Deland, Florida is home to both Stetson University and my dad. When he first moved here more than thirty years ago for a job, this was a sleepy little town with not much happening. Located squarely in the middle of nowhere, twenty-three miles west of Daytona Beach and forty-one miles north, northeast of Orlando, dad’s smart-alecky kids used to refer to it as “Deadland.”
While I always associate it with Daytona, over the years this college town has slowly backed its way into becoming a quaint suburb of Orlando.
Dad is getting older and my younger brother, the closest of us kids is a three-hour drive away. Mike and I have nothing planned between Christmas and New Year’s Day so we decide to do a “quick” eight-hour drive down for some quality time with Dad.
On the way there, we stop in Jacksonville to buy lunch for our globetrotting nephew at PF Changs. We haven’t seen him since his brother’s wedding last January. He just got back from traveling to eleven countries in eleven months. He spent a month in each country on a mission trip volunteering for work in orphanages, building stuff and various other projects. Of course we must pick his brain, but his experience is different from what ours would be because we don’t have that much time or that much religion in us.
He manages to move Thailand up the list for us as well as adding Odessa in the Ukraine to our future itineraries. I interrogate him about ideal amounts of time we should plan for a trip to Peru that I am still working out in my head. Time flies for us and we need to get back on the road.
As we drive out of Jacksonville, I decide that it’s time to book a room for our stay. I am not totally reckless. This is, after all, a college town and most people have gone home for the holidays. I have done some research and know that there are rooms available at a couple of places I am interested to try. One of them, the Deland Country Inn is booked up for the first night but is available for the second night.
Because it’s such a short trip and we really don’t want to change hotels each night, I decide to try choice #2, the Eastwood Terrance Inn. They recognize me from caller ID and repeat a previous offer of either a room with a queen size bed for $65 a night or the “Solitude” room with a king for $90. The king bed has a memory foam mattress topper which would be similar to our TemperPedic bed at home so we opt for that. We pay for two nights at check-in.
The Eastwood Terrace Inn was built in 1924 and has always been a hotel in some fashion. The first floor is now home to a massage therapist, a marriage counselor, another shrink and a restaurant that we never did see open. The small lobby contains an organ, of the musical instrument variety. It and the check-in desk are located in the front of the building just off the street and expansive porch. Guest rooms and “parlor” are on the upper floors.
The energetic woman who runs the place reminds me a bit of the gal in the Christmas commercials for Target. The place has an odd vibe. It’s so jam-packed with stuff it’s claustrophobic. I would love to go through and declutter starting with all of the religious propaganda and the fake flowers that seem to be collecting dust everywhere. If I’m paying $90 a night for a room, I don’t want to have someone’s religion thrust upon me. The book about finding the Lord, the only reading material to be found in the rack next to the toilet, strikes me as inappropriate, regardless of faith, or lack of it.
The Solitude room has other problems. It is very dark. Three light bulbs are burned out – one in the bedroom and two in the bathroom. I mention it in the morning and am told they will be fixed while we are gone. It doesn’t happen.
The light over the pedestal sink next to the bed (all rooms have them) won’t turn on. I’m told the ground-fault circuit interrupter or GFCI where the light is plugged in has a short in it and has probably popped. When I push the button back in, the light comes to life. When I plug in my iPhone charger, I see a small spark and decide this isn’t the place to plug in expensive electronics.
The owner gives us a marvelous tip for dinner. She directs us to Oudom’s Thai & Sushi. After waiting a couple of minutes, we find there’s no need to wait for a hostess. There isn’t one so just grab an empty table if one is available. The place is small and busy and could use some extra help because service is a bit slow. But once the food arrives, all is forgotten. Everything is exceptionally delicious.
Mike orders pad lee maow (drunken noodles) for $12. Broad Thai noodles are slathered with garlic, onions, red bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms and fresh basil pesto. He asks for it to be Thai hot.
