Beyond Miami, a beach escape worlds apart
Key Biscayne thrives on its low profile and variety of its pleasures
KEY BISCAYNE — “It’s in the Florida Keys?’’ my friends said at the mention of Key Biscayne. On a map, the dot south of Miami Beach does appear to be part of the more famous keys dangling beneath it. But other than their proximity, they are worlds apart.
Just over the Rickenbacker Causeway toll bridge from Miami, Key Biscayne is so unknown as a South Florida beach escape that it’s rarely called one. My discovery was accidental as I jogged across the bridge and stopped to wiggle my toes in the sand. “We’ve been coming to this spot for 25 years,’’ Chelo Fernandez said as she introduced herself and her Cuban-American friends, insisting I share their garbanzo bean soup and cocktails (it was 10 a.m.).
What spot was this, with award-winning beaches and sails flitting like butterflies on the blue-green bay? The Tequesta Indians called the area Bischiyano, “the favorite path of the rising moon.’’ Their bay was stippled with mangroves rather than coral heads, a nursery for marine life rich in stone crabs and yellowtail snapper to this day. Around 1915, William J. Matheson made Key Biscayne his private paradise with a coconut plantation and palatial Moorish-styled retreat. Longtime resident Jean Yahle watched President Nixon come and go in the 1970s from his winter White House near her home.
Today, on land donated by Matheson, Crandon Park blankets the island’s northern third, while the south end is dedicated to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Sandwiched between is Key Biscayne village, where you can dine on $1,000-a-pound white truffles from Alba, Italy, or the all-day breakfast at the Donut Gallery, which has no doughnuts. In a pinch, the local Shell station sells $220 bottles of Dom Pérignon.
It was snowing in Alabama as I pedaled the island’s heritage trail mapped by local historian Joan Gill Blank. The six-mile loop from ocean to bay can fill a day or many, and includes one of the most beautiful bike segments in creation on Crandon Park’s Atlantic shore. Here the palm-shaded sands sweep to the sea, made calm by a sandbar that emerges at low tide. In summer this two-mile segment would be packed with day-trippers from Miami playing volleyball, filling the sky with kites and the water with kayaks. During a shoulder week in January, it was an almost private place in the sun.
Near the park’s beach cabanas, an unmarked left leads to the Quiet Garden. Yahle remembers awakening to the roar of lions when this garden was a zoo. Now the cages stand empty, and peacocks, guinea fowl, and swans roam the 200 fairy tale-like acres. It’s a beautiful excuse to stop and spread the Rokaviar (caviar from farm-raised sturgeon) from the Golden Hog.
On the bay side, Crandon Golf Course offers a $180 digression if you play, or a fun lunch stop at the clubhouse between the nines if you don’t. The public course is a natural beauty with mangroves, tidal ponds, and the critters that go with it. “Our hazards are moving,’’ said golf ranger Rita Craft, referring to the 4- to 6-foot iguanas that live here. Or maybe she meant the saltwater crocodile I saw with its jaws seemingly frozen open. Just don’t go chasing golf balls at low tide.
At the corner of Harbor Drive, the trail turns into a real estate showcase passing the former Cher and Nixon estates and actor Andy Garcia’s home. Mercedes-Benzes and Range Rovers fill the driveways, while children cruise the streets on Segways and golf carts. Like a scene from “The Andy Griffith Show,’’ the mayor was welcoming visitors to the community’s first farmers’ market, and a monumental Christmas tree and menorah stood on the village green.
“We’ve been called Mayberrycita,’’ said Kathye Susnjer, who with her husband, Peter, staffs the visitors center on West McIntyre Street, which is always open, even when no one’s there. “Latin American families especially are drawn to raise their children here because they can live without gates,’’ she said.
The village of 10,500 feels like another country, or many. Spoken Spanish flies back and forth across the tables at El Gran Inca over plates of Peruvian ceviche and pisco sours. Young mothers dress to the nines for the gym, and tanned gents carry exquisite leather man-purses. This is a place to buy Letarte swimwear at Boheme, or bangle bracelets — a rite of passage for Cuban and Cuban-American girls — from the Santayana family, whose father started the business in 1960 from a suitcase, selling his jewelry designs door to door.
To catch the local flavor, sip café con leche at the Oasis. Order translucent shaved octopus at Cantina Beach by the ocean. Pop into the pharmacy for Kérastase products from Paris, and the supermarket for Budweiser from the Czech Republic (Czechvar).
Although residents have deep pockets — a million dollars might buy a starter home here — the good life on vacation is not as expensive as one would think. With the airport just 20 minutes away, a car is unnecessary. The tennis courts at Calusa Park are free. Buses from Crandon Boulevard connect to Miami’s free Metromover for clubbing. But like the locals, once ensconced in your hotel — there are two: a Ritz-Carlton and budget-friendly, old Florida-style Silver Sands — you will not want to leave.
The south leg of Blank’s trail is all of a mile, but it is one to take slowly and return to many times. In Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, lock your bike and walk the sand paths whose cocoplum and seagrape bushes bear sweet edible fruits in autumn. You can dine here, too, at what must surely be the country’s best beach concession, Boater’s Grill. Reina González’s mother, at 90, still makes the flan. Try a crispy whole fish at an outdoor table overlooking No Name Harbor, a popular anchorage for passing yachts.
Where the bay and ocean meet, plant an umbrella on the beach beneath the eye of the 1846 lighthouse that once served the Underground Railroad. In the distance you can make out Key Biscayne’s most remarkable real estate, Stiltsville, standing in the offshore shallows. In 1941 Life magazine called it “an extraordinary American community . . . built for the pleasures of fishing, gambling and partying.’’
The pleasures are not so different today. Whether on Hobie Cats or megayachts, Key Biscayne has a way to get you on the water. Fishing charters return to Crandon Marina with cobia and wahoo, and locals line up at 3 p.m. to buy whatever the guests don’t keep. Families and groups of friends rent powerboats for snorkeling trips to Elliott Key (where the Florida Keys really begin) or a day of swimming and partying on the sandbars. On a calm day, Yahle typically sees 150 boats from her back porch.
The height of night life is sunset, and if you’re not on a boat or at Yahle’s house, the best places to see it are across the Bear Cut Bridge on Virginia Key. A drink at the Rusty Pelican buys you a fish-eye-lens view of the Miami skyline. Bradshaw Lotspeich recently co-opened another lofty perch, Rickenbacker Fish Co., where the organic veggies from his garden may be served with your Scottish salmon or Danish baby back ribs. As the sun dips low, the skyscraper windowpanes blaze with its fiery glow, followed by the neon blue lights of the port bridge.
Little did I know when I first jogged across the causeway that the first spit of land before Key Biscayne is Virginia Key. Although unmarked from the road, the waterfront located off Virginia Beach Drive was Dade County’s first beach for African-Americans in the 1940s (www.virginiakeybeachpark.net). Another turnoff opposite the Miami Seaquarium leads to Jimbo Luzner’s smoked fish shack, a last bastion of local color popular with Miamians, models, and “CSI: Miami’’ film crews. The octogenarian Luzner still makes an appearance on weekends.
The key’s north beach was steeped in weekday quiet as I took a last dip before crossing Biscayne Bay for home. A man wearing shorts and flip-flops pulled up in a car with Texas plates; he had taken the causeway by mistake, and looked lost.
“What is this place?’’ he said, stretching and looking around. “It’s beautiful.’’
Patricia Borns can be reached at email@example.com.