Taking in the best of southern Florida, Sasha Arms, editor of Carl Goes city guides, experiences the fast-paced fun of Miami and the laidback life of the Florida Keys in an all-American road trip.

In the first leg of our Florida road trip, we took in Orlando, Anna Maria Island and Naples. Travelling further south, the weather becomes steamier and more tropical. Driving from Naples on the Gulf of Mexico coastline towards Miami on the Atlantic coastline essentially means driving along one of two roads that cut through the Everglades: the I75, also known as ‘Alligator Alley’, or the Tamiami Trail.

Everglades (Sasha Arms)

Everglades (Sasha Arms)

The Tamiami Trail is by far the more interesting, where Indian villages can be spotted from the roadside, and a smattering of Everglades airboat tour providers inhabit the banks of the waterways. We stopped off at Wooten’s Everglades Airboat Tours, which is home to a nature park as well as offering airboat tours of the Everglades. The nature park has everything from baby alligators and adult alligators, to snakes, panthers and the loudest turkeys you’ve ever heard. Vultures hang around on top of every fence in sight. Taking an airboat into the Everglades is a fascinating experience and our skipper, Captain Robbie, had grown up a mile away and could regale many a story of getting caught up in the Everglades mangroves in his youth. On the 30 minute journey, we spotted a number of alligators ducking above and below the water line while Captain Robbie whizzed us around in the boat. Adrenalin-fuelled and a fascinating insight into a one-of-a-kind ecosystem, a Wooten’s airboat tour cannot be missed.

Wooten’s Everglades Airboat Tours (Sasha Arms)

Wooten’s Everglades Airboat Tours (Sasha Arms)

Miami

Arriving in Florida’s second largest city can be a culture shock after spending time in some of the state’s more laidback coastal towns and islands. We headed straight to Miami Beach, where the trendy and moneyed locals and visitors like to let loose. Days in Miami Beach can be as relaxing or fun-injected as you like, consisting of beach time, perusing the boutiques and taking in the Art Deco architecture; to partying with cocktails in the swimming pools of the big hotels, followed up by drinking and dancing in bars along Ocean Drive well into the early morning.

South Beach (Sasha Arms)

South Beach (Sasha Arms)

While there are plenty of restaurants along Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and other of the buzziest streets in the area, they can be pricey and touristy. Wander over to the other side of Miami Beach and you’ll find restaurants with a more local vibe and better quality of food.

Key Lime Pie at the Icebox Cafe

Key Lime Pie at the Icebox Cafe

Icebox Cafe is one such eatery, decked out in light wooden furniture and low slung lights that have a distinctly Scandinavian feeling. The mood is relaxed and intimate and the menu appealing with a seasonal feeling. We started off with a couple of refreshing cocktails, made with syrups that had been freshly made on the premises. For starters, we had the creamiest jumbo lump crab cakes, complete with earthy white beans and organic yellow tomatoes, and the oh-so-tender St. Louis pork ribs served with the zing of homemade kimchi. For the main dishes, we had the tuna steak with fresh salsa and the pappardelle with the full-of-flavour braised short rib ragu. The fresh, feel-good flavours made for a real treat of a meal, and full as we were, we made space for the key lime pie: definitely the best we tasted on the whole trip. Friendly but not overbearing service from Gustavo, a mellow atmosphere and carefully crafted flavours made the meal genuinely impressive.

Barceloneta around the corner is another gem of a restaurant away from the bustle. Moodily lit with Almodovar posters and photos on the walls, the Spanish warmth and style is distinct. With an array of tempting tapas dishes on the menu, we drank Estrella beers to wash down the array of dishes we sampled. The boquerones (fresh anchovies) from the raw bar are served on ice and come delectably flavoured – just as they would in Spain. The Iberico ham croquetas were creamy and moreish, the patatas bravas had just the right amount of kick, and the arroz caldoso was packed with lobster, crab, squid and grouper, giving it a rich taste of the sea. It’s difficult not to over-eat in general in the US, but we’re glad we did here. After all, Barceloneta does warn diners to come hungry.

Icebox Cafe

Icebox Cafe

Visitors to Miami Beach can take their pick of hotels, most of which are decadently priced and located around Collins Avenue. We plumped for Sagamore the Art Hotel, in the heart of the Art Deco district on Collins Avenue and with direct access out the back to South Beach itself. The oversized swing in the lobby is an interactive piece of art that visitors delight in having a go on, while artsy quotes adorn the walls and a grungier style of art spruces up the stairwells. The rooms themselves are Miami personified: white leather sofas, slick black surfaces and glass doors opening up the bedroom to the living area. We were also treated to a balcony overlooking The Sagamore’s outdoor seating area, pool and the beach beyond. A stay at The Sagamore epitomises what Miami Beach is all about.

The Sagamore (Sasha Arms)

The Sagamore (Sasha Arms)

Islamorada, Florida Keys

Cheeca Lodge (Sasha Arms)

Cheeca Lodge (Sasha Arms)

Made up of more than 100 tiny islands, the Florida Keys are connected by the all-American Overseas Highway, which stretches all the way down to Key West. It’s the kind of journey road trips were made for, with some stretches of the highway surrounded only by water.

