FANCYING SOMETHING of a change from the Third World, I rented a car and headed south from Miami towards the Florida Keys. We had only one near-miss while making our way towards the turnpike.
A van overtook us on the left side and turned right. Then, finding that the entrance he was intending to pass through was blocked, he stopped in a hurry, closing the way forward for my car in the process.
It was a good introduction to southern Florida driving. Few drivers have licences, and you need to drive defensively. Once on the way, there is only one highway down through the Keys, so it's difficult to get lost.
I might have been forced to stop, but Americans are unstoppable. Anyone who has been to Las Vegas will know that an open space in the desert and a complete absence of culture doesn't faze them.
If they want Venice or Rome or even Luxor, they will simply build a replica.
It's the same with their wrecks. There aren't many marine accidents, except for the occasional oil-rig, so they sink ships intentionally in the Sunshine State. Hundreds of wrecks have been put in along the east coast of Florida to augment the inauspicious reef system and protect the coast from erosion. Down in the Keys, the wrecks have been put in purely for the benefit of divers.
Every few miles, you'll notice that familiar red flag with the white diagonal stripe that the Americans use to indicate diving operations or dive centres.
In a country with a vast coastline, it's ironic that there are so few good states in which to dive. Florida is its diving capital, and when it comes to seeding the coast with wrecks, Florida can do it better than almost anyone else.

MOST OF THE SEA AROUND THE KEYS is extremely shallow. You can dive on coral reefs without going much deeper than 6m, and normally the water is gin-clear and lit by bright sunshine.
It makes a perfect underwater classroom for those learning to dive.
However, Florida is also vulnerable to the effects of high winds, which is exactly what we got when we first arrived. The sea was a milky-white colour, and visibility non-existent.
This didn't worry me too much, because I had planned to dive wrecks that lay outside the shallow reef system. The problem lay in making the journey out there by boat in those rough seas.
Aside from the Oriskany off Pensacola, the Vandenberg is the largest ship intentionally sunk for divers. Its the supersize wreck that lies in deep water near Key West - or Key Weird, as my son preferred to call it.
He had come with me as my minder, my own version of the character played by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, and the proprietor of the hideaway hotel into which we were booked found nothing unusual about two men travelling together and sharing one bed. Such is life in Key West, the most southerly point of Florida.
The General Hoyt S Vandenberg lies in 43m of water, seven miles offshore.
Originally a troop-ship, she was adapted to become a missile-tracking vessel, and as such has two vast and iconic radar dishes that distinguish her for divers.
Naturally, she lies on an even keel (would they have sunk her any other way), and many of the interesting attributes have been deliberately cut from the ship and mounted elsewhere in the wreck to make sure that there is an even spread of interesting dive spots throughout.
Seven or eight buoyed lines (one had gone missing when I visited) are attached along the length of the wreck, so that a characteristically American two-tank dive (thats one dive followed by another) can be feasibly carried out at different parts of the wreck simply by repositioning the dive-boat.
You could spend a week exploring this wreck. Everything about it is big.
Its as if, when they looked for a suitably obsolete vessel, and when checking what was available, they asked if there was anything bigger.
The wreck is 162m long, so its quite an undertaking to see all of it. Uncharacteristically high winds had blown out most of our original itinerary and we had only one trip out to the Vandenberg, so I was under pressure to do as much as I could while I was there.
Captain Bob of Scuba Shack was very helpful, and allowed me to twin up two cylinders for each of these two dives (making it a four-tank dive!).
He even sent his girlfriend in to keep me company. I managed to get plenty
of time to see a lot of the wreck and get photographs, even though this meant making lengthy decompression stops on the way back up.

THERE ARE COMPLICATED GUN MOUNTINGS to swim round, and although the interior has been stripped out, its quite interesting to get inside the superstructure, which makes a great environment in which goliath grouper, Floridas keynote big fish species, like to hang around during daylight hours.
The Vanderberg was interred in her watery grave only as recently as mid-2009, so the wreck has yet to be adopted as a haven by much marine life, but its starting to arrive.
Hordes of baitfish of all types gather in a big silvery cloud around the uppermost parts, with the inevitable barracuda and amberjacks there to prey on them.
Driving further north, we stopped off at Marathon to make a single dive on the wreck of the Thunderbolt. This vessel, originally built for the US Army, was used by Florida Power & Light as a research vessel and scuttled in 1986.
Although talked up by those who want to sell it as an exciting dive, I found its fish-life exceptionally sparse, and as it was thoroughly cleaned up before being sunk theres not much else to look at but a lot of mussels and barnacles.
Its an entirely different story with the Duane, a 100m-long former US Coastguard cutter sunk a year later. Perhaps this is because the wreck is often swept by the strong currents of the Gulf Stream.
We had driven up to Tavernier, close to Key Largo, to dive the Duane, and the experience reaffirmed my interest in diving Floridas wrecks.
As I made my way along the outside of the hull, a very large grouper beat a hasty retreat. Huge schools of Atlantic spadefish hovered out in the blue. Lots of grunts sheltered among the Duanes winches, and large barracuda stared toothily from around the crows nest.
It was nice to go into the galley, now crowded out with fish, and see the tables, workbenches and industrial food-mixer still in place. The same could be said of the remains of the fittings in the washrooms. The wheelhouse had been stripped out prior to the sinking, but was still very colourful, thanks to a heavy encrustation of assorted sponges.
I had time for only one dive, but I saw a lot of the wreck and easily made my way back to the downline through the blue from the crows nest despite the current, thanks to the Pegasus Thruster propulsion device attached to my tank.

