T+L's Ultimate Guide to Florida
On a journey through the Sunshine State, T+L discovers edgy art spaces, an innovative food scene, and plenty of cool cachet.
When I was a kid growing up in Miami, Florida had been reduced to a series of only-good-for-a-weekend clichés. Orlando was defined by Walt Disney World. Palm Beach was starchy and snooty. Miami was the cranky sixth borough of New York City. Now a young generation of Floridians is transforming the state, creating forwardthinking hotels, restaurants, shops, and neighborhoods, and forging new regional identities while holding on to the best of their respective local traditions. On a recent trip, I uncovered a New Florida—a little smarter, a lot hipper, and resolutely primed for the future.
Historically, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach never played well together, but in the past 10 years South Florida has emerged as a nascent metropolis of art, architecture, hype, and rising real estate values, fueled by Art Basel and Design Miami.
Last December, the big Miami story was the opening of Herzog & de Meuron’s Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), which included restaurateur Stephen Starr’s art-world hangout, Verde. This year, the debut of Museum Park—designed by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, of New York’s Battery Park City—has completed the evolution of downtown. Looking out from the waterfront terrace of PAMM, it’s like I’m seeing Miami for the first time, the shimmering skyline resembling a neon Xanadu. Nearby, the Modernist Bacardi Tower is now home to the National YoungArts Foundation, which supports emerging artists. On the seventh floor, Frank Gehry has created a high-tech restaurant called Ted’s ($$), with LED projection screens on every wall and nightly cultural events. After catching a performance by violinist Joshua Bell, I ask Bell about the new restaurant concept, and he says, “Food and live music are two of my favorite things—why not combine them?”
Straight up Biscayne Boulevard is the just-renovated 1953 Vagabond Hotel ($$$), which has a swinging Miami hepcat vibe. A restored sculpture with cavorting nymphs and dolphins outside the hotel is just the kind of casually beautiful creation that makes me grateful to be a Miamian.
Although Miami Beach is well past its early Art Basel buzz, two anticipated hotel projects are continuing to raise the bar. The iconic Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach ($$$) has just completed a $90 million renovation, anchored by a Morimoto restaurant. Farther north, at the Thompson Miami Beach ($$$), designer Martin Brudnizki, who made a splash with the city’s Soho Beach House, mixes contemporary art by Tom Slaughter and Duncan Hannah with vintage design accents. The suites have rows of martini glasses lined up like mini obelisks on a Midcentury- style room divider; at chef Michelle Bernstein’s Seagrape restaurant downstairs, the retro bar is made of dark-green onyx marble.
I first wrote about Palm Beach society in the 1980’s, and the town can be daunting; back then, locals regarded anything to do with Miami as hopelessly beyond the pale. Things have certainly loosened up. The designer Jonathan Adler, a seasonal resident who has built an empire on whimsy here, tells me that a trip to Palm Beach should be like “lemon sorbet for your mind and body.” He’s leaving his lemony mark all over the guest rooms at the new Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa ($$), a festive mélange of Sputnikesque light fixtures and pillows with images of smooching doves. On Bradley Place, the Meat Market Palm Beach ($$$)—an offshoot of South Beach’s big scene restaurant—is perennially crowded and turns out dishes such as white-truffle Kobe-beef tartare and tequila-based cocktails with names like “I Love Gold.”
I make my way south to Delray Beach on the A1A, with the glistening ocean along for the ride. After Palm Beach’s incessant roar, Delray Beach feels a lot like Mayberry. It’s quieter and more low-key, with funky sidewalk cafés and pint-size boutiques lining the main artery, Atlantic Avenue. I check in to the Seagate Hotel & Spa ($$) and immediately hop in one of the hotel’s complimentary cars, making a beeline for a nightcap at Dada ($$$), which is full of surrealist-inspired works of art.
Worth the Detour: Fort Lauderdale
This coastal city is in the middle of a development boom spearheaded by the expansion of the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport, set to be completed in 2018. Highlights: Just north of downtown, the renovated Victoria Park Hotel ($) is housed in a Midcentury Modern building and has local art and surfboard-shaped wooden coffee tables. Down the street, the Thousand Pound Egg sells south Florida–sourced products such as Mr. Q. Cumber sodas. The recently opened Stonewall Gallery draws from the Stonewall Archives to showcase works that range from Village People albums to Oscar Wilde’s letters.
The Florida Keys
Driving south on U.S. 1 takes me to the Florida Keys, with booming Key Largo my first stop. The restaurant scene in the Keys has long swayed between irredeemable tourist traps and overwrought French joints with delirious post- nouvelle ambitions. But I’m surprised to find a new cadre of creative young chefs who are changing the culinary landscape.
My reconnaissance mission kicks off with lunch at the waterfront Snapper’s Restaurant & Saloon ($$$). Snapper’s has all the usual semiotics of a Keys cliché, from Conch Republic flags to saucy let-the-good-times-roll bar signs, but there’s also an herb garden out front and up-and-coming chef Andrew Tsang in the kitchen. His ceviche, made with lime, cilantro, serrano chiles, and locally caught lionfish lightly smoked in a glass Mason jar, is one of the most flavorful yet subtle dishes I’ve ever eaten in the Keys.
