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Floridians making like tourists in Miami Beach and Key West

MIAMI BEACH — It's fun to be a tourist in your own state. And with a state as big as Florida, there's a good chance there are some places you haven't visited ye

Just recently, a former colleague posted a note on Facebook asking for accommodation suggestions in Key West for a romantic getaway for him and his wife. He has lived in Florida for more than 25 years and she has been here all her life yet neither has experienced Key West. Hard to believe, but heck, it's a seven-hour-plus drive from Tampa Bay.

Though I've been to the Keys and Miami Beach several times, a December road trip had me doing some of the touristy things that I've missed over the years. In both places, the week before Christmas was relatively dead. A great time to travel, if you can swing it.

We stayed two nights on Miami Beach and two in Key West, plenty of time to do what the folks from Terre Haute and Tokyo do.

We made the Loews Miami Beach Hotel with the Atlantic Ocean roaring outside our base, and from there walked most places. The big excursion was a boat ride on Biscayne Bay past the posh homes of Star Island. I am sure we were the only passengers from Florida, judging by the different languages being spoken.

The polar vortex was weeks away and the Chamber of Commerce couldn't have ordered better weather. Blue sky and wispy clouds — plus temperatures that allowed shorts and sandals — were the backdrop behind the Miami skyline as the boat headed to the homes of the rich and famous.

The guide pointed out the minimansions of Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias, Sylvester Stallone, Madonna, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Rosie O'Donnell and the woman who started the Caché clothing stores, plus the guy who invented Viagra. There were others, too, and I wondered why the heck they would live where they could barely go into their back yards without staring into the eyes of looky-loos. And how weird that they all bought homes basically next door to one another.

According to a 2012 New York Times article, they didn't. Most of the big names the guide tossed out never owned property on the exclusive island. Combs, O'Donnell and Estefan, yes; pretty much everyone else, no. The guide told a detailed story about Elizabeth Taylor's sprawling pink home. The rabbit sculpture in the back yard was given to her by Michael Jackson, something, she said, having to do with her jumping from marriage to marriage. Apparently, Taylor never owned a home on the island.

The two-hour bay excursion on the Island Queen is called a tour of Millionaire's Row. At least that's right. The cheapest house sold on Star Island in 2011 was $6 million, and that was truly a bargain.

The facts were fuzzy, but being on glittering Biscayne Bay with a pina colada was worth the dough, I thought. Oh, and we passed the impressive white yacht of Miami Heat owner and former Carnival Corp. CEO Micky Arison. (At least that's what they told us.)

At night, Miami Beach pulsates with music pumping from clubs and bodies keeping time on the dance floor. That's Kardashian territory, but I am more Golden Girls. So a walk along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue to look at the Art Deco architecture in the daylight is more my speed. Same with a trek down the pedestrian mall of Lincoln Road.

Designer shops and all sorts of restaurants line the eight-block stretch that runs east and west across the barrier island. We stroll along, marveling at the extremely high heels clacking on the sidewalk. How does everyone stay upright? It's a chic crowd, for sure.

Our mission, though, is not any business on Lincoln Road, but the Yardbird Southern Table & Bar a block south at 16th Street and Lenox Avenue. Yardbird has been on my must-eat list for quite a while. It opened in late 2011 and quickly became a foodie darling with recognition from the James Beard Foundation and Bon Appétit magazine.

It's among the many restaurants around the country, particularly in the South, exploring new ways to present Southern cuisine. Yes, there is fabulous fried chicken, with waffles if you'd like, but the cool vibe that hums even at 2:30 p.m. on a Wednesday isn't dressed in overalls. The restaurant serves something like 75 bourbons, and an oyster stew that will knock your socks off. I drank my bourbon in a blackberry lemonade. That'll knock your socks off, too.

Most of the rest of the time in Miami Beach was spent staring at the sea. Tourists do that, don't they?

The drive from Miami to the Keys is magical once you get past the strip malls of Key Largo. We resisted stopping at Robbie's of Islamorada to feed the tarpon even though I've never done that.

The Caribbean's got nothing on the brilliant water surrounding the Seven Mile Bridge connecting the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys. Aquamarine blends into turquoise which morphs into swirling sapphire. It's everything you can do to keep from hitting the brakes and jumping in.

Key West is a funny place. It has mythical status in my mind because my family lived there in the 1950s when my father was stationed at the naval air station. Those were lovely times for our young family, and the idea that you could drop a fishing line into the water every day after work was nirvana for Dad.

Yes, you can still fish — and paddleboard, kiteboard and Jet Ski, too — but Key West isn't sleepy anymore. Duval Street has become a Bourbon Street knockoff with lots of weaving drunks, especially at night. Cruise ships regularly dump off thousands of revelers and T-shirt seekers. The place has changed, and yet it still retains loads of charm and history.

We spent a morning at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, the lovingly maintained 1851 home where the writer lived and worked from 1931 to 1939. Descendants of his cats, many of them with six toes, roam the property. More than 40 of them find places to sun, siesta and sit, including on Hemingway's writing desk in his upstairs studio.

