South of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, accessible through grand gates off the Tamiami Trail (8th Street), the stately community of Coral Gables is one of the few Florida resort towns that survives fairly unchanged since the boom years of the 1920s. Coral Gables boasts many grand boulevards, fine fountains, plazas, and lush gardens, but the landmark to look for is the 15-story Biltmore Hotel (1200 Anastasia Ave., 855/311-6903, $235 and up), off Granada Boulevard. This opulent hotel, which opened in 1926 and once boasted the world’s largest swimming pool (Johnny Weissmuller was the original lifeguard!), has been restored to its original glory.
The southern edge of Coral Gables is occupied by the drab campus of the University of Miami, which is bounded by US-1, the old Dixie Highway.
One of the most diverting stops between Miami and the Florida Keys has to be the Coral Castle Museum (28655 S. Dixie Hwy., 305/248-6345, daily, $18 adults), an amazing house hand-carved out of huge blocks of oolitic coral from 1923 to 1951. Located right along the highway, two miles north of Homestead, the house is filled with furniture also carved from stone—a 3,000-pound sofa and a 500-pound rocking chair—and no one has figured how its enigmatic creator, Ed Leedskalnin, did it all without help or the use of any heavy machinery.
Homestead, along with neighboring Florida City farther south, forms the main gateway to Everglades National Park, and there are tons of reasonably priced motels hereabouts. All the usual suspects line up here along US-1, including the nice Best Western Gateway to the Keys (305/246-5100, $66 and up).
Florida’s other big national park, Biscayne National Park, stretches east of Homestead from near Miami to the top of the Florida Keys, but it is almost completely underwater. Privately run snorkeling and diving tours ($129 per person) leave from behind the main Convoy Point visitors center (305/230-7275), nine miles east of US-1 at the end of 328th Street—near the huge Homestead-Miami Speedway (and a nuclear power plant).
Everglades National Park
Covering over 1.5 million acres at the far southwestern tip of mainland Florida, Everglades National Park protects the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. A fair portion of the park is actually underwater, and the entire Everglades ecosystem is basically a giant slow-flowing river that is 50 miles wide but only a few inches deep. Fed by Lake Okeechobee, and under constant threat by irrigation in-flows and out-flows and by the redirection of water to Miami and other cities, the Everglades still seem to vibrate with life. Some 300 species of birds breed here, as do 600 different kinds of fish and animals, ranging from rare manatees to abundant alligators (not to mention the gazillions of mosquitoes).
The backcountry parts of the Everglades can be visited by boat, but by road there are only two main routes. In the north, the Tamiami Trail (the Tampa to Miami Trail, a.k.a. US-41) heads west from Miami to misnamed Shark Valley ($25 per car), where you can rent bikes or take a tram tour ($25) on a 15-mile loop through the sawgrass swamps that make up the heart of the Everglades. Gazing at the gators, eagles, and hawks here, it’s hard to believe you’re barely a half hour from South Beach. Just west of Shark Valley, the Miccosukee Indian Village is a somewhat poignant reminder of the plight of the Everglades indigenous people, the Seminoles, whose ancestors fought off the U.S. Army but who now wrestle alligators, run casinos and souvenir shops, and give airboat tours of their ancestral lands.
The main road access to the Everglades is via Palm Drive (Hwy-9336) from the Florida Turnpike or US-1. This route takes you past the Ernest Coe Visitors Center (305/242-7700), where interpretive displays and a pair of nature trails give an appetizing taste of the Everglades (and almost guaranteed sightings of alligators). The road continues nearly 40 miles west to the former town of Flamingo. Although both the residents and the namesake birds have moved on, there is a visitor center (1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy, Homestead, 239/695-2945) operated by the National Park Service.