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Miami Spotlight

Attractions

Greater Miami includes over a dozen separate incorporated cities (of which the city of Miami is just one) and unincorporated areas, but the city of Miami Beach, on a long barrier island, is where most leisure travelers head, especially to its southernmost 23 blocks, an area known as South Beach. North of here, the high-rise hotels and residences of Miami Beach's 'condo canyon,' give way to communities such as Surfside and Sunny Isles (with resorts of various sizes and price ranges), as well as Bal Harbour, with its famously upscale condos and shopping (and so snooty it insists on spelling its name, Anglo-style).

A half-dozen causeways connect these beach cities to mainland Miami, where car culture generally reigns. Crossing MacArthur Causeway from South Beach (past the cruise and shipping port), you're in downtown Miami; some blocks north is the Design District and its galleries of upscale furnishings and objets d'art, followed by the Biscayne Boulevard corridor; at the north end of Biscayne Boulevard, before entering Broward County, you'll find the prosperous city of Aventura, with the area's largest mall and one of its most exclusive resorts.

Heading west of downtown takes you to funky Little Havana, home now not just to Cubans but many immigrants from all over Latin America and especially Central America. Southwest of Little Havana is one of Miami's most upscale and picturesque areas, Coral Gables, with some good shopping, restaurants, museums, and other attractions – not to mention magical banyan-lined lanes with palatial Spanish-colonial-style homes.

South of downtown, the Rickenbacker causeway leads to Key Biscayne, home to the Seaquarium (on Virgina Key) and several upscale resorts and public beaches. Down the coast along U.S. 1, you'll find yourself in Coconut Grove, a once super-charming 1920s harborfront town of wood cottages and cobblestone lanes that's morphed from boho hippie-haven (in the '60s and '70s) to a super-pricey bourgeois neighborhood of shops and homes today. Attractions include historic homes, the topnotch Coconut Grove Playhouse, and a science museum/planetarium.

Touring Miami is still for the most part a do-it-yourself proposition, but there are several local companies to help you out here and there, starting with Miami Nice Tours, great for an overview, bay cruise, or day trips to the Everglades, Keys, or Fort Lauderdale (305/949-9180; city tour combinations $25-$62). A more recent addition is Duck Tours Miami ($26) which, though a bit hokey for some tastes, does combine a good glimpse of South Beach and downtown with a cruise around the bay peeking at the waterfront homes of the rich and/or famous. A somewhat less detailed but definitely cool new way to see another side of South Beach is via day- or nighttime Segway tour with Florida Ever-Glides (305/695-4245; $65 for 2 1/2 hours).

We've covered the must-sees below; for more information, consult the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce.

South Beach
Most people start in SoBe, to take in the Art Deco buildings up and down Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue, and Ocean Drive. This streamlined, breezily-tropical-feeling architecture heavy on lines and circles is unique in America, and ranges in time from the 1920s to the 1950s, and in aspect from the compact (the boutique, low-rise hotels of Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive) to the monumental (e.g. the Ritz-Carlton and Meliá Royal Palm); don't miss the nautical-flavored Art Deco Welcome Center (305/672-2014) at 10th and Ocean, which also offers information and guided walks; indeed, art deco aficionados should consider the architecture-and-history stroll that leaves from here (Wed, Fri–Sat 10.30am; Thurs 6.30pm; $20; $15 self-guided audio tour).

Running along the eponymous South Beach, Ocean Drive has traditionally been the destination's top draw, and remains a biggie, its string of Deco darlings made even more distinctive at night by tropical-hued neon. Most of these buildings house restaurants and/or hotels, with a sprinkling of shops. Amid all this, at 11th Street, you'll spot Casa Casuarina, a grandiose mansion arising behind a looming metal fence; it achieved notoriety in the 1990s as the over-the-top pleasure palace of designer Gianni Versace, who was murdered before it in 1997. Today, the casa serves as an events venue and private club that costs a cool $30,000 to join (it's not otherwise open to the public).

