BOUND FOR THE SOUTH
FOR SUN, SURF AND A WINTER TAN, FLORIDA IS CANADA’S HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Outside the Dunes Hotel in north Miami Beach, the sky was grey, the Atlantic Ocean swollen and menacing, and the parking lot shin-deep in water from more than 12 ceaseless hours of rain. But inside the hotel’s Vie en Rose Bar, the Molson and Labatt beer flowed, Player’s and Export cigarette smoke filled the air, and many among the audience of about 50 wiped tears of laughter from their eyes at the rapid-fire jokes of four onstage comedians, punctuated with staccato Quebec slang. For the four performers, part of a team broadcasting live back to Montreal radio station CKVL, it was a chance to remind their Quebec listeners, by gloating in unison, “We are in Florida—and you are not.” And for most of the vacationing fellow Quebecers in the bar, that was cause enough for celebration. Surveying his surroundings with a contented smile, 45-year-old Quebec City contractor Michel Guillemette declared: “Who cares if it rains here— it’s a helluva lot better than snow.”
hard enough to come by as it is.”
As it happens, the affection for Florida that unites Canada’s two official linguistic groups cannot obscure the qualities that divide them. English-Canadians, who most often gravitate to the gulf coast, try mightily to blend in with locals and American tourists from other states. But French-Quebecers, congregating mostly along the Atlantic, have built a self-contained community that now stretches across several municipalities between Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. “Down here,” said Jean Laurac, editor of the Hollywood, Fla.-based monthly newspaper Le Soleil de la Floride, “it is now possible to live 365 days a year fulfilling every need without ever speaking a word of English.”
The Canadian flock has countless reasons for its annual migration. Its members go to see spring training in late February and March—to watch the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin and the Montreal Expos in West Palm Beach warm up for another Major League Baseball season. They go because Florida is affordable—round-trip airfares last week ran as low as $149 from Toronto and Montreal, $229 from Halifax and $299 from Edmonton. They go to shop: at outlet stores, clothes for kids may cost only half of what they do in Canada, although the drop in the Canadian dollar has made bargains harder to come by. And they go because Florida is comfortable, which is especially important to travellers with children. “You don’t want to go to anyplace where you’re going to have to worry about language differences or medical facilities if they get sick,” said Claude Rioux, 44, a Xerox senior sales manager from Montreal who vacations in Florida at least once a year with his wife, Lina, and two young daughters. “And you want a place where you can count on certain things: efficiency, availability of things,
In the dregs of winter, few Canadians need encouragement to hop on a plane and head for the sun. Ottawa bureau chief Anthony Wilson-Smith and associate editorJames Deacon joined the exodus for a week, exploring the phenomenon of Canadians at play in the bustling state of Florida. Their report: _
When it comes to Florida, neither rain nor even the occasional hurricane—such as vicious Andrew that decimated south Florida last August—can deter the visiting winter faithful. That is one sentiment shared by Englishand French-Canadians, along with the increasing number of other nationalities now flocking to Florida. From the northern gulf coast stretch around Panama City—an area known as the Redneck Riviera—to the southernmost tip of colorful Key West, Canadian licence plates are never far away. And new arrivals fly in daily to the major cities, toting tennis rackets and golf clubs and hellbent on packing a winter’s worth of fun-in-the-sun into a precious week or two. Floridians, while occasionally grumbling about the number and habits of visiting Canadians in general—and French-Canadians in particular—seem grateful for the infusion of tourist dollars. “I don’t know what we’d do without Canadians,” said Nancy Truhlar, the cashier at a popular breakfast spot in Clearwater on the gulf coast. “Jobs are
no hidden costs or surprises, and a good track record where the weather is concerned. That’s Florida all the way.”
Walt Disney World emerged slowly out of the January mist like the Magic Kingdom it purports to be. It would be hot and sunny later, but at 8 a.m. the passenger monorail that connects the on-site attractions was only a rumbling rumor overhead. Here, in the burgeoning central city of Orlando, Canadians are neck-and-neck with the British as the most frequent foreign visitors to Disney’s Florida resort—the world’s number 1 tourist attraction. As the blanket of fog lifted, vacationers discovered a world unto itself: 43 square miles of theme parks (the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center and Disney-MGM Studios), 19,000 hotel rooms, 27 tennis courts and five 18-hole golf courses designed by top architects. “For us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Lynne Ritz of Winnipeg, touring the Magic Kingdom with her husband and three boys. “I think it’s more fun for us than for the kids.”
