Miami Mini Vacation, Days 4 and 5: Sunset Celebration in Key West

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On the fourth day, the end of our mini vacation was rapidly approaching. Our official programme for the day consisted of seven full hours of shopping at the Sawgrass Mills outlet. However, I am really bad at buying anything, and the mere thought of changing rooms and their bright lights makes me sweat. I’ve also gotten quite used to travelling alone, so the first three intensive days of travelling in a group (no matter how nice the group) had started to wear down my introverted brain. Although I’m sure that chasing after discounts in a jungle of designer products would have been a culturally rewarding dive in the deep of capitalism, at this point I decided to separate myself from the rest of the group and headed out to Key West by myself.

I had reserved my bus transfer from Miami to Key West a couple days earlier through Travel to Key West, and early on Monday morning, the bus picked me up in front of our hotel precisely as and when promised. My one-way trip cost 35 dollars, nearly as much as the 39-dollar day trip would have been. However, I didn’t want to return on the same day, since the drive is nearly four hours one-way. The day trip only allows for six hours to tour the destination, and the return bus leaves too early to see the famous Key West sunset. And I really, really wanted to see that sunset.

So, I booked a bed in a shared room at NYAH Key West, which turned out to be an excellent decision. Even though 55 dollars for a dorm bed seemed like legalised robbery at first, considering the general Key West price level, I actually got a lot of bang for my buck. The official check-in time would have been 4 pm, but they let me in my room as soon as I arrived around noon. The flirty receptionist’s only concern appeared to be whether I was trying to use my older sister’s passport – and that’s how to get hefty tips! :)

The room was clean and tidy and it had its own bathroom and access to a spacious balcony. Each bed had its own night light, a small shelf, and a couple of USB charging ports, as well as a regular power outlet. In addition, every guest got a big locker that worked with the same key card that was used to access the rooms. There were a lot of small, practical things like that to make life easier for everyone. The hotel consists of several maze-like wooden houses surrounding a cosy and secluded pool area shaded by tall palm trees. There are four pools: a heated and an unheated pool, a hot tub and a jacuzzi. Though I’m not entirely sure of the difference between the last two, it didn’t stop me from enjoying the warm soak to relax my sore muscles. Not Your Average Hotel, indeed! This one gets my sincerest recommendations.

The architecture of the wooden houses in Key West has a delightfully Caribbean vibe to it. I spent the first two to three hours just walking around the sleepy neighbourhoods, admiring their cheerful colours and kooky details, of which my absolute favourite was the scheming, mail-munching frog (see picture above). I only stopped for some quick takeaway Cuban lunch from Sandy’s Café, now known as Fernandy’s Café. My recommendations to that one, as well!

Key West is so compact that it’s easy to get almost anywhere on foot. There’s also the free Duval Loop Bus which tours the most important tourist traps seven days a week. Myself, I’d rather walk than travel by bus, but I’ll just leave that little tip here for anyone else heading to the island. Whatever you do, don’t fall victim to the 35-dollar hop on, hop off tour that they try to peddle at every street corner. It really isn’t necessary.IMG_20181112_130120

In November, there were still a lot of Halloween decorations left up here and there. And I’m not talking about any old fake spiderwebs thrown around willy-nilly. No, I’m talking about the “more is more” type of extravaganzas that only true Americans seem to master. I captured the most artistic display in the picture above: at first, I thought the dude on the rocking chair on the porch was the owner himself, but upon a closer look, I realised it was a nightmarish clown keeping company to a couple of full-sized horse skeletons. Loved it!

It came as a surprise to me that Key West isn’t really much of a beach destination. The public beaches downtown, including the Southernmost Beach in the Continental USA, sure look fine from a certain angle but are tiny and overcrowded in reality. It may even be possible to get stung by Portuguese man-of-wars in the water, yikes. Smathers Beach, which is near the airport, is surely big and gorgeous, but the highway runs parallel to it and you can hear the cars on the beach. In my opinion, anyone looking for a full-on beach holiday would be better off picking another Key or sticking to Miami Beach.IMG_20181112_152401__01 IMG_20181112_152356IMG_20181113_065628

Don’t travel to Key West for the beaches, travel there for the unique and laid back atmosphere. One of the island’s unique features is that chickens seem to have full rights there. Chickens and roosters roam free everywhere from traffic intersections to playgrounds, and you get to experience a cacophony of crowing every morning. Other must-see tourist traps include Mile 0, the starting and finishing point of the Florida Keys Highway, the old Flagler Station and the home of Ernest Hemingway, which I didn’t have time to visit.

