|1. A Professional Screwup|
We are in the business, after all, so who would have thought that two owners of a reservation service - experts in travel - would be bolting from a Coconut Grove inn at 11:30 pm one Saturday night, after a very long day, for a three hour drive home. But then again, it was not the only odd occurence on a business trip to Orlando. A few months earlier, our friends Mike and Jeanette (Mike's Sailing Charters) had the pleasure of taking Emanuele Viscuso out on charter. Signore Viscuso was a noted Italian artist, designer, and musician who had recently relocated from his home in Milano to North Miami Beach. Among other things discussed on the trip were Signore Viscuso's presence on the internet and interest in guest houses. We had complimentary business interests, so our names came up. We subsequently corresponded with Signore Viscuso via email, and arranged to meet him and tour his property.
Because it is a three and a half hour drive from our home in the Middle Keys to North Miami Beach, we decided to stay the night and make a weekend of it. We had been wanting to explore Coconut Grove for some time, so Nancy got out her books on bed and breakfast inns, found one that sounded great, and made a reservation for us. We would drive up on a Saturday, meet with Signore Viscuso that evening, explore the Grove Sunday, and drive home Sunday night.
We were jazzed.
Not long after we firmed up our plans for Miami, I learned that I was to travel to Orlando for some training and an opportunity to meet my colleagues with the three new Florida Vocational Rehabilitation privatization initiatives. (Florida had developed the first VR private/public partnership in the Keys, and was initiating three new efforts: Gainesville, Lake City, and the Treasure Coast. Having worked for five years in relative isolation with the first project, I was looking forward to meeting my new peers, colleagues engaged in the same work who would be confronting the same issues.) Ironically, the training was scheduled for the Thursday and Friday leading to our planned trip to Miami.
I did not relish a trip to Orlando followed by another to Miami. So Nancy and I decided to take one long business trip together. We would drive up to Orlando on Wednesday, stay there two nights (out came the B&B books), stop Friday night on the way back to visit our friends Arthur and Andrea at The Mellon Patch Inn on North Hutchinson Island, and then arrive in Miami on Saturday as originally planned.
MapQuest says it takes a little over six hours to drive from Marathon to Orlando. That would be at warp 10 with no comfort stops. Our 1985 Cadillac refused to exceed warp 7. It took us seven+ hours. Once you leave the Keys, the trip is all turnpike. Preferring slower speeds and local roads, we found the trip up tedious.
We also found the trip a bit scary.
As we approached Orlando, we noticed the smoke of brush fires rising here and there around us. Suffering from a long and unanticipated dry spell, Florida had been experiencing a large number of wildfires, several of which were making life miserable for people in and around Orlando. The fires did not concern us overly on Wednesday, but by Friday, smoke hung heavily in the air. When you don't know where it is coming from, you get nervous. And when we left Orlando for the second leg of our trip back down the turnpike to North Hutchinson Island, the smoke followed us all of the way.
Nancy's choice of Orlando accommodations was truly inspired. My training session was minutes from downtown Orlando. Nancy was able to find a guest house compound in the historic section, walking distance to Church Street Station and the revitalized business district. The Courtyard at Lake Lucerne (25 minutes from Disney World) was actually four properties clustered around a common garden. The Norment-Parry Inn and the Dr. Phillips House were Victorian. The I.W. Phillips House was Edwardian. The Wellborn was Art Deco. We stayed in the Wellborn. Years ago, the Wellborn had been a trendy residence of 15 one bedroom apartments. It had since been lovingly restored with the style and furnishings of the Art Deco period of architecture and design. We had a large living room, bedroom with California King bed, private bath, and kitchenette (microwave and fridge). Since Nancy would be working during the day while I was at training, the extra space provided by the suite was welcomed. Also, proximity of the inn to downtown ment that I could take the car and Nancy could walk to local restaurants and shopping.
Things were looking good.
Our first anomaly occured when I arrived at the training site and introduced myself to the man who would be conducting the training: James Stephens from VR Policy Studies at George State University. First thing he asked me was if I knew Andrea Casey. Since Andrea is Nancy's sister, I admitted that I did. Although Andrea is now on the George Washington University faculty, until two years ago she did the same type of work as Jim, just in a different region. Part of the same career network, Jim and Andrea had known each other for over 15 years. And for the past five years, Andrea had been sharing my experience with the Keys privatization project, with Jim.
Two friends to whom we have extolled the virtues of the Treasure Coast are Paul and Deborah Joseph. Paul was Nancy's real estate broker. Deborah used to work as a reservationist for us when we had a storefront.
Last Thanksgiving, Nancy and I decided at the last minute to slip away for a long holiday weekend. Unfortunately, Mellon Patch was booked. So we made arrangements to stay at Casa Nina, a short distance up the road from the Mellon's place. The morning after our arrival, I walked out into the parking lot to fetch something from our car, and who did I chance to meet? Paul and Deborah. Not only had they chosen to get away to the same place at the same time as us, they had even chosen the same restaurant the night before. They saw us, but we were leaving and did not see them.
