Stay a spell in magical land of dreams
Miami melds arts and culture with easy access to the Everglades and the Keys
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.
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.
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 (biltmorehotel.com) 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