Text by Toby Triumph
Florida’s chief industries used to be citrus fruit and tourism. Now it’s weirdness. Headlines across the globe have made it official: “Unidentified giant eyeball washes ashore”; “Grand piano mysteriously appears on sandbar in Biscayne Bay”; “Woman arrested for riding manatee like a horse”; “Police shoot face-eating zombie”; “Three men seen carrying dead shark on Miami monorail.”
We casually walk past alligators on our golf courses and our presidential elections are less organised than football riots. That’s just the tip of the sandcastle. Since I write surreal novels for a living, there couldn’t be a more target-rich environment to spawn titles such as Florida Roadkill and Hammerhead Ranch Motel. For 16 books, I’ve crisscrossed the state, chronicling the odd and unbelievable. Florida offers hundreds of kilometres of intoxicating postcard views with a splash of romantic danger, like the modern Casablanca immortalised in Miami Vice. To squeeze the most tropical juice out of it all there’s only one option – road trip!
From Europe it’s a long, blue flight and then you see it for the first time on the horizon: an endless strip of bright, white beach, laid out before a massive row of high-rise resorts, condos and motels so imposing and close to the ocean it seems improbable the sand can hold it all up. Welcome to Fort Lauderdale. Go to the rental counter at the airport and demand a convertible in red, blue or pink, then buy a tropical shirt in the gift shop (the more nightmarish the pattern, the more you’ll look like a local), then crank up the stereo – the Miami Vice soundtrack would be ideal, but if the Vice references are already wearing thin, anything by Florida native Tom Petty will do.
Before leaving town, there are a few essentials. As your flight approaches the airport, you may notice the sprawling grid of boating channels – the city has more canals than Venice, which is why it has that slightly predictable tag: the Venice of America. Do yourself a favour and grab a tour on one of the many water taxis (watertaxi.com), which will show you the backyards of millionaires and movie stars. If you take the tour at night, you can often get a peek inside their homes.
Next, what could be more Florida than jai alai, a Spanish sport? Back in the day, the lightning-fast hurling of rock-hard balls from curved baskets was on the A-list of the social set, but interest has waned considerably. Frontons, as the playing arenas are called, used to dot the state, but many are in disrepair or have been demolished to make room for branches of Home Depot DIY stores. Thankfully, the classiest one left is in neighbouring Dania Beach (dania-jai-alai.com), continuing to gleam as if the diamond-jewellery crowd still packed the place.
Can’t slow down now. Time to hit the Fort Lauderdale beachfront Elbo Room (elboroom.com), made famous in the 1960, spring break box-office hit Where the Boys Are. Many black-and-white photos from the movie’s filming are framed along the walls and take you back to a golden era. If you saw that movie, you’ll definitely recall another bar whose windows provided an underwater view of a swimming pool, where one of the cast members fell in. That’s the Wreck Bar, just a few blocks up the street in the Yankee Clipper Hotel, now more widely known as the Sheraton (starwoodhotels.com). More recently, the lounge was featured in the movie Analyze This, where Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal hung out (yes, there’s a framed photo on the wall). Currently, the bar is packed each Friday for the mermaid show in the pool. Here’s what the typical Floridian thinks when they sees a mermaid: sure, why not?
Just around the corner is your next attraction. Besides Where the Boys Are, the prolific novelist John D MacDonald put Fort Lauderdale on the map with his Travis McGee books. As any fan of the series can tell you, Travis lived on a houseboat at the nearby Bahia Mar Marina (a literary monument marks the spot) and loved to hang out at Pier 66 (pier66.hyatt.com), which is actually a hotel tower with a revolving restaurant on top.
I first visited the top of 66 about 15 years ago when the bar pounded with the international fast-lane pulse of South Florida. I was seated near the bandstand, next to two big-shouldered men wearing black T-shirts and black sport coats, with two black attaché cases on the bar in front of them. Probably mob, I thought. The briefcases? Had to be laundered cash or disassembled sniper rifles. And I’m sitting right next to them – boy, do I feel street-savvy. Then the men opened their briefcases, took out a flute and a soprano sax, climbed onto the bandstand and began playing Kenny G.
Today, the top of Pier 66 is mainly used for brunch and private functions, but the outdoor observation deck has some of the best views in the state. You can also see the beaches, the downtown skyline and the 30m yachts from Europe moored behind Mediterranean mansions that you saw on the water taxi.
