Ponce de León was on to something. In 1513, the conquistador landed near St. Augustine in search of the fountain of youth. He might have found it, too—had he waited 500 years. All over my home state, there’s a renewed enthusiasm for the unique and authentic. Where “Old Florida” was a semiotic grab bag of calculated nostalgia (rocking chairs; “Howdy, neighbor” civility), today you’ll find a Stay Local, Buy Local approach to quality. Floridians are becoming...well...hip. On a series of road trips, I visited a few of my classic, age-old secrets—and made some fresh discoveries, too.
South Florida: Miami to Palm Beach (75 miles)
The first leg of any Florida road trip should begin in Miami. Curiously, as South Beach gets bigger and bigger in a starchitecture kind of way (we’re set to have seven parking garages designed by award-winning architects), my world here has become a self-curated small town of sympathetic haunts, distilled into a kind of Miami haiku. Art films at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, on Washington Avenue, are a blessed sanctuary from the constant low-grade frenzy of Ocean Drive, where I just heard that Gianni Versace’s mansion is being revamped yet again, possibly into another boutique hotel. I love the leafy garden at the hostel Freehand Miami ($); bright young things pack its see-and-be-seen Broken Shaker lounge for handcrafted cocktails. Amid the chain stores of Lincoln Road, the independent Books & Books is my go-to resource for the autographed tomes of everyone from Sonia Sotomayor to Salman Rushdie.
And all over Miami a new order of contemporary pleasure is being built on the romance of the past. Just off South Beach, the 1930’s Fisher Island Club Hotel ($$$$) tapped Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle to refashion their Vanderbilt Mansion to serve as a clubhouse. In mid-Miami Beach, South Beach pioneer Ian Schrager is set to open the Miami Beach Edition (rates not available at press time), part of his new venture with Marriott—a hotel/condo set within the old Seville Beach Hotel and featuring the design talents of John Pawson and Yabu Pushelberg. To the north, Bal Harbour Shops, an open-air institution with such upscale brands as Lanvin, is a prime venue for periodic art chats hosted by Unscripted Bal Harbour.
From Miami, I drive up I-95 to Fort Lauderdale, where some of the greatest local landmarks are Campy with a capital “C”: you can watch assorted live “mermaids” frolic in the pool through the portholes at the Wreck Bar; the Polynesian show at the Mai-Kai—rooted in the Mad Men era and full of hula skirts, ukuleles, and Samoan fire-knife dancers—is another cheering spectacle of kitsch. Tranquilo Hotel $), the Midcentury Modern star of the North Beach area, smacks of bygone Florida. But for me, the adjacent Bonnet House Museum & Gardens, an early-20th-century palace of whimsy by artist Frederic Clay Bartlett, will always define Fort Lauderdale; the garden alone includes a dune, mangrove wetlands, and a stand of hibiscus. All this is tempered by forward-thinking propositions like Steak 954 ($$$), at the W Fort Lauderdale, overseen by celebrity chef Stephen Starr. Here, even simple, just-caught red snapper comes as a thinly sliced raw tiradito.
About 50 miles north on I-95, a quirky place to stay is the Chesterfield Palm Beach ($$), with its Merry Old England–style lobby. I get a dose of culture at the Norton Museum of Art, currently featuring a Mickalene Thomas installation incorporating tropical Florida imagery. Afterward, I do the rounds on the renowned Antique Row, a choice stretch of South Dixie Highway. Dina C’s Fab & Funky Consignment Boutique, owned by Dina Capehart, specializes in the coveted castoffs of Palm Beach society—1960’s Pucci, 70’s Halston, and 80’s Chanel.
I order a gazpacho verde with green grapes at Café Boulud ($$$), in the courtyard garden of the Brazilian Court Hotel, then grab a drink at the HMF lounge at the landmark Breakers Palm Beach($$$). It’s still as big a scene as it was in the Deco era, when Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies made the hotel their playground. Recently redesigned by Adam D. Tihany, the lounge is spectacular, and a portal to a different world.
The North Atlantic Coast: St. Augustine to Amelia Island (75 miles)
In grade school, we’d take all-hail-Florida field trips to St. Augustine to see our state’s version of Plymouth Rock: the site commemorating Ponce de León’s visit in 1513 is now, of course, an Old Florida–style theme park, Fountain of Youth. Nearby, in 1888, Henry Morrison Flagler opened the Hotel Ponce de León, a Gilded Age wonderment that launched Florida tourism and made St. Augustine a veritable Newport South. (The town even turned up in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence.) Since the property became part of Flagler College in the sixties, I stay nearby at the Bayfront Marin House ($), a 15-room B&B dating back even further, to the late 1700’s. My first order of business? Fun. The 1883 museum Villa Zorayda is a completely nutty one-tenth-scale replica of a section of the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain; next door, edgy vinyl-record shop Tone Vendor (81-D King St.) sells efforts by local Indie-R-Us bands such as Environmental Youth Crunch. For dinner at the Floridian ($$), I order fried pickles and shrimp-and-sausage pilau, a Minorcan dish (Minorcans have been in the area since 1767).
North on Highway A1A toward Jacksonville Beach, the Florida House Inn has a Mermaid Bar peddling Mermaid Slap rum cocktails. Off Amelia Island Parkway, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort ($$) just installed an infinity pool that slips into the infinity of the Atlantic. Down the road at Salt ($$), in the Ritz-Carlton, chef Rick Laughlin prepares theatrical “adventure menu” dinners served in a glass-enclosed room inside the kitchen: Croatian sea salt infused with peels of Florida citrus is paired with Key West pink prawns.
Jacksonville has the ineffable hipness of Portland, Oregon: the gritty downtown area is dominated by the aroma of roasting coffee from the Maxwell House factory, which is topped with a red-and-yellow neon sign. Local Bold City beer is served at the Burro Bar; Burro messenger bags, some made from recycled materials, are available nearby at the Letter Shop, where three older High Fidelity types are discussing Susan Sontag. The final stop: Sweet Pete’s, the local version of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, for the heedless bliss of all-natural hand-pulled taffy and a bag of gluten-free chocolate-dipped pretzels.