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Miami: From Deco to Decadence


Troubadour Jimmy "Margaritaville" Buffett found the true meaning of life in the south Florida sunshine. Like him, I found

 

"It's hard to believe the city started as a trading post
Home to the Seminole, pirate and pioneer..."

("Everybody's Got a Cousin in Miami" from the CD Fruitcakes.)

After an aimless stroll through the backwoods of Miami, I can now verify that Buffett got his history right. I felt like I was one of those pirates and pioneers.

Backwoods? Miami? Yup. It's a good thing my little group had our faithful guide Manny or we might still be lost in that Florida swampland.

Well, okay, it wasn't really that bad. We were actually at Jimbo's, a collection of several dilapidated wooden shacks that serve as a combination eatery/marina/hangout for both locals as well as travelers 'in the know'. We were hungrily devouring morsels of delicious smoked marlin exquisitely served on a paper napkin by the cigar-chomping Jimbo himself. Though still within the city limits, there was nary a South Beach neon in sight.

There were, however, lots of celebrities hanging around, dining on Jimbo's smoked aquatic delicacies, because many film companies use this backwoods locale, which you have likely seen on various episodes of Miami Vice or in feature films such as the thriller Wild Things.

Jimbo's is just one of the many hidden treasures that you can find if you ever manage to get away from the seductive glitz and glitter of the art deco cool of the very hot South Beach. Only minutes from downtown Miami, we were several worlds away, lost in some historic time warp.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.But all that changed as Manny whisked us back to this century when we dropped into the luxurious Sonesta Beach Resort on nearby Key Biscayne. Many choose to stay on the Key, take day trips into the city, then return to the relative seclusion of their 'island' hotel. If this appeals to you, check out – and check into – this oceanfront resort that has just undergone a multi-million dollar renovation with bright, tasteful rooms overlooking the pool, ocean and sandy beach. And my, my, just look at all those white-skinned snowbirds quickly turning a pretty pink on the resort's golden beach sand.

Even if you are not staying here, it's worth the visit just to belly up to Gino's poolside bar for one of his special piña coladas and a fun afternoon of chat with one of New Jersey's many expatriates. Marvel at this man's skill, his deft hands and funny palaver as he creates libation art. His cocktails are so dazzling you just want to sit and admire a master craftsman's handiwork. But when you do succumb – to paraphrase a popular advertisement – "Betcha can't just drink one."

But for our group, this is a day-trip diversion from the little beach burg of Miami, the 'fun-in-the-sun" capital of the United States, the cruise capital of the world and the salsa capital of North America. Mention salsa and we segue to singer Ricky Martin's Casa Salsa Restaurant on the ever-packed Ocean Drive. Packed? Jammed! Though our fun-loving crew had a 9 p.m. reservation, we were still waiting at 10:30 p.m. But who cares? Crowd up to the bar and order another piña colada. Enjoy. Converse. All the cocktail conversation just makes Ricky's Puerto Rican cuisine even more delicious. Always keep in mind that you have now entered the Latin time zone of...whenever. You should leave your watch at home.By now everyone knows about the stylish renaissance of the South Beach art deco buildings along trendy Ocean Drive, now filled with the most chic "to-die-for" restaurants, bars, cafes, hotels and modeling agencies (which accounts for all the too-beautiful people in the area). To truly appreciate this cool conversion, rent the Al Pacino video of Scarface, which has some early 1980s street scenes of Ocean Drive before the transformation.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.Again, we were fortunate to have a guide who could navigate us through the trendy urban wildlife. Susan Scott, publicist extraordinaire, had the dubious distinction of leading our intrepid group through the wonders and wilds of Miami nightlife – sort of the flip side of Jimbo's.

Because so many of Susan's clients are movie stars and fashion models, she knows whereof she speaks when she tells you that the nightclubs, restaurants and bars of Miami's South Beach are the hottest on the planet. Who could argue?

(*TIP: If you plan to concentrate on this area, book accommodations at the Park Washington Resort, just two blocks off the beach. This resort is actually four little art deco hotels hidden away from the street in a lush garden with its own private pool. Rates are reasonable, about US$75, exceptionally low for South Beach. A few added pluses: Park Washington is just across the street from the 24-hour 11th Street Diner, while the new police station is on the other corner. Just steps away from Ocean Drive, it is a quiet oasis where you can escape the non-stop action if you ever feel the need for some sleep.)

