[Vacay.ca occasionally publishes articles on destinations outside of Canada. As our readers begin to plan their winter getaways to Florida and other southern destinations, Vacay.ca Deputy Editor Rod Charles spotlights one of America’s most fascinating destinations.]
Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
Covering Canadian destinations for Vacay.ca is a privilege and tons of fun, but I’ve always felt part of the Canadian experience is visiting Florida. If there are two things the Sunshine State is famous for it’s oranges and snowbirds. Statistics Canada says given its winter appeal Florida is the second-most popular destination for Canadians after New York. Florida is also where Canadians spend the most money — Canadians took 2.5 million overnight visits there in 2007 and spent $2.8 billion, an increase of 18% over 2006. It’s not hard to see why, with outstanding attractions like Universal Orlando Resort, Kennedy Space Center, Walt Disney World, Key West, The Everglades and Miami Beach within easy access to one another.
After landing in Orlando I jump into a very long line to pick up our car rental. Driving in Florida means driving on toll roads. Do your research — depending on how far you plan to drive and how long you’re staying, it may be advisable to pay these fees up front with the rental company so that you won’t always have to be hunting for loose change. Be sure to shop around because every company has different rates. If driving a personal vehicle, your tolls will be recorded and mailed to you, along with an administrative fee.
Once we have our car we’re ready to check into the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Across From Universal Orlando (5905 South Kirkman Road; telephone, 1-407-351-3333). As the name says, this hotel is located directly across from Universal Orlando, which is convenient for guests who are spending time at the park. The hotel is pet friendly, has lots of free parking and 134 family-sized suites with your choice of one or two bedrooms. There’s a T.G.I. Friday’s on the ground floor.
The first day is spent in Orlando. We take in Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba, (Downtown Disney, Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando, Lake Buena Vista; 1-407-939-7328), a highly entertaining production with several elements young children will love — not surprising given that the Walt Disney money machine is literally right outside the door. We also paid a visit to the Kennedy Space Center (FL 32899; 1-866-737-5235).
The star attraction is Space Shuttle Atlantis, but there are also the launch sites for the Apollo Missions and several fun and interesting things for kids to do at the Visitors Center, including the Rocket Garden, Lunch With An Astronaut and the IMAX Theatre.
Read about Kennedy Space Center on Vacay.ca: “Florida’s Space Coast is world class”
Read these science-related stories on Vacay.ca
The next day we are ready for the road, first stop will be Miami, and then it’s off to Key West in the Florida Keys. Bring as much of your own food as possible to save money on the road and bring those shades and sun-tan lotion for the ride — you’re going to need it. When driving in Florida be prepared to drive in the rain. The storms never lasted long, but they were often intense and made driving tricky.
DAY 1 ON FLORIDA ROAD TRIP
THURSDAY, 4 PM, CHECK-IN AT CADET HOTEL
Location: 1701 James Ave, Miami Beach
Distance from the airport: Twenty-one-minute drive (19 kilometres, 12 miles) via I-195 W and FL-112 W.
Reservations: Click here, or call 1-305-672-6688.
What you should know: We arrive at trendy Cadet Hotel after a four-hour drive from Orlando and check into the Clark Gable Suite, named after the Gone With The Wind leading actor who made the line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” famous. Word is that Gable spent time in this very room (No. 224) during his years as a West Point cadet. The whole hotel feels like it exists in the wrong decade — as soon as you walk through the front door and into the building you will see several antiques, a chandelier, a grand piano, even a scotch club. I half expect to see a couple of World War II-era servicemen smoking at the bar.
Located in the famous Art Deco District, the room features a nice seating and work area with antique prints, custom-made furniture and a beautiful bathroom – the lovely four-claw bathtub steals the show in this room. The hotel features 31 rooms, two junior suites, one master suite and a lobby bar. The property has a spa that offers a variety of treatments (including hot stone, bamboo, Swedish or deep-tissue massage). You will love the pool, simply stunning at night, a wonderful spot to chill after dinner with a glass of wine — or during dinner via Pied à Terre Restaurant. Pool hours are Sunday to Thursday, 7 am-8 pm and Friday to Saturday 7 am-6 pm.
Cost: An online search for a November weekend date showed rooms can be booked for $569 per night for the Clark Gable Suite, $228.65 for the Superior King and $194.65 for the Cozy Queen Bed. For parking, one option is to pay for the entire day at a public parking lot just a few steps north of the hotel on James Avenue – but this is a public lot. Expect the rates to change and go up on weekends. There’s parking at a garage at 640 17th Street (one hour for $1 hourly, $20 for 24 hours. There are also two public lots available on James Avenue all day, $25 to $45; all dollar figures are USD).