Right across from all this, of course, is one of SoBe's central lures – the eponymous beach. Lying beyond Lummus Park, a little strip of green running the length of Ocean Drive between 5th and 15th Streets, the wide stretch of sands draw families (between Third and Sixth Streets), gay boys (around 12th), and everyone else in between; amenities include public toilets, outdoor showers, chair/umbrella rentals, and volleyball nets. Above 15th and below 5th, the park stops and the fancy beachfront hotels and condos start – but various streets will still take you out to the sand and Atlantic Ocean, which are free to all.

Along Washington, which amid its Deco charm and sometimes interesting shops, clubs and eateries also has stretches of sleaze (à la head shops, tourist-crap emporia, and a strip club), there are several highlights. Toward its southernmost end, the Jewish Museum (301 Washington Ave., 305/672-5044; Tue–Sat 10am–5pm; $5, $4 seniors/students), housed in a small former synagogue with beautiful stained-glass windows, provides among other things a glimpse at the early-20th-century origins of South Beach, which was essentially a vacation ghetto to which Jews were relegated by the rich goys uptown. Heading northward, you'll see an imposing white building called The Wolfsonian (1001 Washington Ave., 305/531-1001; Mon-Tues, Sat-Sun noon-6pm, Thurs–Fri noon-9pm; $7),a quirky, striking museum of decorative arts, design, furniture, and artwork especially relating to 20th- and late-19th-century social movements in the US and Europe. Then, several blocks north, have a stroll along the charming little European-style stretch leading off Washington calledEspañola Way, lined with darling little boutiques and sidewalk restaurants that are like little slices of France or Spain.

Several blocks farther north, running from Washington west to Alton Road, another main drag that has seen a wildly successful renaissance is the eight-block stretch of Lincoln Road that has been turned into a pedestrian mall abuzz most of the day and night with both visitors and locals reveling in its dining, shopping, galleries, funky 50s Deco fountains and ornamental structures (plus a bona-fide gem of a building, the recently renovated Colony Theater), and a street life that ranges from shirtless studs whizzing by on rollerblades to the crazy guy who dances for money. Duck into the South Florida Art Center at the corner of Meridian Avenue (305/674-8278; daily 11am–11pm; free), where you can watch artists at work in their various ateliers and buy their wares.

One last stop for the culturally inclined is the Bass Museum (2121 Park Ave.; 305/673-7530; Tue-Sat 10am–5pm, Sun 11-am–5pm; $8), recently renovated/ expanded and showing off a world-class permanent collection (including Botticelli and Rubens) and world-class rotating exhibits.

Downtown/Watson Island
When you're ready to expand your horizons, head west over the Biscayne Bay–spanning MacArthur Causeway to downtown and Watson Island. Families with kids might especially want to stop on the latter, located just before downtown Miami. To your right as you drive westward over the causeway is Parrot Jungle Island (305/258-6453; daily 10am–6pm; adults $25, ages 3-10 $20; parking $6) an elaborate zoo-type complex that is of course strong on our feathered friends but also features critters from orangutans and crocodiles to giant snakes and land tortoises (some presented during regular daily shows, others available for petting). Right across from Parrot Jungle is the Miami Children's Museum (305/373-5437; daily 10am–6pm; $10), a big, state-of-the-art bundle of educational fun that's one of the best we've seen of its kind (highlights include a fire engine simulator, TV and music studios, remote-control boats, and a great arts-and-crafts center; parents can even arrange to have their tots entertained here for the day while they're off doing more adult-type activities). Also worth a quick detour along the causeway are Star and Palm islands, reachable via short bridges and harboring mega-million mansions, some of them belonging to celebs like Oprah Winfrey.

Right off the causeway, downtown Miami is mostly a high-rise business district but does have several tasty carrots to dangle before culture-lovers. The monumental, fortress-like and slightly forbidding Metro-Dade Cultural Center (101 W. Flagler St.) houses the Miami Art Museum (Tue–Fri 10am–5pm, weekends noon-5pm; $5) which mixes provocative shows with a mod collection (including Stella and Frankenthaler), and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida (Mon–Sat 10am–5pm, Sun noon-5pm; $5) whose engrossing, sometimes interactive exhibits delve into the recent and not-so-recent past of South Florida and Caribbean. Heading up Biscayne Boulevard to the northernmost reaches of downtown, areas around the Design District – a square mile of fancy stores, galleries, and design firms with a smattering of restaurants – are starting to come into their own, especially so Wynwood, bordered by NW 17th and 37th streets, which has evolved into a hot contemporary arts district with nearly 60 galleries and studios; look for the Rubell Family Collection (95 NW 29 St.; Wed–Sun 10am–6pm; $5) and MoCA at Goldman Warehouse (404 NW 26 St.; Thu–Sun noon-5pm, $2).

