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Frommer's EasyGuide to Miami and the Keys

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David Paul Appell, a resident of Miami, has an illustrious record in journalism, including scores of travel articles for major magazines, and long stints as a top editor of important travel magazines. This new edition of his previous "Miami and Key West" has been brought thoroughly up-to-date, including close attention to towns along the route to Key West, and to the continuing growth of Miami and Miami Beach in art galleries, museums, nightspots, and remarkable restaurants. As a fervent admirer of south Florida, he brings both color and practicality to this Easy Guide.

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13 Chapters

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1 The Best of MIAMI & THE KEYS

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The Best of MIAMI & THE KEYS

The bright lights and thumping clubs of Miami Beach; the vast, unspoiled expanse of Everglades National Park; and the “back country” of the Keys—South Florida has a little something for everyone. And don’t be fooled by the glammer-than-thou celebrity playground known as South Beach. Although the chic elite do, indeed, flock to (and occasionally, ha-ha, get into trouble in) Miami’s coolest enclave, it’s surprisingly accessible to the average Joe. For every Philippe Starck–designed, bank account–busting boutique hotel on South Beach, there are Deco digs that are much less taxing on the pockets. For each pan-Mediterranean-Asian-fusion haute cuisine restaurant, there’s a down-home, no-nonsense Latin bodega serving up hearty fare at surprisingly cheap prices.

Beyond all the glitzy, Us Weekly–meets–beach blanket bacchanalia, Miami offers an endless number of sporting, cultural, and recreational activities to keep you entertained. Its variety of beaches includes some of America’s best. Plus, it has an array of shopping and nightlife activities including ballet, theater, and opera (as well as all the celebrity-saturated hotels, restaurants, bars, and clubs that have helped make Miami so famous).

 

2 MIAMI & THE KEYS in Context

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MIAMI & THE KEYS in Context

Since the roaring ’20s, Miami and the Keys, along with the rest of South Florida, have been a playground for the rich, famous, and freezing. It took a handful of wealthy folks to begin the region’s transition from swamp to vacation destination. Tycoons Carl Fisher, Henry Flagler, and George Merrick get the credit for that, kick-starting SoFlo’s fondness for development back in the ’20s. The land boom eventually busted, a hurricane destroyed what was started, then came the Great Depression, and they were back at square one. But not for long. As the economy rebounded, roadways improved, and frosty winter weather continued to weigh upon northerners, the bottom tip of Florida was once again on the radar of everyone from entrepreneurs and vacationers to those looking for a permanent vacation in warmer climates. Enter the age of the condo canyons. But condos and go-go development are far from the area’s only history, which stretches back to the Spanish colonial era and into pre-Columbian antiquity, making for an intoxicating blend of past and present.

 

3 Suggested MIAMI & the KEYS Itineraries

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Suggested MIAMI & the KEYS Itineraries

Miami and the Keys, along with the Everglades, serves up an impressive variety with all the go-go activities of a world-class city but also beautiful beaches, natural wonders, and quiet corners. Whether your interests lean toward the active or chill-out, plugged in or unplugged, culture or turn-’n’-burn, or a mix of all, you’ll leave South Florida with a smile on your face.

The range of possible itineraries is endless; what I’ve suggested below is a very full program covering Miami and the Keys over a weeklong period. If possible, I’d recommend you extend your time—a week isn’t enough for in-depth exploration—but I realize most of you are hardly awash in vacation time. So for those who want to taste a little of everything, I’ve layed out the highlights, keeping it all geographically viable and logical.

Important: Should limited time force you to include only the most obvious stops in your itinerary, you’ll invariably come across only those who depend on you to make a living, which could leave you with the sense that South Florida is one big tourist trap. That’s why it’s so important to get off the tourist track—to experience the wacky, the kitschy, the stunning, the baffling, the moving, and the fascinating people, places, and things that make this one of America’s most remarkable destinations.

 

4 Getting to Know Miami

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Getting to Know Miami

A week in Miami is not unlike watching some over-the-top “reality” show, only it’s all real. Miami: the city where Jay-Z tipped a Miami Beach nightclub waitress 50 grand; where Justin Bieber was busted for drunk drag racing; where basketball superstar LeBron James’s mom was hauled in after a spat with a Fontainebleau parking attendant; and where the paparazzi camps out for days, hoping to catch a glimpse of something or someone outrageous. But that’s just a small sample of the surreal, Fellini-esque world that exists down here at the bottom of the U.S. map. Nothing in Miami is ever what it seems.

Things to Do    Miami has endless sporting, cultural, and recreational activities to keep you entertained. From watersports and sunbathing on Miami Beach to alligators in the Everglades, Miami lives outdoors. Play golf at Crandon Park, watch manatees on Coconut Grove’s waterfront, or simply soak up the sun. On rainy days you can school yourself in Dutch and Italian tapestries at the outstanding Bass Museum of Art, or learn about the city’s humble beginnings with a walking tour led by historian Paul George. For details, see chapter 7.

