The first week of our American experience is done so too is our first state. We’ve just crossed the state line from Florida into Georgia on our way to the city of Savanna. Since leaving Miami we have seen a number of different sides to Florida and to the USA. We’ve been to two city’s, firstly inland to Orlando and its tourist centric theme park resorts and then back to the east coast to Jacksonville, America’s largest city in terms of area: over 800 square miles. Which seems mental given the number of culturally important cities in this vast country, its also bigger than London and most European cities. Both very different, but both having palm trees and swamp land in common.
We arrived to Orlando on time, and quite content after a very pleasant first train ride. The 7 odd hours seemed to fly by, the trains are spacious and comfortable, we watched the world go by out of the big windows, visited the cafe car for a sport of lunch and were enteretained by the lovely Amtrak staff. Our Airbnb was a bit out of town towards the theme park so we caught and Uber (as easy in America as in the UK, who would’ve thought!) and were treated by Robert and his two dogs. The room was comfy and quiet and it was close to a supermarket where we grabbed a quick bit of food. We then set about organising which of the many theme parks we would head to for our full day in Orlando. We were a bit stunned by the prices, it appears that if you only want to go for one day they charge you extortionate amounts but they discount each subsequent day, so much so that going for a week is only about twice the price of going for 1 day! It was almost enough to put us off going, but we decided an Orlando theme park had to be ticked off the American Bucket list and also we had no other ideas of what to do in Orlando for a day. We plugged for Universal studios as it was the easiest one to get to by public transport from where we were. When we arrived at the park the next day we were relieved we had booked online the night before as the price at the gate is about another 50% price increase. This place had better be good we thought, as we crossed through the gates! I wouldn’t quite say is was worth the price, but it was pretty damn good! Roller coasters and other rides much bigger faster and more elaborate than anything I’d been on back home. The construction of the park was pretty spectacular too, adding so much detail to different areas from film franchises that universal own like Marvel, Harry Potter and Jurassic Park. It was also open from 9 to 9, longer than a regular day at Thorpe Park so we stayed right to the end to made sure we got our monies worth before leaving having decided it was a good day well spent. Particularly after I managed to keep my first American burger down which I’d had before going on our last rollercoaster of the day. All in all a good day, and we agreed we could make the money back by not eating for a few days…!
The next morning we had a bit of time before our next train, so we headed out for a run to see a bit of Orlando proper. It was immaculate, a couple of plush golf clubs, lots of clean, wide pavements and well kept parks. It’s clear it is a city that has benifited from a booming tourist industry. We’d had a warning that our train was running a bit late but we headed to station as planned half in optimism and half because we didn’t have much else to do. The train ended up being nearly 2 hours late! But we had been warned to expect regular delays as passenger trains have to give priority to freight when there is a track back log and we were in no rush to get anywhere so we were happy sitting in the sun (we might not be so content when we start hitting single figure temperatures up north I guess, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it!) Once the train arrived it didn’t take any longer than expected to get to Jacksonville and if anything made up a bit of the lost time. We found bus and headed to downtown where our next Airbnb was. When we arrived it was getting a bit late and we we’re starting to get hungry. We asked our host where might be good locally to get some food, his response was that he wasn’t sure because the best place (a mall 3 “blocks” down) had had a shooting earlier in the day so was probably closed. I want to make a point of his nonchalance in both stating there had been a shooting and that it was only probably closed. As if it was so common that they just keep the place open while police, paramedics and probably undertakers went about there business. We decided to just head out to a local corner shop and grad a couple of pot noodles, some crisps and some chocolate to tie us over till the sun came out and it seemed a bit safer. We found, the next morning, that downtown Jacksonville is actually quite nice, lots of new tall buildings housing plenty of businesses, cafes and bars. A few people had asked us before and when we arrived, “why are you going to Jacksonville??” Our honest answer was that we weren’t sure other than it looked like a big city on the map and it had a train stations! We had done research for each stop along this train ride and had obviously decided there was enough to do in Jacksonville to warrant a two night stop. Although once we were there we weren’t so sure. A quick bit of googling showed that there were a few things to do, it’s affectionately known as the river city by the sea, as (surprisingly) its has a river and its on the coast. The travel websites repeatedly told us that it was interesting as it has one of the only south to north flowing rivers in the world running through it. I was worried that this would be the extent of Jacksonville’s draws and we would have nothing else to do. It wasn’t quite that quiet, we managed to catch a bus from the city centre out to its beach districts and found a lovely national park with hiking trails and access to one of their beaches where we stayed for a few hours looking for alligators and other wildlife. Before heading to the main beach, via a bar for some refreshements. This bar was what I would call back home an “old man pub” no more than 5 locals propping up the bar with a pitcher of beer being passed around moaning about their days at work. God knows what they thought of us when we rolled in asking for a bottle of water (pronounced it what seemed like the most plummy English accent) and two cans of pop.
Unlike the rest of the city, Jacksonville beach seemed set up for tourists. A few beach equipment hire shops, ice cream parlours, bars and restaurants. The large beach was pretty empty but had a few people fishing, walking dogs and surfing. We had a look at the long peer but it was closed for refurbishment. Other than that it didn’t seem like much reason to stick around so we got the bus back into town and headed to the aforementioned mall where that shooting happened to get some dinner (how brave are we!). This morning we didn’t want to venture too far from the city as we had a train to catch so we decided to explore downtown a bit more. We had a lovely run along river park which gave us great views of the huge river and the phenomenal metal bridges. Afterward we headed out to one of the local “diners” for our first classic American breakfast: omelettes with cheese, pancakes, beacon and sausage meat. The portion was HUGE, Suzanne had to leave some, but the lovely manager boxed it up for her to take out. We then had an hour to kill so saw the last remanding sights across the river. The friendship fountain, a huge fountain (I don’t know if there was anything special about it) and the treaty tree. A huge 250 year old oak tree, billed as the oldest living thing in Jacksonville. We got to walk over one of the bridges, which was the highlight of the visit for me, it was pretty cool. But possibly sums up our time in Jacksonville!
Now in to our second week and our second state, we are just about getting used to everyone being so friendly. It has been hard overriding the normal “what does this guy want” response. We’ve seen three cities and we’re not bored of trains yet. The next two stops should give us a taste of the Deep South, before heading up to New York and the cold!