The Keys come up trumps

After eight days in the Florida Keys visiting Key Largo,  Islamorada and Key West, I took a few images to capture the mood and magic of this unique marine and island destination.

Tortuga Jack takes me on a backcountry mangrove kayaking tour.
Tortuga Jack takes me on a backcountry mangrove kayaking tour.

 

Deep Sea Fishing off of Islamorada. Beautiful fish caught include this Wrasse.
Deep Sea Fishing off of Islamorada. Beautiful fish caught include this Wrasse.
Ernest Hemingway's writing studio in Key West.
Ernest Hemingway’s writing studio in Key West.

 

 

The Whistle Bar and Bull Bar in Key West.
The Whistle Bar and Bull Bar in Key West.

 

The waterways of Key Largo
The waterways of Key Largo

 

Here comes the African Queen. The original vessel from the Oscar winning movie.
Here comes the African Queen. The original vessel from the Oscar winning movie.

 

On a sunset cruise in Key West
On a sunset cruise in Key West

 

Pelicans at Robbie's Marina, Islamorada.
Pelicans at Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada.

 

Birthplace of Pan-American Airways. First flights were to Havana, Cuba.
Birthplace of Pan-American Airways in Key West.  First flights were to Havana, Cuba.

 

Sunset on historic seafront, Key West.
Sunset on historic seafront, Key West.

 

Half Shell Raw Bar, great sports bar and restaurant on the historic Key West waterfront
Half Shell Raw Bar, great sports bar and restaurant on the historic Key West waterfront

 

Cypress House Hotel in Key West. An historic Bahamian Conch House.
Cypress House Hotel in Key West. An historic Bahamian Conch House.

 

Key West's Lighthouse
Key West’s Lighthouse

 

Robert the Doll on the Ghosts and Gravestones Frightseeing Tour.
Robert the Doll on the Ghosts and Gravestones Frightseeing Tour.

 

South Beach Miami’s Latin Food Scene

Bolivar Fusion Restaurant Cocinas & Tragos
Bolivar Fusion Restaurant Cocinas & Tragos

Ricky, originally from Panama and representing Miami Culinary Tours, took me and two couples out to experience some fantastic South American cuisine at his favourite haunts around town.

A little refreshment and Repajo.
A little refreshment and Repajo.

Stopping first at Bolivar Fusion Restaurant Cocinas & Tragos (661 Washington Avenue) we sipped a Colombian ‘Repajo’, a mix of soft drink and Aquila beer used as a hangover cure.  We then tried an exceptional cerviche, which uses lime to ‘cook’ the Sway (white fish).  I particularly enjoyed the delicious fried empanada accompaniment.  Leaving fusion behind, we popped into the corner patisserie for a wonderful, decadent churro.   Think doughnut, but the Latin version.

Cerviche and Fried Empanadas
Cerviche and Fried Empanadas

It was then onto the beach to try more culinary gems and enjoy walking along Ocean Drive right next to the sand.  South Beach was built during the 1930’s and many of the surviving Art Deco buildings have been preserved and are on the National Register of Historic Places.  The only change is that many of them have been painted in pastel colours called Tropical Deco.  South Beach was the ‘American Riviera’ during the 1950’s and Jackie Gleason kept interest in the town going with his weekly show broadcast from here, the ‘Sun and Fun Capital of the World’, a phrase he coined himself.  After that the area went into serious decline and it has taken many decades to bring it back to life.

Beach off of Ocean Drive
Beach off of Ocean Drive

Polo Norte Cuban Restaurant was our next stop where we tried strong Cuban coffee (Colada).  Similar to espresso but already sweetened, it is a big favourite among the locals.  We were served appetisers of Fried Plantains dressed in a Mojo Sauce.  This was before the main course which was baked plantains with shredded pork and Chimichurri Sauce.   I will come back to this restaurant for more of this lovely carnitas dish. 

Fried Plantains
Fried Plantains

We sniffed around the wonderful smelling family owned Charlotte Bakery which was started in Santiago, Chile in the 1960s by Gladys Jofre. It then moved to Venezuela and ended up in South Beach Miami in the 1990s much to the delight of the neighbourhood.  Everything here is handmade and freshly baked and their empanadas are one of the shop’s favourite items.

Pastries at Charlotte Bakery
Pastries at Charlotte Bakery

Across the street from Española Way is BLOCK Pizza which claims to use a sourdough that began 300 years ago in Sardinia.  The sourdough or Mother Dough comes from the Italian phrase ‘Pasta Madre’.  All of BLOCK Pizza’s dough is taken from the original dough that is fed every day.  The family who run BLOCK Pizza have carried on this tradition and took the oath to care for the dough and use it wisely.

Milani Gelateria
Milani Gelateria

The tour is topped off with real Italian gelato from Milani Gelateria on 436 Española Way. Lower in fat than ice cream and not frozen, it is a superior alternative to the dairy variety.

What a treat to have an insider’s view of the fabulous Latin culinary scene in South Beach.  I can’t wait to go again.

Culinary tour offered by Miami Culinary Tours.  Cost: £35.

For information about Miami’s Beaches visit:  http://www.miamiandbeaches.com/

The Cadet Hotel on James Street offers accommodation from $199 on a room only basis.

 

Made to Order – Key Largo

Florida Manatees © emol.com
Florida Manatees © emol.com

‘Watch out for Manatees’ says the sign next to the balcony  where I am having lunch.  I am eating at Made to Order and am perched on the edge of a canal network where folks are lazily paddle boarding and kayaking. To be surrounded by heat, palm trees, mangroves, water and boats is nothing short of awe inspiring, especially after coming from grey, rainy London.

Pelican's at Robbie's Marina, Islamorada, Florida Keys
Pelican’s at Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada, Florida Keys

The restaurant next to a non-descript Inn is in Tavernier, just south of Key Largo. The main highway running through all the Florida Keys is bordered by trees, often blocking views of the water.  But as soon as you are off the tarmac and going out toward the ocean or bay sides of this strip of road, you are rewarded with beautiful mangrove ‘swamps’ and intricate waterways.  It is simply breath-taking.

Highway US 1 over Indian Key Channel, Florida Keys
Highway US 1 over Indian Key Channel, Florida Keys

 

View from deck at Sundowners Restaurant
View from deck at Sundowners Restaurant, Key Largo

Have also had a fantastic evening meal featuring ‘Hemingway style’ Hogfish (cooked with Japanese breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese coating) and a terrific clam chowder at Sundowners  in Key Largo.  With a deck overhanging the bay, it is truly a stunning setting to watch the sunset.  Hence the name!  As I grab my camera to photograph the scene from my perch right on the edge of the water, I freely admit the card has been taken out to process other photos.  The picture above is from the Sundowners home page.

Garden of Bay Harbor Lodge
Garden of Bay Harbor Lodge

I guess because I grew up in a southerly part of the United States, California, my parents were never interested in taking us to another southerly place.  Perhaps because we had moved from Canada in the late 1950’s, the timing had something to do with it.  My mother, in particular, was horrified at reports of lynchings taking place in the South.  I still remember her talking about it.  That might be a big reason why we never visited Florida.

Its a shame because it is the perfect spot for a family holiday.  Incredibly safe (no one locks their doors) with many hotels that are peaceful and secluded.

Find out more about the Florida Keys and the Bay Harbor Lodge