After strolling the South Beach strip, we started to hit the hot nightclubs about 1 a.m. To arrive before midnight is considered gauche. We prowled the hottest of the hot: The Bar Room on Lincoln – which, because Vogue Magazine was launching its Spanish edition that evening, was filled with the most outrageously beautiful people I have ever seen. The alley entrance off Jet Groove leads into a courtyard decorated with Christmas lights and packed with happy, lit-up people. The Living Room charges an escalating fee to get into each progressively smaller, more exclusive rooms of the club; we actually got the fourth room, decked out like a Sultan's tent, that charges US$1,000 just to enter the curtained portals. I couldn't even guess what was waiting in room six.

(Note: If you are planning a lengthy stay and want to fit quickly into the salsa scene, check out the Starfish Salsa Club for fun dance sessions – salsa, meringue, tango – from the athletic and seemingly rubber-limbed Latin dance pros. (Call Debbie at 305 673-1717 and soon you too will be gyrating with panache in those hot clubs.)

Being tourists and not quite used to the local pace, we decided to head home early – about 4 a.m. We passed the lineup of people still waiting to get in. This is the scene every night in Miami and yet for all its trendiness, each club had the atmosphere of a friendly, packed Saturday night house party – in quite an exclusive home, mind you.

The next morning (okay, late morning) we all seemed to gravitate to the fishing pier just off the beach out the back door of the glistening Newport Beachside Crowne Plaza Resort. Even in the rows, actually miles, of hotels and condos, this all-suites resort stands out for its perfect pier location, incredibly friendly staff, relaxing decor, well-appointed suites and prices much lower than you would expect for all this luxury. And for guests who decide to 'go native' and fish off the pier, the resort's team of chefs will be only too pleased to prepare your catch for dinner.

Where to eat in Miami? It is too tempting to say 'anywhere'. In fact a terrific way to explore the various areas of Miami is to sample the numerous eateries throughout the city. We taste-tested restaurants of all sizes, shapes, colors and cuisine – upscale and down home – and the one thing they all had in common were the heaping helpings of food overflowing our plates. Expect to leave every meal with a doggie bag – which seems to be one of the most popular accessories in Miami.One of the most popular restaurants is the famous Joe's Stone Crab (you haven't been to Miami unless you've cracked open Joe's crustaceans), but the place I always visit is at the other end of South Beach, the 11th Street Diner at Washington and 11th Avenue. Two blocks off the beach, it is open 24 hours a day, and serves up the best and biggest platter of diner delights I have ever seen. (Their bowl of fruit salad, at US$6.95, could easily serve a family of six.) Ask for Janet who has been there since the railway car opened for business – she is a fount of local information.

Just around the corner from the Newport Beachside, I watched two big men, heavy eaters, make it only halfway through La Fusta's 'mixed grill for two' – an actual grill brought to the table and piled with lamb chops, chicken, ribs, steak, sausage, sweetbreads – and more. One person could order this entree and eat the leftovers for a week.

You can also walk to the Rascal House along Collins Avenue and chow down on some of the best deli food – dare I say? – in the world. This is a huge restaurant and second cousin to the famous Wolfie's of Miami. Say you are really, really hungry and order two Rascal sandwiches, corned beef or roast beef, piled too high for your mouth to handle. You will be leaving with one of those sandwiches in the ever-present doggie bag.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.Miami has a couple of theme restaurants that are well worth the trip. Cafe Tu Tu Tango, on the second level of the lively dining-and-entertainment complex of CocoWalk in Coconut Grove is like having dinner in an artist's studio. Painters fill up their canvases while you are digging into a bowl of shrimp and downing fruit-filled pitchers of delicious sangria. Feel free to purchase any of the hundreds of art works on the walls – that way the artists can eat as well!

And then there is Bubba Gump Shrimp (which has since branched out across the U.S. as a thriving franchise), a fun and funky casual seafood eatery that is a dining tribute to the film Forrest Gump. The wit and wisdom of Gump ("Life is like a box of chocolates...you never know what you are going to get.") is plastered on the walls and your waitperson will give you Gump quizzes. Rent the video before you book your lunch.

Note: Bubba Gump is located along the dockside shopping/entertainment complex of the Bayside Marketplace – yet another spiffy section of Miami which is filled with several levels of bars, restaurants, shops and a wonderful marketplace saturated with little stands and booths selling cool hats, souvenir T-shirts and neat little knickknacks that every tourist just has to have. As well (see below) this is the dock where you pick up the "must do" Island Queen Boat Cruise.

