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SNOWBIRD TO FLORIDA BY CAR Print E-mail
Written by Chips Filleul   
The following is aimed chiefly at Ottawans contemplating a road trip to a destination in Florida, but who have never,or not recently, done it. My credentials for offering information and suggestions are that for a number of years my family and I have regularly driven both ways- in the spring and again in the late fall.

From this you'll surmise that it suits us to go by road. Flying has some obvious attractions , but we've found there is a definite lure to travel without the need for reservations, tickets or haggling with car rental companies. Having one's own vehicle at the other end is a big cost reducer, to which I add the ability to load up the minivan with a surprising amount of stuff-including in my case three rangy hounds who hate being pushed into crates and confined in dark, threatening baggage holds.

Choice of route is subject to your own inclinations. Do you want to sightsee on the way, or (as might be the case in mid-winter) do you prefer to go hell-for- leather for the sun? If the latter, forget about taking time out for an opera or Broadway show in New York or the National Gallery in Washington, and get the CAA to send you their handy route map, printed on a series of flip-over pages. It is available free to members and indicates the most direct route between Ottawa and your final destination. This route takes you south-west to the Thousand Islands bridge off the 401 east of Kingston-which must figure in the list of the world's most scenic border crossings (and the only place between Ottawa and Florida where there is a toll fee). Then Interstate 81 takes you through Syracuse, Binghamton, and Scranton to the Washington area where you transfer over to the principal north-south artery, Interstate 95. This highway, flat, hemmed in with trees (so visually monotonous) and absolutely practical , goes all the way to Miami. Kids on their too-brief spring break and with a ton of partying in their sights have sworn to me that, using the I-95, they have made the Ottawa-South Beach trek in well under 30 hours.

For most vacationers, however, a couple of nights on the road, say in Virginia and South Carolina, are a reasonable minimum which will increase your chances of reaching your final goal happily and in one piece. A feasible variant to this itinerary, only slightly longer and which avoids the Washington-area congestion, is to stay on Interstate 81 through the lovely Shenandoah valley, skirting the Appalachian mountains until you're just north of Wyethville, VA. There you turn south on I -77 across the Blue Ridge, past Charlotte, NC and Columbia, capital of South Carolina ; and finally to the intersection with Interstate 95 north of St George, SC. The disadvantage of this more westerly loop is the relative scarcity of accomodation, above all for those travelling with pets. (More comments on the pet factor are contained in the final paragraphs).

If travelling time is unimportant to you, and you think that getting there can be half the fun, the Eastern Seaboard offers myriad possibilities for including stopovers on both legs of the round trip. New York City, Atlantic City, Philadelphia and Washington are some prime targets. Southern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia are thick with Civil War battlefields as well as those, notably Yorktown VA, which date from the War of Independence. Further south, Charleston, SC ,Savannah, GA and St. Augustine, FL are worth visiting and all offer good dining possibilities. Regional guidebooks, and not forgetting the handout material at the stateline information centres, list many and varied points of interest catering to every taste: in Vrginia the recreated and re-enacted colonial Williamsburg, the early James River settlements, the Museum of the Mighty Eigth(US Air Force) close to Savannah, an entire museum devoted to Ava Gardner in Smithfield, NC, even a place called Disney World near Orlando, FL and the Museum of Drag Racing at Ocala, FL.

Highway I-95 is the preferred route for the push-through motorist because it is direct and extremely well provided with a wide range of accomodation together with unsurpassed eating, shopping and service facilities. Most of them are well within the budget of the Middle North American. There are a few gaps in this vast and generally successful travel system. One of them is the difficulty in finding a good cup of coffee. Starbucks and its immediate competitors have, it would seem, not yet concluded that the more discriminating segment of the long-haul driving public is large enough to warrant their attention. On a hopeful note, we have recently stumbled on two small and pleasant start-up coffee bars, both on feeder roads in South Carolina. Will they still be there when we next pass by? Another drawback is the drop in the quality and availability of interesting radio programming as you leave the northern-tier states. Fortunately the broadcasting situation does recover as the Florida NPR stations come into range.

This small gain is offset by the abrupt rise in the cost of almost everything ( even of citrus fruit, but most notably of gasoline and hotel rooms ) as soon as you cross from Georgia . On the receiving end of the human torrent which seasonally craves the climate and amenities of the only state in the continenental Union able to guarantee a high proportion of warm,sunny days in January and December, Floridians know they can charge more and get away with it. A cautionary note here, prompted by occasional tales of woe from disappointed winter visitors (who were perhaps tempted by lower prices) to such northerly coastal spots as St.Augustine or Panama City : don't end your journey too soon. Chances of balmy days and frost-free nights rise the closer you get to Cuba. My experience suggests that you'd do well to continue driving till you're south of Fort Pierce on the Atlantic and Sarasota on the Gulf coast.

Now for the postscript on pets, of possibly keen interest to those who can't bear to leave them behind, but definitely skippable by the more rational majority. A source , each travel day, of tension and uncertainty is finding a sleeping place where pets are admitted. The majority of hotels or motels refuse entry to any kind of pet. Roughly one establishment in four will let them stay in the rooms occupied by their owners, though many of these will charge a fee of five, ten or more dollars per animal. This can produce the absurd situation where a couple with three dogs can be charged one hundred percent more than the same room occupied by human beings alone. However there are some breaks available, bargains can be driven. Off-season travel helps, and then there is the Patel factor. Surprisingly often, lower echelon motels turn out to be owned or managed by a representative of the ubiquitous Patel clan. Though statistics are lacking, the Patels or their brethren have seemingly come to dominate a large segment of the Eastern Seaboard motel trade. Many of the offerings in this category are showing their age and the abuse of countless short stays by large families or those needing a festive unwind after a long day on the road. This of course strengthens your hand in the following type of exchange, distasteful perhaps, but part of the game that can be usefully played, at least with the Patels. "No that's far too much. The most I'll go is five bucks for all three or I move on". The typical outcome is that you settle, grudgingly,(What IS the world coming to?) for a total surcharge of ten.

A not uncommon alternative is to leave the animals in the car overnight, though only possible as a strategy when the temperature is moderate. I decided never to adopt this course after a one-hour family shopping mall session had brought a frustrated hound to destroy most of the interior door-cladding of a month-old Previa. A more civilised solution,especially during peak-season travel when the customer becomes less often right, is to move up-market to such chains as Hampton Inn($75-110 a night) , Best Western (60-100) or Fairfield Inn (80-100). Presumably these places are charging humans enough to compensate for the disadvantages, (real or theoretical) of accomodating pets. But even in these establishments welcome is not guaranteed , and the spectacle of three or four Rottweilers debouching from a Lincoln Navigator could easily turn an initial welcome into a polite but firm no entry. Conversely, the discreet arrival of a pair of miniature poodles in the lobby of the Savannah Hilton would normally elicit only admiring compliments-and, it is to be sincerely hoped, no vulgar mention of surcharges.

Rule of thumb for pet-owning motorists: few, small and quiet. And you can always pray that you light on one of those rare, very rare, places where the management is so enlightened that it just lets humans and animals cohabit in peace. Here I award a bouquet to the Best Western- King's Quarters in Doswell, Va, adjacent to King's Dominion, a Paramount Films amusement park, which will please the kids in the summer. From Sept. to mid- May the hotel gives snowbirds, and their pets, a wonderful deal.

Chips Filleul

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Last Updated ( Feb 08, 2007 at 12:09 AM )
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