Dad has beef pad Thai ($12) and thoroughly enjoys it. I get the green curry chicken – Thai Hot. Thinking it had green peppers, I ask for it without the peppers. Dumb move, because they are red peppers that I have just 86ed.
It doesn’t matter. What shows up at the table in a giant bowl is clearly the winning dish of the night. It’s hard to keep Mike’s fork out of my bowl. Chicken, bamboo shoots, and snow peas swimming in a spicy hot green curry and topped with a handful of leafy greens are so good that the bowl would be licked clean if we could get away with it. Bravo! Well done! This is an excellent incarnation of this dish.
Dad takes half of his pad Thai home but admits that it never did survive the night. It calls him to the kitchen and serves well as a midnight snack. After our long day we are happy to get into bed and get some sleep.
I love old buildings and prefer older houses that are sturdily built and have character. That said, I long ago ended my love affair with claw foot tubs. They may be romantic in Viagra commercials (for the life of me, I don’t know why) but the reality is that there are no walls to hold onto when making the climb in or out and the two shower curtains attack and stick to body parts when the hot water is running.
Oh, and in the Solitude room it takes five long minutes of wasteful water running before a suggestion of hot water arrives. No need to even bother with the cold spigot. The water never gets hot enough.
While I’m on the shower topic, I get out only to find that there’s no hair dryer in the room. Come on! Hair dryers can be as cheap as $12. I don’t want to go traipsing all over the hotel with wet hair in a towel looking for the owner to borrow a hair dryer.
The breakfast part of Bed & Breakfast leaves a lot to be desired. There are boxes of cereal, instant grits, one bagel and two Danish in ZipLock bags, maybe just out of the freezer. Don’t know, didn’t try them.
We decide to go into town to get coffee and a nibble instead. We end up with better coffee a couple blocks away at the Boston Coffeehouse. In addition to my latte, we share an “everything” bagel there.
With all of that said, the Solitude room lives up to its name and we sleep quite well in our quiet and comfy bed. And really, that is all we really need this place for. In spite all of my complaints, as a last resort I probably wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again if I have to. Mike says he would sleep in the car.
Years ago, my father took me to the Blue Springs State Park on the St. Johns River in nearby Orange City to see manatees, also known as sea cows. The park is the winter home to many of these creatures because of the hot springs that keep the water at a constant 72 degrees F. I want to go back and let Mike experience the mesmerizing mammals. Dad’s back is in tough shape and he doesn’t think he can walk the boardwalks so Mike and I go it alone. Mike is not as enthusiastic as I am. He’s assuming that it’s going to be along the lines of SeaWorld. It’s not.
There is a line of vehicles waiting to enter the park. When we get to the front, we are excited by a sign that says rangers have counted 125 manatees in the water today. We don’t see any signs directing us so we follow the crowds to the parking lot near the snack bar and gift shop and then to the platform.
Multiple manatees loll around in the astonishingly clear water. Occasionally one will swim up to the platform beneath us and is greeted with oohs and wows.
After hanging out for a half hour, we overhear someone say that they are going to walk to the spring so we follow. The boardwalk meanders pleasantly through the woods where we see a woodpecker in a tree above us.
The weather is warm so the manatees are not compelled to hang out at the source of the hot spring so we only see a handful in that area.
Before we leave we take one more look from the first platform and are delighted to see a whole bunch of these slow-moving sea cows frolicking and having a grand time punching each other around. Two hours have passed before we can tear ourselves away.
It can be a bit of a walk, but that didn’t seem to stop anybody. We saw plenty of both seniors and little kids and a couple of wheelchair bound folks getting around easily.
It’s time to pick up Dad and take him to lunch. For all of the years I lived in or traveled to Florida, I have never had Cuban food. I think it’s about time so we decide to try Tomasita’s Cuban Bistro.
I choose a side of tostones, which are mashed plantains then fried, served with Mojo sauce for dipping. I don’t know what’s in the Mojo but it’s got mojo. Dad goes for the side of Maduros – sweet plantains that are fried.
