Travel Review: Miami and the Florida Keys

By on May 7, 2012

By Michele McIntyre –

After months of planning and anticipation, it’s finally time for our long-awaited vacation to Miami and the Florida Keys. My husband and I had done the ultra-scenic drive from Miami to Key West in our early dating years some fifteen or more years ago. This time, it’s a family trip because our 9 year-old son is along for the adventure.

Flying from Syracuse to Miami a few days before Easter was no easy feat: airline fares were high, flight quality was low and we’d be spending several hours on an airport layover before finally making it to our destination. But I was confident that the spectacular views, the laid-back island vibe and the sun-drenched days would make the travel hassles all worthwhile.

After an evening arrival in Miami, we opted to stay near the airport instead of wasting the picturesque drive to the Keys in darkness. A 5-minute drive from the busy airport, the newly opened Element Miami International Airport was a smart choice for a property with a spa-like feel without actually having a spa.

The next morning we headed south towards Key Largo. Our destination: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for a snorkeling tour. But as luck would have it, snorkeling for all but the strongest swimmers was not recommended that day thanks to the high winds and rough sea conditions. That gave us most of the afternoon to leisurely enjoy the beautiful park from shore: it’s beaches for swimming and snorkeling, nature trails, and visitor center with aquarium.

Anxious to get settled at our next overnight destination before the famed sunset, we continued south on the Overseas Highway to Islamorada. For an authentic Florida Keys experience stay at the Islander Resort, a scattering of sunny yellow low-slung buildings each housing a number of side-by-side units with ample and convenient parking just outside your door. The 20-acre Islander Resort is comfortable and casual with a tropical island atmosphere. Our courtyard double lanai room was spacious and well equipped for family travel.

What we liked: the oceanfront location, the hammocks dotting the nicely landscaped property, our screened-in lanai with patio furniture and ceiling fan, the compact kitchenettes that didn’t lack for anything, the spacious well-maintained pool area with plenty of deck chairs and no crowding.

Worth mentioning: tiny bathrooms, double beds instead of queen, service was spotty and at times perfunctory, some areas of the property and lodging units are less well-maintained than others.

Our favorite way to pass the time in Islamorada was at Robbie’s Marina, the oddest blend of functional marina, recreation spot, waterfront dining, island-style shopping and tourist attraction. $1 will get you in to see the giant tarpon that congregate at Robbie’s docks and $3 buys you a bucket of fish so you can feed them yourself, ensuring many happy returns for future tourists. Lunch was shrimp tacos and a Corona at Hungry Tarpon Restaurant with a water view and the perfect breezy island atmosphere. It was the most fantastic non-traditional way to spend Easter ever. Just north of Robbie’s along the Overseas Highway there are plenty of places to pull over and splash in the sparkling blue waters of the Atlantic or the Gulf.

Our dinner at Loralei Cabana Bar and Restaurant was good, but the atmosphere was even better: tables perched directly on the beach, live music plays nightly in the background and the sunset takes center stage over the Gulf of Mexico. We enjoyed cocktails while our son met some new friends (kids and a few hermit crabs too!) in the shallow water just a stone’s throw from our table; everyone was gloriously happy.

Departing Islamorada and still heading south, our next stop was The Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Housed in what was formerly a waterfront motel and bar, the Turtle Hospital is the only state-certified veterinary hospital in the world for the rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles. We took the worthwhile 90-minute educational experience and guided tour of the hospital facilities and rehabilitation area. At the end of the program we’re led to the motel’s former swimming pool, now home to some of the permanent residents, for a chance to feed the turtles.

It’s the fourth day of our trip before we’re finally heading down the last stretch of US 1 towards Key West. Our home for the next four nights is the amazing Ocean Key Resort & Spa at the best address in Key West: Zero Duvall Street.

It doesn’t take us long to get settled before we’re off and running on our first adventure, a 2-hour guided Jet Ski tour with Barefoot Billy’s. We ended most evenings at Mallory Square for the fun and entertaining nightly Sunset Celebration.

Our favorite spots in Key West:

Best Meal: The Cuban food at El Meson de Pepe is authentic, filling and memorable.

Best View: Sunset Pier is the best place in Key West to enjoy Gulf side waterfront dining and the best seat for the views of the famed sunset. At Ocean Key Resort & Spa.

Best Donuts: Glazed Donuts at 420 Eaton Street. Most unusual variety: Maple bourbon with candied bacon. Need we say more? The most expensive donuts we ever bought, but worth every sweet cent.

Best day trip/tour: Yankee Freedom ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson. Hands down, the best excursion we’ve ever taken. So spectacular, it’s worthy of its very own review (coming soon).

Best family-friendly catamaran snorkel/sunset trip: Sebago Watersports. There may be other sailing companies on the island that are more luxurious, serve better quality wine and appetizers and some even have live music, but Sebago is the best all-around for professional staff and a family-friendly atmosphere while still showing guests a good time.

Our days in Key West fly by and it’s not long before we have to head back towards Miami to catch our flight. But not before enjoying one final night of spoiling at the sleek and ultra-modern JW Marriott Marquis in downtown Miami. A side trip to glitzy South Beach for an early dinner, a quick night in a luxuriously comfortable bed and a crack of dawn return trip to the Miami International airport signaled the end of our week in paradise. But this time, I can guarantee it won’t be fifteen years until our next visit.

Michele McIntyre

About Michele McIntyre

Michele McIntyre is a freelance writer who covers spas, travel, fitness, wellness, beauty and healthy living/eating. She is happiest when lying face up on the treatment table, writing about her spa and travel experiences or testing new products to share with her readers. She lives near Syracuse, NY with her husband and son. Michele is a regular travel contributor to LivingBetterat50+ and has written for Today’s Central New York Woman Magazine and online at Tripology, TripAtlas, and Splash Magazines Worldwide. Michele blogs about the spa and travel industry, and anything else she can think of, at everythingspa.wordpress.com. When she isn't writing about or visiting spas, Michele loves traveling, hiking, skiing, camping, yoga and reading. If any of these pursuits can be combined with a visit to the spa, even better! Michele can be reached at [email protected]

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Travel Review: Miami and the Florida Keys