I originally crafted the first draft of my “travellers to do list” in Grade 6. I sat on the floor of my bedroom taking detailed notes on a pad of Hilroy paper while flipping through a massive atlas and stack of World Book encyclopedias. I remember being fascinated by Azerbaijan and Tahiti (they were at the top of the list because they sounded so exotic) followed by important landmarks like France’s Eiffel Tower and Machu Picchu in Peru. Little did I know way back when that I’d end up growing up to be a travel writer…
Having now traveled to over 70 countries there are still a few notable destinations I have yet to explore. At travel media events I’ve always been hesitant to reveal that I’ve yet to touch down in Miami, Rome or Mexico City. You can’t imagine the shock on some peoples faces!
It feels like I’ve been wishing my way to Miami for ages. Whenever the city comes up in conversation I sheepishly say, “I’ve been to the airport over 10 times albeit en route to Latin American or the Caribbean, just never had a chance to actually see the city.” So this winter as I planned my travel schedule to Puerto Rico and Curacao for the month of April I was excited to discover that the only way to fly between the two Caribbean islands was to connect via Miami. As you can imagine I booked myself a three day layover, finally!
Miami is one of America’s most adored urban gems. Florida’s sun soaked city is home to a delicious melting pot of Latin American flavours, annual design party via Art Basel and miles of white sandy beach. For most, the charms of the rest of the city are eclipsed by seductive, chic South Beach, which runs from the southernmost tip of Miami Beach north to 23rd Street. This is the place most people visualize when Miami is mentioned, and the partying and palm trees along the streets help perpetuate the image. Here, row upon row of Art Deco icons, look exactly as they do on film: sleek, classic and oh so cool.
My home away from home would be the Marriott Stanton South Beach located in SoFi (South of Fifth District) on the much-photographed Ocean Drive. I arrived shortly after the hotel had completed the first phase of its $10 million full-property redesign. Updated guest rooms and suites now feature a 1960’s SoBe style featuring a fresh, airy colour scheme. The hotel also boasts unobstructed oceanfront and Miami skyline views and an exclusive beachfront location just steps away from the sand. Tan fans can indulge in the quintessential Miami Beach experience here by sipping a rum spiked mojito at sunset while floating in one of the hotels two turquoise infinity pools.
A quiet district of sherbet-coloured, low-rise buildings and dilapidated houses, Little Havana, southwest across the river from Downtown, is where the vibrant Cuban streak that colours Miami is most vividly seen.
Along Calle Ocho, the neighbourhood’s main drag, tiny stores and restaurants with hand-painted signs stand elbow to elbow. What is now Little Havana only became largely Latin after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, and Cuban refuges – drawn here by the proximity and low rents – soon set about creating a replica of their homeland in America.
The area is mostly a Latin residential area, and proper tourist sights are few and far between; come here to eat authentic Cuban food, buy a hand-rolled cigar made from tobacco grown from Cuban seeds or jump start your morning with a traditional Cuban coffee, also known as colada, a petite caramelized espresso.
Sips and Nibbles
Miami is one of America’s most buzzed about culinary hubs, best known for offering a kaleidoscope of authentic Latino flavours and playing home to a dizzying number of celebrity haunts which have redefined Florida’s notion of posh on the plate. Miami is first and foremost recognized for serving up the world’s most celebrated Cuban cuisine. It should be no shock that after arriving at the airport I drove directly to Versailles to indulge in a fine feast in the heart of Little Havana. For those looking for a classic South Beach dining experience, rub shoulders with the razzle dazzle via a taste of Italy at The Delano Hotel’s Bianca.
Today Miami is regarded as a top-drawer international design hub thanks to the success of Art Basel which takes over the city each December. Many of the festivals top attractions can be found in the petite Design District, a neighbourhood currently undergoing an impressive makeover. During my visit I had a chance to meet with the team at DACRA, the innovative real estate company responsible for transforming Miami’s Design District into a world class destination. Over the next two years DACRA plans to turn the neighbourhood into the most buzzed about fashion focussed cultural hub on the planet. Major haute couture fashion brands will be launching palatial flagships, an influx in top culinary talent will feed the well heeled masses and a new boutique hotel will offer a comfortable sleep for those looking to loiter in luxury. DACRA is raising the bar by collaborating with world renowned architects and designers to create a mind blowing pedestrian experience with an emphasis on breezy green spaces, public art and monumental sculpture.
Wynwood Food Tour
If the Design District offers shopaholics a polished and refined experience, hipster Wynwood is where folks go to let down their hair and revel in the neighbourhoods awe inspiring collection of graffiti. Long a predominantly working-class, Puerto Rican neighbourhood, its low rents were discovered by artists several years ago, who’ve warmed to commandeer its spaces as workshops-cum-homes. Your best bet for exploring Wynwood is to sign up for a “graffiti snack stroll” with Miami Culinary Tours. Guests on this three hour sip and nibble adventure stop at five of the neighbourhood’s most popular eateries while a friendly local guide points out the most famous street murals along the way. Portions are generous so plan to skip lunch and enjoy a light/late dinner after you’ve sampled your way through:
- Nouveau Latino: chicken ropa vieja empanadas and sweet plantains with queso crema paired with Funky Buddha beer at Wynwood Kitchen and Bar.
- Ukranian Meat Lovers: cold cut cone featuring smoked kielbasa and Italian sorpresata at the Butcher Shop.
- Authentic Puerto Rican: chicken mofongo at Jimmy’z Kitchen.
- BBQ Lovin: smoked beef ends with hickory sauce at Pride and Joy.
- Japanese Peruvian Fusion: Natural Ceviche at Suviche Wynwood.
Strolling South Beach
You may not see many photo shoots taking place along Ocean Drive at 7am any more, but the early-morning light is still spectacular; it’s easy to understand why South Beach became the fashion location of choice in the early 1990s and it’s well worth getting up early one morning to enjoy a stroll. Architecture nerds eagerly snap photos of SoBe’s iconic multi-coloured Art Deco buildings while tan fans are best spotted snoozing in the sand. I was pleasantly surprised to find that South Beach offers exactly what you expect: bronzed babes in bikinis, Prince Charming on a surf board and enthusiastic yogi’s slipping into a downward dog as the sunsets across the horizon.
The Tan Fan South Beach Scoop
- 3rd Street Beach: also known as Brazilian Beach, come here for the eye candy.
- 8th Street Beach: if you are looking for more of a party experience this stretch is where all the college students go to drink beer and chill out to music.
- 12th Street Beach: the Gay Beach is always crowded but never overwhelming. Beautiful bodies show off making it a perfect stretch of shore for people watching.
Miami’s Modern Art Museum
The new Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) is the crown jewel in the city’s sprawling 29-acre Museum Park overlooking Biscayne Bay. The museum officially opened to the public in December 2013 showcasing a collection that comprises more than 1,300 contemporary works, many of which reflect the city’s unique mix of Caribbean, North and South American cultures. Be sure to grab yourself a frothy latte at the cafe and take a seat on the museum’s sun soaked al fresco terrace where you can sit back and enjoy pretty views as cruise ships putter out of port.