Last Minute Miami

By Laura Ann Klein

The fact that my ex was convinced that we’d be the victims in an aberrant crime if we played tourist in Miami is reason number 600 why he’s an ex.  My recent trip to Florida was last minute and just under a week long. Our weather was just short of perfect, the temperature an ambient 80 degrees every afternoon and a blissfully low humidity. We did have one rainy evening but that just made the pretty city on the ocean sparkle and glow even more. Here’s my short list of things you shouldn’t miss in Miami.

The rich made Miami their playground in the 1920’s and 30’s and the city is a mecca for Art Deco architecture.  Art Deco is a brilliant melding of Machine Age design with a concentration of metal, crisp lines and—what was then—a vision of the future and the sensual Orientalism made popular by the bon vivant and artist intellectuals in the late 19th century. The rich also had a taste for Mediterranean influenced architecture and many of the 1920’s realization of Venetian Piazzas, heavy with balustrade ornaments and decorative flourish, feel like visual dessert as they grace the same block with the sleek, spare buildings that are all undulating curves and simpler adornment.  You can find brilliant examples of Art Deco through out the city. As we explored, it seemed like every neighborhood and district we passed through had pockets of Art Deco buildings.  Some of the neighborhoods had been gentrified, but there were many that are crumbling in disrepair and could use a loving restoration.

South Beach definitely has the highest concentration and most organized nod to the preservation and promotion of this important part of Miami history and culture. You can walk, ride a bike, scoot along on a Segway, or observe from an open double decker bus day or night on a multitude of different tour options through South Beach.   The most famous streets, Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue are easily walked and enjoyed. Don't miss a walk after dark; the restored neon and artfully lite buildings play up the beautifully designed and impeccably restored buildings.

When I wasn’t gapping at buildings I was stuffing myself with Cuban food. I think I ate my way through Miami and what a sweet and savory trip that was! Little Havana is the place for Cuban food and it’s also a place to experience the cultural aspect that makes Miami so incredibly interesting.  Miami sits 90 miles from Cuba and everyone of a certain age is familiar and well versed in the US’s troubled history with the Caribbean island nation. West Miami became Little Havana in the 1950’s as political refugees created a place of their own, growing families and businesses while preserving the art and culture brought with them on the sometimes treacherous crossing from Cuba.  All along Calle Ocho (SW 8th street) you can stop and walk up to small family owned restaurants, many of them are little more than market stalls, and partake in the teeth-gnashing strength and goodness that is a Café Cubano washed down with a savory pulled pork asada nestled between slices of Cuban toast.  I think these two staples in the Cuban cuisine are why la vida nocturna is a viable way of life.  My favorite place in this west Miami food mecca was even further west and on the border between Miami and Coral Gables: El Palacio de Los Jugos.

“The Place of the Juice” (how it translated in my mind) is a small open-air market several miles from the center of Little Havana.  It’s a small collection of open-air stands with a wide variety of Latin American foods.  Not only was it the most inexpensive meal we had in Miami and it was the best.  Los Jugos serves as a delightful melting pot of the different Latin American and Caribbean cultures that have made their way to southern Florida making the soundtrack of West Miami a pleasant hum of Spanish, Portuguese, and Creole French.   Local markets are always a brilliant and fun way to experience traditional and local cuisine. Making this a stop on your Miami vacation won’t disappoint.   Go hungry, the portions are epic; we enjoyed our lunch for a couple of days.

Spend a day on the beach. Sure it won’t be productive in the sense you won’t be taking in the historic and culturally significant sites but sometimes you just need to sit back and watch the waves and the people.   When we weren’t stuffing ourselves in Little Havana, we were lolling around on the beach watching the very beautiful people, and enjoying the warm sunshine and water. South Beach was surprisingly clean for an urban beach.  Beach chairs/umbrellas and cabanas can be rented all along the beach if you don’t like to lounge about on the sand (no thanks).  Our hotel, the lovely Park Central had a “beach club” and provided guests with chairs.  The beach was also blissfully free from hawkers and touts, save the welcome guy selling bottled water.   It’s a public beach but private vehicles and dogs are not welcome. If you don’t bring your own food and drink with you, there are snack stands set up and you can always dash across Ocean Drive and enjoy lunch with a gigantic mojito. South Beach was very casual and it was more appropriate to lunch in your bathing suit than fully dressed. (I opted for covered up)

We met a friend from West Palm Beach in groovy Hollywood at the beach about 30 miles up the coast from Miami as the week wound down. It was a charming little town with Art Deco guesthouses, small hotels, and restaurants along a boardwalk. People were cycling, skating or just walking along the way: the azure ocean looking more Caribbean than Atlantic as music drifted from the bars and restaurants. Even though the beach wasn’t as expansive as South Beach but it was just as well kept and the prices for chairs/umbrella or cabana style tent were reasonable: $15 for two chairs or $30 for the cabana per day. It was low key, extremely chill.

Just to the north of Hollywood is Delray, a jewel box of a town on a gorgeous beach bordered by saw grass and sea grapes which gave the beach a decidedly wild feel despite the fact just a few miles away Fort Lauderdale posed with her posh skyscraper style condos and hotels.  If you do opt to try out the beaches north of the city, take A1A in one direction to get a feel of each town you pass through. It takes extra time, it’s stop and start and sometimes traffic crawls but if you’ve never been through Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, or the other little towns in Broward County it makes for a fun trip. You can always stop and take a short walk to a beach if you’re tired of the drive.

Hollywood and Delray are laid back and feel like towns rather than draws for  thousands of tourists.  Hollywood is the funkier of the two but both are much more unhurried than South Beach.  In fact, there’s a little Art Deco house on the Hollywood boardwalk that will be just perfect the next time I’m in south Florida. I hope the owners don’t mind a guest.

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