North America

North America

Florida / Aventura / Key West

FloridaWhile Florida is probably one of the preferred holiday destinations not only amongst Americans, but all over the world, there are a few places and events that seem to be less known by the international tourists, however  equally intriguing and worth visiting, either on your own or with a cruise ship.

I have been exploring Florida since 1995, witnessing the incredible development of the big ports of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral and Tampa and watch the cruise ship industry grow by the minute. New sky scrapers seem to emerge every week and the fast growing number of cruise ships bring thousands of passengers daily. While Florida attracts not only a lot of Latin population due to its geographical location and senior Americans who find the climate balmy to enjoy their golden years, nowadays you can see young people from all over the world trying their luck in pursuit of  a job in the hospitality industry  in Florida and cruise ships in particular or their corporate offices on land. Annually, major maritime conferences and seminars take place here and prestigious fairs dedicated to the cruise and hospitality industry gather hundreds of thousands of professionals who exchange ideas, products and services and achieve most of all visibility and popularity. Florida is the birth place of the modern cruising and without a doubt the epicenter of all cruising action; here you will find the main offices of the most significant cruise lines, as well as  is the starting point of many popular Caribbean cruises.

When is the best time to visit Florida or get on one of the cruise ships ? The weather in Florida during the winter  (December through June) is pleasantly warm and balmy, in contrast with the summer months (which coincide with the hurricane season) and the heat, torrential rain, tropical storms and fierce winds can not only spoil your vacation, but strand you in your hotel room for days. If you are on a cruise, the inclement weather can change the course of your itinerary, rough seas can cause not only great discomfort to some passengers, but also missed ports and delays on debarkation day. While this is a standard operational procedure for most cruise ships, if you have a choice, try to avoid the summer months and choose your time wisely, so you can enjoy this beautiful State and your vacation to the fullest.

Considering the alternative, I chose to spend my vacation in Florida at the end of March and beginning of April, when the temperature is usually between 23 and 28 degrees Celsius and the ocean is warm and welcoming. Instead of the busy ports,  Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where usually the tourists spend their holidays, I decided to rent a condo in Aventura- a small, but exclusive town- famous with its mall- the biggest in Florida- the upscale Aventura Mall and one of the most significant synagogues in the area. The first impression is that you are in Beverly Hills, except for the fact that here along the extravagant beach houses, you can see big sky scrapers hosting luxurious apartments, magnificent buildings featuring waterfalls, tastefully unfolding in front of you, elegantly lining the coast line.

Greenery is everywhere – beautifully manicured gardens and small tropical parks, picturesque golf-courses surrounded by jogging alleys and bike lanes- the recreational areas are endless. People seem to be very active around here – young mothers in gym clothes, push their strollers in a  rhythmic jog, side by side with the usual cyclists, runners and roller blades enthusiasts. Life is quiet and safe in Aventura. Most of the vacationeers rent condos, rather than stay in a hotel, which is less expensive and gives them the opportunity to accommodate big families in a home-like property, with the ability to cook for themselves, enjoy pools and sports facilities for a fraction of the hotel price.

The condo I rented was located in a yacht club residential complex across the street from a lush golf course. The setting reminds you of a Sandals resort- the condos are built in 6 story buildings, surrounding a massive pool , gym and two tennis courts. There is a small pier overlooking a bay full of posh yachts. The complex itself is submerged in mangrove plants, palm trees and colorful tropical bush, bringing delicate scent and beautiful butterflies. The two bedroom condo we rented was recently renovated in a modern coastal style and being on the first floor allowed us easy access to the pool, the barbecue area and the gym, which to be honest I visited only once, since the choice of outdoor activities around the golf-course was a much more tempting and rejuvenating alternative.

Aventura in general is closely located to the beach and about 30 min from Miami and 20 min from Ft. Lauderdale.The beaches here are wide and long, never feel crowded and you can enjoy your privacy. You can imagine my surprise, when during one of the lazy afternoons on the beach, a photo shoot set shop close by. I had never witnessed models being photographed before and while excited that this was happening only 10 feet from us, I was equally impressed with the efficiency and professionalism of the team who managed to finish the job in 20 min or so. The two models – a blond Scandinavian type and a graceful African-American – were not only lovely but seemed very easy going and down to earth. The team of a photographer, make up artists and assistants- all 10 of them- managed quickly to arrange the set and I was really taken with their pleasant attitude towards each other, positive energy and high-fifing. I couldn’t tell if these were colleagues or best friends or may be both. Unobtrusive and yet apologetic for setting up so close to us, the photo shoot went on to its business just as fast as it came- they graciously allowed me to post some of the pics I had taken with my phone camera.

