What Travel Writers Say

Miami: more passion than vice

© By Mike Keenan

  Stately royal palms and sea grape trees are ubiquitous. I watch as a man casually harvests coconuts on a main street, surrounded by exotic flowers and plants: purple bougainvillea, yellow allamanda and pink hibiscus.
     Miami exudes colour and passion with Lolita, a killer whale, The Heat, on fire in the NBA, tropical beaches, spas that pamper flesh, lavish golf courses, New World cuisine, pungent cigars, luxury yachts and spirited nights for those who play after dark.
     It pulses with rhythms of a diverse population, two-thirds Spanish speaking from Argentina, Cuba, Haiti, Columbia and other South American and Caribbean countries. A 76 F./24 C. average yearly temperature attracts an eclectic mix of celebrities and tourists seeking fun in the sun, and for this snowbird, the warm, blue sky's surreal cotton candy clouds are welcome relief from shoveling snow.
     A few degrees above the Tropic of Cancer, Miami is a network of barrier islands, coral rock and mangrove swamps connected by bridges, causeways and panoramic roads. Miles of white sand beach hug the coastline while the balmy Atlantic and Biscayne's tranquil Bay gently envelop the city.
     South Beach's Art Deco District, 800 architecturally protected buildings circa 1930-40 was transformed from a slum after a major exposition in Paris on the arts of decorative motives of modern-day buildings, hence art deco. Streamlined and simple, poured concrete enabled buildings to be erected quickly, and the invention of neon lights and use of aluminum fostered straight horizontal and vertical lines. I wander through a pastel wonderland, vibrant with bikini-clad in-line skaters and tanned pedestrians meandering through architectural treasures, luxury resorts, chic, boutique hotels and patio bars crammed with thirsty patrons while others play volleyball on the beach.
     The downtown hub for international business and finance offers soaring office towers and ultramodern condos. After a relaxing cruise, I listen to a Latino band and watch ad hoc dancers groove in unabashed appreciation at Bayside Marketplace, a waterfront shopping and dining destination with an outdoor concert amphitheater.
     Little Havana's main thoroughfare, Calle Ocho, (Eighth Street) is lined with restaurants featuring Latin specialties and cafes where men sip cafecitos, play dominos and debate politics, a contentious topic post Cuban Revolution, resultant boatloads of exiles, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and last year's tug-of-war over Elian Gonzalez whose relatives tried to keep the boy from returning to his Cuban father after the Coast Guard saved him from a raft on which his mother had perished. A 50-member Las Vegas troupe caused further furor last year by defecting from Cuba. Here, artisans hand-roll cigars, and tailors create custom guayaberas (traditional cotton shirts) while salsa and merengue fill the air. I sip Cuban coffee with enough jolt to maintain alertness for hours then notice a mural with Jean Chrétien in the centre of a group of Summit of the Americas Latino presidents.
     Coconut Grove, once legendary as an arts colony, now draws throngs to restaurants, cafes, galleries, boutiques, movie theaters and bookstores. Coral Gables, designed and planned in 1920 by George Merrick, features beautiful Mediterranean-style homes and winding waterways, renowned for world class dining and home to a flock of top galleries exhibiting Latin American and Spanish art. The Village of Merrick Park, an upscale shopping mecca, features 115 haute couture fashion and home decor shops, boutiques and gourmet restaurants in a lushly landscaped setting. I ogle a sleek, metallic blue Maserati selling for a mere $110,000. Think Toronto's Hazelton Lane on steroids.
     Aventura in the north features towering luxury condos, great shopping in mammoth Aventura Mall and the Turnberry Isle Resort and Club that luxury Canadian hotel chain, Fairmont, has added to its expanding market. Director of Public Relations, Carmen Ackerman, says that Canada is the number one international target with Fairmount's strong Canadian presence and loyalty. Cuban born, her favorite restaurant in Little Havana is Versailles. I joke about The West Wing running a Latino for president. "For us, it's normal," she says. "We've always had mayors and councilman of Hispanic heritage." Ackerman claims Miami is a prime business location to sell wares in Latin America and Europe. "It's a perfect gateway and great distribution point so you get a domino effect." At the port, I watch giant cranes unload ships while a fleet of massive cruise ships anchor nearby.
