MIAMI — In my neck of the woods, it’s been a long, rough winter, but if you live in central Pennsylvania, that’s a trite phrase, oft repeated.
Somewhere around November, those of us who are already weary of winter begin counting down the months, looking forward to the days when thermals are but a distant memory.
Seeking a much-needed respite, I decided on Miami as a March birthday destination. I’ve been to Florida before, but heard that Miami is an altogether different experience, and that turned out to be true. I discovered that the area is a wealth of, well, wealth. It’s also rich in culture, glamour and beauty. And with temps hovering in the 80s starting around 8 a.m. in March, it was also an excellent place to replenish my depleted Vitamin D reserves.
Seeing the sights
Book a Big Bus Tour for a convenient way to see the city. A 48-hour pass will cost between $45 and $50 per person, depending on whether you book online, or in person. On the bus, you’ll learn so much more than you would from a self-guided tour, from the history and culture of the area to what events are occurring and when. Hopping off and on is easy, with buses that circulate every half hour from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. A plus is that you’ll have ample opportunity to snap pictures from the upper tier, unencumbered by windows or the necessity of keeping one’s eyes on the road.
Miami’s Big Bus Tours are separated into three categories: Beach Loop, City Loop and Uptown Loop. The vehicles are color-coded so you can easily discern which bus to take, depending on what strikes your fancy that particular day.
The beach loop takes guests across the MacArthur Causeway to South Beach, where they can learn more about the colorful, carefully preserved art deco buildings prevalent along the bustling ocean drive. Tourists from around the world gather here to eat, drink and be merry. Ocean Drive is just steps from the beach where people-watching is a favorite pastime. Restaurants line the streets, and dining al fresco is de rigueur at this popular spot.
On the next block over on Collins Avenue, we discovered a restaurant where service and food were top-notch. “Quality Meats” is a relatively new place located in the former Bancroft Hotel and features a variety of locally sourced dishes, from filet to duck to aged bone-in sirloin, to name just a few.
The original check-in desk now serves as a butcher counter, with cured foods available for purchase. Seating is available inside and out. If you choose to dine on the patio, be sure to catch a glimpse of the bar’s focal point — a meat-hook chandelier.
The city loop will take you to Coconut Grove, one of the oldest, continuously inhabited areas of Miami. The Grove offers plenty of shopping opportunities, from open-air malls to boutiques. Step off the bus at Cocowalk, and you’ll find men’s and women’s fashions, jewelry, gifts, accessories and more. Bistros, restaurants and bars, which are open until 3 a.m., attract many area students from the University of Miami.
If you find yourself with some downtime as you wait for the next bus to arrive, you can grab a cup of coffee from Starbucks and sit outside to watch the world go by. Tables, complete with umbrellas to provide protection from the sun, are located within viewing distance of the bus stop and the town center.
Another stop along the way on the city loop is the beautiful Coral Gables, one of the first planned communities. Famous for its strict zoning ordinances and its Mediterranean-style architecture, the area is known as “City Beautiful” and is home to the University of Miami. Disembarking at the Village of Merrick Park is recommended if you enjoy restaurants and gourmet shops. You’ll also find plenty of other shopping opportunities, from Neiman Marcus, to Nordstrom, Burberry, Coach and Gucci, to name a few.
With the purchase of a 48-hour ticket, bus patrons on the city loop can also take advantage of a free, one-hour walking tour of Little Havana to learn a brief history of the Cuban people’s settlement of the area, and learn how it’s changed throughout the years.
The most interesting loop, in my opinion, is the uptown loop, which will take you to Wynwood, Midtown, Historic Overtown and the Design District, where you’ll see low-rise warehouses that have been converted into art galleries, restaurants and cafes. If you visit on the second Saturday of the month, you can join in a community wide Art & Design night held from 7 to 10 p.m., where galleries and design showrooms welcome the general public with music and refreshments.
Sample local cuisine
Before making reservations at area dining establishments, you might want to first take advantage of a culinary tour. At miamiculinarytours.com, you can choose the South Beach Food Tour, the Wynwood Food Tour or the Little Havana Food tour.
The 2.5-hour tours include five stops, all located within a mile and designed to give you an overview of area cuisine.
On the South Beach Food Tour, you’ll sample Peruvian, Argentinian, Columbian, Italian and Moroccan cuisine, while learning about the area from knowledgeable guides.
“We cover the art deco district, how it got started, who preserved it in the ‘80s and the events that changed Miami altogether,” said tour founder Grace Della.
Guests can time their walk to coincide with the lunch or dinner hours.
“We always tell the group, you’ll love Ocean Drive and guide them on where to eat. We stop at places ranging from five-star, to mom-and-pop places where they serve amazing food at a fraction of the price,” Della said.
There’s no dearth of lodging in Miami, with hotels everywhere you turn. If you want to stay in the midst of the action, however, there’s no place like Ocean Drive. We chose to stay at the Hotel Leslie, where everything was within walking distance, from restaurants to the beach and area shops. At night, Ocean Drive comes alive, drawing steady crowds to the food, drink and entertainment crammed on every block. Sometimes it feels like you’re running a gauntlet as you navigate to your destination while restaurant staff implores you to sit and stay a while as they vie for those tourist dollars.
For the deep-pocketed crowd, Collins Avenue is the place to stay, with the massive Fontainebleau being a favorite choice among the well-heeled.
“The Fontainebleau is the largest resort in Miami, with 1,500 hotel rooms, five restaurants and one of the top-grossing nightclubs in the world called LIV. It’s the place to be and be seen,” said Kristina D’Amico, a hospitality consultant with HVS in Florida.
Don’t just think you can walk off the street and gain entrance, however. The cover charge runs $100 and up, according to D’Amico, and then you still may not gain entrance, depending on whomever is manning the door.
“A lot of the big DJs play there on the weekends, and you’re likely to see sports players and celebrities,” she said.
Another choice for those for whom money is no object is a new resort, so exclusive that, once again, small letters just won’t do. The Miami Beach EDITION, located on a 3.5-acre enclave that stretches from Collins Avenue to the shoreline, bills itself as a “unique, world-class, urban resort,” offering many amenities.
For those searching for a more affordable stay, you can’t go wrong perusing the options at Airbnb.com, where locals rent out apartments, rooms and houses available at various price points.
These are just a few suggestions to take advantage of everything Miami has to offer. Those who choose to stay in the heart of the action on Ocean Drive might want to take note that the crowds start small on Monday and grow larger as the weekend approaches.
Because there is so much to do and see, a minimum of five nights is recommended if you’re interested in a little downtime to enjoy soaking up the rays on any of Miami’s beautiful beaches. Have fun and don’t forget the sunscreen.