Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fort Lauderdale sunset or sunrise?

Key West is well known for its amazing sunsets.  But I'm in Fort Lauderdale for a few days first and here's a sky display from the Lauderdale beach front.  These pictures taken over a 10 minute period but can you work out if it was a sunrise or sunset?

Hardly any light - the camera is exaggerating the actual light.  Rather boring start.  Loads of clouds because we're at the end of a storm front.  Dark and moody!

A few minutes later and showing more promise!  You can now see the ripples on the water as it's still pretty windy from the storm front.

A few minutes more and the reds are starting.

The contrast between the dark clouds and the red.

Like a painting.

These are actually sunrise pictures here in Fort Lauderdale.

The storm front that took hold for the last two days is finally starting to move on so this morning we were treated to this dark, moody and cloudy sunrise with some subtle colors.

Today was a 'mall then beach' day to celebrate the passing of the storm and the arrival of better (and typical) South Florida weather.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Back in Florida!!

We're back in Florida and en route to Key West.  But first, a stop over...

Almost in Miami.  The inflight moving map shows our route from London Heathrow.  An unusual very southerly routing for the 9 hour flight because of bad weather on the commonly used northern routing.
An hour out from Miami and an idyllic Bahamas.  Just a few puffs of cloud, which has formed rather perfectly over the island itself.

We get to Key West in a week's time but we're doing a week long stop over in Fort Lauderdale first.  But unfortunately there is a storm front in situ in South Florida and, on arrival, its cloudy and windy.

Beach warning flags

Red and purple warning flags today on Fort Lauderdale beaches.  
A Portuguese man o'war washed up on the beach near to Fort Lauderdale.  One of many - hence the purple warning flags flying today.  This one has some of its stinging tentacles attached.  

This is why the men o'war were washed ashore.  Strong bracing winds caused quite a swell today in South Florida.

More on Fort Lauderdale soon.  And why a Fort Lauderdale and then Key West combo makes for a great vacation. [coming soon]

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Miami Airport

For many visiting Florida generally, and Key West specifically, Miami international airport (MIA) is  their start point.  When you take that first step out of your plane, and onto the jet bridge, it hits you - the  potent cocktail of heat, humidity and kerosene - you know you're in Miami airport.  Your vacation has officially started.

You hope your shorts, t-shirt and sun glasses are close to hand so you can get them on as soon as possible.

Here are some images from my landing yesterday.
The view on final approach into MIA - Miami International Airport.  Just before this view is miles of Everglades and water - all very, very flat.

Then the sprawl of Miami hits you - now only a few seconds before touch down.

Taxing to the gate at Miami airport.  A concrete complex.

You get some really strange looking planes at MIA, regional airlines flying to local destinations.
For the many years I've been using MIA, it's always been in a state of continual change, with new construction, new terminals and roadwork.  One well needed change was a monorail linking the terminal with the new rental car station.

I don't miss the old system one bit - going underneath the terminal in the heat and smog, waiting for a rental bus and then the 10 minute drive offsite to the car rental offices.  The new system is great.  And quick.
The funky rainbow windows just at the new entrance to the monorail - called the MIA mover.

Waiting for the Mover at the boarding point.

MIA Mover in motion.  A view of the 1.25 mile route from the airport terminal to the massive new car rental building.

The MIA airport taxi pool from the MIA Mover.

The Alamo section inside the rental station.  Pretty impressive.  All in all so much easier and quicker to use.
So finally, after taxing, disembarking, walking miles from the gate to immigration, immigration, baggage reclaim (which is dreadful and very old fashioned in MIA!), monorail to the rental building, getting the car and getting off the airport - you ESCAPE!!!!

Into the palm trees and heat of Miami.

Onto the I-95 and decisions.  Straight to South Beach.  Left to Fort Lauderdale and the rest of Florida. Or right to Key West?.....
Road signs on the I-95 just outside Miami airport.  Decisions, decisions, decisions.....

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Florida vacation?  Here's my virtual guided tour, as a regular visitor, to the best places to vacation in Florida.

Florida is big, beautiful and bewildering.  Of all the States, surely Florida is the sandiest, sunniest, most humid, most waterlogged, most visited, most alligatered and maniteed, most hurricane swept, most weirdly shaped, most orange state in America?  (Yes or no?  See the bottom of this post). 
Orange Florida hibiscus - the plants of Florida are, with the beaches and the ocean, awesome.
Let’s start our tour at the very, very bottom (otherwise know as the most southern!) and work our way up the 447 miles of Florida.


Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park
Never heard of the Dry Tortugas?  Don’t worry too much, it's an island or two, about 70 miles (2hrs 15 mins by boat) west of Key West so pretty remote. Having said that it's an amazing place to visit and the snorkeling is great.  It's a day trip by boat from Key West, trips every day.

Key West.  Essential.  We’ll deal with how I recommend you combine Key West into a Florida vacation in another post.

Florida Keys
Not counting Key West, there are 822 islands spread out over 120 miles and it’s a Wonder of the World (ok, not officially, but you know what I mean) to drive.
Typical view on miles of the drive up and down the Florida Keys.  Looking out to the low lying island chain off the coast.  Narrow strip of road and then miles of ocean.
For large parts of the drive, its like a narrow ribbon with only the width of the road between you and the blue Gulf of Mexico on one side and the blue Atlantic on the other.  And of course, the 7 Mile Bridge – yes, it really is 7 miles!
The 7 Mile Bridge - view from the northern end looking south.
If you have a little time then my stopping off recommendations along the Florida Keys are:
Bahia Honda State Park, Curry Hammock state park, Turtle rescue center, Theater of the Sea.

      Everglades National Park
This place is an awesome jewel - a World Heritage site and the US's largest subtropical wilderness.  The landscape (waterscape?) is so different.  Nothing to see but miles and miles of grass, water and the odd hammock peeking up a few feet from the sea level.  It’s amazing.  Go on a tour, go to the alligator farms, even better just take a drive and stop and stop in the peace and take it all in.  See also Alligator Alley, below.

Miami is a crazy city but there’s not a whole lot to do and downtown is, well, boring.  It's not relaxing and it's not particularly friendly.  It's a party city, of course.  Here’s what my day time schedule would be if I had a few days just in Miami: 
  • shopping for a day or two (Aventura Mall is too big for me, I prefer Sawgrass Mills and it's more outlet oriented) 
  • Miami zoo is great - here's me feeding a hungry giraffe (which is totally cool, btw!).
Feeding the very hungry giraffes in Miami zoo
  • Vizcaya mansion is worth a visit
  • Then South Beach, Ocean Drive and the art deco district there
The art deco hotels in South Beach - the Delano and others

If you’ve only got 1 day then it’s got to be the last one of these – head for South Beach and Ocean Drive.
The view of South Beach, a lovely September day, from my 7th floor room at the Tides Hotel on Ocean Drive. 
The iconic lifeguard stations on South Beach.  This one is a shocking pink!
On South Beach, stay at the Tides hotel, and hang out on the cocktails bars along Ocean Drive at sunset to see all the crazy people and the parade of cars.

East Coast from Miami to West Palm Beach
Don’t bother. Ugly, tall condos all the way.  Think Golden Girls opening credits and you’ve seen all there is to see.  See one condo, seen them all.  Apart from Lauderdale....

Fort Lauderdale
The Venice of Florida – yep, really, 165 miles of waterways, 7 miles of beaches - in just 1 city.    Pretty friendly and pretty gay in pockets.  Easier to get around, a user friendly city, easy to hang out and some great sea side hotels on the main beach strip.  This is a great place for a visit, fantastic hotels make a perfect vacation base (much better than Miami) and central to do some touring around the rest of south Florida.  Easy sun bathing! Recommended.
Fort Lauderdale Beaches Only sign.  Lots of water, lots of sea, lots of breach and pretty laid back - that's Lauderdale.
View of Fort Lauderdale beach from my room in the Hilton.  It's a good beach.
The view north up to Pompano and the lighthouse, 6 miles away.
Fort Lauderdale beach has other visitors.
West Palm Beach
It’s a vibrant community of very rich, and also very old, people.  Yes, they sure do spend money in this place - very well maintained streets and sidewalks and the houses are amazing.  Not much is happening for the causal vacation visitor.  The Flagler mansion (great guided tours) is the most interesting thing in town.
A 'typical' mansion (one of many) in the very rich West Palm Beach.  Looking at yet another mansion hidden behind locked gates gets very boring, very quickly!

Alligator Alley (highway 75) across the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve
84 mile stretch of highway, most of it dead straight, and all of it cutting right through the Everglades, taking you from east to west, right across southern Florida.  This is an awesome drive and Big Cypress park (which is along the route) is great.

