TIM MAGEE defrosts from an Irish winter in MIAMI before heading to KEY WEST where he resets his thinking on FLORIDA …
The Reset Button. Take one part tequila – the good stuff, nothing you recognise from your youth. Add the same amount of lime juice, and a third of that in Cointreau or Triple Sec. Run a piece of lime around half the rim of a tumbler, shaping a sticky half-moon then press as much Maldon salt to that crescent as you can. Serve on the rocks.
I had my first post-flight Reset Button at Happy Hour in Miami just after landing. I’d skipped to London first and flew with BA (who still don’t have Wi-Fi on board) but happy hour will be that bit happier next time as Aer Lingus are flying direct to the Magic City from this month.
Happy Hour is a serious business in this corner of the world. Unrecognisable from the unhappy vomitoria of Greek and Spanish resort two-for-one luminous bowls of nuclear waste that attract young loons down a rabbit hole. In Southern Florida this hour can stretch all day in a civilised procession of fresh juices, top shelf drinks mixed properly and, more importantly, top drawer food.
I landed accidentally on Happy Hour in the Social Club in South Beach. Miami is falling down with the happiness of one upmarket happy hour after another. Planned properly you can soften the dollar’s pinch and chop your holiday bill in half by truffling out treasures like sushi at Kitsuya, two doors down, or mezze in the Turkish temple across the road. The hour where the more you have the more you save is everywhere, in the Social Cantina in moneyed Brickell, or over some jazz or salsa in my beloved Ball & Chain, a living 1930s movie set in Little Havana. Event the cockiest cocktail bar in the city, Broken Shaker, is in on the game with its charred broccoli shawarma and $7 specials, as is one of Miami’s hottest restaurants, the outstanding Alter, in the professionally graffiti-ed dining heaven of Wynwood, casting their sorcery over happy hour menus for peanuts at their bar.
You can delete the listicles, no need to swipe left for this hotel or right for that restaurant, to use the highlighter markers in your head, or press the heart or star buttons. Location? South Beach may get the high hat from locals but they aren’t wan sunseekers defrosting after an Irish winter.
There are any number of Art Deco do-overs and every time I go back they’ve ressurrected more riches of pastel architectural eye candy with terrazzo floors, neon, chrome, glass block and porthole windows. Each one could be a national monument in another country.
In the early days, My-ami was The Raliegh (gorgeous but small rooms), The Delano (think of the Eurovision as a hotel), the Ritz Carlton (comfy but too preppy), The Gale (cool but no beach access), and the lovely old Betsy, a classy bird in the wrong place, on Ocean Drive, somewhere you don’t need to be unless you have a fetish for laminated menus and fridge magnets.
Any Collins Avenue Deco refurb with an Atlantic view and a large dramatic pool will do. A non-judgemental pool, something this town does well. A pool decorated by brown bellies, pale bellies, washboards, pot bellies, yellow bellies and tattooed bellies, but most critically bellies that ignore you. Poolside at the open air shark tanks of LA, you’ll be ready to free dive after a week of holding in your tummy. In South Beach they just gaze at their own navels.
On my last night I had dinner at the smoke and mirrors blockbuster that is Francis Mallmann’s Los Fuegos in Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin’s epic Faena, which is where I will be staying next time, but recently it has been the Shore Club (the best bathrooms), the classy neo-baroque Nautilus (great service), the Shelborne and the very grand National. All with balconies and all with decent discounts at the last minute on sites like booking.com.
I took no chances on the shiny new Ocean’s Edge in Key West for my next sleep, but I had to get there first. Only three and a bit hours’ drive, first you need a car. If you are travelling with kids go big, with sliding doors and screens. If not, go ignorant and let your keys to the Keys be for a large American convertible with a bigger carbon footprint than the flight that got you there, and where the only thing it won’t pass on the road is a gas station.
Then just drop the roof on your midlife crisis and after an hour of a bog standard drive, you come to a tall green magic curtain to another world, and the crocodile lake national wildlife refuge, a long straight road sculpted through a giant’s hedgerow – one with real giants. The US croc is more laidback than its gator cousin but tips the scales at a ton and can be 20 feet from nose to tail. I didn’t see a single car stopping for potty breaks by that wall of forest. Most drivers were eyes front trying to avoid the wing mirror where it says “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear!”
