The many sides of Miami

By Diana Ballon photos by Rick Eckley

I had never thought of Miami as low key. Sure, night clubs, flashy cars, some serious glitz and an internationally renowned art scene. But relaxing?

As I was to discover, the answer was yes. Miami beachfront can be remarkably quiet, even at Spring break, if you know the time of day, and the section of beach, for your urban retreat. I credit my positive experience largely to the Palm Hotel & Spa, where we stayed in mid Miami Beach, with its very own tropical garden and pool under a baby blue sky, with free yoga classes, a relaxing stretch of beach, and direct access to the Miami Boardwalk.

But Miami has many sides.

Beach

Miami’s beaches lie on a narrow peninsula east of the city, and joined by four bridges. The slender stretch of beach extends from Sunny Isles Beach in the north to Key Biscayne at its southern point.

Sunny Isles Beach has been dubbed Florida’s Riviera. Its two-mile stretch of beach is lined with towering luxurious condominium resorts, ” many of them all inclusive, so perfect for families. www.sunnyislesbeachmiami.com.

Surfside is a quaint family-oriented town with a small beach town feel. Its two-block commercial strip has many acclaimed kosher restaurants that cater to of the many orthodox Jews who live here, along with mom-and-pop shops and luxury boutiques. Its mile-long uncrowded beach boasts luxury hotels like the Four Seasons and the art deco Solara Surfside hotel. Popular Surfside events include its block party third Thursday of the month. www.visitsurfsidefl.com

Miami Beach has the largest concentration of art deco buildings in the world. The mid-section of Miami Beach boasts many impressive upscale hotels, like the Fontainebleau, Eden Roch Miami Beach Resort and the Cadillac Hotel & Beach Club, smaller ones like The Palms where we stayed, and the newer and popular Faena Hotel, EDITION and The Setai. Many of these mid-beach hotels tend to have a resort-like feel with pools, spas, high-end restaurants and direct access to the boardwalk separating the beach from Collins Ave. between 23rd and 46th.

 South Beach (SoBe), in the southern part of Miami Beach, is known for its fine art deco architecture, beautiful people, celebrities, and colourful lifeguard shacks along the beach. The most touristed section of SoBe runs parallel to Ocean Drive between 5th and 15th” and includes the elegant Betsy South Beach at 15th Street. www.thebetsyhotel.com/the-betsy

Key Biscayne is a natural paradise sandwiched between two major parks— Crandon Park Beach in the north and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State to the south, with hiking, cycling, fishing, kayaking and the historic Cape Florida Lighthouse.

Cuisine

The culinary landscape of Miami is rich with great seafood, authentic Cuban eateries and amazing international chefs offering innovative dishes. Here are some highlights.

Malibu Farm Miami Beach at the Eden Roc Hotel on Miami Beach uses locally-sourced organic ingredients to produce some truly innovative cocktails, fresh juices, delicious wood-fired pizzas (one with a cauliflower crust) and a chicken ricotta burger I loved. The restaurant overlooks the ocean, so come during the day to enjoy the panoramic view. Better yet, come for its popular Sunday brunch.

At the LT Steak & Seafood at the Betsy Hotel, award-winning chef Laurent Tourondel showcases memorable dishes like the short rib bao bun and tuna tartare to start, signature coconut-macadamia shrimp sushi rolls, free-range chicken, rib eye and warmed churros for dessert. Don’t miss live jazz in their lounge salon after your meal. www.thebetsyhotel.com/lt-restaurant

The Lure Fishbar at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel is an ocean-themed dining room with some world-class seafood. Walking to your table is like moving through the corridor of a ship with propeller at the back, wood paneling and nautical lines. Once seated, enjoy an array of spectacular dishes: east and west coast oysters, sushi (the yellowtrail jalapeno rolls are a trademark), changing ceviches (we had one with tuna and watermelon), Diver scallops and an award-winning burger are just some of the highlights. Their key lime pie is then a perfect ending to the meal. www.lurefishbar.com

