A new trip report starting today! This report will chronicle our visit in November 2014 to the Florida Keys. We spent two nights in Key Largo, three nights in Key West, and one night in Miami.
I started planning this trip back in May. The flights were pretty easy to select. We spent 7944 Southwest Rapid Rewards points and $2.50 each to travel from Baltimore to Fort Lauderdale. While DC to Miami was a preferred route using British Airways Avios an American Airlines metal, the flight times just didn’t work out for us on that route.
Fort Lauderdale is very close to Miami, so that is no big deal, and in fact, rental cars turned out to be significantly cheaper picking up from Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami. So, win win! We would have to make the approximately hour long trek to Baltimore airport (BWI), but since we were leaving on a Saturday morning, we wouldn’t have to worry about the horrendous traffic in the DC area.
Next up, we selected the return flight. Luckily there was plenty of American Airlines availability using British Airways Avios points. So for our return flight, we flew from Miami to DC (Reagan National) for 7500 Avios and $5.60 each. And we wouldn’t have to make the trek back from Baltimore after our arrival. DC National Airport is just a short taxi ride to our house.
The hotels were a tough decision. First world problems, I know. There seem to be a lot of very cute and quirky locally owned hotels in the Keys. Many of them with fantastic reviews on TripAdvisor. However, it was difficult to find hotels with good reviews and the location/amenities we wanted for less than $299 per night. Ouch. That could really add up over the course of a six night trip!
So, we did what any self respecting points hoarder would do. We decided to forgo a cute locally owned hotel and instead redeemed Hilton HHonors points. We stayed at a Hampton Inn in Key Largo for 40,000 HHonors points per night. Then we opted to stay at the Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria property, in Key West. I redeemed my stay certificate earned from my Citi HHonors Reserve card. The certificate was designated as a “weekend stay” certificate, but we wanted to make a reservation for mid-week. Luckily it was no problem! Then we redeemed an additional 60,000 HHonors points for a third night at the Casa Marina.
I’ll review both of those hotels in more detail, but I will say that the Casa Marina was more than a little disappointing. The grounds were stunning and the service was mostly good, but the actual room was just terrible. I know HHonors Gold status doesn’t get you much, but wow, we were stuck in a wretched room.
Next up was selecting a hotel for our single night in Miami. We opted to stay in South Beach, and after much deliberation, I booked a room at the Angler’s Hotel in Miami Beach. The Angler’s is a Kimpton property, and I LOVED the Kimpton I stayed at in Seattle last year. I booked a “Tower Duplex Terrace King” for $314 per night (Originally $395.50, but there was a subsequent sale that I took advantage of). Typically I would never spend that kind of money on a hotel, but I redeemed the total cost using Barclays Arrival Points, so the entire stay ended up being free.
By the way, we were upgraded to an AMAZING suite at the Anglers. Spoiler alert: This was the patio JUST FOR OUR ROOM. There was a HOT TUB. Amazing, amazing stay at the Anglers.
Also of note was our car rental. Since literally every travel element of our trip was free, we decided to splurge on the rental car and get a convertible. We ended up getting a yellow Camaro with 7 miles on it. It was so new that it still had cellophane covering a lot of its surfaces!
That was it! Our flights were all in coach, so I won’t be reviewing any of the flights. So next up I’ll start with our review of the Hampton Inn and Key Largo!
After we landed in Fort Lauderdale and picked up our Camaro Convertible, we started the approximately two hour drive to our first stop, Key Largo.
We had redeemed 80,000 Hilton HHonors points for a two night stay.
Our room at the Hampton Inn Key Largo was spacious and had some subtle tropical designs, like a textured headboard that had a thatch-like look, and a slanted ceiling with horizontal beams. There was even a ceiling fan, which is a rarity in hotel rooms.
There was a king size bed, a small sofa and coffee table, a desk with two chairs, and a TV that was about 36 inches.
There were outlets right on top of the nightstand, which are always appreciated (but only one one side of the bed, which was kind of annoying). There was even a spot for two USB plugs!
