Toll roads aside – we had a great time in Miami. Upon arriving at our Airbnb, we were a little confused – the Airbnb listing had described the place as a permaculture farm with friendly animals and tropical trees, but it just looked like we were on an ordinary suburban street. We called the Airbnb host with trepidation. She came out and showed us in – and we could barely believe our eyes. In front of the gate, an ordinary suburban street, but behind the gate: a feast for the eyes. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Nine people live on the farm and help look after the animals and grow the vegetables. The farm is open to visitors in the daytime. After being shown round the place and to our hi-tech 5* glamping tent (it had electricity, Wi-Fi and beds) we spent an hour or so furiously researching tolls roads in Florida, the SunPass and calling our rental car company. Determined not to let the state of Florida’s toll roads department steal the whole of our first evening in Miami from us, we drove downtown and got ripped off by Miami’s extremely expensive street parking. Two seconds after paying $14 for parking, we found the Municipal Parking Garade – $1 an hour instead of the $4 an hour we’d just agreed to – argh! We made our way to Miami beach, and I (Anna) went for a dip in the sea as we watched the sun set behind the city (sadly we were facing the wrong way for it to set behind the ocean).
After the beach we went for dinner and mojitos at Havana 1957, a Cuban restaurant with several outlets in Miami, but we visited the one on Ocean Drive. It wasn’t the cheapest of restaurants, but for some reason we were on some mad spending splurge, perhaps because Florida had already stolen so much money from us with its toll roads and parking that we had developed some crazed, manic, “Fuck it, we’ve already spent so much money, let’s spend some more!” attitude. Expense aside, we thoroughly enjoyed the food and felt a bit tipsy after our cocktails.
We walked along Ocean Drive looking for a bar we could go to for a drink (well, only I could drink, as Gwynnie was driving) and ended up in Mango’s Tropical Cafe, which has a weird cabaret show on most nights of the week. I had a thoroughly disgusting, overpriced cocktail; Gwynnie had a lemonade, and after watching some half-dressed men and women in fruit-adorned headdresses gyrating on the stage for a while, we left, drove back to our Airbnb, and spent the first night in our luxury tent accommodation. We woke up in the morning completely bitten by mosquitos.
As we were preparing breakfast in the kitchen area, we met some other people also staying at the farm as Airbnb guests. Aside from our luxury tent, there’s also an amazing treehouse that has THREE separate rooms that are let out on Airbnb. They look amazing but are probably out of our price range. We met a couple of guys from the University of Hawaii who were in Miami conducting research on coral reefs, and a couple from Detroit who were just visiting.
Then we had, I kid you not, the best showers we’ve ever had in our lives. The farm has
outdoor showers, which at first made me a bit nervous – all that’s standing between you and the people looking at the animals is four wooden walls and no roof – but it was AMAZING. You can see the sky, you’re naked in nature, there are flowers and trees and blue sky overhead – it’s a bit like being in one of those Herbal Essences ads where the women are washing their hair under a waterfall in the rainforest. Gwynnie and I compared notes after our showers and were both equally taken with it. If I lived in a climate warm enough, I would totally have an outdoor shower like that.
After buying our SunPass at a pharmacy we headed on down to the Florida Keys to do some snorkelling with Keys Diver. I had never been snorkelling before and didn’t really know what to expect, but Gwynnie is an experienced snorkeller so she was there to hold my hand. The Florida Keys are a long chain of islands connected by a bridge extending from the southernmost tip of Florida almost down to Cuba. The furthest one, Key West, is a good 3 hours from Miami, so we opted to go to the closest one, Key Largo, which was only about an hour and a half drive. We booked and paid for the snorkelling in advance with Keys Diver, so it was just a question of going to the place and signing a form.
I started to get a bit apprehensive when we got to the boat because the captain (or whatever you want to call the person driving the boat) came up to each group of people individually and asked if we were good swimmers.
