M.I.A. in MIA: Adventures in Miami & South Florida

Do you have a particular vacation style? As in, do you prefer to relax, or are you more of a go-go-go vacationer?

Do you determine in advance which style each vacation is going to be before you go? Maybe it takes some negotiation with other members of your family who have different preferences.

While my preferred style is relaxing, I recognize that some vacations are more suited for that, while others lend themselves to squeezing in as much activity as possible — like when you are seeing a new place, trying to take in all the sights.

For our recent trip to Miami Beach, Florida, we had four full days there. My plan was to have two days relaxing by the pool and the beach, and two days exploring. It ended up being more like 1.2 days of relaxation and the rest action-packed. But it turned out great. Allow me to regale you with some of our adventures by way of stories, pictures, and videos.

The initiation phase

Touching town in Miami (MIA is the airport code — I suspect I am far from the first to use it as a pun) on a Thursday night, we had big plans of renting a convertible sports car for cruising the sunny streets of South Florida.

Reality would have other plans as most of the rental car agencies were sold out of inventory entirely. It appeared that Enterprise had some, and the line was long, just before 6 p.m. when many of them start to close. While Mike held our spot in line, I bounced around to other rental car desks in the area to inquire.

Thankfully, Dollar had a few cars left. So we ended up getting a “mid-sized” car, which turned out to be a Ford Fusion. It wasn’t the convertible or muscle car we were looking for, but we were grateful to have one at all. And a Fusion is a fine consolation prize, so off we went.

The digs

What had sold me on booking a trip to Miami, over against our initial plans of something more exotic like Tahiti, was the fact that lodging was cheap. You can thank hurricane/off-season for that.

If you’re willing to travel there before the weeks of sad, gray rain stack up in the Pacific Northwest, and are cool with the potential of a hurricane, it turns out you can get pretty decent lodging for a stunningly low price.

Our Airbnb rental was a studio apartment in an old building with a great location and view.

The view from our apartment.

With beach frontage and access to the pool, I jumped on it.

Sidenote: the teen from the 1990s in me was extra delighted to learn that our rental was located on none other than A1A – BEACHFRONT AVENUE! (Bonus points if you know that reference.)

Making Miami Beach our temporary home

Our first full day in Miami was the day of relaxation. Mike found us some empanadas and coffee from a local bakery for breakfast (turns out there was a multitude of ethnic bakeries all within walking distance, so sampling the various kinds was a daily adventure), then it was off to the pool.

The weather cooperated for us, with some sun, some clouds, and temps in the 80s as we alternated between napping, reading, and swimming in the chilly pool.

After we’d had our fill of that, we walked across the boardwalk to the beach, and enjoyed the aquamarine waves crashing while observing Florida’s version of seagulls — cuter and smaller than the NW variety, we thought.

Seagulls chilling on Miami Beach.

The high wind whipped up the waves a little too fiercely for a swim that afternoon, so we just stuck our toes in and took in the sights and the sunshine.

We like the nightlife, we like to boogie

I’d always heard about the hip scene in South Beach, and had been curious to check it out for years. So for dinner, we headed that direction, not sure what to expect.

Like with any popular area in a big city, parking was rare and expensive. Eventually, we found a parking garage and set out on foot, looking for some fun and good eats.

It just so happened that in our wandering, that we meandered by Espanola Way – a lively road, blocked off from cars, with several cool-looking restaurants. People sat at open-air tables, with music spilling out into the street from every direction. It was just what we were looking for.

The first place on the corner was a Cuban restaurant called Havana 1957. We were hungry and it looked fun, so we grabbed a table. A full slate of mojito flavors made the decision that much easier.

 

Something I’ve learned in my adventures is to take the time to stop and drink in the moment when you find something special. Also, take plenty of video and pictures to capture it. For those with wanderlust like Mike and I have, it pays to get good at sniffing out the experiences you know you’re going to look back on and smile at for years to come.

Enjoy and document. But don’t let the documentation overtake the enjoyment of the moment. It is a tricky balance.

