I love Miami’s South Beach glitz and gritty neighbourhoods, the glass towers lining Biscayne Bay and the heritage buildings on downtown Flagler Street. The city has awesome street food and serious CSI Miami cool. And US1, the highway that runs like a ribbon between Miami and Key West, scooting over bridges and hop-skip-jumping along the string of islands that dangles off the tip of Florida like a pirate’s rosary, is one of the world’s best road trips. Whenever I’m in Miami and the Keys, I work my way through a hit list of favourite Florida foods. But this time there’s an additional role I’m relishing — spa detective!
Day One – Miami
I kick start my day with a mango batido (a creamy shake made from fresh fruit, ice and milk) from a sidewalk stand on Flagler Street then window-shop my way to El Cacique Lunch Restaurant, across the road from the Miami Dade Library. You can eat your fill of home-made Cuban and Latin American food at this casual, reasonably priced restaurant but I opt for a take-out lunch of tamales, which I eat in the sunny plaza linking the Library and the Miami Historical Museum. (Spend an hour in this unstuffy museum and you’ll understand the cultural influences that give rise to Miami’s vibrant fusion cuisine.) El Cacique’s tamales are cooked in a red gravy that elevates them way above the ordinary. Add a splash of hot sauce and you’ve got gourmet fare. Next door to El Cacique is a window counter where you can buy a tiny paper cup of Cuban coffee with a squirt of sweetened condensed milk … a cortadito. These things are like rocket fuel, down a couple and you’re good to go for several more hours of shopping or sightseeing.
The Spa at Mandarin Oriental is billed as Miami’s only Five-Star Spa and the view of Biscayne Bay through floor-to-ceiling windows in the VIP treatment rooms is enough to justify the tagline. The Signature Spa Therapy, available in Mandarin Oriental hotels around the world, made its debut in Miami. Based on principles of traditional Chinese medicine, the treatment begins with a ritual foot washing. After a questionnaire and exploration of the acupressure points in my spine to determine the balance of my five elements, a custom oil is blended and away we go. After 110 minutes of pampering, I‘m delirious with pleasure and so tuned into my body I can feel the energy being transmitted through therapist Kelly’s hands. This treatment isn’t cheap but it’s a genuine journey to the deeper levels of massage-induced healing. You won’t regret the splurge.
Day Two – South Beach
Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant is Miami’s legendary temple of claw. Even though you can buy stone crabs for a fraction of the price at the fish market down in Islamorada, folks flock to Joe’s for this Florida delicacy. The service is fantastic, the décor classy and the food is old school and well executed. The place is always packed and there are line-ups at the takeout window. But now I know the secret to snagging a table at Joe’s… go alone. A solo diner, I’m escorted to the head of the queue and seated immediately. Before I’m two sips into a frosted beer, a heap of claws arrives, with the restaurant’s signature mustard sauce and wedges of lemon. Paired with a mountain of Joe’s famously tangy coleslaw and a basket loaded with fresh and fragrant breads, it’s quite a meal. Thick-shelled stone crab claws come pre-cracked, which is a bonus. Stone Crab season runs from October 15 to May 15.
Chill out and rev up for a night out in South Beach is the idea behind the Ritz Carlton South Beach Spa’s Rhythm Massage. Created by lead massage therapist Dayalis Gonzalez to showcase her Cuban roots and Miami’s cultural heritage, this tune-up uses Latin music and energizing techniques to get you ready for the city’s sizzling club and dance scene. It’s both relaxing and reviving, a great way to transition from a day of shopping or sightseeing to a night on the town. Gonzales clearly enjoys her work and after my syncopated pummeling, I feel fresh and re-energized.
Inspired by my Cuban massage, I’m seeking another Cuban pleasure, a mojito. These mint and rum libations are simple and superb when made well but in Miami tourist joints you’ll find a lot of weak, sickly-sweet imposters. (And don’t get me started about my quest for a margarita made with real limes – everyone uses a mix). Go to a high-end cocktail bar where you can have your mojito custom made and tell the bartender to go light with the simple syrup. This super-refreshing summer drink should taste mostly of mint, not sugar. Tired of my hit and miss affair with Miami mojitos I resolved to make my own.