Related: The Best of the Florida Keys
From Key Largo, I continue down U.S. 1, stopping in for smoked lobster at Casa Mar Fresh Seafood Market (Rte. 1; 305/440-3935), in the town of Tavernier, before arriving in Islamorada. A traditional haven for sport fishermen—a roll call that includes Winston Churchill and Paul Newman—Islamorada has lately earned the reputation as the most sophisticated of the Keys. My hotel, the 18-cottage beachside Moorings Village & Spa ($$$$), is surrounded by bougainvillea and coconut palms, and there’s a cool pop-up boutique nearby called Mayú on the Bay in an Airstream trailer filled with pieces by Roberta Freymann, Letarte, and others. Come evening, I head to chef George Patti’s slick new S.A.L.T Fusion Cuisine & Caña Lounge ($$$) for a plate of Manchego grits and seared shrimp in chorizo cream sauce, a welcome leap from the fish-fry-palace era of the old Keys.
I arrive in Key West at cocktail hour, when downtown is just hitting its sloppy stride, and take a shuttle boat from the Westin Key West Resort & Marina to Sunset Key Guest Cottages ($$$$), the Westin’s sister property and the perfect spot for watching the sun descend into the ocean. For breakfast the following day, it’s Glazed Donuts, where Jonathan and Megan Pidgeon have developed a cult following thanks to their maple, bourbon, and candied-bacon treats. The island’s drowsy rhythm is seductive, and I spend the morning shopping downtown, before lunch at Old Town staple Garbo’s Grill ($), a tricked-out food stand and truck with mock gun turrets made out of painted Tupperware cake covers. The grilled mahimahi tacos and Korean bulgogi short ribs are downright addictive.
Despite the vestiges of Key West eccentricity, serious hotel money is funneling into the island. At the entrance of Key West, far removed from Old Town’s mad flavor, there’s the new, 100-room Gates Hotel Key West ($$); and in the historic seaport area, the Marker ($$$) has 96 airy, white-on-white rooms, some with water views. Just south, the Saint Hotel Key West ($$) is a multimillion-dollar renovation of the city’s landmark Southern Cross hotel.
What's New in Naples
The Gulf Coast city is trading its hallmark Old Florida sophistication for a younger—and more vibrant—sense of style. The Naples Grande Beach Resort ($$) has just renovated 424 rooms, many overlooking a sugar-sand beach. At the revamped Ritz-Carlton ($$$), a first-floor lounge called Dusk whips up first-rate sushi and is great for people-watching. North of downtown Naples, don’t miss the Local ($$), where the farm-to-table menu includes a mouthwatering barbecue chicken with pecan crumble
Heading north along the Florida Turnpike through the headwaters of the Everglades and past old-school towns like Yeehaw Junction, I spot Orlando’s Walt Disney World looming on the blank green horizon like a kind of PG-13 Las Vegas. In the classic tradition of the state, the city is reinventing itself all over again, building on its core business of theme parks, but touting sophisticated hotels and restaurants, and a beyond-cool Vietnamese/hipster scene in the emerging Mills 50 neighborhood northeast of downtown.
The Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort ($$$$) epitomizes the city’s transformation. The sleek adults-only pool is straight out of Palm Beach; the stylish restaurant Ravello, done up in wood and Botticino marble, specializes in updated Italian classics; and the hotel’s Explorer Island is like a mini resort for kids, with a tubing creek and faux-Stonehenge garden follies.
That afternoon, seized by nostalgia for my childhood trips to Disney, I find myself clinging desperately to my sanity (and my stomach) on Space Mountain. Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida didn’t get to be figureheads of multinational behemoths by failing to capitalize on the city’s craze for sympathetic adult diversions: these days, Epcot’s new After Hours Wind Down Experience, which allows grown-ups to eat and drink until 11 p.m., is more to my taste. After a stroll past the United Kingdom Pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase, where a cover band is belting out without irony the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” I stop by the France Pavilion for wine and tasty escargot cassoulet.
Orlando has more James Beard Award–nominated chefs than any other Florida destination, and the Grande Lakes Orlando ($$), just a 12-mile drive from downtown, is hoping to build on that fact. A partnership between Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott, the property has an on-site farm complete with beehives and a barn. At the Ritz-Carlton, chef Mark Jeffers’s Highball & Harvest restaurant serves a standout smoked mackerel dip, while Melissa Kelly’s Primo, at the JW, whips up southern Italian farm-to-table fare such as sautéed scaloppine of pork saltimbocca.
The next day, I set out to explore another side of the city’s culinary resurgence. In tow with Ricky Ly, a local food blogger and author of The Food Lovers’ Guide to Orlando, lunch is a marathon of three remarkable Vietnamese restaurants in a tiny mall in Mills 50. The place is like stepping into a slice of Vietnam: the delicious $3.50 kingfish sandwich at Banh Mi Nha Trang ($) is a kind of benediction—and the best of Florida’s new age.
