Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009

1. Bal Harbor

For a serious dose of retail therapy, a trip to the tony community of Bal Harbor is in order. Just a 15-minute drive north of central Miami Beach, here is where you'll find Bal Harbor Shops, the super-snazzy outdoor mall where ladies-who-lunch and rapper's girlfriends all congregate to make their Platinum Amex scream. There's Brioni and Bulgari and Pucci and Prada — and every exclusive boutique in between. Once you're ready to show off the brand-name shopping bags, settle into a seat at Lea's Tea Room, on the second level, for died-and-gone-to-heaven French pastries.

2. The Florida Keys

The Keys consist of 800 islands strung over 113 miles. How much time you have will determine how close to Cuba you make it. Just an hour and a half from Miami is Key Largo, famous for the 1948 Bogie and Bacall movie of the same name and the breathtaking dive and snorkeling sites at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Farther south, Islamorada — which lies less than two hours from Miami — is renowned for its scuba, tarpon fishing and its sunset cruises. For cruises and diving, try Holiday Isle Dive Shop; the folks at Papa Joe's Backcountry Marina can set you up for fishing.

There are countless other pitstops along the way, but if you aim to make the three-hour drive all the way to kitschy Key West, on a quest to retrace Ernest Hemingway's every last bar fight, then an overnight stay is in order. Lay your head at the Marquesa Hotel, a chic boutique inn that provides a restful break from the Margaritaville-types populating the drinking holes on Duval Street.

3. The Seminole Reservation at Big Cypress

You came all the way to Florida and you're not leaving until you see some gator wrasslin'. For that — and a number of other irresistible tourist activities — there is the Seminole Reservation at Big Cypress (Exit 49 from I-75, follow the signs), situated in the heart of the Everglades and just a 90-minute drive from Miami. Begin the adventure with a visit to Billie Swamp Safari, an outdoor attraction center where you can take an airboat ride, watch a guy put some WWE-worthy moves on an alligator and then retire to the safari's café for the region's finest gator nuggets — deep-fried and served with tartar sauce. On your way out of the reservation, pay a visit to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, which provides a well-presented history of Seminole culture. Beyond the building's back door is the best attraction in the area: an elevated boardwalk that travels a 1.5-mile loop through steaming cypress swamp. It's a perfect way to admire this remarkable wetland ecosystem without having to sink your boots into the muck.

4. Everglades National Park

For those of us who like our outdoors without the tourist trappings, there is Everglades National Park, 1.5 million acres of glorious low-lying, subtropical wilderness. If you have less than a day, enter the park through Homestead (about 45 minutes south of Miami), at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, the park's main entrance. Drive in just a few miles and you'll find the conjoined half-mile Aningha and Gumbo Limbo trails. These offer a good — and speedy — surf-and-turf ecosystem combo: the former, an elevated boardwalk, goes right through sawgrass marsh (full of snoozing alligators), while the latter, a paved land trail, loops through a Tarzan-worthy patch of forest.

Got a couple of extra days on your hands? Head to Everglades City, about 90 minutes west of Miami, just off Rte. 41, where you can enjoy the park's unparalleled marine ecologies by canoe. Set up shop at the Ivey House B&B, which is, conveniently enough, also home to Everglades Rentals & Eco Adventures. The folks there can organize all manner of paddling trips, from morning river jaunts to multiday excursions that will help you totally unplug from your regular life.