REDISCOVER MIAMI, There's more to Miami than a beach
By Pam Hobbs. Pictures by Pam Hobbs and Michael Algar
The funny thing is, I had no intentions of exploring Miami. At first, when my husband
booked into a downtown hotel for a few days of meetings, I was going to stay home in Toronto
where I had work to do. But then an end-of-winter snowfall had me thinking of warmer climes.
In early April the air fare was affordable, a direct flight would get us there around mid- morning,
and by noon I could be sitting pool-side, beneath a warm sun, reading the proofs of my new book
It was an offer I couldn't refuse.
But, like so many hastily cobbled travel plans, this one didn't work out. Settled into a
comfortable chaise beside the sixteenth floor pool, I became curious about elevated blue trains
regularly crossing my line of vision. Below me a waterway winds its way between city towers to
I wonder where. And then there's a city guide book in my room showing that places like Little
Havana and Coral Gables - even the fabled South Beach - are tantalizingly close by. So, when
the sun took itself elsewhere to make way for a skittish wind, I decided to do the same. A brisk
walk through the waterfront park should put me in the mood for work. Surely I could spare half
At ten o'clock on a Sunday morning Bayside Park, a brief stroll from downtown hotels,
is just coming to life. Dog owners are out with their pooches, stalls are being set up, and the first
of the day's cruise ship passengers amble over from the port. Big smiles all round, shop-keepers
in an arcade stand ready with souvenirs as far ranging as saucy tees and sombreros to fabulous
designer dresses and one-of-a-kind jewellery.
On the waterfront charter boat captains swab down their decks in readiness for an
influx of fishermen, while one of several sightseeing boats begins boarding passengers. I join
them, and on this now warm sunny day I have a delightful 90 minutes tour aboard the Island
Queen. All around me, Spanish is the dominant language.
Our first stop is alongside a very security conscious Fisher Island, ringed with a
beach created from sugar-fine imported Bahamian sand. $8 million will get you a decent
vacation home here; Tom Cruise and Oprah could be your neighbours. Ever so slowly, we sail
past more celebrities' houses on a stretch of waterfront known as Millionaires Row. Although
most are owned by pop stars whose names are unfamiliar to me, younger passengers excitedly
pose by the ship's rail for a snapshot. Elizabeth Taylor and Sylvester Stallone have estates that
look totally forlorn. Al Capone had the forethought to put in underground tunnels beneath his
Back on shore, outdoor seating at waterside cafes is filling fast When I run into a
Toronto lawyer whose spouse is stuck in meetings with my husband, we share a table - and
another happy two hours slip away. At mid-afternoon park entertainment has attracted large
audiences: men, women, even small children slapping their hands and dancing to some pretty
good bands. I should be getting back to work, but there's an elevated railway station on site and
trains are frequent. My ride is short but informative, covering a full loop through downtown, past
landmarks I now see that I can reach on foot later. My lovely day, including lunch, has cost me
The last time I visited Miami was in the l970s, and I find it changed beyond all
recognition. New architecture is jaw-dropping at the very least. Wedged between office towers,
boutique hotels described as 'city resorts' make full use of their garden patches flanking the
waterways. Surrounded as they are by larger-than-life sculptures and water fountains, and
walkways lined with palms, it is difficult to believe we are downtown in a major city. Within
steps of any of anywhere, restaurants of every ethnicity are open late into the night. Cultural
centres, galleries and theatres are so futuristic in design you'll want the full tour. Downtown
stores , and more in malls a short bus ride away, offer huge discounts at weekends. Little wonder
then that more and more visitors are lodging downtown these days. Some are cruise passengers
who disembark in the port, then stay on here for a few extra days. Or conventioneers opting for
pre or post trips. Others come expressly for the Downtown Miami experience: the shows, the
shopping, a little pampering at their hotel spa, waterfront diversions, and forays into "the
For strangers to South Florida I should explain that Downtown Miami is separated from
Miami Beach by the Bay of Biscayne, with causeways connecting the two. Sun-seekers usually
stay in Miami Beach's seafront hotels or internationally known landmark resorts. But for
something more than a beach vacation you might consider staying downtown, especially at
weekends when hotel rates can be very attractive..
A century ago Miami was little more than mango swamps and farmlands. Until railroad
baron Henry M. Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railway into this region, and the city
was born. Soon, his pretentious Royal Palm Hotel brought wealthy northerners looking for winter
warmth and sunshine. Another milestone was the building of a seaport, which now
accommodates more cruise ships than any other in North America. By the mid l900s, with
causeways connecting Miami to a string of islands known as Miami Beach, the area became a
popular place in which to live and work and vacation the year round.
It is difficult to get lost in Miami where roads are laid down in a grid pattern, and strangers
will happily point you in the right direction. Those little blue trains known as Metromovers
travel in two loops through the downtown area, while connecting with the Metrorail which will
take you further afield. There is also a Metrobus system with stops a short walk from each other.
