There are moments that will stay with you, images that will flicker past for all of our personal eternities; we are nothing if not a cradle of private memories gracing this earth for a handful of decades. The rush and exhilaration of driving with the sunroof open, with the windows down, air exploding through the cabin, music wailing out of the speakers, flying out into the humid Florida air, to the clouds and sky and impossibly turquoise sea, to who knows where… this is why we drive, why we take these road trips. It’s for this feeling. Driving the Chevrolet Malibu Turbo south on Highway 1, I take it to where there is no more Highway, the zero-mile marker, end of the road, end of America.
The Florida Keys—a series of islands at the southernmost part of Florida, beginning with Key Largo and ending at Key West—evoke
inspiration: these are the inspired spaces of literary greats, and Key-lime pie aficionados alike; of rum fiends and Bacchanalia, of six-toed cats and sophisticates and spring-breakers, apparently. I seek out this last stoop of land, the last strip and grains of sand in the continental United States. And with the most powerful midsize sedan underfoot, I breeze by cars when given the opportunity, the release of the turbo only adding to my new state of euphoria. I take energy from the blue and turquoise hues, the sea is especially potent at arousing the senses, and this sea defines the rule.
In Key West I float through cherished haunts on Duvall Street. I stop at Mangoes for a Cuba Libre, an outdoor bar and restaurant that’s situated in the heart of the action. Kermit’s Key West Lime Shoppe is next, to try a tangy, no-morsel-will-survive Key-lime pie. And Vinos, a local wine, craft beer, and small bites bar is next. Locals are spilling out on to the quaint porches. The Nine One Five is filled with European tourists idly chatting over a glass of wine. And on, and on. With the Turbo parked I walk to the sea, stars are exploding in every direction, a breeze whips off the water, naked fish swim in plain sight, visible even at night in the clear Key water. 1,400 miles, starting all the way back in New Orleans, and this was what I was after. This moment.
The following day is spent at a few of the island’s tourist attractions: sunrise at the southernmost point marker—90 miles from Cuba—as bright paint informs you. And the zero-mile marker of Highway 1. After an early morning and little sleep, Ana’s Cuban Cafe is a welcome respite; a breakfast sandwich and Cuban coffee have unimaginable restorative properties. There’s also good people watching—a healthy mix of locals and tourists, and just a couple blocks from the glistening, shimmering Atlantic. Afterwards I treat myself to a tour of the island’s most cherished home, that of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is my Godfather (self-proclaimed, since the age of 13), and getting to see the house he lived in for nine years of his life—from 1931 to 1940—is nothing short of an electric experience. I completely geek-out. To see the personal spaces: the kitchen he and his family used, the dining table they ate on, his bedroom, and even his writing room—all combine to make for an intimate, unique look in to the lives of one of America’s greatest writers.
Driving from St. Petersburg, to Naples, through the Florida Everglades, is surprisingly drama-free. But that’s okay, because Miami is the unexpected bedside-firecracker that disturbs your Saturday morning slumber. Miami screams. And I love it. Saturday night, mile 1,100 and I’m piloting the Malibu Turbo past the Miami skyline. I’m treated to sudden fireworks illuminating the sky. Cruising on the causeway in to Miami Beach, South Beach, a rush of adrenaline greets me. A friend joins me and together we explore this eclectic island. The air is charged, the Art-Deco buildings are firmly planted while swarms of people circle around, Saturday night excitement in the air. We park on Washington Ave. and walk over to Collins Ave. We have reservations at Bond St. in the Townhouse Hotel, a current hotspot in the city’s ever-changing restaurant scene. We sample the Hamachi Jalepeno roll to awaken the taste buds, and follow with the salmon and avocado roll—a case study in simplicity, and a true test—if this basic roll is good, then the complex, creative fusion rolls can be trusted. It doesn’t disappoint. We try the Nasu Dengaku, Japanese eggplant broiled and generously applied with a miso-glaze, and the Sea Bass sweet miso skewers, before heading to the nearby Delano hotel. The dramatic lobby bar is famous, and makes for excellent people-watching, a favorite SoBe pastime. People gather round the tame shallow pool and sip cocktails, just a stone’s throw away from crashing surf and white sand at the foot of the hotel. It’s well past one a.m. and I don’t want to make it too late of a night, for the most exciting leg of my trip awaits: Key West.
The Dali Museum (or Hooters).
Salvador Dali is one of the best know painters of the 20th century—as renowned for his surrealist paintings as he is for his crazy eyes and early-hipster mustache—and given the opportunity to pay a visit to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL, I enthusiastically jumped on it. On display were some of the Spanish artist’s most illustrious works: The Hallucinogenic Toreador—Dali’s best-known monumental painting—as well as colorfully named gems like Bed and Two Bedside Tables Ferociously Attacking a Cello. In many of the painter’s works on display, we’re given a “double image,” or multiple images that are not necessarily apparent to us at first glance. This is intentional as he wanted to show that reason, may not always lead to truth. And if the Anti-Art and Surrealist movements aren’t really your thing, the orginal Hooters (est. 1983), is a 10 minute drive away in nearby Clearwater, Florida.