Venturing North to West Palm Beach

The following day we had earmarked to meet up with a friend of ours that had moved to West Palm Beach a few years back. Since we had wheels and thought it would be fun to explore a different town, we decided to take the 1.25-hour journey north to see her neck of the woods.

It was a somewhat tense, and longer than expected drive, due to our unfamiliarity with traffic patterns, taking inefficient routes, and getting used to the high percentage of maniacs on the road in South Florida. But eventually, we made it, and our friend took on the role of host, showing us some of the high points to see in West Palm Beach.

Chillin’ in West Palm Beach

Clock tower @ Worth Avenue

The imminent threat of torrential rain forced us to modify our agenda a bit. We enjoyed seeing the sights regardless.

We were hoping our friend Sujitha would have a solid local recommendation for a fun waterfront place to have dinner to wrap up our sightseeing. Our hopes were realized as we pulled up to Benny’s on the Beach in Lake Worth — a restaurant perched on an ocean pier with just the kind of vibe we were looking for.

Live music in the bar area made the mood lively, and as the expected torrential rain began coming down in droves, we watched with awe from the safety of a covered seating area as lightning flashed over the ocean. With fish tacos and a Saturday night party setlist from the local musician, we were loving life.

 

Here comes the rain

The drive home is where things got … interesting. We figured over dinner the torrential rain would run its course. Wrong. It continued for hours, drenching us as we rushed to the car. Driving our friend the 10 miles back to her place took way longer than it should have, as most of the surface streets had flash flooding with massive puddles that were deep enough we worried they might stall the car.

What seemed like an hour later, we got our friend home safely, only to begin what would normally be the one hour, fifteen-minute drive back to Miami. It took us closer to two hours, as we had to carefully navigate our way back to the highway.

Partly to avoid traffic, and partly to see some new areas, we got off the freeway at Ft. Lauderdale and drove along A1A South the rest of the way back. Even though it was dark by that time, it was fascinating to take in the sights of all the waterfront towns between West Palm Beach and Miami.

Highrise buildings filled most of the skyline. Untold hundreds of thousands of apartments, condos, hotels, and businesses. It occurred to me that rentals for people seeking a sunny getaway are a big, big market in Florida.

The two big itinerary items: Everglades National Park & The Florida Keys

With more rain in the forecast for our final two full days of the trip, we had some decisions to make. Visiting Everglades National Park and making the drive through the Florida Keys, down to Key West, were the two sightseeing items we really wanted to do.

Sunday was the day we had earmarked for driving through the Keys, but since it appeared the rain would find us, we decided to flip the itinerary and drive through the Everglades first.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with the park; I just wanted to see the landscape and hopefully some crocodiles and gators too!

Everglades National Park

Selfie at Everglades National Park – “Flamingo” area

(Side note: after our trip to Australia in 2015, I incorrectly thought crocs were only found down under. We learned through an Everglades visitor center host that there is an American species of crocodile, found in the Glades.)

The drive was enjoyable. The rain stayed mostly away, which was nice. Though unfortunately, we didn’t see any large reptiles, we did see some exotic plant life, birds, and manatees.

We nicknamed the manatees the “potato of the sea” because they look like a giant potato had a baby with a hippopotamus. With a slight touch of dolphin mixed in. Do a google image search. 😉

They were a little shy to peek out from the murky waters, but I found that if I made kissing noises, they made more frequent appearances.

A manatee partly shows itself in the Everglades.

An Everglades turtle!

Miami Brewing

Thanks to the assistance of Google Maps, we found an outstanding brewery/winery combo on the way back to grab some lunch and soak in the vibes.

Sometimes a long drive is worth it — Florida Keys edition

An issue where Mike and I differ on vacation preferences is that Mike loves exploring and taking long drives — really long drives. While I see the value in that, as I mentioned above, I prefer to relax. I don’t like sitting for long periods of time, so road trips can be tricky. But since they are essential to discovering new territory, once in a while you’ve gotta do it.

All that aside, driving Highway 1 through the Florida Keys was the top thing on my list while down there. When I saw that Key West was a 3.5-hour drive from Miami, I was not enthused about the prospect, but my desire to go outweighed that.

