Wherever you look, the beach is not far in Miami. Set just south of Bal Harbour and north of Miami Beach, Surfside is a family friendly beach town with a clean beach and biking paths. Nestled in this trendy beach district, is the modern all-suite hotel (complete with kitchenettes) The Residence Inn Marriott, a two-minute walk from Surfside Beach. Then there is South Beach, the postcard beach featured on umpteen American television shows. But Florida is much more than just beaches. Ocean Drive is a party hotspot and is lined with nightclubs and cafes like the very popular Mango Tropical Cafe. This glamorous neighbourhood is also famed for its colourful art deco buildings with porthole windows and eyelids. The area has around 800 structures of historical significance, mostly built between 1923 and 1943. Some of them have featured in many Hollywood movies such as the 1936 wedding cake-style Beacon Hotel and especially the 1935 Colony Hotel, which is a Miami icon and is the most photographed art deco building by tourists. There is also Casa Casaurina – the large white, 1930 Spanish-style mansion, once the home of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was shot to death in 1997 on the steps. The home has been turned into a private, members-only party mansion. There are walking tours that give a peep into the history behind these historic buildings.
Also make sure to include Lincoln Road in the itinerary. In 1962, eight blocks of Lincoln Road were closed to cars, creating a pedestrian-friendly shopping paradise, dotted with restaurants and eateries. Stroll around while looking at amazing window displays.
Miami has a strong Cuban influence which is reflected in the cafes and cigar shops that line Calle Ocho street in Little Havana, South Beach. This vibrant street is known for its Cuban restaurants and bakeries and colourful street dancing. Stop for a cup of strong Cuban coffee and drop in at the legendary Maximo Gomez Park, locally known as Domino Park. Named after a famous soldier, Maximo Gomez, who fought for Cuban independence from Spain, this is a popular hangout for local Cubans, smoking handmade cigars or discussing the latest news, over a game of dominoes. From here make a visit to Aventura Mall, an upscale super-regional shopping mall in a northern suburb of Miami. It is the largest conventional shopping mall in Florida, having a total leasable area of 2,700,000 square feet, and is the third largest shopping centre in the USA. It has a food court with eighteen fast food eateries, as well as several chains and fine dine restaurants at the mall’s entrance like The Grand Lux Cafe.
Jungle Island, earlier known as Parrot Trail, is a must visit attraction for families. Created by Franz Scherr, a place where birds could ‘fly free’, Parrot Jungle was originally located in south Miami and was known primarily for the world-famous pink flamingos who prominently featured in the opening credits of the television series Miami Vice. A private VIP Tour gets guests up-close and personal with some of the park’s most fascinating inmates like the orangutans – Peanut and Pumpkin – fraternal twins, a rarity in the animal kingdom, and the lemur nursery where guests can personally interact with these endangered mammals. They can also get to hold Johnny, belonging to the rare breed of white faced Capuchins. With its newly renovated Treetop Ballroom and picturesque outdoor spaces including a private beach, the 18 acre park is also a great events destination.
From canvas to palate
The former warehouse district of Wynwood has become the art hotspot of South Florida. It started with murals, street art, and graffiti – encouraged by the neighbourhood’s early developers. Today, it is the art hub of Miami with more than 70 galleries and museums showcasing a blend of reputed and upcoming artists and museums as well as new restaurants and bars. Another soul of art and culture is the Design District – apart from its funky galleries, curated boutiques and unusual art, it is also a shopping mecca for luxury labels like Prada, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Hermes. The district is also home to restaurants by Miami’s renowned culinary names like Michael Schwartz and Michelle Bernstein.
The next stop is the Frost Science Museum. Sitting on four acres within downtown Miami’s waterfront Museum Park, the 250,000 sq ft Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science divides into four distinct buildings: the Aquarium, the Frost Planetarium, and the North and West Wings. The walls of the main building called the Living Core are covered with thousands of individual circular ceramic tiles, some concave, some flat, and some convex, for protection form extreme weather events like hurricanes which are quiet common to Florida. The Gulf Stream Aquarium is a 100-foot wide, 500,000-gallon cone-shaped vessel with a corner-less design that allows open-water marine species such as tuna and sharks to swim continuously as they would in the actual Gulf Stream. The centerpiece of the museum’s three-level aquarium is the gigantic Oculus lens which serves as the massive viewing portal into the aquarium. The 31-foot wide, 13.5-inch thick acrylic lens weighing almost 80,000 pounds had to be transported using a unique motorised platform – similar to the ones NASA uses to move space shuttles! The museum forms a constellation of downtown cultural organisations in Miami’s Arts and Entertainment District, including the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM).
Apart from culture, Miami’s culinary offerings are unique and varied. An interesting stopover is the Uruguayan restaurant, Quinto la Huella at the new EAST, Miami hotel on top of Brickell City Centre. Don’t miss the infinity mirrors in the elevators while going up to the restaurant. Also check out Sugar, the hotel’s 40th floor rooftop bar and garden, which offers cocktails and Asian tapas. For a taste of French cuisine, there’s Stephen Starr’s Le Zoo, the 200-seat French brasserie at Bal Harbour Shops and for that authentic Mexican fare, Cantina La Veinte Mexican in downtown Miami.
From Miami to Orlando, home to iconic theme parks. Universal Orlando Resort has two theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure). The most riveting attraction is without doubt, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter where you can visit the Hogwarts castle and explore Hogsmeade village, enter the Gringotts Bank and travel on the Hogwarts Express. And of course, no trip to Orlando would be complete without meeting Mickey. Visitors can spend the whole day at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom with its classic attractions like Peter Pan’s flight, It’s a Small World and family rides like Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. A must see is the Disney Parade with Disney characters and floats that leaves everyone, including adults with an enchanting memory.
EPCOT, the acronym for Experimental Prototype Community for Tomorrow, is an educational theme park at Walt Disney World Resort. It is believed that EPCOT is based on Walt Disney’s unrealised dream of creating an actual, inhabited city based on utopian ideals and cutting edge technology. One must not miss the Frozen Ever After boat ride based on the Disney movie Frozen. Also memorable are the small-scale recreations of various countries in the World Showcase like Norway, Mexico, China etc.