What to do in Miami, to not spend your holidays just on the beach


Kate The Traveller

Florida is such a strange part of the United States. People speak English and Spanish there, they eat burgers with nachos, accompanied by the Latin rhythms around, tropical climate forces everyone into a casual uniform: bikini and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, also, the typical fantasy of Florida’s inhabitant, is to own a yacht one day. The ubiquitous atmosphere of unending holiday rules there. Sunshine state, the official nickname of Florida, is the mecca for spring breakers; pensioners who dream of settling here permanently and families for their summer vacation. The sunny days and warm temps that draw tourists to the beaches, of both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, aren’t a result of brilliant marketing, but of Florida’s prime location as the closest state to the equator. The Tropic of Cancer just narrowly misses Florida, passing southeast of the Sunshine State through the Bahamas. Despite a large amount of sunshine, Florida is also one of the wettest states in America. The average precipitation in Florida is almost twice the national average. Most residents, however, don’t mind an afternoon shower or two, welcoming the break from the sweltering Florida temperatures. The hurricane season within the Atlantic is a severe threat. From June to November, a formation of cyclones is possible, and it is advisable to consult the weather forecast before any long journey.

For the tourist, Miami is the most common entry point to Florida, due to its international airport and seaport. Despite the obvious attractions of the city by the beach, it is a banal American city, full of high-rise buildings, large malls, and broad street lanes, and all of it based on an ideal rectangle. Is that all to it?

Invited by a friend who lived in Miami at the time, I lived for a few weeks in the Coral Gables district of Miami. This affluent part of the city, south of downtown, abounds in villas and tropical gardens with empty residential streets, which are simply created for cycling. Many times, I got lost joyfully in a tangle of alleys planted with exotic plants, between buildings in the style of the Mediterranean Renaissance and along water canals, filled with private boats.  This space is huge, one settlement goes into the other, and pedaling can be endless. The original thing is that many houses, both rich and poor, do not possess fences, which from the street level, allows interesting observations of residents without censorship.

Closer to the center in the Coconut Grove district, you can admire the fine Villa Vizcaya. The complex was built by businessman James Deering, in the 20th century, over an area of 730,000 Sqm of mangrove forests, as a luxury residence for himself. Today it is a museum for tourists and a place of grand celebrations. The gardens of the villa are unique, maintained in the style of the Italian Renaissance, they are filled with pergolas, sculptures, richly decorated portals, and fountains, all of that surrounded by lush subtropical vegetation.

While still a teenager, I was fascinated by the American television series Miami Vice. The place where it was filmed was Miami, itself and the nearby Keys Islands. For this reason, a trip to the city center to see the emblematic buildings and places from the show seemed mandatory. Atlantis Condominium was my first stop. Built in the 1980s, it is characterized by its original architecture. The building is covered entirely with shiny glass, and in the middle of the structure, there is a square opening which is a sort of terrace, with a jacuzzi, a living palm tree, and the characteristic red spiral stairs. The next step in tracking the adventures of Crockett and Tubbs – the main characters of the series, is the trendy Oceans Drive, on the island of Miami Beach.  It is a well-known street with Art Deco hotels, situated along the seafront planted with tall palm trees. It is a showcase of the city and its most luxurious part, dominated by tourists spending their vacation in hotels, close to the beach, having the sea at their doorstep. Hence, I agree, it is difficult not to get lured by the seashore, which tempts with the azure lagoon on the horizon. Downtown has a beautiful Bayfront Park promenade, ending on the Bayside Marketplace which is a commercial area with shops and cafes. This shopping center was often presented in the Miami Vice series. The final stage of the city tour was its northbound Miami Design neighborhood – a popular shopping, gastronomic and cultural center nowadays, and a nearby city within the city, Lemon City or so-called Little Haiti.