As you walked into the room, there were two small countertop areas on the left and right. One side had a refrigerator and microwave, while the other side had a small sink and coffee pot.
The bathroom was spacious, but it didn’t have as much countertop space as other Hampton Inn’s that I have stayed at.
There was no tub, but a large shower area with a half glass door.
I will say that the water pressure was not great. I have LONG hair, and it took FOREVER to wash shampoo out of it. Even Ken said that with his short hair, he thought the water pressure was too light to even wash his hair quickly.
Balcony and View from the Room
It looks like pretty much every room at the Hampton Inn has a balcony, but it doesn’t look like there are any direct waterfront balcony rooms. There are some that have a view of the water by looking to the side, but as we walked around the exterior of the hotel, we didn’t see any rooms that faced the water.
Our balcony faced the pool.
If you look all the way to where the palm trees end in the below picture, that is the water and beach at the Hampton Inn Key Largo.
There were two small chairs on the balcony.
Hampton Inn Key Largo Grounds, Beach, and Exterior
The Hampton Inn is right off the main road that goes through the Keys (Overseas Highway). It’s hidden a bit by some palm trees.
We walked around the beach area at the Hampton Inn. The weather was plenty hot enough for the beach, but it was completely empty. I guess early November is the off season for the Florida Keys? The beach area was small, but lovely. There really aren’t any “big” beaches in the Florida Keys at all.
Although we didn’t take advantage of it, it looks like there were kayaks and other things available to rent.
Directly next to the beach was a lagoon of some sort.
Right behind the beach area was a lovely covered bar area.
The bartender working introduced us to his parrot, and Ken even got to hold him for a while. After the parrot nipped at his arm a few times, Ken decided it was time to give him back.
Lobby and Dining Area at Hampton Inn Key Largo
The Hampton Inn Key Largo provides a free buffet breakfast daily, which includes hot food items. Unlike other hotels that tend to dedicate just a tiny space to the buffet area, the Hampton Inn Key Largo had a very spacious area.
The countertop seating even had plugs if you wanted to do some work on a laptop there.
The lobby area was small but perfectly functional.
There was coffee available all the time in the lobby.
Outside of the main lobby area was a small business area with two computers, perfect if you needed to print a boarding pass or anything.
There were also some additional seating areas.
Overall, we had a fantastic stay. The hotel was centrally located in Key Largo, had beach access, and plenty of parking. Although the water pressure was abysmal, and we did notice a few ants that had gotten into a package of cookies we had left on the desk, we’d definitely recommend the Hampton Inn Key Largo to anybody looking for a place to stay in that area!
Our drive from Fort Lauderdale to Key Largo was fantastic. In fact, here’s a timelapse Ken captured using a GoPro setup. (We use a handheld GPS to sync the photo datestamp with the GPS coordinates, and then Ken wrote a script to overlay the Google Map on the video below. My husband wins at life.)
Oh, don’t mind that long-ish stop at some random office building. We were trying to find my cell phone charger and my GPS charger (which, funny enough, we didn’t need because the car had GPS!) Oh, and the bathroom break at the random, non-official visitor center!
We arrived in Key Largo, got checked into the hotel, and were starving. How do we always let that happen? Kind of randomly, on check-in, the receptionist asked us if we needed any restaurant recommendations, and we were like, “Sure, why not.” I’m typically a Yelp/UrbanSpoon reviewing-type girl, but I was open to other suggestions. One of her recommendations was Bayside Grille, and she provided us with a coupon (I think it was 15% off maybe?) for it.
We got to the restaurant just as the sun was setting, and there was a beautiful view!
Everglades National Park
We set out the next day by heading back north of the Keys to Everglades National Park. The forecast was calling for rain most of the day, but we figured we’d take our chances.
