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Miami, Florida 72-Hour Vacation

Miami Spiced
Sightsee and Sunbathe in Style

By Pamela Robin Brandt

Miami Beach
Miami Beach

"The Magic City:" It's Miami's most enduring nickname, coined around 1900 after a fire destroyed much of the downtown business district. The very young city (little more than a pioneer settlement when it incorporated in 1896) rebuilt, and grew, so fast it seemed like magic. Hence the moniker. Over the years, though, Miami has picked up many other nicknames. Today the city is the fourth most densely populated in the USA (after New York, Chicago, and San Francisco), but second to none in number of "appellations" attempting to describe it. Miami is actually way too complex and contradictory for that. But adding all the nicknames together does give visitors a fair idea of the dizzingly varied range of experiences they can expect to find in even a short vacation here.

It's called "The 305," because that's Miami's original area code. It's "Da Bottom," because of Miami's position as the country's southernmost major urban area. It's "The Sixth Borough" because of the vast number of New Yorkers who have relocated here (permanently, or, as seasonal "snowbirds") since Miami was first promoted, in the 1920s and 1930s, as the USA's premier tropical winter playground. It's "North Havana," "Little Cuba," or, more broadly, "The Gateway to the Americas" because of later Hispanic immigrants who have made Miami "The Northernmost City in Latin America." It's sometimes called "The American Riviera," though recently, recession-era hardships that have played havoc with tourism and condo building/buying have transformed that nickname into "The Repo Riviera." But there's an upside: There are currently surprisingly bargain-priced hotels and meal deals to be found.

There's "The Million Dollar Sand Bar," too, but that's more a nickname for Miami Beach. Actually a separate city, across Biscayne Bay from mainland Miami, Miami Beach is the place with the extensive ocean frontage that has always been a lure for most tourists. Hence it's where you'll find the historic Art Deco hotels of South Beach (or "Sobe"); the greatest concentration of glam nightspots; and, of course, the beach. Even today, there's a large category of purely relaxation-seeking visitors—beach potatoes—who never leave the sands during their stay.


But for active travelers, there are many more unique attractions a short drive away, including the Everglades' incomparable natural wonders. And the exciting new restaurants and hotels that have sprung up since the new millennium along mainland Miami's Biscayne/Brickell corridor (now the town's hottest dining destination) also make it worthwhile to rent a car, and brave Miami's notoriously awful drivers.

Where action-minded visitors will doubtless want to stay is in party-central South Beach. Ian Schrager's cutting-edge sister hotels, The Delano and The Shore Club, are located within blocks of each other in Sobe, and properties such as The Setai and the Sagamore Hotel offer equally posh, Art Deco accommodations. The Ritz-Carlton South Beach takes a fresher, hipper approach than its traditional Ritz siblings; no fox-and-hounds hunt club paintings here. And newer boutique venues such as the sumptuous Hotel Victor on Ocean Drive and the secluded Sanctuary South Beach offer different views of the hot beach lifestyle.

And those wishing to stay in a calmer, but still oceanfront locale, can find solace a few miles north along Collins Avenue at the new The Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour, Miami, or a bit farther uptown, in Sunny Isles Beach, at Acqualina Resort & Spa on the Beach. Both resorts have world-class spas. For those seeking proximity to mainland Miami's many new attractions (like the Performing Arts Center, as well as the city's hottest new dining destinations, along the Biscayne/Brickell corridor: the Design District, the Upper East Side, the Mary Brickell Village area and, as of this past year, Miami's formerly near-dead downtown), top choices include the Four Seaons Miami and Conrad hotels on Brickell Avenue, and the gorgeous Mandarin Oriental Miami, a bay-surrounded sanctuary a block east of the avenue on Brickell Key.


Kick off the day, as many Miamians do, with a Cuban-American breakfast—perhaps a plantain or shrimp tortilla (omelet), or a lighter repast of café con leche with tostada (buttered, pressed, and toasted Cuban bread)—under the Scull sisters' eye-openingly bizarre 3-D paintings of Old Havana at old-time favorite Puerto Sagua. It's one of the only authentic home-style Cuban eateries on South Beach, rather than the more ethnically rich mainland.

Ocean Drive

Miami weather is pretty much beautiful all year round, but one never knows how much sun will appear during any given three-day stretch—if there are blue skies when you arrive, unpack and head straight to the beach. Use plenty of sunscreen and don't overdo it the first day—an hour at most, as the rays here can be ruthless on pale first-timers.


Art Deco Style in South Beach

More active travelers can head downtown for lunch at Garcia's Seafood Grill & Fish Market. Take a seat on the outdoor patio overlooking a weathered old stretch of the Miami River and enjoy an inexpensive, freshly grilled mahi mahi sandwich with a priceless view of cargo docks straight out of "Miami Vice."

Or you could take a drive to Calle Ocho (8th Street), which cuts through Little Havana. There is no centralized tourist area here, just a neighborhood packed with Cuban-born residents and their businesses. Versailles restaurant is a must. Here you can sip potent little cups of café cubano at the outdoor counter, and listen in as island expatriates and local political power players engage in animated discussions of politics and life. This is the one-stop-shopping stop for all of Miami's TV and newspaper reporters whenever something newsworthy happens in Cuba. While Versailles' food merely coasted for years, recent meals suggest an attitude adjustment; it's now also a good place to experience a literal taste of Cuba, via a generous combo plate of classic preparations or perhaps a Cuban sandwich—especially good when the lechon asado (succulent roast pork) is fresh from the oven. All in all, the Cuban culture is so pervasive you'll swear you're in Havana.

Artsy travelers might want to keep the day going with a visit to the Miami Design District, also in mainland Miami (but a straight shot across the Julia Tuttle Causeway to Miami Beach). Here in the compact neighborhood long nicknamed "the square mile of style," you'll find dozens of showrooms (all deliberately open to the public as well as to the trade) and many more shops showcasing textiles, antique furniture, ceramics, Murano glass, Warhol prints and all manner of design ware. There are also numerous fine arts galleries and a few cool designer clothing stores.

Michael's Genuine Food and Drink
Michael's Genuine Food and Drink

Chef Michael Schwartz's nationally acclaimed Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, which most credit with catalyzing the easily-walkable little district's recent boom, tops the list. But Ken Lyon's casually stylish Fratelli Lyon café (located within Driade's design showroom) is also among the hottest restaurant picks in all of Miami. A $3 comprehensive valet parking deal (drop your car at any of the above, pick it up at any) makes it possible to enjoy a progressive dinner, with Design District window-shopping in between courses.

If you'd rather cap off the day with sushi (a specialty in fashion/figure-conscious Miami), this year's hottest insider pick is tiny NAOE, where, for just $26, young perfectionist chef Kevin Cory serves a multi-course omakase Japanese bento box meal, followed by impeccably fresh à la carte sushi till diners drop. For Asian food that encompasses almost everything but sushi, there's no better choice than the exclusive The Restaurant at the Setai, where you can find exquisite Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian dishes — on authentic tableware imported from each nation.

For those who don't want to hit the sack after dinner, check out the Shore Club's Skybar, the Setai's Beach Bar, the Sagamore's Art Video Lounge or Pool Bar, the Conrad's The Bar at Level 25, or several Hotel Victor venues (V Bar, poolside Passage Bar, and Vue terrace) are among Miami's most enjoyable nightspots.

Continue to Day 2


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