Miami Nice: there’s lots more to Florida than Disney World

FOR most of the 1.5m Brits who travel to Florida each year, it’s the allure of the Mouse that does it. But there’s much more to the state than Disney. While Orlando promises wholesome family entertainment (especially for those who don’t mind queuing), the rest of Florida offers some serious fun for grown ups.

Miami has long had a reputation for being a millionaire’s playground and when people talk about the city, they usually mean South Beach. And when they say South Beach, they mean Ocean Drive. Facing the beach, this famous thoroughfare is home to countless candy-coloured art deco hotels, which are to Miami what skyscrapers are to New York.

Brash, glamorous and never quiet, Ocean Drive is the perfect place to people-watch. Look out for grandmothers in bikinis rollerblading, paparazzi hoping to catch a glimpse of a Kardashian and tourists trying to recreate the last hours of Gianni Versace. A good place to gawp from is the News Café which, like Ocean Drive itself, is open 24 hours a day, with papers from around the world.

While Ocean Drive is a great place to visit and is famous for its hotels, it’s just a little too loud to stay in. A short distance away is the Asianinspired Setai hotel, a five-star oasis of calm and understatement in a sea of neon. The Setai is both a hotel and a residential tower and while they’re too discreet to mention their celebrity patrons, Beyonce and U2 are said to have recorded in the Lenny Kravitz-designed recording studio, while Naomi Campbell’s other half had a run-in with paparazzi on the hotel’s private beach.

There’s more fun to be had on Lincoln Road, a pedestrianised stretch that’s noted for its shopping and restaurants. You’ll eat well in the city, surprising considering it’s the home of the punishing, low-carb South Beach diet.

DOWN TO THE THE KEYS
A trip to Miami is often paired with a drive down the Florida Keys, a string of islands culminating in Key West, a very different kind of tourist town. It’s a remarkably simple drive, even for someone who balks at driving a car abroad. You basically stay on the same road for 120 miles. Even the name – US Highway 1 – is simple, although it does little to prepare you for one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Following the course of an old railroad, most of it is over water, giving breathtaking ocean views. Forget renting something practical from the Avis desk at the airport: this road demands a convertible.

The overland parts of the drive aren’t always so scenic, with either side of the highway populated by Taco Bells and outlet malls, but it’s still worth making some stops along the way. Key Largo is home to the John Pennekamp state park, proud to be America’s first undersea park. On offer are snorkel and scuba diving tours, a good way to see the Florida Keys Reef Tract, the only living coral barrier reef in North America and the third largest in the world. They take it very seriously but it’s good for amateurs and professionals alike.

Continuing the drive, you’ll pass through an endless stretch of islands, including the imaginatively titled No Name Key. Sparsely populated, it’s home to the No Name Bar, a former brothel that promises the “greatest pizza in the known universe”. The tradition is to sign a dollar bill and stick it on the wall, if you can find space that is. There’s about $100,000 worth of money pinned up. With its dive bar feel and local eccentrics, the No Name Bar is a good sign that you’re not in Miami any more.

The final stop is Key West, the most southerly part of the United States. At times it can feel like a different country and, in the eyes of the residents, it is. Thirty years ago, it decided to break away from the rest of America and call itself the Conch Republic, named after the local seafood delicacy. It’s all in good humour (the Conch Republic’s slogan is “We seceded where other’s failed”) but it’s a sign of how differently they view themselves. Key West has been providing a home for misfits and the merely curious for over a century. Hemingway did his best writing here and is still a local hero.

His home on the island is a major tourist attraction, with knowledgeable guides taking glee in retelling stories about Hemingway’s exploits. His writing room has been preserved and the place is populated by a multitude of the six-toed cats that Hemingway was so fond of. Each year there’s a Hemingway look-a-like contest and every bar he ever sat in – there were a fair few of them – trumpets their link with “Papa”.

Alcohol is a serious business here. The old joke is that this a drinking town with a tourist problem. Avoid the happy hour deals on Duval Street and head for the Green Parrot, a Key West mainstay that appeals as much to locals as it does tourists. Eating is also a priority, but nothing fancy: BO’s Fish Wagon, Hogfish Bar and Grill and Flaming Buoy are the local favourites. Fish is fresh and abundant, from conch fritters sold on the pavement to lobster served in fancy restaurants (which in Key West means anywhere with metal cutlery). Don’t miss A&B’s Lobster House.

Aside from the food, the views from the balcony looking over the marina are a great way to end a day here.

Key West is a “home-style” place, with little time for the slick modernism of Miami. The best place to stay is in one of the bed and breakfasts like Cypress House, a 19th century inn lovingly restored by Dave Taylor. It’s a charming place, the epitome of casual grandeur of Key West’s Old Town, decorated with antiques and just a dash of kitsch. A genial host, Taylor is something of a local celebrity, noted for both his charity work and nightly cocktail hour. While you help yourself to free drinks and snacks, Dave, flanked by two Schipperkes (small Belgian sheepdogs), entertains with his encyclopaedic knowledge of local goings on.

It’s during one of these happy hours that Taylor is interrupted by a familiar tune, When You Wish Upon A Star, as rendered by a cruise ship horn. It’s a sign that the Disney cruise has arrived. There may be more to Florida than Mickey and co, but it seems they’re hard to escape.

GETTING THERE
Return flight (economy) with Delta
Airlines from £515.99
www.delta.com

WHERE TO STAY
Setai Hotel, Miami
+001 305 520 6000
www.setai.com
Located on Miami Beach Florida in the Oceanfront District, this five-star Art Deco hotel built in the 1930s offers a spa and three pools alongside its palm-ringed beach bar. From $200 (£126) a night for a twobedroom suite with ocean view.

Cypress House Inn, Key West
+001 205 525 2488
www.historickeywestinns.com
One of six historic Key West Inns, this guesthouse is part of an estate that includes two wooden “conch houses” that were built by Bahamian immigrants in the 19th Century. From $135 (£87) a night for a room with queen-size bed.

WHERE TO EAT
No Name Pub, Big Pine Key
www.nonamepub.com This former brothel, built in the 1930s, boasts “the greatest pizza in the known universe”.

Bo’s Fish Wagon, Key West
www.bosfishwagon.com
Open-air shack serving “landwiches” and “seawiche”, ranging from chilli dogs to slow grilled shrimp skewers along with sides of tacos, fries, beans and rice.