I HAD NEVER RELISHED THE IDEA of diving the Spiegel Grove. I thought it had been over-hyped by the US diving press when it was sunk as an artificial reef back in 2002, after years of red tape and financial problems caused delays.
In fact it had sunk prematurely, and was left lying upside-down.
Later, at a cost of US $250,000, the wreck was rolled onto its starboard side, though it wasnt perfect by any means. The force of Hurricane Dennis changed all that, and now this enormous vessel lies on even keel, right side up. Wow!
Six miles off Key Largo at Dixie Shoal, this wreck had been the first in order on our list to dive, but our first attempt was abandoned because of high winds and rough seas. So we stopped off a few days later to dive it as a penultimate act before we drove back north to Florida proper - and am I glad we did!
Built in the 1950s, the Spiegel Grove was a landing ship, though nothing like those of WW2. In fact, she is described as a former Landing Ship Dock. She carried giant hovercraft, was deployed as part of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, and spent the later and greater part of her active service participating in amphibious exercises along the eastern seaboard of the USA and in the Caribbean.
She was 160m long and 26m wide. Thats a big ship. To give you a better idea, shes roughly equivalent to the size of two American football fields.
At the time, she was the largest wreck intentionally sunk for the benefit of divers, and has been surpassed since only by the Vandenberg and Oriskany.

THE WRECK LIES ON THE SEABED at 41m, and several mooring lines are buoyed at the surface to enable dive-boats to stay over the site. Again, I was equipped with a Thruster power drive attached to my tank so that although I had time only for a single dive, I would get to see most of the wreck.Proper penetrations of the hull are possible, but this is nowadays discouraged, three divers having lost their lives doing this in 2007.
As soon as we arrived down by the propellers of the Spiegel Grove, two enormous Goliath groupers appeared to be disturbed by our unexpected arrival and hurried off into the blue.
The galley was almost empty. It was well stripped before the sinking, but there is plenty of deck machinery, hoists, heavy-duty cranes, gantries and mountings for heavy guns to look at. Yellow-eyed grunts cluster around these features and, as usual, predatory barracuda wait out in the blue, always eyeing the opportunity for a quick meal.
It had been something of a whirlwind tour of the wreck, thanks to the Thruster, just as it had been a quick tour of the wrecks of the Keys. Inclement weather had compressed our seven-day trip into three days of diving, but that was simply bad luck.
Holidays in the Florida Keys are sold to the US public as driving abroad.
A single highway runs the length of the islands from Key Largo in the north to Key West in the south, linked by some spectacular bridges. Its one of the few places where you can take a Fly-Drive-Dive holiday, but be aware that distances may be greater than you expect.
One morning we woke in Islamorada and had to be at the dive centre in Key West by 8am. A mere 80-mile drive!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to Miami with Virgin, British Airways or American Airlines. Hire a car from Florida Rentacar, www.floridarentacar.co.uk
DIVING:Keys Scuba Shack for the Vandenberg, www.keysscubashack.com; Captain Hooks
for the Thunderbolt, www.captainhooks.com; Florida Keys Dive Centre for the Duane, www.floridakeysdivectr.com; Quiescence Diving for the Spiegel Grove, www.keylargodiving.com
ACCOMMODATION Key West - Andrews Inn, www.andrewsinn.com; Marathon - Rainbow Bend, www.rainbowbend.com; Islamorada - Islander Resort, www.islamoradaislander.com
MONEY: US dollars, ATM machines and credit cards.
HEALTH: Medical treatment in the USA is expensive. Be sure to have adequate diving/travel insurance.
WHEN TO GO: January to July.
PRICES: Fly-drive budget holidays for seven days from around £1450; five days diving, around £300.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.fla-keys.com