So Friday evening, we are settling in at Mellon Patch - I am chatting in the living room with Arthur while Nancy is on the front porch on a business cell phone call - when who drive into the parking lot? Yup. Paul and Deborah. Obviosly, serendipity rules!
The next day, after a leisurely gourmet breakfast with Paul and Deborah and the other guests at the inn, we headed down Route 95 toward Miami and Coconut Grove. At about 5:00pm, we got to the Grove and located the "inn" where we were to stay. Our meeting with Signore Viscuso was at 6:00, so we took a quick look around, paid for the room, freshened up, and left for North Miami.
Our quick look around revealed a two-story 15 unit apartment complex, gated at the front, surrounding a garden with pool and tropical fruit trees. We were told by the woman who greeted us that ten of the units were occupied by permanent residents, and that the remaining five were used as transient rentals. Not quite what you would expect of something called an "inn." Although the floor plan was similar to our accommodations in Orlando (basically a one bedroom efficiency apartment), Orlando was open, short-term only, and completely renovated, while Coconut Grove was iron-gated and unrestored.
Our meeting with Signore Viscuso was an honor and pleasure. We had read that he was considered in Italy to be "something of a national treasure," and we could understand why. He was a "renaissance man," a designer, an artist, a composer, and a musicion. He was fascinating. He was charming. He was warm. And although he was a member of "society" on two continents, he was the soul of the earth. He showed us his home. He served us Grappa and played one of this compositions for us on the baby grand piano he brought from Italy with his other furniture and possessions. We talked business. And we became friends. We know you would really like him.
Our meeting lasted longer than we had planned, but seemed to end all to soon just the same. By the time we returned to the Grove, it was 9:00pm - and we were starved. So we walked down the hill to a restaurant on the water - Biscayne Bay - and had a late dinner.
On the way back up the hill, we passed a woman walking her little dog. We noticed that the dog seemed to have trouble standing. Although we did not say anything to her about it, the woman must have noticed us looking at the dog, because she followed us up the street and, while we were unpacking a few more things from our car, proceeded to tell us her sad story about her dog.
She said he was 18 years old and had been having trouble walking for some time. She said she had been confronting the question of what to do for him for some time. She said she realized he was suffering and that she thought she should put him to sleep. She said she had decided she would do it on Tuesday.
Whoa. Do you believe in omens?
We politely withdrew from our brief encounter with the lady and her dog on the street and found our way to our room. When we opened the room and walked into the living room, waiting to greet us from the middle of the living room floor was a HA-UGE glossy brown palmetto bug (euphamistic for gigrondous roach). As a Florida resident, I was very familiar with the local vermin (palmettos live outside in the fruit trees and under the leaves and frequently get lost and wander into your home). So I made a quick assumption that the thing was not the pet of one of the residents, and I stomped on it.
Nancy and I were a bit unsettled by our experiences during the previous half hour, but it was late, we were tired, and we figured we would press on. But we began seeing for the first time that our accommodations were not what they were in Orlando. The apartment seemed cleaned, but it had not been restored in any way, and the kitchen and bathroom appliances were original 1950s vintange: not quaint, just old. Nancy headed for the bathroom where she had trouble figuring out the light switches and found the sink and toilet were struggling. I wandered into the bedroom to turn down the sheets.
At about 11:30, we were in the bedroom discussing our "situation." I thought we could deal with the plumbing. Nancy stated she did not want to sleep with the bugs. I suggested our friend in the living room was a loner who had wandered stupidly in from outside. I was wrong. Just then, one of his buddies came stolling out of the bedroom closet. With an attitude. He probably wanted to know what we were doing in his bedroom. So I stomped on him.
At that point, concerned about unwelcomed partners in bed and, maybe worse, critters crawling into our bags for a trip home with us to the Keys, we bailed. Packed up our bags and ran screaming from the place.
We left there at 11:30 and arrived home in Marathon at 1:00. By the time I burned off the caffeine I had consumed to help keep me awake for the trip home, it was 3:00am. But it was worth it to have a good - though short - night's sleep secure in our own vermin-free bed.
We contested the charges for the room. You can do that if you don't stay. Our credit card refunded our money, but, because we stayed more than 30 minutes, the "inns" bank could have counter-attacked, requiring us to repay the credit. In other words, we were holding the payment until a final resolution is reached. We wrote the owner, and, though he did not refund our money, he wrote that he would neither fight the charge back. In the end, we got our money back.
Next time we travel, we will find a local reservations service whom we can trust and make our arrangements through them. All properties look good on the internet and in the magazines and books. We think your best chance of finding accommodations that meet your expectations is a genuine, impartial, real human being.
It is exactly what we do. So you think we would know better. Oh, well!