A big part of the fun of traveling is discovery: beauty in unexpected places; the destination you were wrong about; the out-of-the-way find you scored without the help of friends, guidebooks or TripAdvisor.
I had my own travel epiphany recently in, of all places, Orlando. This may be a testament to Tampa Bay chauvinism, or the fact that I’m not a native Floridian, but I had pretty much dismissed Orlando as theme parks and not much else. Then I hit the Orlando International Fringe Festival this past May. I’d had misconceptions about the festival as well, assuming it would be a ragtag assemblage of wild-ass amateurs pulling together avant-garde theater performances in tricked-up storefronts. Nope, and nope. Though the festival may have once had a scruffier identity, it’s now a highly organized operation based mainly in venues in downtown Orlando’s beautiful Loch Haven Park, a public greenspace with two theaters, three museums and a science center all within easy walking distance of each other. Yup — a whole park devoted to arts and culture, and it wasn’t EPCOT.
Downtown Orlando is full of surprises like that, or at least they were surprising to this rube: elegant bungalow neighborhoods, funky urban brunch spots, a shiny business district with yet another beautiful lakefront park, which on the day we visited was abustle with a huge farmers’ market. I hate to admit it, but downtown Orlando has all the stuff we brag about in our favorite towns in Tampa Bay — plus, it’s got that whole Mickey Mouse/Harry Potter thing going on a few miles away (though I doubt many of the tourists ever make it from Islands of Adventure to Loch Haven Park).
This issue is a bounty of such travel surprises. A&E Editor Julie Garisto traveled with her boyfriend to his native Ecuador and discovered a country much more progressive and optimistic than she’d expected (even the cab drivers were upbeat). Food Editor Arielle Stevenson got multiple tips about what she shouldn’t miss and where she had to eat during her first visit to New Orleans: she ignored everyone’s advice and no doubt had a much better time as a result. Restaurant critic Jon Palmer Claridge surprised us (and himself, I think) with the revelation that Long Island isn’t just about Amy Fisher lowlifes and Southampton snobs; it’s a wine mecca, and it’s cheaper than Napa! And Music Editor Leilani Polk unearths a slew of music festivals that aren’t the usual suspects; for instance, you may know SXSW, but have you tried the Savannah Stopover?
Elsewhere in this issue, Peter Meinke shares what he learned about Londoners; Linda Saul-Sena looks at growing pains (including a big new hotel) in a busy South Tampa neighborhood; and Mitch Perry explores efforts to convince tourists that there are surprises waiting for them in a place they might have the wrong idea about: Tampa.
If we can just get them to leave Orlando …