When I first met my husband way back in 1994, we began a tradition that will forever be a fond memory to me. It wasn’t a conscious thing but we both shared a love for people, small towns, hidden gems, road food and A Prairie Home Companion. At the time we were both working traditional jobs so every Sunday, we would get in the car, turn on Garrison Keillor and drive. Sometimes we knew where we were going and sometimes we didn’t. We’d take pictures along the way of our beloved Texas. Small town churches, road side markets, trees, lakes, rivers, odd sights. The list went on and on. But time passed and eventually we had seen and done all of those interesting things that were within a couple of hours of our house. We had kids, got busy and time moved on. I never, however, lost my passion for Sunday drives. I never lost the concept of road trip. I would always rather drive than fly because a large part of the joy is getting there.
One of the things that has been the most exciting to me in this move to Florida is that I have a plethora of new experiences just a short drive from my home. I no longer have traditional days off and life is just busier than before but when the opportunity presents itself, a drive can produce new, exciting and interesting results.
Yesterday, a friend and I shared a day off (a rare occurrence) and decided to explore my new state a bit. We had a destination in mind but I was glad we were able to take our time getting there. The goal was to not venture more than 2 hours from home. We had a car, an ice chest and all day to explore.
We left Orlando around 10:00 a.m. and headed west toward the Gulf Coast down I-4. I’m certain there is a more interesting way to travel but since it’s all new, I-4 was as good as anything. I was struck by how little development there is between Orlando and Tampa. Lots of trees and a few billboards. We saw one welcoming the Republican National Convention to town. Any of my red friends planning a trip to Tampa in August? You’ll be in good company. We saw ads for all sorts of fun kitschy attractions, like Wonders of Flight, Dinosaur World, etc. I took note as seeing those with my boys might be a fun thing at some point. As we neared Tampa, we saw a billboard advertising a farm stand in a town called Plant City. Evidently this place is the Winter Strawberry Capitol of the World. Sadly strawberries (and citrus for that matter) are out of season. But we pulled off any way to check it out. It turned out to be a wonderful stop. A large stand full of fresh vegetables, fruits, plants, jams, jellies and a food stand that sold a strawberry shake dubbed by Food Network as the best drinkable dessert in the country. And evidently, during strawberry season, they make a shortcake that is to die for. Being that it was close to lunch, we opted out of trying the sweets. I picked up the stuff to make fried green tomatoes, something called “candy corn” from Georgia, strawberry and blackberry preserves made at the market and some key lime dressing. My friend, Victoria, picked up some boiled peanuts (which neither of us had before sampled). Before we knew it, we were on the road.
We continued west on I-4 toward Tampa, snacking on the boiled peanuts (taste: good, texture: weird). Before we knew it we were nearing our planned lunch destination: La Teresita. I don’t have a lot of experience with authentic Cuban food but it’s something I’ve been looking forward to since I initially found out I was coming to Florida. According to Roadfood.com (my favorite food site), La Teresita is among the best. As we exited, I learned that the New York Yankees spring training site is just down from the restaurant. My Collin is going to LOVE living in this area in the spring. Maybe not for the Yankees but for so many other Spring Training locations. After making a right at the stadium, I felt like I had been tossed into Havana. Everything was Cuban. Cuban food, markets, salons, etc. I could have probably found a cigar if I’d known where to look.
But today our destination was La Teresita. It’s a large pink building that houses a restaurant, a bakery and cafe, a cafeteria (our preference) and a banquet hall. Across the parking lot sits La Teresita Tex Mex and Bakery. I was intrigued at what these Cubans did with Tex-Mex but that will have to wait for another visit. We walked into the cafeteria and were greeted with counters and barstools, set up in three large U-shape patterns. The stools were nearly all filled with… CUBANS! The idea that the locals eat here was thrilled to me. At the far back of the room, we found two barstools together and took our place. We were greeted (Hola!) by a sweet, jolly, older gentleman who looked like he should be on a poster promoting Cuban tourism. It didn’t take us long to decide what we wanted.
I ordered a Cuban Sandwich, a side of fried plantains and cafe con leche, a strong hot coffee drink for which La Teresita is known. The meals came with Cuban bread, hot buttered and toasty. Amazing. My friend ordered braised Ox tails, cuban rice, black beans (which were more like a soup) and a soft drink. The amount of food was crazy. Huge portions, more than any two people could eat. And the total bill was $18. I’m still shocked about that. Everything was full of flavor and completely delicious. We agreed that the beans were probably our favorite item. You would take a bite and the layers of flavors would just keep coming. We ate our lunch heartedly, constantly in awe of how delicious and how inexpensive the meal was. Just amazing.
Although La Teresita has desserts and I’m sure they are wonderful, I had noticed when we parked that just across the street from the restaurant was a food truck dubbed “Churroman”. Selling freshly fried churros. I couldn’t resist. Before we got back on the road, I bought 10 churros ($2.50). They were hot, crispy and loaded with cinnamon and this beautiful flaky sugar. A perfect end to a perfect meal.
Soon we were on the other side of Tampa and headed toward Clearwater Beach. I have seen pictures of myself on a Florida beach (Pensacola, I believe) when I was about three. I also know that when I was 16 my family briefly stopped at Fort Lauderdale on our way to Miami just long enough for me to pick up a keychain and say I was there. But I don’t really have any conscious memory of visiting a Florida beach. As we drove through the town of Clearwater I was reminded of so many coastal tourism towns. Depressed, poor, ugly. “This is what people rave about?”, I thought to myself. Really? And then, we neared a bridge and suddenly, it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. Large, gorgeous hotels, yachts, wonderful shops. Simply beautiful. I think we were both surprised. We were lucky enough to find a parking spot right near the beach. We parked, grabbed towels, blankets and chairs and headed toward the white sand. The thing that struck me the most about the beach was how clean it is. Just sand and water. No seaweed, no jellyfish, no fishy smell, no cigarettes, broken bottles. Nothing but sand and people and water. The water was warm and we spent several hours collecting shells and just enjoying the moment.
As time neared for our parking to expire, I mentioned that I had read about a beach that I wanted to scope out. This beach was located on Siesta Key, about 45 miles south of Clearwater. Being adventurous we decided to check it out. The thing that intrigues me about Siesta Key is that no chains are allowed on the island, promoting a quieter more secluded beach experience. On the drive from Clearwater to Siesta Key, we also got to drive over the Skyway Bridge – almost like an amusement ride of it’s own. It was cloudy and cool (and windy!) but the views from the top of the bridge were still amazing. When we arrived in Siesta Key, it was just as I expected. The beach is wide and beautiful. The sand is almost 100% crushed quartz. The water is so clean that you can see the bottom even when up to your knees. Not the gulf I’m accustomed to. We took pictures, picked up more shells and agreed that this was a romantic beach that required at least a couple of days to truly appreciate. It was gorgeous.
By now, it was getting late and we knew we were a couple of hours from home. We loaded back into the car and headed east. Tired, relaxed and fulfilled. No doubt this was just a small sampling of the beauty and fun that Florida can offer. I’m so excited to have an opportunity to explore more.