We made our way from the Keys to magical Miami, a city that’s so alive with energy and experiences. Even the bars go hard until 5am and everyone in them – from staff to patrons – just knows how to be. Music pulses around every corner and there’s a party to be found any night of the week. This is really the city that never sleeps, and you’ll get a contact high day or night just by venturing outside and soaking up the literal and metaphorical color.
We found a spot to overnight in a marina parking lot, and we woke up to sunny skies and palm trees. We took a little stroll around the beautiful waterfront park before we vacated.
Did you know that Miami has a Venetian pool with an Italian village theme that’s situated within 10 miles of downtown? Located in a residential neighborhood in Coral Gables, the pool was created in 1923 from a coral rock quarry. Best of all, the pool is fed with spring water and they drain and refill all 820,000 gallons daily. It’s the first and only pool to be included in the National Register of Historic Places and has also been called “the most glamorous municipal pool in the world”, with good reason. It was frequented back in the day by high society and movie stars like Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams. We had one of the best swims of our lives and felt like movie stars ourselves. Totally worth the price of $21 per person admission.
We then checked out little Havana, a must during a trip to Miami. There were so many colorful murals and music everywhere. (Plus plenty of free street parking on some of the side streets.) We walked by the iconic Ball and Chain and were treated to a live band playing Cuban music. You don’t even have to be a customer to enjoy as the resto bar opens onto the sidewalk and the band is situated by the front. People would stop on the sidewalk to look in, listen and dance along.
Just like with Key West, happy hours are treasure troves in Miami. We tried out the one at the renowned Casa la Trova (when one of the top 50 bars in the world is in the city you’re visiting, you kind of have to, right?), and it didn’t disappoint. They also have daily live music starting around 6:30 and just the coolest ambiance.
Then we hopped on over to the Wynwood District to take in the many murals that make this a place bursting with eye candy on steroids. We sadly didn’t make it to The Walls this time but there was so much that we were able to take in for free. The entire neighborhood was going off on a Sunday night as if it were NYE and Mardi Gras all rolled into one! There’s just so much great people watching and we loved every minute. We wrapped up by popping into Dante’s HiFi, a listening bar that has forever spoiled us when it comes to what a great sound system truly is. DJs mix from the sea of vinyl that doubles as their accent wall. A very cool place, well worth the price of a round of cocktails for the experience.
No trip to Miami would be complete without some time logged on South Beach, and we spent our last day and night exploring that area. We parked at the lot by South Point park, which at $2/hour was a bargain for beach parking. Plus, it’s a super safe spot to leave your rig. We pretty much left the truck there all day and would return to it as a home base and to make lunch. Otherwise, we’d be hitting up the beach or riding the Miami Beach free shuttle up and down the strip. It runs every 30 minutes and does two different loops through South Beach alone.
South Beach has a magic all its own, not the least because of the art deco buildings painted in pastels that look like cakes and the iconic little lifeguard towers that are each painted and designed differently. Even paradise has its perils, however, which we realized when we saw the purple flags hoisted and the corpses of beautiful but deadly Portuguese Man of War jellyfish washed up on shore. They apparently travel in numbers up to the thousands and work collectively, a lot like how bees operate in a colony. Getting stung won’t kill you but it’ll sure hurt like hell. Their stinging cells are active even after they’ve perished, so be careful where you tread.
We also popped into a speakeasy for happy hour that’s in the back of Bodega tacos. You walk through a porta-potty door, past the urinals and right into this amazing bar/lounge. Such a cool place.
And then we took one final stroll down the strip to see everything lit up at night:
We left Miami and first passed through Hollywood Beach, where we stopped to stroll the 2.5 mile boardwalk that’s been named one of America’s Best Beach Boardwalks by Travel + Leisure magazine.
The day’s adventure then took us to another roadside attraction, the Pegasus and Dragon statue at the Gulfstream Park racetrack and casino at Hallandale Beach. Standing at 100 feet tall, it’s the 3rd tallest statue in the US after the Birth of the New World in Puerto Rico and the Statue of Liberty. This sucker stands at 110 feet and weighs a whopping 715 tons of steel and bronze. There’s apparently a nightly fountain show featuring 13 musical pieces, 350 fog nozzles, 116 water nozzles, special LED lighting and the dragon breathing fire 20 feet. It was definitely a spectacle! Most importantly, it compliments KKBB really well and we had the entire place to ourselves for a photo op before we made some lunch.