Metrorail and Metrobus tickets are $2, the Metromover is free. I found pedestrians and fellow
riders quick to advise and give directions. One woman even walked me to the corner so she could
point out a bus stop to me.
TOO MUCH TO SEE, TOO LITTLE TIME.
With only two days left it becomes clear that I must prioritize. Heading my list is the world
famous South Beach, easily reached by a bus which stops near my hotel. For the best of this
area's Art Deco buildings, the driver tells me I should walk along Ocean Drive between 5th and
15th streets. Also, that if my feet give out, I can board a little pink bus routed along the ten miles
Ocean Drive on a mid- Monday morning is already crowded. I am told the models and
movie stars will be on parade here by mid afternoon. Right now sidewalk tables are filling up
with vacationing students - bronzed, scantily clad young people ready for a carefree day in the
I am directed to number 1ll6 Ocean Drive, site of an ostentatious Mediterranean style
mansion called Casa Casurina. This was the lavish home bought by designer Gianni Versace in
l992, and where he was shot dead on the front steps ten years later. In case you fancy yourself
lounging on an opium bed around a pool decorated with 1.5 million gold leaf mosaic tiles, or in a
private cabana resembling something from Arabian nights, I should tell you that this is now a
small hotel with ten elaborately furnished suites. Rates are $750 - $l,000 a night, including a
couple of rooms where Elton and Madonna once slept as Versace's guests.. Tours are offered,
and the restaurant is open to the public.
South Beach has had a checkered past. What started as a coconut plantation became a
prosperous holiday destination once the first of the causeways was finished in l913. Most hotels
were small and inexpensive, catering to budget conscious seniors wanting to escape northern
winters. A devastating hurricane, prohibition and eventually organized crime pretty well put paid
to the pleasant vacation community. Until the l980s when developers moved back in, deciding
they wanted to re-introduce plain architecture of the '50s, with its distinctive rounded corners,
pastel exteriors and porthole windows along with motifs to harmonize with the seaside location.
Today these small hotels are a delight, providing good accommodation to anyone not
wanting expensive bells and whistles, or resort-style facilities. Brown's, a cream coloured
wooden building on Ocean Drive was the area's first hotel. For years its original character was
lost to renovators, and only after severe damage from a l992 hurricane did repairmen discover its
history under layers of stucco. Looking quite out of place among the neighbours' Art Deco, it
resembles a wild-west stage set rather than the Florida diner it has become..
ENJOYING THE NEIGHBOURHOODS
South Beach is just one of several interesting neighbourhoods in and around Miami. I
want to check them out on foot, but time is limited so I decide on a bus tour with promise of
returning for a more leisurely visit.
Coconut Grove on a weekday afternoon is practically deserted. The oldest settlement
in south Florida, it was first inhabited in l834 by a multicutural assortment of artists, writers and
scientists who established winter homes here. Even today, artisans' houses are tucked away in
jungle thick tropical greenery. To see Miami's oldest dwelling, you can walk an old horse and
buggy trail to the home built by a New Yorker using wood from wrecked ships. Coco Walk's
indoor-outdoor mall has big name stores as well as boutiques and kiosks selling home-spun
goodies such as candles, art work and herbs grown in local gardens. To really savour the
Bohemian nature of this community, I should return at dusk, when restaurants, clubs, theatres
and live street entertainment have everyone hopping.
A hundred years ago Coral Gables was the dream-child of a Floridian farmer,
George E.Merrick, who chose to turn his citrus and avocado groves into an American Venice,
featuring canals and fountains and Italian style homes. As his Italianate community grew, he
incorporated architecture from other historic Mediterranean cultures. They remain here today,
along with clutches of houses indigenous to France, England, Italy, South Africa and China.
While exteriors appear authentic to me, interiors are said to be l00% American modern.
A lovely place in which to live, work and to visit, Coral Gables has upmarket stores such
as Neiman Marcus and Jimmy Choo. The Museum of Miami has a campus here, while more than
a hundred companies have chosen it for their headquarters. The jewel in the crown though has to
be The Biltmore Hotel. Recognized from the air by its sixteen storied tower replicating Seville's
Giralda Tower, it has the largest hotel pool in America. (Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame
used to be a life-guard here.) And a wonderful early Florida atmosphere wed to modern
amenities. If you don't plan on staying overnight, do try to come for a meal, or a drink in the
famous lounge. Time it right, and you can have a free tour.
Without a doubt my favourite neighbourhood is Little Havana just west of downtown,
and although the best time to visit is at weekends and evenings, we find it very much alive on
this weekday afternoon. The air is filled with sounds of Cuban music and Spanish chatter; the
aroma of strong coffee wafts from sidewalk kiosks. I stop to buy some and - fooled by the
thimble-sized cup - I down a second before realizing it has the kick of an angry mule.. In
Maximo Park I am the only woman among a hundred or so elderly men. Cuban exiles, they meet
here daily, to play dominoes, discuss politics, life back home, affairs of the world....
