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South Beach: Nothing Old About THIS Florida Neighborhood

In the 24 years we've been visiting Miami, Miami Beach's South Beach (a/k/a the Deco District) has changed many times. Our first trip, it was about equally divided between old Jews and old Cubans, with just the first hints of the yuppie explosion to come. Later, it got very young, as the old people died off or moved to the suburbs.

These days, the two most visible trends are gay men and Brazilians, with a noticeable smattering of Peruvian and Argentinian; you hear a lot of Portuguese on the street, and some Spanish and Italian. No Yiddish at all, and only a handful of Cuban businesses remain.

The boutiques are full of outrageous women's fashions: kind of a cross between Victorian bordello and New York's Christopher Street. A lot of leather, ruffles, vivid patterns in either black-and-white or whole rainbows of color in tie-die-like swirls, but printed rather than dyed, a lot of leg showing. But we're not seeing many people actually wearing this stuff—a few more as the weather got warmer.

Tattoo parlors, sex shops, pizza joints, fancy restaurants (primarily Italian but a wide range), biker chic of both the motorized and nonmotorized kind, Irish bars—all in multiplicities—the first three dominating Washington in the low teens, which had had more of an upscale look last time. Most of the ordinary-people shops are gone, though there are a few Cuban convenience stores. We saw very few of the once-omnipresent Cuban cafes, though, no decent-looking bakeries except for the very fancy Paul's on Lincoln Mall, no hardware stores, not even a good gourmet takeout place. Surprisingly, although there are a lot of cybercafes that rent computer time, we found no place to bring your own computer and hook up to wi-fi over a cup of strong coffee.

Even though it's been a few years, a number of our favorite places continue to exist. You can still get exquisite and authentic Italian food at Hosteria Romana on Española Way, though prices have shot up since our last visit; for the first of our four visits, we felt like we paid more than it was worth. You can still get very decent platanos with café con leche at Eva's Cuban Bistro, Collins at 16th (and if you happen to get anything that comes with the guava-flavored butter, it's awesome)—but it's been repainted a much less intense shade of blue and the décor is considerably more upscale than it was when it was Raffi's Cuban Caffe in 2005. And you can still get real crepes, fabulous coffee and hot chocolate, and good French pastries at A La Folie, on Española Way at Drexel.

And the scene along Ocean Drive, with its dance clubs and restaurants, still packs them in up and down the avenue, but now competition for the tourist dollar is fierce, which means almost all the restaurants have people standing in front, hawking the specials (entrees from $8.50, breakfasts from $4.95) and trying to get passers-by to stop and sit.

And at the edge of Everglades National Park, about an hour to the south and west, the amazing fruit stand Robert Is Here has stood for 60 years, and still serves up tropical-fruit milkshakes, local avocadoes, and other goodies. I bought fresh tamarind, which I'd never had before. It was somewhat messy, with its shells that peel into many small pieces, gooey pulp surrounding hard seeds, and long inedible fibers inside the pods, but very tasty. We also bought a fruit that is supposed to be eaten after it turns soft and black, when it begins to resemble chocolate pudding.

The Everglades continues to be our very favorite thing to do in South Florida. Visiting the park, we found a few places we hadn't been on previous trips:

  • The Pinelands nature walk
  • The bald cypress forest overlook at Pa-hay-okee, which in the winter looked amazingly barren, like the forests of Yellowstone after some of the fires
  • Several unlabeled pullovers with scenic views and an informational signboard
  • The wonderfully diverse jungle habitat at Mahogany Hammock (including some massive old-growth mahogany trees that had been spared lumbering because before the park was created in the 1940s, the old road was several miles away

The first three of these were almost empty; on the third, we joined a very informative ranger tour with a group of 15 or so.

Our last stop in the park was one we'd been to on several visits: the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm, and there were several times as many people as we'd seen in the entire rest of the park that day. Why was it so crowded? Because not only is it the closest point of interest to the entrance station, but it also has such an incredible abundance of animal life. Everywhere you look, you see anhingas (a very large and dramatic bird), storks, vultures, herons…and lots of alligators. Needless to say, it's pretty popular; we even saw a few school groups, as well as many international visitors.

Back in Miami Beach, we found that rarity, a reasonably priced, elegant, and quite decent Japanese restaurant, Maiko, on Washington between 12th and 13th.

The following day, we'd planned to go back to Everglades National Park, to Shark Valley, off the Tamiami Trail—but we got much too late a start, so instead we walked down to 10th Street and rented bicycles. First, we rode down to South Point, newly bedecked in ugly high-rises but offering great views of the bay harbor, the Miami skyline, and this particular day, not one but two professional photo shoots right where the ocean meets the bay.

The walkway curves north again on the bay side, and we decided to cross the 5th Street causeway. But the ride, while scenic, was not pleasant. Yes, there are sidewalks, but they're narrow, strewn with glass, and far too close to the noise and fumes of the very busy roadway. So we turned off at the first opportunity, the beautiful white bridge to Star Island.

Our first inkling of what was in store for us came when the security guard on the far side of the bridge told us in his lovely Jamaican accent that we could stay on the main road, but were not to go down any of the private driveways of this gated community. Sure, we said, no problem. And we biked along the small avenue of twenty or so elegant mansions on both sides of a double row of tall and straight royal palms, and gaped at the vast estates, the huge villas (calling them mansions would not even do justice to many of them). Some of them date back decades (we saw one that noted it had been built in 1924, but one enormous house is still in the early stages of construction. Several were heavily influenced by Italian or Spanish styles, but our runaway favorite was a deep blue Moroccan-style palace, complete with massive keyhole windows.

Back to Miami beach and up the boardwalk, which starts as a wide concrete-and-brick walkway with the occasional ocean view, but morphs around 23rd Street into an actual boardwalk, elevated, flat and straight, narrower than the southern part and with continuous ocean views. We biked up this beautiful path all the way to 40th Street, where we were told by police on bicycles that we weren't supposed to have our bikes on the wooden part of the walkway, even though there hadn't been a sign to that effect. Still, it was a lovely ride, and a highlight of a great day, and a fine trip.

Shel Horowitz is the editor of Global Travel Review and author of eight books, most recently Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green (with Jay Conrad Levinson).

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