Adam Karlin, the author of "Lonely Planet Miami & the Keys" and co-author of "Lonely Planet Florida," answered your questions about Florida vacations.
Adam Karlin: Hi everyone. This is Adam Karlin. I'm excited to answer your questions and get you ready for a trip to Florida, which must be nicer than the cold, Maryland winter day I'm sitting in right now. FYI, my area of expertise is South Florida—from Ft. Lauderdale on down—so I may not be able to answer questions about other areas of the state. Let's get started.
Los Angeles, Calif.: We are taking a cruise that leaves San Diego and arrives in Ft. Lauderdale on Jan 17. We are also doing a Bahamas cruise from Miami from Jan 19 to Jan 23. We fly home on Jan 24 from Fort Lauderdale. That leaves us Jan 17, 18, and 23 to explore the area. I was thinking of the Everglades Tram tour on the morning of Jan 17. What else would you suggest for those 3 days? We are 62 and 61. We love doing everything, museums, nature, sightseeing, including seeing things that most people ignore or don't know exist.
Adam Karlin: Hi, L.A. Given your schedule, you have a few options. First, I'd say spend the 23rd exploring Ft. Lauderdale. There's easily enough in town to fill a day—you can start around the excellent Museum of Art, then take a stroll down the Riverwalk and soak up the shops and riverfront area. Check out Bonnet House, a historical residency that's right on the waterfront in the riverfront. You'd also want to visit the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society and have a look around the surrounding, somewhat artificial but still interesting 'old Florida' village that's been recreated in the immediate vicinity. For dinner, have a stroll down Las Olas Blvd; there's all kinds of restaurants and a general vibe of a city having a good time.
On the 17th and 18th you can either spend one day in the Everglades and one day in Miami, or two days in one or the other—it depends on if you want to rush things or take your time. If you do the Everglades Tram, try to drive across the state to Everglades City afterwards—you'll get to soak up some great 'Glades scenery in the process. If you do Miami, you could either see the deco in South Beach in a day, or take a spin around Little Havana and the Miracle Mile area of Coral Gables—both interesting neighborhoods that are very walkable (you'll need a taxi to get between each 'hood).
Glasgow, Mo.: In your opinion, what is the prettiest beach(es) in Florida? On the Atlantic side or Gulf of Mexico side?
Adam Karlin: There's no right answer here, but in general, if you like deeper blue ocean and waves, the Atlantic side is better, whereas the Gulf offers calmer waters and a bit more teal. Of course, this depends on what kind of cities you like. The Gulf-side towns are much smaller and more laid back than the cities like Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Daytona Beach, etc. For my money, I really love Ft. Lauderdale's beachfront promenade.
McCormick, S.C.: When is the best month to visit Florida as to average temperature in the Fort Lauderdale area?
Adam Karlin: It depends on what kind of weather you like best, but I love early spring in that part of the state; it's warm but not uncomfortably so. Obviously, the summer months can be extremely hot, but on the other hand, when you're on the water there's always some breeze that's going to cool you down.
The Villages, Fla.: Hi, Adam! We (two couples) plan to celebrate my husband's 65th birthday by traveling to Key West via Miami and South Beach. What tips for interesting places for our age group can you give me? We want to sample the South Beach architecture and some of the night life—at least until 10 p.m.!—and enjoy all that Key West has to offer.
Adam Karlin: Hey, Tricia. Man, where to start? In Miami, take the walking tour hosted by the Miami Design Preservation League (mdpl.org, 305/672-2014). It's an excellent introduction to the basics of deco architecture and shows off some of the best buildings in South Beach as well.The MDPL is headquartered in an excellent old deco building itself at 1001 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach. For another in-depth and well-executed introduction to a lot of the design you see in Miami Beach, visit the Wolfsonian-FIU museum (305/535-1001), at the corner of 10th and Washington Ave in Miami Beach. As regards nightlife, you may want to try Taverna Opa (36 Ocean Drive, 305/673-6730), a Greek restaurant where they encourage a lot of partying of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding sort. It's touristy, but it knows its touristy and embraces that. I also really like the bar/lounge area at Circa 39, 3900 Collins Ave—it feels like (actually it is) a very hip place, but the staff here are very down to earth and wouldn't turn their noses up at two couples celebrating a 65th birthday the way some other Miami Beach bars and clubs might. Just note that Circa 39 is more mid-beach than South Beach.
