Saturday, March 25, 2017

36 Hours in Miami

On the shores of Biscayne Bay

Miami is a special place for me. It's where my husband and I spent our wedding night nearly 25 years ago. Our honeymoon was a Caribbean cruise departing from Miami followed by a week at Walt Disney World. We were the type of couple who literally left for their honeymoon directly from the wedding reception. We arrived in Miami late at night, checked into our hotel by the airport and then shipped out the next morning. For last week's Spring Break Caribbean cruise — this time with our 3 kids along — we decided to arrive early to spend a bit more time sampling what the Miami area has to offer.

Everglades National Park

Sloughy marshes as far as the eye can see, crocodiles, manatees, and tropical wading birds. That's what comes to mind whenever I think of the Everglades, and I longed to finally see it with my own two eyes. I've also been wanting to ride on an airboat, so that's how I focused my search.

Everglades National Park stretches 1.5 million acres (6110 km²) across the bottom tip of Florida, making it the third largest U.S. National Park. Most of it is not easily accessible by car, but the trails by its four visitors centers give a sampling of the Everglades ecosystem.

Shark Valley Visitors Center is an easy one hour drive west of Miami on the straightest, flattest road we've ever been on. We began to wonder at the name "Shark Valley" as we were supposedly too far inland for sharks and the monotonous topography made it impossible to imagine where a valley may be located. The "valley" is a slight depression that channels water into the Shark River which empties into the Gulf of Mexico at a spot where sharks are known to hang out. While you must beware of crocodiles in Shark Valley, there are no actual sharks.

After parking at the Visitors Center, taking the 2-hour guided tram tour or bicycling is the best way to explore the main 15 mile loop trail leading into the park.

Park Entrance Fee:

  • $25 per car
  • $20 per motorcycle
  • $8 per hiker/biker

Shark Valley Tram Tour:
  • $25 for adults 
  • $19 for Seniors (62+ years)
  • $12.75 for children 3-12 years old

Bicycle Rental:

  • $9/hour - first come, first served 
Being cheapskates and short on time after sleeping in that morning, we decided to walk. This means that we only made it about 1 mile down the trail and back, not the entire 15 miles. Those who do make it to the midpoint of the 15 mile trail are rewarded with a 45-foot high observation tower lending views of 20 miles around.

Still, we managed to see numerous crocodiles, some of whom were laying mere inches from the trail. A few baby crocodiles rested in one shady pool of water. Birds were everywhere. 

Each of the four visitors centers seem to have different things to see and experience. For more information about the Ernest F. Coe Visitors Center and the Flamingo Visitors Center (with possible manatee sightings), see this blog post by The World is a Book.

Airboat ride across the Everglades

Airboat Ride

Seeing the Everglades by airboat was at the top of my list for things to do while staying in Miami. We booked a private tour at Everglades River of Grass Adventures since it was the top-rated one on TripAdvisor. They did not disappoint. 

Looking around at the landscape, everything seemed the same initially. Tall grass waved in the wind as far as I could see. Luckily, our guide, Steve, knew the area like the back of his hand. Alligators are very territorial, and he took us directly to the little clumps of grass that they called home. It was as if Steve knew their house number. He knew exactly where a pair of colorful Purple Gallinule swamp hens were nesting as well as a place where a first-time alligator mama had abandoned her babies in a search for more shade and water. The featureless landscape began to reform itself into a series of canals separated by navigable marshland and wildlife habitats when Steve was at the helm. 

Best of wall, the wind whipped our hair and roared in our ears as we sped over the grass. Be sure to bring glasses/sunglasses and tie back long hair! And for goodness sakes, keep your mouth closed unless you want to catch bugs and bits of flying grass in it. (The tour did provide ear protection for us.) It was loud and exhilarating!

Dining on Cuban food at Versailles

We had dinner that night in the heart of Little Havana. Versailles is known for both its Cuban food and as a gathering place for Cuban-American exiles. The main restaurant seats 370 people and its walls are covered with ornate mirrors. Presumably, that's how this Cuban restaurant ended up with a name associated with France. Arriving at 6:30PM on a Saturday, we were seated in just a few minutes. I picked it because it supposedly serves one of the best Cuban sandwiches in Miami, but we ended getting dinner sampler plates. The food was filling, delicious, and amazingly affordable. It's a winner all around.

The walk-up coffee window is known for its cafe con leche. Judging by the line, it's very popular. I really wanted to try it but knew that I wouldn't go to sleep for hours if I did. (If this had been the type of Miami Spring Break vacation where I'd be clubbing all night, I would have totally drank it up.)

The Versailles Bakery is located next door. We took a number and perused the bakery cases as we waited for our turn to order. Cookies, pastries, cakes as well as empanadas and other savory offerings tempted us. Stuffed from dinner, we ordered a few desserts to take back to our hotel room to enjoy later.

