“Miami isn’t just about the beach – it’s also a place where cultures collide to spectacular effect,” says travel writer Susan Morrell in an article published in the Irish Sunday Business Post in April 2013. Her impression of the Magic City is not so different from the sense of place Dragonfly Expeditions strives to express during our Miami tours. Morrell joined us on a Miami Magic City – Bus and Walking Tour back in January. Her article is a personal account of her visit to Miami; she describes everything from how out-of-place yet welcomed she felt in Little Havana to the type of dessert she had in South Beach. Morrell calls Miami a “unique cultural mosaic” and elaborates on every neighborhood she was able to visit during her trip. Keep reading (or click on the image and zoom in) for “Miami Nice” by Susan Morrell.
“The sign posted in Little Havana’s Domino Park makes the rules very clear: no gambling, no firearms, no swearing. To use its official name, Maximo Gómez Park seems like the last place you would have to worry about such nuisances. Named after a Cuban revolutionary figure, the small city park in this historically Cuban ex-pat neighborhood in Miami is the setting for daily games of chess and dominoes, the clacking of tiles competing with lively conversation between the clusters of retired men and women.
Nearby, the faces of various heads of state from Latin America and the Caribbean look on from their position in a wall mural, commemorating the first Summit of the Americas, convened in Miami in 1994. Standing with a small group of tourists fresh off the coach, I feel a bit self-conscious, sticking out like a sore thumb among the locals. I relax when I spot another sign telling me that tourists are welcome here – as long as we mind our language, presumably – and I begin to feel a bit privileged, standing as I am in the midst of Cuban culture preserved in this cosmopolitan city.
The area surrounding Domino Park was once as close to Cuba as Americans could get. On the afternoon that I visit, this corner of SW 8th Street and 15th Avenue is quiet, with just a few cars rolling past the cigar shops, ice cream parlors, and cafes.
Later influxes of immigration from other countries, notably Argentina, Haiti, and Colombia, and the evolving relationship between Cuba and the US, has led to changes in the area, notably a thinning out of the previously dense Cuban population here in downtown. Lucky for us, it remains a delight to visit – a still-thriving, living reminder of Miami’s multicultural roots.
A peek into one of the more famous local cigar shops is a fascinating glimpse into the history of the Miami Cuban community. More awkward but recommended gawking can be had inside the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company, where tourists flock to watch cigars being rolled with expert precision from behind a glass window. I’ve never smoked, but I couldn’t resist the earthy aroma and small, wooden cigar boxes that make great souvenirs.
I only learned after I’d left that the elderly gentleman in the white cowboy hat, reclining quietly by the front door, was Don Pedro himself (the patriarch of the third-generation Bello family business, who once defied Castro’s orders to hand over the family land to the regime, before ultimately relocating to Miami). I can only imagine the stories he must have to share.
Visitors would be wise to time a visit to Little Havana with Viernes Culturales, the free arts and culture festival that takes place on the last Friday of every month (viernesculturales.org). You can join the tour of Little Havana with a local historian, then soak up the live music, art galleries, street food, and salsa dancing that lights up the neighborhood.
It’s soon time for what I’ve been waiting for all day: coffee. You can keep your fat habanos and your lechon asado; my preferred way to sample Cuban culture in Miami is by downing shots of café Cubano.
It’s a thrill to belly up to a café window – which can be found all over the city – to order a sweet, strong dose of Cuban coffee, often called cafecito. If you’re feeling social, order a colada and you’ll receive your jet-powered beverage in a Styrofoam cup, with several tiny, plastic thimbles in which to share it with a group.
You can order it with milk (con leche) or without sugar (sin azucar) if you must, but first try it the traditional way. A shot of robust coffee is poured on top of a generous spoon of demerara sugar, creating a perfect, golden crema on top.
For a different kind of sugar hit, head across the street to the Azucar Ice Cream Company, a big and bold ice cream shop with a carnival-esque façade that serves up scoops of unexpected flavors, like plantain, Key lime pie, and sweet potato-chile.
Sufficiently buzzed, I went in search of culture and found it in a nondescript setting of abandoned warehouses and storage units. The up-and-coming Wynwood art district is an industrial landscape that is rapidly being transformed into the hip center of Miami’s dizzying arts scene. The internationally renowned Art Basel Miami (sister event to Art Basel Switzerland) may bring the biggest crowds of art movers and shakers to the city each December, but here in the grittier northern corner of midtown, street artists are carving out a home of their own.
