With Central America and Cuba behind us, the next step on our northward travels was Miami, Florida. A few nights settled into an apartment to recharge and reacquaint ourselves with the luxuries of being in a western country.
Home was South Beach which, I must be honest, kinda did nothing for me. The beach and Lincoln Road draw sun worshippers and shoppers, and that area known as Ocean Drive – the one with all those lovely art deco buildings along it – either appeals or repels.
Touts, overpriced restaurants and bars and extreme cocktails have very little appeal, so we couldn’t hightail out of there fast enough.
One thing for certain is the Ocean Drive precinct doesn’t speak for the rest of the city, let alone the rest of South Beach. If we had more time we would’ve gone out for a taste of the real Miami, and if the travel budget was higher we also would’ve done way better with the eating-out situation.
Mind you, the bagel breakfasts at Einstein Bros. did the trick each morning and heading to Panther Coffee for their excellent espresso and delectable pastries became a daily routine.
Can’t say much about my first ever Shake Shack experience other than – what’s all the fuss about? Every time we’d see lines of people at this burger joint on previous New York visits I’d momentarily consider joining it, especially when there’s so much hype surrounding it.
No lines at the Miami outlet, so this was my chance. Yes they’ve got some flavour going, but it makes me wonder why people get all giddy about these minuscule burgers that tread awfully close to slider territory.
Down on the corner of 11th and Collins you can get your Neapolitan pizza fix at Antico Pizza. Come at lunch and you can chow on fab woodfired bread or ciabata sandwiches, or do what we did and get stuck into one of their beautifully burnished beauties.
Einstein Bros. Bagels – 1500 Alton Rd
Panther Coffee – 1875 Purdy Ave
Shroom burger & Smoke shack at Shake Shack – 1111 Lincoln Rd
San Gennaro pizza at Antico Pizza – 1058 Collins Ave
The main reason we came to Miami was to rent a car and hit those Florida Keys. Once we drove through the seemingly endless urban sprawl on the south side of the city, we hooked a left and drove down the Old Dixie Highway. Why? Well, we’d read it was more scenic.
Unless you’ve got a penchant for flat terrain and mangroves it isn’t a great deal more scenic than the traffic-heavy main highway. It’s not until you cross Card Sound Bridge that the scenery changes, momentarily, as you incline and decline across the waterway. Then it’s back to good old mangroves.
Come on, Florida, shouldn’t a gator be meandering across the highway, or something?
I’m sort of kicking myself for not pulling over at Alabama Jack’s, a well-seasoned bar that sits on barges amongst the mangroves on the west side of the bridge. Burgers, beer, live music and the best conch fritters around. Or so they say. Day-um!
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen – 99020 Overseas Hwy
A certain Beach Boys song entered my mind as we drove along Key Largo. In reality, though, all the tropical images I had of the island were smashed after seeing the countless drab strip malls and cheap t-shirt warehouses along the highway.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen was our first stop, a convenient spot to stretch the legs, have a coffee and slice of key lime pie. We could have stayed to lunch on lobster & grits or an alligator tenders basket, but we settled on Cracked Conch Café further south on Marathon Key for something more solid.
Aside from lime pie, one of the other signature eats in this part of the world is conch. At the Cracked Conch you can tuck into many conch specialties, plus steak & ribs, breakfast and other diner-style stomach fillers. Of course I needed to sample the conch burger (9.95), a croquette-like patty flecked with chewy bits of that famed gastropod. Sadly the pickle was the highlight.
Up on Long Key there’s one place worth stopping at for a feed. In fact, The Florida Boy Bar & Grill could be the only place on this tiny island. Nibble on gator bites and fried green tomatoes as you sip on a local amber out on the patio or cool dining room, or go for coconut crusted mahi mahi or classic BLT (7.95) on Texas toast.
Man, those onion rings!
Cracked Conch Café – 4999 Overseas Hwy
The Florida Boy Bar & Grill – 68150-68450 Overseas Hwy
The end of the road is none other than Key West, the westernmost inhabited island and the most populated city in the archipelago. This is where all the action is.
Spending time in Key West and being on a low budget isn’t the best of combinations. Both accommodation and eating out were a lot more than we anticipated, especially when staying and playing in the Old Town. Part of being in Key West, I guess!
It’s difficult to miss the cruise ship hoards; fresh off a boat with one thing in mind – Duval Street – which almost applies to anyone that strikes this town. I guess when you have limited time in a port you head straight for the action. Thumping bars, t-shirt and souvenir stores and key lime pie shops sate the cravings and desires of drinkers and shoppers along this mile-long strip.
If all of that’s a little too rowdy and too commercial, the southern end of Duval takes it down a few notches. Less of the raucous bars and more quiet cafés, boutiques and galleries.
Venturing away from the main strip offers another taste of the chilled, quirky and laid back vibe of this unique island town. Tropical pastels, wooden lacework and wide verandas make up many of the traditional houses that fill the leafy residential streets of Key West.
Chickens scratch around white picket fences and roam the sidewalks, cafés and restaurants sit on quiet street corners and there’s even the fascinating Key West Cemetery that dates from the 1800s.
Once you’re done with walking or cycling about town, visiting one of the nearby beaches, dried off from snorkelling or returned from a harbour cruise, you can always head back to Duval Street.
Do a Cuban breakfast burrito or Mojo pork with rice & beans at Cuban Coffee Queen, and while you’re at it, stock up on Cuban cigars at one of the nearby stores. They’ve got plenty of coffee options at the café, but we ended up getting our daily dose at The Green Pineapple.
Ladies can get their fashion and accessory fix at this stylishly boho boutique, or you can slip onto a stool and sip on their excellent espresso and enjoy a pastry.
One can’t ignore the glistening treats in the Kilwin’s window, and if you open the door, you’re senses can’t help but be pleasantly assaulted by a blanket of sweet caramel. Watch the chocolatiers make tempting confections like nut brittles, fudge, caramel corns and caramel apples. Plenty of ice cream to enjoy, as well.
Cuban Coffee Queen – 5 Key Lime Square
Green Pineapple Café – 1130 Duval Street
Kilwin’s – 505 Duval Street
Willie T’s – 525 Duval Street
Bull & Whistle Bar – 224 Duval Street
801 Bourbon Bar – 801 Duval Street
The “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” mantra is well and truly alive in Key West thanks to having more bars per capita than anywhere else in the country. Whether you’re seeking out the best happy hour or more than content sipping on full priced craft beer or frozen cocktails, boozers can bar-hop to their heart’s content at any time of the day.
Get your daily 2 for $12 cocktails at the very lively Willie T’s or lap up the drinks and entertainment at the iconic Bull & Whistle. When that all becomes a bit of a drag, stagger down to 801 Bourbon Bar and be entertained by the faaabulous cabaret girls at 9 pm and 11 pm. If you’re in town on a Sunday, join in on the drag queen bingo and, if you win, you may score yourself a special toy for the bedroom.
There’s much food to be enjoyed in Key West so you needn’t walk too far to find it. Drop into the iconic Blue Haven for their eggs Benedict (with shrimp and key lime hollandaise) or the Cuban roast pork with rice & beans at El Siboney.
Or there’s the eclectic BO’s Fish Wagon for their soft-shell crab burger or fried grouper sandwich with key lime sauce. If a diner is more your scene, slip into one of the booths at Harpoon Harry’s for one of their Blue Plate specials. Each day of the week has a designated dish for $9.95, and seeing it was Thursday when we dropped by, it was pot roast bowl for us. Homemade mash, a mountain of tender pork, delicious gravy, onion rings and boiled veg.
I love it.
B.O.’s Fish Wagon – 801 Caroline Street
Harpoon Harry’s – 832 Caroline Street