Alligators, Monkeys and South Beach

The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne is illuminated by the Florida sun. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne is illuminated by the Florida sun. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Another fun-filled day of adventure awaited us on our continuing family-friendly explorations in Miami yesterday. But to truly prepare for a day spent exploring Miami’s outlying areas, you have to start your day off right.

We’ve been fortunate to have Club Level Access while staying at the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne. Located on the 9th Floor, this keycard-access-only lounge is available to guests booking the resort’s Club Level Suites.

The luxurious Club Level Lounge on the 9th Floor offers up a variety of goodies, 24-7. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The luxurious Club Level Lounge on the 9th Floor offers up a variety of goodies, 24-7. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Open 24 hours, you can get everything from soft drinks to candy to wine, beer, champagne and even light meals in this gorgeous room that is supplemented by a balcony overlooking the front of the property.

What I love about this concept is how much money you save for what is, in the long run, a minimal investment. If you eat breakfast and lunch in the Club, and enjoy a glass of wine or champagne there each evening, you’re saving yourself in the neighbourhood of $100 per person, per day.

Every day, breakfast, lunch and light snacks are served in the Club Lounge. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Every day, breakfast, lunch and light snacks are served in the Club Lounge. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Add to that complimentary soft drinks and juices for the kids, and it’s easy to see the convenience of this Lounge for families. And yes, I did see more than one family utilising the lounge! Gone are the days when the top-of-the-line lounges at upscale hotel properties were the exclusive domain of chain-smoking men in suits swirling brandy and slapping each other on the back.

Instead, today’s lounge concept is designed to please all the guests who will make use of it, from parents looking to enjoy a fine glass of wine or maybe a cognac; to the kids who will be wowed by the jars of gumballs, sour cherries, chocolates, and more at their disposal.

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

It’s almost enough to make you crawl out of the resort’s luxurious Frette linens every morning!

Properly fed, we set out to explore some of Miami’s outlying, family-friendly attractions.

Everglades Alligator Farm

Farm & Airboat Ride: Adults $23 / Children $15.50

If you're going to go to the Everglades, you have to take an airboat tour! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

If you’re going to go to the Everglades, you have to take an airboat tour! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

No trip to the Everglades would be complete without a ride in one of the region’s famous airboats, and that’s exactly how we started our day!

Did I mention there are also alligators? As the name suggests, this is the place to go to see these famous (or infamous) creatures in action, both in their natural habitat as part of the airboat ride, and as a veritable attraction in their own right.

Get your alligator fix at the Everglades Alligator Farm! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Get your alligator fix at the Everglades Alligator Farm! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The farm has baby alligators on display of all ages, making it interesting to see how these creatures behave at different points in their development cycle. It’s particularly interesting to note how small these creatures are initially – and just how large they can get!

While you’re likely to see an alligator or two in the swampy marshlands as you’re cruising by in the airboat, these are likely to be doing what alligators do best: adopting a sort of submarine-style “run silent, run deep” attitude.

Embarking one of the airboats for a tour of the Everglades. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Embarking one of the airboats for a tour of the Everglades. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The airboat itself, though, is spectacular fun. After cruising along at a relaxing, safari-like pace, the airboat driver kicks things into high gear when out on the open glades. You’ll get wet (soaked, even, depending on where you sit), and the thrill of having the airboat suddenly whip ‘round and alter direction will have you clinging to your seatmates with exhilarated fear.

The only downside here: the airboat ride only lasts approximately 15 minutes.

Giant fan-style propellers push the Airboats at speeds of up to 40mph. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Giant fan-style propellers push the Airboats at speeds of up to 40mph. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Still, for visitors coming from other parts of the world, the chance to see so many Alligators in a single place is too tempting to pass up. It’s fun, it’s educational, and it also showcases how much of the area used to look at one time.  The park also acts as a refuge for wildlife that can’t be released back into the wild, typically exotic animals that have been seized from private residences as a result of drug raids and the like.

The Verdict: Tons of fun for all ages, and a great education, too. We just wish that airboat ride was twice as long!

Robert Is Here Fruit Stand

Prices vary depending on product.

