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Miami’s South Beach Shows Different Sides in Two Visits

Miami’s South Beach Shows Different Sides in Two Visits

Walking on Washington from Española Way down to the point. Some of the same businesses that have been here for years, but many new ones. Highly prominent: hookah shops, gelaterias, pricy restaurants, pizza joints, high-fashion boutiques for men as well as women, beachy souvenir shops. Still a few old Cuban groceries and bake shops hanging on, and the streets seem to have more “young old” Cubans in their 40s through 60s. But the only obvious trace of the old vibrant Jewish community is the Jewish Museum, in a pair of former synagogues.

Other museums on that section of Washington include an erotica museum and the artsy Wolfsonian, inside what looks like either a former bank or a former mansion—but was actually built as a public storage warehouse in 1927. I got to tour it on my 2015 trip to South Beach.

Now operated by Florida International University, the collection originated with Mitchell Wolfson, who had a strong interest in decorative and propaganda arts. Examples include advertising, military, politics, household goods, etc., sometimes combining several (a print of a Lufthansa ad from the 1930s with the plane wrapped in swastikas!) Many examples from 1900 to 1950s. The seven-storey building itself is really beautiful, with all sorts of details such as a lion's head sculpture in the elevator, lots of ornate decorative motifs. During my visit, there were exhibits on philodendrons (of all things), household decorative arts, and a small, probably permanent, exhibit of Miami Beach history, tourist brochures, and postcards. A highlight is a stained glass panel featuring various Irish writers in imaginary outfits and with various symbols of their work; it was supposed to be installed at the League of Nations headquarters, but was rejected.

Miami continues to have its own fashion sense, with very bright colors and skirt lines either very short or very long. This year, lots of metal studded pants, absurdly high platform shoes and spike heels, and a general atmosphere that exudes sex. It’s in-your-face but not in a New Yorky, confrontational way—it screams “notice me,” rather than “get out of my f___king way!” And the look works well for the 20-somethings of all genders who fill South Beach’s streets and busy nightclubs—walking back along Ocean Drive, those clubs and bars, with their heated outdoor patios and often, live music, make up a mile-long party of the glitterati. In 1985, when we first visited, the streets were full of people in their 70s and 80s; the crowd seems to get younger with every visit, and the most common car in 2013 seems to be Porsche! In my 40 hours in November 2015 (28 if you don’t count sleeping time), the cars had gotten even fancier. I saw six Ferraris, two Maseratis, a Bentley, tons of upper-echelon Mercedes and Porsches, and a few exotic cars I couldn’t even identify.

Somehow, in all our visits to Miami Beach, we had never been to the Holocaust Memorial or the Botanical Garden, adjacent to each other on 19th Street, right near the Miami Beach Convention Center. Built around a 43-foot statue of a human arm and hand, with contorted bodies along the base, the Holocaust Memorial is small but powerful. The arm rests in the middle of lotus-flower pond surrounded with a white stone patio, some sections bordered by flowering trees and lattices that resemble a sukkah.

Several individual sculptures of people in agony are scattered throughout the complex, and there’s a small photo exhibit as well as a Vietnam Memorial-style wall of the names of some of the dead.

After that powerful and disturbing experience, it was a relief to go next door and walk among the bamboo groves and Japanese bridge in the small but very pleasant Botanical Garden. A bit manicured in places, for my taste, but other parts had an appealing wildness. It’s only one square block and doesn’t take long to see.

Speaking of Jewish culture, if your group includes anyone who keeps Kosher, head on over to 41st Street, one of Miami Beach’s most Orthodox neighborhoods, with many kosher ethnic options: Chinese Japanese, Italian, Middle Eastern.

We chose Beyond Shemtov’s: Primarily Middle East fare, but plenty of other choices, including Italian and even a bit of Mexican. Mostly very generous portions; I think I ordered the only undersized item, a crepe so tiny I had to order something else as well. My second choice, the houmus plate, was excellent, served with a big side of tahini on top, two kids of olives, and Israeli cucumber salad. Shockingly, the public restroom was a single-stall unisex edition—for a restaurant that seats about 200 and attracts many large families with young children, as well as many elderly, and where many parties lingered over an hour.

Miami Beach’s restaurant choices can be overwhelming. Over the years, we’ve had a mixture of fabulous, decent, mediocre, and terrible.

Some others that we like:

Moshi Moshi, 1448 Washington Avenue, just north of Española would have to be my best experience of a Japanese restaurant anywhere. Huge portions, tasty preparation that doesn’t rely on ridiculous amounts of salt, and low-to-moderate prices. I ordered soba (buckwheat noodles) with vegetables (I asked them to add some tofu) and a seaweed salad appetizer; my father ordered fish and liked it very much. And after eating quite a bit, I had a full quart of my soba to take home for the following day’s lunch.