Day Three – US1
Florida’s favourite dessert, Key Lime Pie, is found all over the Sunshine State. The undisputed queen, however, is the creamy-cool slice of sublime lime created by Manny & Isa’s Kitchen in Islamorada. Manny and Isa Ortiz came to the Keys from Cuba in 1953 and opened their eponymous eatery at Mile Marker 81.5 in 1965 after Manny quit his job at the nearby Green Turtle Inn. For more than twenty years, locals and tourists on their way to Key West stopped in at Manny & Isa’s for turtle steaks, authentic Cuban ropa vieja (braised beef soft as “old rags”) and Isa’s fantastic Key Lime Pie, made by hand with a pastry shell. Short-cut modern versions use a no-skill-required cookie-crumb shell but Isa didn’t believe in short cuts. Isa made her pies from key limes that grew in her own backyard and you could taste the Florida sunshine in every plastic-fork mouthful. When the screen door at Manny & Isa’s Kitchen slammed shut for good in 2005, I was grief stricken. That pie floated in and out of my dreams like the memory of a summer love. So on this trip, when I saw a familiar-looking sign in Islamorada, I slammed on the brakes and came to a gravel-spitting halt in front of the brightly painted Midway Café. The Midway purchased Isa’s original recipe and has resurrected the ultimate Key Lime Pie, right down to Isa’s signature pastry crust.
If heaven has a scent, it has to be that of the Sicilian Red Orange Body Lotion provided in the bathrooms at The Moorings. This upscale Islamorada resort hotel is set in a 600-tree coconut grove on a strip of beach so gorgeous it’s used as a backdrop for fashion shoots. The Island Body & Sol Spa is located in a 1930’s hurricane house in the resort’s garden. It is operated by Amy Schmitt, a certified instructor of Kobido, a traditional Japanese facial treatment that, like a martial art, is taught by a sensei. Amy is one of a handful of licensed practitioners in the USA
and has a true mastery of the technique. She spends a full 90 minutes on my face and neck, cleansing, exfoliating and moisturizing, then administering a series of staccato massages with her fingertips, which feel like a cloud of butterflies. When the treatment is over, Amy hands me a mirror. My skin is glowing and I look at least five years younger. According to Amy, if you do the treatment regularly, the results will stay. I’m sold!
Day Four – Key West
Just before reaching Key West, I stop in at Baby’s Coffee for a mid-morning cup of java and a slice of Key Lime Cheesecake. Lunch is a Bloody Mary and Coconut Fried Grouper with Key Lime Mustard Sauce at Alonzo’s Oyster Bar, a casual joint on the Key West waterfront. Well fed and watered, I while away the afternoon at Ernest Hemmingway’s house, peering into the kitchen, walking in the shady garden, marveling at the clackety-clack typewriter that produced A Moveable Feast. Heading back to Mallory Square at the bottom of Duval Street in time for the Sunset Celebration (a nightly fiesta of artists, street performers, food carts and sunset watchers, I down a dacquiri in Papa’s honour.
Key West is a great walking city and when I stumble across Prana Spa, located in a restored conch house with a pretty front garden, I opt for an hour-long foot and leg massage. The tranquil yoga-inspired ambience of Prana Spa is enhanced by the gentle ping of copper bells in a fountain. Gorgeous objets d’art from India and Asia decorate the treatment rooms. My Norwegian massage therapist, Kari, like so many other Key West transplants, came for a visit and decided to stay. As she soothes my knotted hamstrings, I drift into a reverie that begins with tearing up my own plane ticket home…
Refreshed and restored, I walk a few more blocks and check in at the boutique Hotel Marquesa in the centre of the historic district. The hotel occupies a collection of restored 1884 conch houses, serves a great breakfast (poolside or delivered to your room) and has an award-winning restaurant. I enjoy a complimentary glass of chilled Chardonnay on the balcony of my suite and review my notes after four days of eating and pampering. My final stop will be Café Marquesa, to find out what happens when classic tastes get updated. Chef Susan Ferry trained with Florida celebrity chef Norman Van Aken and her Contemporary American Cuisine is some of the best in Key West. I order Key West Seafood Dumplings in Saké Miso Broth followed by Kobe Beef Sliders with house-made ketchup. Both are outstanding. The finishing touch, a Key Lime Napoleon, layers cool, lime-scented cream between feather-light sheets of puff pastry. It’s a perfect modern homage to Isa’s original, including her pastry crust.
There’s no better way to stave off the “so long paradise” blues than with a Cuban sandwich at La Carreta Restaurant in the Miami airport. Ask for an extra order of pickles and a beer to wash it all down. If you’ve got the capacity, go for broke and add some yucca fries. The service is no-frills, cafeteria style, just the ticket when you need to dine and dash.
If you want to check out Miami’s high-end spas at a bargain price, visit during the annual Miami Spa Month (July 1 to August 31) when many of the poshest spas offer treatments for US$99.00.
Joe’s Stone Crab
The Spa at Mandarin Oriental
Ritz Carlton South Beach Spa
Alonzo’s Oyster Bar
The Hemmingway House
Hotel Marquesa and Café Marquesa
La Carreta Restaurant