South Florida is an inevitable choice for a short weekend getaway from Cayman, thanks to its geographical proximity and similar climate. Although Miami International Airport can sometimes be a trial, depending on the number of passengers pouring into its immigration hall, it still offers easy access to a number of Florida attractions with its central location.
When I used to fly up to Florida, I chose the well-worn path of renting a car, driving to Kendall, and setting up camp near the Dadeland Mall. It was so easy to get into the rut of the familiar, and so I really didn’t explore much beyond that limited radius. It was only when I went with a group to South Beach one year that I realized how much more Florida had to offer.
Turns out there is a lot that can be seen over a weekend, particularly if you can go up on the Friday morning and rent a car. Here are some suggestions I have based on my own experiences that you might want to give a try.
Key West is home to the southernmost point of the continental United States, a quirky collection of bars and streets, the house where Ernest Hemingway resided along with its many polydactyl cats, and some terrific seafood. You can visit it by boat, plane, or take the famous Florida Keys Overseas Highway that follows the route originally occupied by Henry Flagler’s railway.
Flagler completed his “railroad that went to sea” in 1912, connecting the Keys to the mainland for the first time, and enabling wealthy holidaymakers access to the delights of the island chain. Unfortunately a hurricane in 1935 destroyed part of the railroad, cutting off the residents from the tourist money upon which they had come to rely, and so the decision was made to construct a highway to once again join the Keys with the mainland. The highway opened in 1938, and fans of the Keys have been taking the scenic route there ever since.
Now you may look at the distance from Miami to Key West and think you can make it in a couple of hours, but bear in mind that this is not your standard highway with lots of other alternate routes. You’ll be on the only road to the Keys, so be prepared for traffic and strict speed limits. Give yourself between three and four hours to make the journey. Besides, why would you want to speed when the view is so interesting, particularly along the Seven Mile Bridge?
Once you get to Key West, you can check in at one of the many bed-and-breakfast places in the area, or opt for a resort like The Westin Key West Resort & Marina. Regardless of where you stay, however, you’ll no doubt head to Duval Street, where most of the action is centered. This mile-long street is home to bars and restaurants aplenty, including the famous Sloppy Joe’s Bar. There are taxis to take, or you can rent an electric car, a popular mode of transport for many visitors.
Key West is always a great place to visit year round, and particularly for its festivals like the Hemingway Days and Fantasy Fest. The latter is not recommended for the prudish, but the fun-lovers have it marked on their calendar annually.
Tips: When it comes to accommodation, The Almond Tree Inn on Truman Avenue, just off Duval Street, boasts an excellent location in the center of Old Town. It consistently gets rave reviews, and is a stone’s throw from Key West’s highlights.You have to make a stop at Sloppy Joe’s, especially on a Friday or Saturday night when there’s live music to enjoy. Great places to eat include Santiago’s Bodega for amazing tapas; La Trattoria Restaurant on Duval; and Blue Heaven on Thomas Street. Shop at the Key West Hammock Company, where hammocks come in all shapes, colors and sizes.
The art deco beauty of South Beach cannot be overstated. This hip and trendy stretch of amazing hotels, designer boutiques, fancy restaurants and prime people-watching seats has to be visited at least once in a lifetime. Whether you favor elegant surroundings, or want to be dancing on a bar with a margarita the size of a dustbin in your hand, South Beach offers both preferences in abundance.
On any given night, Ocean Drive is the place to be. Hotel balconies and restaurant verandahs overlook this bustling avenue where local characters mingle with curious visitors. Although you’ll never be short of entertainment at clubs and bars, some of the best live entertainment occurs at street level, where you may see a scantily dressed model in 7-inch heels passing a vendor with a boa constrictor in arms, ready to charge passersby for a chance to pose with the massive snake.
If you’re a fan of top DJs and live music, South Beach is your mecca. Renowned guitarist Alex Fox made his name playing in South Beach, and can still be found there for regular engagements with Guitars on Fire, the band he created with his two sons. He’s definitely an act worth catching if he’s in town while you’re there.
