If the weather is getting you down, take a trip to Orlando Florida. The sun shines all the time and the food is far better than you might think.
All across the breakfast room at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World, kids are going bonkers for the Disney stars and it’s hard not to smile despite the terrible noise. The characters know their stuff and entertain very well.
I’m entertained by my breakfast, it’s really rather good. It’s mostly buffet, as all hotel breakfasts seem to be now, but there’s a wide choice of fresh and healthy options – fruit, muesli, yoghurts, grains and juices – as well as the frankly more tempting eggs cooked any way you like, maple-cured bacon, waffles, hash browns and all the rest of what constitutes classic American eating. All served up to order and piping hot. And of course, the coffee is excellent; we are in the USA after all.
Sun, golf, swimming and steaks
This is one of the newest Four Seasons, a sandy brown edifice set in acres of parkland where private homes are also being built. It’s part of Disney but far enough away to have some degree of separation from it; people come here not just to base themselves and their children for mouseland but also to play golf and relax in the many, many swimming pools and waterslides, some of which are blessedly adults-only.
From my room on one of the highest floors I can look down on this network of pools, as well as a never ending vista of greenery under a clear blue sky, punctuated only by the outline of Disney’s Magic Kingdom Castle away over yonder. The occasional funnel of black appears in the sky from time to time reminding me this is storm season, as does the presence of wooden braces nailed into place onto all the newly-planted palm trees until their root systems develop.
The previous night after arriving on a BA Worldtraveller flight (sounds better than it is, but it’s cheap) I ate at the top of the hotel at Capa on the 17th floor, one of the six restaurant choices available. They call it Spanish-influenced, which is to say that while you can get some very good Spanish style starters and sharing dishes, there are some mighty fine steaks too. And mid meal you get a good view of the nightly firework show over the Magic Castle.
Head on down the highway
Getting from the verdant swathes of the Four Seasons to Orlando itself is not hard if you’ve hired a car, as you really should. Any worries about being loaned some bus-sized vehicle wider than the average English road soon disappear because these days the same kind of normal sized, invariably Japanese or French, car you drive in Europe is standard in USA too.
Of course you can always hire a classic American car if you want, but good luck parking one of those in town, and on some package deals, the car hire is included anyway.
Complimentary scheduled transportation to the four major Disney Theme Parks: Magic Kingdom®Park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios®, and Epcot® is, of course, available too if you don’t fancy driving.
The valets bring the car to the front door and it’s out of the quiet of the resort area and onto the busy freeway. It’s a breeze to roll into town, air con up high against the heat. I’ve been told that this is an unseasonably extra warm November, but then Florida doesn’t ever really get what you might call chilly anyway. This is why it’s such a magnet for retirees from the North. And of course people from UK looking for some reliable sun to chase away the blues.
A warm Winter
I’m not much for pools myself so I’ve headed to a lake instead. The Winter Park Area north east of Orlando is, as its name suggests, where people have been coming to escape winter since the late 19th Century, a time when rich New Englanders began developing the area around the lakes as a genteel town for quality folk.
I go out on one of the little boats that tour the lakes for an hour, marvelling at the palatial houses built in Florida’Cracker’ style with wraparound porches, and then ducking low as we pass through the interconnecting canals where ancient trees bow down across the water and drape Spanish Moss like hair across your face.
In the town itself, a classic piece of time-frozen old Americana, is Park Avenue- a brick-paved boulevard with outdoor cafes, upscale shops, boutiquesand classic traffic lights hanging over the centre of its 90-degree intersections. Here I found a treasure trove of olive oil at The Ancient Olive with a tasting room featuring over 55 ultra premium single varietal and flavoured extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars.
Every Saturday the Winter Park Farmer’s Market takes place here too with honeys, vegetables, fruits and fancy French Patisserie to enjoy.
Pig out time
But, as it was by now lunchtime, not too far away I found Swine and Sons, which calls itself’A gourmet take-out joint offering Southern platters and sides plus sandwiches, charcuterie and’desserts.’ Well you can’t argue with that, especially when you get inside and start looking into the glass cases full of the kind of classy charcuterie you’d not usually expect to find outside of Italy or France, especially alligator meat.
A Warm Smoked Turkey’sandwich’ tasso ham, avocado, tomato jam, malt aioli, rocket, and toasted millet bread, has all the flavour hits expected from American food, but the quality of the ingredients makes it special and not juvenile.
50 ways to sate your hunger
Well actually probably a lot more than 50 because the Mills 50 district of Orlando town is heaving with Asian restaurants and supermarkets. From small beginnings after the Vietnam War when immigrants started up businesses, it’s now the go-to place to get your food ingredients, as well as a good cheap feed.
Asian restaurants abound here and in all shapes and sizes; local food blogger Ricky Ly, one of the most food savvy people in Orlando, generously took a break from his high-powered day job to whistle-stop me around a few. Banh Mi Nha Trang is a tiny place serving superb banh mi and Pho 88 was packed with happy diners. The pho dac biet here is one of the best phos you can get, anywhere.
Ribs and smoke, smoke and ribs
Pig Floyd a one story Urban Barbakoa’shack’ by a busy road. It has everything you expect – a darkened interior to stumble into, an open kitchen and a massive and friendly proprietor in Thomas Ward.
Diners’ grilled chicken might be wrapped in a taco with charred pineapple salsa, or cooked tikka-style for an Indian twist. Pulled pork may be layered with smoked brisket and spicy sausage and nestled into a sandwich with citrus-peanut slaw. Local favourite dishes include shrimp and sausage chorizo tacos and the ribs.
Ah yes, the ribs. These sparkled under their delicious mopped-on glaze as I sat in the sunshine. A 1.5 lb. rack set me back just $15, but you will also want one of the many craft local beers that Orlando is also becoming noted for and that Pig Floyd serves in abundance.
So Co is not so so
Southern cuisine isn’t all big men eating pork though, there is delicate and considered cooking too. Soco, which stands for Southern Contemporary, is a restaurant in Orlando’s cool Thornton Park neighbourhood and that evening nothing on the menu was familiar to me;
I ate Southern biscuits (very like savoury scones) topped with Asian tinted pork belly, Soco-Style Ã¢â‚¬Å“Chicken and DumplingsÃ¢â‚¬Â made from chicken breast, lobster and local mushrooms served up with edamame and unctuous soy butter and finally a vegetarian triumph of chicken-fried cauliflower steak with a deep-roasted tomato gravy.’Chicken- fried’ referring to the way the cauli is cooked, in breadcrumbs. Great wines, cool decor and another open kitchen.
So don’t be scared of the mouse, Disney is just a part of what this part of the world has to offer so go along for the ride and find a magic food kingdom.
Good Places to go
Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World® Resort
10100 Dream Tree Blvd, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32836
1650 North Buena Vista Drive, Downtown Disney Pleasure Island
1326 N Mills Ave, Orlando, FL 32803,www.pigfloyds.com
1600 W Buena Vista Dr, Orlando, FL 32830 www.morimotoasia.com
629 E Central Blvd, Orlando, FL 32801 www.socothorntonpark.com
Follow Ricky Lee @tastychomps