See the Sunshine State and discover magnificent Art Deco edifices in Miami Beach, alligators in the marshy Everglades, literary tradition at the southernmost point of continental USA, white quartz beaches and an old-time fishing town on the Forgotten Coast.
Miami Beach: Best for Art Deco
Whimsy is the
substance of South Beach. ‘Some say that everyone here gets Botox or takes
steroids,’ says architectural tour guide Mat Ruiz, standing before one of the
city’s great restored Art Deco edifices. ‘The buildings are the same way –
plain, rectangular boxes dressed up with fancy ornamentation.’ Ruiz is a
volunteer with the Miami Design Preservation League, the organisation that in
1979 won federal preservation of Miami Beach’s Art Deco district and in turn
saved the city from the demolition ball.
with swooping curves, racing horizontal bands, wraparound windows, needle-like
towers and candy-coloured neon, the architecture was designed to remind
visitors that they 0 200 400 600 800 1000 were on holiday. Even the beach’s
lifeguard towers are unique, each one fancifully decorated. Some buildings look
like wedding cakes, others like pyramids, and others – such as the Beach Patrol
Headquarters, with its brushed-aluminium railings and porthole windows –
conjure up the great transatlantic luxury liners.
permeates public space in South Beach. The post office features a 23-sided Art
Deco dome with a fountain at its centre. Come twilight, the streets glow with
neon from famous landmarks like the Colony Theatre.
the finest examples of Deco design – these squat boxes are nothing compared
with New York’s Chrysler Building – their value lies in the ensemble: it’s the
world’s largest collection of Art Deco architecture, some 1,200 buildings, and
the entire district was designated on the National Register of Historic Places,
becoming America’s first historic district comprised entirely of 20th-century
buildings. Most appealing is the scale – each building is just a few storeys
high, keeping the pedestrian-friendly streets filled with that bright sunshine
for which Florida is so famous.
to imagine Miami Beach was a slum in the 1980s. It was built in the 1920s as a
modest holiday destination for blue-collar workers arriving by train from New
York, but by the time of the jet age, the city had fallen into complete disrepair.
Violent criminals ruled the streets and the beaches were empty.
artists, who came for the cheap rents and warm sun. Then, in 1985, fashion
photographer Bruce Weber shot an iconic perfume advert for Calvin Klein
Obsession, of bronzed, muscled nudes draped atop the Breakwater Hotel. Soon
every major American modelling agency had an office in South Beach.
Miami Beach has the strongest preservation laws in the whole of the US, tourism
is thriving and the fabulous architecture defines the skyline in all of its
buzzing neon glory.
Check out miamiandbeaches.com for further details.
Where to eat
Local celebrity chef Douglas Rodriguez creates classic Cuban dishes at his restaurant,
De Rodriguez Cuba. Standouts include
the lobster and mango ceviche (mains from £14).
Where to stay
Impressive for its understated style, the Shore Club’s white-on-white
rooms occupy a mid-20th-century tower hotel, adjoining an Art Deco lobby
opening onto sprawling Miami Beach. Rooms sport the requisite high-thread-count
linens and top-end bathing amenities, but are most appealing for their total
lack of clutter, keeping your attention squarely on the sun and sky (from £170).
Key West: Best for
At least 18 Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists
have had a postal address in Key West. Ernest Hemingway wrote 70 per cent of
his lifetime works during his nine years here. Wallace Stevens argued with
Robert Frost over lunch at the Casa Marina waterfront resort and Tennessee
Williams drank to excess at La Concha hotel. Margaret Atwood is holding a free
reading at the local public library this coming January. You never know who you
might run into in Key West. Longtime resident and fine artist David Schofield
quips: ‘Miami is for nobodies pretending they’re somebody. Key West is for
somebodies pretending they’re nobody.’
What is it about this tiny island that draws
such great talent? ‘Key West is the very end of the world,’ remarks Dave
Gonzales, manager of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, the Key West home
where Hemingway penned, among others, To Have and Have Not, set entirely in the
area. ‘A writer performs in solitude, and Key West is definitely good for
solitude,’ adds Dave.
