Miami is America’s best answer to Rio de Janeiro. The exotic Latin vibe is energetic, youthful and contagious. The sun makes you feel good, and everywhere you look, people are lean and fit and generally better looking, with cinnamon skin and dark eyes. There is an artsy edge as well as a European influence, and the patterns in the sidewalks are reminiscent of the Portuguese mosaic pavement along Copacabana and Ipanema. There’s one distinct difference. Miami is much closer. And you still get that international flavor without leaving the country.
Staying in downtown Miami was a first for me. The city itself was not. I learned quickly that downtown has its own vibe, unique from Miami Beach, South Beach and Coral Gables, where I’ve stayed on past visits. Something about being downtown seems more about work than vacation, like you’re not supposed to think about the swimming pool and sun deck outside your windowless meeting room.
My first venture out of the hotel was to Publix, a couple blocks from the Hilton on Biscayne Boulevard. A fully stocked, full-size supermarket and liquor store in the middle of downtown Miami no doubt supplies necessities to the folks lucky enough to live in the high-rises along the bay, soaring up past the palm trees, reaching for the sky.
The Restaurant Verde Miami at the Perez Museum of Art offers a relaxing waterfront view of the causeway illuminated in multiple colors as the daylight fades away. The grouper on a bed of fergola was a delight. The menu has Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. On the walk back to the hotel, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts was illuminated, including the Opera House and Concert Hall, with fancy people milling about.
A couple of other restaurants worth noting are City Hall and Cibo Wine Bar. City Hall is downtown and reminiscent of an old fashioned supper club. I sat at the bar and had the house burger—with brie, carmelized onions and bacon. The Yorkies ate almost as much as me. Cibo Wine Bar in South Beach was recommended by a friend. I had their Sunday brunch, which offers made to order omelettes, pizza and pasta along with an assortment of salads, breads and desserts. Cibo is at the far end of Ocean Drive so you can walk along the boulevard to Lincoln Road Mall to burn those extra calories.
One of my favorite dining experiences was Soyka in a neighborhood that is gentrifying on the edge of Little Haiti. The urban atmosphere was a very large room, perhaps a former warehouse, that somehow felt cozy with the lighting and ambience. A colleague/friend who lives in Miami took me there, and we opted to dine in the covered courtyard that is decorated with lush plants, candles and skylights. I had the most wonderful arugula and quinoa salad with mango and almond slices topped with a grilled salmon filet, and complemented with a light, lemon-vinaigrette dressing. Earlier that day, I dined waterside with another colleague/friend from Toledo beside an enormous yacht. We shared a delicious meal of antipastos, including beef carpaccio, caprese salad and a crunchy pizza baked in a wood burning oven. The name of the place is Lombardi’s Ristorante, and it’s not to be missed.
The Mary Brickell Village Shopping Center in the middle of downtown doesn’t have much to offer other than chain restaurants and Starbucks. Bayside is overrun with perfumeries and souvenir stands, but the waterfront flaunts impressive yachts and the cityscape as a backdrop. I ate ropa vieja at the Latin American Cuban Cuisine cafeteria. It was good, and it was inexpensive and quick, too. Next door, 4D Gelato offers a sweet ending before a long walk home.
Friends from about an hour north came down on one afternoon for lunch in between my work conferences. Lissa, whom I met on my South American cruise earlier this year, and her friend Bev, are going on the same Grand Asia cruise as my parents and I next spring.
I got to shake my bon bon with none other than Ricky Martin, who performed to a sold-out crowd at American Airlines Arena during his One World Tour stop. He was amazing, dancing and singing non-stop for almost two hours. At 43, he’s only a year older than me, but he’s in much better shape. In person, he puts on a high-energy fiesta of a show with passion and enthusiasm that’s contagious.
I visited the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, which used to be the Dilido Hotel, where I had stayed years ago on a layover returning from Jamaica. The entrance is hard to find due to construction, and the lobby and reception seemed really dark and uninviting, definitely not as light and airy as some of their other tropical locales, like the Ritz-Carlton Aruba.
The Dolphin Mall is huge and offers shuttle service from many of the area hotels for $12 roundtrip. A few evening hours barely allow you to cover the plethora of outlets, from Bloomingdales to Saks, Armani Exchange to Banana Republic. Unfortunately, I had my cell phone stolen at the Ralph Lauren store, but I quickly had a new device on its way thanks to insurance. Even the negative experience couldn’t kill the combined exhilaration of clearance sales and Haagen Dazs for dinner!
Make sure to include the Wynwood Walls on your visit to Miami. I went with a colleague on a Wednesday night, and it was alive with people and activity. Wynwood Walls is a prime example of art bringing vitality to neglected neighborhoods. The Wynwood Walls has brought the world’s greatest artists working in the graffiti and street art genre to Miami, turning former empty warehouses into giant canvases and providing a home to restaurants and galleries.
I can now say I’ve had dinner at the Versace Mansion on Ocean Drive in South Beach. The Restaurant Gianni’s at The Villa, with its pebble mosaicked walls and storied history, features refined continental cuisine fused style. The intimate 30-seat Restaurant Gianni’s is a gastronome’s delight with signature dishes that include The Villa Salad with frozen Caesar dressing. The mansion was already famous when the fashion designer was murdered on the front steps in 1997. The late Gianni Versace hosted parties for the likes of Madonna and the late Princess Diana at the mansion, which is now home to The Villa, a hotel that you can rent with rates starting at $750 per night. The only complaint is that they don’t use Versace fine china to serve the meals on; instead, they use plain white stoneware. The portions are rather large, so I suggest sharing a first course as well as dessert. This will help save on the tab and the waistline. Checks run upwards of $100 per person without any cocktails or wine. But this is Miami, and perhaps I am loco, but the experience was incredible. If the walls could talk!
Miami is a classic whose popularity may wax and wane but whose fame will always endure. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to live in one of those deluxe apartments in the sky.