There's so much great stuff to see on the drive to Key West I can't begin to list it here, but please check out this article I wrote on doing an Overseas Road Trip.
And then there's Key West itself. Again, we're just scratching the surface, but you guys need to take a trolley tour (trolleytours.com/key-west, 305/296-6688), see Mallory Square at sunset, visit the Secret Garden (nfsgarden.com, 305/294-0015) have a great meal (I recommend Café Sole, 1029 Southard St., Key West, 305/294-0230), browse the art galleries at the southern end of Duval St., wander around the Key West cemetery (total tropical gothic), have a beer at the Green Parrot (601 Whitehead St., 305/294-6133), which is the original eccentric Key West bar, have some fried (or "cracked") conch and fries at the Conch Town Café (801 Thomas St.)...the list goes on. I will say you may want to avoid the top end of Duval St. on weekend nights—it becomes pretty boozy, sometimes in the worst kind of way.
Staunton, Va.: We are vacationing this summer for the first time ever on Sanibel Island. We (the parents) choose Sanibel for its naturalistic atmosphere, however we have two teen daughters who might get a little bored. Any suggestions on what to see/do or where to dine? We also have two toddlers. This is why we need a vacation. LOL! Thanks for your help!
Adam Karlin: Hi Staunton. If your daughters feel bored on Sanibel, you may want to take them across the bridge to Fort Myers. FM is a nice enough town, even if it does stand in contrast to the atmosphere you're trying to capture in Sanibel. You'll find all the usuals—shopping, socializing, etc.—there, and it's a half-hour to one-hour drive over the causeway from Sanibel. As for what to see and do on the island, it's pretty self-explanatory: wander around in the blissful sub-tropical nature. Swim. Go to beach. Repeat. Enjoy!
Surprise, Ariz.: We'll be traveling through the Keys in February and wanted a room in Marathon that wasn't really expensive. Any ideas?
Adam Karlin: Hey, Arizona. The Anchor Inn and Siesta Motel are both good, cheapie places with a bit of old school '50s motel vibe to them. Neither one is the Ritz, but they're friendly and evocative of—forgive me the cliché—the way the Keys used to be.
Port Jefferson, N.Y.: My husband, 17-year-old daughter and I would like to travel to the Florida Keys this February (probably 2/12-2/19). Years ago, we camped and also stayed in the cabins at Bahia Honda State Park. I know the reservations are hard to come by and usually are made a year in advance. So what other budget-friendly options are there in the lower Keys?
Adam Karlin: Hey, N.Y. You're right about reservations being pretty crucial, but that doesn't mean finding a camping berth is impossible. Try booking for BH state park—now. Right now! I'm fairly strongly of the opinion that camping is one of the best ways to see the Keys; there's a definite vibe to the older RV parks that speaks to a Keys way of life that is fast disappearing. You meet a lot of long term snowbirds in these types of places, and like them or not, they're all very much characters.
If that doesn't work, here's a list of Lower Keys camping grounds. All of these are good spots, although Bahia Honda probably is one of the nicest camping grounds in the Keys. Sugarloaf Key is worth checking out for its comparative quiet. Although Big Pine isn't exactly a bustling island by any stretch, Sugarloaf is even more sedate, yet you're also very close to Key West should you and your family want to have some fun in town.
Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge (305/872-2351) and Knight's Key campground (305/743-4343—technically in the Middle Keys) are also good options.
Virginia Beach, Va.: Swimming with the dolphins is on my bucket list and I want to make it the best experience possible. I will be in Marathon for 5 days in mid-February and camping in Naples in early February. I am aware of the 3 dolphin swims in the Keys, but wonder about the water temp and the murky winter waters. I would also like the best experience possible without spending a fortune. Should I wait or go somewhere else? Suggestions please.