Key Biscayne
From downtown you can veer southward toward Key Biscayne, where Virginia Key's Miami Seaquarium (305/361-5705; daily 9.30am–6pm; $35) served as the backdrop for Flipper; today you'll find look-alike dolphins, not to mention assorted manatees, sea lions, and Lolita the killer whale; check ahead, though, as damage from Hurricane Wilma has forced the Seaquarium to stay closed until an unspecified date in early 2006. Also over here is the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center (305/361-6767; daily 10am–4pm; call ahead to reserve; tours $2-$50), which runs fascinating naturalist-led walks, bike rides, and kayak/snorkel trips along local beaches and eco-systems. Finally, if South Beach's strand is too much of a "scene," come out here for the area's most fetching, laid-back alternative: "lighthouse beach" in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area (1200 Crandon Blvd.), with wooded trails, the eponymous 1825 lighthouse, a snack bar, changing/toilet/shower facilities, and chair/umbrella rentals. A slightly livelier beach more popular with locals (and their boom boxes) is nearby Crandon Park (4000 Crandon Blvd.), with two miles of fetching, palm-dotted sands and similar amenities (minus the lighthouse, of course).

Little Havana
Reached by driving west from downtown along SW 7th Street, Little Havana is a cluster of neighborhoods centered on SW 8th Street (aka "Calle Ocho") roughly between downtown's Brickell Avenue and SW 37th Avenue. It was here that the Hispanicization of Miami picked up speed in the early 1960s as Cubans started fleeing Fidel Castro's dictatorship. Most of that era's immigrants have moved to ritzier or roomier environs and newer Cuban refugees tend to settle in a Greater Miami city called Hialeah, several miles to the northwest, so these days Little Havana has been left increasingly to immigrants from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Furthermore, much of main drag Calle Ocho is frankly dumpy – but key parts of it still make for an interesting stroll among art galleries, classic Latin restaurants such as Versailles (see Dining), and unique shops such as Little Havana to Go (Cuba-related paraphernalia, at No. 1442) and Aguila Vidente (santería voodoo supplies, at No. 1122). Watch the old gents in starched guayabera shirts still animatedly playing dominos in Domino Park on the corner of 15th Avenue, and catch the cigar rollers at La Gloria Cubana (No. 1106). You can also check out the nearby Latin American Art Museum (No. 2206); the huge, colorfully-themed fiberglass roosters stationed at strategic intervals up and down the street; the Stars of Calle Ocho (embedded Hollywood-style in the south sidewalk between 13th and 16th Avenues and especially clustered in front of the McDonald's); and at the corner of 13th Avenue, extending from SW 8 Street several blocks along the median, an eternal flame and series of monuments to the Bay of Pigs invaders and other veterans and victims of the fight against the Castro regime (get an eyeful of the huge, protruding roots of the towering tropical tree there, called a ceiba, or silk cotton tree).

Coconut Grove
A short drive south of Little Havana, this waterfront community is known for its lush, rainforesty-feeling landscaping and fun downtown, anchored by a small Mediterranean-style mall/cinema complex called CocoWalk. It used to be quite the boho/hippie hangout, and is now known more for a mix of shops and restaurants catering to both high-rollers and high-schoolers. Park and stroll around, perhaps stopping in at one of Miami's oldest extant homesteads and "hammocks" (native hardwood forest), the 1891 Barnacle House (3485 Main Hwy.; Fri–Mon 9am–4pm, otherwise by appointment at 305/442-6866; $1), now run as a state park and where concerts on the lawn and under the stars are also held.

