- Saturday- Tuesday: Miami and Biscayne National Park
- Tuesday- Friday: Key West and Dry Tortugas National Park
- Friday- Sunday: Everglades National Park
Dates: December 26, 2015 to January 3, 2016
Flashy and fancy, Miami is known
its high-end party scene, expensive drinks, and busy (but beautiful) beach. For
us, we came for its easy access to Biscayne National Park and for a lazy beach
and pool day, and happened to get a taste of fancy nightlife as well.
We both flew in the day after
Christmas (a Saturday), me from Virginia and Tim from Wisconsin. We picked up a
rental car at Miami International Airport and drove to our hotel in South
Beach. A Courtyard Marriott with a little more flair, Cadillac Hotel is listed
on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1940 in
Miami’s now-iconic art deco style, making it one of Miami’s longest-standing
hotels. While not a resort in the typical sense (it is still a Courtyard, Marriott’s
mid-range hotel brand, after all), it definitely felt like one – especially
with the free welcome drink at check in and the coupon for a free drink from
the bar. After checking in and changing, we explored the hotel – two big pools,
a tiki bar, and an indoor bar, all right by the ocean.
Our hotel in Miami
That night we had dinner
reservations at La Mar, a Peruvian cevicheria of the same name and chef as the
amazing restaurant we went to in Lima
nearly two years ago. Tim and I ate at the original in Lima twice during our
stay there. It’s generally recognized as the best restaurant there, and when we
first got to Peru in January of 2014 we didn’t even have any plans of eating
there. For days, we ate good but basic food at prices in keeping with our
budget, until Tim and I realized the conversion rate we’d been using was for
the Mexican peso, not the Peruvian sol. We went back and recalculated our
expenses and realized we had spent only a fraction of what we originally had
thought – this meant our Peru budget basically got a lot bigger for our last
few days there, and we decided to take full advantage. For about $40 total, we
went to La Mar (after googling “best restaurant in Lima”) and ordered
a bowl of ceviche and a platter of various dishes, including more ceviche and
an avocado, crab and potato cake, as well as two pisco sours. Naturally, when I
learned that La Mar was opening a location in Miami several months ago, I knew
we would have to go there for dinner one night during our Florida trip.
While nothing could compare to
the quality, portion size, and price of the Lima location, our meal in Miami
did not disappoint. In addition to our several orders of ceviche and a pisco
sour, I particularly enjoyed the chocolate mousse.
The next day we took a snorkeling
trip to Biscayne National Park. The meeting spot for the tour was from a marina
restaurant on Key Biscayne, where Tim and I enjoyed some plantain chips and
lunch beforehand. We had originally hoped to scuba dive in Biscayne National
Park, but upon researching our options, we found that very few tour groups
offer this. In fact, the only tour I could find at all to Biscayne National
Park was the snorkeling tour with Miami Ocean Rafting. While you can certainly
drive to the park visitor center, 95% of the park is water, and encompasses
portions of the third largest barrier reef in the world. So, the best way to
experience the park, in my opinion, was to get into the water, and the best way
to do that is by boat. Thus, we booked a guided tour to take us out into some
spots of the park.
Originally, the plan was to snorkel over a wreck, but due to
rougher than usual waters (blame El Nino), poor visibility and rough currents
caused the tour operators to take us to a secondary location for snorkeling.
This location, along one of the keys, is home to hundreds of huge lobsters, in
addition to various tropical fish and conchs. During our snorkel, we swam right
over lobsters, their long tentacles nearly touching me. I’d never seen lobsters
in the wild before – only in the tanks at seafood restaurants. To see them as
wild animals, instead of as food, was really intriguing and special. We also
saw a titan conch (like a giant slug in a giant shell), and Tim even had a
little fish swim with him, right in front of his nose, the whole way back
towards the boat (about 20 minutes!).
Tim and his new fish friend
One of the dozens of lobsters we saw
The tour also took us to Boca
Chita Key, an island formerly owned in the 1930s by Mark Honeywell, who built
the still-standing but never really used lighthouse that is the de facto symbol
of this part of the park. We also saw small battered boats on the shore, which
our guides told us were used by Cuban immigrants to sail from Cuba to Florida. Florida’s hundreds of islands, we learned,
are good spots for Cuban immigrants to come ashore, since the borders aren’t
enforced there and long-standing law permits Cubans to stay in the United
States if they reach land (one of our guides later in the trip referred to this
as “wet foot, dry foot” policy).
Lighthouse on Boca Chita Key, Biscayne National Park
One of the Cuban refugee boats ashore on Boca Chita Key.
The tour ended on a sand bar
where we enjoyed a small picnic snack, sunset, and even some stingrays floating
Sting ray in Biscayne National Park
Tim and I on a sandbar in Biscayne National Park
That night back in Miami, we got
dinner and then went exploring in the area around our hotel, heading north a
few blocks. We ended up meandering into a hotel and then finding a lobby bar
that had a lot of people around it. Apparently on a Sunday night this was a
place to be. We sat at the bar and ordered drinks. Over the course of maybe 45
minutes we saw a man come up to the bar multiple times, order 2 drinks, and put
a $100 bill on the bar. We had to have seen him spend $500. He started chatting
with us and bought us each a drink and told us about the history of this bar.
He isn’t affiliated with it in any way, just a guy who spends too much money
and loves Miami- not really the type of person we’d typically get along with,
but he was very nice and we learned a few things. Like, we were in the
Fontainebleau Hotel, an historic and famous hotel that hosted the likes of
Frank Sinatra and remains a meeting place for celebrities. And the floor tiles
were original to the hotel’s opening in the 1950s. And the nightclub by the
lobby charges a $50 cover. We said no thanks.
Fontainebleau’s famous lobby bar
After this glimpse into the fancy
side of Miami, we headed back in the direction of our hotel and stopped at a
decidedly divey bar (complete with pool tables and an abominable snowman
statue) for one last round before turning in for the night. Frankly, I think we
had more fun at the divey spot.
The next day we relaxed at the
beach and on the amazing lounge chairs by our hotel’s infinity pool. It was
lazy and wonderful.
After a leisurely day, we
ventured down south to follow a National
Geographic self-guided walking tour of Miami’s art deco architecture along
South Beach. Our meanderings took us by brightly lit historic hotels and bars
(The Clevelander, The Tides, Carlyle), fashion designer Gianni Versace’s
mansion where he was murdered in 1997, and Mango’s Tropical Café, a famous
Latin music and dance venue that serves pretty delicious food and pina coladas
(I can vouch for both).
South Beach at night
We spent some time at the Raleigh Hotel on our walk,
primarily because of the stunning art deco style pool and lounge space behind
the hotel. We didn’t swim and we didn’t lounge, but just walking around the
well-curated area convinced us that this is where we should stay if we ever
come back to Miami- a fitting realization for our last night in Miami before
driving to Key West the next day!
Tim and I at the Raleigh
The pool at the Raleigh at night