Where to Eat, Sleep, Play in the Upper Florida Keys

The first few times I visited the Florida Keys I really didn’t understand the big deal. At all. Until I talked to my friend Angelique.

Once we had moved to Miami from Singapore, I couldn’t wait to check out Key Largo and I couldn’t believe we lived at only slightly over an hour from the exotic island I thought it was. I had the Beach Boys Kokomo song playing over and over in my head – 

Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya, Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama, Key Largo, Montego, baby why don’t we go…’ 

Morada Bay Cafe

Morada Bay Cafe

I thought if Key Largo was lumped together with The Bahamas and Bermuda, it had to be amazing. Imagine the disappointment. 

We drove there on a Saturday morning and while the bridge that brings you to the island is gorgeous, once there I only saw a big road and a few quirky shops. For lunch we stopped by a less than average place and all we saw around us was docked boats with confederate flags.

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Everyone that considers doing a one, or two-day trip to the Upper Keys from Miami needs insider information on where to go. Period. Don’t leave without it. There are a lot of hidden jewels, but you need to know where they are.

Since my friend Angelique told me exactly the ins and outs, it’s become one of my favorite day trips to take friends from overseas. They all think I live in paradise.

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I usually leave Miami early – the views during the drive are incredible with early morning light. You can stop for a quick coffee somewhere, like the very down to earth but beautifully set Lorelei Cafe before starting one of the activities. Make sure you call ahead to the different places to reserve. 

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Do

The Island Dolphin Care offers dolphin therapy for kids with special needs and families, which is also a magical thing to watch.

Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder is a not for profit that rescues stranded whales and dolphins. Visitors can take part in a range of experiences including swimming with dolphins. All contributions directly benefit the cause.

Flats fishing is a fun but intense activity that starts very early in the morning and takes up about 6 hours. Not the best for small kids and I don’t recommend it if you want to do other things as well. But it’s a great trip in itself. There’s a number of captains that offer a variety of experiences.

If you haven’t snorkeled much, taking a trip at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is another fun activity even though visibility isn’t always the best. 

And for those who love birds there’s the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center.       

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Shop

Don’t expect anything high end in the Keys. It’s just not that kind of place. What you will find is quirky, beachy things for your home. Colorful metal geckos for your walls, ceramic turtles, wood-carved fish, shells, etc. 

Best place to load up on a few souvenirs is behind Big Betsy, the giant lobster (at marker 86.7), and a few other small shops along the road around there.

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Beach at The Moorings

Beach at The Moorings

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The Moorings Beach

The Moorings Beach

Sleep

The Moorings is the high end place to spend the night. Set on its own private palm-fringed beach, bungalows are set in an idyllic little shady forest. The resort was the set for Bloodline, a Netflix crime series filmed a few years back. 

Other nice places are Cheeca Lodge, also on its own beach with a long photogenic boardwalk, and Playa Largo Resort & Spa.   

Cheeca Lodge Board Walk

Cheeca Lodge Board Walk

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Eat

For lunch I like to go to Morada Bay Cafe (marker 86.1). The breezy waterfront location is great to spend a few margarita-filled hours. The food on the menu is healthy and yummy (my favorite is cashew-crusted salmon salad with strawberries but they also have a few great variety of other dishes) and the waiters very friendly.

Sol by the Sea restaurant at the Playa Largo Resort & Spa always makes the perfect end of a perfect day.  Set on stilts overlooking the flats, the place is just a dream for sunset drinks and dinner. Make sure to reserve a table with a view. I’d drive down to Key Largo just to watch the sunset there, and I hate driving! 

So here you go. I tell you it’s still not quite The Bahamas or Bermuda, but there’s plenty of paradise-like places and it’s only 1.5 hours from Miami so who’s complaining?

Sunset View from Sol by the Sea, Playa Largo Resort

Sunset View from Sol by the Sea, Playa Largo Resort

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Sea Life Spotting in Coconut Grove

Before we moved to Miami, I’d get cold chills thinking about raising my girls in a place like this. I’d panic about all the fake boobs they’d want and the slick Mario’s they’d date. But one visit changed everything.

When Anil convinced me to take a trip to check Miami out and see if I could live here, he knew what he was doing. He got me a nice room in Hotel Aria (then The Sonesta) in Coconut Grove with a phenomenal view of Biscayne Bay. The Grove’s seaside setting and outdoor cafes give it a distinct Mediterranean flair, which my husband knew his little Dutch wife would love. 

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Although we ended up buying a home in Coral Gables, The Grove is our favorite hangout spot. Anil’s work and the girls’ school is there and we still like to go during the weekend to walk along the marina, see the resident manatee and sea birds and have a leisurely brunch.

