The sunshine state has more than just its gorgeous climate, says Rowena Walsh. Whether it's the hidden gem-laden isle of Key Largo, party capital Key West or Miami, it would be hard to stay cool
You're very brave to wear that colour, she announced blithely. "She" was a 22-year-old blonde model-turned-actress named Laura and it was only minutes since she'd poured a Champagne cocktail all over my bright jade dress, while attempting to manoeuvre her tutu-clad self past our table. A black tutu, naturally.
Still, I consoled myself with the thought that LBDs aren't really the essential uniform in sunny Miami, no matter how glitzy and glamorous the location. So long as it's super-short and super-tight, you can wear just about anything.
As it turned out, Laura was a sweet young thing who, having swapped illicit highs for love, was literally and metaphorically trying to get closer to her much older property mogul 'friend'. Laura's man had told her to give up the drugs and sort herself out, otherwise he wasn't interested. She duly did so. He, almost as chatty as she, confided that he'd love to get married, and had even been close to it three times.
We, with the cynicism of seven months of marriage behind us, doubted it was a match set to last.
The couple, who were straight out of Central Casting, Miami-style, soon headed out into the night, leaving us laughing and enjoying the truly fabulous 'Floribbean' food on offer in the cool bar-cum-restaurant that was shockingly named Meat Market.
There, we tucked into grilled mahi mahi, tender rib-eye and irresistible chocolate fondant without a care in the world, knowing that we would be flying back to an Irish spring the next day where layers of clothing would cover up any Florida excesses.
We were lured to the sunshine state by thoughts of snorkelling, kayaking and fishing, and couldn't resist the thought of following all that relaxation with a sophisticated sojourn in Miami.
We bought our guidebooks and plan-ned our itinerary: fly directly into Orlando and spend one night there, followed an evening in the town made famous by Humphrey Bogart's Key Largo movie. Then, three days in Key West (sunniest city in the US), one night in the idyllic-sounding Islamorada in the Upper Keys and the remainder in the city immortalised in all its garish glory by author Carl Hiaasen.
The area has been in the news a lot recently as the ongoing tragedy of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico led to fears that the natural beauty and wildlife of the Keys was under threat. But, thankfully, the 'loop current' means that it's unlikely that this part of the US will be affected (see www.fla-keys.com/oilspill for updates).
Our holiday started out so promisingly. The journey from Orlando to Key Largo is an easy one. Point the car south and keep driving for about four hours. We stopped at exit 60 on the I95, ostensibly for a coffee and our first sugar-filled taste of Americana, but we couldn't resist feeling the heat of the midday sun.
Continuing on our road trip, we by-passed Miami in favour of the freeway leading to the Keys. Cast aside any romantic notions you might have about Key Largo, and remember that Bogey and Bacall never actually set foot in the place. Driving past fast-food outlets and ramshackle buildings, there was no whiff of the intoxicating charm of the eponymous movie, but delve a little deeper and you'll be pleasantly surprised. Most of its wonders lie beneath.
We spied eel, grouper and, amazingly, even barracuda going about their business at the John Pennekamp National Park (a few days later, to the excitement of all on our fishing boat, one of the group managed to hook one of these marine marvels). It took our breath away.
We were breathless, too, as we prepared to get up close and personal with Flipper and friends in a "swim with dolphins" experience the next morning too -- but for a slightly different reason.
I gazed at my husband, Brian, who was first into the icy pool. His eyes were glassy with shock, and his words were almost whipped away by the wind as he tried to convince me that it was okay. I wanted to run away, but psyched myself up and jumped. Ten seconds later, I was screaming, as Lotus and Squirt propelled me in ever speedier circles around the pool.
As we warmed up over toasted bagels and coffee in the nearby Harriet's diner afterwards, all we could talk about was whether it was more fun to dance with mummy Lotus or play with baby Squirt. I've since read that dolphins get bored and lonely in captivity, but the ones we encountered appeared healthy, while their trainers certainly were devoted.
The next day, we drove south to Key West, the party capital. So we skipped kayaking and 'snuba' (a cross between snorkling and scuba diving, apparently) in favour of snacking on conch fritters and sipping margaritas with the locals in Kelly's Caribbean Bar (owned by Top Gun's Ms McGillis) and enjoying a birthday party in the Grand Vin wine bar on Duval Street.
There's a laidback, chilled-out vibe throughout the islands, and if you want to dress up, just throw on jeans and the first T-shirt that comes to hand.
Unfortunately, I was so relaxed after a few days of this that I made a rookie mistake. Walking through the doors of the gorgeous and so-hip-it-hurts Gansevoort on Miami's South Beach, I realised the laidback look here meant swapping five-inch heels for three. One quick change and a pair of peep-toe Jimmy Choos later and we were perched on stools in the hotel's fabulously chic bar sipping Champagne and watching the city's beautiful people at play.
And oh, they did it in style.
The next morning, we followed in their footsteps and went jogging on Ocean Drive. It wasn't much of a workout, though, as we got distracted by the stunning Art Deco buildings around us, each more spectacular than its neighbour.
We had breakfast by the pool, then wandered down the label-lovers Mecca that's known as Lincoln Boulevard. Then, after a hard day's shopping, the spa called ...
An hour later, I glanced up to see a man walking in his bare feet along my husband's back. He lay prone beside me on heated rock, barely able to speak. It was all part of the hammam rub and scrub at the holistic heaven known as the spa in Standard Hotel. We lingered in the giant copper tubs so long afterwards that it was almost impossible to rouse ourselves from the warm scented water to face the challenge ahead.
Just what do you wear for dinner and cocktails in a Japanese/Peruvian restaurant? Thankfully, New York's Sushi Samba had featured in Sex and the City and, as a diehard fan, I remembered the episode where a glamorous Samantha confronted the unfaithful Richard with the immortal words: "Dirty Martini, dirty bastard" before throwing the cocktail in his face.
No such drama for us; we were far too busy staring at the fashionistas who paraded by, clutching miniature pooches. And anyway, the cocktails were too good to waste.
There is more than just surface to this sleek young city, though. A few miles from the high-rises of downtown, you'll discover the sights, sounds and smells of old-time Cuba in the fruiterias, meat markets and cigar stores of Calle Ocho.
We sipped delicious fruit concoctions as we strolled along the hot and dusty warren of streets past the Memorial to the fallen of the Bay of Pigs, took musical advice in the jazz shop and watched the older generation of Cubans who meet up every day to play dominoes or chess in Maximo Gomez Park.
It was a world away from the hard-edged chic of Miami Beach or the laidback vibe of the Keys, but it was an unforgettable part of our visit to southern Florida.
As for my jade dress, it never did recover from its clash with that Champagne cocktail, but it was a small price for our decadent days. We're already planning for new year 2011-style.