Tip: The hotel’s location makes it a great starting point to explore the community. South Beach is just a quick six-minute walk east past bustling Collins Avenue. The beach is a magnet for Canadian tourists and it’s not hard to see why — the water is warm, with white sand to the north and south as far as the eye can see. Looking west behind the beach is the city itself, stunning in the sunlight. Another option that is only a short walk from the hotel is west along the Lincoln Road Mall, a street with a party atmosphere that is lined with restaurants, patios and stores.
THURSDAY, 7:30 PM, DINNER AT PIED À TERRE RESTAURANT AT CADET HOTEL
Reservations: Click here, or call 1-305-531-4533.
What you should know: After a couple hours on the beach, we head back to the hotel for dinner at Pied à Terre Restaurant, which has a reputation for creating excellent dishes. This isn’t a large restaurant and that’s just fine — with just 36 seats inside and seating for 25 in the garden, it’s very cozy. The restaurant also has an outside terrace, garden dining and a relaxing ambiance. With one lucky lady celebrating her 75th birthday just two seats away, it felt like we were all invited to the celebration.
One of the things that makes Pied à Terre a truly unique experience is its concept of not having a full-time chef. Three or four times a year the restaurant invites into its kitchen seasonal visiting chefs who work at top Michelin-starred restaurants in France and the best restaurants in Miami — the menu is built around innovative recipes created partially by those culinary talents. The latest visiting chef came from Hyères in Provence and has just left, but his recipes are still there and making an impact. These chefs share the latest trends of French contemporary cuisine and food preparation philosophies, train their kitchen staff, and create recipes specifically for the restaurant. The recipes change with the seasons and Pied à Terre Restaurant prepares the food using innovative classic French cooking techniques. The restaurant doesn’t incorporate cream, uses minimal butter, and includes spices and fresh products from all over the world. The restaurant’s collection of 241 wines from small private wineries won the 2013 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
Menu price range: $36-$49 for main plates
You must order: The Fresh Wild Mushroom Risotto with seasonal wild mushrooms ($17) was very good. Some delicious suggestions for your main course are the Seabass Peruvian Flavors, with baby vegetables, saffron and mussels ($39) or the Beef Filet “Ambassador of the World” ($40). If you love chocolate, try the Valrhona Chocolate Fondant ($12).
DAY 3 ON FLORIDA ROAD TRIP
FRIDAY, 9 PM, ON THE ROAD TO FLORIDA KEYS
After breakfast at Cadet’s garden (and one last quick dip in the ocean) we are on the road out of Miami to Key West. Be sure to drive south along the beach and see more of the Art Deco District before leaving town.
We enjoy a wonderful, scenic drive along US Route 1, a beautiful but long drive. It takes us about five hours to make the trip all the way to Key West, give or take some time for sightseeing and eating.
Driving to Key West
The drive is 3 hours, 14 minutes (261 kilometres, 162 miles)
What you should know: If you’re not in a hurry and are interested in places to eat or stop, a good lunch option for the trip to Key West is Keys Fisheries Market & Marina (3502 Gulfview Ave, MM 49, Marathon; 1-305-743-4353). If you want to walk in the footsteps of legendary author Ernest Hemingway, visit the World Wide Sportsman (114 Palm Ave, Islamorada; 1-305-664-3102). Here, you can see and board “Pilar” the Famous Sister Ship to Hemingway’s Fishing Boat. Hemingway’s typewriter and desk sit below the main deck.
Another stop close to Key West (about 56 kilometres, 35 miles) is Bahia Honda State Park (36850 Overseas Hwy, Big Pine Key; 1-305-872-2353), featuring several activities. Cost is $8 per vehicle, limit up to 8 people per vehicle and $2 for pedestrians, cyclists and extra passengers.
FRIDAY, 3 PM, CHECK-IN AT CYPRESS HOUSE
Location: 601 Caroline Street, Key West
Distance from the airport: Key West International Airport (3491 S Roosevelt Blvd, Key West) is a 10-minute drive, (6 kilometres, 4 miles).
Reservations: Click here, or call 1-800-549-4430.
What you should know: The location of this property is perfect, close enough to the action yet far enough not to be too close to heavily travelled Duval Street or other noisy tourist areas. Located in Old Town, the buildings on this adults-only property are over 120 years old and feature 22 guestrooms that all look a little bit different from each other. Lots of space in the rooms, new furnishings and modern amenities that include a private bath and spacious shower and flat-screen TV. The property also features a continental breakfast.