Adam Karlin: There are a few of you asking about Swimming with the Dolphins (SWTD) in the Keys. This is a controversial practice, and I'm providing a list of arguments for and against the activity here:
• While SWTD sites are commercial, they are also research entities devoted to learning more about their charges.
• The dolphins raised on-site are legally obtained and not captured from the wild.
• The dolphins are used to humans and pose a negligible danger to swimmers, especially when overseen by expert trainers.
• Dolphin swim programs increase knowledge of dolphins and conservation among customers.
• At places like the Dolphin Research Center, the dolphins can actually swim out of their pens into the open water but choose not to.
• Dolphins are social creatures that require interaction which is impossible to provide in captivity.
• SWTD tourism encourages the capture of wild dolphins in other parts of the world.
• Dolphin behavior is never 100% predictable. Dolphins can seriously injure a human, even while playing.
• SWTD encourage customers to think of dolphins as anthropomorphized "friends," rather than wild animals.
• Dolphins never appreciate captivity. Those that voluntarily remain in SWTD sites do so to remain close to food.
If you're still keen on doing a SWTD program, there are three to pick from, and they're all good. In my own experience I've had a good time at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, but a friend of mine said she had a wonderful time at Theater of the Sea. The other site is Dolphins Plus. They're all similarly priced—expect to pay at least $150 to get a good swim with the dolphins experience. Good luck with your decision. You may also want to try the Marathon Aqua Ranch—no dolphins here, but you do get to swim with some really big fish and the guys who run the place are very friendly.
Hortonville, Wisc.: I want to put together a perfect 5-day solo trip to the Keys in mid-February 2009. I want it all—snorkelling, eating, music, food, history, nature, and meeting single women. Got a plan for me? I don't care about fine accommodations. —Will
Adam Karlin: There's also a few of you who have asked general, "What should I do in the Keys?" queries. Most people have five days to cover the islands. With that in mind, here's an itinerary you might enjoy, but this could apply to others too.
Starting in the Upper Keys, visit John Pennemkamp park to snorkel, dive and see what may be the best marine park in the continental U.S. Check out the Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, too—it's a very Keys-esque animal rescue operation that doubles as a beautiful aviary.
In Islamorada, visit Higgs Beach and have a drink at Loreli, which gets pretty hopping...anytime. You may also want to check out Bob's Bunz café for arguable the best Key Lime pie (this judgment may cause fights).
In Marathon, the Crane Point Museum makes an excellent stop for learning about local wildlife and plantlife. For dinner and drinks you can't go wrong with the Hurricane. In Big Pine, have a drive around Key deer reserve and make sure you get some pizza at the No Name Pub. And In Key West...well, there's just a lot to do. In general, if you want to party, stick to the upper reaches of Duval St., and if you want to soak up more culture, head for the bottom end. Higg's Beach is a nice spot for sand and sun, although be warned—the Keys don't actually have the best beaches in Florida. The Studios of Key West is good for contemporary art from new (and established) talent. There are also lots of literary festivals in Key West that always attract a good crop of writers.
Oh, and seriously, don't miss the Green Parrot in Key West—in my opinion, best music and ambiance on the island.
East Greenwich, R.I.: My boyfriend and I will be traveling to the Keys in Jan. 2009 for a dive vacation. Can you suggest any budget accommodations?
Adam Karlin: Hi, R.I. First, although I am a seat of my pants traveler (to a fault), I'd say anyone wanting to travel in the Keys in late December-February needs to book ahead at least a month in advance. The Keys are just too popular and too small.
When it comes to budget accommodation, let me just reiterate my earlier answer to Port Jefferson, N.Y. on camping in the Keys: I'm in favor of it. Particularly when it comes to people in your situation, R.I. Otherwise you're stuck paying mid-range prices for motel/hotel rooms that, while undoubtedly cute, aren't worth the triple digits they're often quoted at. By camping you also feel closer to the incredible ecosystem that makes up the Keys, an environment that is unique not just to the U.S., but to much of the world.
