1992. Spring break. Daytona Beach.
I was a junior in high school, and my four besties and I wanted to party it up in Florida. The five of us crammed into my tiny Ford Festiva, me at the helm and my mother yelling for me to come back as we pulled out of the driveway.
It took us 15 hours and cost us less than $40 to get there. Gas was 98 cents per gallon and cigarettes were 75 cents per pack. We spent hours on the beach, met lots of cute boys, stayed up clubbing way too late and did more than our share of many unmentionables. We returned home safely, sunburned, reeling from the freedom and a couple of us pierced (I got a belly-button ring). We laugh about it to this day.
Fast-forward 25 years. We have talked about a girls trip for years, but husbands, kids and careers always got in the way. Finally in our 40s, we decided to put everything aside. It was Momcation to Florida, early January of this year.
The four of us spent hours on the beach, gawked at cute young hipsters with their beards and man buns, stayed up dancing one night way too late (we regretted that the next day) and engaged in some unmentionables. I came back with a tattoo. Twenty-five years from now, we'll still be laughing about it.
SUB: Miami's vice
It started in Miami. We stayed in glamorous, swanky South Beach, which was expensive but fantastic. Famed for its white sand beaches, waterfront hotels, hot nightclubs and pastel Art Deco hotels built to dazzle in the '20s and '30s, Miami's hot days and steamy nights still lure Hollywood A-listers looking for posh and fashionable places to hang, such as the Delano, Essex House and Breakwater.
The action in South Beach still settles along Collins and Ocean Drive with a nonstop party feel, and it certainly has its vices. Watch for people selling boxes of perfume or bags of chips on the beach — they're selling something else more pungent.
Otherwise, we loved the vibe, if only for a couple days. We ate at some fantastic restaurants, including the Big Pink, for its famous breakfasts, and Mercato Della Pescheria, a delectable Italian seafood joint. Don't miss Mango's Tropical Cafe on Ocean Drive, where professional salsa dancers shake and twirl atop the bar in elaborate costuming.
Eating and imbibing (at about $20 for mixed drinks) can break the bank in Miami, as we found the night we went clubbing at the uber-chic Villa Azure, then Mynt, another local haunt where we guessed we were the oldest in the room.
The next day, we bought a day pool pass at one of South Beach's famous hotels, the Metropolitan by Como. Others, such as the Raleigh, Four Seasons and the SLS, offer day passes that allow you to take advantage of their lavish pools, restaurants and spas. We rented a bed and lounge chairs, ordered drinks and lunch from our spot on the beach, sipped from fresh coconuts and dipped into the turquoise ocean water or the Met's pool when the sun got too hot.
SUB: Tropical keys
Ready to escape touristy South Beach, we hopped in a rental — a much more spacious SUV compared to that Ford Festiva — and headed down A1A toward the Overseas Highway, ready to chase the sun in the Keys. A beautiful drive overlooking blue-green waters, small islands and reefs, we slipped from Key Largo to Islamorado and Marathon, over the famous Seven Mile Bridge and finally to Florida's southernmost city, Key West. It appeared relatively untouched, but several keys still were recovering from Hurricane Irma.
An island city of palm-lined streets boasting Victorian homes, gingerbread conch houses and mansions on the National Register, Key West is just 8 square miles, but there is plenty to do, from Ernest Hemingway's House, where he lived and wrote for more than 10 years, and Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf, to Mallory Square's bustling plaza and famous sunsets.
Key West boasts a colorful "Floribbean" feel, with turquoise waters, sugar sand beaches, palm-lined streets, famous reefs, tropical drinks and a laid-back lifestyle. Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and Jimmy Buffett are just a few other famous people who called Key West home. But Florida's southernmost island is best known for legendary fishing, famous dive sites and eclectic Duval Street.
Duval is 15 blocks long, with plenty of off-street restaurants and boutiques. Grab a beer and shop, stop for lunch or sit in an open-air patio and watch the crowds. Of course, we elected to do the Duval Crawl one night, where you hit every famous bar on the street. The rule was one drink and 30 minutes at each haunt, then it was time for the next one. We felt hopelessly old when it lasted only a few hours. We were in bed by 9.
Aside from the bars, restaurants and upscale art galleries that line Duval, you'll notice the free-roaming chickens — the gypsy chickens, as locals call them. They are part of the island's off-beat charm, but don't touch them; it's illegal to hunt, trap or harm the cherished fowl.
There aren't many public beaches in Key West — beautiful Smathers Beach is worth a day soaking up the sun. But that doesn't mean Key West isn't without its water sports. The Great Florida Reef, just a few miles west of Key West, is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. It is the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef and Belize Barrier Reef. There are plenty of diving and snorkeling trips you can take to witness the underwater life teeming with turtles, colorful fish, rays and reefs. For bigger fish, book a dolphin excursion, where captains will take you to their playground and you can get up close and personal with the giant beauties.
Speaking of fish, you'll be treated to some of the world's best meals in Key West. Fish tacos, fresh snapper, mahi mahi and grouper are on practically every menu. But you'd be amiss not to get a taste of fresh shellfish. Head to Pinchers on Duval, a fun and casual joint, tie on a bib, get your lobster crackers and tiny forks ready and crack into fresh crab and lobster. For dessert, try conch fritters and oysters on the half-shell. Just don't leave without a slice of Key lime pie.