More than a city, to the visitor’s naked eye, Miami is a state of mind: balmy weather, endless beaches, cheerful pastel colours and all night partying. Two Miami-bred friends, who headed west and ended up settling in LA, both said the same thing when I mentioned I would be visiting: there is nothing to see. True – Miami is not a cultural center, Art Basel notwithstanding. And for a tourist looking for the conventional cultural landmarks, the pickings are slim: no world-class museums, interesting architecture limited to the Deco district and disjointed neighbourhoods that do require a car rental for exploring.
But the beaches are indeed glorious, the water warm and inviting, the dining options plentiful and sophisticated and, if it’s nightlife and shopping one has in mind, Miami is your destination. And the one of very many Italians and assorted Europeans who are either relocating or buying second homes – the city, right now, feels like a giant construction site.
I first landed in Miami on a long ago vacation, en route to South America, with sofagirl. It was August, the heat was close to unbearable and, like all first timers, we cruised South Beach, Collins Avenue (which, at the time, wasn’t packed with just swanky hotels) and stayed at a cozy and pastel hued motel with a giant talking parrot in lieu of a receptionist. Kid you not. We also drove all the way to Key West on that beautiful stretch of highway and spent a few blissful days scuba diving (sofagirl) and sunbathing (me). I subsequently went back many times, mainly for work, and mainly on my way to a South American destination or other.
This time, the only item on my tourist agenda, was pastel with guava, that Cuban delicacy I discovered a few years ago in LA and I was convinced would be plentiful and even better in the cradle of the Cuban-American community. As a bonus, I got to see and do a few things not necessarily on the tourist map or, at least, not the ones at the top of the list, and they all turned out delightful. So, if you are done with South Beach and you shelled out enough money on drinks and food at all those “must see” hotels where, if you are not young, beautiful and/or trendy you will feel out of the target demo, here are some ideas.
In truth, there isn’t much to see, despite a touted Cuban museum, and Calle Ocho is pretty uneventful. But most guidebooks will tell you about Versailles, as a mecca for authentic Cuban food; my experience was limited to breakfast but I am happy to report it does not disappoint. I did an informal market research on Cuban coffee – i.e. I gulped it down wherever I saw it sold – and the one at Versailles is a step above the rest: an already sweetened and generous shot of espresso, very creamy on top, with a splash of hot milk. Heavenly. The pastel con guava (pastel de guayaba for Cubans – puff pastry rectangular turnovers filled with guava paste) were also outstanding. Try the quince tart too. Three coffees and 2 pastries set us back $4.00 – best deal in town. I happened to have breakfast there on the day after Chavez died and the place was abuzz with conversations and journalists and the entire clientele was male – not sure whether it’s an indication on how things normally are. Don’t bother with the sit down restaurant and just order at the outside counter. They also have a small outpost at Miami International Airport – beats airline food.
A native South Floridian told me his favourite part of Miami was Coral Gables. The very first planned community, a precursor to gated communities and homeowners’ fees, Coral Gables was built in 1920’s. The Mediterranean architecture of the homes is not the draw but the jungle-life vegetation is – trees that have come to full maturity intertwine along wide avenues and boulevards, creating fable-like tableaux. Stop at the Venetian Pool and take a peek, or pay the non-resident entrance fee of $11.50 and spend the day. The whimsical pool was also built in the 20’s and it mixes rock formations, Venetian gondola poles and an Italianate loggia. The spring water that fills the pool is from an underground aquifer: it’s like a Vegas dream without the casinos or the throngs of badly dressed tourists. The day I visited there were maybe five people sitting around it.
- Cruise along Coconut Grove (and maybe have lunch at Scottie’s Landing, skirt downtown and take the bridge to Key Biscayne, that strip of island south of Miami Beach that, during hurricane watches, is the first to get evacuated. Drive past the ugly condos, the beautiful homes, the exclusive tennis club and the shopping area until you get to Bill Bagg State Park. For $8 a vehicle ($4 if you are alone), you will be allowed to enter the park where one can camp, rent bikes, hike, kayak, enjoy the beach or explore the lighthouse. I had lunch at the Lighthouse Cafe, overlooking the Atlantic and the lighthouse itself, and it felt a million miles away from urban sprawl.
If it’s salsa you are looking for, this tip came from a Dominican native: head to El Tipico Dominicano, a modest establishment not in the nicest part of town, where you will be frisked upon entering. But if you are serious about your salsa, the folks on the (small) dance floor are serious too. There is no live orchestra (something I am used to in LA) but $10 will buy you the entrance fee and the first drink and, in exchange, you will mix with local salseros in a friendly atmosphere. It’s open Fri/Sat and Sun until 5 am.
And if Miami is not in your cards any time soon, you can always channel the mood with a real Cuban mojito. Probably dating back to 19th century and called Draques at the time (after Francis Drake), it was made with aguardiente (a precursor to white rum), with yerba buena and lime, added to take the edge off the harsh spirit. Subsequently, white rum became the norm. The secret to a REAL Mojito lies in the sugar – real cane sugar or cane juice should be used, instead of simple syrup. Granted – neither is easy to find but, if you can, you will taste the difference.
The meaning of the name is up for debate: it could derive from “mojo”, a lime condiment used to flavour dishes, or it could be a diminutive of “mojado” (wet in Spanish). What is not up for debate is that it was Hemingway’s favourite drink. Whatever your opinion of “For Whom the Bell Toll”s, when it came to cocktails, Senor Hemingway had good taste.
1/2 ounce lime juice
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
3 leaves mint
2 ounces white rum
Glass Type: old-fashioned glass
In a smallish Collins glass, muddle lime juice with 1/2 to 1 teaspoon superfine sugar.* Add the few mint leaves, mushing them against the side of the glass. Fill glass 2/3 with cracked ice and pour in the rum.** Pitch in the squeezed-out lime shell and top off with club soda or seltzer. Serve with a stirring rod.
This one responds well to playing around, as long as you keep it within limits. There are some who like to replace the sugar with 2 teaspoons cane syrup; it’s hard to find here, but you can make a pretty good substitute by bringing a cup of Demerara sugar (“Sugar in the Raw” works) to a gentle boil with 1/2 cup water; keep refrigerated. In either case, it adds a nice mellowness to the thing. Some — cocktail historian and restaurant critic William Grimes, for one — prefer their mojitos to be Draques, sin fizz. That’s good, too. We like ours with the fizz, though, but also with a tablespoon of 151-proof Demerara rum floated on top. Another wrinkle has to do with the mint. The Cuban species, “yerba buena,” is different from the standard U.S. spearmint; supposedly, the Cuban stuff is available. Worth keeping an eye out for.
* Depending on how sweet you like ’em; we like ours a bit tart.
** Bacardi is, of course, traditional; for a fuller, slightly rummier taste, try Brugal, from the Dominican Republic, or Angostura, from Trinidad.