This X'mas break we spent 9 days visiting Miami, Key Largo, Key West, the Everglades, Naples and Sanibel island. It was time well spent in 80F weather, on the beach (several), while it was 40F in California.
Here are somethings that we would recommend to others.
Book a hotel a couple of months in advance. The Art Deco district/Collins Ave/Ocean Drive is a great place to stay at. Hotel prices are reasonable if you book well in advance. Ocean Drive is a lively scene in the evening and a great place to have dinner, sitting in the ocean breeze.
While travel books list many things to do, we found many such places to be passable, like Little Havana, Jungle island etc. Key Biscayne, Ocean Drive/Art Deco area and the Vizcaya house are worth visiting. Save the rest of your time to just hang out on the beach.
There is one thing we would recommend people from absolutely avoiding - Miami Open City Tour bus. We were told that driving around Miami in our own car would be expensive (parking fees) and a waste of time. So using a bus tour was recommended. We were sold tickets to this particular company at the hotel and I had not done my research. This tour service had all the makings of a scam. First, their buses are a lot less frequent than other companies. After spending 2 hours running around from stop to stop hoping to flag the bus down, we just decided to use our own car after we realized that their last pick up is 4.30 pm. The next day we wanted to do the Downtown tour and the bus service, picked us up on Ocean drive, then misguided and dropped us at a wrong stop to catch the downtown bus. They then lied to us about the timings. We spent an hour at the bus stop after having spend $70 for 2 tickets waiting. It turned out that the bus that originally misguided us was the one that eventually did the Downtown tour. We were give then impression that there were many buses. Then the best part, it never stopped even after frantically waving to flag it down. So, 4 hours of frustration and good money down the drain, we drove off in our own car again.
If you really want to do the bus tour, use the other 2 more frequent Big Bus or Hop-on-Hop-off bus services.
Great weather and we just missed some heavy showers. Well, it would be naive to not expect any rain in Florida.
John Pennekamp state park in Key Largo is a good place to do kayaking in the estuary. Then we drove down to Key West.
Surprisingly, Key West does not have good beaches, despite what people normally assume about the Keys. It has to do with the coral reefs there. Mallory Square, Duval street are good places to hang out. You can also do parasailing, snorkeling, jetskiing here. Parasailing in Key West is worth doing for the views and the water color.
Fort Zachary Taylor's beach is nice, among all the other "beaches" in Key West.
Unlike Miami beaches, none of the beaches in the Keys, Naples or Fort Myers have any service. You have to bring your own chairs, drinks and of course towels.
The Everglades park has 2 main entrances - Royal Palms visitor center near Florida City and the other is Shark Valley on the way to Naples from Miami.
The Anhinga trail is worth doing. We found that driving all the way down to the Flamingo visitor center was a waste. Surprisingly we did not spot a single gator here, but lots of birds. We got bitten by mosquitoes near the Flamingo center in the evening.
The gator farm and the airboat drive at the entrance to Royal Palms is worth a visit. We recommend the last 5 pm show and its 5.20 pm airboat ride. Just in time for sunset in December.
It turns out that most of the gators are on the Shark Valley side and further north. We did not have time to do the 2 hour tram tour but we did see many gators right at the park entrance.
Naples, Fort Myers and Sanibel:
We had originally not planned on visiting the Naples area. I had only booked hotels for the first half of our trip. We had the option of either visiting Fort Lauderdale or Naples for the second leg. We were told by the locals that the beaches in the Naples area were nicer and not commercialized. After Key West's disappointing beaches we decided to give Naples/Fort Myers/Sanibel a shot. It was worth it.
The drive to Naples from Doral/Tamiami via Shark Valley was "gatorsville". All along the highway, there is a storm ditch that runs parallel to it. You can spot a gator every 100 meters. Some tortoises too.
We booked hotels day-by-day, just 1 day ahead, online. Naples downtown is nice and its beach is the best. Don't miss eating the famous Abbot's frozen custard. We were also lucky to spot a pair of dolphins in the distance.
Fort Myers parking was too crowded so we skipped it. Sanibel island's lighthouse beach is nice but parking may be a little frustrating. Bowman's beach is also nice.
Happy new year and travel safely!