Miami. I daresay that no other city in the US conjures so many scintillating mental images in five skimpy letters. Tulsa? Boise? Akron? With all due respect... no. There's a certain exoticism built right into the name, isn't there? Would Miami have as captivating a vibe if it had been named Gunch, Snorg, or Blaab? I think not...
When hearing the city's name, my active mind generates not only images, but music. The tenacious percussion and blaring horns of Gloria Estefan's Sound Machine. Enchanting rhythms from the Latin realm. Will Smith's 1998 hip-hop hit. In looking up "Miami (song)" on Wikipedia, one finds no fewer than 14 mainstream hits from artists as diverse as John Cougar, U2, and Nicki Minaj. (Side note: if you were wondering, there are actually two songs about Tulsa, but none for Boise or Akron).
Then there are the colors. Impossibly teal water against soft beige sand. The faded but still-brilliant pastels of Art Deco classics from 60-80 years ago. Pink, coral, sunny yellow, mint green. The glorious diversity of skin tones, from ghost-white northerners like myself to the deep mahogany of Bahamians and Haitians and everything in between. In short, the city is an explosion of pulsing sights, sounds, and scents. Keep in mind, all of this is enhanced 100-fold when you're coming from a land with an 8-bit color scheme like we were. Miami's absurd vividness was almost cartoon-like.
Paradoxically, it's also a place some folks visit from great distances to just hang out on the dazzling beaches, turning all of the frenetic vibrancy on its ear.
Our challenge? To experience it in one day.
Typically I like to get an early start when I travel. I'm a morning person anyway, often rising well before cock-a-doodle-doo. However, there were three reasons I did not want to do so on our one day in Miami proper:
We'd had a remarkably full day prior, and the night before that we hadn't arrived at our lodging until after 11 from a full day of travel
I didn't want an unnecessarily early wake-up call to dampen Julia's enjoyment of the adventure
Given our commute into town from the west, we'd likely have been stuck in traffic no matter when we left
Long story short, we didn't arrive in Miami Beach until after 10. The plan had been to start with a self-guided Art Deco tour (really more oohing and aahing at the pretty buildings than anything more sophisticated). We parked the car and proceeded on foot, southbound on Ocean Drive. Oh, what a walk it was. Incredibly preserved architecture to our right, the glorious Lummus Park - whose greenscapes glowed in the morning's rays - to our left.
It was an embarrassment of historical and scenic riches concentrated in a very small area. It somehow managed to maintain its authenticity despite the undeniable tourist onslaught.
Did I mention that just on the other side of the hedges was South Beach, arguably one of the most famous in the world? The warm sand and turquoise surf pulled us like human magnets, as we drifted off the sidewalk and proceeded eagerly seaward. As it turns out, late morning on a Monday is a terrific time to walk the beach, unencumbered by crowds of revelers or other ne'er-do-wells.
We continued walking knee-deep in the waves, all the way to South Pointe Park (doesn't adding an -e to certain words just give them that extra oomph of cachet? Grille. Shoppe. Pointe.) Views here were just as marvelous. As if my senses hadn't already been blitzed enough, a candy apple-red Ferrari 355 convertible rolled slowly by, a 90s classic I would consider one of my all-time favorite cars. It was now getting toward lunchtime, and where better to chow down than an unpretentious Cuban café.
We ended up at Las Olas, recommended by a former coworker who'd lived in Miami for 8 years. Its authenticity was confirmed when, of the 10 or so words I exchanged in my order, perhaps 3 were comprehended by the cashier. She was repeating stuff to confirm, but between the Plexiglas shield, pulsing music, and other general kitchen clatter, I still didn’t understand. She had a mask on, so I couldn’t even read her lips (not that I could’ve anyway). It was one of those situations where, after several attempts to communicate, you start to just slowly and confidently nod, hoping to God you didn’t just agree to have your lunch strafed with infernal diablo peppers or some such specialty.
In the end, my attempt at ordering a Cuban sandwich turned out to be a “Cubano Bowl”, which was close enough, and absolutely delightful. Not a diablo pepper in sight. Julia got a Peruvian bowl, consisting of rice, peppers, steak, and something resembling French fries. To drink I splurged on an Inca Kola, the bright yellow, bubblegum-sweet soda I had sampled (and fallen in love with) during my 2006 trip to Peru.
After being in and around the water, it was time to be on it, in the form of a harbor boat tour. It was about 60/40 celebrity homes/other sites, but we both enjoyed it thoroughly. Being Miami, the tour guide was bilingual, and did his narration in between bursts of hip-hop and salsa music that resonated from nearby speakers. Everything here was loud and colorful, wasn't it?
Among the celebrity homes spotted were those of Jennifer Lopez (first of the two above), Antonio Banderas, LeBron James, Jackie Chan, Gloria Estefan, and even David Beckham (second of the two) - or so we were told. For all I know, the guide just made them all up as he went along. More oohing, aahing, and shutter clicks.
After returning to shore, we walked around downtown Miami - the Beach's stodgier, more corporate big brother. Temperatures had risen well into the 80s, above average even for our semi-tropical locale. By 3:30 or so we were quite exhausted so we huffed our way back to the Bayside Marketplace parking garage to rest our tired legs.
Everything on the trip so far had been just about perfect, so we were due for a bit of a snag. After paying $12 for parking (fairly reasonable given our location, if you ask me), the machine failed to spit out our ticket, so when it was time to exit the garage, the only option was to pay an additional $30 for a "lost ticket". This, of course, bothered me greatly as we made our way toward one last activity for the day, the inimitable Wynwood Walls.
This outdoor museum was a motley collection of graffiti and other "street art" that was fascinating to walk through. Its neighborhood, while far from derelict, definitely had a much grittier feel than the highly polished wealthy areas we'd frequented earlier.
Finally time for dinner, we sought out a basic place that wouldn't break the bank after all the other costs including the painful parking. For whatever reason, we couldn't find anything moderate that appealed to both of us, so we ended up at a classic American eatery: Burger King. At the very least, I knew she'd eat there, and I smugly realized we'd make up a bunch of the money I'd wasted on parking earlier. If you were wondering, dinner came to $10.54 for the two of us.
Unfortunately, we got what we paid for. There wasn't a clean table in the deserted "dining room", the meal took a fast-food record 15 minutes to come out, the women's room was out of order, and three feral cats patrolled the nearby dumpster. Also, I somehow got mustard on my mask. To go from a Gulf-view table the night before to this became comical, and we ended up getting a good guffaw out of the whole situation. I was reminded why I avoid fast food restaurants 364 days a year.
Exhausted in that satisfied, we-made-the-most-of-the-day sort of way, we lowered the canvas top and cruised back to our lodging, arriving by 7:00 or so - by far the earliest of our four nights in Miami. The trip was now 2/3 over, but we still had the grand finale to look forward to: an encounter Julia had been eagerly anticipating for a long time...