions continue to spread across the landscape, surrounding the lakes. It seems the end of the line for the Orlando diaspora. This subdivision, I think, is the one where my late friend Steve Johnson bought a house but then needed to sell it even though it had plunged in value following the 2008 recession.
The subdivisions pretty much stopped after this and for a long morning I rode through what seemed wilderness. The second half was on the excellent Van Fleet Trail, paved and straight as an arrow.
Near the agricultural town of Polk City this Buick sat rusting along the trail.
By about one-thirty it was hot, the sun was bright and I had ridden a long way. I was on the outskirts of the city of Lakeland and getting telephone calls about work. On a dreadful and busy two lane road passing through junkyards I ducked into a dusty parking lot to take a phone call, hiding in the shade of a big truck. The place looked exactly EXACTLY like the junkyard where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson disposed of a dead body in Pulp Fiction.
In this depressing working class side of Lakeland I ducked into BubbaQue’s, lodged in a strip mall next to a gun store. They wear their political opinions here openly, posting this next to the takeout menu.
All over the country in barbecue places, especially at lunch during the week, most of the patrons seem to be men.
Lunch was delicious, the $5.00 special; “small” pork sandwich with two sides, slaw and baked beans.
I will commit heresy and compare Florida barbecue to that of North Carolina. North Carolina barbecue is so famous that even people in Virginia hold it as their standard. I also had barbecue the next day at Johnson Barbecue in Plant City, Florida. Just like at BubbaQue’s, Johnson Barbecue (since 1954!) had lots of choices. North Carolina barbecue is great but I think it is stuck in its excellence. There are a couple places near my home that are branching out, but most places in North Carolina would consider it heresy to focus on anything other than chopped pork with vinegar sauce. Even the side dishes culturally are frozen in stone. At Johnson Barbecue in Plant City even with its old-school blue collar atmosphere it seemed more inventive. I got a beef brisket sandwich with pickles and slaw.
The crowd eating at Johnson Barbecue was similar
But back in Lakeland after lunch I still had to get downtown. Coming from the east the city did transform itself; it was no longer just junkyards and gun stores. I biked up to the Terrace Hotel where I had made a reservation (thankfully) a few days in advance, since this hotel was full that night. Built in 1924 the tallest building in Lakeland it looks out over, what else, a lake.
Drinks and dinner that evening were a hit and then a miss. The Lakeland Brewing Company sits caddy-corner across the lake from the hotel. As the sun set over the lake, I talked to some of the other patrons in a fetching atmosphere. The beer was delicious. There were free pretzels.
The food menu at the brewery was pretty limited so I made the huge mistake of walking downtown for a proper restaurant. There were only a few places to choose from. The most popular place was so crowded that it seemed hopeless even to wait for a seat at the bar. I went across the street to Posto 9, billed as a “Brazilian Gastropub.” Being very tired and hungry I made a bad tactical decision. At thirty-two dollars plus a twelve dollar glass of wine (not including tax and tip); it may have been both the worst, and the most expensive entree I have ever eaten; a dried out piece of fish with some slop and some supposedly crisp potato chips.
I obviously was still hungry but certainly I was not going to spend any more money at that place. I went back to the hotel room and made in-room decaf coffee accompanied by the items on hand in the front bag of my bicycle; a Powerbar and the best deal of the night, a fifty-nine cent bag of peanuts.
The next morning on the way out of town I biked over to Florida Southern College, famous for collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in the 1940’s – 50’s.
The older parts of Lakeland are attractive.
It was about thirty-five miles to Helen & Bob’s house in Tampa. I stopped for lunch at the aforementioned Johnson Barbecue in Plant City. After slogging through miles of poor neighborhoods in east Tampa, I rode through older neighborhoods of Tampa, many being renovated.
Bob and Helen live in a nice house in a similar neighborhood that is within a long walk to downtown Tampa.
Bob treated me to the best meal of this trip. In his car he drove both of us across the I-275 bridge to St. Petersburg. In a dingy neighborhood near a freeway overpass was Eco-Village, a large lot planted as an urban garden. Bob knew several of the organizers. This evening was Eco-Village’s first attempt at a field-to-fork dinner under the stars, combined with a tour of the garden. This was a very impressive urban garden. The level of agricultural expertise blew me away; to grow so much in such a small space, using all-organic methods. They essentially had to make their own soil, since in St. Petersburg the base is almost all sand.
The dinner was delicious and convivial. I met all sorts of interesting people.
We drove back to his house in Tampa that evening. I got up very early the next day. Bob made delicious coffee and I left their house and biked off towards the causeway that crosses Tampa Bay to Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
Before arriving at the causeway I passed through a few areas of Tampa that seemed almost New Orleanesque.
The ten mile long Courtney Campbell Causeway in itself is one of the best bike rides in Florida. There is a full-width separate lane for pedestrians and bicycles all the way across.
Being America, on arrival in Clearwater on the other side of the bay, this beautiful bike path dumps the bicyclist onto a busy high-speed six lane highway. I sought refuge at a Starbucks. Sitting outside for a good forty-five minutes, for the entire time I watched a multigenerational group speaking Italian stand in the parking lot. They seemed relaxed. They must have appropriated Italian coffee shop etiquette.
I biked through miles of suburban neighborhoods in Clearwater.
I will admit I am a sucker for 1940-50’s trailers; I have never been anywhere like Florida that seems to convert them so much to permanent housing.
I crossed over another bridge to the barrier island, hitting the gulf beach at the community of Belleair Shore. For seventeen miles from there to St. Pete Beach I biked along the gulf highway passing by motels, condominiums, and bars. I wanted to take pictures but very little was memorable. The best I can say is that there were many small motels that looked both prosperous, old school, and family run.
After some fish tacos in St. Pete Beach, I turned inland for the ten miles to downtown St. Petersburg. The last portion into downtown St. Petersburg was on the bike path Pinellas Trail.
Some older parts of St. Petersburg, like Tampa, would qualify (by my rules!) as being a quite nice place. I had ridden over fifty miles that day; I rested with a latte on the sidewalk on Central Avenue North. The street might be trying a tad too hard to be hip.
I ordered up an Uber to take me and the bicycle back across the bay to the Tampa Amtrak station. I passed through parts of St. Petersburg I wished that I had seen by bicycle. The train, scheduled for 5:30 PM was late, of course.
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