Michael and Dan Do Miami, or Easter with Elian

Daniel Emberley, April 2000



Michael and I just came back from our friends Charles and Maria’s wedding in Miami. Feel free to trash this, or read on if you want to know what two boys who don’t really do the beach thing do on the beach.

Thursday, April 20

We arrived in Miami early from National, picked up our car, and proceeded to knock things off our “must see” list. First stop was the Deering estate Vizcaya. If you’ve seen the mansion in “Citizen Kane”, you’ve seen Vizcaya. Acres of tropical gardens and fountains surrounding an Italian palace. Deering was heir to and developer of the International Harvester fortune, and part of the crew of affluent Americans buying up Europe at the turn of the century (think Hearst, Frick, Isabella Stewart Gardner). Many interiors purchased directly out of palaces, packed up, and installed in Florida. The waves were too rough for Deering’s pleasure, so he had a giant stone barge installed in front of the estate’s docks. That mansion-crawling made us hungry, so we hit the Versailles in Little Havana for Cuban food. The Versailles is less famous for the quality of the food than for the ambiance (gilded mirrors, plaster statues, and more patterns of carpet than you’d think possible to cram into a restaurant). We have to confess that we didn’t like Cuban cuisine as much as we’d hoped we would. We tried it in several places, and, while it is inexpensive, it’s not flavorful enough for our tastes. Roast and fried meats served with plantain, black rice, and beans. The bread and dessert things are good; our favorite dishes turned out to be Cuban sandwiches and flan (a revelation after the milque-toast versions served up north).

From Little Havana we caught MacArthur Causeway over to South Beach and our hotel. A little geography will help to set the stage. Miami is on a ridge between the swamps of the Everglades and the islands of Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach is on the barrier island due east, a beach island not too different geologically from Rehoboth, Ocean City, or the North Carolina islands. To get to the Beach from Miami you have to take Julia Tuttle, Venetian, or MacArthur Causeways. All three connect additional little islands between the city and the beach. MacArthur and Julia Tuttle are essentially interstate highways, with high center sections to let the cruise and container ships through on the Intracoastal Waterway. The causeways connect you to Miami proper. South and west of downtown are Little Havana and Coconut Grove. South and west of them are Coral Gables and South Miami. North Miami Beach is not actually on Miami Beach, but on the mainland well north of downtown. Keep going up the coast and you hit Avventura, Hallandale, and Ft. Lauderdale. About three hours south and west, on causeways across the Everglades, the Keys begin.

You’ve basically got development that goes north-south, along the solid ridge. Route 95 stops (I somehow never thought that was possible), merging into Route 1 south of downtown in Coconut Grove. East of that on the mainland is Route 1, which becomes the major throughway south and west. Route A1A is the main drag on the Beach, running up the coast through Ft. Lauderdale and points north (a beach road similar to 1A in New England, for all you Yankees).

Michael and I ooh-ed and ah-ed our way across MacArthur to the Beach. The sun, the water, the cruise ships, the houses of the wealthy on islands in Biscayne Bay. They’ve got a monument to founding father Flagler, the gentleman who brought the railroad down to Miami and the Keys, on an island all to itself in the middle of the Bay that you can only get to by private boat. Cool. Found our hotel, in the Deco District on the southern part of South Beach. Development of the Beach seems to have happened from the bottom tip north over time. South Beach, where we were, is from the 1920’s and 30’s. By the 1950’s major hotels were going up in the middle-to-north part of Miami Beach, like the Eden Roc, Americana, and Fountainebleau. Condos and ugly concrete high rises fill up north of that. In an odd twist, in the 1990’s developers wanted to build tall condos in the South Beach, but were blocked by the creation of the Art Deco Historic Preservation District. Instead, they leveled the blocks south of the Deco District, so the oldest part of the island is now a 1990’s park with high rise condos.

Our home, the Hotel Shelley, is in the Deco District on Collins Avenue. It had recently been renovated. Good materials were bought, but the installation was done poorly, and service is marginal. The front desk is staffed beautiful buff 20-somethings who spend all day cruising the girls and whose main attribute is the “South Beach look”. We don’t recommend it, but it was quiet, relatively inexpensive, and in the heart of things, so we were happy.

More geography: In South Beach you have several unimpressive blocks, then Washington Boulevard, where most of the clubs are, and less expensive shopping. A block east is Collins Avenue, with a lot of the Deco hotels and better shopping. East of that is Ocean Drive, with the more expensive Deco hotels. Ocean is lined with bars and restaurants, all facing a park that in turn leads you to the beach. The beach proper is one of the best we’ve seen anywhere, maybe the best, with incredible soft clean sand, warm gentle waves, and umbrellas and beach chairs for inexpensive rental. A promenade takes place each night along Ocean, as bars play live music and restaurants display signature foods in an effort to entice you out of the parade and into their venues. Once seated, of course, you just change places, becoming part of the stage set the people walking and driving are watching, just as they are your free entertainment.