In the afternoon, we visited the Harry S. Truman Little White House in the complex called the Truman Annex. When my family lived in Key West, this was a working military installation. While some government presence remains, it has mostly been converted to vacation homes and condos. I loved this tour, mostly because the guide was excellent.

Unlike the boat tour guide in Miami, this man clearly knew his stuff and loved history. It was fascinating to be reminded that Truman never graduated from college and that while he's now considered one of our greatest presidents, when he was in office, he had one of the lowest approval ratings ever. Plus, we got to see the house dressed for Christmas in vintage decorations, including bubble lights on the tree.

Don't let your kids dissuade you from this tour (and they will try). There will be plenty of times to rent bikes or chase chickens later.

One of my favorite stops in Key West was not on the well-worn tourist track. Near the Chelsea House on Truman Street where we stayed is the Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea, built in 1905. On our first evening, we walked by and the doors in front and on the sides were flung open. A warmish ocean breeze blew through. We entered and sat in the back for a time, a million miles away from the action on nearby Duval.

The next night, the front entry was closed but the side doors were open. I walked down the path and peered in. No one was inside but I could hear the choir practicing its Christmas program in the loft above. I took my spot in the same pew and listened to some familiar sacred songs, and some I'd never heard.

Listening to choir practice in a Catholic church on vacation? Not exactly tourist fodder, but another experience on the road.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com.

IF YOU GO

South Florida trek

Where to stay

The Loews Miami Beach (1601 Collins Ave.; (305) 604-1601 and loewshotels.com/Miami-Beach-Hotel) is a five-star resort on the beach with a spa, restaurants, shops and an oceanfront pool. Lure South Beach is the resort's new signature restaurant, specializing in seafood, including sushi. Dinner entrees cost $28-$42. Room rates vary throughout the year, and parking and Internet are extra. In winter, expect to pay about $480 a night. The rate drops to under $300 in the summer. You might be able to find better prices through Expedia or Travelocity.

The Chelsea House in Key West (709 Truman Ave.; (305) 296-2211 and historickeywestinns.com/reservations) is a couple of historic homes surrounded by lush tropical landscaping. Parking and breakfast are free. The best thing about this inn is the location. While it's on busy Truman Avenue, you're just two blocks from Duval and all the nighttime action. Room rates for winter start at about $250 and vary throughout the year.

Where to eat

Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami Beach (1600 Lenox Ave.; (305) 538-5220 and runchickenrun.

com) is often packed but worth the wait if you don't have reservations, which they take. You might breeze in for a late lunch. Open for lunch and dinner, plus brunch on Sundays, the award-winning restaurant is long on attitude and hip vibe. Choose from 75 different bourbons. I recommend the blackberry bourbon lemonade. Dinner entrees range from $26 to $65 but lunch is less, and even at dinner there are lots of small plates to choose from.

In Key West, I recommend:

The Cuban food at El Siboney (900 Catherine St.; (305) 296-4184 and elsiboneyrestaurant.com). Authentic, casual and great for families. Most dishes under $20.

Watching the chickens and roosters, and eating breakfast at Blue Heaven (729 Thomas St.; (305) 296-8666 and blueheavenkw.com). It's a touristy spot and there's almost always a wait, but it's fun, especially for kids. Open for lunch and dinner, too. Breakfast, $5-$15; dinner, $10-$36.

Blushing yourself or making your teenager squirm at Better Than Sex, a dessert-only restaurant (926 Simonton St.; (305) 296-8102 and betterthansexkeywest.com). It's quite silly, eating gooey, decadent chocolate in the dark. They give you a flashlight so you can at least see the menu. Not family friendly but one of those you've-got-to-try-it-once places. Most desserts are about $10.

Things to do:

Island Queen boat excursions on Biscayne Bay take passengers by the homes of Millionaire's Row on Star Island. It's a narrated tour that may have some of the facts wrong (like who actually owns homes on the island) but the two-hour trip on the bay, especially if the weather is nice, is beautiful. Information at islandqueencruises.com/

sightseeing.htm. Tickets are $28 for adults and $19 for children 4 to 12; 3 and younger free. You'll often find coupons in entertainment books or at your hotel.

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West (907 Whitehead St.; (305) 294-1136 and hemingwayhome.com) is the home and writing studio of the famed writer, the place where he wrote A Farewell to Arms and To Have and Have Not, along with many short stories. He lived here in the 1930s. You can roam the grounds or take a guided tour, which is included in the ticket price. There are plenty of live felines, but check out the cat cemetery in the back. Tickets are $13 for adults and $6 for children.

The Harry S. Truman Little White House in Key West (111 Front St.; (305) 294-9911 and trumanlittle

whitehouse.com) was a haven for the president, who spent 175 days of his presidency here from 1946 to 1952. He loved the weather and the laid-back lifestyle. The house can only be visited by official tours, which last about an hour and are conducted from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Tickets are $16 for adults and $5 for children; less if you buy online.

Janet K. Keeler

Floridians making like tourists in Miami Beach and Key West 01/15/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 17, 2014 8:36am]

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