A Winter Vacation on a Summer-Cottage Budget
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
Put this in father's stocking. Here's hou a family of four can spend fourteen days in the hot Florida sun for less than $300
IN 1763 England got Florida and Canada for Havana and a few West Indies islets in a deal she put through with a big stick. She kept Canada, but Florida got dealt off to Spain and finally ended up in the United States. Every winter approximately one hundred thousand shivering Canadians go down there to see who got hold of the right end of the stick.
The Chamber of Commerce at Daytona Beach estimates that at the peak of the winter season there are twice as many visitors from Ontario as from any state. There are so many Ontario licenses parked along Beach Street that Canadians who at first stop to talk to the folks from back home soon begin walking past one another with the same bored expression they wear in Toronto. Newsstands display Canadian papers along with those of key American cities. The emblem displayed by some motor courts is the maple leaf. One operator said he just keeps reading the Canadian papers and as soon as the first big blizzard hits he runs up the Union Jack. The State Advertising Commission of Florida last winter received eight thousand enquiries from Canada to one direct-mail campaign. One Ontario man is lobbying to get the Canadian government to drop pensions to veterans and instead buy them farms and homes in Florida. A Canadian editor recently claimed distinction on the grounds that he’d never been to Florida and had no desire to go there. In the meantime, the Floridians happily show Canadians alligators, snakes, cypress knees, swamps, porpoises, turtles, coconuts and offer them all the orange juice they can drink for ten cents 'up to two cups». They try to make up their minds whether the foreigners are Englishmen or Yankees, and in either case they’ll mystify the visitor by saying, “Y’all come back now.”
A few Canadians spend their time sailing the inland waterways in expensive yachts with built-in blondes. Some
stay at Miami hotels for thirty-five dollars a day, meals and Martinis extra, and stand around in mink hoping someone from home will see them before they melt. A lot go fishing. Some go deep-sea fishing (write care of Maclean’s for further details, enclosing a stamped self-addressed waxpaper bag). But the great majority arrive with their galoshes stuffed behind their spare tire, looking as pale as peeled potatoes, and set out to get a tan while beachcombing for shells, playing shuffleboard (occasionally called dead-man’s pool), reading the Canadian papers and nearly falling off their green-and-yellow plastic deck chairs in ecstasy every time there’s news of a blizzard back home. Most of them have grey hair, because there’s a widespread notion you have to be rich and retired to go there.
You don’t. You can go with a family of four, stay for two weeks, and go home again, all for two hundred and eighty-eight dollars. But you have to know how.
I learned the hard way. I first set out for Florida six years ago with the vague notion of getting a nice little salt-bleached shack on Palm Beach. I drove through a couple of miles of royal palms and nearly through the front door of Tiffany’s, priced one place at thirty-eight dollars a day, and got bowed out between tall sun-tanned blondes by a European desk clerk ankle-deep in broadloom. I headed back for Georgia with the whole family crying, including me. Then I met a service-station attendant who told me where Florida really was. I’ve been down every winter since. I love it. Whether you do or not, you should take a couple of weeks off and see it.
It is about twelve hundred miles from Niagara Falls to Jacksonville, in northern Florida. So you can add or subtract from that according to where you live in Canada and where you’re going in Florida. But let’s say you live in the east and that your trip is
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going to be about fifteen hundred miles. There are first-class roads all the way, comparable to any major Canadian highway. You can make the trip in four days. If you drive at about fifty or fifty-five miles an hour, figure on averaging thirty-five miles an hour. If you’re smart you won’t drive over sixty. You’ll have guys in pea-green convertibles laughing and chatting and
rocketing past you at eighty-five but you’ll have supper with them that night in the same restaurant.
The main thing is to get up early and keep at it. Early morning is the best time to travel. Traffic lights are usually off or on “caution” and you can float through big cities like a visiting duke. Don’t be too sure you can’t stand driving before you’ve had breakfast and a cigarette. After the thrill of smelling wood fires, hot grass and orange blossoms you might enjoy it so much you’ll start getting up early all the time, and even quit smoking.
If you have to have something, take a few tins of orange juice in the car and drink it at the motor court instead of with your breakfast in the restaurant, incidentally saving sixty cents before you’re even fully awake.