Sanibel Island
So, now we flip onto the west coast.  Sanibel's main beach is really interesting because it's got washed up shells - thousands of different types, millions of them - that have come on tides from the Caribbean.  Hours of fun hunting on the shoreline.
Sanibel beach
Sanibel beach - see the sea shells!
Bit like West Palm Beach.  Good for a visit but don’t go out of your way.  The Columbia restaurant (Florida’s oldest restaurant, opened in 1905) is worth the drive out there. Siesta beach here was named #1 beach in the US by ‘Dr Beach’ in 2011.

The thrilling threesome: Tampa, Clearwater and St.Pete’s (St Petersburg)
I really like it around here.  And there is soooooooo much to do!  Tampa has great shopping, lots to do and Busch Gardens theme park.  Clearwater beach and its pier is a great beach and not too crowded - lots of very good hotels.  And St Pete’s has a long shoreline with some fun seaside places to visit, including the historic (and brilliantly named) town, Pass-A-Grille.  This is a fantastic base for a vacation.
Non profit Clearwater Aquarium, where Winter, from the movie A Dolphin's Tale, lives.  Excellent place to visit, devoted staff.
The pier at Clearwater beach, see the market on the pier, at sunset - check out the amazing wave cloud formation.
Dunedin and Tarpon Springs
A few miles north of Clearwater, they are both pretty towns, very historic and well worth visiting – even though they are tourism based, you do feel more homely here than the bigger tourist traps in Miami.  Real locals live here!  

Well if you have kids, then the decision is made.  I'd prefer to steer clear but 47 million people disagree with me and flock there every year.  No more needs to be said!

Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center
It's out of the way but well worth the visit - there are so many exhibits and cool things to do (and touch, and sit in, and experience - including a simulation of a shuttle launch!).
Me and Space Shuttle Explorer in Kennedy Space Centre in Florida
Anywhere and everywhere further north than this…. Sorry, in all my trips and visits to Florida, I ain’t made it that far yet!

Amazing Florida facts

To finish, let’s get back to my first paragraph: 

Of all the States, surely Florida is the sandiest, sunniest, most humid, most waterlogged, most visited, most alligatered and maniteed, most hurricane swept, most weirdly shaped, most orange state in America? 

Is Florida the sandiest State? Yes. Florida has the second longest coastline – 1,350 glorious miles compared to the 3rd biggest, California, with a mere 840 miles.  The hands down winner is Alaska but not much of it is sand, I reckon!

Sand and more fantastic sand.  Beach at Bahia Honda park - one of the best beaches in the entire USA.
Is Florida the sunniest state? No.  The Sunshine State, isn’t! A town in Arizona is sunny 90% of the time (that is, from sunrise to sunset) and only 1 Florida town makes it into the top 10 in the US – Key West, which is sunny 76% of the time. 

Is Florida the most humid state?  Not sure, no records exist at the State level.  But I reckon you're hard to beat Key West in August.

Has Florida the most water?  No.  This is Rhode Island (17% water) and then D.C. (11%). Florida’s in 4th place (8.7%).

Most visited?  If you add domestic plus international visitors it's pretty close between Flordia and NY State.  Let's call it a draw.  Put it this way, if you visit, you won't be alone!

Has Florida the most alligators? Maybe.  It’s close but probably Louisiana edges it.  But there are at least 1 million alligators in Florida alone (and 19 million people).
A Florida alligator.  Actually taken in the middle Keys.
Has Florida the most matinees?  Yes, most of the remaining 3,200 are in Florida.  They have been officially declared endangered since 1967.  Aren't they cool?

A beautiful and curious manatee. 
Is Florida the most hurricane swept state? – Yes.  From 1851-2004, 110 hurricanes for Florida vs 59 for Texas – easy win. (Source: NOAA)

Is Florida the most weirdly shaped state?  I reckon.

Is Florida the most orange state?  Yep.   Visit a fruit farm and squeeze some oranges!

Mixon Fruit farm in Florida in Bradenton.  I bought a bag just like this and they were juicy and refreshing!

To see my Key West vacation directory - click here.

If you disagree or I've missed out a favorite place of yours then please leave a comment!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Key West things to do - composite survey

Each website or guide book has a different view on the best things to do in Key West.  This post brings many of them (including the big name guide books and TripAdvisor)  together.... 

What's the overall best of the best?  The results are in!

Results: Best things to do in Key West - composite poll with scores
The sunset celebration from Mallory Square came first in the survey of things to do in Key West.

In first place, the top Key West thing to do, is....

