Perhaps it’s the effects of a teenage addiction to Sweet Valley High books and McDonald’s fries. Perhaps it’s my deep seated love of fried chicken. For whatever reason, a US road trip has been on my bucket list for at least the last 15 years. As I live in Dubai, most of my holidays involve a trip back home so my mother can complain about my age inappropriate outfit choices and I can get shitfaced at my friends’ weddings. But finally, after a few years of freelance-induced poverty and 15 months of saving in a new job, I was ready for the Ford Mustang Convertible. (Well, my travelling partner was ready. I drive like I dance, with all the grace and coordinated of a drunk zebra.)
The first stop was Universal Studios in Orlando. Usually I hate theme parks. Just the thought of being hurtled upside down on a rollercoaster is enough to unsettle my stomach (which admittedly is easily riled- even the DLR makes me queasy). Add to that the large crowds of children, the endless queues and a small mountain of pig sick-flavoured, vastly overpriced hotdogs and it’s fair to say amusement parks are not my idea of holiday paradise. But then they built The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Hidden in the depths of Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure, I had to get through several acres of children and stomach-churning rides before I could get my grubby little paws on a butterbeer. (Which is reasonably revolting FYI. Basically butterscotch scented Diabetes in a large plastic cup. You absolutely must try one.)
By contrast my travelling partner Vikki (RAF pilot, adrenalin junkie and all-round ninja) would happily visit Mars on a 300-mile-an-hour loop-the-loop rollercoaster if physics allowed it.
Having held my hand on the log flume rides, she went off in search of something a little less five-year-old friendly and I sat in the sun as crowds of American tourists wandered past, loudly wondering if they were too fat to be harnessed into a rollercoaster seat whilst shovelling 17 tonnes of deep fried corn dog into their colossal, neon t-shirt clad bellies. (The answer was yes. It can only be due to the wonders of modern medical technology and the American pharmaceutical industry that these people are still able to walk around without requiring the assistance of a forklift truck.)
But I digress. For those who enjoy being hurled upside down at rapid speeds, Vikki reported that the horrifying looping green Hulk coaster and the Doctor Doom shoot you up and down thingy were a ‘little tame’ but the Duelling Dragons ride at Harry Potter was great.
Armed with motion sickness pills and pre-butterbeer, I was brave enough to try the Hippogriff coaster (yes, I’m aware it’s for three-year-olds) and the park’s main attraction ‘Forbidden Journey’. This was one of the most technically impressive theme park rides I’ve ever seen. Without spoiling the experience for Harry Potter virgins, I’ll just say that it’s a fantastic experience, I didn’t fall out and I only had to close my eyes twice. *wears self-awarded bravery badge with pride*
Forbidden Journey aside, it’s the shops and pubs that really make Harry Potter World. The attention to detail is flawless and though I couldn’t be tempted to buy a wand (for $40 I’d expect it to do actual magic), I couldn’t help but admire the park’s willful determination to extort more money from its visitors at every corner. In the end I settled for a box of ‘Every Flavour Beans’ which I gave away to my friends upon returning.
The next day we headed off in search of sand, sea and fruit-based cocktails. Drive two hours west of Orlando and you come to the Gulf of Mexico, which is packed with (arguably) some of the best beaches in the states. We stopped at Clearwater, a white sand beach town reminiscent of a 1970′s sitcom.
After an afternoon of vodka and sunshine, the restaurant choice was Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill for seafood and Margaritas. The food might not be gourmet here, but it’s very fresh, simple and relatively healthy compared to the more central states. The sunset was spectacular and despite being a Tuesday night, the town was reasonably lively.
Having befriended a local waiter and his girlfriend, we headed into town to meet groups of hilariously drunk, sunburnt mums from Texas and the smiliest Hooters’ waitresses of all time. (I suppose it’s in the job description ‘essential criteria’ list. Right below ‘excellent knockers and a penchant for sweaty male stag parties’.) If you’re ever planning a night out in the states, don’t forget your ID, because they like to card everyone. Even senior citizens. Having turned 30 a few weeks ago, this was pretty flattering at first. Until you realise Americans are incapable of understanding the concept of a British driving license and that it’s easier for you to buy a gun than a glass of wine in Florida. (I don’t mean to get all political on y’all Big Sam, but this is an issue you might want to look into.)
On the second night we visited a little spot called John’s Pass, where I got to watch Vikki single-handedly demolish a pound and a half of crab legs. ‘Twas quite the romantic scene. Add to that some tacky tourist toot and a pod of wild dolphins in the marina and you’ve got yourself a pretty perfect evening. As a self-proclaimed beach junkie, I’m putting Clearwater in my top 10. Just remember to pick up your Hooters’ shirt.