Café Ragazzi on Harding Ave. in Surfside is a classic Italian restaurant owned by Latin singer Ricardo Montaner, whose photos grace its walls. Expect white tablecloths, professional wait staff, and memorable dishes, like their osso bucco, hand-cut pasta and wood-fired pizzas. And don’t miss the tiramisu for dessert. www.caferagazzi.com

Call Me Gaby is a bright colourful restaurant on Washington Avenue serving up delicious Pinsa Romana-style handcrafted pizza, pastas and salads for a relaxed lunch, a well-curated happy hour and dinner. www.callmegaby.com

Art Deco

 Although the art deco buildings on Miami Beach were almost destroyed by developers in the 1970s, they were saved by activists who later founded the Miami Design Preservation League. The league offers a range of art deco tours (about $25 to $30), including a self-guided architectural audio tour in Miami Beach and a 1.5 to 2-hour Art Deco walking tour and private art deco tours. Other popular tours include the art deco walking tour in South Beach, and private tours like the Gay & Lesbian Walking Tour, Jewish Miami Beach Tour and MiMo Architectural Tour. www.mdpl.org/tours/guided-walking-tours

For more details of Art Deco’s evolution, view the ongoing exhibition at The Wolfsonian Deco: Luxury to Mass Market which traces art deco’s origins in Europe and how it came to the United States and into the homes of middle class Americans. www.wolfsonian.org

Street art

The Wynwood Arts District, just north of downtown, was once a gritty warehouse area with s, with failed businesses and crime. Then in 2009, in an effort to transform the neighbourhood, “Wynwood Walls,” an outdoor museum of street art, was born. The exterior walls of six warehouses became the blank canvas for both neighbourhood and international artists. Wynwood Walls, the epicenter of mural art in the district, has elevated street art and changed how people view and interact with the work. While you are in Wynwood, stay for a drink and a meal. Wynwood has five breweries, more than 70 galleries, live music, rooftop yoga, hipster cafés and more.

Cuban culture

The Little Havana Food Tour, offered by Miami Culinary Tours, has been rated the fifth best food tour in the world. Ours was led by Juan Janzen or JJ, a master storyteller who grew up in Little Havana, just west of downtown. In the thirties, Little Havana was a Jewish community known as Shenandoah, but by the 50s, most of the Jewish families moved toward the beach, and Cuban immigrants later moved in in the sixties.

As part of the tour, we wandered through Maximo Gomez Park, better known as “Domino Park,” whereyou will find older men playing dominos from sunrise to sunset,.  Next door is the historic – and retro – Tower Theatre, from the 1930s, where you can still go to see independent and revival films.

Over the course of a 2.5 hours, we have a shot of colada, the strong Cuban coffee  sold from walk-up windows, or ventanitas, of cafeés. We visit Ball & Chain, which has been a nightclub since 1935 and seen a run of performers since that time, including African Americans like Billie Holiday and Count Basie. We watch cigars being hand-rolled in tobacco leaves. And we sample traditional Cuban sandwiches, mojitos, fresh sugar cane juice and Abuela Maria ice cream made with old school Galletas Maria cookies at many other stops along the way.

Lodging

Choose from boutique hotels to luxurious beachfront resorts to Airbnbs to lifestyle hotels.”. You can save money by staying off the beach, or during the summer, checking out the Miami Hotels Months for summer savings at www.miamiandbeaches.com/offers/temptations.

The Palms Hotel & Spa where we stayed, at 251 rooms, is perfect for families and couples. About a third of the rooms at The Palms have ocean views, as ours did, with sweeping floor-to-ceiling windows.  Their Essensia Restaurant has an excellent buffet breakfast and the adjacent lounge offers happy hour drinks during the week.  Their sister property, Circa 39, is a 97-room boutique hotel a block from Miami Beach in “Wundermile” with daily happy hour at their WunderBar and a relaxed friendly vibe.

For more about Miami, see miamiandbeaches.com.