Road tripping in the Sunshine State

It was 5:30 in the evening, and the sun was setting on another cold, cold Minnesota day.  It was below zero (-10F if I can recall correctly), and I was standing with my friend Terra at the Light Rail station, waiting to catch a ride to the airport.  We stood there shivering, underdressed, and excited, anticipating warm weather to welcome us in Miami in just a few hours.  Having earned a travel voucher and anticipating a need to get out of Dodge after the hustle of the holidays, Terra had asked me to join her for a weekend get away…and we chose the Keys.  Having put in some long hours leading up to the trip, I had caught a bad cold/flu and had tanked up on ibuprofen and cold meds in hopes of getting through the flight without too much misery.  As I stood there, blankly staring at the rail tracks, I thought about how glad I was to be going somewhere warm, somewhere sunny, somewhere healing…thankful to Terra for getting this show started.

Only a few hours later, we stepped out of the Fort Lauderdale Airport to air literally 80 degrees warmer.  It was a wonderful shock, and we were immediately giggling.  Both exhausted, we climbed in a rental car and headed to a nearby hotel to crash for the night.  Pulling in to the hotel next to a strip club, we were welcomed to a full parking lot, a 10 minute wait at the front desk, and a drunk man (who thought I was alone b/c Terra was in the car) telling me that he was sleeping in room 311 in case I was lonely…always a treat.  (insert sarcasm)  Sufficed to say, we beelined it to the room and stayed there until it was time to check out.

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Terra drives. I navigate. We’re a good team.

A good night sleep and a quick breakfast stop later, we began our little road trip to the Keys.  The weather was beautiful, high 70s and sunny.  Pilot glasses on, window down, feet kicked up on the window.  I was ready.  Let’s do this.  The drive was so pleasant.  And, honestly, I was surprised by how content I was to be there.  For many years, I have shrugged off Florida.  I think having spent so much time there throughout my childhood, I had grown cynical of its faults while taking for granted all its beauty.  Apparently, there was no better time to re-appreciate it than when I was sick and exhausted.  The drive wasn’t overly scenic, but we listened to Miami radio, chatted about whatever, and observed as we passed through wetlands, towns full of cute little dockside fish shops, and over bridges.  I was feeling nostalgic for the days when we’d stop at little places like these on the way to drop the niece and nephews off at their mother’s in Merritt Island after a weekend visit.  A few hours later, we pull up to Conch Key Cottages in Marathon, a town that is not overly touristy or kitschy, just a chill little spot about halfway from Key Largo to Key West.  The cottages were adorable.  Small but very nice, just enough room for 2, with a little kitchenette, patio and grill…and a bowl of oranges set out for us next to the juicer.  The grounds were quiet with a little beach and plenty of chairs and hammocks…and even a pool that I can say I never actually made it into despite walking past it daily.  The sea kayaks were free to use, and FYI:  Check tide levels before trying to go out on one of those things!  Man,  we got in one of those things one afternoon and ended up scooting our way around for most of the ride.  Epic fail.

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“What did I do in the Keys?”, you ask. A whole lot of this.

We spent our days sleeping (on completely different schedules!!), reading, drinking freshly juiced OJ (by Terra, the less lazy one of the pair I admit), and taking quick little jaunts to get a bite or explore a bit.  I was a bit disappointed to miss out on scuba diving, but with all the congestion, I wasn’t about to risk an ear injury.  To make up for it, every evening, we sat and watched the sunset, the beautiful, beautiful sunset.  It was truly relaxing and refreshing.  And, every sunset was spectacular.

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Sunset from Sunset Grille and Raw Bar, Mile 47 just before the 7 mile Bridge. A great outdoor restaurant with pool, volleyball court and live music, Jimmy Buffet style, of course. Great food, great atmosphere, and awesome view of the sunset. Try the lobster bites!

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Sun sets. Night falls. The torches come on. And the ambience is just as nice…even nicer, because all the people disperse, but the music goes on.

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Just another sunset at Conch Key Cottages.

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So beautiful and peaceful.

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Every evening, I would sit out and watch the sunset until it got dark. Savored every last minute.

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One day, we stopped by Key’s Fisheries Market & Marina (Mile 49.2) and bought some fresh fish, shrimp and lobster tail. Then, after sunset, we (i.e. Terra) started up a fire and grilled up some deliciousness. I’m kind of a pyro, so I was too distracted by the flames (and rum & sprite with lime) to be of any significant help.

One day, feeling a bit restless, we decided to drive down to Bahia Honda State Park, the only real beach in these parts.  We picked up a coffee from a little drive through stall and drove over 7 mile Bridge with it’s constant beautiful views and the frequent bridge side bikers and fishermen to keep it a bit interesting.  Having no real idea what to expect, we were both delightfully surprised to find a beautiful beach with a chill, family atmosphere and the sporadic speedo to keep the giggles and inappropriate jokes alive.  A great spot for picnics, camping, sand castle building…none of which we did, but all of which looked like food old fashioned fun.  A walk along the beach and a drive through…$10 well spent.

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Bahia Honda S.P. is such a great spot, because it is really the only spot where long sandy beaches meet water deep enough to easily do some offshore snorkeling and swimming.

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Bahia Honda has the longest natural sand beach in the Keys with sand that is powdery, white and nice on the toes. There’s more than just beach here…great camping, fishing, snorkeling, rare plants and trees, an old bridge great for the views, kayaking, you name it. This little island packs a punch.

Other nice food spots we found that I’d recommend highly:

Sparky’s Landing (mile 53.5 at the end of Charter Boat Row) – moderate sized place right on a little marina, really fun ambience, casual but does not feel like a dive.  Lots of great options for food, including oysters and all the usual seafood and fish options.  My pick – fish sandwich, Keys Style, with fish, american, sauteed onions on rye, sloppy as hell but honestly amazing.

Herbie’s (6350 Overseas Highway) – a small little roadside restaurant.  Super casual with picnic tables in a 3-season type of enclosure.  Kick ass fresh fish and seafood, soups, sandwiches, you name it.  Delicious and not rough on the wallet.  Cash only tho.

– On the way out, we stopped for brunch at the Green Turtle in Islamorada.  Felt a bit fancier than the average places we’d seen around, but was still casual.  The food was amazing though.  I had a lobster and shrimp omelette, which was to die for, and the turtle soup, which was surprisingly light and tasty.

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Miami Beach, expansive white sand beach always full of activity.

After 3 days of soaking up rays in the Keys, we headed to Miami for the afternoon, where we stayed at the Cadet Hotel (the best balance of affordability and comfort we could find in Miami Beach) 1 block from the Delano, 2 blocks from the beach, and a really nice, comfortable little boutique hotel with a great shower, which always gets a place big points in my book.  We spent the afternoon strolling along the beach and sitting at the poolside restaurant at the Setai, eating an early dinner and watching people walk, run, bike along the promenade.  Then, as it was Sunday and we weren’t feeling the party vibe, we did it again that evening, taking a long walk along the promenade then finding a place to grab a bite.  It was a perfect way to end the trip, feeling refreshed and fully rejuvenated.

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For some reason, the high rises that line the beach don’t take away from its beauty in my opinion. I’ve always loved this beach!  Especially the way the back portion always seems to be set up as like a beach highway for bikes and whatnot.

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Another beach, another stroll. This one’s quite a bit longer than Bahia Honda though!

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Passion fruit mojito at the Setai. Maybe one of the best cocktails I’ve had. And the atmosphere doesn’t hurt.

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