Miami Moves To A Latin Beat

Miami is hot, and it’s not just the sultry subtropical clime. The city moves to a Latin beat that’s as torrid as Tito Puente’s drums and as fiery as Celia Cruz’s voice, and visitors from around the world come to bask in its feverish glow.

Just ask the fashionistas who now count Miami among the best design centers of the world, thanks to annual events such as Fashion Week of the Americas and the Art Deco Festival. Equally enthusiastic are the gastrognoscenti who queue for tables at new restaurants opening by culinary superstars like Emeril Lagasse and Norman van Aken, among others. TV producers are hot on the city, too, filming shows like CSI Miami, Nip/Tuck, and The Simple Life 2 on location.

A recent check of the skyline turned up new architectural confections by the world-famous hometown firm, Arquitectonica. And don’t forget that Miami, the self-proclaimed “Capital of the Americas,” is at the head of the pack in the bid for the Permanent Secretariat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The Latin Grammys, Brazilian Film Festival, and World Music Conference, draw thousands. And that’s not even counting the beaches like Miami Beach, which for the fourth year in a row was named America’s “Top Urban Beach” by the Surfrider Foundation.

Even the economy sizzles. When the mayor boasts that Miami is No. 1, he means that the city has more flights to Latin America and the Caribbean than all U.S. airports combined and that the city is No. 1 in international freight and in cruise passengers. And the future looks bright: Despite drops in tourism elsewhere, the Port of Miami increased its cargo tonnage by 3.7% over the previous year while the number of cruise passengers grew 8.7%. And the film, television, and commercial production companies have already spent more than $40 million on the local economy.

With the passage of the 2003 People’s Transportation Plan, Miami is significantly expanding its mass transit system, adding buses and routes, improving roads, and making the Metromover free, and Miami International Airport prepares to open a new terminal and fourth runway.

All this expansion is intended to bring more visitors and help them get around faster, which is how tourism first started in Miami. In 1896 Pioneer Julia Tuttle convinced Standard Oil co-founder Henry Flagler to extend his railroad to Miami, lay out a new town and build a luxury hotel. The city incorporated the same year with 344 residents comprised of white settlers, Jewish merchants, African Americans, and Black Bahamians on the area that is now home to Miami’s financial district.

Land speculation in the 1920’s saw another boom, followed by a Depression-era bust, before the city was revitalized with the construction of Art Deco hotels on Miami Beach. Two major migrations followed, during World War II when the military established training centers in Miami and from 1959 to the 1980’s when thousands of Cubans fled Fidel Castro’s regime.

Today, the city has 2.5 million residents comprised of transplants from northern cities and Canada, Latin and Caribbean immigrants, and a growing European and Asian population. Last year, 10.5 million visitors arrived to mingle with Miami’s multicultural and multilingual population amid a natural playground of subtropical beaches, wooded tracts, mangroves, and rivers.

It prides itself on its cultural attractions, which include more than 20 museums, two major art museums, a world-renowned symphony and the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world. Three universities call it home. Fans support five big-league sports teams and an often top-ranked college football team.

Whether your preference is for great nightlife, the great outdoors or a great place to spend time with the kids, Miami has something for you. Here are a few tips on what locals do when they hang up their suits and put away their briefcases.

Best neighborhood stroll – Everyone comes to Miami Beach, especially its southern community of South Beach, for a good time, and most are not disappointed. Besides the sun, sea, sidewalk cafes, and celebrities, there’s the whimsical, colorful architecture of the historic Miami Art Deco District. The best way to see it is on one of the Miami Design Preservation League’s guided or self-guided audio walking, rollerblading, or bicycle tours that depart from the Art Deco Welcome Center daily. The center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Guided tours cost $15-$20 and last 90 minutes. They depart Thursday at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday at 10:30 a.m. A new reservation-only tour departs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. 1001 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; 305-672-2014;

To get an eyeful of Deco delights, head north on Ocean Drive from the Art Deco Welcome Center (#1001), home of the Art Deco Museum, and past the beautiful Cardozo Hotel (#1300), the Beach’s first Art Deco restoration project and now owned by singer Gloria Estefan. Continue north as Ocean Drive curves west and merges with Collins Avenue past the Delano Hotel, which features a classy white interior redesigned by Philippe Starck. Swing west on 21st Street and pause to examine the intricate Deco details on the Abbey (#300), Plymouth (#336) and Governor (#435) hotels. Don’t miss the Bass Museum (#2121) as you turn south onto Park Street, which merges with Washington Avenue. At 14th Street, cut east one block to Collins Avenue and turn south to gawk at the Essex Hotel (#1001), designed after a streamlined ocean liner complete with porthole windows and its neon name rising like a ship’s smokestack.