Robert Is Here Fruit Stand, located... Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Robert Is Here Fruit Stand, located… Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

...in a rather deceptive area. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

…in a rather deceptive area. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

We zipped past the Robert Is Here fruit stand on our way to the Everglades Alligator Farm. In a flash it was gone, replaced by rolling farmland that could have been a stand-in for the famous crop duster scene in North by Northwest. Yet had the classic Hitchcock movie been filmed in Florida City, Florida, Carey Grant would have likely ran away to get to this South Florida icon all the sooner.

Founded by its eponymous namesake in 1960 when he was just six years old, Robert’s Fruit Stand has existed on this corner for decades, but has always remained a family business. The name “Robert is Here” comes from a sign his father made to attract passers-by to his son’s fruit stand. The name stuck, and Robert has been there ever since.

Robert is here - literally! A true gentleman. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Robert is here – literally! A true gentleman. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Today, Robert Is Here is a part of Miami’s historic “Redland Tropical Trail” that includes fifteen distinct attractions; think of them as hidden gems away from the bustle of the city.

Here’s why you need to stop here: besides offering more fresh fruits than you could ever possibly imagine, the man makes a heck of a good milkshake. I don’t even typically like milkshakes, yet I devoured my freshly-prepared Blackberry milkshake in short order. So good were they that in no time, the small group I was with were sharing our respective flavours amongst ourselves, eager to find out who’d chosen best.

It's worth the drive just for one of the delicious milkshakes made on-site. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

It’s worth the drive just for one of the delicious milkshakes made on-site. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Fresh fruit is just one thing that has kept this corner farm and store running since 1960. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Fresh fruit is just one thing that has kept this corner farm and store running since 1960. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Turns out we all did!

The Verdict: this is worth the drive from Miami just to have the experience! My advice: try the Key Lime milkshake; it was absolutely splendid.

Monkey Jungle

Admission: Adults: $29.95 / Children 3 – 9: $23.95

Monkeys at Monkey Jungle - a fascinating experience! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Monkeys at Monkey Jungle – a fascinating experience! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Personally, I’d say this rates as one of the most engaging experiences I’ve ever had. Now, to be fair, we got a bit of a backstage tour of the facility that most visitors don’t get to see, but the staff here are so knowledgeable and dedicated that I’d put it on my “must-visit” list along with Jungle Island if you’re an animal lover.

The Monkey Jungle theme states that it’s the only place where the humans are caged and the animals run wild – and this is quite true! Visitors walk through a series of enclosed “hallways” that are surrounded by mesh wire. This allows the monkeys to scamper along and follow you every step of the way.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Monkey Jungle is the opportunity to see how humans and animals interact. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

One of the most fascinating aspects of Monkey Jungle is the opportunity to see how humans and animals interact. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

They’re not shy, either: you can place some food (provided by the Jungle – don’t feed them just anything!) into little silver dishes hanging from the mesh caging you walk through. Suddenly, one of the monkeys will run over and begin hoisting the dish up through the wire frame. He’ll pick at the food for a bit and when he decides he’s had enough, he lets go of the chain, and you might get a falling “dish” in the head unexpectedly!

Staff are amazingly knowledgeable; this is something of a career for them. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Staff are amazingly knowledgeable; this is something of a career for them. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

But what made the biggest impression on me – aside from the stunning collection of wildlife here – is the dedication and knowledge about these creatures that they eagerly display to visitors. Sure, there’s a gorgeous silverback gorilla who hits all the right gorilla show notes to make things accessible for the little ones, (play the drums, King!), but you can ask them anything – anything – about these creatures. And you’ll get an insightful answer.

Other animals are also showcased at Monkey Jungle. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Other animals are also showcased at Monkey Jungle. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

One of the most interesting revelations about the monkeys was that in captivity, they tend to live approximately five or six years longer than in the wild. That, perhaps, isn’t unexpected, but one thing was: the elderly female monkeys continued to reproduce long after they typically would in the wild, resulting in significantly smaller – though fully developed – offspring.

Being able to get this close to the monkey's isn't normal, but I love this photo because it showcases the bond between the monkey and the human. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Being able to get this close to the monkey’s isn’t normal, but I love this photo because it showcases the bond between the monkey and the human. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

That’s the kind of thing that excites me: research and facts, presented in a way that everyone – from a kid to an adult – can appreciate it.