Outside the downtown Grove, families and/or astronomy geeks might be want to pop into the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium (3280 S. Miami Ave.; daily 10am–6pm; $20); space and other natural phenomena come alive for kids and adults alike at this cool and interactive facility. That said, one of the top draws – not only in this area but in all of Florida – is actually the Vizcaya mansion (3251 S. Miami Ave.; daily 9.30am–4.30pm; adults $12, ages 6-12 $5) right across the street, business mogul James Deering's early 20th-century take on a grand Italianate renaissance palazzo. Brides, debutantes, and tourists alike flock for picture ops amid lush formal gardens overlooking Biscayne Bay, or to simply gawk at the scenery and roomsful of priceless antiques.

Coral Gables
Just west of Little Havana and Coconut Grove, one of South Florida's original planned communities (back in the 1920s) has a colonial-Spanish theme and street names to match (eg., Ponce de Leon, Granada, and Sevilla). These days, the residential parts of Coral Gables are wonderful to drive through, with grand old (and not so old) houses surrounded by huge banyan trees that provide atmospheric overarching canopies and entertainingly gnarly, complex trunks. Meanwhile, mainland Miami's only other appealing downtown, a section of Coral Way known as Miracle Mile, is undergoing a makeover that makes for great strolling and hanging out, with a growing number of cool restaurants, ice-cream parlors, watering holes, and shops.

Of outlying Gables attractions, one of our favorites is the spring-fed Venetian Pool (2701 De Soto Blvd.; 305/460-5357; Nov–March Tues–Sat 10am–4.30pm, Apr–Oct various daily schedules between 10am and 7.30pm; $6.25-$9.50 depending on season), dug out from coral rock in the 1920s and surrounded by fantasy Mediterranean-style walls, turrets and bridges; possibly the most romantic swimming hole anywhere, it attracts everyone from model types (it's popular for photo shoots) to families. Another don't-miss is the historic Biltmore Hotel (1200 Anastasia Ave.) an imposing grande dame favored by Al Capone during his Florida forays; you can have a wonderful meal or simply walk around, gawking at the glamorous Esther Williams-era pool or the soaring, star-spangled lobby complete with bird aviaries. If you're still up for more artwork, the University of Miami's nearby Lowe Art Museum (1301 Stanford Dr.; Tue–Wed/Fri–Sat 10am–5pm, Thu noon-7pm, Sun noon-5pm; $7) is a real treat, with goodies from ancient Rome to Roy Liechtenstein; Old Masters (Tintoretto, El Greco, Rembrandt) to modern biggies (Chagall, Botero, Stella), plus treasures from Africa, Asia, and Native American tribes.

Other Local Attractions
Out in West Miami, some 25 miles west of Miami Beach, Metrozoo (12400 SW 152th St.; daily 9.30am–5.30pm; $11.50, ages 3-12 $6.75) is well worth the drive for its almost 300 acres of natural habitats and uncaged exotic creatures from all around the globe. While you're out here, kids (and quite a few grownups) will also get a kick out of Coral Castle (28655 S. Dixie Hwy.; Mon-Thu 9am–8pm, Fri–Sun 9am–9pm; $9.75), a flight of fancy comprising turrets, fountains, a rocking chair, even a revolving nine-ton door you can push open with a finger – all built out of coral with nothing but hand tools over a 28-year-period in the mid-20th century; the man responsible was a Latvian immigrant who went crazy after his bride went AWOL. These days the place attracts New Agers and paranormal enthusiasts; there's even an annual Mystical Fair.

In North Miami, 20-30 minutes (depending on traffic) up Interstate 95 or Biscayne from downtown, the county's last major art museum is worth a stop, especially if you're on your way to Fort Lauderdale or the impressive Aventura Mall (see shopping). The Museum of Contemporary Art, aka MoCA (770 NE 125th St.; Tue–Sat 11am–5pm, Sun noon-5pm; $5) is big, angular, and crammed with paintings, sculpture, and installations (Julian Schnabel and Louise Nevelson are among those on permanent display, while Yoko Ono and Frida Kahlo have been showcased in rotating exhibits). The museum is also the focal point of a growing North Miami gallery/restaurant corridor, inevitably dubbed NoMi. As long as you're up here, check out the Ancient Spanish Monastery (16711 W. Dixie Hwy.; Mon–Fri 9am–5pm, last admission 4pm, weekend hours vary; $5), a 12th-century cloister carted over from Spain by William Randolph Hearst and set up here in the 1950s; aside from ranking as Western Hemisphere's oldest building, it's currently doing duty as an Episcopal church.