“It’s rough out there,” he warned us. “It’s not like these little waves you see out here by
the shore – we’re going a good five or six miles out into the ocean and you need to be a strong enough swimmer to get yourself back to the boat.” He told us that three snorkellers had already died this season. Now I’ve always liked to think of myself as a strong swimmer but I have to say this worried me a little. How big waves exactly were we talking? I started to think of Pirates of the Caribbean-esque storms and shipwrecks and felt a little unnerved. Then Gwynnie told me a story about how she’d once gone snorkelling and accidentally drifted away from the group without realising. I can’t say this all filled me with a whole lot of confidence but we went ahead anyway.
The boat ride was a good 50 minutes out into the ocean. In that time the other boatman showed us how to put on our snorkelling equipment and walked us through health and safety. Gwynnie was telling me about how sometimes water can get inside your mask and then you have to take it off and pour the water out and reattach it while treading water and trying to avoid the waves crashing around you. My anxiety levels reached a mild tremor.
Everyone else on the boat had been snorkelling before except me and about three small kids. So the experienced snorkellers jumped out and swam right off, while me and the kids had to stay and swim around this rope that was attached to the boat until we felt “comfortable” enough to swim away on our own. The boatman kept repeating, “Not until you think you feel comfortable. Until you actually feel comfortable.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not really sure of the difference between thinking I feel comfortable and actually feeling comfortable, so this didn’t help me much.
When I first jumped in, of course my mask immediately came off and it was all sputtering and treading water and trying to get my mask to form a seal around my face again. It took me a while to get used to the breathing – you’re meant to breathe very slowly and shallowly through your mouth which takes some getting used to – and it took me a while to finally manage to actually put my head underwater for any length of time. Gwynnie very kindly stayed behind with me at the rope and she said it only took me about five minutes to learn how to do it, but it felt like longer. After five to ten minutes of swimming around the rope, we decided to swim out to the coral reef.
The first thing that surprised me is how shallow the water was. We were five or six miles away from the shore – you couldn’t even see land – and I had somehow imagined that the ocean just gets infinitely deeper the further out you go. But we could actually stand on the ocean floor in some areas. I was astonished by how clear the water was. And I have to say, for all that talk the captain gave us about being strong swimmers – I think he was just trying to scare us. The water really wasn’t rough at all.
Once we got to the coral reef, oh my God – I could not believe the sight that met my eyes. I somehow hadn’t really realised what snorkelling was – I thought it was just a way for you to swim round for a long time with your head underwater. But as soon as we got near to the reef it was like I’d stepped into the Little Mermaid. There was a whole underwater kingdom. I wish I’d had some kind of underwater camera attached to my snorkel so you could see it all, but sadly it’s just in my memory (and probably not even there for very long, given how bad my memory is these days).
I don’t know the names of all the types of fish we saw, you’ll have to ask Gwynnie for that [note from Gwynnie: ugh… I have no idea. Rainbow fish, crocodile fish, barracuda..?]. But we saw fish of all sizes, shapes and colours, and it was magical. Something about the rhythmic breathing and how still and silent it is under there, how all you can hear is the sound of your own breathing in your ears like Darth Vader, makes it all the more magical and kind of meditative. When you sink your head underwater it’s like entering a completely different world. We spent an hour just swimming round looking at fish and when they sounded the siren signalling that the hour was up for us to come back to the boat, I couldn’t believe that much time had passed. Anyway, I’ve definitely found a new hobby!
After the 50 minute boat ride back to shore we went for an expensive dinner at a fish restaurant called Encore, and that was the end of the financial splurging that Miami incited in us. Miami is just a place that makes us haemorrhage money, apparently. We had a quiet night in that evening and left for Orlando the next day.
The only other thing I’ll say about Miami is that we saw a lot of eccentric people doing strange things involving animals (I don’t mean sex things!). For example, as we were trying to find a place to park in Miami on the night we arrived, we saw a guy wheeling a bicycle along, with a ring-tailed lemur sitting contentedly in the basket. Then as we were walking to the beach, we saw a couple of guys cycling down the street. One of them was holding a husky under his arm. The next day as we were driving down to the Keys to go snorkelling, we saw an iguana on the freeway, crossing the road. You know, casual.
We also had a lot of problems with navigating the toll system, which you can read more about here.