Hunger is now setting in, so aim that convertible for Hollywood. Not California, but the Florida town just minutes away. Funk is always served best when it’s off the beaten track, which means the opposite side of the peninsula from the beach, where locals flock for late-night grub at Le Tub (theletub.com). It used to be a 1959 gas station and is now a ramshackle greasy spoon overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. The interior is festooned with fishing nets, crab-trap floats, boat propellers, license plates, street signs, something that looks like a torpedo and just about anything else customers want to tack up to stake their presence in the universe. An episode of TV series The Glades was recently filmed here when they needed a shady rendezvous. But don’t be fooled by the deliberate underbelly atmosphere: GQ magazine voted it the best hamburger in America. Oh, and near the entrance is a display of potted plants growing out of several toilets. Sure, why not?
All great road trips in Florida head south, in more ways than one. Next stop: Miami Beach. The land of chic art-deco hotels, Brazilian bikini ads, the ghost of Frank Sinatra, the Versace mansion – and the last hideout of his killer, Andrew Cunanan. But there’s so much more to see in Florida, time in Miami is limited. So hit two nightspots at opposite ends of the spectrum that fully represent the diversity of life on earth.
The first is the Delano Hotel (delano-hotel.com), on Collins Avenue, which is so far ahead on the chic track it has lapped the rest of the South Beach field. For the full experience, drop in after midnight on a weekend. Long, gossamer curtains flutter from the front entrance. Inside, chairs, tables and sofas of freakish scale and dimension stretch through the minimalist lobby like a Salvador Dalí hallucination. Through the back doors and onto the patio, it becomes Alice in Wonderland. People wander across the lawn, picking up massive chess pieces and moving them to other giant squares. Further toward the ocean, under the haze of a harvest moon, is the shallow end of the swimming pool, which is only 15cm deep so it can accommodate cocktail tables and barefoot waiters splashing over to you with umbrella drinks. Sure, why not?
After shaking the surrealism out of your head, drive that convertible north on Collins with the wind in your hair and into a panorama of pastel neon. Hang a left on 14th Street for the oldest bar in Miami Beach and a world away from the trendy, club-hopping crowd. Mac’s Club Deuce (222 14th St) comes as advertised by its outward appearance: a dive in all the best senses of the term.
There’s a killer jukebox and an ancient double-horseshoe bar of gnarled, etched wood. If it were a person, it would be Keith Richards. There’s also a bunch of neon on the walls that belongs in a strip club but is left over from a TV shoot.
The next day’s schedule requires pushing even further south for the finest stretch of road trip in the whole country – the 160km-long Overseas Highway to Key West, a stunning road that does exactly what it says on the tin. On the way out of town, one last mandatory box to check on your scavenger list. Take the Calle Ocho (or Calle 8) road into Little Havana, where dozens of older Cuban gentlemen gather outside each day to play dominos, toss back espresso and curse Fidel Castro. Find one of the ubiquitous sidewalk lunch windows and order an authentic Cuban sandwich. No matter where else you might see them on the menu, the best ones are along the Calle Ocho. Trust me on this one.
Heading west, Calle Ocho turns into the secluded two-lane Tamiami Trail and hits the Everglades (nps.gov/ever), where the alligators will find you. If you do nothing else out here, drop by one of the roadside concessions run by the Miccosukee tribe (miccosukee.com/tribe) and take an airboat ride into the swamp. It seems touristy, but you’ll see the real Florida and be awestruck you’ve been driving on a causeway across a vast, shallow lake.
Continuing down the Tamiami, you’ll find occasional jewels among the vast swamp savannahs. In Ochopee there is the wilderness photographer Clyde Butcher’s gallery (clydebutcher.com), the smallest post office in the USA and Joanie’s Blue Crab Café (joaniesbluecrabcafe.com) – munch on fried gator nuggets while listening to native folk music by artists such as Raiford Starke, named for Florida’s two death-row prisons. The nearby Skunk Ape Research HQ (skunkape.info) is a delightfully bizarre roadside attraction with lots of massive snakes and unusual lizards. It’s the best $5 (NOK30) value in the state.
Key West requires little guidance. Everyone knows where to go. The Hemingway Home (hemingwayhome.com), the Green Parrot (greenparrot.com), the lighthouse, Sloppy Joe’s (sloppyjoes.com), the daily Mallory Square sunset celebration. The main drag through old town is Duval Street, home of a thousand Jimmy Buffett impersonators, whose familiar chords echo out of the open doors of countless clubs. Bar-hopping along this 2.5km strip is known as doing the “Duval Crawl”. Pencil in extra sleep for the morning.
It’s finally time to head home. You’ve become as seasoned as an official honorary Floridian. You now see the world through the same strange heat waves as the locals. On the highway near Miami, they were once shooting an episode of TV spy series Burn Notice and set off a five-storey exploding fireball. Everyone just drove by without a thought. They were probably thinking: exploding fireballs by the freeway? Sure, why not?
Tim Dorsey is the New York Times bestselling author of 16 crime-comedy novels about Florida. Previously, he was a newspaper reporter and editor for The Tampa Tribune