A favorite trip outside the city is the Everglades National Park. It is a vast swampy area where mangrove and crocodiles reign. To tell you the truth is didn’t impress me at all. To see crocodiles, most tourists go to Shark Valley. However, I decided to see the Flamingo Visitor Center – the southernmost point of the park. Canoeing in the scorching sun on one of the mangrove channels, chasing away from massive flying insects, I imagined with ease what the first travelers from Europe felt, who inhabited this area at the beginning of the Spanish colonization. In my opinion, visiting the Everglades on your own can be dangerous, due to lack of proper infrastructure and plenty of tropical flora and fauna. In four operating park centers, occasional boat trips are organized to explore the water canals; also kayaks, boats, and bicycles are rented. The centers, in general, look neglected.

Having a little more time in Miami, you must go to one of the Florida Keys. The archipelago of small, sometimes really tiny islands, is a remnant of an ancient coral reef that emerged from the sea, many thousands of years ago. The islands were for a long time, reachable by boat only. The situation changed when Henry Flagler, the owner of the American company Standard Oil, in 1912, completed an ambitious plan to connect Key West with the mainland of Florida. The 200 km long bridge on which the train traveled, was the pride of this state, called the eighth wonder of the world. Unfortunately, it fell in the struggle with nature, which destroyed the bridge during the great hurricane of 1935. Not being able to cope financially to rebuild the damaged sections of the railroad, Flagler sold the surviving construction to the Florida government. It built a modern highway on the foundations of the remaining structure, also leading to the very end of the archipelago. It was this very highway, that we took to explore the farthest island of Key West, in search of adventure, trying to spot the already very near Cuba island from there. Along the way, we were charmed by the Bahia Honda State Park, where we stopped for a quick swim in the sea. Palm-filled beaches, azure-colored clear waters, and a pleasant breeze cooling the sun’s heat, definitely created a dilemma in our mind: Should we travel further? However, the desire to see the southernmost city of the United States, which was once the richest in the entire state of Florida prevailed. The colorful Caribbean wooden architecture greeted us on Key West. Houses in pastel colors and their charming porches, with rocking wicker chairs, immersed finely in lush greenery. The flourishing fiery red tropical tree, of royal poinciana, stained the green neighborhood in crimson. The whole sight was extremely picturesque. This colorful panorama of the island can be admired from the viewpoint at the Key West Lighthouse. The island has no end to attractions: water sports, Dry Tortugas National Park, plane flights, and dolphin&whale watching, are just some of the many things you can do there. Leaving Key West, I had the feeling that one day, I would return to this beautiful corner of the world.

After returning to Miami, I spent my last evening admiring the view of the city, from the terrace of the Rusty Pelican, on Key Biscayne. It was a beautiful sunset, calm and melancholic, with a gentle breeze from the east. When I was coming back to Coral Gables at night, the sky suddenly covered with massive dark clouds, and a torrential tropical storm broke out in a second. The palms buckled from the wind, and the rain seemed to fall without mercilessly. On the next morning, the moisture evaporating from the soil covered everything with warm dew. The ubiquitous greenery around seemed even more intense than before. Before leaving, drinking my morning coffee, I sat under a spreading palm tree and I was listening to the twittering of green parrots playing in the bushes. Suddenly a white Ferrari Testarossa, parked on the other side of the street, caught my attention. What a coincidence, is the spirit of Sonny Crockett, roaming the streets of Miami to this day?  While I was ceremoniously sipping my dose of late morning caffeine, I sleepily watched chubby dark-skinned children playing with their even chubbier parents, preparing a tasty barbecue on a nearby beach. In the meantime, a greying pensioner winked at me, holding a colorful drink in his hand, who seemed to hurry to get nowhere. I suddenly smelled an unmistakable Cuban cigar in the distance. When I was waiting for a taxi, which was supposed to take me to the airport, a scantily sports-dressed pregnant girl, on rollers, bumped into me. She was exceptionally athletic and muscular. With dizzying speed, she pushed a stroller in front of her, from which a smiling baby face could be seen. The pace at which the woman pushed the baby buggy, seemed unsuitable for both her condition and the living content of the vehicle. When I was looking at this scene, slightly shocked, the girl happily exclaimed: Hey baby, are you leaving the city? What a pity! Today’s morning is perfect for a beach day, and I can show you the best place for it, in all of Miami, it’s close to here! Just don’t leave!