Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Shining Moment in the Middle of Frickin Nowhere

Driving South through Florida? Heading to Miami or onward to the Keys?  Heres a No Crowds Option to considerin the middle of frickin nowhere!

Florida is rarely thought of when considering a No Crowds destination, but there are alternatives to the crowded Atlantic and Gulf shorelines. If you drive two hours directly south from Orlando, down the center of the Florida peninsula, youll see some lovely farmland, and eventually find yourself in Highland County, Floridas little known lake district. At only about 100 feet above sea level, the highlands of Florida arent too lofty by global standards, but the residents like to say that if we don't do something about global warming, they will,soon be the only ones above water. The main attraction, though, is the plethora of natural lakes that cover this area. They range from the deep and sandy lakes that attract the water skiers and swimmers (they haul out the gators when they get to be large enough to bother anything larger than a medium sized bass), to the shallow, mud bottomed lakes that yield some of the best bass fishing in the United States (or so our local fishing guide tells us, and he has some impressive pictures to back his claim). 

Be sure to stop in Sebring, a little town of 10,000, which is rather unusual.  For one thing, it has an active railway station, where trains stop 4 times a day as they make their way between New York and Miami.  For those of you who know how common actual functioning railway stations are in the US, even in big cities ( meaning not very), this is quite unique.  Especially since Sebring is, to coin a phrase, in the middle of frickin' nowhere.

The second weird thing about Sebring is, it has its own Grand Prix race.  In the middle of frickin' nowhere.  So, just like Monte Carlo, race week and the weeks leading up to it are a beehive of activity. All the Major Grand Prix teams roll into town, and for a short period of time, Sebring is the center of the racing world. For those interested, the next 12 hour race is scheduled for Saturday, March 16, 2013.  Let me assure you, however:  there are absolutely no other similarities between Sebring and Monte Carlo.  None.

The third strange thing about Sebring - strange in a wonderful way - is the Sebring Diner.  It's a real life, 25 page menu, open 24 x 7 x 365, American Diner.  In the middle of frickin' nowhere.  It's out on the highway, just a few minutes from the center of town (which is easy to miss).  But it is easy to see from a half mile away because it's a stainless steel art deco masterpiece, and every inch of that steel has been shined until it glows.  Inside, it's stainless and neon all the way down.  This IS American Graffiti.  Classic clocks from Budweiser and others adorn the walls, and the chairs are the real thing--stainless and naugahyde.  Fine Corinthian leather would not be welcome here.  Of course there are booths where you can drink your milk shake and talk about who was kissing who at the hop, but sadly, the juke boxes on the tables seem to be missing.  Even for a techie like me, the free WiFi just doesn't make up for this.

I don't know what this place is like at 3 in the morning, but I hope I'll get to find out somewhere along the way.  My guess is that the enormous parking lot in the back fills up with the big rigs making their way south from Orlando, their drivers looking to take a break with, as it turns out, some truly first class comfort food. No surprise the diners refreshingly simple slogan is Save Money, Eat Better, Leave Satisfied.

Before you get a chance to choose from the 8 kinds of pie, with or without ice cream, you will find a surprisingly sophisticated menu, populated with fresh fish and shrimp from the Gulf, crabcakes with remoulade, and some of the best prime rib weve ever tasted.  A little known fact is that Florida is now the leading cattle raising State in the U.S. bypassing Texas since the drought of the past few years has caused Texas herds to dwindle. 

We started with an order of Fried Green Tomatoes ($3.99) the crispy crab cakes with choice of cocktail or tartar sauce (4.99).  The tempura coating on the fried tomatoes was light and lacey, making us consider another order.  The mini crab cakes were crispy and delicious, but couldnt outshine the tomatoes.  We followed this up by eyeing the prime rib, (king cut, 18 0z for 15.99, Queen size something less for $13.99), and decided that we still had a long drive ahead  so went light and ordered the prime rib sandwich for $7.99, which included fries and cole slaw.  When the 9 oz serving of rare prime rib arrived, we congratulated ourselves on our self-restraint.  It was perfectly cooked, and the coated fries were irresistible.  As it turned out, so was the apple pie with ice cream, though it wasnt easy to decide between the many pies on offer.

So if you're visiting the States, especially if you're visiting Orlando (which recently passed New York City in annual tourist visits, go figure), you have an unusual opportunity, especially if you decide to sample the delights of the Keys, South Beach or Little Havana in Miami on the same trip.  Don't, I beg you, drive down the over-commercialized shore route.  Instead, go directly south through the colorful spine of the state, only returning to the shore in Palm Beach for the final trek to Miami and beyond.  If you start out at a relaxed 10 am, you'll reach the Sebring Diner just in time for a glorious lunch, and you'll still make Miami before the sun goes down. And you will have spent a brief, shining moment in the middle of frickin' nowhere.


Gary and Lorraine, best know for their coverage of the world's authentically exotic and unknown places have even figured out how to have a No Crowds experience in one of America's top tourist destinations. And yes, they saved money, ate better and left satisfied.

Photo courtesy of the Highlands County Visitor and Convention Bureau

Saturday, June 09, 2012

What about North Korea?

In the Financial Times  today, I read something that got me really excited. It was a full page article about Political Tours, a company run by a former Balkans correspondent for the New York Times who runs tours to former and current conflict zones such as North Korea, Bosnia and Libya. What also got my attention was the fact that the Bosnian tour described in the article was led by Kate Adie. For those of you unfamiliar with her career, she was the BBC’s premier correspondent in conflict zones such as Rwanda and Saravejo. British soldiers used to say that they knew they were in big trouble when she arrived on the scene. In short, she is about as serious and knowledgeable as it gets.

In the FT article War Stories, the author Catherine Nixey makes the point that No Crowds has been making for years. She writes, “Travel may broaden the mind, but so homogenized is the international tourist experience, so perfectly do the high-end hotels and galleries replicate one another, that often all I learn is that I can be as bored in a museum in Istanbul as I can in London.” She goes on to ask the question: Political Tours is offering a different kind of travel experience, but is war tourism the right way to go?

And then she answers the question by describing the group’s visit to the war crimes section of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina where one of the judges insists that this kind of travel is valuable and makes a difference. “If it’s not on the front page of the newspaper, people don’t see it”, he says. “People should know.”

When I took a course on Peacekeeping Operations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 2009, I was amazed by how much I didn’t know about Bosnia and Sierra Leone and the Congo and Kosovo and East Timor and Afghanistan. How so much could go on for so long with my only having a vague awareness, So I’m excited to know that there is a serious travel company doing these kinds of tours to parts of the world we should know more about. Conflict tourism may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but what Political Tours is offering sure impressed me.

Political Tours
Tel: 0843 289 2349