To check it out with a meal, visit the industrial-chic Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, located within the Wynwood Walls art park, and have lunch amid murals by Shepard Fairey and Kenny Scharf. The restaurant serves small plates of Latin and Middle Eastern-inspired dishes, perfect for savoring with a cold beer or glass of wine on the patio in full view of the propaganda-inspired wall art. (The interior is no slouch either, full of works by Fairey, Christian Awe, and David Benjamin Sherry.)
Be sure to pop around to the back of the park and bask in the massive, calligraphic piece by LA artist RETNA and the folk art-inspired work by the Date Farmers (Carlos Ramirez and Armando Lerma), which tower above the hot asphalt amid tiny gallery spaces.
Everywhere you look in Miami is a feast for the eyes – and I don’t just mean the beautiful people on display in South Beach. The city is famous for its iconic Art Deco buildings; for a real Miami Vice moment, and to see some of the loveliest examples of this candy-colored style awash in neon, cruise the main drag along Ocean Drive at night.
But like visual reminders of the many other architectural eras and successive building booms that have shaped this city, you’ll find elegant Spanish Colonial mixed with bold Miami Modernist from the 1950s and 60s. The Frank Gehry-designed New World Symphony Hall is a draw; and only in Miami could a multi-story car park become a tourist attraction in this appearance-obsessed city (the striking, open-sided garage at 1111 Lincoln Road was designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, who also designed Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic venue).
Among all the skyscrapers and designer buildings, it’s hard to imagine that this city was once a desolate backwater, where transport stalled and farming was the only industry. But Miami sprang to life in 1896, when landowner Julia Tuttle (“the mother of Miami”) convinced railroad tycoon Henry Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railway line to the southern end of the state, supposedly by sending him fresh orange blossoms during a spell of cold weather (signifying how Miami was a place apart from the rest of Florida). The subsequent arrival of developers and hoteliers ushered in the first of several building booms that would, over time, shape Miami’s patchwork-like urban landscape.
If you hitch a ride with Dragonfly Expeditions, you can go on an architecture lover’s tour of the different communities of greater Miami, with each gated development and stucco mansion more sumptuous than the next.
Coral Gables is the epitome of upscale Miami living, but I’d opt for the art galleries, overgrown vegetation, and Craftsman-style bungalows of Coconut Grove if ever I hit the lotto jackpot. You won’t truly feel you’ve glimpsed the shiny and fantastical Miami until you spend time in South Beach. Park your yacht in the marina along Millionaire’s Row and check into the (in)famous Fontainebleau Miami Beach, a monstrously big and blindingly white resort that has played supporting roles to James Bond, The Sopranos, Scarface, and The Bodyguard. Legends surround the Morris Lapidus-designed hotel, including brushes with real-life gangsters in the 1980s, but now it’s the preferred location for dance music and pop concerts, and live TV broadcasts.
You’ll need a map to find your way around the lobby in this Las Vegas-style mega-hotel, and there’s a good chance you’ll get lost in a sea of conventioneers, but the sprawling pool area, the private beach, the Ai Weiwei chandeliers (near the famous Stairway to Nowhere) combine to give this Miami Beach institution a constant crackle of electricity.
Outside, you can stretch your shopping muscles along tourist favorite Lincoln Road, a pedestrianized shopping boulevard and home to designer chains, ethnic restaurants, and pretty buildings. While you’re there, have lunch at the Ice Box Café (the soba noodle salad has a delicious kick) and save room for a slice of what Oprah Winfrey named the Best Cake in the US (she was right – it’s called ‘The Bomb’ and it’s a dense chocolate cake, cheesecake, chocolate mousse mindblower).
Grab a cafecito at Abuela’s around the block, then make for Española Way, a smaller, less trafficked thoroughfare than Lincoln Road that is lined with cafés, gelaterías, wine bars, and boutiques. Lights strung up overhead give this street a Little Italy-style intimacy, with European-style sidewalk tables and people-watching spots that come alive after sundown.
The eclectic street is even home to a rare Miami Beach dive bar, Kill Your Idol, which provides live bands and relief from Ocean Drive prices. Not far away, another rough and ready institution, Mac’s Club Deuce on 14th Street, attracts a mixed crowd with its nearly daylong “happy hour” – friendly, oddball characters abound here.
It was easy at times to forget that I was in the heart of a bustling American city. But the beauty and the thrill of Miami is rooted in its unique cultural mosaic, in which histories and ethnicities flourish independently. It’s a riotous place where different realities, flavors, and personalities mix and mingle in ways that few cities can match.”