Once you escape the garishness of Duval Street
there’s a frozen-in-time quality to Old Town. Ramshackle houses stand beside
grand colonial homes – a mishmash of styles drawing equally on the Caribbean
and New England. Hibiscus flowers spill over rickety picket fences and jasmine
perfumes the air after rainfall. The night sky blazes with stars. Life unfurls
slowly. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine crafting the great American novel in
such a lazy, liberating environment.
Where to eat
Heaven has a Caribbean-influenced menu, but no reservations means long
waits, especially for breakfast. Save room for the Key lime pie (mains from £7).
Where to stay
Key West Inns: Historic Key
West Inns operates five properties in the Old Town, and Key Lime Inn is the
collection’s top-end draw – an estate dating back to 1854, with guestrooms in
several satellite buildings that surround an expansive pool deck. Rooms feel
fresh with an uncluttered design, sunny colour palettes and up-to-date
amenities (from £100).
Park: Best for nature
Florida is incredibly flat – like a saucer jutting off the edge of the North
American continent. Water creeps in vast, shallow sheets across marshy
limestone. An elevation change of a few inches yields an entirely different
habitat. That’s what makes the Everglades so remarkable – nine distinctly
different ecosystems in an area once dismissed as swamp.
‘The story of the Everglades is a story of
water,’ says national-park ranger and naturalist Sue Reece before swatting a
mosquito from her face. ‘This was the first national park set aside for its
biological diversity and not its geological wonders. It’s not a swamp; it’s a
very slow-moving river – at least it used to be.’
Much of the flow has been diverted for agriculture
and development, but there’s a 40-year restoration plan under way to undo the
damage caused by canals.
Plants and animals that live nowhere else in
America thrive in abundance – from strangler fig trees to the elusive Florida
panther. And birds are everywhere – great herons and snowy egrets wading
through the mudflats, pelicans and cormorants in treetops, and large flocks of
ibis taking wing in billowing blankets of white.
No species sparks as much fascination as the
alligator, the park’s top predator. They’re easy to spot, too. ‘We’ve had ’em
laying out under the picnic tables,’ says Sue. These beasts play a key role in
the park’s ecology by burrowing ‘alligator holes’, which fill with deep water
that benefits other species in the dry season.
To draw people into the various habitats, the
park has built boardwalks and viewing platforms – the lazy man’s alternative to
hiking or canoeing. Wooden decks penetrate jungle-like forest, dense with spiky
ferns and palms, along with mangroves draped with vines and Spanish moss. Birds
and tree frogs chirp and creak, unseen in the thicket.
Walking just inches above murky brown water
teeming with ’gators can feel unnerving; no matter how much one remembers that
the only thing likely to bite are the mosquitoes.
Check out nps.gov/ever and paradisecoast.co.uk.
Where to eat and stay
For good, rustic accommodation, Miller’s
World rents out pine-panelled cabins. There’s an on-site pool and marina,
with kayak and power-boat rentals (from £80). The hotel’s restaurant, Oyster
House, capitalises on the area’s crop of seafood. For the adventurous, there’s
even alligator on the menu (mains from £6).
Siesta Key: Best for
Finding a Florida beach isn’t as easy as you
may think. Much of the state’s coastline has now been privatised, swallowed up
behind the bougainvillea-covered walls of gated communities. And although it’s
legal to wander anywhere below the high-tide line, finding a beach access point
in the Sunshine State can sometimes prove to be difficult. Yet somehow, in the
face of so much development, the little village of Siesta Key, on an island
within the city of Sarasota, has managed to retain its old-Florida spirit. It
has a low-rise centre scaled to suit pedestrians, with a kickback crowd of
locals that prefer wearing flip-flops to high heels. And this community’s biggest
point of pride? Its spectacular public beach.
What’s so extraordinary about Siesta Key Beach
is the powdery-soft, alabastercoloured sand, which fairly glitters in the
light. Unlike most other Florida beaches, whose sand is composed of shards of
shell and bits of broken coral – brutal on the soles of your feet – here it’s
composed of 99 per cent pure white quartz, which is a joy to walk upon. Even in
the summer, when the searing sun heats the water in the Gulf of Mexico to 32˚C,
the sand never seems to feel too hot. Pelicans bob on the rolling waves, which
are normally measured in inches, not feet. No thundering surf, just the gentle
‘hurrahhurrah’ from the mellow emerald waters. Sandpipers dart about the flat
terrain, pecking at the margin between land and sea while hunting their dinner.
