Key West is as far south as you can go in America without getting wet. It was warm (86°F/30°C while it was freezing in Denver), picturesque and full of history. Once a base for pirates extracting wealth from passing ships, it is now home to merchants extracting wealth from passing tourists. The Customs office meets all construction regulations for Federal government buildings, including the one that demands that the roof support 4 ft (1.2 m) of snow! After taking the bus tour we took a ride in a glass-bottom boat to see the coral reef but the reef is virtually dead. Apparently, the reef along all the Florida Keys is nearly dead for several reasons but essentially we are the problem.
Sloppy shipbuilding and a hurricane sank the Nuestra Señora de Atocha near Key West in 1622. It would have been forgotten except that it was carrying gold, silver and emeralds from Spain’s conquests in the New World, but the wreck was not found until 1985. The Mel Fisher Museum details the search and the treasure they found and that was fascinating but I was surprised and disappointed that the courts allowed him to keep most of it. Both the State and Federal governments made claims since it was in their waters but there was no mention of the original owner, Spain. I thought they would make a claim too, just as the Egyptians and Greeks are trying to recover their treasures from the British Museum.
The highlight of Miami was the Parrot Jungle with a wonderful variety of macaws and other birds, including cockatoos from Australia. Further north at Palm Beach, we spent a wonderful afternoon at the John D. MacArthur State Park getting to understand the fragile ecology of the Florida coast and getting to know two of the wonderful volunteers who ran the park.
On Christmas Day we drove back to the Orlando area to see the local attractions, the best of which was Lan’s aunt Tuyet. We had a great time at home and away. Lan particularly enjoyed eating proper home-cooked Vietnamese food again and I had the pleasure of getting to know Tuyet, her daughter Khanh and friend Jim. Lan had met Khanh before. We all enjoyed each other’s company.
We saw Disney’s Epcot Center (great if you like crowds and entertainment pretending to be educational) but we were interested to learn that Orlando was a sleepy town until Disney arrived in 1971 and the city has since boomed.
The next day we visited the Kennedy Space Center, the base for the moon missions and the current space shuttle program. In fact, I had hoped to see a shuttle launch as the original launch date was delayed several times until it was to have been the night we arrived in Orlando. Unfortunately, it was delayed twice more so we missed it. They had a Saturn V moon rocket there and it was truly awesome but we couldn't get closer than 3 miles (5 km) to the shuttle being prepared on the launch pad.
Cypress Gardens features a water ski show that I remembered from 30 years ago. Two army men came to see the gardens in 1943 and were interested in the new sport of water-skiing and so they asked the family that ran the gardens to do a demonstration. They liked it and asked if they could bring their friends the following weekend, which they did—700 of them! The show has been running ever since. Amongst other things, they also had huge cypress trees that grow partially in the water, beautiful gardens and a butterfly house.
The surprise of the whole trip was Splendid China, which I had not noticed in the guidebook. Tuyet and Jim had been before and encouraged us to see it. If we weren't so tired, we would have seen the replicas of the Great Wall and other famous structures but we just saw the wonderful show of theater and acrobatics.
While we were staying with Tuyet, I read the first third of In Retrospect, a book by Robert McNamara on what went wrong in American government during the Vietnam War. He was the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and so was helping to make many of the crucial decisionsit was depressing reading. He says they never really questioned their assumptions such as the famous "domino" theory, failed to recognize the conflict as primarily nationalistic and then failed to withdraw when it became clear that the war was unwinable.
We flew home the next day exhausted but knowing we had used our time well and were further delighted when our car started without hesitation after being left for almost 3 weeks.