South Florida has the capacity to leave you overwhelmed or energised. I found I could achieve the latter by combining a solid plan with an open mind before I set off for the trip of a lifetime.
For all the unique action and excitement the region offers, its latin pulse makes it one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever visited. But you can’t just arrive and hope for the best, it’s too big and too expensive. So know what you want and leave with only warm memories.
The plan was to take a classic US road trip, starting in Miami and South Beach, then renting a car and heading to Palm Beach, and then down to the Florida Keys.
My friend and I stayed in Circa 39, on Collins Avenue in Miami. This is a family owned and reasonably priced hotel, with a tropical pool and garden area, private beach access, a really good restaurant and friendly staff. It's best to book one of its package deals which incorporate tours of Miami's happening spots such as Little Havana and Wynwood.
Despite its reputation as a nightlife capital, you’ll bump into as many people around South Beach there for sunny runs and modo yoga sessions, as the parties. Muscle Beach is a great spot to jog to and get a free workout – and the locals are happy to pass on their expert tips on where to go and what to see. It’s there I was told about the Thriller speedboat tour.
You’ll spend 45 minutes on a speedboat where you can see the downtown Miami skyline, get the Star Island mansion by mansion lowdown, and watch dolphins swimming around you. Hold on to your hats though, literally – mine is floating somewhere along Biscayne Bay.
There’s so much to do in Miami, from watching the Miami Heat in the NBA, to wandering down the charming Española Way. But your stay will not be complete without sampling that famed nightlife experience.
Miami has some of the best nightclubs in the world, and the director of talent for the two biggest venues – LIV and STORY – is an Irish woman from Cork, Sarah Lucey. Her advice is that if travelling to the city in a group, rather than being ripped off in the tourist traps, you should pool your resources. If you have a group of 10, for $100 each you can have a table at one of these exclusive clubs and enjoy that $100 in bottles of premium alcohol at the table.
If you’re after something a little more intimate however, Villa Azur have a really interesting dinner party concept inspired by the South of France and introduced to them by another Irish woman. Selina Regazzoli from Dublin is the Project Management Director for Azur hospitality. This is Miami’s place to be on a Thursday night, with fine dining meeting a full on party.
Most bars in Miami get lively at around midnight, and a standout is MiaBea - a new place which is great value for food and drink with a cool speakeasy bar upstairs. The entrance is hidden in a wall, and guests are given a key to explore the entirety of the venue. It's across the road from The Dutch in the W Hotel, which is another classy restaurant with an equally impressive nightclub - the Wall Lounge - in the same hotel.
Hitting the road
Partying over, it was time to hit the road. Our hotel was in such a convenient location, and right across the road from Dollar Rent A Car, with which I had pre-booked a car online. From here, we headed into the sunset in our trusty Toyota Corolla.
This was my first time driving an automatic, my first time driving in the US, and I was doing so in Florida which studies say is home to the worst drivers in the US.
I imagine they’re not far off.
So, a few tips: Pick your co-pilot carefully, you’ll need them to occasionally scream “stay on the right”, to watch the map and signposts, pick the music, and to stick their hand out the window to indicate that you’re about to try to cut across six lanes of traffic.
Research the state’s driving laws beforehand, the most important one being that you can turn right on a red light if the way is clear. And, as for the car rental salesmen who will try to sell you their pen, do get the GPS. And do pay the extra for the tolls pass. If, like me, you think you can stick to the Google map route you’ve set on your phone on the hotel wifi, well, you can’t. You’ll find yourself asking bemused drivers at traffic lights which way is south.
Otherwise, the Maps.me app provides offline maps and routing, while the Waze app has real-time traffic and road information and rates the nearest gas and food stops.
Palm Beach was as north as we went and less than an hour and a half on the road. It's the wealthiest postcode in the US. Everything here is pristine, and expensive. Across the Royal Park Bridge is West Palm Beach city. O'Shea's on Clematis Street serves a tasty Bloody Mary and is a proper Irish bar. Parking meters are free downtown after 7pm and things on this side of the bridge are a lot cheaper than their swanky seaside cousins.
After a feed in Jo Bistro "All Natural Cuisine" (where the açaí bowls are amazing) followed by a spin on a jet ski (you can rent them on the Blue Heron Blvd Bridge), it was time to get back on the road. Next stop Fort Lauderdale.
Fort Lauderdale is 45km north of Miami, and less than $10 and 45 minutes for an open return Tri-Rail train ticket if I've put you off the idea of driving. The city is a collection of canals, which the locals sell as being the "Venice of the US". One way of taking it all in, along with a buffet meal and a show, is aboard the Jungle Queen Riverboat.
An hour south of Fort Lauderdale is Homestead, a major agricultural area, and an interesting contrast to the other places on the trip.
Open-air shopping mall
A little over halfway through that journey – in Kendall, Miami – is The Falls. This open-air shopping mall has free parking and is perfect for grabbing some food and picking up gifts or essentials. The mall's outdoor waterscape is worth the stop alone. As are the "cookies n cream" pizzookie – a pizza and cookie hybrid, topped with three scoops of ice cream – from BJs.
When in Homestead, Schnebly Redland's is an unusual winery worth a visit. It makes wine from exotic fruit, the Mango wine being the pick of the bunch for us. The farmers' markets are great too with a huge variety of fresh fruit.
Then, near the main entrance of Everglades National Park is the Everglades Alligator Farm. This is a crazy place with alligators just sauntering about and the airboat tour of the Everglades is a real thrill.
From Homestead it's all south on US 1, until the road and land runs out, and next stop is Cuba. The various Florida Keys are connected by long bridges – one is seven miles long – with the views on either side changing from swamplands, to beautiful coastlines and pearly blue water.
With a max 45mph speed limit, by the time you arrive you’re adjusted to the steady pace of Key West.
Beware of the very reckless drivers on these roads. Also, the radio signal tends to drop between the Keys; put together a playlist or bring a CD.
Robbie’s, just outside Islamorada, is a gem of a food stop. After enjoying the fresh food and views, you can head out and feed the tarpons (ugly air-breathing fish) on its dock.
Picturesque island city
Key West is a picturesque island city, despite the damage caused by Hurricane Irma. The main street – Duval street – is impeccably kept. Southernmost point – it’s actually only the most southern point for the public – is a must see as is Hemingway’s house. And take in the sunset at Mallory Square.
The city has an array of extremely well kept Victorian era and conch houses, some of which you can stay in with Airbnb for a decent price. If you’re looking for something a bit different they offer a lot of boat stays too, while Southwinds is a cheap option with free laundry and bike-rental services.
From as far south as it gets in the US, we headed back up to Islamorada, where a friend of mine was getting married.
We stayed in a traditional American motel, the Sunset Inn. This was straight out of the movies, a two-storey building with a big car park just off the main road. A fun experience and great value.
The wedding itself was held in Morada Bay, an incredible location on the beach and under the palm trees. It’s known for its full moon parties and the evening previous we sampled one – a perfect night to end the trip.
The following morning’s struggle to find the car-rental return at the airport added a final tinge of drama. But all in all, a South Florida road trip was the perfect mix of adventure and relaxation.