A view of Miami from the Rickenbacker causeway.

A view of Miami from the Rickenbacker causeway.

South Beach, brining the heat, fo' real!
- Will Smith, "Miami"

I've been on the road (in the air) for most of the summer, so I have plenty of catching up to do here. I spent most of June on beaches on both coasts, which is pretty awesome, and I kicked off my month of traveling in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Where it was HOT! Like soaking-in-sweat-please-lord-where's-the-air-conditioner hot.

But that's why you strip down to a bathing suit and hop in the water. 

I started my week in Fort Lauderdale, staying at The Westin Diplomat on the beach. And of course my first dinner was at a small Cuban restaurant nearby, where I had some delicious empanadas and lechon asado. Mmm.

View of the private beach from my room at The Westin Diplomat

View of the private beach from my room at The Westin Diplomat

While in Fort Lauderdale I also found a weekly food truck night at ArtsPark. And one of the food trucks is Robyn Almodovar's -- from season 10 of Hell's Kitchen. Her "Palate Party" truck served delicious fried mushroom risotto balls and incredible lobster macaroni and cheese. And to chase it all down, Robyn had ice cold ginger mango lemonade.

And speaking of food, which is what I speak about most of the time, I had ahi tuna nachos at a restaurant called Tarpon Bend . In my head I imagined ahi tuna on a messy bed of tortilla chips, but they were exactly the opposite and so much better than I could have imagined. Just look! Perfectly seared ahi tuna, each on a crispy homemade chip with seaweed salad. The red dots are Sriracha, and underneath each nacho is a dollop of wasabi aioli for some more heat. And on top is a little bit of ginger and some sauce I can't remember. But I do remember that I wanted to eat another plate of nachos after this one.

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It's prime sea turtle nesting season, and the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Discovery and Science offers guided, late night sea turtle watches.  After an hour of learning about sea turtles and meeting a baby loggerhead sea turtle (named "Shelly"), you drive to a nearby beach where the guides will look for sea turtles and alert you if one is about to nest. 

Unfortunately during my turtle watch night, we didn't come across any sea turtles. But we did look at some nests (which were protected and marked), and you could see the unique turtle tracks around the nests. And lounging in a beach chair at midnight with the ocean breeze and the stars above isn't a bad way to spend the night. 

By the way, have you ever heard of a leatherback sea turtle? All I can say is, "OMG."  They're around 7 feet long and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. I learned about leatherbacks during the lecture at the museum. FREAKY.

After a few days in Fort Lauderdale, it was time to head to Miami for adventures in South Beach and beyond. First stop: La Carreta for some Cuban cuisine. I got the El Criollo Cuban sampler that came with Ropa Vieja, pork chunks, ham croquette, tamale, yuca, rice, black beans, and plantains. Me gustan El Criollo!

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If you love art and design, then you have to explore the Miami Design District and the neighboring Wynwood area.  The Design District is several blocks of fine art galleries, fashion houses, home design boutiques, and more. In the Etra Fine Art gallery, I discovered the art of Juan Raúl Hoyos. And while wandering the district, I found the Jonathan Adler store, which is his largest store! And where I happened to do some shopping. (Couldn't help it.)

And the Wynwood area is a new, hip neighborhood with buildings covered in cool street art and funky art galleries on every corner. 

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Food in the Design District is just as good as the art. A friendly sales associate at Jonathan Adler recommended Michael's Genuine for lunch, a popular Miami restaurant that's getting lots of buzz for it's fresh, local, and innovative menu. After eating there, I can see/taste what all the fuss is about.

I had the special heirloom tomato appetizer, which was Chef Michael Schwartz's take on a caprese salad -- a much elevated take. Those were the best tomatoes I've ever had, and the cheese was out of this world. Chef Michael, by the way, is a James Beard award winner. 

For my main dish, I went with a fish sandwich made with little tunny (a kind of tuna) found in the Atlantic. The tunny "patty" had peppers and other herbs and spices, and it had a few leaves of fresh lettuce for a little crunch. The homemade fries were a perfect accompaniment.