From a parking lot the size of a small principality, families hurried toward the main gates at MGM. They had paid up to $43 for adults and $34 for kids for individual day passes, and the rush was on to see everything. Among the throng were the Weinstein girls, Amy, 5, and Erica, 3, Disney enthusiasts from Ottawa who were on the third day of their first-ever tour of the parks with their mother, Sharon, and father, Lawrence, a 39-year-old tax lawyer. On a ride through the backstage areas of MGM, Amy and Erica watched in wide-eyed horror as a nearby oil tanker caught fire and exploded, and grinned in delight after discovering that it is part of a movie set. “They’ve been like that for three days,” said Sharon, 37, an interior decorator. Exiting that ride, the Weinsteins stopped to pose for pictures with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, tour the set of the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, watch a parade featuring the characters of the Disney film Aladdin and then, exhausted, finally sit down at the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular.
Nearby, Disney offers its vision of America’s neighbor to the north. At Epcot Center, Canada is represented in a pavilion by, among other things, a miniature of Victoria’s Butchart Gardens and a rendering of Ottawa’s stately Chateau Laurier. Although Canadian government
departments were consulted during construction, the pavilion is strictly a Disney development. At La Boutique des Provinces, shoppers can buy etchings of polar bears and spearfishing Inuit in hooded parkas, or Anne of Green Gables talcum powder. Heather Lynch, 20, of Newport Corner, N.S.—taking a break from university—works as a hostess at the boutique. “Living here onsite was a bit of a shock at first,” she said. “I’m from a really small town, so being around all these people was really different for me.”
Now, she says, she loves it.
‘Tve met a lot of friends here.”
The pavilion’s biggest attraction is the CircleVision 360-degree movie, using a technique pioneered at Montreal’s Expo 67. On screens that completely surround the audience, the film moves from the Bluenose under sail in the Maritimes and Carnival in Quebec City to grain harvesting in the prairies and heliskiing in the West. At first, it seems only to reinforce tired Canadian stereotypes. But the film elicits oohs and ahhs from the audience and, says Lynch, “people come in here afterward and talk about wanting to go to Canada.”
In Florida’s crazy quilt of different linguistic, cultural and ethnic communities, French-Quebecers are easy to find and remarkably selfsufficient. About 650,000 of them visit the Sunshine State each year and leave behind about $75 million in tourist dollars. For most blue-collar or rural Quebecers, who are often unilingual French, the meccas lie north of Miami, just off Interstate 95, the most direct route from Quebec. In the municipalities of Hollywood, Hallandale, Dania and Sunny Isle, they can bank at the Desjardins Savings Bank, pick up home furnishings at Quebec Carpet and Tile or the Floribec furniture store or get medical, legal or financial advice from Quebec doctors, lawyers and accountants now living there full time. They can eat breakfast at La Gaspesienne, lunch at Tommy Nittolo’s and dinner at Froggie’s Restaurant, all featuring menus in French and bilingual staff.
After dinner, they can watch National Hockey League action live on one of the seven screen’s at former NHL player Rosaire Paiement’s renowned Penalty Box Lounge further north in Fort Lauderdale. “You name ’em, and we get ’em visiting us,” said Paiement, an affable 47-year-old who was once regarded as hockey’s toughest player.
“Bobby Orr, Jacques Lemaire, Mario Lemieux, they all come by when they’re in town.” As well, visitors might go square dancing at Le Club Canadien, where owner Henri Lessard said he offers “some of the sweetest music this side of Montreal.” Or they can just stay home and watch a selection of French television programs from Quebec available on local cable.
The Quebec presence has attracted attention from Floridians, not all of it flattering. Last winter, Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm urged locals to be tolerant of French-Canadians—while noting that they slip “pale 230pound bodies into swimwear designed for 19-year-old
anorexic Brazilians.” And last week, the Fort Lauderdale weekly magazine XS, in a cover story titled “Ribbit, Ribbit, the Frogs are Back,” scathingly mocked the way Quebecers drive, dress and talk, calling them “the shame of Florida.” Denyse Chartrand, publisher and occasional photographer at Le Soleil, readily admits that “it is always easy to spot our people: they are the men with the big tummies and the tiny little bathing suits.” By contrast, says Chartrand, whose newspaper boasts 65,000 subscribers and is one of four aimed at the Quebecers-inFlorida market, “Americans and English-Canadians like those big floppy things that hide half their bodies.” Said Nicole Doyon, a Quebec native now selling ads for Le Soleil: “There is no question that French-Canadians are regarded as a lower class by local people.”
