A Florida diary… the group heads for Fort Lauderdale and the Keys
9 days in southern Florida…
The Best of South Florida

The trip to Florida was amazing… containing some really fantastic moments and several great adventures. There were a few things we would have changed… such as the never-to-be-repeated visit to a horrible restaurant called Casa D’Angelo… or creating better experiences in Miami… but almost everything we touched turned to gold on this vacation.

What I can tell you is that having discussed this column in person, all four of us seem to enthusiastically agree on a few things…

The food was outstanding. Give us a chance in the future… and there will be just such a chance at some point… and both Chima’s and J. Alexander’s will be visited again. And while those two clearly led the way for brilliant dining, The Square Grouper was another unanimous “next time in the Keys” location all of us hope to return to for another great meal (or two… or twenty…).

The activities were incredible. You’ll see this point made below… dolphin swim… airboat ride… a sunset wine cruise… three places on a trip that had it all. We also fed tarpon… we fed monkeys… we tried to turn profits at casinos by using free play vouchers and leaving when the voucher amounts were exhausted… good stuff. But even our accidental experiences were wonderful and made for great stories… heck, three of us saw a water spout (and all four of us would have if Terry wasn’t napping at the time). (Trust me… water spout or no… you really have to be 100% certain before you wake up Terry once she nods off for a nap on a car ride. So don’t even ask.)

There are lots of columns on the way… let’s get it started with the group effort…

What were your favorite things that we did on this trip?

Bob: So much of the telling of this vacation story is interconnected… the sunset sail leading into the next day’s dolphin swim as a tremendous example… that I don’t know if picking one thing is really fair. In fact, I have a funny feeling that we are going to see all of us having different answers to these questions, but only because we keep repeating the same things in different ways.

If I had to pick… the dolphins.

If you let me mention a few… dolphins (Cayo and Gypsi at the Dolphin Research Center (DRC))… alligators (our airboat ride through the Everglades with Mike and Coopertown Airboats)… and the sunset sail off of Key West (Danger Charters and the awesome crew of Haig, Don and Sarah).

Seriously though… dolphin swim… airboat ride… sunset sail… Chima’s… J. Alexander’s… there was so much I’m afraid I’m missing lots of stuff. (And, in fact, The Square Grouper for one… I am missing tons of stuff worthy of consideration.) Lots of great stuff.

Terry: The sunset sailboat cruise in Key West.

Ellen: Dolphin Research Center… wine cruise... having dinner with my friend… Chima’s… the airboat (but only while it was moving fast)

Richard: Dolphin Research Center… wine cruise… airboat ride… Chima’s

What were you most impressed by in south Florida (Fort Lauderdale, Miami, etc… not the Keys)?

Bob: Tough one. I’m going to say the Fort Lauderdale beach area. We ate at Chima’s on Monday night, drove only a few minutes away, parked, and then walked onto the beach right around sunset. (East coast… didn’t see a sunset… but the daylight was fading, night hadn’t arrived, the colors in the sky were amazing and there weren’t many people around.) Basically, what we never found in Miami we stumbled across here. And I could easily see myself returning multiple times to this city. There is more in this place than I found… and I was impressed with the stuff we did.

Terry: Fort Lauderdale

Ellen: I really can’t say I was impressed by Miami because never really made it to South Beach because of the traffic, and that meant no experiences as far as seeing the Art Deco district. I was impressed by Fort Lauderdale having some good restaurants such as Chima’s. Enjoyed walking on the beach there.

Richard: The Everglades even though they were mostly dried up from the drought.

What were you most impressed by at the Keys?

Bob: Meaning other than Nancy and the DRC? I don’t know if I can pick one thing.

It’s been 12 years since I last visited the areas of Key West… Marathon… and all of the other great places in the Keys, and there is ZERO chance of my ever going another 12 years without heading back.