Driving is a must, because the subway in Miami has to be the stupidest ever planned. Doesn’t go to the Beach, or the airport, or most places tourists would want to go. Runs up the middle of highways, so the physical stations are not actually near anything you want to get to. Which means visitors to the Beach spend a good chunk of time trying to park their cars. Our hotel, like many on the Beach, does not have its own parking. Fortunately there are municipal parking lots at key areas up the island, but one spends a good piece of change just to park the car you shouldn’t have had to rent in the first place. On busy nights you can end up a good twenty minute walk from where you want to be, and that’s a quick Dan Emberley walk.


So, we’re in South Beach. Restored pastel Art Deco hotels, designer fashion outlets, and lots of beautiful people. Wish I could take credit for the following line, but I got in from a guide book: “Gays in South Beach look like Tarzan, walk like Jane, and talk like Cheetah.” Ah, we like them big and stupid in South Florida. The boys make a pretty sight indeed. One wonders if the testosterone is natural, or injected to increase muscle mass. And, is it the reason the drivers are so rude? Or is that Latin machismo? The jury was still out when we left.

After casing our room we took a stroll around the block. We walked into the Wolfsonian, a museum of decorative arts from Europe and the United States from 1880-1940-ish. Great collection of World’s Fair memorabilia, subway stuff, cool furniture and posters. They had a big temporary installation of English Arts and Crafts drawn from their permanent collection. Hopefully it will travel, as it is a great show.

We hopped in the car, crossed the Bay, and took US 1 south to Coral Gables. Our friends who were getting married, Charles and Maria, had invited us out-of-towners to join the reception dinner which his parents were having for them at their house. They have a lovely 1930’s bungalow with coconut and orange trees in the back yard. Their families were welcoming and an awful lot of fun to be with. After dinner we crossed back over to South Beach and took a longer walk along Ocean Drive and the beach proper. The beach is so wide that from the water’s edge you can see the neon of the buildings of the Deco District. You saw the same view in the opening of the film “The Birdcage”, but I figured you had to be in a helicopter to get it. An amazing sight by moonlight.

Friday, April 21

Supposedly the Bass Museum of Art has the best collection of art in South Florida. Couldn’t tell you. They were advertising a show of “Warhol’s Miami” in the local art magazine, but when we drove up to the facility in Miami Beach we saw the building gutted. Turns out they’re about a year overdue on an expansion designed by Arata Isozaki. The construction crews waved us off with a laugh. We walked through the very 1960’s Miami Beach Public Library, then crossed Venetian Causeway into Miami. Venetian is one of the oldest auto roads to the beach, and has a series of drawbridges, a few of which stopped us. Not a problem, as that gave us a better chance to check out the houses on the connected islands, which are quite gorgeous. We found the Dade County Cultural Center, home to the Miami Art Museum and Miami Historical Museum. The Art Museum is smallish, with mediocre contemporary art. A good temporary exhibit of Andy Warhol portraits including some hysterical footage from his TV show in the 1980’s. The Historical Museum was a mind-opener. It tells the story of the settlement of South Florida in a way that is inclusive of the ethnic groups involved and well designed to incorporate kids into the exhibits. Native Indians, Spaniards, British, American plantation owners and their slaves, citrus farmers, the tourist booms of 1920’s and 1950’s, Cuban and other Caribbean immigration. You could visit an 1880’s farm homestead, shoot from a Spanish fort’s tower, and ride a 1920’s trolley car.

In between the museums we got a decent lunch at a Cuban sandwich place downtown. More rice and beans, but the flan was a major discovery - creamy, rich but not dense, with a flavorful caramel syrup. Mmmm-mmm good.

On our way out to Charles and Maria’s the night before we passed what looked like a warehouse selling architectural antiques in Coconut Grove. We returned and discovered a whole street of antique stores selling furniture, building pieces, and lights salvaged from old buildings, as well as a party goods wholesaler. Some of the lamps would have made nice ceilings, they were so large. We decided they wouldn’t work as carry-on luggage, so left them behind.

North from there on city streets to the Rubell Collection. The Rubell family has bought a lot of contemporary art in the last decade, and run out of places to put it. They bought a big warehouse in Miami and have turned it into a private museum, free to the public. There are more on-site art workers than visitors. It’s a very neat view into the private art world and what’s being collected now. Dan recognized a lot of the pieces either from photos or articles in art magazines describing recent biennials and shows in New York. A great collection, and a nice way to share it with the public.