One of the first 'celebrity' restaurants, and still one of the most popular (definitely book reservations well in advance) is Gloria Estefan's Cardoza Cafe right in the heart of Ocean Drive's deco district. Great food (try the Creole marinated fried calamari or the honey-coconut jumbo shrimp. Yow!) with some of the most fabulous sidewalk people-watching in Miami.

What would a visit to Miami be without a stroll around Little Havana? The Cubans who fled Castro have transported their background and a lifestyle that revolves around cafes, bars and domino parks into this area. For some excellent Cuban cuisine, book lunch at LaEsquina de Tejas for heaping helpings of rice, beans, platters or spicy pork, chicken and beef. Canadian visitors to Cuba should note that the food at LaEsquina de Tejas is superior to anything they will find in the mother country.

For something that will truly make you salivate, sign up for the Island Queen "Millionaire's Row" Boat Tour, a terrific water cruise around the city and through the channels where you can gawk at how the 'one percent' live in their multi-million (U.S. of course) dollar mansions. The houses on Star Island start at about US$10 million and you can see where Madonna hangs her various hats for perhaps two weeks a year as well as one of three Miami mansions owned by Julio Englesias. One of three...cheesh!

These are only a few activities of a Miami week – and I haven't even mentioned lounging on the beaches, swimming in the ocean surf, deep sea fishing trips, scuba diving, snorkelling lazily over spectacular rainbow reefs. And so on. And on. In fact, it would be tempting to say this is only the 'tip of the iceberg' of a Miami vacation – except no iceberg could survive the hot climate, culture and cuisine of this fun-in-the-sun super city.When You Go:

Accommodations:

Newport Beachside Crowne Plaza Resort
16701 Collins Avenue, Sunny Isles
Tel: (305) 949-1300

Sonesta Beach Resort – Key Biscayne
350 Ocean Drive, Key Biscayne
Tel: (305) 361-2021

Park Washington Resort
1020 Washington Avenue, South Beach
Tel: (305) 532-1930

Restaurants:

11th Street Diner,
1065 Washington Avenue
Tel: 305) 534-6373

La Fusta,
240 Sunny Isles Blvd, Sunny Isles
Tel: (305) 949-0888

Rascal House
17190 Collins Avenue, Sunny Isles
Tel: (305) 947-4581

Tu Tu Tango Cafe
3015 Grand Avenue, Coconut Grove (CocoWalk)
Tel: (305) 529-2222

Bubba Gump Shrimp
Bayside Marketplace
401 Biscayne Blvd
Tel: (305) 379-8866

La Esquina de Tejas
Little Havana
101 SW 12 Avenue
Tel: (305) 545-0337

Ricky Martin's Casa Salsa
524 Ocean Drive, South Beach
Tel: (305) 604-5959

Gloria Estefan's Cardoza Cafe
1300 Ocean Drive, South Beach
Tel: (305) 535-6500

Joe's Stone Crab
227 Biscayne Street, South Beach
Ph: (305) 673-0365

Transportation:

If you require a limo and/or driver/guide, contact ALLStar Limousine. Tel: (305) 758-6661 and request the effervescent Manny who knows all there is to know about Miami.

Other:

Starfish/Dance club
1427 West Avenue, Miami Beach
Tel: (305) 673-1717

Island Queen "Millionaire's Row" Boat Tour
Bayside Marketplace
401 Biscayne Blvd, Downtown Miami
Tel: (305) 379-5119

Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
701 Brickell Avenue, Suite # 2700
Miami, Florida 33131
Tel: (305) 539-3084
Fax: (305) 539-2911
Website: www.miamiandbeaches.com

By now everyone knows about the stylish renaissance of the South Beach art deco buildings along trendy Ocean Drive, now filled with the most chic "to-die-for" restaurants, bars, cafes, hotels and modeling agencies (which accounts for all the too-beautiful people in the area). To truly appreciate this cool conversion, rent the Al Pacino video of Scarface, which has some early 1980s street scenes of Ocean Drive before the transformation.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.Again, we were fortunate to have a guide who could navigate us through the trendy urban wildlife. Susan Scott, publicist extraordinaire, had the dubious distinction of leading our intrepid group through the wonders and wilds of Miami nightlife sort of the flip side of Jimbo's.

