Miami vice

March 2009

On the first hole at Miami Beach Golf Club -- the spectacular South Beach muny with a $10 million renovation and a Roaring '20s pedigree -- I hit my tee shot hard left, just short of a swampy pond. Looking at the scorecard, I could see two more big hazards -- one lining the right side of the fairway and another left of the green. Blind as to how far I could safely play to skirt the water, I shrugged and loaded up a hybrid.

"Hit it and hope" should be embroidered on Miami Beach Golf Club's polo shirts. Founded in 1923 as Bayshore Golf Course and built among the waterfront winter retreats of the rich and famous, the course had become a patchy and neglected eyesore by the late 1990s. Arthur Hills' 2002 renovation turned it into a windblown, 6,800-yard test of local knowledge. Don't know what's over that hump? Whatever it is, it's probably wet, and you can probably get there.

My hybrid did, and I made a double bogey.

As frustrating as that kind of "gotcha" golf can be, Miami Beach Golf Club does exactly what it's supposed to: reward locals who have learned the subtleties and separate tourists from $200 -- pleasantly -- while providing fantastic views (and an excellent grilled-fish sandwich).

For the rest of the weekend, my goal was to navigate South Florida with a little more of that local-flavored subtlety -- and do it on top of the water rather than in it. So I left Miami and threaded my way down the 130-mile system of bridges connecting the Florida Keys, looking to get off the beaten path.


Map by John Burgoyne

Of course, going off the guidebook grid is more of a figurative act in the Keys: It's a straight shot on the mostly two-lane Overseas Highway down through Key Largo and Islamorada to Key West. For two-thirds of the ride, you're on an elevated two-lane road with uninterrupted, 360-degree ocean views. When you cross land, it's mostly devoted to gas stations, bait shops and charter-boat docks.

The ride I had for the trip -- a liquid-copper Infiniti FX50 muscle hatchback -- was laughably overqualified for this kind of parade duty. Bristling with all-wheel drive, 390 horsepower and traffic-updating navigation guidance (.50-caliber guns hidden beneath the high-intensity headlamps are optional), the $63,000 beast couldn't do anything but toddle along at 35 miles per hour in some stretches, trapped behind an RV or a sunburned dude on a Vespa.

My first stop was in Islamorada, about a third of the way to Key West. Famous for two things -- getting flattened by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, and being Ted Williams' favorite place to find tarpon -- the sleepy fishing hamlet encouraged me to slow down for lunch by posting an empty sheriff's cruiser in a fake speed trap on the edge of town.

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