Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Florida Travel Guide: Best Things to do in Miami & Fort Lauderdale

If you follow me on social media you might think I live in Florida. My husband and I visit a couple times a year and the locals recognize us at our usual hangouts. We no longer need a map or GPS to navigate the city and among the swaying palm trees and Art Deco buildings on Ocean Drive I feel completely at home.

When I flew back to Toronto last week after enjoying long lazy days of sun and warmth, there was a snow storm. It took 15 minutes to drive one block and I immediately regretted not staying longer. If you’re looking for a fabulous winter escape Miami is a short flight away and offers the perfect balance of bustling city life and serene tropical beaches (I call it my home-away-from-home). Today I’m sharing a few of my favorite attractions, restaurants, tours and hot-spots to help you make the most of your trip.

For first time visitors there are a number of great hotels and neighborhoods to choose from. You can stay near South Beach – Miami’s popular party street or opt for a quieter area. During last week’s visit I stayed at the Provident Doral because I prefer resort style accommodations similar to many Caribbean destinations. The Provident has a beautiful pool, all the amenities you need and 15 buildings, many of which back onto a pristine golf course.

The suites are very spacious with separate living, dining and kitchen areas all designed with modern furniture and fixtures. The bathroom is also quite large with a deep Jacuzzi tub, TV, and waterfall shower for rest and relaxation.

The hotel is also close to one of my favorite places to spend an evening in Miami – Dolphin Mall. This is the liveliest mall I've ever been to which is probably why I’m always there. Aside from a wide selection of great stores, there is a nice outdoor area with arcades, restaurants, bowling alley, movie theater and stylish bars. In the evenings the mall comes alive as people gather to have dinner or sip cocktails and on weekends there is usually a live band that gets the crowd up and dancing. At times the atmosphere feels more like a nightclub than a shopping mall so if you’re in the area stop by and let loose.

Duck Tours is one of my top recommendations because it covers both land and water with fun historical commentary. The bus takes you on an exhilarating drive around the city while blasting the song “Welcome to Miami and when you reach beautiful Biscayne Bay the bus rolls right into the water and transforms into a boat for a fabulous tour of Millionaires Row. You may even see a manatee or two! For more information visit the website by clicking HERE.

Miami also has a Hop On - Hop Off Bus Tour which I’ve taken in many cities throughout the world. It stops at many attractions and you can sit back, relax and take in everything the city has to offer without worrying about traffic.

Vizcaya Museum and Garden is a beautiful oasis of Baroque Architecture, fountains, flowers and exotic creatures. Spend an afternoon strolling around the villa and soaking up some sun. It is also a great place for photography.

Miami has a beautiful coastline and South Beach/Miami Beach along Ocean Drive is known for its nightspots, restaurants and colorful Art Deco buildings. Walk along the strip, dip your toes in the cool water and stop for lunch at one of the trendy restaurant patios. You will find many Cuban eateries with gigantic cocktails as upbeat music plays in the background and mega ships sail in the distance.

One of my favorite places to party on South Beach is Clevelander Bar. You will spot the illuminated palm trees and dance floor as you make your way up the beach at night.

When I exit the plane (tired and hungry) I usually head to Jamaica Kitchen for flaky curry chicken patties, spicy jerk chicken and savory soups. I discovered this Caribbean gem while watching The Food Network and since then I’ve been back countless times. The small restaurant is tucked away in a plaza and owned by a Chinese-Jamaican family. What they lack in dining space they make up for in flavor.

Pinecrest Gardens is a tropical rainforest that seems to have sprouted up out of nowhere! If you’re looking for peace and quiet after a night out, escape to the beautiful canopies and enjoy the natural ponds, flowers and exotic wildlife. I prefer this intimate garden setting to Jungle Island - a small zoological theme park.

Thrill seekers won’t want to miss the Florida Everglades. While flying over Miami you may notice that much of the city is surrounded by marshland and canals. The grassy wetland reserve along Florida’s Southern tip is home to mangroves, thick vegetation and hundreds of species including birds, turtles, manatees, panthers, deer, large pythons and of course alligators. I recommend touring via air boat since you can cruise alongside the floating gators and speed through the grassy rivers for the most spectacular views! The 360˚ turns in gator infested water is thrilling!

I went on the Everglades tour in Homestead and highly recommend stopping at Robert’s Fruit Stand to enjoy delicious milkshakes and all-natural smoothies loaded with tropical fruit. Recently the little store has gained a lot of attention for their fresh jams and flavored honey but the prices are very steep.