We rode the entire drive with the convertible roof down, nervously watching as the dark clouds rolled in, and then rolled back out. We arrived at the park’s visitor’s center just in time to put up the roof and watch is start to pour down rain. Here’s the timelapse of our drive from Key Largo to Everglades:
We walked around the Visitor’s Center until the rain subsided. We also purchased two cheap ponchos from the gift shop!
We drove from the visitor’s center to the trailhead for one of the more popular trails at Everglades.
As we drove, we saw this sign. Panther warning? Cougar?
Oh, and then this sign at the parking lot for the Anhinga Trail Head. I’m such a sucker for funny signs! I was envisioning a vulture pecking holes in the roof of our convertible rental. Oy.
Right as we arrived, it started to pour again. Luckily there was a covered picnic spot at the trailhead (and we had purchased those ponchos!)
Like the always say in Florida, if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. Within a few minutes, the pouring rain had stopped, and we started our walk along the Anhinga Trail.
Okay, so if I can be sappy for just a moment. 1) Sometimes I forget just how beautiful nature can be. When I’m not traveling, I tend to be a complete homebody. (Please, don’t even ask me the last time I interacted with nature on any sort of outing in my own town). So, I forget that there are such completely amazing and stunning sites in nature. 2) It boggles my mind how diverse America’s landscapes are. From our 2012 Southwest USA road trip, to our 2009 trip to Niagara Falls (even just taking into account the American side!), it is amazing the different things you can see without even needing a passport!
And we spotted a gator!
The walk at Anhinga was lovely. Next, we decided to drive about 30 miles to the southern tip of Everglades National Park called Flamingo. There were trails in between Anhinga and Flamingo, but we had read that boat tours leave from Flamingo, and we wanted to see what our options were.
We walked around inside the Visitor Center, which, to be honest, was not much to look at. That’s fine though, the main Visitor Center at the park entrance was quite good! Although I did chuckle at the Mosquito Meter sign! We were there on a “hysterical” mosquito activity day. I do regret wearing shorts and short sleeves to Everglades. I was COVERED with mosquito bites within moments of getting to the park. And the irritation lasted the entire rest of our trip!
The rangers at the Visitor Center were helpful in directing us to where we could book a boat tour, which was just a short walk away. We bought the tour tickets, purchased some snacks at a convenience store-type place, and waited about 20 minutes for our tour to begin.
The boat tour was great, and lasted about two hours. The guides were fantastic about pointing out gators, birds, and other wildlife.
The Everglades is filled with these types of trees, called Mangroves. They protect coastal areas especially during hurricanes.
Apparently some portions of the water was covered in canopies of mangrove trees, but the canopies were destroyed in a large hurricane (I can’t remember which one, but it wasn’t Andrew. I believe it was a hurricane in the 1950s)
I’ll just post a few other photos from the boat tour:
By the end of our boat tour, it was raining hard again, and we were all huddled in the middle of the boat. I was shivering the last 20 minutes or so. (Tip – bring a sweatshirt!) We got off the boat, drove the 35-ish miles to the exit for Everglades, and drove back to Key Largo for the night!
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The next morning, we had a big breakfast, and set out for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which was just a very quick drive from our hotel. The park is reported to have one of the best, and largest beaches in Key Largo. Beaches aren’t huge in the Keys, so this was enormous compared to, for instance, the beach at our hotel!
It was a beautiful day, especially compared to the previous day’s overcast weather and intermittent downpours
There were a few trails at the park, and we decided to give them a whirl.
But, after covering just a small distance, we discovered that the trail was sopping wet and muddy thanks to the previous day’s rains. Plus, I was wearing flip flops, which definitely wasn’t conducive to a muddy walk! So we gave up on our trail walk idea fairly quickly.
After the park, we stopped by a few Key Largo shops (Ken wanted a Panama hat), and then we went back to the hotel. After lounging around for a bit and exploring the small beach area at the Hampton Inn, it was time for our drive to Key West, which was fantastically beautiful!
