Weekenders: Slow Ride Through South Florida

Venture through the Keys and the Everglades by land and by sea.

By Kristina Ensminger

The Florida Keys are steeped in legends of sunken treasure and fountains of youth. The 112-mile archipelago boomerangs from the Florida coast into the Gulf of Mexico, and only about 30 of the nearly 800 islands are inhabited. The mainland has its own draws: The Everglades, spanning 2,400 square miles, are home to crocodiles, manatees and panthers. Whether you’re after a slice of Key lime pie, a snorkel with stingrays or a nighttime airboat ride, you’ll find it here. We’ve mapped out three great weekend drives from the resort town of Weston.

Weston to Key Biscayne

(40 miles)

If you can get on the road early, you may catch the sunrise as you drive through Virginia Key on your way to Key Biscayne. On the island, locals like to hit the patio at Oasis Café for a breakfast of arepas filled with cheese and corn and a café con leche. When you make your way south down the main road, Crandon Boulevard, you’ll dead-end at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, on whose shore a 19th-century lighthouse sits. Tours take you up the 109 iron steps for a 360-degree view. Back in town, a fresh-veggie juice at 100% Natural will help you fuel up for a kayak tour around the island’s northern tip. The guides at Key Biscayne Kayak Adventure meet you in the parking lot of the Crandon Park Visitor’s Center to outfit you with gear. Along the two-mile journey you may see nurse sharks, starfish and moon jellies as you wind through mangrove forests.

Renting a bike from Mangrove Cycles is another way to take in the four-mile-long island. Just up the road you’ll find KeBo Spanish Deli, a tapas restaurant; the owners age Ibérico ham in-house. After lunch pedal down to the beach near the lighthouse for a sunny siesta or an afternoon swim. Return your bike before having dinner at Cantina Beach, an oceanfront Mexican restaurant on the grounds of the Ritz-Carlton resort.

Weston to the Everglades

(50 miles)

Whizzing through Everglades National Park on an airboat can be exciting, but at a slower pace a richer experience is possible. At the Shark Valley Visitor Center you can rent bicycles ($8.50 an hour) to navigate the park’s 15-mile loop, or take a two-hour guided tram tour (adults, $22) instead. Stroll down Bobcat Boardwalk, a wooden platform that juts over saw-grass prairie, for a closer look at gators.

If you head south out of the park on Route 997, you’ll find Robert Is Here. It began as a roadside produce stand in 1959 but has grown to offer things like tropical milkshakes, as well as kid-friendly activities (a petting zoo with a turtle farm and a splash zone). Another resident oddity, Coral Castle, is just up the road. A man named Ed carved every piece of coral rock on the property—around 1,100 tons—over nearly 30 years, as a tribute to his lost love. On the other side of Robert Is Here, Bob and Barbara Freer operate the Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue center, rehabilitating injured animals. They offer private airboat tours, departing at sunset, which showcase the wildlife active in the southern Glades at dusk. Before you retire for the evening, consider a detour through South Miami for a Portuguese-inspired feast at Old Lisbon.

Weston to Key Largo

(80 miles)

Time seems to pass slower in the Keys, and perhaps nowhere more than on Key Largo. The island is a kind of time capsule. Harriette’s Restaurant is a mom-and-pop-style diner that serves breakfast and lunch and hasn’t changed much since it opened, 30 years ago. If you’d like to indulge your sweet tooth, stop by Key Largo Chocolates for one of Kristie Thomas’s Key lime truffles. Down the road you’ll find the African Queen (the original boat from the 1951 Humphrey Bogart movie of the same name). Built in 1912, the steam-engine-powered vessel is now restored and seaworthy and cruises the Port Largo canals. Docked next door is Keys Diver, which offers an afternoon tour to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the only living coral reef in the continental United States. After checking in for your snorkeling adventure, you can grab a lobster BLT to go from the window at Key Largo Fisheries. The Keys Diver boat will cruise about an hour out to sea before making its first stop, at the Grecian Rocks. The sea life along the reef is otherworldly: You may see (and hear!) giant parrot fish nibbling on rocks as you snorkel among eagle rays and swim past Christ of the Abyss, a sunken statue of Jesus covered in fire coral.