Once you escape those Jurassic larks, on past Key Largo, you can settle in to the state of grace that some road trips can induce. Channel-hopping radio, smiling at “This American Life” being live, head-banging to road trip rock that you have always hated, but somehow just adding sun and strange signage turns you into a living nodding dog.
In between the MT USA nostalgia, crazy ads for hurricane insurance and drugs with warnings that sound like autopsy reports, are the weather forecasts, reminding you that you are far away from the 50 shades of grey of home. Days getting up to 90°, with 90 per cent humidity in the exotica of Boca Chica, Fiesta Key, Little and Big Torch Keys, Molasses Reef and Sombrero Key. The “Super 8” landscape is a slow conveyor belt of boat charters, crab shacks, boats, the most beautiful kitsch motels, giant lobsters, giant sea shells, the ugliest motels, more boats, tackle and bait shops and so many complete unverifiable signs boasting something hilariously banal.
The drama shifts up a gear after Islamorada and with the bridges and their pelican sentinels on every available spot, beaks flanking your arrival like an honour guard, those bridges daisy chain these islands into one dreamy retro holiday necklace. A necklace wrapped in the Tiffany blue and frayed white ribbon ocean and seas that surround it.
It’s a lot to take in so I took my toasted head for a breakfast break over the Miami Herald in the fabulously greasy Wooden Spoon in Marathon – a chilli omelette and a gallon of diner coffee before cruising the final and finest stretch of shimmying mangroves and pine to the southernmost part of continental America, Key West.
Ocean’s Edge is a new cute-as-a-button hotel on Stock Island. Your only option of a view is the ocean, and between you and it, some Laura Ashley landscaping, heated saltwater pools and lots of marina. The rooms are huge, generous and all have balconies or porches. If the plastic Orlando isn’t your bag, Ocean’s Edge is a really good base for kids. The old town of Key West is pretty, but duck off any historic area and the too-touristy Duval Street and there is real residential magnificence. Handsome houses, with porches, decks and shutters all built by marine carpenters from bulletproof pine. The best beach is Fort Zachary Taylor, flanked by an ancient fort and a modern naval base and where the cruisers disgorge their inmates for day release, yet still a stunner and a swimming stop for locals.
Locals. It took a couple of days to sink in but most of the Key Westers I spent time with look like, well, us. The look of someone that had come on holidays, stayed and had too much of a good time. Patchy faced, bulging eyes, paunchy, Irish-esque, they are the only local sunburnt people I have ever encountered. Gone were the sleek afro-Caribbean bods and fros of Miami – Key Westers look like a Leaving Cert class from West Clare fuelled up by cider who were talked into believing you could sail to Féile, went off course and ended up marooned in the Caribbean, where they stayed living off happy hours.
Lovely people, mind, like us, with hospitality and rebellion in their briny blood. In the early 1980s an overzealous republican White House trying to stop self-inflicted immigration took the unusual move of moving Border Patrol inland. This overstep was too much for the owner of Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon (seriously) outside which the road blocks had been set up. Skeeter went on local television declaring that as Key West was being treated like a foreign country they would secede from the Union – and declared himself prime minister of the Conch Republic.
Skeeter’s short-lived revolution and a second post-drive Reset Button in the Half Shell Raw Bar got me thinking. Some of the seers who correctly predicted the woebetides of last year have crystal-balled Calexit (California leaving the US) over the next four years. Maybe Florida should do the same – a Florida salida.
Tourism and agriculture make this state self-sufficient, so Florida could secede where others might fail. Thanks to another kind of reset, Cuba is getting closer every day now. A natural fit, this rum-fuelled greenhouse-cum-tourist magnet could be the new glue for a union between the Keys and Florida, forming a Latin-Jewish super state. Retired Americans hardwired to believe that they have to look after themselves to the end being integrated with a Latin culture where it’s in your genes to mind the elderly to your dying breath. With shared capitals of Miami and Havana, the Keys, Florida and Cuba would be the year-round tourism capital of the planet. Some money from which could commission a new Statue of Liberty – in drag of course – for Miami Harbour, hip kicked out, saying “Bienvenido a Miami. Welcome to the United States of KFC”. Maybe that’s one reset too many.
Tim Magee @manandasuitcase
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue, out Thursday May 4.
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