I mentioned in the introduction post that we redeemed a weekend stay certificate (redeemable even though it wasn’t a weekend!) for two nights at the Casa Marina in Key West, a Waldorf Astoria property, which is owned by Hilton. The free weekend stay certificate was from applying for the Hilton HHonors Reserve card last year. We decided relatively last minute (like a few weeks earlier) to stay a third night in Key West, and I redeemed 60,000 HHonors points for the third night.
I had VERY mixed feelings about this hotel. Bottom line, I won’t be back, but my opinion might have been different if we had a less scummy room!
The Room – The Basics
I know that Hilton Gold status doesn’t get you much these days, but it almost seemed like we were purposely put in the crappiest room they had. And it really ticked me off too, because I checked their online reservations system, and they still had plenty of rooms available that would’ve been an upgrade. I’m not talking a suite or anything, I’m just saying a room that wasn’t so … yucky.
As you walked into the room, there was a large armoire on the left, connected to a small tabletop area that housed the coffee maker and glasses. This was the only “closet” in the room.
We had a King Size bed:
And directly in front of the bed was a flat screen TV, a small dresser, and a desk and chair.
The bathroom was unremarkable, and had terrible lighting.
And the view was definitely nothing to write home about (er, nothing to Instagram?):
The Room – The Bad
I would like to preface this section by pointing out that if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I rarely have big complaints about the hotel rooms that I have stayed at. And things like “The grout lines on the shower floor kinda hurt my feet,” (from my Park Hyatt Moscow review) or “We had to take two elevators to get to our room” (from my Andaz Fifth Avenue review) hopefully doesn’t it make it seem like I’m some big Negative Nelly.
If our room had only one or two weird things going on, I might have pointed it out in passing, or maybe not even have mentioned it at all. Or, if I was staying at a Super 8 or a Red Roof Inn instead of a WALDORF ASTORIA, I might not have also pointed these things out. I think it’s important to note that this same room would’ve cost nearly $400 per night if we hadn’t used HHonors points. But there was so much going on, especially for such an expensive hotel, I can’t help but nitpick.
As soon as we arrived in our room, we wanted to charge our electronics, like phones and cameras, before heading out for the evening.
I was like, “Oh, this is nice, table height outlets on the desk.”
Except, when we plugged in our chargers, it didn’t work.
So we called the front desk, and they sent maintenance. The maintenance guy took one look, and said, “Oh, those outlets don’t actually work! They’re not hooked up to anything!” Using a tone as if this fact should’ve been clear as day to us.
There was literally only one outlet in the room, and that was under the desk. To which the maintenance man huffed and begrudgingly agreed to bring us a power strip. Umm, thanks?
Then came the bathroom. The door to the bathroom was some sort of sliding door, which was outrageously heavy to move. And it had this very weird latch, which I’m like 95% sure was just plain old broken. It jutted out into the room, so you had to be careful not to nearly impale yourself while stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
There were some cups sitting on a glass ledge above the sink. Nothing abnormal about that, right?
Well, until I went to move said cups. That revealed a layer of dust around where the cup had been sitting, which made it seem likely that those cups had not been moved in months.
There was this strange side table, presumably since there was zero countertop space around the sink.
If you look closely at the side of the table, it had a weird, rough, unfinished edge. The legs of the table were also stained and/or rusting.
And the caulking around the sink was cracking:
Okay, let’s get back to the main area of the room. It was only on like the second day that I noticed that the armoire was actually positioned to cover up the adjoining doors. (Look behind the armoire):
I just thought that it was really weird.
And, the chair was covered with scuff marks.
And can I just point out what a plain and generally ugly room this is? Unlike, for instance, the Hampton Inn Key Largo rooms that embraced the beachy style with faux thatch headboards, vaulted ceilings, and lovely ceiling fans, our room at the Casa Marina was just so blah. White walls, cream/brownish tile floors, cheapo white curtains, ugly dark brown furniture, and a single piece of artwork, which was tiny and just seemed like it was hung there because somebody told an employee to hang up a picture in the room.