Because so many of Susan's clients are movie stars and fashion models, she knows whereof she speaks when she tells you that the nightclubs, restaurants and bars of Miami's South Beach are the hottest on the planet. Who could argue?

(*TIP: If you plan to concentrate on this area, book accommodations at the Park Washington Resort, just two blocks off the beach. This resort is actually four little art deco hotels hidden away from the street in a lush garden with its own private pool. Rates are reasonable, about US$75, exceptionally low for South Beach. A few added pluses: Park Washington is just across the street from the 24-hour 11th Street Diner, while the new police station is on the other corner. Just steps away from Ocean Drive, it is a quiet oasis where you can escape the non-stop action if you ever feel the need for some sleep.)

After strolling the South Beach strip, we started to hit the hot nightclubs about 1 a.m. To arrive before midnight is considered gauche. We prowled the hottest of the hot: The Bar Room on Lincoln which, because Vogue Magazine was launching its Spanish edition that evening, was filled with the most outrageously beautiful people I have ever seen. The alley entrance off Jet Groove leads into a courtyard decorated with Christmas lights and packed with happy, lit-up people. The Living Room charges an escalating fee to get into each progressively smaller, more exclusive rooms of the club; we actually got the fourth room, decked out like a Sultan's tent, that charges US$1,000 just to enter the curtained portals. I couldn't even guess what was waiting in room six.

(Note: If you are planning a lengthy stay and want to fit quickly into the salsa scene, check out the Starfish Salsa Club for fun dance sessions salsa, meringue, tango from the athletic and seemingly rubber-limbed Latin dance pros. (Call Debbie at 305 673-1717 and soon you too will be gyrating with panache in those hot clubs.)

Being tourists and not quite used to the local pace, we decided to head home early about 4 a.m. We passed the lineup of people still waiting to get in. This is the scene every night in Miami and yet for all its trendiness, each club had the atmosphere of a friendly, packed Saturday night house party in quite an exclusive home, mind you.

The next morning (okay, late morning) we all seemed to gravitate to the fishing pier just off the beach out the back door of the glistening Newport Beachside Crowne Plaza Resort. Even in the rows, actually miles, of hotels and condos, this all-suites resort stands out for its perfect pier location, incredibly friendly staff, relaxing decor, well-appointed suites and prices much lower than you would expect for all this luxury. And for guests who decide to 'go native' and fish off the pier, the resort's team of chefs will be only too pleased to prepare your catch for dinner.

Where to eat in Miami? It is too tempting to say 'anywhere'. In fact a terrific way to explore the various areas of Miami is to sample the numerous eateries throughout the city. We taste-tested restaurants of all sizes, shapes, colors and cuisine upscale and down home and the one thing they all had in common were the heaping helpings of food overflowing our plates. Expect to leave every meal with a doggie bag which seems to be one of the most popular accessories in Miami.One of the most popular restaurants is the famous Joe's Stone Crab (you haven't been to Miami unless you've cracked open Joe's crustaceans), but the place I always visit is at the other end of South Beach, the 11th Street Diner at Washington and 11th Avenue. Two blocks off the beach, it is open 24 hours a day, and serves up the best and biggest platter of diner delights I have ever seen. (Their bowl of fruit salad, at US$6.95, could easily serve a family of six.) Ask for Janet who has been there since the railway car opened for business she is a fount of local information.

Just around the corner from the Newport Beachside, I watched two big men, heavy eaters, make it only halfway through La Fusta's 'mixed grill for two' an actual grill brought to the table and piled with lamb chops, chicken, ribs, steak, sausage, sweetbreads and more. One person could order this entree and eat the leftovers for a week.

You can also walk to the Rascal House along Collins Avenue and chow down on some of the best deli food dare I say? in the world. This is a huge restaurant and second cousin to the famous Wolfie's of Miami. Say you are really, really hungry and order two Rascal sandwiches, corned beef or roast beef, piled too high for your mouth to handle. You will be leaving with one of those sandwiches in the ever-present doggie bag.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.Miami has a couple of theme restaurants that are well worth the trip. Cafe Tu Tu Tango, on the second level of the lively dining-and-entertainment complex of CocoWalk in Coconut Grove is like having dinner in an artist's studio. Painters fill up their canvases while you are digging into a bowl of shrimp and downing fruit-filled pitchers of delicious sangria. Feel free to purchase any of the hundreds of art works on the walls that way the artists can eat as well!