One tourist trap reigns supreme: in Key West, they celebrate the sunset every day (every single day)! Every evening, Mallory Square fills up with artists, acrobats, fire eaters, musicians, and of course tourists. I almost missed the entire spectacle because I couldn’t tear myself away from the warm embrace of the NYAH jacuzzi, so I had to run like the wind to make it to the square in time. There were hundreds of people at the square just staring at the sun slowly falling into the horizon. The very last rays of light inspired a wild round of applause in the crowd before everyone wandered off in different directions. I loved it! I only wish I could have stayed longer.IMG_20181112_180424IMG_20181112_174428IMG_20181112_174026IMG_20181112_180057IMG_20181112_174701

After the sunset, I grabbed a cup of key lime ice tea to go and slowly wandered back to the hotel. The room had been empty when I first arrived and I had already gotten a bit excited about getting a private room for the price of a dorm, but by the time I got back, every bunk had filled up. I didn’t really mind, since it also meant that a nice French girl (whose name I cannot remember) joined me for dinner. I cannot remember the name of the seafood restaurant we picked, either, but it was next to Flagler station, the food was good and the service incredibly slow. They also asked to see my ID, which is always a nice bonus! I wouldn’t have dared to go back home to Chef if I hadn’t sampled the local specialties, conch fritters and key lime pie, both of which were absolutely delicious. I didn’t even order a main, just an appetiser and dessert, and still couldn’t finish everything. These portion sizes truly boggle my mind.IMG_20181112_203213IMG_20181112_205249

On Tuesday morning, I literally woke up at cock-crow, packed up what little belongings I had brought with me and started walking toward the Key West airport, where my Greyhound back to Miami would leave from. I decided to walk because the local bus didn’t run that early, because I don’t like taxis, and because walking allowed me to enjoy one last sunrise. And the sweet, sweet crowing of roosters, of course.IMG_20181113_062800

Greyhound arrived in Miami slightly ahead of schedule. From the airport bus station, I caught the Metrobus back to South Beach and took one last dip in the ocean, trying to soak up the sun and the waves, and all the colours, sounds and smells to get me through the dark winter awaiting back in Finland. Finally, I picked up my luggage and rejoined the rest of the group at the hotel, and then Carlos gave us a ride back to the airport. Farewell to Miami, though I hope we meet again!IMG_20181109_173007_001

To read all my Miami trip posts in English, use the tag Miami18EN!

 

Miami Mini Vacation, the Third and Best Day: Skyporn, Everglades National Park & Sunset Sailing on Biscayne Bay

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Our third vacation day was damn near perfect. I still couldn’t sleep normally (read: enough), but at least my insomnia made it easy to get to the beach in time for sunrise. And what a colourful sunrise it was – goes easily in my top three.

It had been raining heavily all night and storm clouds were still around in the morning. The first sunrays pierced the cloud cover and coloured the sky in bright shades of yellow, orange and pink. I even spotted a full rainbow! It came as no surprise that the treasure at the end of the ‘bow was a bright green lifeguard tower.

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In addition to gawking at the sky, I also had a plenty of time to swim before I needed to head back to the hotel for breakfast. At breakfast, they served strawberries and Nutella in tiny jars. If I’m being completely honest, this fine Sunday would have been the best vacation day based on its first couple of hours alone. But there was more to come! After breakfast, Carlos picked us up again and drove us to Everglades National Park.

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As most are probably aware, Everglades is absolutely teeming with alligators, but it is also home to a variety of rare species, such as the manatee and the Florida panther. The airboats which are used to tour the area are fast and fun but they also make a deafening noise – earplugs required here! If you cannot spot a wild alligator hiding the rich vegetation, you can participate in an “alligator show” after the boat tour. Even though the name suggests some kind of a circus spectacle where the poor crocodilians must jump through flaming hoops to entertain the tourists, in reality the show is more like a brief summary of interesting alligator facts.

I, for one, learned that alligators don’t actually like the taste of humans and therefore try to avoid snacking on homo sapiens. However, they also have very bad eyesight. So, if you somehow end up falling in the water, don’t stay in an upright position where only your head pokes out above water, as the ‘gators might confuse you for a tastier meal. Instead, float on your back and spread out your limbs – the shape will help signal to the alligators that this piece of meat tastes yucky. Leave a comment below if this tip saved your life – I’ll be waitin’!

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After the park tour, we headed out for some good ol’ fashioned BBQ lunch at Shorty’s BBQ. To a European weakling such as myself, the portions seemed humongous and they could have easily fed at least three of me. Add to that the foot-long corn cobs swimming in butter, the ones that they claimed were only appetisers, and I was left completely stuffed. Apparently, you’re not even meant to finish your meal in one sitting but instead make good use of the doggy bag. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather go out to eat a smaller meal every day than keep heating up the same leftovers for days on end. Buuut, when in Rome, right? The food was okay, nothing to write home about, but the mouth-watering BBQ sauce made everything delicious.

Before our whole trip, I had been most excited about Everglades, but when Sunday’s final activity came along, it quickly became the clear winner: Caribbean Spirit took us on a two-hour sunset cruise on Biscayne Bay, and it was quite likely the best thing ever! Chilling out on the catamaran net with a glass of bubbly in one hand, surrounded by turquoise waters, feeling the captain’s playlist fill our souls with Caribbean vibes, and all this against the backdrop of the impressive Miami skyline and the setting sun in the horizon: perfection. If you’re in Miami and only have time for one activity, let this be it! Don’t even consider anything else.

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To read all my Miami trip posts in English, use the tag Miami18EN!

