Miami Beach (22 to 26 January 2024)

Is Miami Beach tacky and over-crowded?  Do the bling-laden people sashaying along Ocean Drive epitomise the maxim that money does not buy good taste?  Do the bare chested louts speeding around in rented Ferrari 458s and Lamborghini Huracans think anyone believes they own these cars?

Yes, yes and sadly, probably yes.

Miami is definitely not ‘our kind of place’.  You may well ask, then, why did we come here?  We came for three things:  the Art Deco District in South Beach, the Everglades and as a jump off point to the Florida Keys.

First, the Art Deco.

The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 all but destroyed the grand hotels and winter homes of wealthy northerners for which Miami Beach was renowned.  In the decades that followed, most of the reconstruction was small-scale, stucco hotels and rooming houses for summer rental.  Art Deco was the style of the day.

Miami Beach fell out of favour with beach goers with the advent of air travel to the Caribbean and by the 1960s most buildings were cheap housing for poor retirees.  Developers started to bring in the bulldozers.  But in 1976, advocate and one-woman powerhouse Barbara Baer Capitman formed the Miami Design Preservation League.  Three years of lobbying and protests against demolitions resulted in the creation of the Miami Beach Architectural District, popularly known as the Art Deco District.

The district comprises the largest grouping of Art Deco buildings in the world.  There are more than 800 of these beauties, built between the mid 1920s and the mid 1940s, restored, painted in delightful pastels and either converted back to hotels or re-purposed.

As lovers of Art Deco, it was worth the silliness of Miami just to see them.

Clarke Gable, Rita Hayworth and Carol Lombard all holed up at the Park Central in its heyday.

The highest concentration of preserved buildings is along the Ocean Drive section of South Beach and the several blocks behind it.   The 1980s TV hit series Miami Vice was filmed here.  When shooting began, South Beach was still so run down, they had no trouble shooting car chases because the streets were empty of cars and people.  Poverty and crime were rife.  The series is credited with contributing to a wave of support for preservation of the area.

The Avalon was a favourite filming location.

The Carlyle is now luxury condominiums.

Casa Casuarina was built in 1930 as a residence for the heir to an oil fortune.  With the downturn in Miami’s fortunes, by the 1980s it was a warren of tiny, cheap apartments.  Gianni Versace bought it in 1992 and spent millions restoring it.  Eight bedrooms, ten bathrooms, a pool lined with 24 carat gold tiles imported from Italy.  In 1997, he was shot dead on the steps in front of the house by a psycho on a killing spree.  Now it’s a luxury 10 suites hotel.

The Cardozo was named after Benjamin Cardozo, a US Supreme Court Justice during the Roosevelt era.  He was one of a group of three judges, all liberals, nicknamed the Three Musketeers.  The other four, all conservatives, were dubbed the Four Horsemen.  With the weight of numbers, the Four Horsemen repeatedly struck down Roosevelt’s New Deal programs as unconstitutional.  Roosevelt had legislation drafted to increase the number of judges on the court so he could appoint more liberals.  He called it ‘breaking the deadlock’.  Opponents more accurately called it ‘judge packing’.  He couldn’t get it passed.  Cynical partisanship around court appointments in the US is not new.

The hotel was also used as a setting in that hilarious 1998 movie There’s Something About Mary.

When radio came to Miami Beach lots of hotels installed their own stations complete with broadcast tower disguised as a design feature.

We stayed at the beautiful Henrosa.

Art Deco District done, we headed out to the Everglades hoping to spot some ‘gators.  They lurk in the River of Grass, which is a problem for boats with a motor under the water.  So, unlike the sedate boat trip we did in the Louisiana bayou, spotting here is generally done on airboats.

If you’ve seen any crime show which involves venturing into the Everglades, you’ll know them.

It’s much warmer than when we were in Louisiana.  Still not warm enough for the gators to be too active, but enough to see a few moving around.

In truth, it was a little underwhelming, which is probably why, back at the launch point, the operator has a small park where you can see a few in plain sight.

And stroke a baby one.

Or fondle a Burmese python.  As the name suggests, they are native to South East Asia.  We heard several conflicting stories as to how they came to take up residence in the Everglades, but however it happened, it obviously suits them.  They’ve reached such numbers they are now considered a threat to native species.

They can grow to six metres and with a girth the diameter of a telegraph pole.  This one is practically a baby.

Or you can just go bird spotting.

Back in town, we had a day to spare.  Over the bridge in Miami city, the district of Wynwood was once a decaying industrial wasteland.  There’s still plenty of grime, but revitalisation is transforming the district into an art and fashion hub.  It’s now known for the enormous murals that cover the walls of old factories and new buildings alike.

And for Wynwood Walls, Miami’s Original Street Art Museum.  It started in 2009 with one old factory site.  Buying up properties around it, the site now has 35,000 square feet of walls.

It isn’t really street art in the traditional sense.  It’s private property and street artists are invited to come and create works on the walls.  But it’s a pretty interesting way to spend some time.

Some groovy sculptures, too.

Miami experienced a huge influx of Cubans in the 1960s following the Cuban Revolution and it is today the American city with the largest Cuban-American population.  In our short time here, we found the best food is Cuban.

There’s a small district near downtown Miami known as Little Havana.  But we’ve been to the real one, so instead John read a book and Julie headed to the beach to check out the life guard towers.

No, not the life guards.  The towers.  There’s 36 of them strung out along several kilometres of Miami Beach and they are a recognised symbol of the city.  The first ones were a donation from an architect as a contribution to recovery following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  Others were commissioned by the council or civic-minded individuals.  They’re fun.

Next, south to our final objective: Florida Keys.

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