I’m going to chicken out and pick the people for this one, because every place we turned… from Nancy and the entire gang at the DRC to the crew on our sunset sail… we just kept meeting happy, friendly people. (Probably something in the water.)

Terry: The sunset cruise, which was just an absolutely unexpected treat from beginning to end. I knew the dolphins would be fun and incredible. Haig, Don and Sarah helped set up a terrific night.

Ellen: The laid back lifestyle and friendliness of the people (which is why I would love to live there).

Richard: The lifestyle and the key lime meringue pie.

(Editor’s note: Richard is talking about a pie we got from the Blonde Giraffe. We went down to Key West and I had some notes on a few places that all of us were interested by, which included a few that none of us thought we had tried before in any of our previous travels. The Blonde Giraffe was one of these places. Key lime pie dipped in chocolate and frozen… on a stick… oh yeah. And on our first trip to a store, I bought a slice of the meringue pie for later on. Once I tried it… dear lord… I had to have more. Well, Richard happens to be a pie fan… and he really enjoyed his slice of regular key lime pie from our visit… so I figured I’d be safe heading back and buying a full meringue pie. I was… we demolished that thing. Incredible. The regular pie is good… the meringue is a godsend.)

Favorite thing we did…

Bob: I’ve already said the dolphin swim was awesome and listed a few others because they were simply great. So let me approach this in a slightly different way to shake things up a bit.

On Tuesday morning we left for Key West. We stopped at Robbie’s to feed tarpon, walked around the DRC, had lunch at The Square Grouper, decided to stay a second night in Key West, went on our sunset sail with Danger Charters, woke up and saw a water spout during the drive to our dolphin swim.

That’s a summary of roughly the first 24-hours out of 50 or so we spent in the Keys between Tuesday and Thursday.

In other words, those two days were really one big, huge, amazing series of events. Great small stories… an awesome complete, long story. So I’m going to say my favorite thing was the time spent on three consecutive days in the Keys.

Terry: Swim with the dolphins

Ellen: Hands down… swimming with the dolphins.

Richard: I agree… the dolphins… it was fantastic.

Best place to eat (overall)…

Bob: Chima’s. It was close… I enjoyed three or four meals immensely. I can think of others that were great and surprising and I’d love to do them again. But Chima’s was a new experience for me… the service style and food selections. Everything from the staff to the food was top notch.

Terry: I loved J. Alexander’s, but there were a few I thought were great. And most of them we all really liked, even though we all ordered different things. Chima’s was fantastic too.

Ellen: Chima’s and J. Alexander’s

Richard: Chima’s and J. Alexander’s

Best place to eat (inexpensive)…

Bob: J. Alexander’s wins here. The menu featured items that all of us enjoyed… from entrees to appetizers to side dishes. The atmosphere in the restaurant was brilliant.

As a side note… on the Chima’s web site there is a coupon for $25 off, or something like that. I believe it was good on a dinner for two. While Chima’s will still be a more costly dinner with that coupon, it does bring the cost down.

Terry: J. Alexander’s

Ellen: The restaurant Nancy suggested for lunch on our way to the Keys… can’t remember the name.

(Editor’s note: Ellen is referring to The Square Grouper.)

Richard: The restaurant in Tin City.

(Editor’s note: (Richard is really making me work here) The restaurant he is talking about seems to be Riverwalk in Naples. And I say “seems to be” because this answer came out of the blue. It was a good place, and we all enjoyed the food, the setting, and the show put on by some pelicans. Of course… he hasn’t mentioned the place since our visit until he was asked this question by Ellen, and I don’t recall him ordering any pie here.)

