Like many in Northern Climes, I made what has become an annual expedition to the South of Florida. In the past, I’ve mostly spent time north of Ft. Lauderdale, 5 miles or so inland of Route 1 and bored, aside from expeditions to what could be called a landmark of East Coast American Jewish Culture, the Festival Flea Market. This trip was different. The first few days consisted of visits with various family and rambling around Boca Raton and its environs (which were warm and full of sun and palm trees – thus great). The second few days centered on exploring Miami, the Everglades and Ft. Lauderdale (by the sea). My goal with the review below is to provide a quick guide to some of the fun things we stumbled upon to do in the South of Florida. I’ll start with the favorites.
Miami, oh, Miami – how my northern heart loves you with your pulsing mix of cultures, bright pastel buildings, art deco, delis, Calle Ocho, art, jungly trees and gorgeous Coconut Grove. Last visit in December 09, we visited the more eastern bit of Calle Ocho near Domino Park for a coffee, a walk and an attempt to visit the Bay of Pigs Museum and Library (which was closed). This time, we found ourselves on the more Western edge of Calle Ocho, closer to Coral Gables. We wanted to sample a Cuban dinner (not so easy to find in Maryland and Long Island) and settled on deciding between to kitschy, classic Cuban eateries, La Caretta and Versailles. Both had hundreds of reviews on yelp (more on that) describing the fare, at atmosphere and the service. At the end, the eating decision came down to the architecture of the restaurant, La Caretta had a big wooden wheel with bright yellow lights, it just looked cool so we went in. I had Riopas Viejas made with beef (a sort of tomato, peppery stewed beef dish) served with sweet plantains (my favorites), white rice and black beans. He had Riopas Fritatas which was basically the same sides served with braised, then fried with onions beef. We started the meal with Yucca Fries and a green aioli and buttered, toasted garlic bread. The meal cost about $30 including tip and was fabulous! We made our way from Calle Ocho to South Beach (can’t resist Art Deco) for fabled ice cream and sorbet at the Frieze, off a side road near the Lincoln Road Outdoor Mall (which is really a scene!). The Frieze had incredible Sorbets, with flavors ranging from Champagne to Tamarind to Coconut and Mango. Feeling in the mood for something Thai inspired, I tried coconut and mango sorbets. WOW! Bright popping flavors, really special desert. Watch out though, the fruit sorbets can get a little sweet.
We also had the surprise opportunity to go to the St. Stephens and Coconut Grove Art Festivals. After a breakfast of New York Bagels and Nova Spread at Ft. Lauderdale’s Pomperdale Deli, which made me wonder why you can get such good New York style bagels in Ft. Lauderdale and not DC if the theory that the NY water is what makes them special. Coconut Grove, settled through waves of immigration starting in 1925, is a precious village, now annexed by Miami and home to some of its major tourist attractions such as the Villa Vizcaya (still haven’t visited), lots of open air cafes and a bohemian air. The Coconut Grove Art Festival is a real treat. For $10, you can walk through hundreds of white tented artist pavilions to view unique, creative pieces in a variety of mediums including metal work (robot art?), photography, oil and jewelry. There are cooking demonstrations, live music and a mix of festival and local food options. To explore the area more, we decided to leave the festival for lunch and visit the Last Carrot, a hippy vegetarian hold out from the 70s. The Last Carrot’s simple menu is extremely healthy and very delicious. On offer are sandwiches with tuna, baked spicy tofu, avocado, hummus and salads, freshly squeezed vegetable juices and fresh fruit smoothies rounded out by deserts (some vegan). The main seating is a bar where you watch the staff prepare your food. We absolutely loved it and recommend it to anyone seeking a refreshing healthy (non bank breaking) lunch in the grove.
The Everglades: Coming down to S. Florida a few times a year nearly my whole life and not visiting the Everglades is a scandal. On the drive down from Boca Raton, we read the Wikipedia entry about them (how’s that for modern tourism) learning how they were seen an environment to be conquered by the exploring Europeans and how that very conquering distorted the ecosystems. The way they were described, as a 60 mile wide and 120 mile long river swamp at the very southern trip of the United States made us feel as though we were venturing to the end of the earth. As we passed through Miami and Homestead into Florida City, we had a sense that we normally don’t have in coastal areas that we were hovering on a wild edge that divided the U.S. and the Caribbean. It was interesting. If you make your way down to the Edward Coe Entrance, near Homestead, you must stop at Robert is Here, a Florida City landmark. Robert is Here is a farmers market with a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables, a milkshake shack and a zoo with turtles, donkeys, an ostrich and goats all in one. They make an amazing Strawberry Key Lime Milkshake and fresh salsa and guacamole. We picked up a bag of tortilla chips, milkshakes and guac and called it lunch.
Once you enter the everglades from the Coe entrance, it is 38 miles to the Flamingo Visitors center, a bright pink 50s style building on the true southernmost Atlantic tip of the United States. It’s host to a restaurant, park ranger talks, campgrounds and picnic area. Be sure to plan your trip in advance as there are talks and tours all day that you won’t want to miss (such as the one to an old cold war missile site, that we did miss). Along the 38 mile route there are numerous scenic overlooks where you can park and visit ponds, walk through bogs on board walks, see lakes, hike and start a boat trip.
Random Ft. Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Del Ray Tips:
In lieu of giving a play by play for these areas, I will make a few suggestions:
In Ft. Lauderdale, you might want to drive to Las Olas Blvd and take a peek around the shops. A healthy and delicious breakfast overlooking the water and completely reasonable non-tourist rates can be found at St. Barts Coffee Shop ($7 for fresh fruit, yogurt, granola). In this area you will see the real Ft. Lauderdale bling of mansions and yachts on the intercoastal. Off the beaten path on Commercial Blvd, you can find Ambry’s German Restaurant with a salad bar and tasty German classics sauerbraten, wiener schnitzel, spatzle and red cabbage with friendly service and an authentic German restaurant space. Pomperdale New York Deli, is just that, a tasty, cheap New York deli with counter service and serve yourself coffee.
In Boca Raton, don’t miss Mizner Park near the Boca Raton Museum of Art. There are outdoor concerts, a beautiful fountain anchored park, an assortment of pretty upscale restaurants and a tasty S. Florida chain serve yourself frozen yogurt joint – Orange Leaf. Great for a nice meal with family on the beaten path. Lemongrass in near by Royal Palm Plaza also serves up delicious Asian Fusion food. Its popular, you will need a reservation.
Del Ray – the main strip on Atlantic Avenue is full of unique restaurants, ice cream, frozen yogurt and lively young nightlife . Visit this trip on a weekend night and be prepared for a VERY lively scene. I haven’t tried it, but 32 East was recommended to me there.