Florida Keys and Road Trip North via Harry Potter World


One Week in the Florida Keys and Road Trip North via Harry Potter World

August 2018

We arrived at Key West Airport and went to dinner! The Key West airport is small and easy to manage. There are two baggage claims and a host of car rentals right in the terminal.

The Café, Key West – After arriving at the Florida Keys airport, we had dinner in Key West at this vegetarian restaurant off Duval Street, The Café. It was excellent. We each tried a different fruit juice or smoothie and different entrees. There is an incredible selection for gluten free, vegan and vegetarian needs. I tried their falafel sandwich. Both my fresh carrot/tropical juice and the falafel sandwich were good. I could have used more sauce and salt on my sandwich, but it was good. My family tried other salads and items. My son liked his special tacos. He got three and was full after one.  We tried three of the special deserts. We were disappointed with the vegan key lime cheesecake; although my daughter said it was better on another night. On our night it was mostly cheese and little lime. I liked my blueberry avocado cake and my daughter loved her coconut cake. Everything vegan or vegetarian was exceptionally made with care and excellent ingredients. Nice location, nice airy rooms and plenty of larger tables. We really enjoyed it. It’s rare to find a healthy choice restaurant while on vacation.

From Key West, we drove north about 45 minutes to Little Torch Key to our cottage on the water.

Parmer’s Place, Little Torch Key  – Three of us stayed in the Lagoon Cottage, which is a two bedroom cottage at the end of the property near the trailer parking. The down side is that it is… at the end near the trailer parking, so people and trailers and trucks were coming and going often. The plus side is that this cottage is a private house with a lovely view out the waterside, large and quiet. We liked having the whole house to ourselves with two bedrooms, plenty of light and lots of space. It is an easy walk along the water to the office and breakfast location. Complimentary breakfast is mostly fruit, breads and cereal. I appreciated the hard boiled eggs each morning, to have at least some protein. The staff there and the office are nice and helpful. If you need anything, it is all at the office. We had to walk there for pool towels and ice. I would have appreciated some pool toys for kids, since it is difficult to fly with those. There is a small “beach”, but the water drops off quickly and is filled with grasses and seaweed. It’s not really a swimming beach. The pool is nice though and my kids and I enjoyed it every day. The location on Torch Key was perfect for us as we were visiting family on Cudjoe and Summerland Keys, it’s a good 30 – 40 minute drive to Key West, though if you want to sightsee or go out there. Our other input is that when we requested late check-in by phone after arriving in Key West the person who gave us directions over the phone was not very clear in their directions. For someone who was driving on the Keys for the first time late at night to say that the resort was a quarter of a mile down Barry when it is .75 miles down makes it difficult and a bit stressful to find. We drove up and down a few times before driving further down. With small kids in the car, it would have been nice to just have the specific mileage. So many people request late check-in, these directions should just be tested, confirmed, written up and given out easily by now.

Here are our recommendations of what to see and do while on the southern Keys.

Square Grouper, Cudjoe Key – We had our nicest meal at Square Grouper on Cudjoe Key. We didn’t have a reservation and after a short wait got a table for five easily at 6:30 pm. We tried the insalata caprese and each tried various seafood and fish entrees. I tried the scallops with polenta, which was great. There was too much polenta, but the scallops were done just right. The menu said they had chili powder on them, but they were not hot. We shared a few desserts. The key lime pie was good and I enjoyed a flourless chocolate tart with ice cream. There is plenty of parking next to the restaurant. Since it is a nicer place and popular, I would recommend reservations to be sure you have a spot. It was our favorite meal on the Keys.

Ernest Hemingway’s House, Key West  – We loved seeing the Hemingway House in Key West and not in ways I would have imagined. The house itself was built in the 1850’s by another family and fell in disrepair in the 1880’s. Hemingway received it in the 1930’s as a wedding present and lived there through the 1930’s with his second wife Pauline (he had four, information which is part of the tour and Hemingway lore). The house is sturdy and beautiful. It has original hardwood flooring and large windows in every room. Every room is well balanced and graceful. There are about 50 to 70 cats roaming the rooms and property. The property is large and includes Hemingway office/study/work house and pool. It gives you a chance to see and feel how he lived and worked and it gives you a sense of a life of grace in a way that you could not otherwise experience. The combination of lovely weather, a large sense of space, beautiful grounds and plants and sumptuousness give you a sense for how he could sit with fans blowing all around and write fabulous fiction. It was a glimpse into another time and another way of living.