The last beach worth mentioning in the Miami area is yet further north, at Sunny Isles, where the clothing-optional crowd favors the northern section of the lovely, locally popular Haulover Beach, east of Collins Avenue between 156th and 159th streets. There are changing/toilet/shower facilities here, along with chair/umbrella rentals, but you might want to bring your own drinks and snacks.

DAY TRIPS
If you are fortunate enough to have time to spare, give a thought to branching out to the other highlights of South Florida. While the region also includes tony Palm Beach (a roughly 90-minute drive north) and Naples (two hours west, on the Gulf Coast), our top choices for a day out of town include the nature-loving Everglades, architecture-filled and history-rich Key West, and the shopping mecca of Fort Lauderdale. Regarding transportation, you can sign on to day tours of the Everglades, Key West, or Fort Lauderdale with Miami Nice Tours (305/949-9180). Still, to get the most out of Fort Lauderdale, as well as the rest of the Keys, you'll need your own wheels.

The Everglades
This majestic river of grass and mangroves takes up millions of acres of the western reaches of Miami-Dade County, with the Everglades National Park, occupying a million and a half of those same acres; here you can still see gators and other wildlife and take air-boat rides. It's usually no more than an hour's drive from Miami; get there by taking the Tamiami Trail west or US 1 south to Homestead and Florida City. There's also an outpost of the local Miccosukee Indian tribe that's interesting to visit. Summer is very buggy and not as optimal for wildlife-spotting.

The Keys
The chain of hundreds of coral islands stretching 150 miles into the Atlantic are neither chic nor elegant, but rather a laid-back, outdoorsy slice of old Florida, right down to the motels and honky-tonk shell shops you'll find lining U.S. 1 as it winds its way through the lot. The best known, of course, is Key West, a lovely three-hour drive south of Miami, famous for its tropical-Victorian-fantasyland feel, Jimmy Buffett/Margaritaville vibe, and hedonistic laissez-faire – though on days when cruise ships are in port, the main drag, Duval Street, can turn into a sea of decidedly unpicturesque tourists. Worthwhile local highlights include the Ernest Hemingway Home, Harry S Truman Little White House, and the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. But Key Largo, with its underwater hotel and spectacular Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, is only an hour or so from Miami. Islamorada is another popular destination, and many of the smaller keys have a lot to offer, too. Information on the Keys is available through www.fla-keys.com and www.floridakeys.com.

Fort Lauderdale
Just 30 minutes north of downtown on Interstate 95, this one-time sleepy backwater went through the spring-break college madness period to become a vibrant, revitalized business and vacation center with some wonderful shopping (at gargantuan Sawgrass Mills mall, which includes the great new kids' museum "Wanadoo" and the lovely East Las Olas downtown shopping district); a beach promenade and strand you might dig even better than Miami Beach; historic Old South homes such as Bonnet House and Stranahan House; great dining; and exceptional arts scene including a very good Museum of Art (the Museum of Science and Discovery is pretty good too, especially for families). For something a little different, pop into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. A day up in Lauderdale is a day well spent. See http://www.sunny.org for more information.

DADE DUFFING
With about 50 public and private golf courses, Greater Miami's greens offer nothing if not variety. Best putting is at the five courses of the Doral Golf Resort and Spa (4400 NW 87th Ave.; 305/592-2000), including the famed "Blue Monster." If you think the former too far to get to, consider the closest links to tourist haunts: Bayshore Par 3 (2795 Prairie Ave., Miami Beach; 305/532-3350) is within walking distance of South Beach; Normandy Golf Course (2401 Biarritz Dr., Normandy Isle, 305/868-6502) is in Miami Beach, just above South Beach.

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