REDISCOVER MIAMI, There's more to Miami than a beach

By Pam Hobbs. Pictures by Pam Hobbs and Michael Algar

3,000 words

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 an hour.

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 house.

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 $35.

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 neighbourhoods".

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.


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 of beaches.

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 sun.

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..


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.


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.



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: