Miami’s good life had conquered us and, during six days, we returned at dawn to The Tides Hotel, in the heart of Ocean Drive. Designed in 1936 by L. Murray Dixon, The Tides Hotel, where Clark Gable and members of the Kennedy family have stayed, is a classic and a true representative of tropical Art Deco. The Terrace is the ideal place to see and be seen and the 1220 is a luxurious restaurant that serves French haute cuisine.
On South Beach, from South Pointe to Lincoln Road, the party never ends and a Latin rhythm envelops this city that never sleeps. Miami is the new Latin capital and seems to have become the meeting point of people from around the world, a place where different music and rhythms blend and languages mix while encounters explode. It is an attractive city thanks to all it has to offer in the way of entertainment, both during the day and night, and where tourists avidly search for celebrities.
In Joe’s Stone Crabs restaurant you will enjoy the crabs and good encounters; in Nemo we happened upon the famous friends of the owner of Amnesia, the great European style disco; and Joia, which belongs to Ingrid Casares and Chris Paciello (friends of Madonna) has an Armani-style ambiance where you can enjoy fresh fish and tiramisu and where it is common to bump into Mariah Carey and Al Pacino, among other celebrities.
Our Ocean Drive days started at 10:30 in the famous News Café, a place were you will find everybody and favored by Gianni Versace, a constant patron even on the day of his death. Our hard work was to choose the best restaurant for lunch or dinner and to go shopping or to the beach. We enjoyed A Fish Called Avalon, which serves the fresh catch of the day and features a famous champagne brunch on Sundays; Lario’s on the Beach, where Gloria Estefan is a partner and which serves Cuban dishes, and we also made several stops at the irrefutable Mango’s Tropical Café, with its live music and sensual ambiance. Dinner at Les Deux Fontaines is one of the best options and we couldn’t miss experiencing Gloria Estefan’s Café Cardoso.
In the afternoons we went to Bar None, with Jack Nicholson and surrounded by paintings of Sylvester Stallone; in the Bash, a bar-disco owned by a friend of Sean Penn, we had the opportunity to meet an excellent French DJ; The Living Room at Strand was excellent for dinner and the Chaos and the Liquid for dancing. The Clevelander Bar is still the best outdoors bar in Miami Beach, a place were you can dine on everything from a hamburger to lobster. Our nightlife stretched all the way to Collins Avenue’s Sha Been, with its Jamaican cuisine; Washington Avenue with the Macarena, an authentic Spanish tavern, or the classics on Lincoln Road like the Sushi Samba, which offers superb sushi and good ambiance; the Pacific Time, with its minimalist atmosphere and the Touch, with its Belle Époque décor.
The party is never-ending, life is akin to a celebrity novel, nights are infinite and the beaches are for moments of rest.
Finally, during our last two nights, we installed ourselves in the pleasant Sonesta Hotel & Suite Coconut Groove, far away from temptations and near our yacht, which was docked in the beautiful Key Biscayne marina. While we prepared the last details we were able to visit the charming Key Biscayne, Coconut Groove, Coral Gable and Little Havana neighborhoods.
The day to set sail arrived. We spent the morning visiting the South and Central Miami Beach channels, discovering the beautiful mansions on the edge of the water. Those belonging to Julio Iglesias, Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin are among the most outstanding.
From Miami to Key Largo
We sailed through the Biscayne National Park, with its calm waters protected by the Eliot and Sands Keys with their white sands, and quickly reached Key Largo, one of the longest keys and which protects the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Here, we had the opportunity to scuba dive and observe a great variety of multicolored fish. The reef protects a group of delicate creatures that develop here and, among its marvelous riches, it shelters 55 types of coral.
We visited the Christ of the Deep, a beautiful statue that lies sunken in the reef in remembrance of the sailors that died in these treacherous waters. In this spot divers must always be aware of the depths since the reefs are dangerous because they are constantly changing.
We enjoyed a beautiful sunset while entering Tavernier Creek Marina through a channel that communicates the ocean with the Gulf of Mexico. Key Largo, 30 miles long, became famous thanks to a movie about a terrible hurricane that lashed the island. It was filmed in 1948 and starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. There is also a zone with buildings from the beginning of the 20th century and many hotels and restaurants, like the Bayside Grill. All this is a beautiful setting in which to enjoy a superb sunset.
Everglades National Park
On the next day we decided to explore the waters of Florida Bay, part of the Everglades National Park, that great extension of land that is almost always under water. This area, overflowing with lakes and swamps, is the home of American crocodiles and alligators, Florida panthers, whitetailed deer, manatees, eagles, herons and wood stork.
In the bay we passed a countless number of keys covered in foliage as well as mangroves, so a good navigation map as well as a bottom radar detector are necessary to follow the channels and not run aground. It is a very odd scenery of small islands dispersed in the bay as if they were hurled from afar, a surprising paradise inhabited only by birds and fish.
Exploring these amazing keys brought us to Flamingo, a center for visitors that is reached by the highway that crosses the park. We docked the boat in the marina and located Jorge who would help us to explore the interesting sites and observe crocodiles. One of them was more curious than we were and started to get too close. When it began to raise its body and run I suspected it wanted something more and… we had to run and find shelter in the car!
The scenery is unique, several palm trees rise from the islands, which are the higher parts surrounded by the lower sections, which are inundated when it rains. Several channels traverse the region, which is 2.60 meters (8.5 feet) above sea level at its highest point. It is a marvelous place in which to observe the region’s characteristic fauna and flora. At the end of the day we navigated the entire bay, dodging the islands, and explored Corine Key and Bob Allen Key until we reached Islamorada, which is past Tavernier. At night we docked in the Coral Bay Marina, just in time to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.
Islamorada is known as the “Fishing Capital of the World” because it is an excellent place to go deep-sea fishing. However, what is more fascinating is to scuba dive in the San Pedro Underwater Archeological Park, where a number of Spanish galleons sank in 1733 during a terrible hurricane. The ships stand as a memorial to those terrible winds. Island Grill is the best option for enjoying an excellent lobster, shrimp or meat and offers comfortable access for boats.
The next day it was a pleasure to sail in the turquoise waters that surround this necklace of islands joined by bridges of different lengths and designs, such as Long Key Bridge (two miles long) which joins Long Key with Middle Key, to reach Duck Key and Marathon. Marathon, located in the middle of the road between Key Largo and Key West, is the heart of the keys and has one of the biggest cities and its own airport. It is formed by a group of islands with a beautiful city-marina in Bonefish Bay as well as the interesting Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, where you can enjoy an encounter with dolphins. Marathon also has the best beaches as well as the finest spots for diving and fishing, including the strong likelihood of finding a swordfish, mako shark, tuna or other large fish.
We visited Boot Key Harbor, a natural port delimited by Vaca Key and Boot Key, before traversing 7 Mile Bridge, inaugurated at the beginning of 1980 and which joins Vaca Key with Bahia Honda Key. By its side runs the old bridge built between 1908 and 1912 by Henry Flagler for the train that joined the keys. It was built with the finest materials and was indestructible until the terrible hurricane of 1935 twisted the rails and the bridge was turned into a narrow one-lane highway. Nowadays, it is a pedestrian road and the two bridges are engineering masterworks that are true examples of the different eras in which they were built.
Then we entered the turquoise waters of the Bahia Honda State Recreation Area, a protected spot of crystalline waters and white sand beaches adorned with palm trees and paths. We dropped anchor in Spanish Harbor to explore Big Pine Key, a true island that allows the growth of endemic pines. Here we observed the deer native to the island, a white-tailed deer somewhat smaller than those that populated the island when the keys were attached to the mainland. It is a beautiful, quite confident animal easy to find in the streets or around a water hole.
There are also some soft shell turtles and alligators. A characteristic place to visit is the No Name Pub, with its walls covered in one-dollar bills and in which, according to the owner, there are about 60,000 dollars in wallpaper.
We continued our journey along the length of the final keys, the Lower Keys, before reaching Key West. On the Atlantic side is where the finest scuba diving spots are located and Looe Key Marine Sanctuary is the best place in which to observe the corals, rays, octopi and multicolored fish that inhabit this reef of transparent waters.
We sailed along the keys, which are a series of bays and small islands, and entered again on the side of the Gulf of Mexico by Cow Key Channel, going under the last bridge that joins Key West, that enigmatic city, to the continent. We docked in the Historic Seaport, where the most beautiful yachts rival in beauty and the top restaurants are full, attracting people tanned by the tropical sun.
