Robin Nowacki takes a sip of a long, cool Miami cocktail
Take a long stretch of sandy beach just north of the Tropic of Cancer – add a large dash of Art Deco architecture – blend with some Latin American and Caribbean influences – then place in a stylish glass along with music, dance, design, and culture. Then drink deep the intoxicating cocktail that is Miami.
It was in the 1920s that the USA’s most famous beach resort first drew thousands of tourists seeking a warm winter playground – arriving by road and rail – escaping from the harsh weather in the northern United States. The 1929 Wall Street Crash temporarily put a brake on further development then came the golden boom of the 1930s when two architects, in particular Henry Hohauser and L. Murray Dixon, erected hundreds of splendid buildings in an Art Deco style with a distinct Miami flavour.
Today in the South Beach district many of these most interesting buildings survive thanks to the sterling efforts over the last 35 years of the Miami Design Preservation League. This rich architectural heritage gives South Beach a unique feel which dramatically adds to its allure.
The Art Deco district between Lenox Avenue and Ocean Drive is the coolest part of what is without doubt a very cool city. Here in the boulevards in a chic café society setting, the city’s characters parade – some on rollerblades – others in top-down convertibles cruising by, and when the sun goes down a hip hedonistic nightlife thrives.
The loud sounds of Cuban salsa, Jamaican reggae, Dominican merengue, disco, and hip hop spilling out of the bars and clubs and merging in the humming and humid streets. For some of the best live Latin music plus a highly entertaining cabaret provided by the talented staff, head for Mango’s Tropical Bar at 900 Ocean Drive which is open from 12 noon until 4am. For the latest disco dance sounds and mixed crowds of locals and tourists, check out the Cameo nightclub – set within an historic Art Deco movie theatre – on South Beach’s Washington Avenue,featuring top international and Miami DJs.
In South Beach, I stayed at the relatively new Loews Miami Beach Resort – truly a grand hotel in all senses of the word – with ocean views from most rooms, and direct access to the beach.Two of the original classic Art Deco hotels in the heart of South Beach are The Essex House and The Park Central.
DOWNTOWN AND LITTLE HAVANA
Virtually an island, South Beach has the blue Atlantic on one side and the wide waters of the harbour on the other, keeping it apart from the Downtown district – the site of the original Miami – now a zone of spectacular and towering futuristic skyscrapers. It is a legacy from the banking boom of the 1980s, with perhaps the Bank of America Tower the most impressive and interesting building with its changing illuminations by night.
Close by is the fascinating Little Havana district – which became the home to thousands of Cubans exiled when the communist Castro took over in their Caribbean island homeland in 1960. In essence this is a small part of Cuba within a city in the USA, with Spanish spoken and Cuban shops, restaurants, and cafes where at tables in the streets old men with long memories smoke cigars and drink coffee. In Miami today the Cuban influence has spread way beyond Little Havana and is felt throughout the city and at every level, including the former Mayor, Manny Diaz, who left Cuba as a child. Whilst second-generation Miami Cubans, like Gloria Esterfan, have found international fame.
CORAL GABLES AND COCONUT GROVE
A short drive from Havana is Coral Gables also known as ‘The Beautiful City’. This part of Miami dating from the 1920s, is a district of planned grand Mediterranean style houses and winding avenues, created by architect George Merrick. It is now one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the United States, and this is reflected in the stylish upmarket shops, boutiques, and restaurants run by chefs of world renown.
By contrast close by the Coconut Grove Village district offers more affordable restaurants and shops in and around the Commodore Plaza. Here there are two shopping malls of an interesting and individual design not to miss, the ‘Streets of Mayfair’ and open-air ‘CocoWalk’.
Coconut Grove, once the hangout for the hippies of the 1960s is now the favourite haunt of the students from the University of Miami, and by night offers an alternative club scene to South Beach.
THE CARNIVAL CENTRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS
Downtown and looking so impressive from the main road linking the airport and Miami Beach, is one of the city’s most visually striking buildings – the Carnival Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2006. Here in the Ziff Ballet and Opera House, and the Knight Concert Hall, there are performances by the Florida Grand Opera, Miami City Ballet, and the Concert Association of Florida. Between November and April, the Carnival Centre puts on a series of Broadway productions featuring famous actors. Throughout the year there are also concerts by many top artists from the world of music.
HOW TO GET THERE AND HOW MUCH
(Best prices found on airline web sites visited on the 14 August 2012, based on midweek outbound flights departing on the 17 October 2012, with a return a week later on 24 October).
British Airways with three daily flights direct to Miami, were quoting as little as £239 each way, making the return airfare £478.00. Based on the same departure dates American Airlines on their web site were offering daily flights from £292 each way. Elsewhere, Virgin Atlantic were quoting £620 for a return economy.
For more on Miami, check out our article, Miami Nice