But in the wake of the public criticism, some Florida businesses increased their efforts to court the growing francophone community. Over the past year, Walgreen’s pharmacies in the area began hiring bilingual employees and issuing them buttons that read Je parle français. French-Canadians, the chain estimates, make up more than half of their clientele in some stores. Of course, the local barbs are not directed at francophones alone. One joke among waiters and bartenders: What’s the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? A canoe tips.
Dade City, northeast of Tampa, sits in an uncharacteristically hilly region of west-central Florida that residents wryly call the Alps. The old part of town is a gentle place, its wealth built on citrus groves and cattle ranches, its broad verandas shaded by canopies of majestic live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
“You want a place where you can count on certain things: efficiency, no hidden costs or surprises and a good track record where the weather is concerned. That’s Florida all the way.”
—Claude Rioux, Montreal
Gordon and Florence Smith of Toronto liked Dade City from the moment they first set eyes on it in 1981. The Smiths were towing their Airstream trailer south in search of a permanent winter parking spot when they came upon Traveller’s Rest, about 16 km west of Dade City. “When you go to look around Florida, you’ll find a heck of a lot of trailer sites,” said 73-year-old Gordon, a retired social services administrator with the Metropolitan Toronto government and among the 1.4 million Ontarians who visit Florida annually. “But they are usually in some unpretty part of the country. Not here—this is beautiful.” «
Amid the orange and grape5 fruit groves, Traveller’s Rest is difficult to miss. It is home to about 1,200 fulland part-time residents, all of whom live in or own Airstreams, the rounded, 1 aluminum-sided, luxurious trail" ers that can sell for more than $100,000. The park has its own nine-hole golf course, community centre, fire brigade, fishing lake and newspaper, and the Smiths estimate that about 10 per cent of its population is Canadian. Spending the winter months in Florida, they say, has been a boon in ways that they did not foresee. “You see some of these people around here and you’d never believe that they were in their 80s,” Gordon said while showing a visitor around the trailer park. Everyone waved to him. “I don’t know, but I’d guess that being able to get out and about all winter keeps people young.” Indeed, on a recent evening, residents took rides on four hot-air balloons lifting off from the golf practice range.
One topic of conversation at Traveller’s Rest—in fact, among elderly Canadian snowbirds throughout the state—is health insurance. Because no Canadian plan will cover the entire cost of health care in the United States, southbound travellers must purchase supplemental insurance to avoid crippling surcharges in the case of emergencies. Reacting to exorbitant U.S. health-care costs, Ontario, for one, moved in late 1991 to limit its coverage to what it pays at home: $400 per day for a hospital room—compared with up to $2,400 daily charged by some American hospitals. As a result, supplemental health-insurance premiums, which before the change ran from $600 to $820 for an extended stay in Florida, now can cost up to $2,400. That forced some Canadians to consider selling their retirement properties—and led to the formation of the Canadian Snowbird Association last March.
In Florida, the 70,000-member association has worked out a deal with Ontario-based Medipac International and Crown Life Insurance to offer reduced rates to members. According to Bill Leeder, publisher of the weekly Canada News newspaper in Auburndale, Fla.—which competes with the Tampa-based Sun-Times of Canada for Snowbird subscribers—the plan solves only part of the problem for seniors; the issue will be the focal point of an association
meeting Feb. 22 in Tampa that organizers expect will draw 10,000 people. “We understand what the provinces are doing,” says Leeder, “but we needed a united voice to give Snowbirds some negotiating power with insurers.”
Twenty-four years after Joe Namath led the New York Jets to a stunning upset win in the Super Bowl, his multi-kilowatt smile was still easily recognizable as he strode off the ninth hole at the Loxahatchee Club near the Atlantic coast. “Sure hope you saw me stuff that last putt, Gordon,” said Namath, nodding to his friend Gordon Gray. Gray, 65, the chairman of Torontobased Royal LePage Ltd., and developer of the $8.4-million course, smiled back. A courtly, soft-spoken figure, Gray has spearheaded a Canadian invasion of one of Florida’s most cherished assets: its universally renowned golf courses.