Islamorada was our first stop along the way. It’s a small place with a handful of shops, restaurants and bars in the vicinity, but the real reason people stay in the keys is for the beachside life. We checked into Cheeca Lodge and Spa accordingly, a huge resort and a previous favourite of George Bush Snr., comprised of self-catering holiday apartments and hotel rooms in the main building, where we stayed. Our grandiose suite was super-spacious with double doors leading to an opulent bathroom complete with a monsoon shower. The real luxury of the room, however, came in the form of a hot tub on the balcony, where water is filled like a waterfall from the balcony ceiling.

If you can bear to leave the hot tub, Cheeca Lodge is the best Floridian resort we came across for facilities and activities. The resort has its own beach complete with sun loungers, watersports galore (we took out a couple of sea kayaks), a games room ripe for table tennis and fusball championships, tennis courts, an outdoor swimming pool, a sea water snorkelling lagoon, a hidden jacuzzi and a fitness room.

Checha Lodge

Cheeca Lodge

There are a handful of dining options in Islamorada, but Cheeca has its own selection of restaurants that rival anywhere else in the area. We dined at Atlantic’s Edge on the lodge’s patio and were wowed by the quality of the cuisine. Raw was the way forward for the starters, as we kicked off with perfectly limey local fish ceviche and the ahi tuna carpaccio. Grouper was the catch of the day, which made for the perfect follow-up to the starters. Washed down with blueberry mojitos, the warm evening was given just the right amount of cool. If you do feel like venturing off-site, oo-tray is a chilled out restaurant and bar a short drive down the road, where you can catch some occasional live music and a killer Vietnamese pulled pork sandwich.

Marathon, Florida Keys

Further along the Overseas Highway is Marathon, a marginally more built-up part of the keys. We stopped off to stay at Tranquillity Bay for a night, and soon wished we were there to stay forever. Our three-bedroomed beach house was immaculately decked out and came with a huge kitchen, breakfast bar and dining table. The peak of luxury came in the form of the doors that led straight onto the private beach outside. It’s a way of life people dream of.

Tranquility Bay (Sasha Arms)

Tranquility Bay (Sasha Arms)

Evenings at Tranquillity Bay are spent at the Tiki Bar followed by food at the Butterfly Cafe. We tucked into the scallop risotto and yellowtail snapper, which were delicately flavoured and impeccably presented. There are plenty of grocery stores nearby in Marathon to stock up for self-catering meals too.

Key West

Parasailing with Fury Water Adventures (Sasha Arms)

Parasailing with Fury Water Adventures (Sasha Arms)

For the final part of our journey, we (reluctantly) left Tranquillity Bay to head down to Key West, the famously fun-loving town and the furthest south you can go in Florida. Boredom is not an option in Key West, with plenty of shops, bars and open-air restaurants to fit in in between the people-watching. Those who like a little activity can take their pick too, and Fury Water Adventures is one of the best-known providers for watersports and day trips in the area. We went on a Fury parasailing trip, where we were strapped in and slowly released into the air from the back of the boat. The crew gave us a fun-filled experience, casting us as high as we could go to take in the stunning views, dipping us in the bath-warm sea and taking our photos all the while. We only wished we were in Key West for longer to try out some of Fury’s other activities, like the live music sunset cruise and jet ski tours.

In between activities and wandering the main drag of Duval Street, we chilled out at our hotel, the Parrot Key Resort. Located just outside of Key West’s centre, the resort provides a little respite from the central Key West madness. At Parrot Key, apartments with a beachy feel are found in between lush tropical vegetation. Although Key West isn’t known as a beach resort, Parrot Key has recreated a sandy walkway by the water to roam on. The resort also puts on a free shuttle service to Smithers Beach a couple of miles away. In the centre of the resort are three separate pool areas, giving guests cosy corners to chill-out in, with Cafe Blue nearby for casual snacks.

Parasailing with Fury Water Adventures (Sasha Arms)

Parasailing with Fury Water Adventures (Sasha Arms)

The Key West fun ramps up a gear in the evening, kicking off with the Sunset Celebration in Mallory Square every single evening. People drink, cheer at the sunset, watch the street performers and maybe take in a little street food, before heading to the bars. For those who like to enjoy a sit-down meal, El Meson de Pepe is a Cuban restaurant right by Mallory Square that serves up hearty and authentic Cuban meals. Most revellers love to bar crawl around Key West until the early hours, although we hit the Green Parrot to take in the awesomeness of the band Suenalo, who were in Key West for the night. That didn’t stop us from doing a rum and cola bar crawl afterwards though. After all, one doesn’t get to do a Key West foray every day of the week. But there is one important rule to follow: what happens in Key West, stays in Key West.

Find out more about Sasha Arms at: www.sashaarms.com

Follow Sasha on Twitter: @sashaarms

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Suenalo at the Green Parrot (Sasha Arms)

Suenalo at the Green Parrot (Sasha Arms)

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