     Construction and hospitality industries are booming. Fairmount, Grand Bay in Coconut Grove and the Biltmore in Coral Gables were formerly the only luxury hotels. In three years, Miami has added three Ritz Carlton's, a Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, J.W. Marriott, National and Loews. "Everybody and their brother have opened a hotel in Miami; our rates are the highest they've ever been, and we enjoyed a terrific season," Ackerman exclaims.
     Miami offers a breathtaking array of restaurants featuring cutting-edge design and innovative cuisine. Over 6,000 dining spots cater to a sophisticated resident population and more than 10 million visitors who consume $3 billion worth of delicious meals. From casual alfresco cafes for people-watching to palaces of haute cuisine, Miami is a full-fledged culinary hot spot, with flavor-packed menus filled with spicy and delicious options.
     Celebrity chefs include Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Alain Ducasse. The culinary destination originated fifteen years ago with a new style of cooking, "New World" cuisine, known also as Florribean, Tropical Fusion and Nuevo Latino. A quartet of star chefs, the "Mango Gang," aka Mark Militello (Mark's South Beach), Allen Susser (Chef Allen's), Doug Rodriguez (OLA Miami) and Norman Van Aken, (Norman's) pioneered the contemporary cuisine, which combines fresh local ingredients and Caribbean and Latin America influences with timehonored European techniques. High in flavor, low in fat, Florribean cuisine showcases clean tastes from combinations of fresh seafood and tropical fruits and vegetables.
     Local waters offer a bounty of fresh seafood including snapper, grouper, lobster, stone crabs, shrimp and conch. Fruits and spices grown in Miami's backyard in the agricultural breadbasket of South Dade include citrus, yucca, mango, cherimoya, hearts of palm, avocado, guava, papaya, coconut, banana, cilantro, ginger, garlic, coriander and scotch bonnet peppers. Intriguing combinations are marinated, grilled and steamed to create dishes that delight the palate. "Mango Gang" members have received their industry's highest honors and distinctions, authored cookbooks and have created empires and product lines.
     We tried Chef Allen's, rated by the Zagat Survey, 2005 as Miami's best for Caribbean, New World food, wine list and service as well as Chispa, Spanish for spark. Relatively new, Chispa, not rated, was the equal to Chef Allen's, which is located adjacent to an Aventura mall. At Chispa, roomier and near exotic Merrick Park, I tasted chef Jesse Souza's delicious seared marinated octopus with toasted garlic and capers, a signature piece, and tuna tartare and marinated shrimp on toastones and madiros with guacamole and presto on top.
     I sip a mojito, a refreshing combination of lime, sugar and rum, the mint julep of Cuba served in a tall glass and dream about the Gulf Stream off shore, where I could swim all year in 72 F./22 C. water. Conga drums and Bossa Nova street rhythms along with mambo, rumba, samba and tango dancing transform Miami into the perfect destination to engage one's passion. The charm glows steadily like an ember in the spicy, sultry South Florida night.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan: Fairmount Turnberry Isle & Resort - entrance, 18th hole south course, Key lime pie, stone path; South Beach bikini; Catamaran & Hard Rock Café with giant revolving guitar; Bayside: dancing-at harbour; Chispa: dancer; Chef Souza; American Airlines Arena - Shaquille O'Neal, Daddy's Home; Chrétien - Summit of the Americas Mural; cruise ships, Miami port

If you go
This Destination
as seen on
The Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort & Club, 19999 West Country Club Dr., Aventura
Chispa, 225 Altara Ave., Coral Gables: http://www.chisparestaurant.com
Chef Allen's, 19088 NE 29th Ave., Aventura: htpp://www.chefallen.com
Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau: http://www.gmcvb.com/Index.asp
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miami
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Miami%2C_Florida

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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