Biggest surprise…

Bob: Hmm… without using my notes for specifics… and kicking it off with a thought for comparison on one of the two surprises…

Terry and I were out in Australia about six years ago. On one of the days, we took a tour of a rainforest area that included a boat trip as part of the experience. We thought we’d see some wildlife, were getting really excited about the possibilities, and in the end we really didn’t much of it. Great trip out there, and alot of fun on that day, but it left me wondering when it comes to planning on seeing nature. Roughly an hour on a boat near Australian rainforest and I really didn’t see any crocodiles or snakes or birds or…

So… naïve as can be… I was wondering if we’d actually see any alligators pretty much until we arrived at Coopertown. That would be the first surprise. Because after our visit, I don’t know how you can not see hundreds of them. Incredible.

I was also surprised by how inaccessible Miami turned out to be. I’m sure part of it was me… and that if we had made solid plans for a full day in the city our experience might have been different. But I went down to south Florida for this trip having never been in Miami other than a stop at the airport, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I’ve now driven right through the city and still haven’t been to Miami. Without a doubt, the worst navigation effort in my so-called tour guide career. Or… the worst city to visit on the planet. (I’m open to arguments on both sides of this.)

Terry: Sunset cruise

Ellen: That our friends pulled off a big secret behind our backs to swim with the dolphins… which was awesome and we totally appreciated it more than “Thank you” could possibly express.

Richard: I could not agree more.

You know, I never really thought about this before, so I found it interesting when…

Bob: The roads seemed to collide around Fort Lauderdale. Normally I can get acclimated pretty quickly to an area… figuring out where we are staying, the major roads nearby, and things like that. I never picked up on that stuff in Fort Lauderdale. A mind-boggling number of highways and state roads sweeping and swirling around. If it wasn’t for Mi Luv U, I would have been completely and utterly lost and frustrated.

Terry: Let’s see… when we didn’t see Miami? Because I did find it interesting there wasn’t a place to park or even a glimpse of any of the things we were looking for.

Ellen: Nancy mentioned that the Dolphin Research Center cannot be part of the rescue of dolphins due to the contamination factor to the other dolphins.

Richard: I got sick. Sitting in the direct sun and drinking wine is not a good combination.

If I could recommend that they had to do this, regardless of expense, I would recommend…

Bob: Swimming with the dolphins. At the DRC it’s called the Dolphin Encounter, and it is amazing.

Terry: Dolphin swim

Ellen: Swimming with the dolphins.

Richard: I would say the same... I really enjoyed it.

If I could tell someone that they had to do this, but the expense did matter (so go cheaper), I would recommend…

Bob: For the dollars involved, the sunset sail was pretty good. But for this one I’m going to twist things up and pick something we didn’t do… a general airboat ride. We had booked a private tour with additional time because we wanted a slightly smaller boat and a longer experience. For a group of 4-6 people, doing this would be a great option if the Everglades and an airboat ride is high on the list of planned activities. But some of these places run larger boats… maybe 10 or more people… and for about $20 a person you can get an hour in the Everglades, riding through the sawgrass, and there’s no question you’d see plenty of live alligators and have a good experience.

Terry: Sailboat cruise… the sunset version from this trip was great, but we did a snorkeling trip out of Key West more than ten years ago and that was great too.

Ellen: Airboat Ride

Richard: Airboat Ride

Person/people that impressed me the most…

Bob: Long list… Nancy was phenomenal at the DRC. Haig, Don and Sarah were wonderful on our sunset sail. Mike was fantastic on our airboat ride. Without question, each of those experiences was significantly improved because all of these people were friendly, attentive and enjoyable to deal with and spend time around.

Terry: Sunset cruise crew

Ellen: The crew on the wine cruise....very friendly and personable.

Richard: I agree again… and say hi to Haig, Don and Sarah for me.

Event that impressed me the most…

Bob: The water spout? The key lime meringue pie? I want to pick something different here. I’ll take the Blond Giraffe and the key lime meringue pie. Why? Because we stopped to get the chocolate-covered frozen key lime pie on a stick one night, and it was so good we went back the next day and picked up a full pie.

Terry: Our friend John. No… he’s not an event… but he recommended both Chima’s and J. Alexander’s to us. To get two such outstanding recommendations from one person really impressed me.

