The Keys to Miami (or vice versa): There is more to this region than a shaker of salt

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While many think of big ears and long lines when they think of southern Florida, there is a lot more to do and see, especially for older “kids.” From art and beaches to dining and dancing, to marveling in the truly “awesome” wonders of nature, the region between Miami and Key West can make for a great road trip or series of trips.

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Miami Food and Art

Two of the things most people come to Miami for are food and art. Even when Art Basel is not going on, there is plenty to see, including the Art Center South Florida on the famed pedestrian mall on Lincoln Road, which hosts over 40 student and emerging artists in a creative colony that is hard to match. Right down the street is the gallery and workshop of famous import Romero Britto, a Brazilian import who started out drawing on his native newspapers on the street and now has one of the most popular galleries in the region, if not the world.

If you want to take a break from gallery hopping and high-end (or souvenir) shopping, Lincoln Road also has a wide array of fine and fun dining establishments, ranging from local taquerias and upscale Latin eateries like Huahua’s, Havana 1957 and YUCA -- which stands for Young Urban Cuban-Americans) to more northern exposures like Serendipity 3 and Shake Shack, as well as a Stateside version of the famed Hofbräu Beerhall, a quirky cafe for the literary-minded called Books & Books, and a weekend farmer's market that adds even more fresh local flavor.

Another great place to eat your art out is Little Havana. In this loosely-defined Cuban and Latin neighborhood, visitors can find everything from Art Deco to Latin flair and block after walkable block of artist-run galleries, family-run cigar factories, and what may be the American epicenter of competitive domino playing. If you cannot decide where to begin, a great idea is the Miami Culinary Tour, which combines intriguing political, cultural and gastronomical history with tastes that will make your trip and take you everywhere from family-run cafes, fruit stands and ice cream stores to the recently reopened Jazz club The Ball and Chain, as well as a stop in the Cuba Ocho Art and Research Center that offers a $10m art collection and what they claim to be the world's largest rum collection.

As the sun goes down, the Miami scene heats up with some of the hottest clubs around. While the choices are many, and entertainment is always available just by walking or “cruising” down Ocean Drive, many people choose to take it all in at Mangos, a multi-floored, multi-roomed venue that offers a rotating revue of everything from Michael Jackson choreography and Chippendale-esque dancers to live Latin dance bands, all washed down with tropical cocktails and party vibe chasers.

As far places to stay, Ocean Drive offers scores of historic Art Deco palaces and downtown has all the usual chains. For something a bit off the main drags, you can find anything from the Robin Leach dream that is the Fontainbleau to the gay-focused but hetero-friendly hotel just off Lincoln called Hotel Gaythering, with its tastefully kitschy decor, men's only spa and wild neighborhood nightlife.

If you have 18 minutes to spare, the Jewish Museum of Florida is a great take, as it explains not just how the Miami Jewish community came together, but also the impact it has had on local, national and world culture. Housed in two historic synagogue buildings, the nationally-accredited Museum offers great art from local Jewish community leaders (including the esteemed and highly-philanthropic Lauder family) and artifacts from all over the Sunshine State. They even offer a walking tour of Jewish eateries in the region.

A bit outside of the city is Vizcaya , a National Historical Landmark and accredited museum that was once the winter home of industrialist James Deering. With its gorgeous furniture and appointments and Versailles-like gardens, it is a great place to take a break from the bustle of the city or to take a romantic stroll back in time.

Before You Completely Leave Miami

After you officially leave Greater Miami, another romantic side-trip worth taking is a visit to the Coral Castle , a man-made marvel that recalls Stonehenge and other mysterious creations. Built by a Latvian immigrant as a tribute to a lost love, it is a truly awesome example of what a man can do with patience and dedication. From his humble personal living quarters, Ed Leedskalnin designed and built a castle of coral (apparently by himself) that includes everything from a throne room to a heart-shaped table that holds the Guinness record for world's heaviest valentine (a great place to pop that heaviest of questions). It is a self-described "unusual accomplishment" that is definitely worth the side trip!