Only you can work out the exact cost of your gas and oil for the trip. 1 drive a big low-slung beast with eighteen payments still due on it and such a thirst that I almost have to shut off the motor when I’m getting gas or it gains on the pumps. But just to give you something to subtract from, last trip I made 1,527 miles on $37.29
worth of gas and oil. Let’s figure seventy-five dollars for transportation there and back.
The place to stay overnight is—a motor court (more commonly called a motel), where you drive up to your own door and keep your own mess all nice and private. Hotels are often surprisingly cheap but you have to drive through downtown sections of strange cities, park your car in the hotel garage ten stories below your room, and start tipping from the time you shut off the ignition.
Tourist homes usually are clean, comfortable and attractive. But you are living in someone else’s house and probably sharing a bathroom with another family of tourists whose kids are used to going to the bathroom when they want to go and everybody’s going to get sore about holding up one another’s little darlings. You won’t have any trouble getting a motor court up to six o’clock. Don’t drive past the really posh places with flamingoes and pink plastic fountains, figuring they’re sure to be too expensive. It’s often the dumps that overcharge you. And don’t be afraid to shop around. You don’t need to pay over eight dollars a night for the whole family for the very best. Here’s the list from my own last trip:
Don’t Stop To Eat
First night out I priced a room with three twin beds and a roll-away cot for twelve dollars. We didn’t take it. A short piece down the highway we got two rooms with radio, bathtub, shower and brand-new broadloom, furnished with a double bed, a single bed and a roll-away, all with air-foam mattresses, for seven dollars. The second night we got two rooms for seven dollars. The third night we plunged for a big swank room sixteen feet in all directions, with knotty pine trim, two double beds, for nine dollars. The fourth night we paid eight dollars for one just as nice. So figure thirtytwo dollars for motor courts, which makes sixty-four dollars for the round trip, bringing your total for transportation and lodging to a hundred and thirty-nine dollars and you’re already in Florida and back again—except that you haven’t had anything to eat yet.
Meals are something to watch carefully because you can waste a lot of money on them. Breakfast is no problem. Nobody can get too far out of line on the price of a boiled egg. It’s the other meals to watch. Don’t order two big meals a day simply because you don’t have to wash dishes and somebody is holding a menu in front of you. You waste a lot of time going into crowded restaurants at rush hours and waiting for service, which means extra days on the road and extra expenses. Not only that, you’ll find yourself often leaving great mounds of uneaten stuff with your tip. Kids particularly like nothing better than saying yes to everything, then making little castles out of it. For one meal have a picnic of hamburgers or sandwiches at the roadside. Then have one big meal when you’ve stopped for the night. And remember, most restaurants serve children’s orders. If they don’t and you know your kids are going to waste most of a full portion, get one adult serving and an extra plate.
There’s only one way to tell a good restaurant. Go in, buy a package of cigarettes and smell the place. Honest. You can spot them every time. A good restaurant smells of food. A poor one smells of woodwork, steamed potatoes, grease, age and apathy. You can also get a look at the prices when you’re in there. Look, I’m telling you how
to get to Florida, not how to make an impression as a big-time spender. If you want to give your money away give it to the Salvation Army, not to some jerk who makes a living by clipping his customers.
Keep away from dainty little tea rooms that specialize in quaint crockery and cute décor. Go to places that specialize in food. And don’t think that the crummy-looking little joints are all bad either, especially in Georgia and South Carolina where everything looks crummy. Some of the gaudiest emporiums I’ve ever eaten in served me food that tasted as if it was broiled under green neon lights. If you don’t panic every time you see filet mignon, you can eat just as well as you do at home, for the whole family, for seven dollars a day—say eight dollars with tips. That’s thirty-two dollars one way, or double that for the trip, which brings your total for transportation, lodging and meals to two hundred and three dollars.
The only other advice I have about the trip is that your kids will get bored at times even with kicking one another. The trick is to have enough stuff along to keep them amused without getting crowded out of your car by toys. Let each kid keep a carton in the back seat and make a rule before you leave that the only toys to go along are the ones that can be fitted into the carton. This way the kids have to figure out what to do about gocarts, great hulking, unco-operative old bags of wettums dolls and electric train sets complete with miniature towns. For really young children many a crisis is overcome by a box of surprises in the glove compartment containing elastic bands, colored papers, pencils, pads, crayons and anything else you can think of that will keep them quiet, short of small bombs.