1 - Mallory Square                  2,093 points
2 - Little White House             2,031 
3 - Hemingway House             1,926
4 - Butterfly conservatory            1,826
5 - Fort Zach                             1,142
6 - Key West cemetery              1,027
7 - Key West aquarium                 870
8 -Southernmost point                   860
9 - Lighthouse                               844
10 - Mel Fisher museum                756

11 - Audubon House                    617
12 - Eco discovery center             583
13 - West Martello tower              560
14 - Nancy Forrester's garden       428
15 - US Mile marker 1                  315
16 - Key West Bight                    245
17 - East Martello Tower              237
18 - Custom House                       36

My comment: If you ask me, several things are crazy in the list, but the people have spoken!  Mallory Square is a predictable top place although the butterfly conservatory, second on TripAdvisor, is voted down in many other polls, and so appears 4th here.  It's great to see the Hemingway House, aquarium and the lighthouse doing so well, and they deserve their high positions.  It's a slight shame about the low position of the Audubon House but a crying shame about the East Martello Tower and the Custom House taking the last spots - they both should be much higher. Shame on those surveys who didn't do enough research to include them!

In my view: most overrated high position: Mallory Square and Southernmost point (should be lower!)
In my view: most underrated low position: Custom House (should be much higher!)

Do you agree with the number 1 and the top 10?  Are there any glaring errors or omissions?  What definitely should not be on the list?  Please leave your comments in the comments boxes below - I'd love to know your view.

YOU CHANGE THE RESULT: Also I will use any suggestions or comments as 'votes' for when I update this in 6 months.  That is, any genuine views, positive or negative expressed in the comments boxes on this post I will use as inputs into the re-calculation of the survey of survey in a few months.  So it's well worth making a comment now...Thanks...

For my highly personal view of the best things to do on Key West click here.

Or for some reasons to visit Key West, with lots of pictures - click here.

Data sources and methodology:  I've done a lot of online research to find 14 websites that have a ranking of Key West attractions.  I've then aggregated the rankings.  However, to reflect that different sites/rankings are busier/more robust I have given different weighting to different sites and their views/rankings higher.  For example, the attraction that Trip Advisor gives a number one place to (the butterfly observatory) I've given (much) more weight to that the #1 attraction in US News (the aquarium).  Determining the weighting of each of the 14 websites towards the total points score: The biggest factor I've used is 'crowd sourcing' ie if  the individual website's ranking is based on lots of reviews - like TripAdvisor.  The sample size of the crowd source  is important too.  For example, the top ranked attraction on TripAdvisor has garnered 357 reviews (as of today) vs only 9 reviews for IgoUgo.com.  So the weighting reflects that.  Other factors used: the websites' brand reputation, how busy the site is and its Google ranking.  The exact ranking I used will remain confidential to me!  Data collection and analysis as at end of December 2011.   To be included the websites must show a obvious ranking of attractions, and not just a general, random or un-curated list or directory.  I've tried to include all the websites that have such a ranking, although inevitably, I will have missed one or 2.  Commercial websites have not been included, even if they used rankings.  Most totally commercial attractions, like the various Key West tours and sailing and fishing trips, have not been included at all.  If you know of other ranking websites or blogs then please let me know in the comments section below and I will include in the next update in 6 months.

The Key West butterfly conservatory came third of all things to do in Key West.  But here's a butterfly just sitting looking pretty on the sidewalk.

Details - Some of the sites used

Trip Advisor
1.Key West butterfly conservatory
2.Little White House
3.Mallory Square
4.Fort Zach
5.Florida Keys Eco Discovery Centre
6.Hemingway House
7.Key West cemetery
8.Audubon House
9.Key West aquarium
1.Key West cemetery
2=.Key West aquarium
2=.Key West butterfly conservatory
2=.Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
2=.Audubon House
1.Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden
2.Hemingway House
3.Little White House
4.Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
5.Key West Cemetery

Virtual Tourist.com
1.Southernmost point
2.Mallory Square
3.Hemingway House
4.US Mile Marker 0
5.Key West Lighthouse
6.Key West aquarium
7.Little White House
8.Butterfly conservatory
9.Audubon House
10.Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

New York Times
1.Key West cemetery
2.Audubon House
3.Little White House
AOL travel

US News
Lonely Planet

Travel DK

And others!!

Final comment from me - http://keywestlookout.blogspot.com/
I've not counted my (this) blog's view towards the composite used.  Whilst I do have list of my top things to do in Key West, I know that I have not ranked or scored them myself!  Coming soon (actually, during my next Key West visit) in February 2012, I will do a scored list.  And I know already I don’t agree with some of the lists above!!

Finally, please do leave comments under this blog..... I will definitely use any suggestions or comments on Key West things to do as 'votes' for the next update in 6 months.  So please let me know.  Thanks.