To Miami... and Beyond!
Updated: Mar 6, 2022
Julia and I shiver together, standing in North Londonderry, NH. We wait patiently for the bus ride that will kick off an exhilarating three-day daddy-daughter trip, the first such adventure in her 11-year lifetime. I wrap my arm around her, holding on for warmth and, perhaps, to savor her childhood as long as possible.
She wasn’t supposed to grow up this fast. When did Fisher Price and the Pajanimals become boy bands and Billie Eilish? The only thing more stunning than childhood's relentless march forward is the realization that they're only young once. As a parent, it’s best not to blink during these years. “Holding on” became a theme of not only this trip, but everyday life in 2022. Getting through another day. Allowing the world’s madness to motivate you to help others, but not so much that you become depressed at the endless cavalcade of unfortunate events.
Some days feel like we’re hanging on to a fast-moving train with one arm, desperately clinging to any shred of normalcy that remains. That manifests not only in COVID and devastating news from Ukraine, but also the fact that my little girl isn’t so little anymore. On the personal front, the cup of my life’s first half is down to its last few drops. What is one to do?
My 2022 answer to this ruthlessly perplexing question is “let’s go to Miami!”. While a family trip would have been ideal, it was not meant to be given Alyse’s work schedule. After much discussion and reviewing logistics, we agreed that me taking Julia on a daddy-daughter trip would be the best way forward. My simple goal was to craft a trip with activities perfectly tailored to my tween mini-me. Before we departed, I promised her it would be one she'd never forget.
Our shockingly empty JetBlue flight banks over South Florida, the dark landscape below bedazzled with endless white and gold sequins. This, Julia's first trip to the Sunshine State, would be my first since 2011. Like the many other adventures I've planned over the years, we'd be cramming a lot into a scant three days, including not one but two day trips from our West Miami Airbnb.
Arriving this late blunted the wow-inducing effects of palm trees and terracotta; seeing it in proper lighting would have to wait until morning. There was one surprise that presented itself right away, however. Our car rental was a Mustang convertible, a vehicle I had selected in secret several weeks prior. Let the fun begin.
We awoke to a world of color and life. From November through April in New Hampshire, the natural world's palette is limited to shades of white, brown, grey, and on occasion a blue sky. Here - just a few hours' flight away - a Crayola box had detonated. Endless floral riches spilling from gardens and planters. Grass so green it'd make an Irishman look twice. Palm trees swaying nonchalantly overhead. We might as well have jumped out of a black and white TV show into a child's kaleidoscope.
Day 1 was highlighted by a trip to the Everglades Safari Park, an admittedly touristy stop that was within the confines of this incomparable National Park. Alyse and I had been to the area in 2009, but we hadn't at that time been able to experience what many associate with the Everglades: an airboat ride.
This massive twin-fanned watercraft, as you might imagine, was raucous. So much so that earplugs were handed out prior to boarding. Picture standing about 15 feet away from a twin-prop aircraft, and you'll have some sense of the noise levels.
Yanni's Everglade Run played in my head as we departed home base and gradually accelerated into the limitless "River of Grass". As the sun and breeze warmed my skin and I sat close to Julia, my exact thought was I'm alive! Sounds cheesy, I know, but those two words described the moment perfectly. I couldn't have been more thankful to be right there, right then.
The peaceful, reflecting waters were punctuated by sawgrass, lily pads, and the occasional heron, egret, or gator. Our guide, Alfred, was excellent, slowing down at just the right times and explaining the nature before us as if we were in a National Geographic special. Truly a one-of-a-kind experience that, while touristy, retained some authenticity.
Upon docking we were treated to a brief reptile show that included a close encounter between an 11-year old girl and a 3-year old gator named Snappy.
A nature trail and stop at a back-to-basics, somewhat tired restaurant rounded out our time at the Safari Park.
The day was far from over, however; since we were already well west of Miami, we said "why not drive to Florida's west coast?!" So drive we did, arriving at glorious Marco Island by late afternoon.
Everyone who's ever been to Marco Island raves about it. What makes it so special, you might ask? On the surface, it looks like any other developed, semi-tropical place. High rises by the water, a smattering of beaches, and the usual array of posh restaurants. There was something more I simply couldn't put my finger on, however. Impeccable landscaping, a gorgeous, brand new-looking multiuse path, and glorious architecture contributed to the wow-inducing vibe. Everything looked clean and well-kept, almost fantasy-like. And we hadn't even reached the beach.
We pulled the Mustang into a public parking lot, snagging the last available space. After a flip-flopped amble across the street, Marco Island went from pleasant to exquisite. Miles of soft sand stretched before us, calm teal waters lapping just feet away. It was by no means deserted, but it was far from crowded either.
Julia galloped into the Gulf with the maniacal fervor of a squirrel in a Planters factory. I was close behind, but my ankle-deep entry was more measured, letting the 75-degree water gently wash over me. Why is it that adults lose that spontaneous enthusiasm for so many things? Our lives fill up with responsibility and it is next to impossible to regain the wonder and fresh eyes of children. Luckily, I was able to feed off Julia's excitement; a smile became permanently affixed to my sun-brightened face.
But the day still wasn't over yet. Come dinnertime, we found (OK, I had researched it ahead of time) a nearby restaurant, appropriately named the Sunset Grille. With a little help from divine providence, we timed it so we'd finish supping and return to the beach for front row sunset seats.
Yesterday, she'd been clinging to me, craving fatherly warmth. The day before that (or was it 10 years?), she'd taken her first steps, landing in my outstretched arms. Now, as the sun slowly descended, she was out in the waves - still in sight, but a bit farther away than in the past. Swells came and went. She seemed to know what she was doing though, so I observed from a distance, feet caressed by the undertow. The smile still hadn't left my face.
The opposite of holding on, of course, is letting go. The key, I suppose, is finding that balance between holding on to what is worthwhile, and letting go when it feels right. Predictably, the sun wasn't visible for much longer. When it finally sank into the calm Gulf, I was caught off guard by the unexpected chorus of beachgoers' applause.
The day had ended, as days are known to do. I would later tell her, with perfect sincerity, that it was among the best of my life. I wished it could have lasted longer still, but I made like Elsa and let it go. We motored back east in the 'Stang, still aglow from the companionship, the seaside sunset, and the realization that the memories would remain with us for the rest of our lives.
The next morning, it would be time for some Miami heat...