Florida? Just give me the keys

From Hemingway to hedonism, we sample two sides of the sunshine state.

By Nick Ferrari, December 11, 2008
Boats in dock in Islamorada, sport fishing capital of the world

Boats in dock in Islamorada, sport fishing capital of the world

Get the timing right, and within just 90 minutes of touching down at Miami airport, you can be playing tennis virtually outside your very own luxury cottage, just a decent serve across pristine white sand from the Atlantic Ocean.

Well, in truth, you might need to have the sort of serve you only see dished up by Roger Federer… but you get the point, it’s pretty damned close.

And that nearby water, and all it offers, is very much the key to enjoying all that the Florida Keys has to offer, and in particular Islamorada where our luxury holiday resort village, The Moorings, was located.

The Keys run south west from the Florida peninsula and are a chain of fossilised coral islands afforded some protection by the only coral reef in the whole of North America. This is where much of America comes to play — and everything is geared up to ensuring there’s what you want, when you want it and how you want it.

Checking out the origin of the car and camper licence plates that have flocked to this relatively thin strip of the US is like taking a tour across the country — you’ll see Americans from California to Colorado and Washington to Wisconsin making the long journey to enjoy themselves.

While perhaps not as famous as some of its rival keys such as Key Largo (the Bogart/Bacall movie wasn’t actually shot there) and Key West, home to Ernest Hemingway, Islamorada proudly lays claim to being the Sport Fishing Capital of the World.

And, when checking out the nearby Whale Harbour Marina and seeing the extraordinary array of fishing craft on offer, it’s hard to disagree.

If you’re serious about fishing, be prepared to devote the entire day to it. Charters, which start at $150 per person, take to the high seas as early as 6am.

But, don’t fear if you don’t want the whole Hemingway-esque, defying-the-elements, taking-on-Mother-Nature-at-her-worst experience. After a leisurely breakfast, just take a gentle, late morning boat trip around a bay, staring at the scenery — just like I did with my two strapping sons.

This is a real stars’ hang-out, and as you walk around the 18-acre former coconut plantation you will quickly recognise it from films and TV shows. Just 18-individual cottages share this totally chilled-out piece of real estate, and they range from one to three bedrooms. Complete with fully fitted kitchen, laundry facilities and TV/DVD/CD equipment, they’re entirely self-sufficient. Maid service can be arranged, or you’re free to go it alone if you choose.

The mantra at The Moorings is that the holiday can be as busy, or as lazy, as you like, which makes it the perfect get-away-from-it-all family break. The children can do as much as they want; tennis, swimming (in a superb pool), kayaking, wind-surfing or playing on the beach.

For the grown-ups, it’s luxurious, peaceful and you are simply left politely alone by staff who only seem to appear when required. But, be sure to hire a car, as you’ll need transport to savour the variety of great restaurants nearby.

To make sure you get the most of Florida, do what we did: having unwound delightfully in the Keys, get back in that car and head for the happy, heady — at times even hedonistic — delights of Miami.

And there can be no better way to experience Miami’s metropolitan buzz and still savour the pleasures of  an Atlantic Ocean beach resort than to check into the Acqualina Resort on Sunny Isles beach.

Within minutes of walking into the lobby, you’ll immediately understand why this has scooped award after award and has been voted one of the coolest new hotels in the world.

My boys spent the first half-hour filming the suite on their mobile phones for an MTV Cribs special for their friends. And, to save you the embarrassment of asking what a Crib is, I can tell you it’s a hip TV show showing the homes of music and film stars, from P Diddy to Angelina Jolie.

Set in four-and-a-half acres with a 400ft stretch of Atlantic coastline and boasting three ocean-front pools and the acclaimed Il Mulino New York-style restaurant, you really never need to leave the resort. And I haven’t even mentioned the vast luxury spa that can pamper you with treats such as the Crystal Steam Room, Ice Fountains and the Experience Shower with Arctic and Caribbean mists.

Aside from remembering to breath, once you’re at the Acqualina the staff can take care of your whole existence. Walk to the beach and a smiling attendant helps put your lounger into the position.

Within seconds, another member of staff is on hand with water or chilled fruit kebab. And if you want something else to eat or drink, the time it takes a waiter to take and deliver your order wouldn’t disgrace an Olympic sprinter.

And, crazy as it sounds to ever wish to depart this Nirvana, the resort is ideally located for shopping and sightseeing.

The Bal Harbour shopping area is reputed to be the most luxurious in the US  —  and having shopped until I nearly dropped coast-to-coast, from New York’s Fifth Avenue to Los Angeles’s Rodeo Drive, I can vouch for the veracity of that assertion. Any designer brand worth its (often over-priced) salt is here.

And what makes all this an un-missable part of any holiday is a trip to downtown Miami — just a 20-minute drive from the Acqualina. The deliberate shabby chic on this Art Deco haven is one of the jewels in America’s architectural crown.

Whether you drive, roller skate, cycle, scooter, or walk down Ocean Drive you must be sure to just do it.

There’s no such thing as a bad restaurant on this extraordinary coastline road — and if you’re into people watching, think of this as like hanging out in the bar room from Star Wars. You’ll see America the beautiful, the bonkers and the bizarre. In geographical terms, this two-centre slice of Florida is so minute on the map of America it barely registers.

But, for a holiday that can combine the thrills of deep sea fishing and the cool of a world-class resort, this would be as unbeatable as that Federer serve.

Travel facts

The Moorings, Islamorada(www.themooringsvillage.com; 001 305 664 4708) charges from $250 (£172) for a lodge per night (min two nights), and from $3,120 (£2,167) per week for a two-bedroom cottage . Acqualina Resort, Sunny Isles Beach, (www.acqualinaresort.com; 001 305.918.8100) offers rooms from $850 (£585) per night, or special “Home at Acqualina” package $575 (£396) per room per night based on minimum three-night stay (valid until December 23).

Jewish Florida

The first Jews came to Florida in 1763, but numbers stayed small. When Florida became a state in 1845, there were fewer than 100.
In 1857, Jacksonville Hebrew Cemetery became the state’s first Jewish institution and in 1876, Beth El, in Pensacola, became the state’s first formal Jewish congregation. l The first US Senator from Florida was a Jew, David Levy Yulee.
Today’s Jewish population is 750,000, with more than 40 synagogues in Miami alone (www.jewishmiami.org).
Key West has its own shul, B’nai Zion (www.bnaizionkw.org).
Details of kosher restaurants and supermarkets at: www.floridajewish.com

Last updated: 3:39pm, March 11 2009