Miami Beach and Key Biscayne
It took us nearly two hours to drive from Florida City to Miami Beach on U.S. 1 with the heavy traffic and frequent stops at the traffic lights. The quicker route would have been via Florida's turnpike, a toll road, but it would have meant a detour. Eventually we've had enough of stopping and going and we turned off onto Old Cutler Road and drove through the high society areas of Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, which was nice. The winding road through avenues lined with trees draped with Spanish Moss wouldn't have been easy to find without a map though. We drove over MacArthur's Causeway to Miami Beach, passing by a number of cruise ships lying at anchor in the Port of Miami.
We checked into our prebooked hotel, the Swiss-owned Hotel Atlantica in Collins Avenue. It's built in European half-timber style right in the Art Deco District of South Beach, in a quiet location just one block from Ocean Drive. We had prebooked it due to its being a Saturday night in the city; and it was good we did because it wouldn't have been much fun to drive around trying to find a hotel with all the Saturday afternoon beach traffic. After checking in and depositing our car in the nearby garage ($10 per day) we walked down to the beach where we witnessed a polo match - Europe against the US. We walked up the beach, then we strolled back down Ocean Drive which is lined with Art Deco hotels, restaurants and clubs and where people parade their cars. We were back at the hotel by 6 p.m. One hour later we went back out for dinner. The Puerto Sagua Restaurant at 700 Collins Avenue looked good as it was pretty packed while other places were still empty. It was not as fancy and expensive as Ocean Drive. They had good Cuban food, the black beans and rice were lovely and the portions were large. We paid $35 incl. tip for chicken steak and grouper filet plus two drinks which was really good value. The Art Deco District at night looked fantastic with the neon lights on and many fancy cars were cruising up and down Ocean Drive.
On Sunday morning we enjoyed a good breakfast at the hotel. They had croissants, bread, boiled eggs, cereals, yoghurt - more like a European than an American continental breakfast. We were on the road again shortly before 9 a.m. The sun was shining. We drove a short way south to Key Biscayne and Bill Baggs State Recreation Park via the Rickenbacker Causeway ($1 toll). The park charged $5 admission. We came in time for the 10 a.m. guided tour at the Cape Florida Lighthouse which is free of charge. The lighthouse is only accessible during the tours. There's another one at 1 p.m. Built in 1825 it is the oldest building in southern Florida. From the top of the lighthouse you look down on the beach (which is voted among the top 10 beaches in the country) and you can get a good view of Miami in the distance. Afterwards we drove through Little Havana (Calle Ocho), but it was a bit disappointing because it didn't look much different from everything else, except that most of the names and signs were in Spanish and perhaps it was a bit too early in the day to savor the atmosphere. We headed back to Miami Beach because we wanted to follow the coastal route, the A1A. By 11:45 a.m. we were back where we started this morning. As it was a Sunday there was a lot of traffic to the beach. We followed the A1A north until Sunny Isles but it was rather disappointing because you didn't see anything of the beach, the view being obstructed by high-rise condos and hotels. From Sunny Isles (where we had lunch at Subway) we turned back onto U.S. 1 which was a bit quicker. We were glad to leave the Miami area because there was just too much traffic.Fort Lauderdale
Via Hollywood we continued towards Fort Lauderdale. We turned off U.S. 1 towards the beach and followed the beach road where we finally got a view of the ocean again. The beach looked nice. Fort Lauderdale has been awarded the national "Blue Wave" certification in recognition of its clean and eco-friendly beaches. In a hotel discount guide we came across the Tropic Cay hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, right across from the beach, for $45 plus tax. Our room even had an ocean view, but it wasn't very clean, just about o.k. for one night. The room was also quite noisy because you could hear the traffic from the beach road. We should rather have gone for the Days Inn or the Howard Johnson I guess which wouldn't have been much more expensive with a coupon. The pool looked dirty as well, but as the weather wasn't great this afternoon we didn't need it anyway. It was 1:30 p.m. when we checked in. Afterwards we strolled along the beach promenade and the shops and restaurants for a couple of hours and we went for a coffee. Unfortunately there was no coffee bar to be found and you don't get good coffee in an ordinary restaurant or café. In the meantime it had turned very cloudy and windy. Around 5 p.m. it started to rain. We went back to the hotel for a while, then we had dinner at Sloppy Joe's at the Beach Place ($34 incl. tip for pasta with chicken, a beef burger and 3 drinks). They had a bungy trampoline and live music at the plaza which was very lively on this Sunday night.
The following morning, the 18th, we looked around for a quick breakfast place, but we couldn't find one on the beach road. Finally we came across a Dunkin' Donuts in downtown Fort Lauderdale where we purchased muffins and coffee to go. Then we drove back to the beach as we wanted to do the 3-hours cruise on the Jungle Queen ($29 for 2). The tour starts every day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. from the Bahia Mar Yachting Center on Route A1A. The day before we didn't make it in time for the afternoon cruise, but the weather wouldn't have been too good anyway. The trip was nice enough. It went up the New River through the "Venice of America" with more than 300 waterways, past luxury waterfront homes along the canals and downtown Fort Lauderdale. They could have left out the 45 minutes stop at the so-called "Indian Jungle Village" with its caged birds and monkeys, a bit of fast food and jewelry stalls and an alligator wrestling show. When we were back at Bahia Mar we saw some people hauling a hammerhead shark onto the docks!