Fort Zach’s Beach, Key West  – This State Park and Beach was different that I was expecting. We paid our $7.50 and enjoyed the beach. On the plus side, it is the only sand beach in Key West or possibly on the Keys. You can park and walk straight down to the sand beach. You can take a picture of yourself on the rocks at point zero, the most southern point of the US landmass. We were there on a windy, wavy day and we did swim out with masks on, but had no visibility. I have heard that on a calm day, there are fish, coral and nice things to see underwater around the rocks. On the less plus side, there is little shelter on the beach so on a sunny day, you get a lot of sun and it is very hot. Much of the beach is rocky. It’s hard to walk around at the water’s edge. The water can be wavy for small kids. There are not any trash bins, so if you are eating, you need to bring your trash out with you.  This is a great place to watch the sunset, but the park also closes at sunset, so the park rangers chase everyone out of the park right after it finishes.

Sugar Apple Juice Club, Key West  – We dropped by here for smoothies in Key West. It is on the side of a grocery store. The grocery store seemed very well stocked. The juice bar was staffed with one person who seemed very unsure of our orders when we were there. We selected three or four fruits for each of our smoothies and she kept questioning what I and my sons wanted. She asked about our smoothies three or four times. Once they were made, they tasted ok. Their flavor across the three we received was not consistent. Perhaps if we had just ordered standard items on the menu we would have had better luck. Perhaps the person helping was not a regular staff person. We didn’t have a great experience with smoothies.

Tonio’s for Lunch, Summerland Key  – We loved the patio for snacks and lunch on our way into Summerland Key. I tried the tuna stack and my boys had chicken and fish tenders for lunch. Everyone loved their food and loved the setting. It is shaded and cool with breezes flowing through. We had boats passing by. The service was fast and friendly. Everything went well for us for a late lunch at an outside table near the water.

Kikis Sandbar, Little Torch Key  – We had a great experience at this dog friendly place for dinner on Little Torch Key. It is a seat yourself, hang-out kind of place. Once the waitress found us, we ordered easily and our food came in reasonable time. My kids loved the easy atmosphere out on the patio with plenty for kids to do. There are hanging chairs, sand to run around on, throwing sacks and dogs to meet. It is a family friendly bar and beach food place which welcomes dogs. My son liked his chicken tacos, I liked the tuna nachos although I could have used less sauce on it. Sauce on the side would have been my preference. It was a fun, relaxed place.

On Saturday morning, our day three, we began our 30 hour drive north, leaving Cudjoe and Summerland Keys. We crossed Seven Mile Bridge and stopped for lunch.

Seven Mile Grill for Lunch – We stopped here for lunch after crossing the seven mile bridge coming up from the south. It has standard American burgers but also great Greek options for lunch. My daughter and I enjoyed a salad with gyros meat, fresh warm pita bread and homemade tzatziki sauce which were excellent. My son enjoyed his footlong hot dog and my other son had fish and chips. All good. They have shakes and seafood. Our service was fine. They have seating inside and on the patio. A fine stop on our road trip.

Upon arriving in Orlando (about eight hours north), we drove to our hotel at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, which is a “Italian seaside village” in the heart of Universal Resort.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Orlando – This is a great hotel especially if you are visiting Universal. I did not like my reservation experience, but otherwise, we had a good stay. When I was reserving our rooms, I did my research and wanted a double queen with views of the Italian buildings and Bay. When I called, however, I could only book our room with Universal. I booked a double queen with Bay View. When we checked in, since I had not booked our room directly with the hotel, they put us in a Pool View. We could have been anywhere looking at any hotel pool. It was nice, but it was not an Italian view or specific to Universal. I really wanted the unique view looking at the Italian part of the hotel and bay. I do not know how to avoid this except when you are booking, if you want to look at the Italian buildings and bay, confirm and reconfirm that you have a Bay View. That said, once we were in our room (which was big and comfortable for four), we loved these things:

  • Trattoria for Breakfast Buffet in the morning – The options are amazing and it is easy in and easy out if you are heading to the park;
  • Mama Della Italian for Dinner – Wonderful Italian food and opera singing at night. Amazing! We loved it. Reservations recommended.
  • Water Taxis to and from the Universal Park – This is so convenient – In the morning we just jumped on the water taxi and it took us to Universal. So easy. One day a storm shut down the taxis and we thought the bus would take too long, so the wonderful thing about this hotel and the Hard Rock is they are both within walking distance from Universal. We just walked home (about a mile), even with tired kids.
  • Express Passes – We did two days at Harry Potter World with Express Passes and early morning starts. We only used the early morning starts once because only a few things have an early morning start, but the Express Passes were great.