If you are planning to venture out of Miami (which I always seem to do) I highly recommend the scenic drive from Miami Beach to Fort Lauderdale Beach along the coast. We always rent a car because it gives us the freedom to explore at our own pace. Fort Lauderdale is definitely worth visiting and although the coastal drive may take a couple hours (depending on traffic) you can also get there in about 30 minutes on the highway.

If you’re in Fort Lauderdale Beach (North Atlantic Blvd area) make sure to stop at Primanti Brothers for delicious pizza and their famous sandwiches loaded with homemade slaw, crispy fries and meat. I seem to eat pizza on all my trips and Primanti makes one hell of a pie. The dough is fresh, the sauce is spiced to perfection and the toppings are scrumptious!

While in Fort Lauderdale don’t miss Las Olas Boulevard - a trendy neighborhood with malls, shops and great restaurants. Stop for frozen yogurt and have dinner at one of the beautiful patios on the water. Galleria Mall is also a must for some retail therapy.

I also recommend taking a fun dinner cruise aboard the iconic Jungle Queen River Boat which leaves from The Bahia Mar Yachting Center on Seabreeze Blvd in Fort Lauderdale. The tour travels through “the Venice of America” and Millionaires Row where you will see celebrity mansions and spectacular mega yachts before arriving at Tropical Isle for an all-you-can-eat barbecue. The beautiful island is decorated with twinkling lights and tiki torches as a live band entertains you through the meal. The food was good (a bit bland for my taste) but the sides were delicious. After dinner visit the rescued animal sanctuary and enjoy a lovely outdoor show featuring comedians, jugglers and magicians. For more information visit the website by clicking HERE.

I know Key West is not in Miami but if you have a car and you don’t mind a long, scenic drive, I highly recommend spending a couple days in the area. Make sure to visit the iconic Southernmost Point Buoy to snap a photo and stop at the incredible beaches along the way. The sparking white sand and crystal blue water is worth the road trip (or short flight) and in town you may notice a few wild roosters strutting around amidst authentic Mexican restaurants and modern art galleries.

There are a lot of scenic spots in Miami and Bayfront Park is one of my favorites! Make sure to stop at Bayfront Marketplace for a little shopping, take a photo with the oldest tree in the city and have lunch on a patio overlooking the marina as boats sail into the harbor. I usually opt for Chilis Bar & Grill because they serve delicious South-Western Egg Rolls.

Little Havana is a vibrant Cuban Neighborhood in the heart of Miami. I mainly go for the Cuban ice cream at Azucar famous for unique flavors like guava, almond, cinnamon and pear.

This district is also famous for colorful graffiti art, Latin American galleries, cigar shops and cafes with walk-up windows selling authentic Cuban delicacies. You will also notice eccentric rooster statues designed by local artists.

I enjoy strolling the upscale neighborhood of Coconut Grove lined with chic shops, cafes and Coco Walk Mall. If you have time for a leisurely afternoon, stop at the Grove to take in the lavish Italian style villas, parks and marinas.

One of my favorite new health food eateries in Miami is Diced. The all-natural chicken bowls are loaded with your choice of veggies and sauces for a filling, nutritious meal. 

Over the last two years I’ve spent a lot of time relaxing on the long, quiet beaches of Key Biscayne. This area is a nice escape from the crowds on Miami Beach and the water is calm and shallow. My husband and I like to picnic under the palm trees at sunset.

Many cruises leave from Miami and Fort Lauderdale so after you explore the city why not hop aboard and sail to the Caribbean! Of course this will take some extra planning but I’ve been on 10 cruises and they were all incredible (for the most part). I’ve sailed with Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean.

Travelers Tip: Arrive 1-2 days before your cruise sets sail in case of flight cancellations or delays at the airport. You wouldn't want them to leave without you!

South Pointe Park on Miami Beach is one of my favorite places to spend a relaxing afternoon. There are shaded benches that line the walkway and around 4 pm you can watch the cruise ships set sail.

From the park you can also walk down to the pier. This area of the beach is usually less crowded which makes it a great spot for swimming and sun bathing. I saw a few jellyfish in the water and 3 large manatees floating by!

I love the architecture in this area, the condos are beautiful and brightly colored.  

If you're looking for an upbeat lounge/restaurant/bar with delicious food and amazing music, check out Bahama Breeze Island Grille. I went to the Pembroke Pines location on a Friday night and the patio was lit with tiki torched and twinkling lights while the DJ played the best reggae, soca (calypso), R & B and old school. 

There is much to discover in Florida so I am already planning another trip after I explore a few other destinations on my bucket list. Stay tuned for more travel coverage.

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