Serious golfers speak of Loxahatchee in near-reverential terms. In 1983, when Gray and several other investors bought the land for the course near the town of Jupiter, it was composed primarily of a former dairy farm and was home to alligators and bobcats. But today, the superbly sculpted design includes nine man-made lakes, myrtle and palmetto trees—and some of the most demanding holes anywhere. The course was designed by another of Gray’s friends, golf great Jack Nicklaus, who still plays it regularly. In planning the course, said Gray, a 12-handicap, “we wanted something that would make serious golfers sit up and take notice.” That goal has been met. Larry O’Brien, a 68-yearold Montreal native, consultant with the Canadian Open and longtime friend and business associate of Nicklaus, says that “Jack is as proud of this course as anything he has done.”
More than one-fifth of the Loxahatchee club’s 300 well-heeled members are Canadians. To join, they must post a $72,000 bond, buy an on-course lot with prices beginning at $240,000, promise to build a home on that property and pay annual assessments of $6,720. But those expenses are seldom an issue to such members as Toronto investor Montegu Black, who brings his Rolls-Royce with him to Florida; Winnipeg-born businessman Ross Johnson, the former chairman of RJR Nabisco and Fredrik Eaton, Canada’s high commissioner in London and a part-owner of the Eaton’s department store chain. Other members include Namath, Nicklaus, former Canadian and National Football League quarterback Joe Theismann, a generous sprinkling of heads of major American companies and others from Japan, Finland, Germany, Sweden and Great Britain.
In fact, a key part of the attraction of Loxahatchee is its proximity to Palm Beach, which contains one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in
“I spend 11 months a year wondering how I can stand living in a climate like Ottawa— and one month a year of vacation trying to figure out how to live in Florida all the time.”
—Allen MacDonald, Ottawa
the world. There, property owners include New York developer Donald Trump and Senator Edward Kennedy. Among Canadians, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is a frequent visitor; he returns to Ottawa this week from a two-week vacation in Palm Beach, where he rented the 18,000-square-foot home of Maryland businessman Charles Jenkins.
Canadians who own property in the area include Loblaws grocery chain owner Galen Weston, Toronto Maple Leafs owner Steve Stavros and Power Corp. owner Paul Desmarais. But for anyone seeking a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous, a warning: rates at the few hotels in the area, such as the Breakers, begin at more than $300 a night.
Even then, the area cannot shield all its residents from harsh realities. On Dec.
30, a 33-year-old Canadair executive named Marc Nadeau was vacationing at his parents’ home in Lake Worth, a quiet well-to-do residential area just south of Palm Beach, when he was shot and killed while returning with his father and son from a neighborhood convenience store. Police arrested a local man the next day and charged him with first-degree murder.
Miami is synonymous with Florida, with action, with intrigue. Huge, vibrant and moving to a Latin beat, the subtropical city is home to a singular mix of Cubans, Caribbeans, blacks, Asians, Anglos and other groups who often come bitterly into conflict, a place where contraband drugs and illegal aliens flow freely from the south.
However, while few outsiders make the distinction, Miami is a separate municipality from Miami Beach, the onetime swamp where vacationers go to enjoy the silver sands and the Gulf Stream. Among the latter is Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who stays in an upscale Miami Beach section called Bal Harbour, from which he returned last week after recuperating from surgery for skin cancer. For people on more limited budgets, the area of choice is South Beach, which gained celebrity on TV’s Miami Vice, the 1980s crime drama that used it as a backdrop.
The TV show is gone, but the pastel-colored art deco hotels and apartments remain, as does the carnival-like atmosphere. Tourists mingle with residents in the curbside bars and watch a parade of drivers in souped-up cars, their stereos blaring. Descending slowly into Biscayne Bay, the beach’s broad expanse is a frenetic scene of flying paddleballs,
Frisbees and Volleyballs, with topless bathers in abundance.
It is one place where Florida’s various races mingle easily, and above all it is a celebration of youth.
But the Miami area offers other diversions, as well. Each winter for the past 23 years, print-shop manager Brian Shee has organized a trip to the area for current and former members of Montreal’s Monkland Tennis Club and their friends. Ranging in age from the mid-30s to the late 60s, the group is almost always all-male, most of them are single—divorced, widowed or never married—and all are horseracing enthusiasts. Timing their visits to coincide with major events at the three local tracks, the group of about 10 stays at a Miami Beach hotel, where the 62-year-old Shee arranges a special discount rate of $30 per room, with two people sharing. And when they are not bet' ting on the horses, they take in dog racing or jai alai, a fast-paced racquet sport in which spectators bet on the participants.
