Sand, sea and a hot Mustang inspire Tim Roxborogh to strip away his inhibition
As my grandfather used to say, "There aren't too many opportunities in life to drive shirtless in a convertible Mustang in the Florida Keys". Though it's possible he never in fact uttered this old adage, I felt it was simply not an option to pass up a little elbow-out-the-window, wind-in-the-chest-hair good times. Because really, when you originally hail from Massey, West Auckland, there's no part of driving a Mustang from Miami towards Key West you could ever take for granted.
So for about an hour behind the wheel and immediately after a swim at the gorgeous twin white sand crescents of Sombrero Beach in Marathon, I intentionally forgot to put the shirt back on. I must've also intentionally forgotten my lack of abs, but there's something so oddly liberating about driving half-dressed in the sinking tropical sun that I didn't care.
Last time my girlfriend and I hired a car it was in Queenstown and the budget only extended as far as a Nissan Note.
Fast-forward a few months and our hotel concierge in South Beach, Miami is presenting us with two choices for our Florida Keys day trip: a nice, functional Japanese car or — for about $20 more — one of the most quintessentially bad-ass American convertibles you've ever dreamed of driving.
Hang on, just 20 bucks more? This was no one-off either, as we discover a week later driving from Memphis to New Orleans in a late model Chrysler. The price difference from the Toyota? Twelve dollars.
So here we were in our cool car in the Florida Keys and, according to the Beach Boys, "off the Florida Keys, there's a place called Kokomo". Also according to the Beach Boys, "that's where you wanna go to get away from it all". With the lyrics to their 1988 No 1 hit in our heads, we'd set off in the Mustang in search of our slice of mythical Floridian paradise.
Apologies if this is a bubble burst, but Kokomo does not exist (gasp!) despite every other destination in the famous song being real (Aruba, Jamaica, Bermuda, Bahamas, Key Largo, Montego etc.).
But if Kokomo is really just a state of mind I think we found it in Sombrero Beach.
The Florida Keys are a series of narrow, exposed coral islands stretching from the southern tip of Florida in an arc that gets as close as just 140km from Cuba. The islands are linked by causeways and bridges, the most impressive of which was once one of the longest bridges in the world, the much-photographed "Seven Mile Bridge".
There's excellent snorkelling and plenty of marinas, resorts and over-the-water restaurants, but Sombrero Beach (in the area known as the "Middle Keys") was it for us.
With its two arcs of white sand, leaning palm trees, perfectly still water and strutting iguanas, this surprisingly quiet beach was so serene it almost didn't feel real.
After whiling away the afternoon, it was time to catch the last of the sun as we headed the couple of hours north back to South Beach in Miami.
The T-shirt was back on when we pulled into our hotel, an art deco beauty from 1939 called The National. When choosing a hotel in a city renowned for them, it can be hard to know where to start, but we had two requirements: it had to be historic and it had to have a pool.
The National fits that bill.
The pool is 63m, formerly the longest in all Florida, and still the longest on Miami Beach, flanked by palm trees and cabanas and right next to that most iconic of beaches.
For more than 75 years The National has been among the premier South Beach hotels. In the heart of the city's art deco district, The National is one of 800 protected, historic buildings in the area, the bulk of which were built between 1923 and 1943.
There's a cinematic feeling, from when you first enter the lobby.
Everything from the columns to the chandeliers to the wood of the desks to the defiantly old-fashioned elevators gives you that hit of being transported back to a certain pre-WWII extravagance you only know about from the big screen.
Fresh from a US$12 million upgrade for its 75th birthday, The National has 116 refurbished rooms in its original tower and a further 36 in the more modern poolside wing.
The tower's three-storey penthouse feels like a house in the sky. This is luxury at altitude, but like the lobby, reception, bar and ballroom, it's preserved 1939 luxury. Even the phone on the bedside table — which is made from a vintage suitcase — is a 1930s relic.
From the car we could never afford to own, our week in Miami was a true escape. They might have made up Kokomo, but the Beach Boys weren't kidding about Florida being where you go to "get away from it all".
Florida's total population:
Approximately 20.7 million and rapidly growing. The number of people who call the Sunshine State home has doubled in the past 35 years.
Largest cities: With nearly 6 million inhabitants, the greater metropolitan area of Miami (encompassing Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach) is the biggest in the state, followed by Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville.
Famous Miami residents: Barry Gibb, Phil Collins, Madonna, Shaquille O'Neal, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Damon, Gloria Estefan, Julio and Enrique Iglesias, Flo Rida, Ricky Martin and many, many others.
Average South Beach daytime high: It's more than 30 degrees Celsius between May-September and never averages less than 23 the rest of the year.
Drive time from Miami to the Florida Keys: Swap one white sand beach for another by driving south from Miami to the Keys. The furthest stop, Key West, is about 3.5 hours away, with Key Largo reachable in approximately 90-minutes. The beach we found that realised our perfect ideal of a Florida paradise — Sombrero Beach — is almost exactly between Key Largo and Key West.
Drive time From Miami to Disney World in Orlando: If you want to balance your beach time with the theme parks of Orlando, it'll take you roughly four hours behind the wheel to get there.
Best rooftop bar in Miami: Miami doesn't lack for trendy rooftops to work on the tan, spot some celebs and lighten your wallet courtesy of a cocktail or three, but if I had to pick one it would be the C Level Rooftop Terrace. On top of the landmark South Beach Hotel, the mix of history, view and swankiness at the Clevelander (built in 1938), is hard to beat.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to Miami, via Houston with partner United Airlines.
Staying there: The National Hotel, 1677 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, Florida.
Tim Roxborogh is co-host of Newstalk ZB's The Two, Sundays 8pm-11pm. His music and travel blog is RoxboroghReport.com.