Hidden Gems: Southeast Florida

Key Biscayne

PHOTO BY CHRIS GARCIA

Urban Island

Key Biscayne, Miami

Just the word “Miami” conjures up images of club kids partying in South Beach, sun-soaked bodies strutting the sands of Miami Beach, and well-dressed office workers rushing amongst downtown skyscrapers. It’s a high-energy metropolis that never seems to sleep.

Yet, if you drive across Rickenbacker Causeway with downtown Miami in your rearview mirror, the city’s hold gradually weakens as you skip across Virginia Key and onto Key Biscayne. After traveling through the cocoon-like tropical foliage of Crandon Park, you emerge into a whole different setting: families riding bicycles, kids playing soccer, couples strolling hand-in-hand, and diners quietly enjoying a meal at an outdoor café. It has all the elements of a small town, albeit one with expensive waterfront condos, multimillion-dollar mansions and a population that’s predominantly Latin.

Key Biscayne is another side of Miami, one that most visitors don’t explore even though the island has numerous vacation rentals, as well as three hotels, including a Ritz-Carlton.

At the island’s far tip sits the historic 1825 Cape Florida Light, the main attraction of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Those who climb its 109 steps to a wraparound balcony are treated to views of Miami Beach to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the remaining propped-up houses of Stiltsville in the waters of Biscayne National Park to the south. A morning walk on the beach offers stunning sunrises and, in the evening, a park bench facing west is prime seating for watching the sun set. Hikers can trek through wetland nature trails, and bicyclists (rental bikes are available in the park) can explore on the area’s paved trails.

The island’s other green space, Crandon Park, is home to peacocks that roam where a zoo once stood, and visitors are often treated to the male’s fanned display of his iridescent tail feathers. From the beach, local kiteboarders are spotted showing off in the wind, and an occasional snorkeler surfaces with a find.

The walkable Village of Key Biscayne has several shopping plazas dotted with high-end boutiques and restaurants with a Latin twist. Argentine specialties can be found at Patagonia Nahuen, and at La Boulangerie Boul’Mich bakery café, dulce de leche croissants and savory beef-stuffed empanadas are worth the calories.

Don’t Miss…

Carousel by the Sea

Brightly painted wooden horses swirl around on this carousel that dates back to 1949. It delights not only children, but also adults who appreciate its historic value. Ponies, with names like Mercy, Danny Boy and Pretty Phoebe, were restored by volunteers. Located in Crandon Park, the merry-go-round is open on weekends as well as holidays.

Bear Cut Preserve

Ever see a “thumb splitter” or squeeze a sea cucumber?  Key Biscayne’s Bear Cut Preserve, a precious sliver of natural bay front, is their home. From the Biscayne Nature Center, explore this lesser-known stretch or join the monthly Seagrass Adventure and drag a net in the seagrass. A naturalist guide identifies what you scooped up before releasing the catch.

More Than Sailfish

Stuart

 The Lyric Theater

COURTESY OF MARTIN COUNTY OFFICE OF TOURISM

Svelte sailfish sculptures rise up from fountains at roundabouts. Plumper versions greet you at the entrance to Mulligan’s bar. And bold billfish with impressive dorsal fins appear on city banners announcing that you are in Stuart, Florida, Sailfish Capital of the World.

For decades fishermen departing from the St. Lucie River through the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic Ocean have sought out the abundance of fish in these South Florida waters, particularly the sailfish. Boating and fishing are no doubt big draws here. But in recent years, accolades poured in from the media proclaiming Stuart the “Happiest Seaside Town” and “One of the 50 Most Beautiful Small Towns in America.”

Locals heard the call and the historic downtown started buzzing even more with authentic businesses and events. Visit on a weekend, and you’ll find anything from a Brews, Blues, Bourbon & BBQ festival at Flagler Park to the local artists’ Open Studio Tour. On Sunday, the Stuart Green Market brims with jewelry, clothing, fresh produce and giant muffins for sale.

The most popular thoroughfare is Osceola Street and despite its narrow sidewalks, the pedestrian traffic is steady as shoppers weave in and out of indie boutiques tucked in quaint, brightly painted buildings dating back to the 1940s. Find your inner hippie at Earthtones or browse the racks of colorful resort wear at O’ Sole Mia.

Signature Sweets Chocolate & Ice Cream and Stuart Coffee Company are places to stop for snacks. Those up for wine and craft beer tastings can hit Vine and Barley Stuart, and for a restaurant with an Old Florida setting, visit Café Martier in the historic 1925 Post Office Arcade.

A block east is the Riverwalk and stage. The boardwalk skirts the riverbank, where rocks, sea grape trees and red mangroves anchor one side with the open water on the other. There’s no rail or barrier to block the cool sea breeze. On its waterfront stage, with tiered seating facing the St. Lucie River, bands perform regularly.

And if you want the ocean experience too, stay at the nearby Marriott Hutchison Island Beach Resort, Golf & Marina, where you can chill on an expansive sandy stretch to the roar of the waves. Golfers can sneak in a game, while shoppers peruse Osceola Street.

Stuart Rivwalk

THOMAS WINTER PHOTOGRAPHY

Don’t Miss…

The Lyric Theatre

Framed autographed photos of Lily Tomlin, Jose Feliciano, Clint Black and other celebrities adorn the wall of the lobby in this 1926 theater. From a silent movie house to a grand performance venue, the cozy Lyric Theatre has survived. Its vintage red velvet seating is reminiscent of a bygone time.

Sandy Bar Cove

Of the numerous boutiques on Osceola Street, the coastal-inspired Sandy Bar Cove scores for its abundance of mermaid-themed merchandise. Owner Ann Nyhuis has compiled a treasure trove of plates, mugs, trays, napkin rings, dishtowels, artwork and more that showcase the fabled creature in the most charming ways.