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Fisher Island Hotel & Resort
A former vacation retreat of William Vanderbilt II, Fisher Island is now home to a 45-room luxury resort, set amid one of the nation's most exclusive residential communities. Dispersed among private mansions, the hotel accommodations are divided into three categories: 1920's-era cottages, Mediterranean-inspired villas, and residential-style suites. The cottages and villas include private outdoor Jacuzzis, while many of the suites have balconies overlooking the ocean or tropical gardens. In addition to several pools and a beach club, resort amenities include a nine-hole golf course, a full-service spa, and six restaurants serving everything from authentic Italian cuisine to traditional steakhouse fare.
Bonnet House Museum & Gardens
This 1921 Caribbean-style plantation served as the winter studios of artists Frederic and Evelyn Bartlett, and the whimsical 35-acre spread—complete with wild Brazilian squirrel monkeys, swans, and the Bartletts' ornate murals—is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since 1956, the Polynesian Island Revue in this restaurant's dining room has been the goofiest floor show in town. Sip mai tais and watch Samoan fire-knife dancers and listen to a rendition of the Hawaiian wedding song.
Books & Books
Housed inside the Sterling Building on the Lincoln Road Mall, Books & Books is a locally owned bookstore specializing in art, design, and architecture books. The store has an impressive inventory, including everything from hardcover books to imported English gossip magazines, and the space is inviting–large windows provide natural light and ample seating provides opportunities for flipping through the pages of a potential purchase. Special events include monthly author talks and book signings, and an adjacent café serving burgers, wraps, and both vegetarian and vegan fare.
Little Palm Island Resort & Spa
The Breakers Palm Beach
Unsurpassed in terms of luxury when oil tycoon Henry Flagler built it in 1896, the Breakers outdid itself in a 1926 renovation modeled after various Italian renaissance palaces and gardens. Still the Grande Dame of deep-pocketed Palm Beach, the 540-room resort, set on 140 beachfront acres, is pure drama, its palm-lined drive leading up to the twin-spired towers. Money seems to have been no object with the lobby and sitting rooms, decorated in gold leaf, Venetian chandeliers, tapestries, and hand-painted ceilings. The modern day intervenes in breezily tropical rooms, newly redesigned in white and sand tones, and in the private poolside cabanas with flat-screens and concierge service. The full tally: five oceanside pools, nine restaurants, two golf courses, a spa, and luxury shopping.
Coombs House Inn
Moorings Village Village & Spa
Even after serving as the backdrop for countless fashion-magazine photo shoots, the Moorings Village & Spa— 18 brightly accented cottages connected to the beach by wooden walkways on a former coconut plantation in the Florida Keys—still seems like your own secret discovery. Lush, almost jungle-like landscaping gives way to a private white-sand beach with swaying hammocks and a thatched-roof dock. Palm trees, hammocks, sand: this is as stripped-down as a vacation experience gets, and one you’d swear couldn’t exist among the shell shops and tiki-festooned marinas of the Florida Keys. At sunset, amble across the road for rum cocktails and conch fritters at Morada Bay Beach Café, or do what the regulars do—bring back some stone-crab claws from the market to devour on your porch with a cold beer.
Registered with the Palm Beach Preservation Foundation as a historic landmark, the Chesterfield’s iconic white building has been used as a hotel since 1926. After a series of name changes—it was originally called the Lido-Venice—the property was dubbed the Chesterfield in 1989 when it was purchased by the U.K.-based Red Carnation chain. The hotel certainly has a British feel—particularly in public spaces such as the Churchill Cigar Room, where you can enjoy a smoke straight from the well-stocked humidor—but it’s truly pure Palm Beach, attracting Lilly Pulitzer–clad guests during both high and low season. Many of the 52 rooms are dressed in chintz and tartan and paired with modern streamlined furniture, and there’s a lush outdoor courtyard that’s a lovely place for a crisp Cobb salad with locally grown beefsteak tomatoes and a signature Courtyard pink martini. It feels more like a British estate than, say, an Art Deco hotel in South Beach—and that’s just how travelers like it.
Weeki Wachee Springs
More than 60 years old, the mermaid show is the main lure at this theme park, where a troupe (currently 17 strong) of aquatic acrobats in mermaid-like fins performs Esther Williams-esque routines in the pool. There are also bird shows and a river cruise included in the entry fee, but the kitschy show is unbeatable.
Fountain of Youth
Take a pit stop at the hokey but endearing Fountain of Youth. Who knows if the free slug of water is better than Botox, but it’s great fun.
Florida House Inn
The charming inn (1857) is the state’s oldest hotel. The veranda-rimmed Cracker-style building houses 22 individually decorated en suite rooms, half with working fireplaces. There’s also a camellia-heavy garden.
Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
Norton Museum of Art
Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club
An old-guard establishment created in the 1880's, which now has 319 beachfront rooms.