The door to the room faced this outdoor atrium-type area, which at first glance seems fine, but the enclosed area and tile floors caused any little sound to be amplified and echoed.
Okay, that shouldn’t be a big deal unless you had some unruly folks yelling in the middle of the night, which happens in normal hotel room hallways too, right?
Wrong. The Casa Marina seemed to host a lot of conferences and events, and the conference rooms were right in that same atrium-type area. And they they started setting up for the events around, oh, 4:30AM. So, as staff set up the buffet tables in that area, stacking plates, putting out chafing dishes, etc., we heard them loud and clear because the sound just carried so much in that area.
Oh, and this time that they decided that buffing the floors at 6:30AM was a good idea too. That was fun times.
And then, there was the great mystery sound at night. We could not figure it out. It perhaps sounded like a dinosaur emerging from the ocean and letting out a loud roar. It was far enough in the distance that it probably wouldn’t wake you up, but I tend to wake up once or twice in the middle of the night, and once I was awake the sound was loud enough for me to be supremely annoyed and constantly asking myself, “What on EARTH could that be?” and unable to concentrate on anything else but that noise. It happened all three nights of our stay. My best guess is it was some sort of vacuuming system that would be turned on every few minutes? I really had no idea, and I didn’t want to call the front desk and be like, “Umm, what is that dinosaur-roaring sound?”
The Rest of the Hotel
Spoiler alert: The rest of the hotel was stunning, and the service was fantastic. (with the exception of the maintenance guy and the check-in dude who told us there were no other rooms available).
Casa Marina Lobby
The lobby was open, airy, and inviting.
The Pools and Other Grounds
The grounds of the Casa Marina were beautiful.
There was a pool that was open to all guests (including kids). This pool was fantastic because staff walked around offering things like free popsicles (even to the adults!)
There was also an adult’s only pool.
There were also two firepits. We sat around one of them for quite a while one evening.
Restaurants and Bars
There were plenty of dining options at the Casa Marina. In fact, we ate lunch at the hotel one afternoon (something we rarely do!). We ate at one of the outdoor seating areas. We both had a burger, and it was good and even relatively reasonably priced for hotel food.
If you notice, there is a lot of string and wire above many of the seating areas. Presumably, this is to keep birds away!
Beach at the Casa Marina
If you’re familiar with the Florida Keys, then you know that beaches tend to be quite small. But, by Keys’ standards, the Casa Marina’s beach was downright huge.
Where you’d normally enter the water was quite rocky.
So, to actually enter the water, most people used a set of stairs at the end of the pier in the above picture. It sounds annoying, but it was just fine.
There were hammocks to relax on, and since the hotel didn’t seem terribly crowded, we had no trouble finding one. And, just like at the pool where they handed out popsicles, hotel staff circulated among the beach goers offering frozen towels, which also had a lovely scent (citrus maybe?). They were great for cooling off!
Most of the beach area had plenty of lounge chairs in addition to the hammocks. However, on the last day, when I was taking these photographs, part of the beach had been set up for some sort of event or wedding.
There was also a more “manmade” beach looking area, complete with volleyball nets, and we also saw at some times hockey nets brought out and kids playing hockey or soccer.
Okay, I know there are many people out there who say, “Who cares about what your hotel room is like. How much time are you ACTUALLY going to spend in there anyway? You’re traveling, go out and enjoy things beyond the hotel!”
I’m sure you can tell by the photographs from our vacations, we do A LOT of sightseeing when we travel. I’m talking, can’t-move-my-legs-at-the-end-of-the-day sightseeing. So, are we spending all day in a hotel? No, of course not.
But for me, a hotel is part of the travel experience. It wasn’t always. Back when I was a broke college student and entry level worker, I could deal with the less fancy hotels, because I needed to prioritize my expenses if I wanted to be able to travel at all. (I didn’t know nearly as much about the power of points and miles those days!) So, staying in a cheap hotel with no frills was perfectly fine. And it is still fine for those folks who make that decision. After all, no frills travel is always better than no travel at all!
