Three Days in South Florida: The Everglades, Miami, and Key West

Before this weekend, Jared and I had never been to the Everglades. It seemed like something that needed fixing, and we had a three-day window in which to do it. We booked this airBnb near the Miami Zoo, jumped in the car, and headed south on I-95.

Visiting the Everglades, Miami, and Key West is a big undertaking for three days: it’s not a huge distance, but between traffic and speed limits it means lots of time in the car. If you’ve got limited time and enough motivation, you can get a nice taste of the area. Just be sure to get out and stretch your legs.

Everglades National Park

There are three entrances to Everglades National Park, and they do not connect with each other. The Everglades cover 1.5 million acres of land, so you can’t see the whole thing in a day, or even a week.

We focused on the southern area of the park, entering through the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Admission is normally $30 per car, but we have the annual parks pass so we sailed right through.

It’s a 38 mile drive to the Flamingo Visitor Center, which takes about 45 minutes if you don’t stop along the way. We saw our first alligators almost immediately, lounging in a water hole at the side of the road.

Road gator.

Next up was Anhinga Trail, a popular 0.8 mile walk through the wetlands known for its bird life and alligators.

The Everglades are a bird watcher’s paradise, and even I had to admit that the birds were impressive. (Birds have never ranked high on my list of wildlife.) We saw several alligators, a heron taller than a toddler, and fish zipping around the lily pads.

The glades are aliiiive
This bird was taller than your child.

From there we went straight to Flamingo, where Operation: Manatee got underway. After staring at the water for fifteen minutes I was ready to give up, but then I saw it—a greyish lump breaking the surface of the water.

Is it a rock? An overturned ship? No it’s a MANATEE.

Seconds later, it broke the surface again, this time showing a bristly grey snout. MANATEE.

That kicked off a manatee party. They popped up everywhere, blowing air bubbles and grunting before diving back down to stir up some sand. We learned what to look for: a small sandy circle on the water, which meant a manatee was about to surface.

Check out those back bristles!
Marine snuffleupagus.

A family stood on the docks nearby, and the father called them all down to have a look at the manatees. The mother wasn’t so sure.

“They don’t bite,” he told his wife.

“You don’t know that,” she said. “I’m not taking any chances.”

Eventually she agreed to let the kids go closer, though she retreated as soon as the next manatee appeared.

We bought a local beer and granola bars from the marina store and sat in the shade for a while, just watching these giant water elephants bob up and down.

This one was floating on its back, making air-kiss noises.

On the way back, we stopped at the Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, another short walk with extensive views across the Everglades. But the high point of the day, without question, was the manatee spotting.

South Beach, Miami

Our priorities on this trip were the Everglades and the Keys, but I reeeeeally wanted to see a little bit of Miami. It felt like my last chance because I’m not sure when we’ll be back in Florida.

The only problem was the drive. Google Maps estimated that it would take us nearly an hour and a half to cover the 27 miles from Kendall to South Beach. Then there was the question of Miami’s notorious traffic and lack of parking.

We decided to do it anyway. It took about an hour in the end, and Jared’s eagle eye found a parking spot a few blocks from the beach.

From the wide expanse of South Beach, we watched a giant cruise ship heading out to sea. It looked like a building had uprooted itself and was escaping to the ocean.

Agggh that ship is too big.

The beachfront was swarming with people working out, sunbathing, biking, and—my personal favorite—rollerblading. Clubs lined the A1A, some pumping music even though it wasn’t yet 5pm. The Cleveland in particular was like Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island: women dancing on top of the building, people in body paint, a pool in the bar.

Basically I felt like Melissa McCarthy in Life of the Party but it was a sight to see.

The Florida Keys

The Florida Keys extend for 120 miles off Florida’s southern coast, a chain of 1,700 tropical islands also known as paradise. Key West is the end of the line, a 3 to 4 hour drive from Miami.

It’s not exactly a day trip, but if you leave early enough you can make it one. We set off at 7am on a Sunday and were in Key West before 10:30am.

7 Mile Bridge, connecting the middle Keys to the lower Keys.

The sky was blue, the sun was hot, and the people were out in force, already patronising the Duval Street bars.

Jared and I often turn up in places without a real plan, other than to ‘walk around.’ This sometimes goes well, but usually it’s touch and go. When you don’t have a fixed destination it’s easy to get tired, hot, and hungry: a dangerous trifecta.

After an hour of walking, pointing out things like Hemingway’s house, clothing-optional bars, and the influx of cruise passengers teeming the streets, we started to get weary.

A slice of key lime pie provided a tangy boost of energy, enough to get us to the First Flight Brewery. It was 11:30am, but in Key West I’m pretty sure it’s always five o’clock.

End of the line, folks.

First Flight is in the original offices of Pan Am Airlines, now a restaurant with a dreamy courtyard and outdoor bar area. We sat in the breeze, ordered a couple of Maverick IPAs, and listened to live music while chickens pecked around our feet.

The face of someone in their happy place.

This trip was a much-needed mental reset for me. Although I don’t regret the decision to leave Florida, I do appreciate its gifts of warm weather, sandy beaches, and the ability to give you a vacation on tap, right when you need it the most.

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  1. I love that you guys are making the most out of your final time in Florida and are still finding some adventure. I remember when I was living in Chicago and so ready to leave, it was really tough not to just wish away the time there.

    Also, the manatees!!

    1. The manatees were awesome!! I knew that if we didn’t go down there I’d be saying “I wish I would have gone to the Everglades” every time they were mentioned for the rest of my life.

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