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Ultimate Guide to Florida

By Tom Austin
11/14/2013 10:52:33 AM

Ponce de León was on to something. In 1513, the conquistador landed near St. Augustine in search of the fountain of youth. He might have found it, too-had he waited 500 years. All over my home state, there's a renewed enthusiasm for the unique and authentic. Where "Old Florida" was a semiotic grab bag of calculated nostalgia (rocking chairs; "Howdy, neighbor" civility), today you'll find a Stay Local, Buy Local approach to quality. Floridians are becoming...well...hip. On a series of road trips, I visited a few of my classic, age-old secrets-and made some fresh discoveries, too.

Photo: Claudia Uribe

South Florida: Miami to Palm Beach (75 miles)

The first leg of any Florida road trip should begin in Miami. Curiously, as South Beach gets bigger and bigger in a starchitecture kind of way (we're set to have seven parking garages designed by award-winning architects), my world here has become a self-curated small town of sympathetic haunts, distilled into a kind of Miami haiku. Art films at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, on Washington Avenue, are a blessed sanctuary from the constant low-grade frenzy of Ocean Drive, where I just heard that Gianni Versace's mansion is being revamped yet again, possibly into another boutique hotel. I love the leafy garden at the hostel Freehand Miami ($); bright young things pack its see-and-be-seen Broken Shaker lounge for handcrafted cocktails. Amid the chain stores of Lincoln Road, the independent Books & Books is my go-to resource for the autographed tomes of everyone from Sonia Sotomayor to Salman Rushdie.

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And all over Miami a new order of contemporary pleasure is being built on the romance of the past. Just off South Beach, the 1930's Fisher Island Club Hotel ($$$$) tapped Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle to refashion their Vanderbilt Mansion to serve as a clubhouse. In mid-Miami Beach, South Beach pioneer Ian Schrager is set to open the Miami Beach Edition (rates not available at press time), part of his new venture with Marriott-a hotel/condo set within the old Seville Beach Hotel and featuring the design talents of John Pawson and Yabu Pushelberg. To the north, Bal Harbour Shops, an open-air institution with such upscale brands as Lanvin, is a prime venue for periodic art chats hosted by Unscripted Bal Harbour.

From Miami, I drive up I-95 to Fort Lauderdale, where some of the greatest local landmarks are Campy with a capital "C": you can watch assorted live "mermaids" frolic in the pool through the portholes at the Wreck Bar; the Polynesian show at the Mai-Kai-rooted in the Mad Men era and full of hula skirts, ukuleles, and Samoan fire-knife dancers-is another cheering spectacle of kitsch. Tranquilo Hotel $), the Midcentury Modern star of the North Beach area, smacks of bygone Florida. But for me, the adjacent Bonnet House Museum & Gardens, an early-20th-century palace of whimsy by artist Frederic Clay Bartlett, will always define Fort Lauderdale; the garden alone includes a dune, mangrove wetlands, and a stand of hibiscus. All this is tempered by forward-thinking propositions like Steak 954 ($$$), at the W Fort Lauderdale, overseen by celebrity chef Stephen Starr. Here, even simple, just-caught red snapper comes as a thinly sliced raw tiradito.

About 50 miles north on I-95, a quirky place to stay is the Chesterfield Palm Beach ($$), with its Merry Old England-style lobby. I get a dose of culture at the Norton Museum of Art, currently featuring a Mickalene Thomas installation incorporating tropical Florida imagery. Afterward, I do the rounds on the renowned Antique Row, a choice stretch of South Dixie Highway. Dina C's Fab & Funky Consignment Boutique, owned by Dina Capehart, specializes in the coveted castoffs of Palm Beach society-1960's Pucci, 70's Halston, and 80's Chanel.

I order a gazpacho verde with green grapes at Café Boulud ($$$), in the courtyard garden of the Brazilian Court Hotel, then grab a drink at the HMF lounge at the landmark Breakers Palm Beach($$$). It's still as big a scene as it was in the Deco era, when Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies made the hotel their playground. Recently redesigned by Adam D. Tihany, the lounge is spectacular, and a portal to a different world.

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