But, I like my frills these days. At the end of a long day of sightseeing, I like to be able to plop down on a comfy bed, perhaps take a bath in a deep soaking tub or go in a rain head shower, and wind down while reading my Kindle or watching TV on a flat screen. I don’t want to be distracted by scuffed chairs and dusty surfaces and terrible lighting. I want my hotel room to feel warm and inviting. Perhaps that makes me vain, or perhaps some folks would say those thoughts miss the entire point of travel. But I don’t agree.
So, with that, if I return to Key West, I definitely won’t be staying at the Casa Marina.
Can I just say how much I LOVED Key West? I mean, seriously loved it. There was so much to do, so many good places to eat, and it was just so laid back and beautiful. I had been there once before, but I was like 13 and we only stopped there for a few hours on a cruise destination. Do kids actually enjoy anything when they’re 13? Probably not, because I barely remembered anything about Key West.
But this time? So many memories!
Driving along the Overseas Highway (Key Largo to Key West)
We started with our drive along Overseas Highway from Key Largo to Key West.
It appears that there was an old highway, or perhaps train tracks, that ran parallel to the Overseas Highway that was open to pedestrians. But large chunks were missing in places!
Like in our Key Largo drives, Ken set up a timelapse to record our drive from Key Largo to Key West. Once we were back, he created a map overlay using geosynced coordinates (which he tracks using a Garmin handheld GPS) and the Google Maps API.
We arrived in Key West, got checked into the Casa Marina, relaxed for a bit from our drive, and then headed out to explore Key West a little bit before the sun set. We had a taxi take us to the Mallory Square area, which was a perfect central location to begin exploring.
The actual Mallory Square part is popular for watching Key West sunsets, and I had read online that it could be extremely crowded at sunset, and loud as well with street performers. Both warnings lived up to the expectations. Crowded and loud. We snapped a few photos of sunset and then continued our walk and headed to dinner (more on where we ate in a future post!)
The next day was chock full of activities. We started with the Ernest Hemingway Home.
The Ernest Hemingway Home is, of course, famous for the author. But one could also argue that it’s famous for it’s 6-toed cats!
At the time we were visiting, there were 51 cats living on the premises.
They even hang out in the restrooms on the premises.
Oh, and in the gift shop too!
Tours of the house start every 15 minutes or so. After hanging out and taking pictures of cats for a while, we joined a tour that was starting.
Clearly the cats are not subject to the same rules as humans and are allowed to sit on the furniture, despite the signs!
One of Hemingway’s ex-wives spent an ungodly amount of money to install this swimming pool at his house. ($20,000 in 1938 dollars. That’s the equivalent of nearly $350,000 today) At the time, it was the biggest swimming pool in Key West!
Another fun feature: This fountain that had been a urinal from one of Hemingway’s favorite bars in Key West.
The tour was really fantastic. After the organized tour was over, we just hung out on the grounds for a while, exploring (as well as relaxing on some benches!)
We also noticed the cat cemetery, which includes a plaque of all the deceased cats.
The even have their own replica Hemingway House to live in on the grounds!
West Martello Tower / Key West Garden Club
Our next stop was West Martello Tower / Key West Garden Club, a short walk from our hotel. It was originally meant to be a fort, but was never finished and eventually was not needed. Now it serves as a botanical garden!
Through the gates were some fantastic ocean views!
Around Key West
So many of our photographs from Key West are not of particular sites or attractions. Like on this walk from West Martello Tower back to our hotel, we just stopped and enjoyed a bunch of things along the way!
We walked down this pier (White Street Pier). Although it had fantastic views, the pier itself was in rough shape (cracked concrete, rust stains, etc.)
And we walked by this beach that looked like a nice size public beach in Key West.
After our walk, we headed back to the hotel to relax for a little bit on some hammocks! Then we headed out for dinner and enjoyed the beautiful Key West November weather! The next day was full of activities too!