The Verdict: put this one on your “must visit” list if you’ve got animal lovers in the family.

Coral Castle

Admission: $15 Adults / $7 Children 7-12 / Children under 7: free.

Welcome to the Coral Castle, quite possibly the world's most expressive labour of love. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Welcome to the Coral Castle, quite possibly the world’s most expressive labour of love. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I’m not sure what I enjoyed more about the Coral Castle: the structure itself, or the enduring love story and semi-secrecy that surrounds its construction and history.

Originally called “Rock Gate Park”, the Coral Castle is the product of a single man named Edward Leedskalnin. Beginning in 1920 and remaining a work-in-progress for the next two decades, the Castle was built entirely out of coral farmed, if you will, from a nearby quarry. He erected the Castle as a testament to his love for a woman called Agnes Scuffs, who was referred to as his “Sweet Sixteen” because of her age.

Tne entire castle was constructed between 1920 and 1940 - but no one knows exactl how. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Tne entire castle was constructed between 1920 and 1940 – but no one knows exactl how. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Unfortunately for Leedskalnin, his love wasn’t returned. Despite being engaged to Agnes, she reportedly called the wedding off because he was ten years older than her. Heartbroken, he left his native Latvia and settled in the Miami area, and it wasn’t long before the Castle began to take shape.

Now here’s the part that truly fascinates me: he hardly used any proper tools, preferring instead to cannibalise old Ford “Model-T” cars to create custom tools that he could utilise. Interesting Fact Number Two: there are no recorded reports of anyone who ever saw Leedskalnin at work on the Castle – or anyone else, for that matter.

This table, when viewed from the top, is a near-perfect map of Florida. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

This table, when viewed from the top, is a near-perfect map of Florida. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

After a few moments of walking around the Castle, it would seem that Ed Leedskalnin was perhaps the Latvian-Floridian Gaudi; he displays the same kind of creative and fanciful ingenuity in his designs for the castle, which include a revolving gate made of coral and even a startlingly-accurate sun dial.

Leedskalnin's living quarters were sparse and simple. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Leedskalnin’s living quarters were sparse and simple. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Although a popular attraction both in its time and today, there is one person who never made the trek to see this momomentus achievement despite repeated invitations: Agnes Scuffs. It’s an unhappy ending to the life of a man who was clearly smarter than his fourth-grade education might otherwise suggest.

The Verdict: the Coral Castle is a Florida icon, and definitely worth a visit, even if only to admire the handiwork of a man dealing with his unrequited love by creating a stunning work of art that would outlast him and his beloved “Sweet Sixteen.”

We ended our day – and our stay – with a trip to iconic South Beach, with its bustling street scene and art deco buildings.

Take a stroll through the heart of South Beach by walking along Lincoln Road. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Take a stroll through the heart of South Beach by walking along Lincoln Road. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

No doubt about it: this is the place to see and be seen in Miami. It’s also an absolute must for any visit to Miami. People from all walks of life congregate here, curious to take in the shopping, dining, and beach culture that is present here.

In the end, that’s what has always impressed me about Miami – it holds something for everyone. What I discovered, though, was that Miami is a vibrant, kid-friendly destination in its own right; an excellent alternative to some of the more common places that might pop to mind, like Orlando or the Keys.

I do know one thing for sure: once you’ve been here, you’ll always long to return – no matter what your age.

South Beach and Ocean Drive. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

South Beach and Ocean Drive. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Trip Report from Miami, Florida has sadly come to a close. Stay tuned next week for a full recap of our family-friendly adventures here, including full hotel profiles for both the Turnberry Isle Miami and the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne!

 

3 Responses to Miami Live Trip Report – Day 4

  1. Kim says:

    Sounds like you had a great time. Cannot wait to be able to go see some of these amazing places when I finally get to Florida!

  2. Joanne says:

    Went to ritz website to check out club level rooms. It said complimentary NON alcoholic beverages? That would leave out champagne

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      Complimentary in the club level rooms applies to non-alcoholic beverages, but beverages served in the club lounge are complimentary – including champagne, wine, and spirits. The difference is that alcoholic beverages are only served during set times, and not around the clock like sodas, juices and the like. It’s a bit confusing!

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