Established in the l960s, Little Havana is the core of Miami's hispanic community. At
night some restaurants host flamenco performances, while in March the annual Calle Ocho Street
Party is a 23 block extravaganza to which everyone is invited. Near the park, on this same street,
El Credito Cigar Factory is open-fronted so we may watch cigars being hand-rolled as they have
been by the same family for three generations. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton and Robert
De Niro are among El Credito's better known customers who select their favourites from the
company's forty blends.
MIAMI ATTRACTS SERIOUS SHOPPERS
Although I had little more than a couple of hours to browse in the stores, it was long enough
to understand why some visitors come here expressly to shop. Whether it's designer clothing and
accessories, art, one-of-a-kind furniture or the ubiquitous cheap and cheerful stuff for everyday
use, you will find it here. Malls are temptingly close to downtown. Lincoln Road Mall, for
example, is one of those attractive outdoor shopping plazas so popular in the United States.
Coral Gables' and Bal Harbour's shops are largely high end. But for a real flavour of this place, I
enjoyed rounding out my afternoons on Flagler Avenue with its discounted prices, and vendors
standing in doorways tapping their feet to Latin music blaring from boom boxes - shouting to
each other in rapid Spanish.
It is a little embarrassing to say I came to Miami and didn't dip so much as my big toe in
the ocean, or hotel pool. The only sand in my shoes came from walking on the beach in spots
where Ocean Boulevard's sidewalk was too crowded for comfort. All being well though I'll be
back next winter. I will pre-book seats for performances in the Adrienne Arsht Center, a
stunningly beautiful complex presenting concerts, musicals, ballet and opera. I will spend far
more time at South Beach, re-visit Little Havana, and perhaps Coconut Grove after dinner. Even
enjoy resort facilities at my hotel. Already our Canadian winter, my least favourite season, is
looking better now that Miami beckons..
A map and detailed directions, along with other visitor information can be had from The Greater
Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, 70l Brickell Ave., Suite 2700, Miami, Florida 33131,
U.S.A. Tel. 305-539-30000. Website:MiamiandBeaches.com
IT'S NOT YOUR AVERAGE HOTEL, IT'S EPIC
I don't know about you, but in even the most expensive hotels never before has my
approach prompted the doorman to hurry over and hand me a lemon-scented damp face cloth and
a bottle of ice cold water. Similtanously, his mate swings open the heavy door, beams a smile
that could light a moonless sky, and says "Welcome back Ma'am. I sure hope you had a good
day." I mean, it's not as if I look like a movie star. Or that my tips to date will put a dent in their
mortgage. My shopping bags promote Macey's and a local discount emporium, and I was caught
in a rain shower along the way.....
But these are difficult times in tourism, and service is everything - especially in the
smaller hotels sprouting up in Downtown Miami to compete with their towering better-known
rivals. One of several of these new boutique hotels, steps from the port and city amenities, ours is
The Epic, opened last December and already a calm oasis from the frenzy outside. The lobby's
earth tones and natural products create a calming effect with oat-coloured settees, bronze, reed
and bamboo sculptures, carefully placed stones and water arrangements. Rooms are similarly
decorated, making good use of Nature's favourite colours.
Our marble bathroom is enormous, and a bit of a puzzlement to this old soul. Perhaps
designed for romance, its wall separating the bed from bath has an open window about a metre
by two. To bring in light from the bedroom window ? Enabling me to watch the bedroom
television from my bubble bath ? Allowing hubby to chat while he's in bed and I'm in the tub ?
Beats me. Maybe in our youth - but this time around I pull down the blind for a bit of privacy.
The sixteenth floor outdoors pool area is just as grand, featuring leather and wicker
chairs in futuristic designs, private cabanas, a patio restaurant serving local seafood and snacks.
Youthful staff members are enthusiastic in their aim to please, fluffing up pillows, moving my
chaise into the sun, heaping fresh towels on me even though mine are still dry. The adjoining spa
will be fully operational by now, supplying all manner of massages. Therapies include skin care
such as peels and exfoliation. There's acupuncture, acu-organ detox for higher levels of energy
and mental clarity. What's that ? Madam prefers her spa treatments in her room ? Of course.
We'll be along in a jiffy.
Should you love your room here too much to leave it, you won't have a problem
because everything is right here. A note invites you to call housekeeping if you've left your razor
or other toiletries at home. And a computer is set up on the desk ready to go with complimentary
internet service. There's even a gold-fish in a bowl to keep you company. Or you can bring your
own from home.
Pets are not merely tolerated at The Epic, they are fussed over by staff as if they were
their own. In-room bedding for Fido, along with treats and a soft toy await his arrival, and if
you're too busy to take him for an airing simply mention it to the concierge. Staff here love to
take their four-legged guests for walkies. So far the Epic has had only humans, cats and dogs. A
parrot was booked in last month, but cancelled.
The Epic Hotel is at 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, Miami, Florida 33131. Telephone: 305-424-5226.
Or visit their website: TalkToUs@epichotel.com