In the interest of our continued “research” on Florida’s best beaches, we also passed through Fort Lauderdale, Juno and Jupiter beaches. Jupiter was hands down our favorite, with clear, turquoise water, free parking and allllll the puppies!
We ended the day at our Harvest Host for the night, Summer Crush Winery. What a beautiful place and what delicious wine! We don’t usually drink sweeter wines but this place does them so well and strikes all the right notes. We took a bottle of Party Wave Pineapple back to the truck and enjoyed the view of the vineyard and palm trees. And we even had the entire place to ourselves all night after everyone went home, which was a real treat.
We continued on from there to the Space Coast, home to the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. While that’s very impressive and all, it was all about a genie in a bottle for us. Our first stop was at Cocoa Beach, the real town where the fictional I Dream of Jeannie took place. Because we just had to. But it’s actually a very pretty beach and we had a really nice, long swim there.
We then ventured downtown to Cocoa Village. It’s such a cute little town and has lots of adorable and eclectic shops, bars and restaurants.
We next made a detour to Cassadaga, aka “The Psychic Capital of the World”. Even if you don’t believe in that sort of thing, this is still a place worth your time. The houses and properties are so colorful and well-kept and the locals are very warm and welcoming. The Cassadaga Hotel sits in the middle of town and we wandered into their bar as someone was playing the piano and people were dancing. Some of the locals even beckoned us in to join them. There’s a kind of magic there and we were just so charmed by this very special town. (And yes, one of us got a reading and it was just so spot-on as well as incredibly affordable.)
Next up was Daytona, where we crashed at trusty ole Cracker Barrel. This one happened to be located right next to the Daytona racetrack, which was kind of exciting because you could hear the cars zipping around as they practiced.
We headed to St. Augustine from there and first hit the beach, where we met some really cool folks and caught a bit of the vibe of the place. One guy said he relocated from Miami because he felt that the population there has “too many humans doing instead of humans being”, so the quieter and more personal pace of St Augustine’s suits him better. Solid point.
It’s also crazy how much the sand changes color the further you move north. It slowly morphs from white to golden.
Afterwards, we explored the historic downtown core of the city. We had no idea that St. Augustine is considered to be the oldest city in the States! And it’s full of Spanish colonial architecture. What an amazing place to see, we’re so glad we stopped.
We stopped for a night in the state capital of Tallahassee and were surprised to ride up and down so many hills. It’s definitely a different terrain than the rest of Florida. We visited the Railroad Square Arts District before dipping out of town, which had a really nice vibe and cool folks.
Then we headed towards the panhandle coast, eventually landing on the 30A stretch of coastal highway that connects all of the little seaside towns.
We pulled into Grayton Beach State Park and were reunited with the soft, white sugar sand of the Gulf Shore. It’s such a pretty park that’s filled with big, white sand dunes.
It was so stunning that we just had to stay for sunset, one of the most spectacular ones we’ve ever experienced.
We spent one final night at a Cracker Barrel in Destin, woke up, drove an hour west and watched the sunrise from the Emerald Coast’s Navarre Beach before going for our final swim. We soaked up the last of our beloved sand and sea, and even did a little ritual on the beach to give thanks to Florida for all of the treasures she’s given us.
It’s not perfect and it’s not a 24/7 paradise, nowhere really is if you stick around long enough. But Florida’s filled with best-kept secrets and pockets of treasure to explore, not to mention every oddity under the sun. There’s always an interesting conversation waiting for you in the next bar or on the beach or at the laundromat, and the flow of life here is as crystal clear as the Gulf of Mexico waters. We’re very grateful for four exquisite months spent getting to know this magical state that had previously been some looming myth or question mark.
It’s an opportunity we would never have had if it weren’t for vanlife and we leave it richer for the friendships formed, the memories of all of our adventures that we’ll carry with us for the rest of our lives, and our restored faith in the good in people and the beauty that persists in this world if you simply look for it.
Thank you Florida from the bottom of our hearts for showing us how it’s done.
And just like that, it was time to take our leave and venture onward to New Orleans and Jazzfest…