We would stay at Portofino again, but I would try to make my reservations for hotel and Universal separately.

At the Portofino, there are two restaurants we liked.

Trattoria for Breakfast Buffet, Orlando – We ate here every morning and loved it. Each morning around 7 am we came down and had the buffet. It is fast and easy. It is $20 for each adult (and perhaps $12 for each kid). But, the ease and speed were worth it for us. The options include everything you can think of… Eggs, pancakes, oatmeal, salmon and bagels, cereals, plus omelets to order, and some savory dishes like udon (which our son had every morning), pastries, fruit, etc. Really sumptuous and good. It’s on the first floor at ground and water level, so once we were done, we just walked out to the water taxi and left for Universal from there. We were on the taxi by 7:30 am in the morning and ready for the early open at 8 am.

Mama Della’s for dinner, Orlando – We made a reservation at 5 pm one day for a 6:30 pm dinner at Mama Della’s. It seemed funny to make a same day reservation, but I wanted to make sure we could get a table and the notes about the place said reservations recommended. We were glad we did because when we got there people were waiting for a table. We had a great dinner. We shared a insalata caprese and they brought tons of fresh bread. I tried the lasagna special. My daughter had their gnocchi and my son had their spaghetti. All the time there were three strolling singers in the restaurant going from table to table taking requests and singing opera and show tunes. It was really fun.

We stayed at the Portofino for Harry Potter World at Universal.

Harry Potter World at Universal, Orlando – Diagon Alley – It was truly magical to walk into Diagon Alley and see my imaginings of books I have loved for 20 years come to life. I have seen some of the things differently in my mind’s eye, of course, but to see the stores, to have them open and to have some of the merchandise available was fun (but expensive). To have my oldest daughter with whom I read the first books 15 and 20 years ago be excited to select a wand at Olivanders was so miraculous. To watch my youngest sons who are just now reading the books for the first time, use the interactive wands to cast spells into the store windows and watch a chocolate frog croak or a book open… it was pure joy. We drank butterbeer. We ate at the Leaky Cauldron. We entered Gringotts Bank and rode the ride three times in a row to be part of the crazy adventure. We wandered around Hogsmead and bought sweets at Honeydukes. We felt part of the wizarding world. It was really special. They have done a great job, especially with the details. The only strange thing about it is that it is two separate spaces tacked onto Universal. You enter Universal and walk up through Chicago and San Francisco and then enter London and the brick wall into Diagon Alley. It’s not a separate “Harry Potter World”, but parts of it are there and if you and your family have loved the books, you will love what is there. You will need at least one full day and two are best.

Hogswarts Express, Orlando – You can take the Hogswart Express between Diagon Alley and Hogsmead to get between the two parts of Harry Potter World. The Hogwarts Express is a very organized ride. When you enter the long lines from the Kings Cross station, have someone from your party hang back before you walk through the door between platform 9 and 10. From a distance it looks like you are walking through a brick wall and they can video it for you. To you, you will be walking through a doorway. It looks great on video! From there, you stand in lines and are lead into a seat on a train car. From one direction you will see video and scenes from Harry Potter books of dementors and the tea trolley heading to Hogwarts. Coming from Hogwarts back to London, you will see a different set of scenes. We liked the route back to London better, since you see more characters. You can stand with the front of the train for photos in Hogsmead, so don’t worry if you don’t get good photos in the train stations. The train is always moving.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Hogsmead, Orlando – Hogsmead is more crowded than Diagon Alley for some reason. We enjoyed buying sweets at Honeydukes and taking the Hippogriff, which is a short rollercoaster. I wish they had done more with the castle. It is only a ride. I wanted to have it be expansive and be able to walk around it. I wish it was larger and its own space. It’s not a separate “Harry Potter World”, but parts of it are there. If you and your family have loved the books, you will love seeing it come to life. We enjoyed being there for two full days.

From Orlando, we drove north for a twenty hour road trip to Iowa, stopping in Gainsville, FL and then Nashville, TN. If you are driving north on I-75, here are a few worthwhile stops.