This is what a perfect family morning in The Grove looks like -  

Coffee

If you can’t wake up without your latte, and your child (like mine) tries to be sophisticated and craves a double mocha frappucchino in the morning, there’s a Starbucks on the bay-side of Aviation Avenue off South Bayshore Drive where our walk starts.

 

Walk along Grove Harbor and Dinner Key marina

From Starbucks, walk to the water, then turn right, so you’ll be following the path south along the Bay. You’ll pass by Grove Harbor marina first, where the pelicans hang out. Bring your camera because these birds are seriously photogenic, and you’ll be able to get up close. 

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Keep following the path along some tall buildings that store boats on your right. Usually there are forklifts hauling boats in and out of the water and lifting them high up onto the racks, which is a cool and unusual sight. 

Miami’s City Hall is next on your right, located in the former PanAm Seaplane Terminal building. It was built in 1930 and the first inter-american routes were overseen by Charles Lindbergh, who worked for PanAm at the time. The actual old seaplane hangars are located close to where our walk started, next to Fresh Market. Funny enough, Anil’s office is located in one of them.

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The resident manatee hangs out when the path takes a right turn into Dinner Key marina. My kids named him Otto, so make sure you continue the tradition. The first time I saw him I was taking a break on one of the docks with my dog Sadie. Manatees breathe out water through their nose when they come up for air and when Otto did it totally freaked Sadie out. But she’s easily scared. Hope your kid’s not like that. 

When you don’t see Otto, give it some time, sit down on a dock, he’ll most likely make an appearance in the next 5-10 minutes.  

Otto’s Nose

Otto’s Nose

Once you’re ready to say bye to your kid’s new best friend, continue your walk and on your left you’ll see a few small fishing boats. Birds love to pick on leftovers there and it’s a good place to spot and photograph some interesting specimens from up close.  The earlier you get here, the more feathered friends you’ll see. 

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The last part of the walk brings you through Kenneth M. Myers Bayside Park, where your kid can lose some energy on the workout machines.


Eat

Reward yourself with a sumptuous al-fresco brunch at chef Giorgio Rapicavoli’s Glass and Vine restaurant in Peacock Park. 

The garden setting makes it easily the most relaxing place to dine with kids – there’s even a playground in the back - the food is amazing.

The city’s first Food Network’s Chopped winner Rapicavoli focuses on locally sourced fresh ingredients, whipping up dishes like fish tiradito, shrimp ceviche, watermelon salad and carbonara fries. We like to order a few and share – the best way to sample many unique dishes here. 

If your child isn’t that adventurous, there are more traditional options as well like French toast and hamburgers.

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See, you can have your cake – or tiradito - and eat it too. Miami can be as much fun for kids as for you and there’s no need to worry about them getting bad influences from a rowdy drunken Spring Break crowd in South Beach. 

Hayley Style

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Hayley Style is a long time client of mine. These images are from the first shoot we did during a re-branding exercise. With the photographs from that shoot I also designed a look book for them that was instrumental in substantially increasing sales of their most high end items.

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Eliani Jewelry

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Robin and Ohad Eliani wanted me to capture the story of their brand. They custom design large high-end jewelry featuring BIG stones (the kind a girl has on her wish list most of the time). The couple also wanted to show the world them as owners and husband and wife. And of course we also needed photographs of a few of their signature pieces.

Most of the images were captured indoors using natural light.

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School of Shanti

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Owner and yoga instructor Marlene Russino needed personal branding images for her website and social media presence. I needed to make sure to capture her bubbly personality which wasn’t hard to do. We ended up in an olive orchard filled with donkeys. They loved her on the spot.

We did part of the shoot in her studio, part in the stunning surrounding country side.

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Artesano Studio Shoot

Artesano sells Panama hats and bags made by Ecuadorian artisans. By doing this, the company supports many local communities in the country. Owners Claudia and Xavier both hail from Ecuador and are focused on making sure all they make is sustainably produced. You can find their products in luxury resort stores around the globe.

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Sail Sardinya

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Sail Charter wanted me to capture what it is like to come sailing and snorkeling with them for a day in the amazing waters around Capo Caccia. The area around Alghero, Sardinia is one of the most beautiful I have ever come across on this planet. And I’ve seen a lot!

The company showcased the photographs on social media, their website and for their brochure.

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Sea Lily Resort Wear

We flew to The Bahamas to shoot lifestyle images and create photographs to enhance the resort feel of the brand. The photographs feature on the brand’s website, social media and look books. Several images were blown up to larger than life-size and used as banners for the company’s Miami Swim Week trade show booth.

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