Mike orders a Cubalatta sandwich. It has sliced roast pork, sweet ham, Swiss cheese, Genoa salami, chorizo, olive tapenade, pickle slices and mustard all smashed flat like a panini on fresh-baked Cuban bread boule with plantain chips on the side. ($8.99)
Mike saves room for the Budin de Pan de Chocolate con Kahlua ($5.29) also known as Mama Alvarez’s chocolate bread pudding. It’s more like a cake than cubed bread pudding. Not what Mike is expecting and being a former baker, he is a bit disappointed. I know it’s not typical bread pudding but from where my spoon lands, it tastes okay to me.
A trip to Florida means that Mike needs to get in a round of golf. My father and I decide to tag along and drive the cart while Mike walks. It’s a beautiful day and it’s nice to get some fresh air. This round is at the Deland Country Club, which is open to the public. Dad, the professional photographer, brings his camera to catch Mike’s swing. So do I but I am more fascinated by the blue heron by a water hazard.
We ran Dad ragged today and he’s not feeling up for dinner so Mike and I are on our own.
The menu at Cress is enticing but our wardrobe is not. The weather had been in the 80s so that’s what we packed for. Imagine our surprise when temperatures dip into the 50s. Needless to say, we are not appropriately dressed. Mike is wearing shorts and I am in capris with sandals and the crowd at Cress look like the country club set.
But we think money is money especially in an ailing economy. Even though two tables are empty, they say they are full (it’s 7:30) until at least 8:30. We think it’s because of the way we are dressed that we don’t get a table on this Thursday but later, around 8:45 when we walk back to the car, at least a few tables are full while others sit empty. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
Still freezing, we stop to look at the menu of a pretentious Mexican restaurant called De La Vega. The reason I say pretentious is because a server comes out and says an all-inclusive, “Have we been here before?” I say, “We (motioning to Mike and me) have not but obviously you have.”
Unfazed, he goes on to assume that we know nothing about Mexican food and explains what nopales (cactus) and other Mexican items are, all the while sticking his nose in the air looking down on Tex-Mex style food. Then, as an aside during his breathless lecture, he admits he’s from the Tex-Mex border and grew up on that kind of food.
Standing on the sidewalk, not quite shivering in the cold through this presumptuous highbrow Mexican food education, I look at the menu and am a little astonished to see a liberal use of cream cheese in several items. Cream cheese in Mexican food?? Is Mexican cheese not available in this town or nearby Orlando? ¡Ay, caramba!
If we hadn’t had to endure this lesson, I would have tried this place, but Mike spies Oudom’s Thai & Sushi across the street. He’s as good as gone. I know what he’s thinking. He wants my dinner from last night. Extricating ourselves from Mr. Snooty Pantalone’s Mexican Food for Gringos Class, we make a cross-cultural dash across the street.
Our table from last night is waiting for us. We slip into our booth and wait…and wait. Last night we had wonderful service once we got a server to notice us. This time, not so much. It takes a while to get a menu. Not that it matters for Mike. He knows he is going to order the green curry chicken – Thai Hot. He leaves the dish intact with the chunks of red peppers and the kitchen has thrown in a few green beans with the snow peas and tops it with arugula this time. “This is what Thai food is supposed to taste like!” Mike pontificates slurping down every last drop.
I, on the other hand, am restless. I’m not that hungry and don’t want a giant bowl of food so I go the grazing route. A while ago in Charlotte, I went to Basil Thai in Uptown and had an exceptional bowl of Tom Yum Kung, kind of a shrimp hot and sour soup, so when I see it on this menu on this chilly night it sounds like a perfect warm-up.
Oudom’s version of Tom Yum Shrimp is a broth with mushrooms, tomatoes shrimp, lemongrass, red onions, green onions, lime juice, and herbs for $4. It’s less than half the price of the tureen of soup at Basil Thai and appropriately priced. It’s okay but doesn’t hold a candle to Basil Thai’s.