Breakfast/Lunch at Charlotte Bakery

The next morning, we headed to Miami's South Beach for a late breakfast at Charlotte Bakery which serves up the flavors of Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia and Chile. With all the Spanish language flying around between the patrons and the people behind the counter, I felt far away from Trump's America. Making a choice with the variety of arepas (cornmeal flatbreads), empanadas, and filled pastries and rolls was difficult since everything looked so yummy. For the less adventurous eaters (e.g. my kids), they offer croissant French toast and Belgian waffles, too. The line moved slowly, and the limited seating was tight, but I really enjoyed our delicious meal there.

One of the many Art Deco buildings in Miami's South Beach

Art Deco architecture in South Beach

After being decimated by a hurricane in 1926, Miami rebounded with a building boom that lasted until the outbreak of World War II. Much of the new construction was in the chic Art Deco style which featured clean shapes, bold lines, and bright colors. Today, the one-square mile area of South Beach which makes up Miami Art Deco National Historic District has over 800 buildings in this style. I would have loved to take a stroll down Ocean Drive across from Lummus Park to enjoy seeing these architectural gems at a leisurely pace, but we were pressed for time with a cruise ship to catch. Instead, I rolled down the car window and took it all in as we drove by.

One of my favorite photos is of The Cavalier Hotel at 1320 Ocean Drive because of the stucco friezes on the front of the building. They exemplify the Art Deco Rule of Three and are inspired by the excavation of Chichen Itza and the opening of King Tut's tomb,  both of which were big news at the time this hotel was designed.

View of Villa Vizcaya from the boat landing on Biscayne Bay

Villa Vizcaya - a little part of Italy in the middle of Miami

We had plenty of time to kill between our early morning debarkation from the cruise and our late afternoon flight. Instead of sitting around the airport, we rented a car and took a short 15 from the Port of Miami cruise terminal to gorgeous Villa Vizcaya. Built between 1914 and 1922 as the winter home of James Deering, heir of the Deering Harvester fortune, Vizcaya looks as if it's located somewhere in northern Italy instead of in Florida. No wonder that so many photo shoots were going on in the formal gardens. It's quite a setting that some people call it the "Hearst Castle of the East." 

The main home and gardens are a collection of inspirations from various Italian Renaissance villas executed with Cuban limestone and Floridian coral architectural trim. Inside, the furniture and decor are meant to suggest an accumulation of artifacts and belongings over the course of centuries. Today, it is a museum owned by Miami-Dade county and open to the public.


Exploring Street Art at Wynwood Walls

An area full of abandoned, windowless warehouses transformed itself into a giant canvas for street art in Miami. Begun in 2009, Wynwood Walls pulls from both American and international artists who represent the spectrum from old school grafitti to the most modern interpretations of street art found in the world. Located 15 minutes from the cruise terminal, it was our other option for exploring Miami before our late afternoon flight. During this trip, we didn't have time to stop off (having spent so much time lingering at Vizcaya),  so it's on the books for my next trip out to Miami. If you've been, tell me how it is.

Miami is a city with a variety of experiences from viewing wildlife up close in the Everglades to touring architectural delights interspersed with meals from Latino cuisines. It was so multicultural, and I look forward to visiting it again.

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  1. It's all the art deco buildings that I want to see in Miami - it's on my wish list.

  2. I've been to Florida many times (I was married there) but I never went to the Everglades. I did get to see an alligator at a reserve near my MIL but lots of alligators including babies would be more interesting to me. I have been to Miami but just for the airport. Next time I will stop in South Beach to see the art deco buildings.

  3. D and I did an airboat tour with our boys years ago and loved every minute of it. We are planning to return to Florida next year and an Everglades airboat tour is at the top of our must do list.

  4. We just haven't spent enough time in Florida. One of our future plans is to travel the US with a trailer and Florida will be our winter home. #wkendtravelinspiration

  5. I went to Miami long time ago and had no time to explore. I was with a bunch of friends, we stopped by South Beach and that was it. I really want to go back (I have seen really good airfare prices lately). #TPThursday

  6. I found your story about the Cuban Cafe interesting - the name and 370 seats and the food was great even though the place was so large. I'd like to try the tasting plates too.

  7. We spent a day in Miami before a cruise some time ago and didn't get a fraction of as many things seen and done and you accomplished. As they say here, "Bravo!"

  8. Indah Nuria SavitriMarch 27, 2017 at 2:59 PM

    I miss Miami! We went there in 2015 had 2 lovely nights before heading to Key largo and Key West :)

  9. I hit most of these spots when we were in Miami last year. I do regret not getting into Little Havana for a meal. Love that city!

  10. I've only been to Miami briefly to get on a cruise ship. But I'd like to remedy that. I have been on an airboat a few times as I lived in Naples, Florida for a time - as did my, and my husband's, family for many years. So I've done the Everglades from the Gulf Coast. We've done the Ten Thousand Islands boat cruise. But I definitely want to get to Shark Tower!

  11. I think lots of parents want to visit Miami but wonder how to do it with kids. This is s good guide. it shows there is more to the area than lux hotels and night clubs.

  12. Welcome back! So glad you got to visit Everglades NP and do an airboat ride. We've always used Miami to pass through but never really went past South Beach and a small part of Little Havana. I'm glad to see all these other great ideas to visit with kids.


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