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Heading south, Florida continues to layer on the opportunity for enchantment and fun with the Everglades, a shrinking yet still immaculately preserved wildlife refuge that demonstrates either what man can do to save wildlife or how poorly we have handled that obligation. In either case, the acres of unspoiled grassland and swamps (all of which are easily accessible through a series of boardwalks and car paths) offer glimpses of alligators, water birds, and nature at its finest. So whether you drive in for a quick visit or camp out for a few days, the Glades will make you glad you came.

Head Towards the Florida Keys

Just either side of the famed seven-mile bridge into Conch Republic (the official name of the officially seceded Key West region), there are a slew of state parks for campers and birders and hikers alike, as well as a pair of fish-y finds that are also deserving of a visit. The first is Robbie's Marina in Islamorada, a fishing fan's fave that also offers visitors the opportunity to hand feed the giant, toothless Tarpon. If you'd rather feed on fish, Hogfish Bar & Grille on Stock Island (where Key farmers kept their livestock) offers the region's rare delicacy in a comfy setting that gets you in the right head space and stomach space for your visit to Key West, where the intriguing options for food and fun only expand.

While Key West offers everything from well-known chains to historic, family-run B&Bs, if you want a great location with exceptional amenities and service, head all the way down famous Duval Street to the Ocean Key , where Nate the concierge will hook you up with his many Conch (native Key West-er) friends and where the views of the world-famous sunsets are picture perfect every night. Heading up Duval, you will encounter everything from Spring Break-ers to visiting celebrities (Kelly McGillis has a restaurant here, as does local legend James Buffet) to tourists looking for an endless good time (and finding it).

Read more about Florida Keys to Miami sophistication at http://www.offbeattravel.com/florida-keys-miami-sophistication.html Known for its shopping, souvenir stores, and saloons, Duval is home to Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odd-itorium, the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, the Key West Hard Rock Cafe and the first Margaritaville, as well as Hemingway's historic haunt Sloppy Joe's, home of the eponymous sandwich and an annual Hemingway look-alike contest. And while Papa might not recognize the place today, after a few Papa Dobles (or any of their other happily heavy-handed libations), you may not either!

At the bottom of the street is Mallory Square, which is not only the starting point of the daily historic walking tour, but also home to the treasure trove of modern-day ship wrecker Mel Fisher and the engaging Shipwreck Treasure Museum, as well as a sculpture garden of local heroes and heroines and a bunch of fun and funky shops.

While walking or biking are preferred to driving, two of the best ways to get around are the Old Town Trolley or the Key West Conch Train, each of which wends its way around town, stopping at all points of interest, including Hemingway's house and studio, which still houses his famed six-toed cats and many of his famed hunting treasures (including pictures and memorabilia of his many ex-wives) President Truman's Little White House and the brilliant government decoy that is the "southernmost point" buoy. Another great way to see many of these sights from a very different perspective is with a ride on Barefoot Billy's jet skis. After some time of free riding on "the flats," guests are guided to points that can only be reached by water and learn bits of Key history that only Conchs know.

In addition to the sloppy sandwiches and ever-mixing margaritas on Duval, Key West offers a wide array of local delicacies. While the limes are no longer grown locally, you can spend the better part of a week comparing the various variations on the regions titular pie, including that of the eponymous Key Lime Pie Co. or the extra-indulgent chocolate-covered Key Lime pie on a stick from Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe. If you want some sort of pre-dessert treat, there are fine dining establishments like the French-inspired Cafe Sole or more off-the-beaten path places like the familial food truck known as Garbo's Grill and the market-priced roadside dive called BO's Fish Wagon. If you want to combine breakfast and dessert, Blue Heaven will put you just there with their fresh fruit pancakes and cloud soft pies. No matter where you eat, be sure to be patient and keep smiling, as the Keys do NOT go by their own pace.

So whether you are into satisfying your eyes, your palate, or your sense of fun and adventure, Southern Florida is a great trip…after all.

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Matt Robinson has published over 3,700 pieces in more than 150 international publications on topics ranging from art and music to food and wine to travel and whatever else you might want to read. Please reach out to him at matt@matts-meals.com.

Photos courtesy of Greater Miami and the Beaches Tourism and National Park Service -- Everglades and Floriday Keys Tourism

Published: May 19th, 2015



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