Stay a spell in mag­i­cal land of dreams

Mi­ami melds arts and cul­ture with easy ac­cess to the Ever­glades and the Keys

Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

SOUTH Florida is a land of dreams. Mi­ami is known as the Magic City.

Which­ever way you cut it, imag­i­na­tion and in­no­va­tion are big here, man­i­fest­ing them­selves in art, ar­chi­tec­ture and fes­ti­vals.

You see it from the ex­trav­a­gance of Lin­coln Rd to the ephemeral neon beauty of Ocean Drive; from the cloud­kiss­ing sky­line of down­town Mi­ami to the shells of empty con­do­mini­ums that bankrupted their spec­u­la­tors; from the pink cas­tle walls of a Coral Gables man­sion to the dark, sexy lounges of Over­town; and from the Faberge-egg in­te­rior of the Viz­caya Mu­seum to an ex­per­i­men­tal art piece in Mid­town.

Stay in Mi­ami long enough and you might be­lieve magic is real.

Arts and the edge

In Mi­ami proper and Mi­ami Beach, the new­est neigh­bour­hoods are the districts where the creative com­mu­nity is open­ing the best restau­rants, bars and clubs (and here ‘‘ the new­est’’ and ‘‘ the best’’ of­ten go hand in hand). Some­times this takes the form of mas­sive pub­lic in­vest­ment re­alised in ar­chi­tec­tural mas­ter­pieces such as the Adri­enne Ar­sht Cen­tre and the New World Cen­tre, two im­pres­sive per­form­ing arts spa­ces that have spruced up Mi­ami and Mi­ami Beach re­spec­tively. Some­times it takes the form of young artists us­ing open houses, gallery nights and spe­cial stu­dio shows to gen­trify en­tire swathes of neigh­bour­hood. In both ways, greater Mi­ami is grow­ing, phys­i­cally and cul­tur­ally.

Ah, Florida

If Mi­ami is full of cul­ture, fun and ur­ban beauty, South Florida is full of nat­u­ral beauty, es­pe­cially the spec­tac­u­lar wet­land ecosys­tem of the Ever­glades and the is­land jun­gles and water­ways of the Keys. If you took Amer­ica and shook it by its sides, all its ec­cen­tric­i­ties (and quite a few ec­centrics) would tum­ble into the south­east cor­ner pocket that is South Florida. What hap­pens when these folks mix with the re­gion’s con­sid­er­able im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion? Fun, di­ver­sity and the oc­ca­sional chicken sac­ri­fice to a voodoo god. Out­side the city? In the Ever­glades you’ll find al­li­ga­tor wrestlers and Big­foot hunters shar­ing a beer at crab shacks where pan­thers prowl the back­yard. Head out to the Keys and you’ll meet drag queens work­ing as in­sect ex­ter­mi­na­tors and is­lands named No Name in­hab­ited by minia­ture deer. All of this de­light­ful sense of place is en­sconced within con­sid­er­able nat­u­ral beauty: shim­mer­ing bays, serene tidal flats, fe­cund cy­press groves, emer­ald is­lands scat­tered over a teal sea and a bed of an­cient-look­ing wet­lands.

Top ex­pe­ri­ences

Mi­ami is a fun, good-look­ing city, and the best way to ac­cept this truth is to head out on the town. In places like Mid­town, Over­town and Coral Gables, you can find laid-back bars – even dives! – where clien­tele is glam­orous, sexy and shiny, yet friendly and down to earth. Even the mega­clubs on Mi­ami Beach, with their oc­ca­sional re­stric­tive red ropes and sky-high cover charges, are worth check­ing out for their sheer ded­i­ca­tion and in­no­va­tion in the field of cre­at­ing ex­cess. South Florida loves to em­brace the new in fash­ion, culi­nary trends and what­ever the world thinks is hip. But look be­neath the re­gion’s sur­face (lit­er­ally) and you find a land­scape and in­hab­i­tants that are an­cient. How old? It doesn’t get much more primeval than al­li­ga­tors, de­signed by na­ture to be per­fect, leath­ery car­ni­vores; preda­tors whose en­gi­neer­ing was so flaw­less, they haven’t seen fit to change much since di­nosaurs roamed. Spot dozens of ga­tors from the board­walks of the Royal Palm Vis­i­tor Cen­tre (State Rd 9336; open­ing hours: 8am-4.15pm). Lit­tle Ha­vana, heart of Mi­ami’s Cuban com­mu­nity, is pop­u­lated by more than Cubans. There are Span­ish speak­ers from all over lin­ing Calle Ocho, other­wise known as ‘‘ 8th St’’, one of the most colour­ful, cul­tur­ally vi­brant thor­ough­fares in the coun­try. It helps to speak some Span­ish but it doesn’t mat­ter if you don’t. Just grab a cigar, a tall fruit juice and place your finger on Mi­ami’s mul­ti­cul­tural pulse. Mi­ami doesn’t lack for im­pres­sive build­ings, and some say the grand­est jewel in the city’s crown is the Bilt­more in Coral Gables (even the name rolls aris­to­crat­i­cally off the tongue). Built in 1925, this ho­tel (bilt­more­ho­ en­cap­su­lates the two vibes of the Jazz Age: bril­liant flashi­ness and el­e­gant dig­nity. To­day the well-to-do and the ghosts of guests past prowl the ma­jes­tic grounds, and we don’t just mean the Bilt­more cap­tures the essence of its hey­day; some say spir­its haunt the halls. Like all great cities, Mi­ami and Mi­ami Beach have a dis­tinc­tive ar­chi­tec­tural style. Ac­tu­ally, Art Deco isn’t just dis­tinc­tive in Mi­ami. In places like South Beach, it’s de­fin­i­tive. What­ever your take on deco may be, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bet­ter con­cen­tra­tion of it out­side of Mi­ami and Mi­ami Beach.

UR­BAN BEAUTY: (clock­wise from far left) Cy­cling and rollerblad­ing along South Beach, Mi­ami; al­li­ga­tors in the Ever­glades; Art Deco build­ings in Mi­ami; and a life­guard’s hut on a Mi­ami beach. Pic­tures: Lonely Planet Im­ages

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