Mississippi, Alabama, but Really Just Life Before and After Cracker Barrel
I hadn’t seen a fresh vegetable for days, and in the South, I don’t even think they have pots and pans; Just deep fryers. Welcome to the land of crispy, golden-colored food. Because I wanted to spend some time exploring New Orleans, Miami, and my final destination of Key West, that meant the other days would have to be heavy driving days. That also meant sticking to interstates, and generally subsisting on fast-food chains. For a native Angeleno, it ain’t easy. Aside from chatty, friendly locals and thick, twangy-country accents, there wasn’t much to look forward to on this stretch. But that was before two consecutive meals at the folksy, Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants. With nearly identical layouts, and country-kitsch décor, these chains could raise a few red flags. But all they managed to raise were my road spirits. I could identify cooked vegetables on my plate at dinner (albeit covered in melted cheese), and at breakfast the next day, each morsel of smoked pork sausage was a savory bonfire doing the rump-shaker in my mouth. Not all chains are created equal.
Gas and Bob Dylan
When I was planning my itinerary, I felt it imperative that I stayed in Mobile, Alabama. There was no logic to this beyond my fascination with the Bob Dylan lyrics “to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again.” I don’t think staying in a brightly-lit, Courtyard Marriott off the freeway was exactly Dylan-esque, but it brought me closer to him in some way. I also filled up the gas tank twice: the first time at mile 347.8, averaging roughly 25.2 mpg; tank number two came at mile 758.2, with an average of 25.4 mpg. Although primarily highway mileage, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Turbo was getting similar fuel economy to the non-turbo model we had tested a few months prior. Not bad. Somewhere in Florida we switched to the Eastern time zone. The Chevrolet MyLink infotainment system is user-friendly, and you can effortlessly switch the time and date in seconds, with a few easy taps of the screen.
New Orleans is hard to pin down. It’s so interesting and confusing, that even after two full days, I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. There’s the neon and hustlers and dancers and bars of Bourbon Street, but blocks away in the French Quarter there are art galleries and impromptu live jazz bands. In fact, everywhere you go there seems to be music: blaring out of bars, wailing through decaying cafe windows, and on random corners everywhere. The buildings and balconies draw in the eyes, and much of the city is a visual buffet. And the food, down-home, fried, slow and low, is really unique to the region. If it swims in a swamp, I’ve tried it here, blackened and fried. From the culinary wealth of the French Quarter, to out-of-the-way treasures like the charming Jacques-Imo’s, New Orleans is a foodie paradise.
To cap off two blistering days of sensory overload, and before high-tailing out of Louisiana, we headed down to one of the Big Easy’s mandatory haunts: Cafe Du Monde. With (what else?) a live jazz band playing classics like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” we sated our bellies with chicory coffee and hot beignets, generously dusted with powdered sugar. A perfect, sweet ending to a delightfully packed couple of days.
Initial Impressions of the Malibu Turbo
A few things became evident driving around New Orleans in the Chevrolet Malibu Turbo: The Gulf area is filled with special drivers; the lane departure alert and heads-up forward collision warning came in handy, to say the least. Steering is light, and the suspension—while not as floaty and comfort-oriented as the regular Malibu—doesn’t deviate excessively from the non-turbo model. With 259 horses, power comes aplenty and is available whenever called upon. There’s slight turbo-lag, but very decent for a midsize family sedan that starts under $30,000. One standout feature—like on the regular Chevrolet Malibu—is the interior, and especially at night. The ambient lighting creates a modern, luxurious feel in the cabin. There’s lots of storage space for knick-knacks, and the power seats can be adjusted for an optimal seating position. Cabin noise was present on coarse asphalt, but on smooth roads—and even at highway speeds—was whisper quiet.
Welcome to the “Big Easy”
The captain came on the loudspeaker and said we were going to descend early, buckle up and expect some “chop.” Thunderstorms. He wasn’t kidding. We dropped our way down in to the Big Easy. I met my good friend from LA who flew in minutes earlier to accompany me on this first leg. At the baggage carousel, people grabbed their bags, crowds thinned. My bag—containing all of my favorite shirts, shoes, socks and underwear, and a high-resolution camera, toiletries, other things—did not. The woman at the Delta counter said “it’s here it says,” looking at her computer monitor. It wasn’t there. In the pouring rain, and with no luggage, I was ready to start the trip, with all of N’awlins to explore.
It’s still early in the new year, but I’ve already got that itch: that stout yearning to get out there and explore. To be fair, it never seems to go away. What am I after? Open roads, wind rushing through the cabin, some serious grub, and of course, new vistas to soak in. Here’s the plan: absorb the color and history—and maybe some bourbon—in New Orleans. Dig on the buildings and people. Drive. From New Orleans, through Mississippi, Alabama, and in to the rich, abundant sunshine of Florida. Cross the entire length of the state. Destination?
Last summer I embarked on an epic road trip down the East Coast of America, though 13 states. From Maine to Miami, in a Volkswagen Passat TDI. And while I made it to Miami, I wanted to go further. To the southernmost point in the United States: Key West. Turquoise water, white sand, wave to Cuba. And to fully experience America’s storied south, I’ll be piloting a great American sedan: the Chevrolet Malibu Turbo, the Malibu’s jock-brother, and a performance version of one of Chevy’s long-time top sellers in the U.S. The Malibu Turbo packs 259 horsepower, rides on 19-inch wheels tied to an enhanced, sport-tuned suspension, and here, there’s no shortage of attitude. I’ve got the keys in hand, and some of the country’s most alluring locales to explore ahead of me.
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