As sure as there are possums in Florida, no matter what I say about the place somebody’s going to write -■ and say, “Look, Allen, you go around Florida blindfolded or something? How come you didn’t even mention Sandfly Shores? Same year-round temperature as the front porch of the Sans Souci Hotel, sun stays up an hour longer than it does in Jacksonville, and you need a blanket at night.” All I can do is give you the general picture of Florida you or anyone else will get. Florida is a live and kicking twentieth-century culture of pink stucco motor courts, neon, Schlitz beer ads, drive-in movies, fruit stands, a few concentrations of jam-packed razzle-dazzle hotels and a few big sea-port cities. This culture exists in, amid, and side-by-side with a historical, drowsy deep-south land of . live oak, Spanish moss, buzzard hawks, pelicans, cracker accents, cockroaches, colored shacks, citrus groves and cattle the size of goats.
Both aspects of the place are completely surrounded by a vast formidable wilderness of palmetto scrub, pine and palm hummock, swamp, savanna and sea. Florida is so flat that one of the points of interest is “Iron Mountain,” three hundred and twenty-five feet above sea level, and Turtle Mound, which is about as high as a Winnipeg lamppost. A few miles out of any town you can be in country as wild as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek.
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Ten miles out of Miami you can be in the Everglades, where neither you nor I would want to even drive alone unless there was a certain amount of traffic coming both ways.
But in terms of a visit, Florida consists of a west coast on the Gulf of Mexico, which is calm, warm and green; an east coast on the Atlantic, which is cool, rough and breezy in the northern part and clear and almost tropical in the south; an interior; the Keys; and the Miami-Fort LauderdaleWest Palm Beach district in the southeast corner. The latter is a consider-
ably built-up strip of big hotels, private palaces, yachts, night life and big expenses on the one hand and reasonably-priced motels and supermarkets on the other. You ought to like it. You certainly should see it. The Keys are a remote beat-up home of big fish. It’s a beautiful drive over some of the most remarkable bridges (one is seven miles long) and marine scenery you’ll ever look at, but Key West at the end of the drive is like arriving in somebody’s back yard and not being able to find the way out to the street. The interior of Florida is a place of farms,
sugar plantations, oranges, grapefruit, cities about the size of Oshawa, Ont., permanent homes and a respectable suburban atmosphere like that of a nice residential district in any nice respectable town.
A point about Florida that surprises most people is its size. For example, you drive three hundred and fifty-two miles straight south from Jacksonville to get to Miami and, east to west, it’s a hundred and twenty-four miles from West Palm Beach to Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico.
Assuming that you are like most
people to whom Florida means sea and beach and a holiday means a hole in your bank account, you’ll concentrate on the coastal areas. Both coasts have their medium-sized and big cities. Places over ten thousand population on the west coast are Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Bradenton, Sarasota and Fort Myers. On the east coast (not including the southeast section I mentioned) there are Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. Life in the big cities like Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville is like life in any other big city but with more shirt sleeves and summer dresses. Everywhere, with each big city, and with all the many small towns and villages in between, there is a resort area of cottages, beach, boats and the things you probably have in mind.
The climate of Florida is just about what you think it is, with probably a few surprises like if you happen to arrive there during a cold snap. There’s no point in going into averages, means and precipitation which still add up to the question, “What’s the weather like?” It’s like this: There’s as much hot sunny weather all year as a Canadian gets on his two weeks’ vacation in July or August. But just as on a summer holiday in Canada, in Florida you can run into rain and cloudy weather. Except that you don’t get spells of grey drizzle: you get rain or
not rain, and you often get both within a few hours.
I Northern Part Cheaper
In December. January and February you can get cold spells that nip the palm leaves in the northern sector and will have you lighting your oil stove. But these spells are short-lived, a day or two in duration, and with a bright blue sky and a hot sun making it about like the best Canadian football weather. On top of this, there’s no snow, *slush or mud and there’s a terrific difference between sun and shade. In coldest weather, if you find a sheltered spot on the sunny side of your cottage, you can get warmer than hanging over a roaring Canadian coal fire. In fact, you’ll feel differently about weather in general, although you’ll get into a lot of fights when you explain this to some of your friends back home who will think you’re handing them a lot of guff and quote the latest Jack Benny joke about unusual weather.