The room we stayed in was lovely, but was only accessible by going up two flights of outdoor stairs, so be sure to let them know if you have special needs. Breakfast is served every morning in the sitting area beside the pool, which is also a beautiful area to chill after arriving back from an evening out.
Cost: An online search for an October weekend date showed the Deluxe King Guestroom (Private Bath; one king bed accommodating up to two adults; non-smoking room, mini fridge and flat screen TV) can be booked at a cost of $469 a night.
Tip: If you have the time, head towards 200 Elizabeth Street (walk east on Caroline Street one intersection to Elizabeth) and visit Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Pie Shoppe. You will see several dinner choices in and around the area of Front and Simonton Street. Walk east along the boardwalk and choose a restaurant that appeals to you. My choice was Conch Republic Seafood (631 Greene Street; 305-531-4533), a restaurant that featured live entertainment and lots of televisions for sports fans to follow their favourite teams. For an appetizer, I enjoy crab cakes ($11) and conch fritters ($9). Main courses are Local Snapper Fillet, topped with chimmichurri vinaigrette, served with “smashed” potatoes and chef’s fresh vegetables ($25) and Blackened Key West Shrimp ($22).
DAY 4 ON FLORIDA ROAD TRIP
SATURDAY, 8 AM, SOUTHERNMOST POINT
Location: South and Whitehead Street
What you should know: We decide to walk to Southernmost Point, an interesting tourist trap that marks the southernmost point on the continental United States. It’s a boiling hot day and it’s almost always crowded so we make our run for the marker as early as possible. We decide to walk about 25 minutes east from our hotel — not a bad idea after our large dinner. It doesn’t matter. When we get there it is still a long line up, and the sun is already boiling. We wait in line and snap a picture. It’s about a 12-minute wait to get a picture — not the end of the world but it feels like a 40-minute wait under this sun. There’s even almost an altercation when three young men bud in line to get their picture. But overall, it’s worth it to get our picture taken at the site of this very popular tourist trap.
SATURDAY, 9:15 AM, THE ERNEST HEMINGWAY HOME & MUSEUM
Location: 907 Whitehead Street
What you should know: Ernest Hemingway House is where the legendary writer lived from 1931 to 1939. It’s also where Hemingway, who got his start at the Toronto Star, produced some of his most famous works, including “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “To Have And Have Not” and the non-fiction work, “Green Hills of Africa.” The house has several pictures, books and furniture pieces from the writer’s life.
Take the 30-minute tour — it’s worth it. The guides are knowledgeable and entertaining, and you can get a close view of all the features of the house, including the building in the back where most of the writing took place. This place is loaded with cats — there is even a Cat Cemetery on the property. According to the website, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is home to approximately 40-50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats. Hemingway was given a white six-toed cat by a ship’s captain and some of the cats who live on the museum grounds are descendants of that original cat, named Snowball. In another odd twist, these cats are all named after famous people, a tradition that Hemingway started. Hemingway House is also the location of a famous James Bond Scene from the movie License to Kill.
Tip: Across the street is the lighthouse, which is also prominent in the Bond movie scene. If you have time, check it out. Cost for the lighthouse is $10.
SATURDAY, 5 PM, FURY CATAMARAN GLASS BOTTOM BOAT
Location: Duval Street, Fury Departure Point 2. Located between Ocean Key Resort and Pier House Resort, at the end of Duval Street. This is the departure point for “The Pride of Key West” — Glass Bottom Boat.
What you should know: One thing you want to do at least once is watch the sunset, which is something of a tradition here on the shores of Key West. The Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square is one extraordinary place to do just that. Each night before sunset, people flock Mallory Dock to experience a party and watch the sun go down. You’ll find artists, buskers and local restaurants.
If you can, catch a ride on a glass boat. We jumped on board for the two-hour Glass Bottom Boat Sunset Cruise Combo and enjoyed snacks and drinks before arriving over the coral reef. A great moment came on the way back to Key West when the announcer said that the sunset would happen at exactly 7:02. The boat stopped and we watched the sun slowly disappear beneath the waves. Whatever you do, however you do it, make sure that you don’t leave Key West without enjoying at least one sunset on or near the ocean.
Cost: $40.95 adults, $36.86 online
MORE ABOUT FLORIDA
Florida Tourism: VisitFlorida.Com
Phone: Call 1888-735-2872 to speak with an information specialist.
Florida Keys: Fla-keys.com/
Orlando Tourism: Visit Orlando.Com
Phone: 1-407-363-5872 / Toll Free: 1-800-972-3304
Phone: 1-305-539-3000 / Toll Free: 1-800-933-8448