If you're on a diving vacation, why not camp at John Pennemkamp state park (305/451-1202, floridastateparks.org/pennekamp), which has arguably the best diving in the continental U.S.? Prices here are a bargain, too.
But if you're diving, I reckon you might not be keen on camping. In that case, Looe Key Resort (diveflakeys.com) is both a pretty established diving outfit that also offers rooms. I'll admit the accommodation there is nothing out of this world—not bad, just not great, but if you're on a budget in the Keys and don't want to sleep outside, this is the risk you take.
With that said, the Stone Ledge Paradise Inn (305/852-8114, stoneledgeparadiseinn.com) in Key Largo is both close to all the diving goodness in Pennekamp state park and possesses that great, tacky air of Old Florida you ironically have to search kard to find in modern Florida.
Williamstown, N.J.: I will be touring Miami and Key West with two English friends in May. We have booked a B&B in Key West, but would like some advice on Miami accommodations. We will arrive in Miami on May 6 from Key West. I need to fly home and turn in the rental car on May 8. My English friends are staying on in Miami until May 11. They will be relying on public transportation. What area of Miami is safe and offers access to transportation and is within walking distance of restaurants and some sights? Can you recommend reasonable accommodations (they each want a single room) and restaurants with local flavor? Not-to-be-missed sights?
Adam Karlin: Hi, Sherry. South Beach has the most obvious attractions in Miami, and it's a very walkable district. Unfortunately, public transportation is something Miami doesn't do that well. Your friends might want to spend a few days in South Beach first; the Clay Hotel and Beachcomber are both nice, budget places (keep in mind 'budget' is a relative term in this part of the world). For eating, the 11th Street Diner and Puerto Sagua are Miami Beach classics—the first is an American diner, the second a Cuban diner. Tap-tap is a great, budget Haitian restaurant, very colorful and full of character. Osteria Del Teatro is a nice place for an Italian splurge. I've discussed many of the sites here in above queries, but to that list I'll add the Jewish Museum of Florida, the Bass Museum of Art and Española Way, all great areas for soaking up creativity amidst the deco.
Your friends might enjoy visiting the Design District, which has all sort of studio space and galleries. Michael's Genuine Food and Drink is one of the best restaurants in Miami, and its right in the middle of all of the above. Finally, if they're British (and don't mind a little seediness), Churchill's pub in Little Haiti has great punk music and is a center for the British expat community in Miami. You might want to take a taxi there—the surrounding neighborhood can be a little rough.
As for sights, don't miss the Loew Art Museum, the Biltmore hotel and Fairhcild Tropical Gardens, all in Coral Gables. Each one provides a nice slice of the Miami experience, from architecture to artwork to nature.
Clemson, Tex.: I don't expect any tears here for me.... I'm an airline employee trying to get my family to HNL for Christmas week. It's good to have a back-up plan in case we can't get on the plane as stand-by's. And we've thought that Florida is a good Plan B. Can you suggest a destination, that I can get to from DFW, that's warm, low-key, good for my husband (68) and son (15)? It's best if we don't have to rent a car. I've thought about Key West (visited on a cruise in Nov.) but it looks like there's some special festival that week; hotels are sky-high. My husband and son love Waikiki and Vegas; I love Maui.
Adam Karlin: Hey, Clemson. All things being equal, it sounds like your family might enjoy Fort Lauderdale best. It's not as wild as Miami (it's not sedate either); the beaches are actually some of the best on the Florida Atlantic Coast; there are museums and historical houses but also parks and restaurants and bars and finally, it's fun to take the water taxis through Little Venice.
With all of that said I also think Key West provides all of the above (except the beach quality), an its much more walkable besides, but as you say, rates can get very high. See some of my above answers for tips on finding budget places to stay and camp further up the Keys, keeping in mind it takes about three hours to drive the entire chain from Key Largo to Key West.
