I have now lived in Maryland for almost three months. And getting out of Orlando was such a huge endeavor that I dumped on it a lot, like a bad boyfriend I finally broke up with. I feel a little bad, so, now that I've had a little time away, I am giving you the ten best things about Orlando. I was tempted to do Florida as a state, and talk about Sarasota and St. Augustine and some of the good times I've had with my friend Amanda in West Palm Beach...
But NO. This is JUST Orlando.
1. The ViMi District.
Many people don't even realize Orlando has a bonafide concentrated ethnic neighborhood. You can easily find good Thai, Chinese, Japanese or Korean food there, but it is first and foremost a Vietnamese neighborhood. There are a number of great Asian markets where you can stock your pantry with sauces and always find reasonably priced avocados, but the best thing of all are the Vietnamese restaurants. They rocked my world and I miss them. My favorite was Lac Viet Bistro, where I always ordered grilled pork or chicken on vermicelli with some fresh basil and cilantro on the side. The scrumptiously marinated meat and light noodles come with raw slices of tomato and cucumber, mint, chopped peanuts and little bits of browned garlic, and you can top it with a generous pour of nuoc mam, the Vietnamese dressing that is a little sweet and a little fishy, and a lot better than that description makes it sound. The perfect compliment, to me, is a glass of sweet and fresh young coconut water.
Basically, every time ANYTHING good happened, even a six-figure book deal, and someone asked me what I wanted to do to celebrate, I always went for yet another $6 bowl of grilled pork on vermicelli noodles.
The ViMi District also happens to overlap with the gay district and the hipster part of Orlando, so you can also find vinyl and vintage clothes and wax nostalgic about the time you saw a Hedwig and the Angry Inch performance at Parliament House at the same time.
Florida has a number of interesting habitats. Most of the year if the heat doesn't kill you, the mosquitos will, but when the north is stark and cold, Florida is lovely and green and indulgent. Flowers are blooming, the swamp looks like a dinosaur could come out of it (but you'll have to settle for an alligator, which, I'm sorry, always did scare the crap out of me), there are cypress trees so massive and ancient that if you could hollow one out it would be about the size of a Manhattan apartment, there are quiet places with gobs of birds. It can be really gorgeous and unusual. Florida also has some of the best sunsets.
(Though I still think northern nature is better, mostly because it has less mosquitos. =P)
Polonia is a Polish restaurant that was around the corner from where I lived, in Longwood. It was really authentic and a-Polish-Grandma-made-it tasting (although it was not made by any actual Grandmas). At lunchtime they'd have killer sandwich specials, like, $6 for turkey, bacon and provolone with super delicious horseradish sauce on freshly baked challah with a cup of chicken and pickle soup. One time they had a salad with homemade goat cheese. So good. Another time the soup was the best butternut squash soup I've ever had. On a cold day I was partial to the wazanki, which was little dumplings with bits of bacon and kielbasa, cabbage and onion. If I was feeling rich, a bowl of their homemade apple sauce was REALLY GOOD poured over the wazanki.
4. Best Used Books and Bright Light Books
These two used bookstores were also very near where I lived. Best Used Books was the kind of junky bookstore that has a ZILLION things including weird magazines and you can find anything there. I found two volumes of L. M. Montgomery's diaries once for $2.50, and another time I found a magazine from the 1920s about party planning. Bright Light is the polished cousin. It is run by religious conservatives, which always made me feel a bit weird, but is slightly balanced by the fact that they employ young folk and play indie music. Also I can't deny that it is, perhaps, the most well-organized used bookstore I have ever seen, and they always had an amazing selection of non-fiction for research for very good prices, which I'm a sucker for. I think every area needs a very polished used bookstore and an "everything but the kitchen sink" used bookstore, we were lucky that we had them both near each other.
5. Thrift Stores
Thrift stores in Orlando were plentiful, mostly bad for finding furniture or home decor but good for finding clothes. Values Reborn in Longwood was consistently a great place to score cheap stuff. Sometimes you'd go in and it would be picked over but other days I'd find amazing stuff and they didn't get all Goodwill-prices on you. The best thrifting locale I have ever found, however, is still the Cocoa/Merritt Island area. There are many, many cheap thrifts in a concentrated area, and they always had something old and good in them, every time. I found two-tone spectator shoes, 60s coats with huge buttons, my favorite Western shirt, 60s dresses, Le Crueset, tumblers with drink recipes printed on the side, you name it; even a gorgeous 1960s Emilio Pucci tie one time that I wore until the silk started to disintegrate, probably from how often I fondled it lovingly while wearing it. There are also good places to eat around, which is a must for thrifting.
6. Winter Park
Winter Park is a fine old southern town, with Spanish moss and a train station that Amtrak still stops at and old houses, all the things such a town should have. It's also quite ritzy with a lot of stores I can't afford and mansions to goggle at, but that makes it a romantic place to wander on a nice evening. There is also a decent art museum with a nice Louis Comfort Tiffany collection, and the best public library around. I paid $120 a year to use that library instead of my county library. (Well, actually, not really INSTEAD, but ALONG WITH, I can't resist libraries.)
7. Jeremiah's Italian Ice
Many flavors of ice, which you could also get swirled with soft serve ice cream. Central Florida loves Jeremiah's, evidenced by the fact that they went from one store to like, four, in ten years or so. The best thing, in my opinion, was the horchata flavored ice swirled with chocolate ice cream. It was like $3 for a cup big enough to make you feel slightly ill.
Vintage and designer clothing store with two locations. The prices are very reasonable, the stock is good, and they also give you a pretty decent price if you sell them stuff. Sadly I only discovered Dechoes as I was leaving, but if I had known about it earlier I would have bought and sold a lot of stuff there.
Some locals hated Disney. I was not one of them. I love Disney World, especially Epcot, especially the World Showcase. Some of the best parts are the Mitsukoshi department store in Japan and the France movie and the smell of the rides, which stirs deep childhood memories, but there are many wonderful little bits. The downer about Disney is that it is expensive. I didn't really get to enjoy it until I bought us annual passes. Between the passes, the gas it took us to drive across the vast expanse of Orlando to get to the parks, and all the food and drinks we had to buy, it cost me easily over $1000 to enjoy Disney for a year. But, it was something I really wanted to do before I moved away, and I have no regrets.
10. Rock Springs
Central Florida has a lot of springs but this one was my favorite. Spring water is the same temperature year round, which means on a hot day, when you first get in you go "GaaaaHHHH" when it hits your sensitive bits, and then you get used to it and it is amazing. If you get in the water near where the spring feeds in, then you can have an exciting journey down the run, first getting scraped up on rocks, and then reaching a big swimmin' hole type area, and then ending by floating down a shady, low-key stretch, before walking back to your blanket for a much-needed sandwich. There are also a few magical secret spots where tinier springs burble out and you can sit with your feet in them, and sometimes you can find shark teeth, so I am told, although I never, ever did.
So there you have it. I probably forgot a few things, though not many, because Florida never suited me well. But you can't spend 30 years somewhere without missing a few things.