 

5 Where to Stay in Miami

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Where to Stay in Miami

Hotels and resorts have been part of the mix in Miami ever since magnate Henry Flagler’s railroad opened South Florida up to well-heeled tourism from chillier climes. The boom has gone on steroids in recent years, mostly in Miami Beach, whose renaissance from the late 1980s onward turned what used to be a beachfront retirement community dubbed “God’s waiting room” into a hot spot for an eclectic mix of both jetsetters and regular folks from across the planet. And while the fanciest/priciest spots get much of the attention, there are also affordable options that can put you right in the thick of the action.

Particularly in South Miami Beach, many of the old hotels from the 1930s through the ’50s have been transformed into chic new boutique hotels, and more come online each year (in fact, when booking you may want to ask if any construction or renovation will be going on during your stay). Also keep in mind when choosing a hotel that particularly in South Beach, the scene on streets like Ocean Drive or Collins and Washington avenues is all about the party, not getting a good night’s sleep (it may help a bit to ask for a room at the rear of the property).

 

6 Where to Eat in Miami

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Where to Eat in Miami

Not all that long ago, Miami was nothing to write home about, culinarily speaking, Today it’s a smorgasbord of both the sophisticated and the down home, spread over more than 6,000 restaurants, cafes, and assorted eateries. Tropical fusion cuisine—sometimes dubbed Floribbean—is a specialty, melding Californian-Asian with Caribbean and Latin elements to create world-class flavors all its own (think mango chutney splashed over fresh swordfish or a spicy sushi sauce served alongside Peruvian ceviche).

And yet, for all the foodie fanfare and celebrity chefs, there’s no shortage of spots to score a quality meal at moderate or even cheap prices, and often in the process explore a new cuisine—particularly with a Latin accent. From the beaches to Kendall out west and Homestead down south, immigrants especially from the Caribbean and Latin America have brought their skills and flavors to the Miami area for your delectation (one good option is to seek out foodie and ethnic food shops that have tables). And if you like seafood, you’ll be pleased to hear that due to its abundance hereabouts, it doesn’t have to sink your budget.

 

7 Exploring Miami

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Exploring Miami

If there’s one thing Miami doesn’t have, it’s an identity crisis. Multiple personalities, certainly—in fact, it’s just this region’s vibrant, multifaceted image and offerings that attract millions each year from all over the world. South Beach may be on the top of many local to-do lists, but the rest of Miami-Dade—a fascinating assemblage of multicultural neighborhoods, some on the verge of a popularity explosion—shouldn’t be overlooked. The 21st-century “Magic City” now pulls an eclectic mix of old and young, celebs and plebes, American and international, and geek and chic with an equally varied menu of activities.

For starters, Greater Miami boasts some of the world’s best natural beauty, with dazzling blue waters, fine sandy beaches, and lush tropical parks. Man-made brilliance, in the form of crayon-colored architecture, never seems to fade in Miami’s unique Art Deco district. For cultural variation, you can experience the tastes, sounds, and rhythms of Cuba in Little Havana.

 

8 Miami Shopping

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Miami Shopping

M iami is one of the world’s premier shopping cities; more than 12 million visitors come every year and typically spend billions. People come from all over—especially from Latin America and Europe—in search of some products that are “all-American” (in other words, Levi’s, Nike, Timberland, and such).

So if you’re not into swimming, catching rays, and other outdoor activities; are looking for a break or rainy-day diversion; or are simply a retail-therapy enthusiast, you’ll be in good company in one of Miami’s many malls—and you are not likely to emerge empty-handed. In addition to the strip malls, Miami offers a choice of malls, from the upscale Village of Merrick Park and mammoth Aventura Mall to the hyper-ritzy Bal Harbour Shops and touristy yet scenic Bayside Marketplace (to name just a few).

Miami also offers more unique shopping spots, such as the up-and-coming area above downtown known as the Biscayne Corridor, where funky boutiques defy the Gap, and Little Havana, where you can buy hand-rolled cigars and guayaberas (loose-fitting cotton or gauzy shirts, traditionally for men but also now marketed to women).

 

9 Miami Entertainment & Nightlife

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Miami Entertainment & Nightlife

With all the hype it’s gotten over the years, you’d expect Miami to have long outlived its 15 minutes of fame by now. But Miami’s nightlife, in South Beach (and, slowly but surely, downtown and elsewhere) is hotter than ever before—and also cooler with the opening of each funky, fabulous watering hole, lounge, and club. Not always cool, however, is the presence of ubiquitous, closely guarded velvet ropes used to misleadingly create an air of exclusivity. Don’t be fooled or too intimidated; anyone can go clubbing in the Magic City, and throughout this section I’ve provided tips to ensure that you gain entry to your desired venue.

