Grab the sunblock and maracas. You and your golf buddies are headed for Margaritaville. From Miami’s South Beach party scene to Key West, the funky literary retreat and southernmost town in the country, there’s fine golf and round-the-clock fun at both ends of Highway A1A, one of America’s most beautiful drives.
Arrive before noon at Miami International Airport, rent a ragtop and pop in the road tunes. Ten minutes away is Miami’s famed Cuban-American neighborhood, Calle Ocho. But quel surprise — the best food is at Versailles Restaurant, where you feast on the Friday special, roast pork au jus, and a dessert of tres leches and a double Cuban coffee.
Wired on caffeine and Cuban food, burn rubber over Rickenbacker Causeway to Key Biscayne and Crandon Park Golf Course (co.miami-dade.fl.us/parks/golf.htm; 305-361-9129; greens fee $136), host of this month’s Royal Caribbean Golf Classic on the Champions Tour. Designed by Robert von Hagge and Bruce Devlin, Crandon Park is an oasis amid mangrove forests and tidal lagoons, with parrots winging overhead and giant iguanas in the trees. At 7,301 yards with water everywhere and four great par 5s, each topping 550 yards, Crandon Park presents more challenges than a hanging chad.
By late afternoon you’ll be cruising through South Beach’s historic Art Deco district and checking into the newly restored WinterHaven Hotel (winterhavenhotelsobe.com; 305-531-5571/800-395-2322; from $159). There’s time for a swim in the ocean, but don’t try it if you’re offended by women sunbathing topless — a timeless Miami vice.
Now sample South Beach’s neon nightlife. If you splurge on one meal this weekend, make it fritto misto and rack of lamb at Robert DeNiro’s restaurant, Ago, in The Shore Club hotel. Nearby is the fabulous Skybar Miami Beach, an acre of dimly lit pools, secluded cabanas and stand-up bars filled by the A-list nip-and-tuck crowd. When you finally tire of buying expensive mojitos for gorgeous models, you can try other South Beach hot spots such as Level, Crobar and Prive, but you’ll have just as much fun at the old-school dive Lost Weekend, made famous in Ray Milland’s classic 1945 film of the same name.
OK, so the sun was rising as you were falling asleep. Fill up on granola-almond pancakes at the Front Porch Cafe, then barrel down Interstate 95 to the spot where U.S. Route 1 leaves the mainland at Florida City.
From there, it’s 120 miles of Florida Keys and grand views of crystal-blue sea to the end of the road. The population of the Keys has nearly doubled in the 33 years since Jimmy Buffett first made this drive, but the magic returns as you sing along with him, “Mother, Mother Ocean, I have heard you call/Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall/You’ve seen it all.”
The first turn at the entrance to Key West takes you to lunch and golf at Key West Golf Club (keywestgolf.com; 305-294-5232; greens fees $140 or $80 twilight), a Rees Jones-designed course defined by palms, lakes and trade winds. At 6,512 yards, it’s a shotmaker’s track that rewards the golfer who can work the ball. From the near-blind tee at the par-3 8th, all you can see is a forest of low mangroves and the top of the flag 178 yards away.
Settle your bets, then cruise through Key West to your oceanfront digs at the Pier House (pierhouse.com; 800-327-8340; from $290). A block from the hotel is the nightly Mallory Square Sunset Celebration — just you, your travel buddies and a few thousand of your closest friends. Grab a cold cerveza and check out street entertainers like local legend Will Soto, who’ll likely be atop his tight-wire as the sun sinks behind him.
Despite the throngs on Duval Street and a glut of T-shirt shops, Key West has retained its old-salt flavor, with Cuban gentlemen hand-rolling stogies on “Cigar Alley” between Front and Greene Streets. Former Hemingway haunt Sloppy Joe’s is packed day and night with a boisterous crowd, though I suspect Papa would’ve thrown them all out on their ears.
Buffett’s Margaritaville is about as commercial as they come but worth the price of a frozen concoction to say you’ve been. Christmas is Buffett’s birthday — raise a shot of tequila in the leeward direction. But skip the cheeseburger in paradise and dine at Mangoes, a fantastic open-air restaurant with such fine “Floribbean” cuisine as conch fritters, made from the creature that spawned the area’s first industry and Key West’s nickname, “The Conch Republic.”
Late nights find locals at the Green Parrot Bar, which serves $1.50 drafts and imports fine blues bands from northern latitudes. Checking out the shenanigans as you head back down Duval, you may encounter a young lady holding a sign for a club called Naked Lunch, which she explains is “a clothing-optional bar where customers wear as much or as little as they want.” That’s your cue to make a crucial decision: Party till breakfast or call it a night.
Low point of the weekend: a wake-up call 15 minutes after your head hits the pillow. Perhaps you had a drop or 10 too much to drink and your head is pounding to a Buffett beat, but here’s the cure: bacon, eggs and creamed chipped beef on toast at Pepe’s Cafe on Caroline Street, followed by a dip in the ocean at the Pier House’s private beach.
Then it’s back up Route 1 to Miami. Traffic can be slow heading north on Sundays, but if you make good time, you can still play Donald Ross’s course at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables (biltmorehotel.com; 800-727-1926; greens fee $87).
Racing back to Miami International to catch your flight home, you may think the weekend was too fast and too furious. But you’ll be back — and next time you might stay longer.