And then there is Bubba Gump Shrimp (which has since branched out across the U.S. as a thriving franchise), a fun and funky casual seafood eatery that is a dining tribute to the film Forrest Gump. The wit and wisdom of Gump ("Life is like a box of chocolates...you never know what you are going to get.") is plastered on the walls and your waitperson will give you Gump quizzes. Rent the video before you book your lunch.

Note: Bubba Gump is located along the dockside shopping/entertainment complex of the Bayside Marketplace yet another spiffy section of Miami which is filled with several levels of bars, restaurants, shops and a wonderful marketplace saturated with little stands and booths selling cool hats, souvenir T-shirts and neat little knickknacks that every tourist just has to have. As well (see below) this is the dock where you pick up the "must do" Island Queen Boat Cruise.

One of the first 'celebrity' restaurants, and still one of the most popular (definitely book reservations well in advance) is Gloria Estefan's Cardoza Cafe right in the heart of Ocean Drive's deco district. Great food (try the Creole marinated fried calamari or the honey-coconut jumbo shrimp. Yow!) with some of the most fabulous sidewalk people-watching in Miami.

What would a visit to Miami be without a stroll around Little Havana? The Cubans who fled Castro have transported their background and a lifestyle that revolves around cafes, bars and domino parks into this area. For some excellent Cuban cuisine, book lunch at LaEsquina de Tejas for heaping helpings of rice, beans, platters or spicy pork, chicken and beef. Canadian visitors to Cuba should note that the food at LaEsquina de Tejas is superior to anything they will find in the mother country.

For something that will truly make you salivate, sign up for the Island Queen "Millionaire's Row" Boat Tour, a terrific water cruise around the city and through the channels where you can gawk at how the 'one percent' live in their multi-million (U.S. of course) dollar mansions. The houses on Star Island start at about US$10 million and you can see where Madonna hangs her various hats for perhaps two weeks a year as well as one of three Miami mansions owned by Julio Englesias. One of three...cheesh!

These are only a few activities of a Miami week and I haven't even mentioned lounging on the beaches, swimming in the ocean surf, deep sea fishing trips, scuba diving, snorkelling lazily over spectacular rainbow reefs. And so on. And on. In fact, it would be tempting to say this is only the 'tip of the iceberg' of a Miami vacation except no iceberg could survive the hot climate, culture and cuisine of this fun-in-the-sun super city.When You Go:

Accommodations:

Newport Beachside Crowne Plaza Resort
16701 Collins Avenue, Sunny Isles
Tel: (305) 949-1300

Sonesta Beach Resort Key Biscayne
350 Ocean Drive, Key Biscayne
Tel: (305) 361-2021

Park Washington Resort
1020 Washington Avenue, South Beach
Tel: (305) 532-1930

Restaurants:

11th Street Diner,
1065 Washington Avenue
Tel: 305) 534-6373

La Fusta,
240 Sunny Isles Blvd, Sunny Isles
Tel: (305) 949-0888

Rascal House
17190 Collins Avenue, Sunny Isles
Tel: (305) 947-4581

Tu Tu Tango Cafe
3015 Grand Avenue, Coconut Grove (CocoWalk)
Tel: (305) 529-2222

Bubba Gump Shrimp
Bayside Marketplace
401 Biscayne Blvd
Tel: (305) 379-8866

La Esquina de Tejas
Little Havana
101 SW 12 Avenue
Tel: (305) 545-0337

Ricky Martin's Casa Salsa
524 Ocean Drive, South Beach
Tel: (305) 604-5959

Gloria Estefan's Cardoza Cafe
1300 Ocean Drive, South Beach
Tel: (305) 535-6500

Joe's Stone Crab
227 Biscayne Street, South Beach
Ph: (305) 673-0365

Transportation:

If you require a limo and/or driver/guide, contact ALLStar Limousine. Tel: (305) 758-6661 and request the effervescent Manny who knows all there is to know about Miami.

Other:

Starfish/Dance club
1427 West Avenue, Miami Beach
Tel: (305) 673-1717

Island Queen "Millionaire's Row" Boat Tour
Bayside Marketplace
401 Biscayne Blvd, Downtown Miami
Tel: (305) 379-5119

Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
701 Brickell Avenue, Suite # 2700
Miami, Florida 33131
Tel: (305) 539-3084
Fax: (305) 539-2911
Website: www.miamiandbeaches.com