USA Trip Miami – South Beach, Little Havana & Art Deco City

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February 12th 2014
Published: February 12th 2014
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So, after a 6 month eventful ‘stopover’ in the UK we're off on our last big trip. During this time we came home earlier from India to surprise Louise on her Birthday (as a soon to be Mum), we went to the Edinburgh Festival for the first time with Sarah which was fab (and we must do it again but for a whole week next time), Louise & Ben had lovely little Olive, our first Granddaughter, and the new family moved into live with us for a few months at the end of Sept’13 before we left them to it in early Jan’14 after a quiet Christmas on our own – eating & drinking (too much of both) – amazing food and wines, mainly Spanish & French.

This time we will be away for 10 months in the Caribbean (The Cayman Islands & Cuba), the US & Canada, finishing in New York, where Louise, Ben & Olive come to meet us at the end of Oct’14. Much of this adventure, when we finish the Caribbean section, will be a Road Trip camping through the main National Parks of the US and much of West Canada, which we are really looking forward to – all new territory for us.

For our last night at home Sarah (our eldest daughter) comes over and we enjoy a family fish & chip supper with her, Louise, Ben & little Olive. We'll miss them all, especially gorgeous Olive - only 3months old and already smiling & gurgling a lot; definitely makes leaving much harder! She’s a gem.

After lots of hugs and cuddles (and a few tears) in the morning we get a mini cab to the airport for our 10 hour flight to Miami with Virgin Atlantic - a first for us. The flight isn’t particularly memorable other than for being very long (not sure why there is all the fuss about Virgin – it was nothing special). The Inflight entertainment was ok – saw a few films – the best being Blue Jasmine & Lovelace (for M; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 for C!!) so make up your own mind about artistic tastes?!

We arrive in Miami and it takes us 2 hours to get through passport control - and I think we got off light judging by the length of the queues when we finished. We had anticipated lots of questions, but nothing! Welcome to America!

MIA, as it’s known, is definitely the worst organised airport we have experienced with no Tourist or Information point for new comers on how best to get into the city. As we are tired & it’s getting dark we decide to get the shuttle bus to the hotel $19 each, though we have to wait until they have enough folk going in the same direction.

We finally get to the Lombardy Inn at Collins Ave & 63rd Street, at about 8pm US time. It’s quite simple and looks in need of a bit of TLC but it’s clean, comfy and has air con, a fridge & microwave in the room. Plus the staff are very friendly and helpful.

As it’s now 1am, according to our body clocks we head down the road to ‘Normans’ for dinner as we are starving. We have a great burger (shared as we intend to do for most meals in the US as the portions are so big) together with a side of black beans and a beer, then it’s off for a good night’s sleep. Doesn't happen! M is congested from a bad cold & cough he got in the New Year so spends most of the night tossing & turning and keeping C awake – poor thing!

Up early the next day (still not quite with it & tired), we head down to South Beach by bus for a wander. The whole area is full of beautiful, colourful & bright, Art Deco buildings that are well preserved. It’s the stuff of many movies and TV shows come to life. We wander to 11th Street Diner - a Guy Fieri Triple D's recommendation (we saw his programmes a lot in the UK) - looks like a proper diner, all chrome and colourful. We go for great corn beef hash with eggs & grits (shared) which sets us up for the day.

We’ve read that you can buy “Easy” tickets for the bus, which you can get as a Pay as You Go card – saves lots of hassle making sure you have the correct change ($2.25 per ride anywhere). We find a store selling them and it’s definitely a tip we’d recommend to visitors.

Then we stroll along Ocean Drive for a while enjoying the warmth (74F) expecting to see lots of bodies beautiful (LA style); but mainly it's normal folk doing normal stuff & the rich kids slurping large cocktails at the beach fronting eateries (some $45 dollars a pop but 50% discounted for Happy Hour!). Next we head to have a look at the beach about 50 metres away (we'll hit it proper tomorrow, today is about orientation) – a vast expanse of lovely white sand and turquoise sea, but quite choppy as it's breezy. Baywatch is definitely in the air though no Pamela Andersons!!

