Four weeks before our scheduled trip to Miami, the Everglades and Florida Keys, the powerful Hurricane Irma tore through South Florida, causing widespread destruction and flooding.
Homes were lost and businesses blown out of action, shutting down South Florida’s most important industry and income generator, tourism.
By the time we arrived, the massive clean-up and recovery was well underway but far from over. While tourism operators were desperate to welcome visitors again, we certainly didn’t see these popular destinations at their best.
A campaign to entice tourists back to the Keys began on October 1 but six weeks after Irma, what’s it really like visiting this tropical paradise? Should you delay your holiday till the area has fully recovered?
The Florida Keys 🌴 🌴 🌴
Driving along the Overseas Highway, the 113-mile road that links the Keys from top to bottom, some of the hardest hit areas looked like Armageddon.
We saw caravan parks stripped bare of lush tropical vegetation, the storm-damaged mobile homes standing desolate in the naked landscape. Colourful seaside houses, exposed by the loss of surrounding trees and garden, looked forlorn and neglected.
In places like Summerland Key, Marathon and Islamorada, massive piles of debris littered the road on both sides.
Some piles of wreckage were the height of three-storey buildings. There were mangled cars, torn couches, destroyed whitegoods, massive tree roots, trailers, mattresses, household building materials and fences among the debris.
Boats were smashed up against the mangroves and sea walls or partly submerged in the water. Along one part of the highway, a line of abandoned whitegoods stretched for hundreds of metres.
What really stunned us is just how close the road is to the water: in some parts, it’s only about 10 feet away and at times it even looks as though the road is below sea level.
The damage in Key West, the jewel at the bottom of the Florida Keys, was far less. We saw one large hotel whose roof had been ripped off, sunken boats, uprooted trees, boarded up houses and along the largest beach, Smathers, trucks were still clearing sand that covered the road. The staff at our hotel said they’d lost a lot of their garden foliage and the whole island felt ‘nude’ and bare.
For the most part, Key West looked in great shape and we loved it. It has a wonderful relaxed, carefree vibe, the historic buildings are beautiful, there are excellent restaurants, loads of bars, delicious key lime pie and sunshine galore. The locals are fun, quirky, extremely outgoing and friendly.
Our visit coincided with the beginning of the famed Fantasy Fest, an annual 10-day festival of indulgence, street parades and exotic parties – a ‘party in paradise for grown-ups’. We were lucky to attend the opening night Goombay Festival, a family-friendly street party celebrating island food, music, arts and crafts.
I got the impression the locals were more determined than ever to enjoy the festival and celebrate after the trauma of Irma. Business owners shared stories of their ongoing struggles and heartache caused by Irma – some local workers in the tourism sector who evacuated ahead of the storm had not returned. Their homes had been destroyed so they’d moved on.
While Key West was spared the worst of the storm, it’s recovered extremely well. If you’re thinking of visiting, don’t hesitate. It’s absolutely worth it and I defy you not to be charmed.
The Everglades 🐊 🐊 🐊
Conversely, I’d give the Everglades a miss for now. The Everglades is a vast wilderness area of subtropical wetlands in southern Florida, the so-called ‘river of grass’ that is made up of sawgrass marshes and mangroves. It’s best known for being home to alligators and a wide variety of birdlife.
Unfortunately, many of the hiking trails and one of the most popular areas, Shark Valley, were still closed due to flooding. On the recommendation of the guide at the Information Centre, we drove to the southern end of the Everglades, a place called Flamingo. Sadly, it was still a mess. It felt like a deserted country town, and looked as though years of neglect had slowly stripped away its natural beauty.
It didn’t help that during our visit we experienced a heavy tropical downpour but really, there was not much to see here. Except for the largest, most aggressive swarms of mosquitoes I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. With very few visitors to feast on, we were under siege and eaten alive!
South Beach, Miami 🍹 🍹 🍹
As for Miami Beach, its gorgeous, glamorous heart, South Beach, had undergone a speedy facelift and was close to its beautiful best. At least from the outside.
At our hotel, beachside hotel repairs continued inside – the hammers and the power tools were busy and buzzing most days – and the hotel was nowhere near capacity. It was certainly feeling the financial pain after being closed for nearly a month because of the storm.
Venturing out into the suburbs like the upmarket Coral Gables, there were piles of debris stacked up along the streets, mostly fallen trees and vegetation. You could see how the tall skinny palms had been battered, their leaves frozen in place from the powerful hurricane winds, kind of like a bad hair day.
On a sunny weekend, Miami Beach didn’t miss a beat. It was absolutely pumping. The sun lounges were full on the busy beach strip. The main drag, Ocean Drive, thrummed with loud music as show ponies cruised by in their posh cars. Tourists watched the parade from the Art Deco hotels that line the street as they sucked on supersize-me happy hour cocktails. Gorgeous girls slinked by in their barely-there outfits.
South Beach Miami is touristy as hell but it’s a whole lot of eye-popping fun.
It may still be recovering from one of the worst storms in its history but that didn’t stop anyone from living it up. As winter approaches in North America, Miami remains the perfect getaway.
- You can find updates on the Everglades and what areas remain closed at the National Park Service website.
- The miamiandbeaches.com website is a good source of information on the region.
- Visit Florida is the official tourism body for the Sunshine State. Nearly 113 million people visited Florida in 2016.
- Best. State. Ever. by New York Times best-selling author Dave Barry is worth a read to get a flavour for Florida and insights in its history and culture. It’s a funny, fast read.