Miami Mini Vacation, Day 1: Jet Lag, Miami City Tour & Wynwood Walls

IMG_20181109_134222Travel to Miami, leave your sunglasses at home!

I still find it hard to believe this actually happened. Earlier this year my team at work won a sales contest, which meant that last month I got to go on an all-expenses-paid reward trip to Miami, FL. The trip was sponsored by a large Finnish manufacturer of sweets. Slothie and the Chocolate Factory, anyone? I was joined by the candy company’s representative (our host, a.k.a. Mr. Picks-Up-The-Tab), one of my workmates, a buyer from our company, as well as four other victorious sellers from our other branches.

Before this trip, I had never been to the other side of the pond. In all honesty, if I had been planning a self-funded trip to the States, Florida wouldn’t have been my first pick. The stereotypical image of retirees flocking to the state to heal their aching bones occupied my mind. However, Miami was a hugely positive surprise, and it surely didn’t hurt to get a little break from the greyness and misery also known as November in Finland. The biggest downside was that the long flights ate up nearly two days out of my one-week holiday. I would have loved to stay longer, but this time it wasn’t possible to move the return flight to a later date since the eight of us were travelling as one group. It turned out to be ok, though – had I skipped any more classes, I really would have struggled to catch up with my studies. As evidenced by my more-than-lax blogging schedule, this Autumn has been an incredibly busy time for me.

 IMG_20181109_062717Pool area at sunrise, Washington Park Hotel South Beach

As a little addition to my reward package, I also got my first taste of debilitating jet lag. During the 11-hour outbound flight, I didn’t sleep a wink. Instead, I tried to finish a huge backlog of coursework at the mercy of Finnair’s spotty in-flight wifi. We finally made it to our hotel late on Thursday evening in the local time. The first night, I managed to get exactly two hours of sleep before waking up to a feeling of heavy nausea. I suffered through the rest of the night all curled up, just waiting for the morning, waiting to feel better. At the break of dawn, I dragged myself to the beach while the rest of the group remained in their comfy beds. It’s really quite miraculous how easy it was to forget how sick I really felt – all it took was the chance to dig my toes in the warm sand and watch the colourful sunset above the surging turquoise waves.

Now, two hours would make for a perfectly acceptable nap time, but it isn’t nearly enough to sustain a sloth for an entire day. But this was not the time nor place for tiredness, as our days were packed with activities. Our first full vacation day started with a three-hour Miami City Tour on a minibus. We were accompanied by a Finnish guide, who told us about the sights and local culture. We made a quick pit stop at a cigar shop in Little Havana and then proceeded to have lunch in the Wynwood Art District.

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Wynwood Kitchen and Bar served us a wide selection of drinks and tapas, of which my favourite was the deliciously tentacled portion pictured above. I normally travel on a budget, so this “order whatever you want on the company Visa” type of wining and dining felt almost awkward at first. I mean, how many tapas can I order before feeling like a complete mooch? Well, I quickly got over it, and so did the others. The final bill was a sight to behold. At least nobody was left hungry!

While our driver Carlos took everyone else back to South Beach right after lunch, my workmate and I decided to stay behind to tour the Art District and admire the endless graffiti and colourful buildings. I took so many photos that I had to make a separate gallery out of them. Click on any picture below to browse their bigger versions.

 

I’ve never seen such a delightful hotchpotch of colours and patterns as I did in Wynwood – ¡me encanta! From Wynwood, we still continued our tour by walking a couple kilometres to the city centre, because there would have been no more time for such things later. Sure, we could have caught the bus, but who has the patience to wait for those?

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As the temperature remained at around 29–32 °C for the duration of our holiday, our short walk across the concrete jungle quickly became sweaty business. On the way, we popped into a Burger King to get some refreshments, and that way also caught an authentic glimpse of the everyday life of the eighteenth most obese nation in the world (WHO 2017). If these buckets o’ diabetes above are only “medium” in size, then I’m pretty sure the largest cups would be big enough to swim in.

The vibe in downtown Miami was strangely retro-futuristic: steel, glass, tall-ass skyscrapers, surprising colours and shapes, slip roads going in every direction, expensive cars, commuters on the elevated Metromover snaking its way across town, high above the streets. It was like a trip to the future – not my future, but future as imagined in the 80s. I could have spent days just exploring the architecture in the city. This is something not to be missed, even if you’re in Miami primarily for a beach holiday! Here’s another gallery of my skyscraper snaps:

 

We finally reached our daily walking limit and caught a bus back to South Beach. We made it back just in time before sunset, and managed to get in a quick dip in the warm waves of the Atlantic before darkness fell.

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In the evening, the whole group gathered together again for dinner. This time, we chose the Brazilian restaurant Boteco Copacabana on Española Way. I think our most important criterion this time was the ability to get a table for eight without a reservation on a Friday night, but the food was good enough and the drinks even better. Seated outside on the street, we even got to sneak a peek of two flamenco dancers hired by the restaurant next to us. The street really lived up to its name there.

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To read all my Miami trip posts in English, use the tag Miami18EN!