May 2013

The Keys to my heart: This Florida fan always returns to the Sunshine State

I've got a thing about Florida. I once wrote to the White House asking if there was any way Miami could be twinned with Hammersmith, but didn't receive a reply.
In the good old days, when I was working in New York, we used to bunk off to Florida on $99 return flights for the weekend.

We spent the day in Coconut Grove, a suburb of Miami, by a hotel pool and asked everyone to be very quiet for a few minutes while we reported in by poolside telephone claiming we were filming to the South of Washington. It was a slight extension of the truth.

I've worked all over Florida, from aircraft carrier decks at Jacksonville to the manicured lawns of Naples. I've vacationed in Sanibel Island, Tampa and Orlando.

I've done airboat tours of the Everglades and the crocodile farms of the Gold Coast, and stayed on every key from Largo to West.

The back of my hand is stranger to me than Florida. I even got married there 12 years ago on a boat off Key West. The knot was tied on board by a licensed lady who was also the concierge at the Key West Hyatt Resort and Spa, and after the ceremony we sailed round the Key in the sunset phoning our relatives at home to give them the surprise news.

They weren't the only ones surprised. I didn't tell my wife-to-be until 12 hours before the event. Her mother's first question was: 'Was it legal?'

There are good reasons why Florida hosts thousands of Britons a year. It's cheap, welcoming, delivers what it promises – and it works. Most days of the year there are air shuttles between the UK and Miami/Fort Lauderdale/ Tampa and Orlando.

Ideal spot to decompress: Boats lined up in the marina at Coconut Grove
We returned recently to re-trace a particular holiday route that served us extremely well in the past. Begin with the exhilaration of stepping out of the air-conditioned airport to be smothered by that first gust of hot Floridian air.

Pick up a hire car and drive 20 minutes south to Coconut Grove, stack the luggage in a hotel room and head straight to Monty's, an open-air, short-order diner right by the water's edge. Cheap chardonnay, popcorn shrimp, fries and key lime pie to finish, and big Louis on stage playing the guitar rather badly – yes, you've died and gone to heaven.
• California Dreamin' on a family road trip, but not before tackling Death Valley
• Glam it up just like Gatsby in the dazzling duo of Cape Cod and Long Island
• Miami nice! How Florida's once retiring beachside city became an A-list playground

Unfortunately, the hotel we used for 25 years has plummeted downhill, so I'd recommend the Marriott Courtyard or Sonesta. When I first discovered Coconut Grove it had a Johnny Rockets diner in the main street, and a five and dime store. But like the rest of the world, it has been globalised.

Coco Mall has all the usual chains, but has lost little of its vibrancy and you can still sit and bask in the open-air cafes. It remains the ideal location to decompress for a couple of days.

Hedonist Central: Key West is to tourism what the Vatican is to religion

Once the jet-lag's lifted, head south on Route 1 off the mainland to the Keys – Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon Key and eventually Key West. On the long drive, you have the Atlantic in your left eyeball and the Gulf of Mexico in your right.
The army engineer-built bridges, some as long as six miles, are a true feat of American can-do, and a testament to the Thirties dream of a railway from Canada to the tip of Florida. Unfortunately, no one had predicted the non-stop rise of the aeroplane, and today the rusting rail tracks of that great bygone era stretch sadly parallel to the modern motorways.

Truth is, there are so many reasons to stop en route to Key West that you might spend your entire holiday not getting there.

But apply discipline. I'd recommend detours to Big Pine and the Lower Keys extending from Bahia Honda Key's beautiful beaches through Big Pine Key to Stock Island. At the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, see the rare dwarf species only 2ft high.

Book up: Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West is now a tourist attraction
Also nearby are the Great White Heron Wildlife Refuge and the Looe Key Reef, a popular diving site. If you are still nowhere near Key West come nightfall, book into a local hotel. We always trust the big chains.

Key West – what can I say? The place is Hedonist Central. If you don't like noise, packed pavements, loud music, T-shirt shops, an elbow-rubbing mix of the tattooed classes, middle classes and old money upper classes, then stay away.

Today Key West is to tourism what the Vatican is to religion. There are endless boat tours, road-train tours, an aquarium, Ernest Hemingway's house, bike hire, a Shipwreck Treasures Museum and evenings on historic Mallory Square watching the dramatic sunset.

Recently, giant cruise liners have started calling in. Everyone is friendly, there's no menace, litter or graffiti and you would need a heart of stone not to fall in with the ambience.

High life: Take to the white sand beaches and make the most of the Sunshine State
The night before we got married, with my partner unaware of what I had planned, I proposed in a seriously expensive restaurant called Latitudes on an island five minutes by ferry off the mainland. Fortunately, she agreed.

This time round, we returned to Latitudes, now even smarter and part of the expensive Westin complex of bungalows and cottages on Sunset Cay. If you can afford one truly romantic dinner, nip over on the ferry, and take your table for the meal of your life.

For sentimental reasons we stayed at the Hyatt, smack on the waterfront, with airy rooms and views across the water. This smart hotel and the next door Pier House are recommended favourites for Brits. We'll be back.

Travel Facts

American Airlines (0844 499 7300, offers return fares from Heathrow to Miami with onward connections to Key West from £582pp. Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa ( offers rooms from $285 (£185) per night.


More articles