I think I'm going to have to buy Chef Michael's cookbook soon. 

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What do you do after eating so much? Go for a walk. 

A post-lunch trip to Vizcaya Museum and Gardens was the perfect way to burn some calories. 

Vizcaya was the winter home to James Deering, a super rich industrialist with a fascination for traditional European design and modern technology. He worked with an architect to incorporate Miami influences and modern amenities into this Old World style mansion that sits right on the water. The home is surrounded by gardens and fountains (sort of a mini-Versailles), and even has its own private channel in Biscayne Bay. "The Biltmore of Miami," as someone told me.

After Vizcaya, a walk along the water in Biscayne State Park was the perfect way to end the day. 

Of course you can't go to Miami without going to South Beach. 

It's hot, a bit weird ("innit?"), and in your face. It's funny though because the beach wasn't nearly as crowded as the sidewalks along Ocean Drive. I guess Ocean Drive is really the place the to be.  

People watching on South Beach is the best. The outfits, the cars, the music, the makeup... All outstanding. The best was when a woman (?) suddenly burst out into "McArthur Park" in her best Donna Summer voice: "Someone left the cake out in the rain..." And she immediately drew a crowd and sang and danced around lines of people. "...And I'll never have that recipe agaaaaaaaaaain!"

People watching and walking up and down the entirety of Ocean Drive can really work up an appetite, so for dinner I took the recommendation of friends and went to Joe's Stone Crab. Not to be confused with Joe's Crab Shack. 

Joe's Stone Crab has been around for 100 years, and it's only open certain times during the year. Thankfully they were open for the summer season, and the summer menu was exquisite. 

I ordered a sampler that came with stone crab claws, lobster, and Alaskan king crab legs. And I ate everything. Well, except for a tiny piece of stone crab that I accidentally flung at the table behind me due to my inability to properly crab a stone crab claw open.  Oops. 

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With so much seafood in my belly, it only made sense to hit up the Miami Seaquarium the next day. (So wrong. I know.) The Seaquarium is a full day adventure, and there are plenty of shows to watch while you're there. In addition to the animal feedings and the talks by the aquarium keepers, you can see dolphins dance to rock songs and watch a "Flipper" show at the set where the TV show was filmed. However, after sitting there in the stands watching "Flipper" perform stunts, I remembered watching the documentary "The Cove," and I started to feel bad.

The weather wasn't so great later that afternoon. Lightning, thunder, and heavy rain came pouring down; and because the Seaquarium is mostly an outdoor park, there wasn't much shelter. On the plus side, I'd seen all the marine life there, so I took it as a sign to head out and find dinner in Miami and call it an early night so I could drive out to Key Largo the next morning (which was the last day of vacation).

Key Largo is less than 90 minutes away from Miami. It's past the Everglades, and it's one of the first Keys of the Florida Keys. There are beaches, reefs, and forests; and with the sun and warm temps, it was the perfect weather for stomping around on the beach and kayaking through mangrove forests. 

Kayak rentals are fairly cheap at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. And once you're strapped in a life jacket and get handed a map, you're on your own to explore. Kayaking through mangroves is absolutely amazing. It's exciting and peaceful all at the same time.

What a beautiful day.

And I ended it with dinner at The Fish House Restaurant, which serves fresh fish caught daily. I ordered the house specialty, mahi-mahi done "Matecumbe" style. That means it's topped with tomatoes, shallots, basil, capers, olive oil, and lemon juice. Then baked. 

This dish has been featured in Cooking Light magazine and also on Food Network in Bobby Flay's "Food Nation" program. (So maybe that's why I ordered it.)  That Matecumbe was to die for. I licked the plate clean.

And you can't leave the Keys without eating key lime pie. Also, there was a pie sitting in the case directly in front of me, so I couldn't resist. 

A tan and a belly full of fresh seafood. That's a nice way to end a vacation. 

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