Back on land the aquatic theme continues at Mother Ocean Marine Consignment Shop, filled with nautical curiosities. A relaxing way to wind down after a day at sea is to walk through the Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. Botanist Emily Magnaghi offers guided tours of the garden’s 250 species of plants and their uses. A stop at Key Largo wouldn’t be complete without a slice of Key lime pie from Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen. And one of the best ways to end the day is watching the sunset from a bayside table at Sundowners with a plate of cracked conch. Save room for the hickory-grilled mahimahi and pineapple bread if you can; they alone are worth the trip.

SHOP
Key Largo Chocolates
100470 Overseas Hwy.; 305-453-6613; keylargochocolates.com
Mother Ocean Marine Consignment Shop
98990 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 954-600-7731 
PLAY
Key Biscayne Kayak Adventure
6767 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne; 305-365-3018; miamidade.gov; 90-minute tours, $40 a person 
Keys Diver
99696 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 305-451-1177; keysdiver.com; half-day tours, from $30 a person, including gear
Mangrove Cycles
260 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne; 305-361-5555; mangrovecycles.com; full-day rental, $25
EAT
100% Natural
180 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne; 305-365-0455 
Cantina Beach
455 Grand Bay Dr., Key Biscayne; 305-365-4500; ritzcarlton.com; dinner for two, $70* 
Harriette’s Restaurant
95710 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 305-852-8689; breakfast for two, $18
KeBo Spanish Deli
200 Crandon Blvd., Key Colony Plaza, Key Biscayne; 305-365-1244; kebospanishdeli.com; lunch for two, $60 
Key Largo Fisheries
1313 Ocean Bay Dr., Key Largo; 305-451-3784; keylargofisheries.com; lunch for two, $36 
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen
99336 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 305-451-3722; mrsmacskitchen.com; dessert for two, $10
Oasis Café
19 Harbor Dr., Key Biscayne; 305-361-9009; breakfast for two, $20
Old Lisbon
5837 Sunset Dr., South Miami; 305-662-7435; oldlisbon.com; dinner for two, $90 
Sundowners
103900 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 305-451-4502; sundownerskeylargo.com; dinner for two, $80 
EXPLORE
African Queen
99701 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 305-451-8080; africanqueenflkeys.com; tours, from $49 a person 
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
1200 S. Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne; 305-361-5811; floridastateparks.org
Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort
97802 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 305-852-7200; 90-minute garden tours, $25 a person
Coral Castle
28655 S. Dixie Hwy., Homestead; 305-248-6345; coralcastle.com; adults, $15
Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue
35601 S.W. 192nd Ave., Homestead; 305-247-8000; evergladesoutpost.org; adults, $12
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
102601 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 305-451-6300; pennekamppark.com
 Robert Is Here
19200 S.W. 344th St., Homestead; 305-246-1592; robertishere.com 
Shark Valley, Everglades National Park
305-221-8455; nps.gov
STAY
RCI affiliated resorts in south Florida include:
Vacation Village at Bonaventure 4025
Guests can play at the two championship golf courses across from this resort. 16461 Racquet Club Rd., Weston
Member Review: “Clean, well-stocked rooms. Nice pools and great landscaping. Very friendly staff.”
Vacation Village at Weston 5773
Shares amenities with resort above.
Mizner Place 7559
There are restaurants and shops within walking distance. 1775 Bonaventure Blvd., Weston
Member Review: “Our unit was spacious and well-furnished and felt like home right away.” 
Lehigh Resort Club 0101
A family-friendly resort with a children’s pool, putt-putt course and playground. 231 Joel Blvd., Lehigh Acres
Member Review: “A beautiful, quiet resort. There’s a huge swimming pool and hot tub as well as many outdoor activities for all ages.”
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts:
Bonaventure Resort & Spa
A massive compound with 500 rooms, an on-site spa, a golf course and four pools.250 Racquet Club Rd., Weston; 954-389-3300; bonaventureresortandspa.com; doubles from $259 a night
Lago Mar Resort & Club
A luxurious oceanfront resort with a private beach and a swimming lagoon. 1700 S. Ocean Lane, Fort Lauderdale; 954-678-3915; lagomar.com; doubles from $325 a night
The Pillars Hotel
Elegant waterfront hotel steps from the beach. 111 N. Birch Rd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-467-9639; pillarshotel.com; doubles from $325 a night
  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Spring 2015