Miami is the place where I first stood on the American soil. It was in June 2001 when I landed in Miami International Airport on my way to work at Walt Disney World in Orlando. But, ironically, it was only last year that I actually visited the city of Miami itself. Previously I was there always on a way from somewhere to somewhere else.
The reason for that was partially the fact that I never really thought about Miami as an attractive destination in itself, especially since the US is full of great and wacky places to visit. On top of that CSI Miami, which is really one of the worst TV dramas ever made, didn’t encourage a visit there, even despite some amazing aerial shots. But in March 2016 I had a bit of time while on my way from Cape Canaveral to the Keys so I decided to finally stop in Miami. I actually booked a hostel in Miami Beach, which is technically a separate city, but first I briefly stopped in downtown Miami.
One can immediately see that Miami is experiencing a real building boom with skyscrapers rising everywhere. In fact the population of metropolitan Miami is one of the fastest growing in the US, partially due to the influx of inhabitants from Latin America. Some even call Miami the informal business capital of Latin America. It seems that all of the famous and rich inhabitants of that continent own, or are currently buying, property there. All this gives the city a definite Latin vibe. I had a decent stroll around downtown, admiring some impressive architecture, but I have to admit that I wasn’t overly impressed by the city. It could be partly due the midday heat (even in March) but somehow I feel it was more than that. Something just didn’t click between me and Miami.
So after a few hours I decided to head towards Miami Beach. My mood immediately improved. I put the roof down, turned the music on, and drove along MacArthur Causeway straight across the Biscayne Bay.
This was one of these moments which I like so much in my American explorations. The feeling that you are actually travelling through a movie set. My drive from downtown Miami to Miami Beach brought back memories of countless TV shows and movies, (the old good ones like Miami Vice or Bad Boys, not the crap ones like CSI Miami). In fact Miami Vice was one of the first American TV dramas I remember watching back in Poland (shown just weeks after collapse of the communism). I still remember James Crockett driving his white Ferrari across the causeways of Miami. And here I was, driving a white convertible Ford Mustang across the Biscayne Bay. Silly? Kitschy? Maybe, but I don’t care, it was a damn awesome feel.
Having said that, reality isn’t a movie and I eventually got stuck in the heavy afternoon traffic entering Miami Beach (somehow it never happens on TV). It was particularly bad as I was visiting it during the (in)famous spring break (more about which later).
After entering Miami Beach I decided to drive around for a bit. First along the famous Ocean Drive, where countless bars and hotels are facing the beach, and then along the the Collins Avenue (aka US Hwy A1A) which is the main street of the town. Fast drive it wasn’t but with a roof down and music volume up it was fun. Where else can one do a bit of showing off if not in Miami Beach?
Actually it doesn’t make much sense to drive around here as the place is perfectly walkable and traffic is mostly bad. So I parked my car in one of the multi-storey car parks and set out on foot for further exploration.
Miami Beach occupies a group of barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay so it is quite elongated. But the most vibrant part of the city (and where I spent the vast majority of my time) is located south of 17th Street, especially in the neighbourhood of South Beac(also known as SoBe, or simply the Beach). It is there where most of the world famous Art Deco protected. The Art Deco District is probably the largest collection of architecture in the worldand comprises hundreds of hotels, apartments and other structures erected between 1923 and 1943. Mediterranean, and Art Deco are all represented here. In fact this amazing historic architecture was one of the main reasons for my visit. I walked around aimlessly for hours, taking tons of photos of some amazing buildings. It is hard to say if this colourful, bright architecture looks better in the strong sun of the day or after dusk when all the neon lights add even more colour. I myself like it in any light.
As the day progressed and evening approached I did ever less walking and more stopping for a beer here and there. I went as far north as the pedestrianised Lincoln Mall which is a place dominated by outdoor restaurants, performers and even some crazy preachers. Quite a sight.
Miami Beach isn’t cheap so I based myself in one of the hostels. It was located right in the middle of the Art Deco district, it was clean and quite pleasant but… Yes, it is time to mention the spring break. Somehow, coincidentally, I ended up in Miami during the middle of it. Spring break is a national institution, a time when hordes of US college students head south to the coast to party. And they tend to party hard. During my visit Miami Beach seemed full of young people enjoying themselves. At times the crowds can be rowdy but I didn’t experience any particular problems during my stay. However I later learned that there was one shooting on the beach a few days earlier. I could see quite a lot of police presence.
What it all meant was quite a noisy night in the hostel. I spare you the details as I would have to R-rate this blog. Luckily two other guys in my dorm were rather “mature”. One of them was a sound engineer building the stage for weekend techno music festival and had to wake up at 5 am (poor chap), the other one was a young Dutch airline pilot who came to Miami Beach for the weekend to attend the said festival. Funnily enough we all felt like we could be fathers of half of the hostel guests. Which of course didn’t stop us having a few drinks and good time ourselves.
I spent my second day in Miami Beach walking even more up and down the city, along the beach, along the narrow back alleys and along the main streets, taking even more photos than the previous day. It is such a photogenic city. The beach is glorious while the Biscayne Bay coast offers some splendid views across the water towards the skyscrapers of Miami (as well as of some very expensive yachts and private islands). Apart from the historic Art Deco architecture there are also some impressive modern buildings. Amazingly one of the more interesting ones is a multi-storey car park located at the corner of Alton Rd and Lincoln Mall. It is weird angular structure constructed of exposed bare concrete. And from the top deck there are some stunning views of Miami Beach and the city of Miami across the Biscayne Bay.
In general Miami Beach is a curious mix of art, architecture, tourism and hedonism but also quiet local neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the town, further from the ocean. Here the old photogenic low rise buildings are often surrounded by the lush tropical vegetation. It is also in such places that you can see some regular inhabitants of the city (some of them quite “rough around the edges”) rather than the jet-set or the “springbreakers” who dominate the tourist district closer to the beach. What’s also good about the city is the fact that it is compact and pedestrian friendly, something which is not that common in America. If I think about it, I could see a lot of similarities with my beloved New Orleans. Both places are tropical, compact and lively party towns. I still prefer the Big Easy for its longer history and more bohemian feel but Miami Beach is also fun.
Overall Miami is a strange place. Not really somewhere where I could imagine living or even staying for longer. It is a huge suburban sprawl of more than 5.5 million people, growing too fast and experiencing many environmental problems (like hurricanes, flooding but also ironically shortages of drinking water) which are only getting worse with the climate change). But there are some nice pockets, like the city of Miami Beach which in itself is quite unique and well worth a visit.
I eventually left Miami in the early evening and drove south towards the Keys. It was time to revisit the place which I had visited 16 years earlier and which really is something stunning.
But I already wrote about it here, so that’s it for now.