Travels with the Pip part 1: Welcome to Mee-ami

Back again, and time for another adventure. It’s been literally a year since my last long-haul sojourn so absolutely well overdue for another outing. 2018 had been a short-haul kinda year, and one where I seemed to spend a similarly gigantic amount of money on travel anyway, so it was time to break the mould, and get back on some serious long-haul redeye action.

A year of expensive hops

My travels with Pips had taken me to Malaga for a long weekend in the spring- Super cheap Ryanair flights, a car for a few days and a meander round Andalucia- Not a hugely pricey trip but also a few days spent predominantly car-bound. Then off to Ireland for a friend’s wedding in the summer. Now don’t get me wrong, the wedding bit was lovely but the rest of the trip, whilst looking incredibly appealing on paper, actually turned out to be a humungously expensive 10 days which, despite a few highlights, really didn’t warrant the £2000 cost. At all. Not least for the fact we schlepped a campervan over there and slept the sum total of 2 nights in it.

Ireland you see is not a cheap place. It’s normal to whinge about the price of goods and services in the UK but actually on the whole we have it very good… Seeing that bottled beer in the supermarket hovered around the £3/bottle point was the first discovery of a holiday where, more often than not, everything turned out to be “How f*cking much??!”. Food was of the pub grub variety and never managed to come in much below £40 a meal.

The one saving grace was that it didn’t rain much.

The final trip of the year (and indeed our relationship) was a long weekend in Mallorca. Decent-ish hotel and a really nice long weekend but again, one where everything seemed to be a bit more expensive than it really should have been. It’s a combination of spiralling costs and plummeting pound which really doesn’t help in the nicer parts of Europe.

And then, as happens with most relationships, we ceased to be an item. No animosity, no shenanigans, just a slow drift apart. We’d spoken a lot about going on a Central American adventure and on balance just decided to go for it anyway as friends. 

Unfortunately we are both utterly shit at planning. Or at least making a plan and sticking to it. Sometimes I really do feel like it would be good to go on a package trip whereby everything is taken care of, you pay one (hopefully reasonable) fee and don’t have to faff around comparing flights etc etc.

The initial plan was to book return flights to Miami since it’s a good jumping-off point, and then make up the rest later on. Unfortunately January is pretty peak season in this part of the world, so the flights aren’t especially cheap. There are plenty of seemingly bonkers-cheap deals, particularly from Norwegian and the like, however once you’ve added bags and meals and the other charges, it really doesn’t end up being all that much of a bargain.

Virgin Atlantic was a good option with direct flights for a smidge over £400 return including all the normal stuff you’d expect, and at friendly times, natch. Booked.

Failing to plan is planning to fail… but planning is a route to failure

Full disclosure… I fricking HATE making holiday plans. I love flexibility, and making wrong plans makes my teeth itch. Unfortunately with this in mind this was due to be a holiday where my teeth enjoyed little respite.

Initial plan was a good one- Fly to Cartagena in Colombia, and join a sailing boat for the trip via the San Blas islands to Panama. Then onwards to Bocas del Toro islands in Panama and possibly Costa Rica afterwards. This seemed a winning plan. But then, as the finger was hovering over booking buttons etc, a bit of self-doubt crept in. The whole sailing bit was going to take a lot of time and, if nothing else, a huge chunk of money. You see, the Cartagena end is fine, however the Panama end adds on ages since you’ve got to get back from the port in the back of beyond and before you know it, half the holiday is gone. And this wouldn’t have given us time to get to Costa Rica. And besides, “We’d spend loads of money on internal flights”…

Plan B… 

Plan B then emerged. Weekend in Miami Beach, return flights to San Jose, 2 and a bit weeks there, then back home via 2 nights in Miami. Sorted. Just the two countries. Whilst this didn’t turn out to be an especially durable plan, we did at least do fairly well with the flights, ending up with friendly-timed direct returns from American Airlines at £240 for both of us. Which would have been marvellous, if we’d actually stuck to the bloody plan. Sure enough, once we’d booked that and an internal Costa Rican flight to the coast, we actually worked out that it would be better to make it a linear trip and to fly back from Panama. Pro tip… read the guidebook first!

Another £100 to Copa Airlines and £100 to Air Panama and I think we’re more or less set. Carbon footprint? Meh.

Good to go

My aspirations of super-light packing weren’t entirely realised due to all of the electronic kit that I seem to regard as completely indispensable… Besides, if I didn’t haul along an iPad and keyboard on every trip you’d miss out on my pearls of wisdom… But main bag under 12kg isn’t a bad start. Full faith in the weather and nothing in the way of warm clothes, done.

Setting a new standard for future trips, I booked us into the Premier Inn at T4 LHR for the princely sum of £32 for a double/double room… Astounding value for money and far more civilised than a very early start to reach Heathrow by 10am- In fact pretty much impossible via public transport from West Somerset.

Plan to fail, fail to plan etc.

Naturally, not everything goes to plan. This started pretty much straight off with the cancellation of our train to Paddington. Getting there super early had been a stupid idea anyway. However, everything else was plain sailing, and after a quick hop on the Heathrow Express I came to realise the joy of starting your holiday early. No fuss, no stress, a nice relaxing evening and a gentle stroll into the terminal the next morning. With a £32 room and a £26 meal deal including 2 course dinner, wine and full breakfast it was utterly bargainous too.