Right next door, Ciao Bella, 1450 Washington Avenue, was a wonderful family-owned and operated unpretentious and authentic Italian restaurant in 2013, with great food and very decent prices. We had one of the best risottos I’ve ever tried (mushroom, spinach, and cheese), which the chef made to order when he found out we were vegetarian, and a tropical salad with mango and avocado, as well as a generous antipasto plate of assorted veggies and pickles, including the thin-sliced and grilled zucchinis and eggplants we’ve had in Italy. Be sure to save room for dessert—we tried an awesome bitter chocolate and pear tart dusted with unsweetened cocoa—a delicious but difficult choice among the wide variety of great looking choices. There’s now a different Italian restaurant in that spot called Pane & Vino, which we didn’t get to try. If you’re lucky, it will be the same owner and chef.

Lincoln Road Mall is one of the two “happening” east-west streets in South Beach—both pedestrian malls lined with restaurants, shops, galleries, and nightlife. The other is the beautiful Spanish-style Española Way, whose three-block business district is home to several Italian, Cuban, Mexican, and other restaurants including Hosteria Romana, where the waiters burst into percussion on plastic tubs and singing every now and then, and the food has always been very decent—as well A La Folie, a creperie that offers phenomenally good espresso drinks and unsweetened hot chocolate.  But most of the action is on the north-south streets: Ocean Drive, Washington Avenue, and to a lesser extent, Collins Avenue.

At 430 Lincoln Road Mall (off Drexel), the War and Peace
(one of many galleries along Lincoln Road Mall) offered three very well-curated exhibits during our 2013 visit that harmonized very nicely: geometric abstracts by Glenn Ryals, political art about peace, immigration, and the Obama presidency by the Vietnamese-American artist Huong—a small portion of a massive piece involving more than 800 panels, and including a small audience participation section—and some intriguing primitivistic drawings by Joseph Demarais, an artist who died in his 40s in 1971.

In my November 2015 return visit, I discovered that Huong now has her own gallery, Peace Mural Gallery, 1606 Washington Street (just north of 16th). This features more than 2000 original paintings, most of them on ceramic or glass tiles, strung together thematically to express sentiments around peace, climate change, women’s rights, and other issues.

Farther south, Collins from 6th to 9th Streets is a kind of mall-less mall, with high-end stores from Barney’s to Sephora to Victoria’s Secret housed in many of the restored classic Art Deco hotels and apartments that line not only Collins but also the other two north-south thoroughfares—and many of the sidestreets.

Side Trip: Homestead and Everglades National Park

My favorite fruitstand in the world is the oddly named Robert Is Here, 19200 SW 344 Street, Homestead, FL, —clearly visible on the approach to Everglades National Park. We discovered it on our first visit to the Everglades (and Florida), back in 1985, and every time we go to the southern section of the park, we stop and pick up locally grown exotic tropical fruit and sometimes an equally exotic milkshake. The genial Robert, who we finally met in 2013, his family members, and his employees are always happy to pick you out something perfectly ripe to eat on your picnic that day (and even cut it for you), or something that will be ready some days later if that’s when you need it. It was founded in 1959, when Robert’s father set the six-year-old boy out with a load of cucumbers to sell. When no one stopped all day, he made a big sign the next day that said “Robert Is Here,” and all the cukes were gone by noon. You can still get cucumbers and such, but the store is known for such delicacies as mamey, tamarind, and sapote; a line of exotic flavored honeys (mangrove, coffee, mango, and ginger, among others) with a sampling station, southern favorites like Vidallia onion or key lime barbecue sauce, pecans, and boiled peanuts; gourmet items such as homemade jams and assorted salsas. And of course, the milk shakes.

On this particular day, the milkshake line was too long, but we were able to get help from Robert and his son in picking out perfect picnic pickings: one of the two best avocados of my life (the other was in Mexico, in 1985), a perfect canestel (a yellow fruit that tastes kind of like an egg custard with a hint of citrus and a hint of pumpkin), and a messy but tasty passion fruit.

Nearby is another nice nature attraction, Redlands Fruit and Spice Park, which we visited enjoyably many years ago. Here you’ll find lots of exotic fruit trees, so it’s a nice complement to Robert Is Here.

From there, we entered the park and drove all the way to the end of the road, at Flamingo, where Florida Bay kisses a long canal popular with boaters. Although we’d seen nearly the whole way out, and had been to the first half many times, this was our first time going to the far end. At the end of the road, there are a few exhibits about the park (in much less depth than at the Royal Palm or Shark Valley visitor centers), a small café with a lovely bay view, but that offers basically nothing for vegetarians (even the coffee was undrinkable to my taste), hiking, and a boat rental service.

We took a canoe up the canal for an hour, alongside mangrove forests and mossy rocks. Before we even left the dock, we spied a full-grown crocodile. It was the only one we saw, but it let us—and my camera—get pretty close and have a good look. We also saw plenty of assorted vultures, including several anhingas and cormorants, a few herons, one wood stork, and other huge birds I couldn’t recognize. A two-hour 3-seater canoe rental was only $16, and we were very pleasantly surprised that nearly all the numerous motorboats slowed way down to pass us without making us fight their wake.

Shel Horowitz’s latest book is Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World. When he’s not showing business how to turn hunger and poverty into sufficiency, war into peace, and catastrophic climate change into planetary balance, he loves to write about exotic destinations.

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