The Rubell was not far from the Design District, about 12 blocks of north Miami housing the businesses you would expect to find in a “design center”. Tile stores, modem furniture, custom floor and wall coverings. We found some interesting fixtures for the bathrooms, but nothing worth schlepping home.

Off to Miami Beach again, where we shopped Lincoln Road. If I understand the sequence correctly, this was a main shopping stretch of the Beach (Sear’s, Woolworth’s, etc.). In the 1970’s it was sort of run down, and welcomed artists and galleries. Morris Lapidus, the great Miami designer of 1960’s kitsch, created a series of roofs and fountains in the road, turning it into a pedestrian mall. Today the art and funkiness are basically gone, replaced by the Gap, Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, and expensive restaurants. We had a great salad and mufuletta at an Italian panini place, then took the car south to the hotel.

Unfortunately, Good Friday evening is a pretty happening time on South Beach. We ended up parking in a garage only a block or two from where we started, and a good half hour walk from the hotel. Lesson learned, after that we made sure to get the car garaged before dark if it looked like it was going to be a busy evening on the beach.

Saturday, April 22

This was an interesting morning. Turned out the Attorney General decided to reunite a long departed family, and removed Elian Gonzalez from his uncle in the early hours. Miami, of course, wigged out. Fortunately, we never got into trouble ourselves, but did try to be cautious the rest of the trip. Although CNN made it look like “a city in flames”, it was only a few blocks of Little Havana that were actually affected. The wedding was set for noon-ish in South Miami, but we took off early to make sure we could get across town. We had never seen so many police as were guarding MacArthur Causeway, it looked like anyone with a dark complexion was being refused entry into the Beach. We learned later that the Naval base from which the junior Gonzalez was helicoptered to Homestead (and then flown to Andrews AFB) is crossed by the Causeway. So, we might have just missed the little tyke. Or maybe the police were ready to smash heads.

We got to Coral Gables without difficulty, and spent some time driving around checking out houses. Coral Gables was designed in the 1920’s as an affluent planned suburb. It remains a fine address in greater Miami. Many of the houses are supposed to have been designed in themed styles, “Norman Village”, “Dutch Colonial”, “Italian Hill Town”, “Chinese Village”. To today’s eye everything looks pretty much 1920’s Spanish Revival, but that’s partly because Coral Gables was so successful that the style was copied everywhere across the country from LaJolla to Takoma Park. We drove through the campus of the University of Miami on our way to South Miami.

The Unitarian Universalist Church in South Miami is a gem, designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s. It has Wrightian touches all over, from the palmetto-inspired stained glass to the swooping triangles of the concrete roof.

The wedding was beautiful and elegantly simple, and the reception after great fun.  We were able to connect at the wedding with friends Craig and Leslie from D.C. The four of us took a drive up to a Spanish monastery. It is actually the oldest building in this hemisphere. Hearst had bought it for San Simeon, had it disassembled, packed, and moved to the States, but ended up not using it. A group of Miami businessmen purchased it and rebuilt it in North Miami Beach. It is now run by the Episcopalian Church. Unfortunately, being Holy Saturday, the facility was closed, but it was cool to see if only from the outside. As a consolation prize we headed south on A1A. Craig and Leslie had a convertible, so we got to do the “wind in your hair cruise thang” through Sunny Isles, Bal Harbor, Surfside, and along Indian Creek into Miami Beach. Leslie wanted to catch Easter services at a Catholic church, and had located one in South Beach. She stopped in to get the start time of the service, then we all crossed the street to the Marina for blender drinks and dinner at Monty’s Seafood. Delicious dolphin, salmon, and stone crabs as we watched the cruise ships and freighters move through the harbor.

We dropped Leslie off at church, then drove back to Coral Gables to pick up our car. Rendezvoused at our hotel in SoBe, met Leslie, and had a nice evening beach walk. Leslie regaled us with stories of what sounded like the Craziest Easter Vigil ever, in four languages, complete with Elian Gonzalez homily. After a burger on Ocean Drive we walked our friends back to their car and turned in ourselves.