I also get a tempura shrimp roll that comes in a small boat for $6.95. It’s okay but in retrospect, I should have stuck with what I know. The green curry chicken. Even though both times the chicken is a bit overcooked, it’s still good.
We could have walked the few blocks from the hotel to downtown but the way we are dressed, I nixed that idea and we drove. Boy, am I glad we did! The temperature has dipped even more by the time we finish dinner and we still have a few blocks to walk to the car. Good thing the old Honda heats up pretty quickly.
In the morning we have a long drive ahead of us but we want to take Dad to breakfast before we leave. We pack up the car and try to find someone to give the key to our room to because the office is still closed at 7:30 in the morning. Mike runs into the owner coming out of one of the rooms and we are free.
Neither Dad nor Mike has been to Doug & Lil’s Potato Patch, a hopping joint on the south side of town. I had been here a couple of years ago with a friend who lives in the area. Dad and I get the standard breakfast fare. Mike, who is mostly a vegetarian at home, goes for steak and eggs with sweet potato fries.
When we are finishing breakfast, it dawns on me that this place may not take credit or debit cards. I’m thinking that I remember this from when I was here with my friend. Or maybe the giant signs on the door have just seeped into my consciousness. Uh-oh. We rarely carry much cash. It takes every penny in our pooled wallets plus a couple of dollars in change that I have hidden in the car to scrape together enough cash to pay the bill and leave a meager tip. Sorry about that.
As we are leaving, a stranger sees Dad’s WWII Vet hat and says, “Thanks for your service.” This has been happening a lot. We giggle a bit. Yes, he served in Europe in World War II and has several medal ribbons on his hat. But he also was a magician and hypnotist and entertained the troops while he was there. He’s still entertaining and he’s still the star of the show! And he still won’t share his magic secrets!
After our goodbyes, Mike and I decide to take a new route home. We are really sick of the I-95 drive so we opt instead for US 17 through Palatka also skirting the western burbs of Jacksonville – all new territory for us. And when we get to Jacksonville, we decide that we’re making good time so there’s no reason to head back to the Interstate.
Just north of Jessup, Georgia the Rayonier plant STUNK. I am nearly gagging on the stench from this plant that makes “high-value cellulose specialties and absorbent materials” whatever that is. I wonder aloud what they are doing to the lake water that is next to the plant on Highway 84.
For sweeter smells, we point our tires towards Claxton, Georgia, which is west of Savannah. This is the home of the “World Famous Claxton Fruit Cakes.” My husband is a freak for fruit cake. He has one once a year so it only makes sense to stop and see where the much maligned mish-mash of whatever goes into a fruitcake is made. It’s probably evident that I am not a fan.
To prove my undying love for my husband, I call the Claxton Fruit Cake Bakery to see if I can arrange a tour. This excites my former baker. Alas, the health department and the bakery’s insurance company shut down the tours years ago. But as it turns out, we don’t need a tour because it’s all right there, out in the open.
The demand dies down after the holidays so they are not baking on this day but during their fall baking season, they bake and ship over 86,000 pounds of fruit cakes a DAY! That means that MILLIONS of pounds of fruit cakes each year! At that rate, someone has got to be eating them and not just using them for door stops. Fruit cake lovers around the world order from this family owned bakery.
Mike is excited to see the variety of fruit cake products that are never found in our local grocery store. He buys a “Dark Fruit Cake” that is made with molasses. They also make BBQ sauce, salad dressing and preserves. As much as I make fun of the beloved fruit cake, it’s an interesting stop for a few minutes.
The drive wears on, taking us through Augusta, Georgia where we are ready to be home, so we jump on the freeway. We head east on I-20 to Columbia, South Carolina and then back up I-77 to Charlotte and arrive no more than an hour and a half later than we would have if we had done the I-95 run. But our way turns out to be so much more bearable.