We continued our trip on the A1A to Lauderdale-by-the-sea up to where you drive along the ocean. At Pompano Beach we turned back onto U.S. 1. Driving along the beach road when you can't even see the beach is quite unnerving. We turned off towards the coast again at Boca Raton (it was 2 p.m.) where had a look at Red Reef Park which should be good for snorkeling, but they wanted $16 for the day and we only wanted to stay an hour or so. Besides swimming and snorkeling conditions were "poor" that day, probably because of the high winds and choppy sea.Cocoa Beach and Kennedy Space Center
So we finally headed for the Interstate 95 and, passing by Melbourne, we drove up all the way to Cocoa Beach (with a quick lunch stop for salads at McDonalds). We arrived shortly after 5 p.m. and checked in at Motel 6 for two nights. It was $83.50 per night! We've hardly ever paid more than half that price at a Motel 6. It was listed as $48 plus tax in their directory. But we were told that they never sell for that price because they are a destination property. In my opinion they should list their real prices then and not a fancy price only to delude people! The motel is located in the corner of a big traffic junction with shops and restaurants close-by. At least it wasn't noisy and it has a nice pool (unheated though). We walked to the beach which is only 2 minutes down the road. The beach is not very idyllic though. It's wide and long, but there are no palm trees (as in Fort Lauderdale) and it's lined with ugly condominiums. In the distance you can see the launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center. South Cocoa Beach still seemed to bear some damage from one of the last hurricanes. At least it looked a bit run down. The motels are even closer to the beach though than in the main part of Cocoa Beach. Being situated between the Atlantic Ocean on the east side and the Banana River on the west side, you can watch the sun set over the large expanse of the river. We had dinner at Houston's Texas Steakhouse (next to the La Quinta Inn) which was good (2 steaks and drinks for $36 incl. 15% tax).
We had breakfast at the Waffle House next door ($9.50 incl. tip). and we were ready to go by 8:40 a.m. It was a beautiful day. It took 30 minutes to drive to Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island. It wasn't very busy yet when we arrived. The gates open at 9 a.m. but most attractions don't open before 10 a.m. We purchased General Admission tickets only for $63 for two. "Robot Scouts" was rather boring, probably more interesting for kids. Then we walked over to the Rocket Garden. Shortly after 10 a.m. we boarded a bus for a 2.5 hours tour of KSC. It included two stops, one at the CC-39 Observation Gantry with a view of the launch pads in the distance and one at the Apollo/Saturn V Center. The tour was quite interesting. Make sure you sit on the right hand side in the bus, that's where you get the best view! From the bus you can see a few alligators and birds on its route through the surrounding wildlife habitat. At 1 p.m. we watched one of the two IMAX films on show, Space Station 3D, narrated by Tom Cruise. Then we had a look at the Space Shuttle exhibit and listened for a moment to astronaut Mark Lee telling about his adventures in space. We were done by 3 p.m. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge would have been interesting as well, but we had enough for the day. We returned to Cocoa Beach and spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool. The water wasn't heated, so it was too cold to go in and we just sat in the sun for a while. We had dinner at Perkins Bakery and Restaurants (2 burgers and cokes for $20).Daytona Beach and St. Augustine
On the 20th we left around 9 a.m. with two muffins and coffee to go from Perkins ($8). We headed straight for the I-95 to Daytona Beach where we arrived around 10:30 a.m. We stopped at Daytona USA for a 30 minutes guided Speedway Tour on the International Speedway ($8 each), home of NASCAR races. Afterwards we drove all the way down to the beautiful red lighthouse (Florida's tallest) at Ponce de Leon Inlet. It was quite a way to drive out there, approx. 30 minutes one way. Back in Daytona Beach we had a look at the beach where you can drive your car on the beach ($5 beach access fee) and sit next to it in the sand. It was also quite interesting to cross the Halifax River on one of its several bridges. After a quick lunch at Subway we left Daytona Beach around 2 p.m. Back on the Interstate we needed 30 minutes for 5 miles due to road work.
We checked into the Ramada Inn in St. Augustine at 3:30 p.m. From the hotel it was only 10 minutes walking distance to the city center. St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the United States. It was a Spanish colony founded in 1565. We strolled around the old town (George Street, the Oldest Schoolhouse, Castillo de San Marcos, Flagler College, Flagler Memorial Church, etc.) for about two hours. We had a few drinks and a light dinner of roast beef sandwich and chicken quesadilla ($25 - for once portions weren't huge) at the Mill Top Tavern where we sat outside on a rooftop terrace listening to live music.
The following morning we finished breakfast at the café inside the Ramada Inn at 9 a.m. Guests of the Ramada were entitled to a discount what we only realized after we had paid and walked out of the door again. It wasn't much anyway. We had a look at Magnolia Avenue near the Fountain of Youth where Spanish moss hangs from the trees like long beards. Then we drove out to the lighthouse, which is beautifully striped in black and white, and St. Augustine Beach. We left St. Augustine around 10:30 a.m.