But for some, Shee acknowledges, there is another favored pastime: girl-watching. Walking the beach strip, bearing a camera with instant-developing film, Shee says that he “looks for pretty girls, and I ask them if they would mind if I take their picture.” If they object, he adds: “I apologize for bothering them and leave. But when you are polite and they realize you do not mean to harass them, they almost never refuse.”
Florida has its own sense of fashion. Polyester, pastels, white shoes and white belts abound—a look derisively known as a “full Cleveland.”
Further up the coast, on a 19-km-long barrier island offshore from Sarasota, lies exclusive Longboat Key. A roadside sign, advertising an under-construction condominium project, is a good introduction to the area: it matter-of-factly promises units starting at “only” $500,000. Discreet resorts and the lush fairways of private golf courses are set back from Gulf of Mexico Drive behind shielding palms and guarded gates. Among them is the Colony Beach and Tennis Club, a favored spot among Canadians that is owned by M. J. Klauber and his wife Susan BassettKlauber, mother of Canadian tennis pro Carling BassettSeguso. “Our decision to come here was based on lifestyle,” said Jo-Ann Kelly, who, with her husband Barry, operate two McDonald’s franchises around Collingwood, Ont. “We are an active
People shoehorn themselves into tight swimsuits and wear outrageous T-shirts bearing such slogans as “I’ve got crabs”—with the name of a local restaurant in small print underneath.
And for all its natural beauty, Florida itself has become something of a beast. The state’s population has leaped to more than 13 million, up from less than 7 million in 1970, resulting in the rapid construction of roads, subdivisions and malls that, in many places, have left an unsightly and car-congested sprawl. Driving along the highways that trace the east and west coasts, the view seldom varies: strip malls, fast-food joints, rent-by-thehour motels, storefront real estate offices, legal and medical offices and one-storey beige stucco homes. The dredging of swampland to create development property has also upset the area’s delicate ecological balance, doing serious damage to the Everglades and other natural habitats, and spawning an active environmental movement.
Even charming areas are not immune from surrounding blight. Approaching Naples in southwest Florida, Highway 41 is a congested six-lane swath of commerce that is favored by rubbernecking tourists who, typically, swerve from one shopping centre to the next in lanestraddling Lincoln Town Cars. Away from the main road, however, Naples is a sultry and sedate gulf coast outpost—proof that Palm Springs is hardly Florida’s only pocket of privilege. There is little to remind visitors of the carnage of Hurricane Andrew, and the twin towers of the beach—the tony Registry and Ritz Carlton resorts—have resumed their brisk trade with the limousine-and-private-jet crowd. By mid-morning, resort guests have migrated to the beaches and poolsides or headed for one of the area’s ubiquitous golf courses; even some modest motels have their own 18.
family and like to participate in a lot of outdoor activities.”
Last fall, residents of Longboat Key took action to protect their great outdoors. An environmental study had revealed that the beach was receding, and they voted to raise $17 million through additional property taxes to rebuild it.
Since it was first immortalized in the 1960 movie Where the Boys Are, Fort Lauderdale has been famous—or infamous—as the favored spring break destination for fun-and-sunseeking college students. Those March and April weeks featured wet Tshirt contests in local bars, motel rooms occupied by up to a dozen students and battles between thousands of competing stereo systems to play rock music at the highest possible decibel level. That all changed two years ago, when the Fort Lauderdale city council pushed through a series of changes barring beer-drinking on the beach and limiting the number of hotel-room occupants. Those measures chased most college students off to Daytona Beach for their revelry. Today, Fort Lauderdale is a favored site for visiting Europeans, particularly from Great Britain, Sweden and Germany. And many of the former spring-breakers have families of their own—but still come back to Florida.
Ottawa-based purchasing agent Allen MacDonald, who says he first came to Fort Lauderdale as a 19-year-old college student “determined to prove I was the best chug-alugger of all time,” is now married and has three young sons. In their annual southern pilgrimage, the MacDonald family stays slightly north of Fort Lauderdale and, says Allan, “I spend 11 months a year wondering how I can stand living in a climate like Ottawa—and one month a year of vacation trying to figure out how to live in Florida all £ the time.” For many of Canada’s Floridaf lovers, that is the ultimate dream: endless i summer. □