When it comes to accommodation in South Beach, the sky’s the limit. It is home to some of the ritziest hotels south of New York, where celebrity spotting is the norm and bills can easily run into thousands of dollars for a big night out if money is no object. This is the world of rented cabanas by the pool, bottle service and being treated like royalty. It is definitely a place to see and be seen.
Of course South Beach is also known for its art galleries and festivals, particularly its annual Wine & Food Festival. In 2014, the festival will be held from Feb. 20 to 23 and will feature such internationally recognized names as Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentiis. It’s a foodie’s dream, and a huge event that gets bigger with every passing year.
Tips: If you’ve got the money, South Beach has got the hotels. Look at The Tides, Loews, Hotel Breakwater and the Delano South Beach for starters. They’ll cost you some bucks, but if you’re interested in the hip scene, these are some great choices. If, on the other hand, you’re on a bit of a budget, look to well located but slightly more reasonable properties on Washington Ave, such as Hotel Astor. You have got to head to Mango’s Tropical Cafe at least once. The color, the spectacle, the music and the show are all an assault on the senses in a good way. It’s one of those rare places where even though it’s considered a big tourist spot, the locals can’t help but like it too. Don’t take the kids.
West Palm Beach
West Palm Beach is about an hour’s drive on the Florida Turnpike or I-95 north of Miami, or you can ride the Tri-Rail which takes about one-and-a-half hours. West Palm is a funky neighborhood with money, lots of shopping and an artsy feel about it. It’s a great getaway from the madding crowd in Miami with pedestrian areas and terrific outdoor restaurants and bars.
If you take Exit 70 off the I-95 onto Okeechobee going east, it will bring you directly to CityPlace on South Rosemary Avenue. Here you’ll find many familiar stores and a multi-screen cinema on the same avenue as Macy’s, The Cheesecake Factory and a bowling alley, to name a few.
For those who either haven’t rented a car, or simply don’t wish to drive, they can take the free Downtown Trolley from the Tri-Rail station to South Rosemary Avenue, Olive Avenue, the Waterfront Park, and along the very popular Clematis Street. The trolley has two lines that intersect at various points, allowing riders to hop on and hop off over a wide area of West Palm Beach.
Alternatively, you can flag down a Bike Taxi. Look out for the signature yellow carriage with two seats behind a cyclist, and just let your “driver” know where you want to go. These, unlike the trolley, will charge you a set rate, depending on how far you’re traveling.
On the weekend there is usually free live music on the stage at CityPlace under the stars, and South Rosemary experiences bumper-to-bumper traffic with multiple valet parking booths that magically appear as the sun goes down. The bars are hopping and the restaurants are buzzing with activity.
You can also check the calendar for the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, which features live performances, presentations and theater productions throughout the year.
One experience you really should not miss if you’re in the West Palm Beach area is brunch at The Breakers Palm Beach. This magnificent hotel was founded by the same man who created the Florida Keys railroad: Henry Flagler, and was the inspiration for the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, designed by the same architects. It was originally named the Palm Beach Inn, but when guests kept requesting rooms “over by the breakers” he decided to rename the property after expanding it to double its size.
Brunch at The Breakers is a decadent experience, and gives visitors a chance to marvel at the architecture of the hotel. If you have the time and inclination, you can make your way afterward to The Seafood Bar and enjoy a cocktail while drinking in the breathtaking views.
Tips: A great place to stay that puts you in the heart of West Palm Beach is The Palm Beach Hibiscus boutique bed and breakfast on South Rosemary Avenue. Each room is unique with antique furnishings, comfortable beds, and charming amenities. The Backyard Bar on the property is a social hub for an eclectic mix of locals with a number of nights per week dedicated to entertainment. The whole place has a great, friendly atmosphere, and the Downtown Trolley has a stop right outside the front gate. O’Shea’s Irish Pub on Clematis Street is open until the wee hours throughout the week and the weekend, so if you’ve still got some life in you after the Backyard Bar closes, you can waddle down there for some pints.