Williamsburg, Va.: We're coming with my college freshman son and his girlfriend (both under 21) for the Orange Bowl, and will be in Ft. Lauderdale before. Any suggestions of where they can go for New Year's Eve that doesn't involve alcohol?
Adam Karlin: Heh—the people at Fort Lauderdale tourism will kill me for writing this, but I never thought I'd see 'college freshman,' 'New Year's', 'Fort Lauderdale' and 'doesn't involve alcohol' in the same sentence.
I think Las Olas boulevard is your best bet. There's all kinds of restaurants here where the atmosphere will be fun on NYE, and I'm sure a few will be open to minors on the big night.
Washington, D.C.: I'll be in the Keys, Miami, the Everglades, and 10,000 islands area the first two weeks of January. Where is best place to snorkel, good guest house in Key West and alternative car rental places out of Ft. Lauderdale? Any other advice for hostels in MIA?
Adam Karlin: For hostels in Miami, I got a nice vibe out of Ohana Hostel (305/534-2650, 750 Collins Ave) and South Beach Hostel (thesouthbeachhostel.com, 305/534-6669, 235 Washington Ave)—both had a good crowd of international types and Americans who all seemed to be having a good time. For snorkeling, if you can get a car, go south to Biscayne National Park, which is 95 percent underwater and is on your way to the Keys. For places to stay in Key West that won't break the bank, I'd recommend either camping (see above queries) or the Caribbean House in Bahama Village.
Madison, Wisc.: My aunt, uncle, husband and I are landing in Miami and driving down to Key West. We don't land in Miami until 6 pm on a Friday night. What is the best place to stop on the drive down for a delicious "Key" cocktail/meal? Thanks!
Adam Karlin: Hi, Madison. There's so many I have a hard time getting my head around it, and am growing hungry and Keys-sick at merely the thought of all the great restaurants and bars lining the Overseas Highway...mmm....
OK: in Key Largo, the Key Largo Conch House (keylargocoffeehouse.com, 305/453-4844) serves very nice 'Keys' food, often with a slightly creative, upscale twist. The restaurant itself is located in a very charming old Keys mansion. Just around the way, the Tugboat (305/453-9010; 2 Seagate Blvd.) is a more traditional, just as tasty Keys' seafood place. If you take Fl 997 instead of US 1 into the Keys (it's a slight detour that offers a bit more mangrove scenery) you can drink at Alabama Jack's, which is a very quintessential old school Keys bar.
In Marathon, I'd recommend the Island Tiki Bar (305/743-4191) and the Hurricane (305/743-2200) for both drinks and food—these are two of the friendliest, funniest bars around. The Hurricane especially gets pretty raucous some nights, but I always have a good time there. Also, get a lobster reuben at the Island Fish Company (305/743-4353), a great seafood place with a lot of attitude (it's playful) that front directly onto a nice piece of marina.
There's a lot more out there, but I'll let you guys do a little self-exploring—the rule of thumb is, if it's crowded and kind of worn down, it's probably very good.
Morristown, N.J.: My wife and I would like to go to Key West on a fun, romantic getaway from 4/13 to 4/18/2009. We have never been there. What is the best way to travel there and where do we stay?
Adam Karlin: Hi, New Jersey. I would absolutely recommend driving the Keys from Homestead to Key West. It takes about three hours (non-stop) and I believe the route constitutes one of America's great road trips. Please see the above answers for things to do and see and places to eat along the way.
Greenwood, Ind.: Are there any shallow reefs around Miami that are decent snorkeling spots?
Adam Karlin: Hey, Greenwood. I would say to get out of Miami and head a little bit south to Biscayne National Park or even further south to John Pennekamp state park—both have arguable the best snorkeling, glass bottom boat tours and diving in America outside of Hawaii.
Adam Karlin: Well, guys, that's about all the time I have. I hope you all have great Florida vacations; pick up Lonely Planet's Florida or Miami and the Keys if you need guidebooks to the area. You can find more of my work—more travel narrative than guidebook writing—at my website. Happy trails.