The beach’s architectural allure doesn’t end with Deco. Espasola Way is the heart of a historic Spanish village built during the 1920’s South Beach boom. Once rumored to be home to Al Capone and other gangsters, it’s now an artist’s enclave with shops, galleries and restaurants. From midnight on Friday through midnight on Sunday, the open-air Weekend Market turns the street into a lively pedestrian thoroughfare lined with vendors, artisans and entertainers, even some to amuse the kids while you shop. Restaurant tables and chairs spill onto the sidewalks, turning dining into part of the “in” scene. Free 30-minute walking tours of the area depart from the Clay Hotel (1438 Washington Ave.), every Wednesday. Between 14th and 15th streets and Collins and Pennsylvania avenues, South Beach; 305-531-0038.

Best neighborhood drive – In Coconut Grove, or simply the Grove, the narrow tree-lined streets wind past the county’s oldest neighborhoods, established in the 1830’s, and commercial district. Start on South Bayshore at Vizcaya, an Italian Renaissance style villa, drive west onto Grand Avenue, past parks, marinas, historic sites, shops, galleries, restaurants, sidewalk cafes, and nightclubs, and ease onto Main Highway to the Kampong, former gardens of David Fairchild. Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce: 2820 McFarlane Rd.; 305-444.7270.

Artistic escapes – One of the darlings of the art deco period, the exterior of the Bass Museum of Art is as fascinating as its interior. Built as the Miami Beach Library and Art Center, it features a Mayan-influenced limestone facade with three beautiful bas-reliefs over the entrances. The museum’s permanent collection highlights important European paintings and sculptures as well as Flemish tapestries. View additional exhibits on the outdoor sculpture terrace and stop by the museum shop and museum cafe and courtyard. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (open until 9 p.m. second Thursday), and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for children. 2121 Park Ave., off 23rd St., Miami Beach; 305-673-7530.

The Miami Art Museum (MAM), located in downtown’s Miami-Dade Cultural Center, collects international art with a focus on contemporary artists of the Western Hemisphere. Its current exhibit “Light and Atmosphere” is inspired by 32 works by artists such as Sean Scully and Ivan Kliun, who’ve seen the light and captured it through lenses, on canvases and on tapes (through Jan. 30, 2005). Join the staff and art lovers for music, hors d’oeuvres and art, including a guided tour of a current exhibition, at JAM at MAM ($5) on third Thursdays, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Visitors are admitted free on Sundays and second Saturdays. Admission $5. 101 W. Flagler St.; 305-375-3000.

The Wolfsonian-FIU feels more like the home of a great collector than an art museum. It has vast collections of everyday items such as furniture, design objects, books, ceramics, ephemera, textiles, periodicals, posters, and medals of North American and European origin, dating from 1885 to 1945. Through Oct. 10, experience the Machine Age through the eyes of one of its great chroniclers in “Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936.” Admission $5. Just off 10th at 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-531-1001.

Border crossing – Thousands of Cubans fled their country when Fidel Castro took power. Many settled in the area 20 minutes west of downtown that became known as Little Havana and recently has become home to many other South American immigrants. Spanish is the predominant language here. The main thoroughfare, S.W. 8th Street (Calle Ocho), is lined with cafes selling Cuban coffee and shredded pork sandwiches, stores selling religious articles for santeria and shops like La Gloria Cubana Cigar (#1106), where Cuban immigrants (tabaqueros) still hand-roll cigars. Window shop as you stroll down to S.W. 13th Avenue to see the monument to the heroes of the Bay of Pigs, the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba by U.S.-directed Cuban exiles opposed to Castro, then mosey up to S.W. 15th Avenue at Maximo Gomez Park, named for a hero of Cuban independence in the 1890’s, to watch elderly Cuban men play dominoes. Be sure to stop off at El Crucero (#7050) for traditional Cuban hospitality and cuisine. It’s not as polished as San Francisco’s Chinatown, but Little Havana is a good insight into another culture.

Time travels – Florida boasts the country’s oldest European-established cities, Pensacola and St. Augustine date back to 1559 and 1565, respectively. Yet with the exception of Key West, few pioneers settled in south Florida until the late 1800’s. Through buildings constructed by early settlers and later, industrialist Charles Deering’s 420-acre estate located 30 minutes south of downtown showcases the region’s pioneer history, starting in 1896. Bones and teeth of mammoths, dog-sized horses, tapirs, jaguars, peccaries, sloths, and bison have been uncovered from a fossil pit on the property as well, making it a major site for archaeological study. Tour the historic buildings, gardens and hardwood forest, called a hammock in this region. The estate is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., although tickets are only sold until 4 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for children. 16701 S.W. 72 Ave. at S.W. 168th St. and Biscayne Blvd.; 305-235-1668.

