On this trip, Adam Karlin explores Miami, the Everglades, and the Florida Keys: a South Florida cocktail of weirdness, beauty and, of course, alligators.
I’m not saying all Florida stories involve alligators. I’m just saying this one has at least three.
But they come later, after I leave Miami, a city where the weirdness of the Sunshine State is baked into a patina of pastel, all overlaid with hot pink neon. I begin at the Vizcaya, an Italianate Renaissance-style wedding cake of a mansion built by James Deering, the Maine-born heir to an agricultural equipment fortune. For me, the Vizcaya encapsulates Miami’s illusion, opulence, folly and future; it’s over the top, beautiful and innovative, yet also ill-positioned – its European furniture and art rotted away in the Florida humidity not long after the mansion was completed. When Deering died the Vizcaya passed on to nieces who couldn’t maintain it; they, in turn, sold the property to the city of Miami, which operates the building as a museum, as well as a photo backdrop for a thousand weddings and quinceañeras.
From the Vizcaya I drive to Coral Gables, a posh neighborhood lined with banyan trees and (slightly) smaller versions of Vizcaya-esque Mediterranean mansions. For lunch I eat an excellent bagel at Coral Bagels, largely staffed and patronized by “Jewbans,” an only-in-South Florida marriage of Jews and Cuban Americans. Miami in particular, and South Florida in general, is a place of exiles; indeed, this city may have the largest variety of Spanish accents collected in one municipality. Many people come here seeking freedom and success, and some eventually find it.
I drive over the A1A causeway, arching across the straits of Biscayne Bay, the sky as turquoise as the waters below. The causeway connects Miami proper to Miami Beach, a separate city that at least initially eschewed South Florida’s relentless drive for new development with historical preservation. In this case, what has been preserved is a vision of the future, at least from the early 20th century: the hotels of South Beach’s Art Deco district.
Painted in tropical pastels and adorned with terrazzo flooring, neon signage and architectural elements meant to evoke sea travel, Aztec temples and even space flight, these buildings were saved from destruction in the 1980s. They subsequently attracted an international slew of designers and tastemakers, some of whom were also drawn by South Beach’s reputation as a gay-friendly slice of paradise. Then came the photoshoots, the models, the hip-hop videos – and now, me, strolling up Ocean Drive in the electric shadow of a dozen neon marquees.
I watch the mass snapping of selfies as the bold and beautiful of Latin America and Europe descend onto this beach for an international party. Amidst such glamour, I retire to a small Cuban cafe, needing the steadying support of eggs and a cortadito (an espresso shot and steamed milk). This is, frankly, a bad idea, seeing as it is now night and Cuban coffee makes me want to do anything but sleep.
I drive back to mainland Miami and the streets of Wynwood, which have rapidly gentrified into an adult playground filled with street art, graffiti murals, food halls and bars that are a hair more indie than the nightlife scene in South Beach. I walk around Wynwood for the better part of the night, eating sushi and drinking cocktails that roughly cost the down payment on a house, fueled by cortadito and the extreme FOMO of knowing yet another amazing bar is around the corner.
I run into my first alligator the very next morning at, appropriately enough, the area where Miami’s trailing edge fades into the Everglades. The gator is chilling between a canal and the shoulder of the road, not moving for love nor money on a Sunday morning; maybe it let loose in Wynwood the night before, too.
Then I drive south, toward Homestead, and listen to the Spanish language radio slip from Cuban to Mexican music, reflecting the demographics of this largely agricultural area. I snag fresh orange juice from the Robert is Here fruit stand, and continue into Everglades National Park.
South Florida is full of beauty – people, buildings and beaches – but the soft horizons of the River of Grass, a mix of flooded prairie and wooded swamp, never cease to outpace all of the above. I head out with a tour on a “wet walk” into a flower-laden dome formed by cypress trees. Within the dome, the pale morning sunlight illuminates a scene that is ridiculously sublime: orchid blooms, deep rushes of dark water and twisting vegetation.
Also: there’s an alligator, grinning on a log. Alligators have millions of years of evolutionary comparative advantage in wetlands. They were built for the swamp. As I stand there, knee deep in the muck, I think on how I was not. I look at my guide, who seems unperturbed – the alligator is just sunning, she says – and try to soak up her nonchalance the same way the gator is soaking up the light.
From here I make my longest drive of this trip on to the Florida Keys, the archipelago that stretches like a sandy necklace into the Gulf of Mexico. The Keys, long since populated by misfits, artists and independence seekers, can be considered, in terms of eccentricity, more “Florida” than Florida proper. It takes about three hours of driving along the Overseas Highway and its multiple causeways and mangrove islands to cross the Keys. At one point, I stop and stretch on Big Pine Key, one of the larger Keys, and there, in a freshwater slough, I spot the eyes of (you guessed it) a gator, winking back at me.
Taking this as a sign, I press on to Key West, a knuckle of rainbow-colored Caribbean colonial architecture, peppered with LGBTQ+-friendly bars, excellent (if pricey) fine dining and Bahamian, Cuban and Polish markets (the last serving a large Eastern European work-visa population). I watch the sun set over Florida Bay from Mallory Square, a famed gathering spot for street performers, while fire-eaters eat and buskers busk, and for a moment, the off-kilter world of South Florida manages a strange, surreal balance.
Start // Miami
Finish // Key West
Distance // 210 miles (340km)
Getting there // Miami International Airport is one of the busiest in the country, but you can also fly into Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, only 30 miles (48km) north. Car rental is easy at either. Get a Sun Pass with your rental; these allow quick navigation of toll roads.
When to drive // Florida is famed for its warm, sunny weather, and both the warmth and the sun characterize the climate of South Florida. You’ll find cheaper rates and more heat in the summer, but this is also hurricane season. The shoulder seasons of mid-October through November and March through May offer a good balance of lower prices and consistent weather.
Head west from Miami on the Tamiami Trail and you’ll find a whole new Everglades. You’ll pass Native American land, as well as mile after mile of flooded forests that feel more conventionally swampy than the wet prairie near Homestead. Keep driving and you’ll get to Everglades City, a so-laid- back-it’s-sleeping fishing village where the seafood is fresh and you can rent a kayak to explore the Ten Thousand Islands, a series of mangrove barrier islands.
Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet © 2022 / https://www.lonelyplanet.com