I recently traveled to Miami with my husband to visit my son who has lived there for the last three years. My preconception of Miami was an amalgamation of Robin Williams dancing like Martha Graham in the Bird Cage, Jackie Gleason saying “And away we go” on the Jackie Gleason Show and the obligatory Miami Vice of cocaine, scantily clad women and cigar boats on the run. Flamboyant, hard drinking, hard partying, vice-ridden and over exposed Miami. After spending three days there, I can assure you that there is a much softer side of Miami. An honest, authentic side. The side that rarely gets any airtime.
Of course, I doubt I would have discovered this softer side of Miami if it weren’t for my son. He is a natural explorer and has spent three years finding nooks and crannies that the typical tourist would never find. He’s not intimidated by foreign languages or exploring new foods. To be a good explorer we all need to be open to something different. Something that isn’t the status quo. We weren’t likely to discover these truths if we had camped out on South Beach drinking overpriced mojitos for three days.
Here are the 6 startling truths about Miami:
- The food is amazing. This is high praise from a NorCal (Northern California) dyed in the wool foodie such as myself. I used to think the best taco I ever had was in San Diego. Nope. It’s Coyo Taco in Wynwood. Try the devilishly complex, sweet, salty heat of the Cochinita Pibil on their house made corn tortillas. The best fried chicken I have EVER consumed is at Yardbirds. Something about 27 hours of brining and frying in a cast iron skillet makes it crispy juicy delicious. Anything off the Versailles menu is authentic Cuban goodness. Sanpacho is a Colombian restaurant in Little Havana that has an amazing Bandeja Paisa ($9.95!!!) that takes up two giant plates and could have, if my husband had concurred, fed a family of 4. Bulla Gastropub in Coral Gables had terrific, delectable tapas served by an incredibly friendly staff. Whatever your food vice, it can be found in Miami. Just remain open to exploring the nuances of this melting pot of cultures.
- Incredibly friendly people. It’s intimidating getting off the airplane at MIA and hear almost 80% of the folks around you speak exclusively Spanish. I felt like I had just gotten off the plane south of the equator and I should be exchanging my money for pesos. The signs might have been in English but the language of Miami is definitely Spanish. Happily, this does not create a language barrier. The clientele in a restaurant may be completely Latin with us being the exception, but the service staff tolerated my attempts at Spanish with a smile or switched happily to English. We elected to eat outside for one meal and a few errant raindrops fell down and the server offered to move us to another table; as if to say, “So sorry for the raindrops.” Several of the places we ate did not have table service; other customers happily gave up a stool or a chair for us to sit together. Not the sort of friendliness you expect in the big city but wow, what a refreshing and welcoming experience.
- It’s more than just Palm trees and skyscrapers. The University of Miami has an amazing campus with exotic Banyan trees, wandering Muscovy ducks, fish that fly out (yes, fly) of Lake Osceola AND a warning sign for crocodiles. Fortunately, we didn’t see any crocodiles but I can assure you I have never seen even a warning sign for crocs in Manhattan. It is lush with vegetation and wildlife. There was a peacock standing in front of my son’s house. There are leaves on some of the vegetation the size of a VW. We came across several Ibis’ (long-legged wading birds), a blue heron hanging out on a rock and a tiny green heron splashing on the rocks. And there have to be more palm trees in Miami than any other city on the east coast. Natural lush beauty is plentiful in Miami.
- Art abounds. Typically, when I think of art I think of New York, Chicago or Santa Fe with rows and rows of galleries, sculpture gardens and art museums. The secret to Miami is that you don’t even need to set foot inside a gallery. The most amazing art is available out in the open in the Wynwood and Overtown neighborhoods. They are old warehouse districts that have what seems like hundreds of outside murals of all shapes and styles. Murals of the Dali Lama and Andy Warhol, science fiction and realism, black and white and psychedelic. If you don’t like what’s in front of you, you just look across the street or walk a few steps more for something completely different. Miami is rich with art.
- It is family centric. Whether we were at Versailles at midnight or Coyo Tacos at noon, there were families everywhere. My impression previously had been that Miami was singles bars and clubs. There are the obligatory gallon size mojitos on Ocean Drive in South Beach and it’s a must see for the Miami Vice art deco and people scene. But the other 90% of Miami is full of tight knit families. We took the short ride out to Key Biscayne and there were at least 10 large families having picnics on the beach or near the lighthouse. Point the finger at all the family centered Latinos in Miami if you want, but you don’t see families of 8 to 10 eating out together in San Francisco at midnight.
- Miami is soft. There seems to be a perpetual breeze. It is accentuated by the sway of omnipresent palm trees. It may have been 90 degrees but it felt like a soft velvet licking your skin. We were trapped in a rain shower walking outside at one point and hid under an awning waiting for it to pass. But we suddenly realized, what does it matter if we get wet and it’s going to stop eventually. We got a little wet, it cooled down, it stopped, no harm, no foul. It’s a pace; a pace you don’t find in many other large cities. It’s soft and patient.
The trip was especially nice because my son was able to play host to my husband as a first time tourist to Miami. I’m so proud to see my son be the leader and caretaker while us “parents” sit back and take in the hospitality. The tables were turned in the captivating city of Miami.