Up, up and away! 

After a herculean struggle with a self check-in machine which simply didn’t like Pips’ face, and the slightly unwelcome discovery that, once again, I had the “Probable terrorist” SSSS code on my boarding pass, necessitating a damn good swabbing at the gate and the vague fear of major hassle at MIA, we were away, bang on time, in a slightly tired A330. I really like Virgin, having flown with them a few times before, mainly for their vague sense of fun as opposed to the more po-faced Star Alliance lineup. Seeing Richard Branson on the same promotional video Namaste-ing over and over again prior to films and programs did become a little wearing though. Namaste, Richard, and well done on the charitable stuff, but kindly fuck off now and let me watch some nonsense.

Yes, you! (Image: Waily Fail)

Arriving in Miami was, surprisingly, a doddle… The seemingly very long snake prior to passport control turned out to be a worm, the automated terminals seemed to like me and we were out without a hitch. Free Wifi, Uber to South Beach, sorted. Although it was at exactly that point that it all started to go tits up.

Arriving at our pre-booked apartment, Alton Suites, raised an ominous sign… The front door propped open by a paint pot. Hmmm. Pushing the door open revealed an apartment block clearly in the midst of heavy renovation. A rat scurried across the open corridor. It was the kind of comedy holiday scenario that’s only ever happened to me once before- Definitely not funny to arrive at a deserted hotel in the heart of the Zimbabwean hinterland, nor funny to arrive at a building site at the faintly rough end of Miami Beach at 8pm.

We checked and checked again… This was undoubtedly 807 Alton Road, and undoubtedly the place on Booking.com. Pips fired up her phone (thankfully on a a posh contract with overseas usage) and found the confirmation email, saying something about number 1531  apartment 206… No mention of, hey, a road or anything. We called the helpline… thankfully, whilst we were now after this was meant to have closed we did, after a long period of ringing, get to speak to a human.

“Oh, it’s 1531 sjhdvsdjvd Street”… Pips hung up and relayed this useful information to me. I rang back, and spoke to the same woman who informed me that, yes, quite correctly, it was 1531 sdhsjbshbs Street”. When I asked her to repeat it a couple more times, she eventually did an “Ehrmagerd! 1.   5.  Street”. Ah, Fifteenth Street then… About half a mile away.

Miami Beach definitely isn’t the dodgiest place in the world but nonetheless it went against all of my “Sensible world traveller” instincts to be wandering around, backpacked-up, at this time of night. Luckily though we found it given the useful expedient of an actual address, and checked in. The sighs of relief that accompanied the lockbox sliding open was something to behold.

Two jumbo cans of Corona were demolished, before a good solid period of unconsciousness.

Exploreando

And so began a pleasant couple of days of wandering around Miami Beach’s somewhat limited cultural attractions. It’s definitely somewhere that benefits from sun, and unfortunately over the course of our weekend that was in rather short supply. After a decent but calorific breakfast at a bagel emporium around the corner from our apartment, we set out to see the sights. The rainy sights…

Moist boardwalk shufflin’

Ocean Drive

After a good couple of hours wandering around in the drizzle, we decided that the exploration was better conducted under cover. So, we hopped on one of the brilliant free buses which meander around the island. Bored after about an hour of this, it was time to find a bar. Ocean Drive is the obvious starting point, although it’s not a place to have a skinful… After the shock of our first couple of pints coming to $20 and moving on, the next bar seemed to be even more extortionate with a bill of $40 for two bottles each. At this point we cut our somewhat considerable losses and headed back via Whole Foods Market with a takeaway meal…also $40.

When a place like this is so consistently and terrifyingly expensive, you start to develop a bit of cabin fever. Big props to all inclusive…Never done it, but somewhere like this- Yep.

“How much!?”

The next day started at a slow pace with a further bagel injection. Neither of us were particularly keen to head out in the rain to get utterly fleeced again, however it miraculously cleared revealing a perfect sunny afternoon for a wander. We almost managed a lap of the island in our quest to see it all. Rounding the Southernmost tip of the island, the sun was at its best, although you’d never think it from that moody sky.

We headed to Monty’s on South Beach. Looked like a good fun place and not toooo scandalously priced. A great location overlooking the Marina. Spot on. My first mistake however was failing to substitute the ‘chips’ which came with my burger… Aaargh, forgot they were crisps here- Linguafail. Aside from this however it was a decent lunch in by far the sunniest spot we’d found so far. A good IPA finished the meal. 

Enjoyment of the meal was slightly blunted by the presentation of the bill, which was a somewhat staggering $60 for 2 burgers, a cup of beer and a bottle of water. Mandatory 20% service, taxes yada yada.

We scuttled back to the apartment forthwith, armed with hummus, chips and beer and quite determined not to get fleeced again. Next morning, back to MIA for the flight southwards.

It’s a shame really, I wanted and expected to like Miami Beach but I just didn’t warm to it. Previously I’d spent a few days in the Florida Keys which, whilst similarly scandalous in terms of prices, had more of a sense of fun, more quirkiness to them that Miami Beach just lacked. I’d be back to Key West in a flash, Miami? Not so much.

The bars along Ocean Drive just felt like slightly shabby shells, glossy tables beside the road but nothing much more to them than the fascinating observation of a slow parade of very, very expensive cars and glossy owners… 

It’s good to know how you feel about a place. I won’t be back.

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