Driving along the millionaire’s lane Ocean Drive (extarvagantly  luxurious apartments and houses along the coast) you can reach another hot spot- Hallandale board walk and beach. Here everyone feels at home- the atmosphere is one of leisure and enjoyment. Numerous shacks converted into restaurants offering fresh seafood, shops clad with beach wear and swim accessories, ice-cream parlous and cool bars will satisfy every taste, when you choose to take a break from the beach in front. The waves here are a magnet for surfers and when the ocean is calm- you can rent a paddle board or a kayak.

Annually, Florida also hosts one of the biggest tennis events of they year- Miami Open (March 23- April 6) since 1987. This year (2015) Miami Open – presented by Itaú – boasted the participation of the world’s top men’s and women’s players and had become the place to be seen in Miami. I was lucky to be able to get tickets for the finals and admire the two titans- Novak Djokovic and Andy Murrey – competing for the 1st place. The Tennis Center at Crandon Park is located by the Miami Seaquarium and is only about an hour drive from Aventura. I was impressed with the efficiency of the operation for this event- thousands of cars and people were managed in a fast and organized manner and it took us only 30 min to park, board a shuttle and arrive at the venue. Once there, the complex offered a variety of entertainment- the shops, restaurants and bars quickly served thousands of visitors and massive screens conveniently  located at every corner,  allowed the visitors to enjoy the action away from the court. The weather on the day of the finals was overcast, but still quite hot and humid at 28 degrees Celsius and thankfully, the organizers issued every visitor a souvenir hat- a handy accessory to protect us from the heat- and the vendors offered frozen drinks.

The 13,800-seat Stadium Court quickly filled with tennis fans and at 1:00 pm sharp the game commenced. The atmosphere was amazing, however just like with any sports or cultural event, if you are claustrophobic or have no patience for large audience, this is not the place for you. Mr Djokovic won for a 3rd time in a row this particular competition and the Serbian fans in the audience were hugely proud of their idol. The speeches at the end were touching- both Mr Murrey and Mr Djokovic sounded humble and appreciative of the fans’ support.

Unfortunately, getting out of the venue was less successful, but still acceptable for the amount of people that had to be processed. Excited and pretty tired from the heat and the emotional match we managed to get back to Aventura after nine hours since we left that same morning. All I can say is that it was well worth it :-)

Another fast but long drive is the trip to Key West via the Miami turnpike. It takes about 4 hours to reach Key West, which is the last of all Keys (after Key Largos, Islamorada and several other smaller keys). The turnpike is another term for a highway and it costs about $ 10 in tolls each way. It is a well maintained, straight as an error road and by far one of the most monotonous and uneventful highways I have even been to. It is repetitive in having nothing but short bush on both sides of the road, interrupted only by the usual American fast food chains in regular intervals. I was hypnotized by the seemingly endless drive and struggled to not fall asleep on the road. If you have cruise control on your car, you might as well take a nap or have a three course meal, change your clothing, fix your make up and even update your CV- nothing happens for hours…

You can catch a glimpse of  the other Keys, which seem pretty, however the pearl in the crown, without a doubt is Key West- a favorite port for cruise lines, boats of all sizes and luxury yachts and millions of visitors every year. It is also the home of Heminguay and Mel Fisher – one of the most famous treasure hunters, best known for finding the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha. He discovered the wreck on July 20, 1985 and the estimated $450 million cache recovered, known as “The Atocha Motherlode,” which included 40 tons of gold and silver;  114,000 of Spanish silver coins, Colombian emeralds, gold and silver artifacts, and 1000 silver ingots. Large as it was, this was only roughly half of the treasure that went down with the Atocha. The wealthiest part of the ship is yet to be found. Replicas of this and other treasures that Mel discovered can be seen in his Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Mel’s family continues his legacy to this day, making it a lucrative business for those who want to invest in it, allowing them to dive and search for lost treasures as well.

