Feature: Off The Florida Keys…



…there’s no place called Kokomo, but driving down to the end of Florida makes for a fairly unique American road trip experience anyway

Photos: Chew ‘Yang’ Chen Yang, Ben Chia

KEY WEST, FLORIDA, USA

The American road trip. It’s one of those “try before you die” things in life, an item to check off your bucket list, especially if you’re into driving and travelling. Pop culture has ingrained in our subconsciousness the beauty and magnificence of America, and that the best way to explore this vast country is to simply pick up a car and point it to wherever the hell you feel like going.

While this particular road trip wasn’t exactly the epic ‘coast-to-coast’ variety that takes in the length and breadth of America, it was still a bit of an eye-opener of sorts, especially for those of us who hail from Singapore and regard driving the 40 or so kilometres from Changi to Jurong as ‘far’.

Essentially, what Mini had done was arrange for a group of us Asian-Pacific journalists to pick up a Countryman rental car from Miami International Airport (which has a whole entire building in itself dedicated to rental car companies), and then drive down to Key West, right at the southern edge of Florida. Stay the night at a hotel called Ocean’s Edge, and then make our way back to Miami for our flight home.

In theory, the trip was meant to be a leisurely affair, like a sort of holiday drive to take in the sights and sounds along the way. Unfortunately, due to the tardiness of some of our fellow Aussie journos, we ended up picking our Minis from the airport quite late, and were promptly spat out into Miami’s horrific evening rush hour traffic.

Ordinarily, driving around the Miami urban area during the best of times is already a bit of a nightmare, as we’ve experienced the past couple of days during our test drive event with the electric Mini. But to compound matters on this particular day, a certain Mr Donald Trump decided to visit his fancy Florida resort right as we were heading out. The roads around the airport were therefore shut for a couple of hours for his motorcade, and we were stuck in a literal standstill to wait it out.

By the time we broke free of the mess, it was well past 7pm and the sun had already started to set. Our ‘convoy’ had also by this time gotten split up by the jam, and so the only thing that me and my driving partner had to lead us to our destination was the rental car’s portable GPS device stuck on the windscreen.

I took the first stint, and facing the prospect of potentially reaching our hotel past midnight, I decided to really gun for it. We had almost 300km to make up, and my intention was to try to get to our destination as quickly as possible. Given that we would be driving in the dark, there weren’t really any sights to see anyway, so might as well get this journey over and done with.

Of course, I really don’t recommend breaking any traffic laws in a foreign country, but I took a calculated risk, and my partner fired up his Waze app to help me spot for members of law enforcement (i.e. cops) along the way. And with that, this road trip adventure took on a new dimension…

The cars we were provided with were regular Mini Cooper Countrymans (Countrymen?), with the standard 1.5-litre three-pot with 136 horsepower. Not a whole lot of grunt, but decent enough for a drive trip.

Our particular rental was also fairly well-used, with over 30,000km showing on the odometer despite being barely a year old, but it still felt relatively factory fresh, which is probably a testament to Sixt and how well they take care of their cars. Either that, or we were lucky, and that our Countryman had only ever been driven by old people up and down the Florida coast (which is not entirely unrealistic to be fair).

A fair bit of my stint was on the highways so that enabled me to make up ground, but it wasn’t long before we were passing through small towns and therefore had to curb our speed a little. In any case, by the time we pulled over for our driver switch (at some sort of dodgy-looking bar filled with people who were most likely wondering about these two curious-looking Asian dudes), it was well past dinner time, and my partner suggested we stop for a meal at the next restaurant we come across.

That took another 30km of driving, and we ended up, disappointingly, at Subway, where the menu is exactly the same as Singapore’s. Imagine, of all the variety of fast food restaurants you could get in America, we flew over 20 hours just to have a sandwich you could get back home. I highly regretted that decision, especially since we saw a Wendy’s not far down the road later on.


Our photographer had tacos. I did not.


The rest of the trip flew by quickly, and we reached our hotel at around 10pm, where we found the Aussies already waiting (apparently they skipped dinner). But we still had to wait for our BMW rep to check us in, and it took another hour for them to arrive.

The drive back to Miami the next day (when most of these photos were taken) was more in keeping of the leisurely nature that was originally intended, as the various countries decided to go their separate ways and make their own plans.

Our own Singaporean group took a relaxing drive to our lunch spot, Mrs Mac’s Kitchen, which was apparently a somewhat well-known local diner. The ambience wasn’t much to speak of, but the food was pretty decent classic Western fare, along with exotic stuff like alligator meat. Tastes pretty good, if you wanna know.

It’s a shame we didn’t have more time to explore the Florida Keys as we wanted to, but it’s actually a route worth exploring if you have the time. Our drive took us down U.S. Highway 1, through the Everglades, and crossing the scenic Seven Mile Bridge, which offers a pretty nice view of the Gulf of Mexico.

Driving across a huge and diverse country like America lets you see things that an average Singaporean won’t really get to see, such as the small towns and the lovely scenery along the way. You’ll also realise, in Florida anyway, where there is a significant Hispanic population, that America is a real melting pot of cultures, and not the white man’s land you usually see in the movies.

Despite whatever Trump, erm, trumpets, the majority of Americans are actually nice, decent and welcoming people, judging from our experience. And a road trip is truly the best way to see and experience America in its finest. Five stars out of five, would highly recommend.

about the author

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Ben Chia
CarBuyer's senior staff writer went out to explore the Great Big World, including a stint working in China (despite his limited Mandarin). Now he's back, ready to foist upon you his takes on everything good and wonderful about the automotive world.