We spot a Hop on Hop off tour bus so decide to go for a spin. Gives two tours - one of the beach area and then one of Downtown, Coral Gables (neighbouring district) and Little Havana areas. The Beach area trip is good for a view from the top deck of the Art Deco area, Versace’s mansion where he was killed, then along the river front with many ‘stars’ pads – Naomi Campbell, Justin Beiber etc. Then, across one of 5 Causeways to Downtown to link up with the other section of the tour. Along the causeway we see Star Island – where only celebs can live apparently e.g. Robert DeNiro. We pass the Harbour on the left with a load of large Cruise Liners ready to start their Caribbean voyages. They are currently constructing a $2bn tunnel under the sea from one of the causeways to the central islands which currently is managed by ferry crossing.

Downtown is quite different in feel. Lots of skyscrapers, offices, Couthouses (at least 5) and various Neighbourhoods. The poorest being the area where the Bahamian migrants who came over to make a living stayed & still do. It’s pretty run down. There are a few remnants of the ‘Shot Gun Houses’ (as they call them here), which are pieces of corrugated tin huts put together to survive, that the early settlers made. Next by contrast is Coral Gables – an area for the filthy rich (lawyers, bankers, and business folk) - where not keeping your lawn trimmed is punishable by a police fine on the spot. It is autonomous of Miami District & has its own police force etc. It is pristine with houses/Mansions to match. There’s an amazing old Spanish Church here and a very smart large hotel where Obama stays when in town.

We eventually get to Little Havana (Calle Ocho or Eight Street), which has a very Latin feel, lots of interesting characters and a nice vibe. It’s the Cuban enclave of the area – where many of those Cubans who were banned by Castro from returning in the 50s now live and operate. It’s a very long street with lots of Cuban businesses spread along the way. We definitely plan to spend more time here. On our short stop over here we go to a great ice cream joint (Azucar) and have the best seller Abuela Maria (sort of cheesecakey) - awesome!

Eventually we get back to Ocean Drive and have a bit more of a mooch, go for a couple of beers (it’s Happy Hour- Budweiser time!), then head for an early dinner as we are bushed. We start off at Jerry's Diner (a recommendation from one of C’s friends) but they charge $5 if you share and $1 to serve you a piece of cake so we decide we don't like their pricing policy and head back to 11th Street for crab cake starter, and ribs and prawns combo. Really good. But beware – Tip charges are 18%, added to the bill as ‘discretionary’!

We catch the bus back to the hotel and this time sleep like babies!

Next day we spend more time enjoying Ocean Drive, and also go for a stroll along the beach. They have great colourful and quirky life savers cabins. But no stalls selling ices or beers!! The beach is packed and it’s quite nice but doesn’t wow us as much as we’d expected. It seems we’ve been spoiled in our travels around the world.

There is however, a whole unexpected pet culture! On the beach, a man has his parrot with him. In the exercise parks some guys are doing press ups with their python. And on OD, a guy has taken his pet baby raccoons (fitted with bespoke nappies!) for a bike ride. As you do!! Only in America as they say.

Good business is also done in alternative transport. Lots of folks rent out segways to travel the strip, but you can also get spring loaded boots to “tigger” around (looked most unsafe to us) and some enterprising soul has taken the Nordic Ski walking machine out of the gym, and added wheels to it so you can ski around the neighbourhood.

Our LP guide recommends a Haitian restaurant – Tap Tap - so we decide to give it a try for dinner. Good call. We have great conch ceviche followed by slow cooked veg with goat curry and an awesome snapper marinated in scotch bonnet & lime. Accompanied by a mean Mojito! At $63 it’s not cheap but it was excellent.

Next morning we are up early for our flight to Grand Cayman. Lombardy Inn has kindly agreed to let us leave our 2 big bags there, so we are travelling very light for the Caribbean.

We decide to go by bus – only $2.25 each with our Pass, and needs one change but very straightforward. They have an express bus, the 150, which takes you to the airport in only 15 mins from downtown.

Leaving MIA is as chaotic as arriving was! For our American Airline flights it’s DIY check in at the airport, drop your bags, and then a fair old scrummage to get through security. As M has his ‘walking stick’, a security woman takes pity and pushes us to the front of the queue. We don’t complain but it still takes an age to get through.

Once we get to departures we grab a quick snack (most of the food places are Cuban) so it’s empanadas and coffee, then it’s off to the Caribbean. Yeaah!!

However, (in the words of Arnie) we will be back … begin our big US & Canada road trip.

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