Coconut Grove is a hip, upscale community two miles south of downtown Miami that’s similar to South Beach, but on a smaller scale. Amid the urban excitement is Miami’s oldest house on its original foundation. Built in 1891 by Ralph Munroe, an avid boater who embellished his fortune as a salvager, the Barnacle State Historic Site is a well-preserved wooden house filled with Munroe’s original and period furnishings on five wooded acres overlooking Biscayne Bay. The state purchased it in the 1970’s and turned it into a museum. The annual 4th of July Picnic features games, demonstrations, and the staff and visitors wearing period clothing, including “Roaring 20’s” bathing suits. The popular outdoor concert series, “Barnacle Under Moonlight” resumes September 26 at 6 p.m. on the lawn. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and offers public tours Friday to Monday at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2:30 p.m. Admission is $1. 3485 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove; 305-448-9445.

The Historical Museum of Southern Florida is a trip through the past 10,000 years in Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba. Collections include prints of John James Audubon, aviation and maritime artifacts, and postcards from pre-Castro Cuba. The ongoing Folklife program documents the ethnic and cultural groups that make up South Florida. “The Florida Home: Modern Living, 1945 – 1965” runs through January 2005. The museum is located downtown at the Metro-Dade Cultural Center Plaza, and covers an entire city block. The plaza also includes the main Miami-Dade Public Library and the Miami Art Museum. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (opens at noon Sunday). Admission is $2-$5 or by donation on Sunday. 101 W. Flagler St.; 305-375-1492.

For an extra treat, sign up for one of the captivating historic walking, bike, bus, or boat tours of South Florida neighborhoods, cemeteries and waterways led by Dr. Paul George, the museum’s historian. Tours range from $17-$37.

Take the kids – Miami Metrozoo ranks high on the “Please-Mom-can-we-go” list because kids like to see the animals in cage-less outdoor settings that mimic their natural environments. Located 20 minutes southwest of Miami International Airport, the zoo’s 280 acres are filled with geographical groupings, indoor and outdoor shows, and rotating exhibits. Take the guided tram or elevated air-conditioned monorail to stake out what you want to see later. If the kids get hot and cranky, retreat to the water play areas. The best time to go is between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., when the kids can talk to the keepers and watch them feed the animals. More than 300 birds, many free-flying, inhabit the lush 2.6-acre Wings of Asia Aviary, which features more than 300 birds, waterfalls, a stream, underwater viewing tank, jungle vegetation and interactive areas where kids can dig for dinosaur fossils. Metrozoo is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but no one is admitted after 4 p.m. Admission ranges from $7 to $12. 12400 S.W. 152 St.; 305-251-0400.

Only in Miami do kids rate hipster status. Arquitectonica, the firm which became internationally famous with a building featured on the opener to Miami Vice, designed their stylish new playground, the Miami Children’s Museum. Visitors can play on hundreds of bilingual, interactive exhibits that are educational and fun. The “Cruise Ship” exhibit lets them investigate everything aboard ship, from navigating to passenger activities. They can spend time in a recording studio, veterinary office, and even a giant piggybank to learn about money. The museum is located 15 minutes east of the airport on Watson Island and is easily reached from I-95 by taking I-395 (MacArthur Causeway) toward Miami Beach. Playtime is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, with extended free hours the third Friday of each month (from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.). Tickets cost $8. 980 MacArthur Causeway.

If your kids think the downtown Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium is cool by day after seeing planetarium shows and exhibits that explore animal life, cultural diversity and science, from the atom to the dinosaur, wait until they come at night for rooftop observatory stargazing and the planetarium’s laser-light rock-and-roll show of galactic proportions, complete with 3-D glasses. Admission and daytime shows cost $10 for adults and $6, $8 for children. The stargazing and laser shows cost $7 for adults, $4 for children and run at 7 p.m. (stargazing) and 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. (laser shows) the first Friday of the month. 3280 S. Miami Ave.; 305-646-4200.

At South Miami’s Monkey Jungle, the people are caged and the animals roam free. Throughout much of the 30-acre park, you walk through a caged area surrounded by a re-created tropical rainforest, where monkeys eat, sleep, and play around you. Opened in 1933 as a breeding and research facility, it’s grown into a kitschy, albeit enjoyable, attraction with almost 400 animals, parrot aviaries, trainer talks, feedings, and face-to-face encounters with nearly 30 species of primates, including a gorilla, Java macaques, capuchins, gibbons, spider monkeys, and orangutans. Located 15 minutes south of Metrozoo, Monkey Jungle is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., although the ticket booth closes at 4 p.m. Admission ranges from $11.95-$17.95, and there’s a discount coupon available on Monkey Jungle’s Web site. 14805 S.W. 216th St.; 305-235-1611.