Plus, having seen enough movies and TV shows featuring portions of the drive, I knew we were in for a visual treat. Not to mention, spending a day in the car with my love is hardly a poor use of time.

The best-laid plans …

So, despite a mixture of rain and sunny skies in the forecast, off we went. We left plenty early to avoid traffic. That turned out to backfire on us. I’ll spare you most of the details, but let’s just say that due to a poorly placed accident at a choke point on Highway 1, we were stalled in such a manner that the trip to Key West took us seven hours, not 3.5!

We considered turning around and going back to our rental for another day at the pool when we saw traffic wasn’t going anywhere. But I knew that if we did that, I’d regret missing out on what I expected to be the highlight of the trip.

Tensions were a bit high when we finally got to Key Largo, but as the ocean stretched out on both sides of us, with the traffic at last in our rearview mirror, my mood improved dramatically.

Since Key West was the ultimate goal, and we were hours behind schedule, we didn’t stop at any of the enticing looking keys along the way. We did take notes of things that looked great to check out should we make it that way in the future.

I was highly anticipating seeing some of the long stretches of bridge, with beautiful water on both sides, as featured in many media productions over the years. My anticipation was not wasted.

We finally got to Key West mid-to-late-afternoon and were pleased with our perseverance. Making our way to the water, we found a vibrant scene: yachts docked in pristine light blue waters, a harborfront walk with trendy restaurants and shops with upbeat music playing, and a vibe that says, “we’re in the tropics.”

Key West, FL

The harbor view at Key West

Key West, FL

Finally in Key West!

To reward ourselves for the journey, we found an oyster bar with outside seating overlooking the water and settled in for a celebratory late lunch.

We were further entertained by the fact that a live daily feeding of tarpons (a big fish with a fin that protrudes making it look like a shark!) took place right in front of our table!

Key West, FL

Lunch on the water in Key West

There were several sightseeing items we had on our list while in Key West. The beach, the lighthouse (a painting specialty of my watercolor artist husband), and the official “southernmost point of the continental U.S.” As it turned out, however, the torrential rains found us not long after we finished our lunch.

Seeing as it was already getting late, we had a 3.5-hour drive ahead of us, and we had learned from a few nights earlier that the rain might last for a long while, we regretfully decided to forego the outdoor sightseeing options and make our way back to the car.

Since stepping out into the South Florida rain means getting soaked immediately, we at least weaved in and out of some shops on the harbor as we made our way back to where we were parked.

On the road again

On our way back to Miami, we made a few stops. Most significantly, a trip over the bridge to Duck Key, which is one I was drooling over on the way past the first time. The tiny island is a charming fishing community, surrounded by beautiful turquoise water, gorgeous homes (most with oceanfront property), and a resort.

From our quick drive through, it appeared that beach access was limited to private property, either from a home or a resort. So no beach ogling for us (the rain had stopped at that point).

But it is good to make notes for what items should be revisited on a future trip. That is one of the primary benefits of scouting trips that require long drives.

I’m pleased to report that traffic was not an issue on the return trip. Upon getting back to our apartment, we enjoyed our windy balcony overlooking the ocean, boardwalk, and pool under the night sky.

All good things must come to an end

The following afternoon we were due to fly home, with an 11 a.m. checkout. Since I wanted to maximize every last bit of relaxation, we got everything ready we could and enjoyed one last poolside hang, and, upon last-minute temptation, a brief swim in the warm ocean before the time came to shower and head back to the airport.

A quick ocean swim (first one of the trip) right before leaving

All in all, the trip was fantastic. Even though there was more rain than I wanted (none is what I was shooting for), and not quite as much relaxation.

There was some talk of not going because it seems the time is never quite right to take time off. But because of that, it is my belief that sometimes you just have to make an opportunity and commit to it.

Thanks for reading my little MIA story. 🙂 If you had the same amount of time in South Florida, what would YOU do?

About Summer Sorensen

My aim: to live out Jesus' greatest commands (Matthew 22:36-40) & have the most fun while doing it.
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