South Beach is still Miami’s premier nocturnal nucleus, but more and more other areas, such as the Design District, Midtown/Wynwood, Brickell, South Miami, and even Little Havana, are increasingly providing fun alternatives without the ludicrous cover charges, “fashionably late” hours (things don’t typically get rolling on South Beach until after 11pm), shortage of affordable parking, and outrageous drink prices that are SoBe standard.

 

10 The Everglades & Biscayne National Parks

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The Everglades & Biscayne National Parks

The vast ecosystem of Everglades National Park—and most of South Florida, really—is a shallow, 40-mile-wide, slow-moving river. Its current 11⁄2 million acres (less than 20% of its mass when preserved in 1947) remain one of few places to see endangered American crocodiles, leatherback turtles, and West Indian manatees. Take your time: The rustling of a bush might be a tiny, red-throated anole lizard; that splash of purple might be a mule-ear orchid.

Active Pursuits    Popular day hikes like the Coastal Prairie and Gumbo Limbo trails wind through canopies of cypress and gumbo-limbo trees and past waterways with alligators and pink-hued roseate spoonbills. Shark Valley is South Florida’s most scenic biking trail, a flat, paved route frequented by sunbathing alligators and turtles. Canoeing through the Everglades allows serene, close-up views of this jungle-like ecosystem.

Flora & Fauna    A river of saw grass marks Everglades National Park, punctuated with islands of gumbo-limbo hammocks, royal palms, and pale, delicate orchids. The Anhinga Trail teems with native wildlife: the swallowtail butterfly, American crocodile, leatherback turtle, West Indian manatee, and, rarely, the Florida panther.

 

11 The Keys & the Dry Tortugas

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The Keys & the Dry Tortugas

The drive from Miami to the Keys is a slow descent into an unusual, often breathtaking American ecosystem, some stretches with nothing but emerald waters on either side. (On weekends, however, you’ll also see plenty of traffic in front of and behind you.) Strung out across the Atlantic like loose strands of cultured pearls, more than 400 islands make up this 150-mile-long necklace.

Despite the usually calm landscape, these rocky isles can be treacherous, as tropical storms, hurricanes, and tornadoes are always possibilities. The exposed coast poses dangers to those on land as well as at sea.

When Spanish explorers Juan Ponce de León and Antonio de Herrera sailed amid these craggy rocks in 1513, they and their men dubbed the islands “Los Mártires” (The Martyrs) because they thought the rocks looked like men suffering in the surf. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that rugged and ambitious pioneers, who amassed fortunes by salvaging cargo from ships sunk nearby, settled the larger islands. (Legend has it that the shipwrecks were sometimes caused by these “wreckers,” who removed navigational markers from the shallows to lure unwitting captains aground.) At the height of the salvaging mania in the 1830s, Key West boasted the U.S.’s highest per-capita income.

 

12 A SIDE TRIP TO FORT LAUDERDALE

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A SIDE TRIP TO FORT LAUDERDALE

If you’re visiting Miami for a week or more (or are flying into/out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, or are including in your trip a cruise out of Port Everglades), you might want to consider popping up across the county line into Broward County, whose largest city, Fort Lauderdale, is also the one most popular with visitors. It’s got the beach and the water in common with Miami and the Keys, but not much else.

With some 169,000 inhabitants, Fort Lauderdale dates back to settlements in the early 19th century but most famously showed up on America’s radar in a major way in the 1960 film (and Connie Francis song) Where the Boys Are. For generations, spring break was both its blessing and its curse. That’s never gone away completely, but development in the past few years has made the area more attractive and multidimensional for families and for visitors interested in culture, dining, shopping, and various other pursuits, with something for every budget. It’s very boaty, too, with 165 miles of Intracoastal Waterway and canals.

 

13 Planning Your Trip to South Florida

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Planning Your Trip to South Florida

Whether you plan to spend a day, a week, 2 weeks, or longer in the southern end of the Sunshine State, you’ll need to make many “where,” “when,” and “how” choices before leaving home. With myriad affordable flights, a balmy climate year-round, a vibrant cultural scene in Miami, and beautiful beaches all along the coast, there’s a good vacation to be had here by everyone, no matter how you choose to answer these questions. What’s not a question is whether or not to visit in general. You bought this book, so what are you waiting for?

As South Florida shifts from a seasonal to a more year-round destination, there’s always a good time to visit. Really. Even during hurricane season (June–November), when prices are lower and crowds are thinner, hurricanes are—knock on wood—scarce (we haven’t had one since Katrina and Wilma in 2005). When temperatures plummet elsewhere, folks flock here to thaw and things get a bit more lively, albeit also more crowded. For those who love heat, humidity, and sweating, summertime is the ideal time to visit and saves you a trip to the sauna.

 

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