Siesta Key residents colonise the beach at all
hours of the day, some practising yoga and tai chi, others swilling cocktails
from plastic cups. Rarely does a weekend go by without some form of organised
activity taking place – whether it be sandcastle competitions or professional
Local girl Stephanie Strahlman spent her
childhood here, and though she left to study in New York and England, she keeps
coming back to Siesta Key. ‘There’s something really calming about this beach,’
she says. ‘Some say it’s a spiritual place of healing. I don’t know about that,
but when I walk on the beach, I do know I leave feeling at peace.’
Visit sarasotafl.org.uk .
Where to eat
Locals hit Siesta Key Oyster Bar for fresh fish
tacos, cold beer and live classic rock. Right on the village’s main strip, the
outdoor deck and bar get packed every night with revellers. Call ahead to put
your name on the list or you might have to wait for a couple of hours (mains
Where to stay
The Inn on Siesta Key has the
perfect beach aesthetic, its apartments decorated in bright colours, each with
a comfy living area and fully stocked kitchen. If it’s booked up, the charming
innkeeper can recommend other nearby rentals, all within walking distance of
the village and beach (from £90).
Apalachicola: Best for
Most people don’t make it this far north.
Locals call it ‘the Forgotten Coast’ – which is ironic given its unforgettable
role in history. Perched at the edge of a wildly productive estuarine reserve
that’s famous for its oysters and shrimps, the little fishing town of
Apalachicola is also the birthplace of manmade ice, invented here in 1851.
Suddenly, chilled fish could be shipped inland by rail, which gave rise to the
modern seafood industry.
Modelled in 1830 after colonial-era
Philadelphia, with village greens, Gothic churches, salt-box cottages and
grand, turreted Queen Anne mansions, the little town has a frozen-in-time
quality like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, a portrait of Americana
unspoilt by development. In a state that prides itself on its manufactured
environments and theme parks, Apalachicola stands out for its sheer
TJ Ward is a fifth-generation oysterman and
seafood distributor. Sitting on the fishing docks, in the shadow of skiffs
moored outside 13 Mile Brand Seafood, his family’s seafood shop, Ward munches
on smoked mullet and speaks with pride of Apalachicola. ‘It’s kind of amazing,
a small town doing this well so far away from civilisation,’ he says. ‘We’re 90
miles from the closest interstate – the nearest Walmart is more than an hour’s
drive away – and the shops here are doing well.’
Last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
narrowly missed the city. ‘Something saved us – it’s called the Gulf Stream,’
explains TJ. ‘It runs a good 40 miles offshore, and it carries water away from
us. That helped us out a lot.’ Apalachicola Bay provides much of Florida’s
oyster catch, as well as an abundance of shrimp, crab and grouper. Had the oil
crept into the bay, the results would have been devastating.
The town’s waterfront looks largely as it
always has, thanks in large part to TJ’s father, Tommy, who refused to sell the
fishing docks to developers. And though fallout from the oil spill has
diminished business, the ordeal has only made him more resolute. ‘People came
by offering us money to sell this waterfront and I told ’em, “I’m not for sale
at no price”. So I get millions of dollars, and then what am I gonna do? Hunt
and fish and lay around the rest of my life? I enjoy what I do.’
Check out apalachicolabay.org
Where to eat
For oysters on the half shell, Creole-inspired
seafood dishes and cold beer, head to Hole in the Wall Seafood Market and Raw
Bar (mains from £8).
Where to stay
House Inn comprises three Victorian mansions, each styled with plush
fabrics and European antiques. The vibe is pure b&b, with guests mingling
over breakfast, and afternoon wine and cheese, served in the parlour. All three
mansions are ideally located in the middle of town. Extras include bikes for
exploring the pretty streets (from £82).
The article 'The perfect trip: Florida' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.