Sunday, April 23

We split up Sunday morning. Michael drove out to the Grove for a going away breakfast with the wedded couple and guests at the NewsCafe, just behind CocoWalk. Dan took an Elmore Leonard detective novel to the beach, rented a chair, and communed with the sun, God, the waves, and his fellow morning people. We got back together at the hotel and drove up to Wolfie’s, a Jewish deli in the middle part of Miami Beach. Most excellent matzoh ball soup, corned beef, and bowls of pickles. They were serving Passover luncheon, but accommodated us goyim, thank you.  After lunch we drove north on A1A. The drive south on the same road was a tease, as the road splits in several places into north and southbound stretches on old city streets. The northbound route goes closer to the beach, and was beautiful in the Florida sun. Our destination was Fort Lauderdale, which neither of us had ever seen. It’s about an hour north of Miami on the local roads. They have a decent art museum, which was showing late DeKooning abstract expressionist canvases and a very large show of paintings by Impressionist Camille Pisarro and his descendents. The DeKooning exhibit had a great activity area where overhead projectors, crayons, and newsprint were provided to help you recreate the artist’s techniques. The Pisarros were a little dull - neither of us are big fans of Impressionism; that “artist merges nature and industry in pretty oil paints” thing just doesn’t challenge us. That’s not a bad metaphor for Lauderdale, actually. Lots of money, but few challenges, or much to interest us. It’s supposed to be a major gay community, but we don’t see the allure. Too many Republican matrons in sequined beach-wear: loud enough to lack taste, but not so loud as to be fun.

There is a very nice but short Riverwalk from the art museum along the New River in downtown, via a festival marketplace. It wanders through an area the local historical society is filling with buildings from the early days of the city, in the first part of the 1900’s. Pretty cool. The walk ends at the Museum of Discovery and Science. We didn’t go in, figuring we’d seen science exhibits in many other cities, but really liked what we saw outside. They have a major “conservation of momentum” display, one of those sculptures of balls on metal tracks rolling around, hitting little flags and whirligigs, and demonstrating that force equals mass times acceleration. In the grassy plaza before the museum they’ve laid out geometric figures, including a cool Pythagorean theorem and a sundial where you become the gnomon. The sundial helped us understand how these things work for the first time - shows how important it can be to get hands on.

The main shopping drag, the Lincoln Road equivalent, is Las Olas. We wandered along the strip, but were unimpressed. A lot of locally owned stores, but not aimed at us as a market - how many pairs of platform shoes or beachfront condos can we own, after all?

Disappointed in Fort Lauderdale, but glad we’d seen it and wouldn’t have to return, we headed south on U.S. 1. Parked behind the Eden Roc, and explored Morris Lapidus’s beach resorts from the 1960’s. These places are like Jewish Disneyland: self-enclosed, never-need-to-leave-the-complex, with seemingly entire neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island transplanted to the tropics to spend Passover with grandmother. Lapidus is famous for his swinging cool 1960’s style, with gilded and brightly painted concrete and flying staircases to nowhere. We walked around the pools, into the lobbies, and checked out the restaurants. A boardwalk connects the Eden Roc to the Fountainbleau, which has an even grander pool complex but not as nice a lobby. Way cool, daddy-o: we kept looking to see if the Rat Pack was in residence. Or at least Jackie Mason.

Unfortunately, the food didn’t seem exceptional, and the prices were high, so we drove back down to South Beach (“our beach”, by this time) and had dinner at “A Fish Called Avalon” on Ocean Drive. Most delicious, with swing music on the deck overlooking the parade. Since it was Easter, a lot of families were in full regalia. Very fun. A nap at the hotel, then back to Ocean for a snack at the Breakwater Hotel. A big basket of buffalo wings, and a large bowl of fruit with homemade ice cream in the tropical sunset. The live Latin music too loud, but eh, we would be able to hear tomorrow.

Monday, April 24

We said goodbye to South Beach with a walk to the Post Office. This is a Deco marvel, with rotunda, fountain, and WPA murals: And that’s just around the safe-deposit boxes. We picked up the car, checked out, and drove over to the Grove. Shopped at CocoWalk (a theme mall) and in downtown Coconut Grove, and walked through the tropical gardens of The Barnacle, a Florida State Park surrounding a turn-of-the-century home that has survived the development all around it. Lunch at a Cuban rotisserie chicken chain, picked up baked goods for the flight at a Cuban bakery, and left for the airport, to flee the Cuban protests. The city was supposed to suffer a general strike on Tuesday, and we joined the exodus of touristas trying to get out of town. We did not make stand-by on an earlier flight, but had no problems with our regularly scheduled seats back to National. We did end up waiting at the gate for almost an hour, as NASA was keeping the airspace above Canaveral clear for a launch, but then scratched it. The nice pilot made up the time, and we were home and unpacking by 7PM.  So, would we live in Miami? No way, the people are pretty but dumb, the climate horrible half the year, and the food unchallenging in comparison with what one can get in most American cities. On the flip side, we had a blast, the architecture is wonderful, and as the cliché runs, the great thing about Miami is that it is so close to the United States. Haven’t seen it? Go, stay on the beach, and be prepared for the rudest drivers south of Boston.




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