Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Friday, January 5, 2018 - St. Petersburg, Florida

Ana and I began our 2018 vacation planning shortly after returning from our big trip this summer. The monstrosity of that epic adventure to SE Asia diverted our attention away from our family policy of always having two trips in the hopper, so when we arrived back in late August we had nothing planned. So before long we had lined up a two week trip to Azores and Madeira in April and a two week sailing trip to Lake Ontario in July, which would use up the bulk of our available vacation days and vacation budget.

So in mid-December when Ontario turned into the Arctic, the skin on our knuckles began cracking, everybody picked up colds, and twisted, bloodied spirals of nostril-shaped Kleenex wads started appearing in the wastebaskets around our house, Ana asked me what I thought of booking an early January trip to Cuba.

“I’d love to go to Cuba, but we already decided on our vacations for the year,” I said.

“Oh, come on. Let’s just go,” she insisted.

“Nope. Not going to happen. We need to stick to the plan.”

Now I’m not one to poo-poo vacation ideas, but there are practical limits on vacation days and funds, not to mention pulling kids out of school. So somehow she let it go, which is very uncharacteristic of her. A week later the temperature had plunged further, it was a darker in the morning and the colds were keeping everybody up coughing every night. Our surroundings had changed too. A milky blue glacier was pushing its way into our cul-de-sac and a mess of penguin droppings had appeared on the ice slick where our driveway used to be. Over breakfast Stella noticed two polar bears sparring in our backyard and magnificent Northern Lights…at 8 in the morning. I hitched up the sled dogs and we made it into work and school, but that evening, after we had arrived home, Ana went straight to the computer and found a hot deal on a three night trip to St. Petersburg, Florida. Without any hesitation I said, “Book it.” Ana did the most remarkable happy dance around our kitchen and suddenly life seemed so much better.

On Friday, January 5th Ana’s alarm clock started clucking at 1:30 am and she jolted out of bed to begin her morning operations. Mine went off twenty minutes later and I got ready, rallied the kids, threw our bags in the van and soon we were rocking down the highway to Pearson Airport to catch our 6am flight. Let the Power Weekend begin!

The only thing you can count on with the early morning flights at Pearson is that it will be a shit show. No matter what time you arrive, the airport is packed, which is why you really do need to arrive three hours ahead of your flight. The last two times we flew at this hour, we barely made it to the gate in time, so we didn’t want to chance it. They have also introduced new technology at the airport to further delay processes. After checking in with the airline we were directed to walk to the far end of the terminal to drop our bags. After waiting in line for a while we reached the automated bag chutes where you stuffed in each bag, waited for a hidden robot to measure, weigh, and photograph it, and then had to scan your boarding cards. Thankfully we only checked one bag, but others with multiple bags were there for a long time as they had to do each bag one by one with significant lags between each. The next step was to wait in the line to enter the US immigration hall, and then show our boarding cards and passports. The next line was for security and here we had to remove our shoes, empty our pockets and put every individual item into a plastic bin to be send through the scanning machine. Between the four of us we must have used 12 buckets. This took a very long time as there were only two or maybe three people working there, and most of their time was spent walking empty buckets from the end of the line back to the start. The next line was to wait to use one of the new automation passport control machines. Here each of us scanned our passport, answered a dozen questions on the screen and then were photographed, with significant lags between each step. We each got summary printouts and were directed to go to a lineup for secondary processing, along with what looked like over 80 percent of the others checking in. We waited there for a long time and then were finally directed to a human immigration processor who then scanned each of our passports, asked us some questions and then sent us to an office for further processing. There we were asked a few more questions and then finally allowed to proceed. By this time you are feeling guilty of…something, though you are not sure what. In the end we made it to our gate with 45 minutes to spare, so all in all, it was an excellent airport experience.

After a delayed boarding, delayed fueling, and delayed ice clearing, we finally began taxiing out to the runway, 90 minutes past our scheduled departure time. In the interim both kids had fallen asleep, but as the plane was moving down the runway, Magnus woke up, looked out the window and said, “Is this Florida or Alaska we’ve landed in??”