Fairfield Inn at Gainesville – We stopped here on a road trip from the Florida Keys to Iowa after a stop in Orlando at Universal. This was a good place to stop. The Fairfield is close to the highway, but not right next to it, so it is not noisy. It is new and so modern and clean. The rooms are larger and comfortable. On the plus side, we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast in the morning. The staff for breakfast was very helpful. When I asked for herbal tea, the woman there got me a variety. My family liked the options of eggs, cereals and oatmeal. Our room looked out towards the back and pool and was quiet. On the less plus side, the person checking us in when we arrived there at 9 pm could have been more helpful about where to unload and where to park. There was very little parking when we got there late at night. We unloaded at the front door, but could only find parking at the very back of the property and our room was right off the elevator, so we ended up walking around a lot and we were very tired. We were also given a room for a handicapped person, so all the extra bars and supports would have been helpful for a less mobile person or an older person, but got in the way for our family and kids. I would recommend this hotel if you are on I-75 as a good road-trip stop, perhaps be specific on room requirements and ask about best places to park for your room.

Museum 21C Hotel in Nashville – We loved staying at this hotel which is also a contemporary art museum. There were a few small service items that could have made it great. When we arrived after driving for 12 hours, we parked out front and no one came to help us. I left my family in the car and went to check-in. The person at check-in was exceptionally helpful, but there was no bellman. So, she had to walk down with a cart and find him. He was on his phone! Eventually he helped us with our bags and we made our way to our room. At first I was hesitant to pay the $38 for overnight parking, so after getting to our room and getting the check-in staff’s recommendation for dinner, we circled the streets looking for a metered spot for parking. Eventually we used the valet overnight for $38. It turns out that there is a monopoly on Nashville parking and only one company owns the parking ramps near the hotel so they charge what they want. If you can find a metered spot it is free until 8 am. We walked up and ate at Puckett’s at Church and 5th which was great fun. The hotel has art shows on the first two lobby floors as well as lovely sleek rooms. We liked looking at the art, which was very accessible and interesting. My sons loved a quiet video room with comfy rolling chairs. It was interactive art that engaged them. In the morning, we enjoyed a healthy breakfast with smoothies and egg dishes downstairs. Overall, we had a nice stay.

Puckett’s for dinner in Nashville – We walked up the street from our 21C hotel for dinner here while in Nashville and enjoyed it. There was a live band on the night we were in town, the Steel Blossoms. Two women who sang covers as well as their own material. It was fun to introduce my sons to the Nashville traditions of good music and supporting musicians. We all tried various meats as well as their dessert. I had ribs. My son had brisket. Another son had brisket and my daughter tried a sampler. All good. The sides could have been improved. One of the green bean dishes were just straight out of the can which can be good, but these were tasteless. My skillet beans were good. The potato salad was good, but the sweet potato mash had a strange taste. We tried the skillet fruit crumble which was a disappointment. It was just a sweet cake. A crumble should have a crumble topping, I think. This didn’t have much fruit or crumble. Overall, though, I would recommend the restaurant for the atmosphere, the meats and the fun.

Kirchhoff’s Deli, Paducah Deli and Cookies – We took an exit from our road trip and checked out Paducah, KY about five miles off of the interstate. We loved this small town on the corner of Kentucky and the Ohio River. We ate at the Kirchhoff’s Deli and next door Cookie Bakery. The Deli has a number of sit down tables inside and outside along the sidewalk. You order from the menu or chalkboard with today’s specials at the counter. The sandwiches are made to order. On the day we were there, they were out of the soup of the day (a chili) by 12 N. The sandwiches are big and good. I enjoyed my grilled brie, although it needed salt. The cooks were making many what looked like pizza sandwiches on focaccia bread. We might have missed a specialty. One of my sons had a Reuben and the turkey pastrami was not thin sliced and it was hard for him to eat the flavor was not a familiar Reuben flavor for him. My daughter liked her grilled cheese. The French onion soup was good for a to-go soup. We then went next door to the Bakery and tried every one of their specialty bars. We particularly liked the millionaire bar, the peanut butter bar, the pecan brownie and the lemon bar. My daughter liked the cowboy cookie. The pecan praline bar had icing in the middle and was too sweet for us. Overall, the bakery was a great stop for sweets. The combo of hot sandwiches at the deli and bars at the bakery is recommended.

From Paducah, we continued on our way north on our 30 hour road trip from the very southern Florida Keys.