Even more interesting and for me an amazing trip in literal history was the home of Hemingway (who lived there between 1931-1939), now turned into a museum. It is a private, for-profit landmark and tourist attraction now populated by six and seven-toed cats that are descendants of Hemingway’s famous cats.

The house was one of the first on the island to be fitted with indoor plumbing, and the first to have an upstairs bathroom with running water, fed from a rain cistern on the roof. Also notable are a built-in fireplace, and the first swimming pool not only in Key West, but the only pool within 100 miles (160 km) in the late ’30s. In November 1936, Hemingway, in an interview with the Key West Citizen, showed the reporter the location he had planned for a pool. It was Pauline Hemingway, though, who spent $20,000 (equivalent in 2013 to $330,000) to have the deep well-fed pool built for her husband, while he was away as a Spanish Civil War correspondent in 1938. When Hemingway returned, he was reportedly unpleasantly surprised by the cost, and exclaimed: “Well, you might as well have my last cent.” This penny is embedded in concrete today near the pool. Hemingway enjoyed fishing, but another hobby of his was boxing. He set up a ring in his yard and paid local fighters to box with him. Being an eccentric, as well as a great writer, Hemingway converted a urinal obtained after a renovation at Sloppy Joe’s bar into a water fountain in the yard, where it remains a prominent feature at the home, serving as one of the many water sources for the grounds’ cats.

The book store on the premises of the house sells Heminguay works, as well as some photographs from what is considered one of his happiest times in his life- fishing and writing in Key West. I personally loved his writing studio -well preserved and even his type writer set in a  way that you can easily imagine Heminguay sitting behind it working, smoking his favorite cigar.

Heminguay

Key West has been one of my personal favorites, it developed over the years, but retained its bohemian style, rich history and culture. Key West is at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys and only about 90 miles (140 km) from Cuba. Nowadays expensive hotels and resorts attract millions of tourists and numerous festivals and events take place almost weekly, gathering musicians, artists, actors, fisherman, yachtsmen and celebrities from all over the world. Without a doubt, the most controversial and exhilarating for some attraction is the body-painting festival, parading on Duval street, usually in October every year.  Hundreds of particpiants prepare religiously for it, for some it is not just a fun week, it is a full-time career. You can see amazing works of art and not so elaborate self-painted “costumes”. If you are not a hippie yourself or do not appreciate naked bodies in their 50s and 60s, you may not be as impressed, but the important thing is that the vibe of the event is contagious and everyone is having a great time.

Our stay in Key West this time was brief, but we still managed to enjoy the night life, the seafood restaurants on the breezy marina, taste the traditional Key Lime Pie and even sailed on a  glass kayak on a  gorgeous sunny day.

When I saw this kayak online a month ago, I thought to myself, this is too cool! How come no one thought of this years ago? So, when the opportunity presented itself to try it first hand in Key West, I was only too pleased to take it. We signed up for what looked like a nice tour, called “Clearly Unique”. The Skipper (and Owner) Chance and his guide Terry were very informative, pleasant and accommodating. They took us to a mangrove lagoon where we had the chance to explore the area in the transparent kayaks and witness the wild life above and in the water. The view beneath us was exactly what I expected: it looked like I have put my snorkeling mask and set off to learn about the marine life. Later, the tour took us to a ship wreck site, where we had the chance to snorkel for real and I even managed to get on one of those paddle boards and enjoy the sun, while having a good work out rowing away. I later learned that this Kayak can easily be stored, when collapsed and it is also pretty light – something everyone should take into consideration when traveling. Unfortunately, when I checked on Amazon, this Kayak was not available, however you can get it directly from the Clear Blue website (check it out under the Shop page of this site).

The hotel we stayed in Key West at $350 a night was the least expensive hotel of 3+ stars we could find in the area. It did have a gorgeous swimming pool and the view of the room was nice, but there was no breakfast included in the price and we felt that it was overpriced, just like most of the restaurants and stores in Key West. While the spirit of the place is artistic and bohemian, to afford to stay here you should not be on a tight budget. Still, Key West is always full of tourists, who adore the relaxed and hippy atmosphere and are gladly enjoying all it has to offer.