We got there just in time to sail in the waters of Key West Bight and observe the magnificent sundown with Sunset Key and Christmas Tree Island as a backdrop. Sunsets on Key West are a celebration and I remember the awed exclamations of the people who observed them from the pier or Mallory Square, a space dedicated to street shows.
Key West preserves its romantic ambiance reminiscent of days gone by and it invites you to take a stroll along its shady streets filled with tropical foliage and discover ancient wood houses, with unique terraces, columns and windows, painted in vivid, distinctive colors.
Closer to Cuba (90 miles) than to Miami (150 miles), Key West was colonized in 1822. In those long ago days people made a living from rescuing shipwrecks and keeping their cargo. In this way it became a genuine industry and, in the middle of the 19th century, Key West was one of the wealthiest cities in the United States.
It developed a unique splendor and stunning, elegant houses were built. As time went by, several Cubans and a Greek community established themselves on Key West and they all contributed to the island’s prosperity. Even so, the Great Depression devastated the island though it now emerges as one of the best tourism destinations.
The people are charming and relaxed and are known as “conchs” to differentiate them from tourists or people originally from other places. Duval is the street of shops, bars and restaurants. Obligatory stops are Sloppy Joe’s, with live music and an ambiance of days gone by; Captain Tony’s Saloon (the original Sloppy Joe’s, where Hemingway met his third wife) and Hogs Breath Saloon. Everyone chooses a different ambiance and favorite dishes and, wherever it is, the evening will be a huge success. At the end of Duval Street is where the “southernmost point” is located. As its name implies, this is the southernmost city of the United States and has gorgeous mansions built on the edge of the sea. Ernest Hemingway’s house preserves the enchanting secrets of the author who spent many years here writing The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms, some of his best novels.
The lighthouse, which is nearby, features a beautiful view of the city. We also recommend visiting the impressive Curry and Porter (Heritage Museum House) mansions and the elegant homes on Caroline and Greene Street. Each street is a surprise, each facade is a work of art, and the museums, as well as the Zachary Taylor and the East Martello forts, are a stroll in the past in which visitors will discover the treasures rescued from sunken ships. Key West invites you to take part in its nightlife, going from bar to bar and enjoying surprising encounters. It is a fabulous place to admire the sunset from Mallory Square, with its festive ambiance, and drink tequila at the edge of the sea. Key West is a perpetual party.
Dry Tortuga Key
After three days dedicated to discovering the joy of Key West and its interesting history, we set sail towards the last keys, those isolated islands without bridges. However, on a private island in an area near Key West and where the Marquesas Key resembles a true atoll, we saw an elegant mansion.
Seventy miles from Key West we reached the keys that form Dry Tortugas National Park, made up of seven islands. It is an ecological reserve for nesting birds, among them the sooty tern that has a black body and white head and lays its eggs in the brushwood.
The waters, of different tones ranging from turquoise to light blue to dark, are particularly clear and the white sand beaches are charming. This place was named Tortugas by the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León because, when he landed, he found many turtles. “Dry” was added to its name to warn of the lack of fresh water on the islands.
Garden Key is the island occupied by Fort Jefferson, a unique stronghold built in 1846. The view of its reddish walls rising above the turquoise waters is exceptional, especially when arriving by boat. From the heights of its walls the scenery is a reflection of paradise, a desert island of white sand. Its sheltered bay is an ideal place to dock and scuba dive. Far away, you can enjoy the view of Loggerhead Key, the farthest and l ast island that appears like a mirage rising from the sea. I couldn’t resist the temptation of returning in a hydroplane in order to see the impressive fort from the air, a red hexagon surrounded by blue tones that vary according to the depths of the water. The plane flew over these mysterious islands hidden in the middle of the ocean, at the gateway of the Gulf of Mexico, and the view of Key West from the air is another beautiful image of the area. The trip was ending and I remained with the deeply satisfying feeling of having enjoyed a real adventure in the marvelous world of the Florida Keys, a place where the coral reefs have formed one of the planet’s most surprising spots, where the state’s natural riches, together with the elements provided by human beings, create a pleasurable way of life available at any hour of the day. From Miami to Key West, the unique beauty found in the region will ensure an exceptional journey. It is a place where there is always cause for celebration and good humor.
Text: Patrick Monney ± Photo: Patrick Monney.