Everyone has heard of Miami and Miami Beach; television took care of that. But most Americans, and especially those who have never been, would be hard-pressed to schedule their time. Apart from renting a room on the beach and lolling on the sand, what is there to do or see in this subtropical South Florida playground?
First, a little background. The much-talked-about South Beach area of Miami, the city's foremost attraction, started its career as a vacation resort in the 1920s, when Art Deco was all the rage in architecture. So everywhere you look, you will see the happy colors and whimsical lines of this very modern style. The area eventually fell into disrepair. By the 1990s, though, hipsters including Madonna and Versace discovered its charms, and it wasn't long before boutique hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and shops followed — booming even in today's economy.
The main draw still is the famous beach along Ocean Drive between Fifth and 14th Streets, lined with establishments that hop from breakfast into the wee hours. Nearby, Washington and Collins avenues also are lined with places catering to your every need, and Lincoln Road, a stunning pedestrian thoroughfare, is jammed with lively shops, bars, restaurants and great people-watching.
SoBe prices are not cheap, but you'll find exceptions, such as private doubles under $100 at the historic Clay Hotel (a former Al Capone hangout), and from the low $100s at the hipper Townhouse. You also might stay "mid-Beach," a few blocks up Collins Avenue, in modest but comfortable, well-equipped properties such as the Habana Libre (doubles from $99). For affordable meals, definitely check out Puerto Sagua on Collins for Latin island fare, Pasha's on Lincoln Road for Mediterranean and Lime Fresh on Alton Road for Mexican.
And would you believe there's culture in SoBe, too? The Wolfsonian is a remarkable museum focusing on design and its place in history, while several blocks north, the Bass Museum of Art boasts a world-class collection including the likes of Rubens and Botticelli.
Fewer visitors venture across the causeways to the mainland, but you should and here's why: This is where Miami's Latin flavor comes alive. Drive though Little Havana's Southwest Eighth Street —"Calle Ocho" — and check out landmarks such as Domino Park, where older gentlemen gather on weekends to play the aforementioned board game; and the Versailles restaurant, a rococo affair with authentic, delicious and affordable Cuban fare.
While touring the area, don't miss Coral Gables, America's first planned city, built in the 1920s with a stunning Spanish Colonial motif. Stroll downtown's "Miracle Mile," a true dining and shopping treat, and check out the historic grande dame Biltmore Hotel (another Capone hangout).
Nearby Coconut Grove is a picturesque, bohemian-feeling village founded more than a hundred years ago by Bahamian settlers. Here you'll also find good dining and people-watching, as well as historic sites such as Barnacle House and Vizcaya, an over-the-top Venice-meets-the-tropics mansion and estate built almost a century ago for the John Deere farm-equipment heir.
Other Miami attractions worth your time include Fairchild Gardens, a tropical botanical park with a superb collection of palms; the 12th-century Old Spanish Monastery, imported from Spain stone by stone by mogul William Randolph Hearst; and the Coral Castle, a walled compound singlehandedly built out of coral rock by a lovelorn eccentric in the mid-20th century. Finally, a definite highlight of your trip: the mighty Everglades out west, a sprawling and magnificent swampland with airboat rides, Miccosukee Indian settlements, and somewhat ersatz attractions, including alligator wrestling.