They’re back. They are those friendly colorful birds at Parrot Jungle, Miami’s oldest attraction. The natural theme park reopened in 2003 with paths through 20 acres of newly planted rain forest, gardens, talking parrots, pink flamingoes, such tropical wildlife kinkajous, as well as reptiles, and exotic insects. Animals and birds take to the stage for shows throughout the day. Stand still long enough to have your photo snapped with a parrot walking on your head or an anaconda slithering across your shoulder. The entire park, rain forest, boulders, birds and all, moved 15 minutes east of the airport to Watson Island and is easily reached from I-95 by taking I-395 (MacArthur Causeway) toward Miami Beach. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission ranges from $19 to $24, plus $6 for parking. 1111 Parrot Jungle Trail; 305-2-JUNGLE.

Exercise your brain – Make your best moves on an interactive hands-on station at the World Chess Hall of Fame & Sidney Samole Chess Museum. Located five minutes north of Metrozoo, the building looks like a castle and showcases rare chess sets, trophies, chess art, books, and memorabilia. There’s even the original table and chairs on which Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972 in one of the game’s most historic matches. This year’s acquisitions include 15 chess sets dating from 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1700. Test your skills against other U.S. Chess Federation members during chess tournaments held the second Sunday of every month. The museum is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for kids. 13755 S.W. 119th Ave.; 786-242-4255.

Commune with nature – Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is 83 acres of man-made lakes surrounded by tropical palms, native and rare fruit trees, vine-covered pergolas, cactus gardens, and plants from around the world. Narrated 40-minute tram tours, and guided walking tours from November to April, provide a history and description of the lush plantings. Don’t miss the orchids and ferns in the Windows to the Tropics conservatory. The Jean duPont Shehan Visitor Center houses a gift shop, bookstore and library. Plant society events, evening concerts and festivals are held throughout the year, including Aki Matsuri, A Celebration of Japanese Culture (Oct. 9-10), which features Japanese art, food, drumming and lectures. The garden and Garden Cafe, located 30 minutes south of downtown Miami in Coral Gables, are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission ranges from $5 to $10 or by donation on the first Wednesday of each month. 10901 Old Cutler Rd., Coral Gables; 305-667-1651.

Miami’s sub-tropical climate supports a wide variety of exotic plants. You can see, taste and learn about more than 500 varieties of exotic and subtropical fruits, nuts, spices and herbs as you stroll the winding paths of the 32-acre Fruit and Spice Park on your own or with a guide. There’s an original 1912 coral rock building and a small but comprehensive gift shop packed with cookbooks, plant books, spices, seeds, and dried and canned fruits. Located in Homestead 45 minutes south of the Miami airport, the park is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $1.50 for children. The park also presents weekend festivals and special events. 24801 S.W. 187 Ave., Homestead; 305-247-5727.

See the skyline – Take a 90-minute sightseeing tour narrated in English and Spanish on the Island Queen, a 140-passenger tour boat. You’ll see mega-yachts, cruise ships, sailboats, the city skyline, and the condos and houses of the rich and famous, including the cottage where Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher honeymooned. The hour-long late-night cruises also feature dancing to tunes spun by DJs. The boat departs from Bayside Marketplace downtown every hour from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. for daytime cruises, and from 8 p.m. to midnight for evening cruises. The fare is $16 for adults and $7 for children for sightseeing, $10 for dancing, and the Web site offers discount coupons. 401 Biscayne Blvd.; 305-379-5119.

Urban oasis – This isn’t your average county park, unless your park features an Italian-Renaissance-style villa, orchid house, and formal gardens on 50 acres overlooking a bay. Chicago industrialist James Deering wasn’t thinking average when he had Vizcaya built in 1916. Guides lead tours through the gardens and 70-plus rooms filled with paintings, sculptures and antiques dating back to the 15th century. The cafe offers a gorgeous view of the pool and gardens, and the gift shop has Italian crafts. For $5, you can take a Moonlight Stroll, which features a slide lecture and guided tour of the garden on bright, moonlit nights. Stop by the newly restored sections of Vizcaya Village, a replica of a northern Italian village built on the estate in the early 1900’s. An easy 15-minute drive south of downtown, Vizcaya is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tickets for the house and garden tours cost $5-$12, and tickets are not sold after 4:30 p.m. 3251 S. Miami Ave.; 305-250-9133.

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