In January, I spent a week in South Florida, a nice Winter break even for those of us who live in "Sunny California."
I spent a day in South Beach, the southernmost part of Miami Beach. Years ago, when I was a child in Boston, many of my more affluent friends and relatives would spend the entire winter here. The hotels in South Beach were small; the architecture Art Deco. By the 1950s and 1960, a bit to the north along Miami Beach, developers started building high rise housing and hotels. The Fontainebleau and Eden Roc were two of the landmark hotels that were built in this era. Visitors started gravitating to these places, leaving South Beach mostly as an inexpensive retirement community for aging seniors from the Northeast. The area eventually declined until the 1980s when the South Beach renaissance began. The hotels were restored and modernized, Cubans fleeing Castro's Cuba gave the area a cultural mix, and the TV show "Miami Vice" presented the area as an appealing place to be.
Today, South Beach is booming and beautiful. Visitors come to South Beach from all over the world. There is always a modeling shoot or a movie filming going on. The Art Deco hotels are historic icons that now charge high rates and are always full. Along Ocean and Collins Avenues there is activity 24 hours a day.
While I've been to South Beach many times since the 1980's, it was not until this visit that I took the Miami Design Preservation League's Art Deco Walking Tour. The daily tours last about 90 minutes and cost $25 per person ($20 for seniors/students/veterans). Reservations not needed; you can purchase your tickets online in advance or just show up at the Art Deco Welcome Center a few minutes before the 10:30 a.m. start time and purchase your ticket.
The walk was mainly along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue. It is the hotels that have the most interesting Art Deco architecture. Our guide took us into the lobby of the Winter Haven Hotel (1939) and up to the rooftop pool and bar of the Congress Hotel.
We detoured a few blocks to South Beach's Art Deco Post Office, on Washington Avenue at 13th Street. It's architecture, murals, and ceiling are worthy of a detour.
Another highlight of our tour was the mansion where Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace lived until his untimely death in 1997 when he was shot on the front steps as he was heading out for his daily breakfast at the nearby News Café. His mansion is not Art Deco, but has been an attraction since 1992, when Versace bought and opulently renovated it with such details as a 54-foot long 1000-mosaic swimming pool which is lined in 24-carat gold. It is now in the process of becoming Villa by Barton G, a luxury hotel with an upscale restaurant, Il Sole.
After the tour, I had lunch at my longtime favorite, the News Café (since 1988). My father and I used to have lunch here every time I visited Florida. It's a popular, casual restaurant, outdoor café, bar, and international news stand, right on Ocean Drive. The News is open 24 hours a day. While other restaurants along Ocean Drive have become glitzy, with pushy "hawkers" trying to lure in customers, the News has remained low-key and seems to be as popular as ever. I had my "usual," the Mahi Mahi Sandwich...yum!!!
And, just across from the frenetic activity along Ocean Drive is beautiful Miami Beach where there is always room to swim, walk, and sun.
********I spent another full day in Coral Gables at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. The garden is named for David Fairchild (1869-1954), a famous plant explorer, educator, and scientist who traveled the world in search of plants that might have potential use to American people. Fairchild retired to Miami in 1935 and, in 1938, created, with a core group of supporters, including Robert H. Montgomery, an accountant, attorney, and business man with a passion for plant collecting, this Botanic Garden on 83 acres of land. They chose this location south of Miami because it is the one place in the continental United States where tropical plants can grow outdoors year-round.
Admission to the Garden includes a tram ride through the garden, giving an excellent overview of its entirety. After riding the tram, I further explored the garden on foot.
Right now, until May 31, 2015, Fairchild is exhibiting the glass art of Dale Chihuly. This exhibit is the biggest Chihuly exhibit I've ever seen. The Garden is a perfect setting for the glass works that pop up unexpectedly, blending in and complementing the lush plants.
The Fairchild has several places to dine, including the Glasshouse Café that overlooks the Wings of Tropics exhibit and which has a Chihuly chandelier in the center of the dining room. There are several casual places to buy food as well as to picnic.
When I am in South Florida, I usually stay in Coral Springs, near where my parents lived in retirement, about half an hour's drive north of Ft. Lauderdale. The nearest beach is Deerfield Beach, a beautiful beach with a fishing pier, walking paths along miles of beach, and several pleasant places to eat. I like the restaurants that have seating facing the beach. This visit, I enjoyed a pleasant lunch on the outside patio at the Deerfield Beach Café which is open for three meals a day. It also serves to-go food to take to the beach and is a popular spot for an ice cream cone.