All of which has a direct bearing on the place to stay. Something a lot of people don’t know is that the northern half of Florida is more of a summer resort than a winter resort. People from the interior, where it gets hot enough in summer to fry you, and from places like Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, go to the Florida coast for their summer holidays. As a result, although there is no more than about five degrees difference from top to bottom of the peninsula, winter is a comparatively off season in the north and the prices comparatively low. In summer you’d pay far more for a third-rate motel in, say, Daytona, than you would in a Miami hotel with a private beach and a room a millionaire rented the winter before for sixty dollars a day.
So the point is, when you go down for the winter and aren’t rich, head for some place in the northern half of the peninsula. If you want lots of life, people and girls in Bikini bathing suits, go to Daytona Beach. It might strike you as a bit cluttered and overpacked at first, but once you get on the beach with nothing between you and Africa but wind and waves you won’t feel hemmed in. Or go to Jacksonville Beach, where you have a major city within twenty minutes’ drive. If you
want to get really by yourself go to Titusville Beach. It’s so remote that I know only one place there that accommodates visitors. Or if you want something in-between, go to New Smyrna Beach, fifteen miles south of Daytona.
Accommodation in Florida is nearly all what are called utility units, or efficiencies. These are actually onestory apartment buildings with linens, chinaware and cooking utensils provided, and sometimes maid service as well. All you need do is buy your groceries and you’re all settled. In some of the more expensive units, each apartment is a separate building. The big thing to keep in mind is to do what I advised you to do about motor courts on the way down; shop around. There’s a terrific inconsistency in prices. In Daytona Beach I priced one place with two double beds and a pull-out, a nice modern kitchenette, a tub and shower, just a step from the ocean, for a hundred and fifty dollars a month. About three hundred feet further along I priced another place where the cheapest rate for four people was a hundred and twenty a week. The difference was in palms, lawn, more fancy decorations inside and out. The average rate for the winter months in northern Florida is between sixty-five and eighty-five dollars a week.
In New Smyrna Beach, fifteen miles south of Daytona, you can get places just as nice for forty-five dollars a week. I know one place two minutes’ drive from the sea, where you can get a comfortable clean place for five dollars a day with meals. I know a man from Canada staying in Orlando, an inland city, who is paying sixty dollars a month for an apartment right next door to a rooming house where one room with no housekeeping facilities rents for thirty-five dollars a week. Most utilities knock about ten percent tiff the total of four weeks’ rental if you rent for a month. At New Smyrna Beach, where I go, I know of many well-equipped houses right on the beach that you can rent for anything from a month to a year for a hundred and twenty-five to a hundred and fifty dollars a month.
You can run your table for a little less in Florida than you do at home. Milk, milk products, beef and a few miscellaneous grocery items you’ll find higher in price. But most other things, and particularly fruits and vegetables, cost less. You can scoop delicious cochina soup out of the sea for nothing. A family of four can eat well for twenty-five dollars a week. So, assuming that you pay sixty a week for your utility, your total living expenses down there come to eighty-five dollars a week.
I haven’t mentioned anything, of course, about what you spend for entertainment. That is up to you, but you can see a lot of interesting things in Florida for very little. In fact you can spend almost nothing at all and have the time of your life. You can take drives into inland Florida through wild tangled country that you can have fun scaring the pants off yourself with. You can see the oldest tree in the world for nothing. You can see Cypress Gardens for a dollar and a quarter. For thirty-five cents you can take a boat ride past the tree Esther Williams sat on—and which has been
growing greener ever since. You can see Marineland, one of the really outstanding shows in Florida, for twotwenty; Bok Singing Tower for two bits parking fee. You can see St. Augustine, the oldest city north of the Rio Grande, for nothing; and the old
Spanish mission at New Smyrna Beach charges no admission. You can see a wonderful snake exhibit just north of Kissimmee for whatever you want to donate, and for very little the winter headquarters of the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey shows at Sarasota
with one of the finest zoos you’ve ever seen. Then you can make up for all the free stuff by going to the dog races at Orlando and bett ing on a dog called Meter Box.
But the most fun of all is Florida itself, the sleepy towns, the sleepy people, the ocean, the shells, the razzle dazzle, the Canadians. It’s my bet you’ll get a big kick out of it, and when you leave you’ll be ready to give the right answer to people when they say, “Y’all come back now,” which it took me six years to learn and which I now give you fret1: “Ah will.” *