The friend at the dog park looked skeptical. Admittedly, my idea of going from Miami to West Palm Beach, Fla., for dinner, a distance of roughly 115 kilometers essentially spanning the entire length of South Florida, sounds ridiculous. He compared the endeavor to participate in The Amazing Race and wished me luck.
To be fair, not long ago a plan like this would have been near impossible, death-defying or maybe just downward dumb. Any Canadian who’s driven Interstate 95 while vacationing in Florida knows why. It’s not just Highway 401-level congestion. I-95 is a never-ending construction zone full of drivers who seem to make it a hobby to pretend rules don’t exist.
But Florida’s bottom-right corner now has a passenger train that promises easy travel between Miami, Aventura, Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale. And its route is about to expand. In the second quarter of this year, the Brightline train system plans to open its long-awaited high-speed leg, which will connect the Miami-West Palm section to Orlando. There’s even talk about some days extending the service to Tampa, which would make Blue Jays spring training games in nearby Dunedin more accessible from elsewhere in the state.
It used to be that Canadian snowbirds and vacationers who came to South Florida or Orlando generally saw them as separate destinations too difficult to reach on the same trip. But Brightline trains a promise to change that. Later this year, a trip to Disney could include a visit to South Beach or the tony Worth Avenue shops on Palm Beach island.
Brightline arrived in 2018 and last year carried 1.23 million passengers. The company is also working on a rail line connecting Southern California with Las Vegas, with construction expected to start later this year.
Our Miami-to-West-Palm-in-one-night trip began with a 2:55 pm Uber pickup in Midtown, a trendy section of Miami between the Wynwood arts district and the high-end shops in the Design District. The ride to the train station took 12 minutes in midday Miami traffic, forever set to rush hour.
It’s a gleaming tower, the Brightline station, rising out of a section of Miami’s downtown that until recently received little love from the developers who’ve plopped new condo towers that seem everywhere else in the city. Brightline’s arrival created new interest, and now the floor-to-ceiling windows in the second-floor waiting room look out on construction cranes carrying Lego-like sections up to soon-to-be skyscrapers.
Brightline’s tickets start below US$10 for trips between Miami, Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm. However, tickets in the winter high season can often cost upwards of US$30 each way. We scored two upgraded tickets, which allowed access to a lounge with a charcuterie spread and pour-it-yourself wine and beer. Tickets to this section are steep – about US$60 one way. while commuters dominated the crowd waiting in the main area of the terminal, many people in the VIP lounge seemed to be doing the same thing as us, heading north for a night out – and hitting the rosé tap hard until boarding call went out for our 3 :48 pm train.
On board, the Brightline is sleek and modern. Even the coach-level cars have seats as wide as an airline’s first class, modest but clean bathrooms, and a rolling cart with drinks and snacks for purchase. Up in the premium-level car, we lounged in chairs as big as La-Z-Boys, punched the recline button and ordered a cabernet. The man pushed the cart poured from a cloyingly sweet bottle of 19 Crimes, the one with Snoop Dogg’s face on the label, and handed us plastic cups, an odd contrast to the otherwise fine surroundings.
Unfortunately, the journey between Miami and West Palm is not scenic. There’s an endless stream of warehouses, fat intersections of frustrated motorists and unlucky houses with scraggly patches of grass facing the tracks.
The train made its final stop in West Palm 80 minutes after we left Miami, nearly as long as it would have taken to drive – but without the inevitable frustration of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Unlike Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where the stations sit in up-and-coming areas, West Palm’s station is a dead center in the charming downtown area, a short walk to the Rosemary Square entertainment district and the bars and restaurants along Clematis Street.
We had a destination picked out already, and our next Uber took us on an eight-minute trip south to Tropical Smokehouse, where we arrived just before 5:30 pm The chef is Rick Mace, who not long ago ran the kitchen in one of the fanciest restaurants in South Florida, Cafe Boulud. He came out of the kitchen to chat. Just a couple of days had passed since he received a nomination from the James Beard Awards, which some call the Oscars of the US restaurant industry.
For his own place, he wants to take the traditions of Southern barbecue and combine them with the flavors of the Caribbean using Florida-sourced ingredients, which explains his alligator sausage and smoky mahi. Since his award nomination, Mace has seen an uptick in business. Having a train to catch, we asked the server to box up our leftovers from a sampler platter full of Texas-style brisket slices, pulled pork and ribs well-crusted in a spice rub.
Uber got us back to the station with almost an hour to kill before our 7:48 pm train, and we considered grabbing a nearby drink. But the fine print on the tickets suggests showing up early because trains can inexplicably depart a couple of minutes ahead of schedule. (Recently, I showed up to a Brightline station early and watched a young woman and her elderly parents get turned away because their train had left two minutes early.)
In total, we spent about five hours on our round-trip Brightline adventure. This included waiting for and riding in Ubers, hanging in lounges before our departures and actual time speeding along the tracks. That’s about two hours longer than it would’ve taken to drive the same route there and back. Our train trip home, however, proved to be fortunate, when a quick check of Google Maps revealed an accident would have filled our drive with frustrating slowdowns, adding who knows how many additional minutes of torture. Instead, we spent the time waiting in a VIP lounge, free from the frazzled stress of an I-95 drive.
By the end, we decided the entire trip, from Miami to West Palm in a single night, was nothing like The Amazing Race but more like a culinary adventure we’d undertake again. Visitors could quite easily repeat this trip during a vacation, maybe to fit in dinner at Boca Raton’s Mizner Park during a business trip to Miami.
Next up, perhaps we’ll head to West Palm for the city views from the RH Rooftop restaurant, to join a trivia team for the Monday night game at Swifty’s at the Colony Hotel or to commit to the well-marbled Fiorentina steak at La Sirena . And then there’s also the other James Beard semi-finalist from West Palm this year, chef Lojo Washington from Queen of Sheeba, an Ethiopian place that would be new to me. And what’s better than a trip that takes you to a new adventure.
Discover more about Florida’s Brightline train at www.gobrightline.com/brightline-florida.
The writer traveled as a guest of Brightline and Tropical Smokehouse. They did not review or approve the story before publication.
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