I laughed and replied, “Bad news buddy, we haven’t even taken off yet – still in Toronto.” He looked at me, shrugged, and fell back asleep.

We had never before flown into St. Petersburg airport, so were happy to find a small, easy to navigate place, and within 20 minutes we had secured a rental car, collected our bag, and were on the road in search of an IHOP (International House of Pancakes) restaurant for brunch, as this had been Stella’s single request for the trip. Apparently the IHOP is very well regarded in her social circles. The food was indeed delicious, and plentiful, and much better than the last time we visited an IHOP - probably a decade ago.

Fueled and caffeinated, our next mission was to accomplish my single request for the trip – visiting the new Salvador Dali museum. Salvador Dali was a zany, prolific, and incredibly influential Spanish painter, and the St. Petersburg gallery owns the largest collection of Dali originals outside of Spain. I have been here twice before, but since then, they had constructed a brand-new gallery to house the collection. The entrance fee was quite steep, so Ana decided to give it a miss and instead take the kids out shopping while I visited the gallery.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go? It’s going to be awesome!” I said as we cruised into downtown St. Petersburg.

“No thanks. I don’t even like Dali’s work that much.” 

“You know, if you listed to more Primus, you’d probably understand and appreciate those surreal paintings a lot more.

“That’s not going to happen.”

I was dropped off at the gallery and spent an amazing two hours browsing through the works. The ticket price included an audio device where you could listen to short, interpretive audio clips about many of the art works, so I took my time, looked at every single painting and listed to the entire audio set. Now Dali was a real weirdo, so most of his paintings require more than a little interpretation, but even without this, his mastery of the art form is obvious.

We went for a short walk downtown, enjoying the sunny but cool day. But even at 10 degrees it felt glorious compared to the -20 we left behind in Canada. It was just after 4 pm so we drove to our hotel – the Dolphin Beach Resort on St. Pete’s Beach, got checked-in and then went for a walk to explore the area. The hotel was right on the remarkably wide beach that stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. The kids found a shuffleboard area so began sliding red and black pucks across the concrete surface while Ana and I kicked off our shoes and went for a walk down the beach. The sand was cool and reminiscent of icing sugar. An airplane flew by dragging a long sign that proclaimed “ALL YOU CAN EAT CRAB  4 – 8PM OYSTER SHUCKER” and we couldn’t think of any other place in the world where airplanes pull advertising banners through the sky. The sky was cloudless and the sunshine felt wonderful as its magical rays began healing our cracked, grey, wintery skin. As dusk was soon approaching we returned to the hotel, and then walked across the street to the Publix (or “Pubix” as Ana refers to it) and picked up six Radlers, a box of Presidente beer, Vitamin Waters, Arnold Palmer Arizonas, and some popcorn and plantain chips. We were all set.

The hotel had a nice beachfront seating area so we set up there, did a cheers, and enjoyed a toast made by Magnus to our Power Weekend. By now the clouds had rolled in, so we did not get much of a sunset, so to keep ourselves entertained Stella suggested we do timed sprints on the beach to the lifeguard post and back. Though sprinting and drinking don’t often go hand in hand (unless the cops are chasing you), I gave it a go and surprised myself by beating both of their times. Of course, I was close to cardiac arrest by the time I finished the 19 second course, but that’s the price you have to pay to win against fit kids.

For dinner, we decided on the Conch Republic at Redington Beach – an amazing seafood restaurant and one which we’ve visited every time we’ve been in this area. We placed our orders and the super-efficient server soon delivered enormous plates loaded with grilled grouper, mahi, conch fritters, lime shrimp, zucchini fries, Cajun chicken, and mussels diablo. We ate well beyond our normal capacity and waddled out of there feeling quite pleased with ourselves.

Bedtime came early for everybody and we were all asleep by 10. A full day indeed.

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