After that, the wine cruise. I said it before, the crew was great and it was really just a perfect thing to do. Couldn’t have been better and I never expected it to be so much fun.

Ellen: Wine cruise

Richard: Wine cruise

Thing I’m really glad we included…

Bob: The sunset sail with Danger Charters and Haig, Don and Sarah. I’d say the dolphin swim… but once we contacted Nancy there was never a doubt we would be swimming. Same idea with the airboat ride… there was never a doubt we were going out into the Everglades.

So I’m going to pick the sunset sail. It was an unexpected find… just looking for something different to do in Key West and focusing on their legendary sunset viewing options… and found Danger Charters. The time on board flew by. The three-member crew worked together incredibly well and far exceeded any of our expectations.

Terry: Dolphin swim and the Duval Crawl

Ellen: The airboat ride… not for me, but for Richard.

Richard: Airboat ride

Thing I wish we had done…

Bob: Found Miami.

That would be the big thing. But I’d also mention spending more time in the Everglades. From driving around the area, and seeing pictures of other parts of it, there is so much more we didn’t see.

Terry: We did everything I wanted to do.

Ellen: Stay longer in the Keys and chartered a boat as well.

Richard: Charter a boat for fishing.

Suggestions from this experience…

Bob: Plan for Miami if you want to experience it. I honestly feel like we were one street away from a great experience in that city. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe the city is what we found, inaccessible and uninviting. But I really believe if we had set out in the morning one day… for a museum or a shopping area or a landmark… then parked, walked to our destination, and stayed a bit longer to see what was around us, that we would have had a great time in that city.

Terry: Stay out of the sun if your medication tells you to.

Ellen: Don’t be fooled by appearances at strip mall restaurants into thinking they will be inexpensive or even good. Cheap is cheap, and some times cheap food is expensive. And don’t always go by the Zagat rating, because in one particular Italian restaurant they did not deserve the rating they received. (But I won’t mention Casa D’Angelo by name.)

Richard: Don’t drink too much wine while in direct sunlight with not enough to eat.

Sure, this will be set up as a best of column, but you should always warn people about the bad, so here is something I think we need to mention…

Bob: Casa D’Angelo was an immense waste of time and money for us. I don’t want to bash them too hideously… the daily diaries will have something to say about the place and the experience, which is probably a better forum for the complaints we have… and the restaurant was clean, busy and, while the staff may not have been overly friendly, they were fine. But the walls display awards… and the place obviously thinks highly of itself… and yet the food is… well… blah. No flavor, very bland, and just not good. I could have gone to a grocery store, bought a jar of Prego… Ragu… heck, the-whatever-it’s-called-store’s-own-brand… and there isn’t a doubt in my mind that jar would have put the Casa D’Angelo sauce on my gnocchi to shame. Yes… a store brand sauce packing more flavor and enjoyment than the sauce from a fancy, expensive, supposedly award-winning Italian establishment… and I’m making that statement and standing by it without even knowing what store I would have been in. (Publix? We went to a few Publix locations so let’s go with them. In My Backpack recommends that if you have a choice in Fort Lauderdale for Italian food… and it has come down to going out to Casa D’Angleo or staying in and cooking with the Publix store brand sauce… run, don’t walk, over to Publix. Better quality… better flavor… and more money left in your pockets.)

Terry: Crabby Dick’s in Key West is not the same group that ran my favorite one in Baltimore (that has since moved to Delaware).

Ellen: The only experience I can remember that was bad was the traffic situation in Miami and that tasteless Italian restaurant.

And the restaurant was funny because we didn’t go there for the rating or because of some referral. We just stumbled on it one night while looking for Italian food.

Richard: If you see a restaurant with a Zagat rating, don’t just believe it. It could mean that they were judged by someone that prefers a restaurant that doesn’t season their food… bland… bland… bland.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com