Monday, August 10, 2015

SoBe It: A Hot and Humid Midsummer Jaunt to Miami, including Miami Beach, West Palm Beach and Key West (over 4 days) -- Travel Recap

Why would I go to Miami in the middle of the summer?

It's a fair question.

And for those who have never known me to spend much time on a beach, by a pool or engaging in outdoor recreational activities, it may seem sensible to wonder why I would go to Florida at all.

Certainly, that I have lived nearly 47 years--and traveled fairly far and wide--without ever venturing to South Florida would appear to validate incredulity over my recent excursion, especially at a time when daytime temperatures hovered above 90 degrees with stifling humidity.

While I do seek uncharted places to explore and at some point estimated Miami to be the most prominent U.S. city I had never visited, that was only a relatively minor motivator.

And though Miami somewhat fits in with my southward, Latin-cultured expeditions of late--Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Mexico City--this was largely coincidental.

There was, however, a thematic impetus for this trip, one more overarching than imminently acute:


Or more specifically, baseball stadiums.

Throughout my life, though more voluminously over the past 15 years, I had attended games in 38 major league ballparks--before this trip--including 28 of the 30 in current use.

The only two I had not been to were Marlins Park in Miami and Tropicana Field in Tampa/St. Petersburg.

So I have long envisioned one day traveling to Florida long enough to allow me to see a Marlins game in Miami and--along with other sightseeing--then drive through the state to get to a Tampa Bay Rays game. (In 2003, I had taken a somewhat similar Texas trip, taking me to Astros and Rangers games, while visiting Houston, Dallas/Arlington/Ft. Worth, San Antonio and Austin.)

And I could have done so in a full week, but a variety of factors financial and otherwise prompted me to decide to do 4 days centered around Miami, while leaving Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Florida Southern College in Lakeland for a future trip.

Not only does this leave me something to aspire to, but I wouldn't even mind if the Rays move out of Tampa or get a new stadium before I get there, as the Tropicana Dome is supposed to be the worst stadium in baseball.

Anyway, not that the Marlins game was the only reason for going to Miami, nor wound up being the best thing I did--I didn't expect it to be especially as the Marlins are terrible and missing their best player--but that's why I had to go during the summer, not the winter as is much more the Midwesterner's norm.

And though I wouldn't cite Miami anywhere among my very favorite cities visited--I've added it to the lower regions of this list--I did enjoy my time there.

For while there are aspects of the environs I didn't relish or indulge much in--heat, beaches, nightclubs, etc.--by putting together four days that combined culture, palm trees, architecture, art, creativity, baseball, wildlife, dining, ocean scenery and plenty of photography, I sculpted a rather pleasurable trip.

Here's a recap.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

I arrived in the late morning with no problems, and after a rather exhaustive trek involving elevators, walkways, people movers, a lack of clear signage and more, I reached the Dollar counter to pick up a rental car I had paid for as part of my flight package.

I don't think I've rented a car since at least 2005, and was reminded that the transactional phase is rather emasculating and exasperating, given the attempts to convince you to accept add-ons of dubious--but presented as sage--necessity.

Though I declined any insurance coverage--and even there was confused by the agent--I was swayed to pay $50 for 4 days of electronic toll coverage, on the basis that some tollways don't accept cash and one can be charged up the wazoo for blowing off tolls in a rental car.

Although I was planning to take one drive up to West Palm Beach--and did--I really don't think I passed through any toll booths on my entire trip.

Out of the rental car center, I got caught in a vortex of service roads before pulling over at the first chance to figure out where I was, where I needed to go and how to connect my iPhone to play through the stereo (and enable the Google Maps GPS).

Although I had initially thought of making Opa-Locka my first stop--based on intriguing Moorish architecture I had seen in the 1969 Maysles Brothers' documentary, Salesman--research had suggested that it is now a rather dilapidated, high crime area perhaps not worth 30 minutes of driving each way for a few hasty snapshots.

Thus I first headed to Versailles, a famed Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho (8th Street) near Little Havana.

The Cubano sandwich didn't entirely agree with me--I couldn't even finish half, and later wound up losing my lunch in a Marlins Park bathroom--but the sweet plantains were good. And I don't mean to imply that the sandwich was bad, just a bit boring and perhaps not ideally digestible.

I took a drive down Calle Ocho, stopping for an occasional photograph but likely not giving Little Havana the time it deserved, before heading--with much help from the GPS--to Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

Vizcaya is a huge mansion built between 1914-1922 by Chicago businessman James Deering, an executive with International Harvester.

Though the estate's acreage is much less than it originally was, vast gardens still remain along with the house, which is a museum through which I took a guided tour. (No internal photography is allowed.)

Deering and his designers had collected artwork and furnishings throughout Europe and the home is certainly quite opulent, if not quite on par with actual palaces I've visited. But the gardens are also rather impressive and Vizcaya is an attraction I'd recommend to any Miami visitor.

The primary guidebook I relied on--Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Miami & the Keys--noted as highlights a couple of posh Miami neighborhoods, Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, but was a bit vague on what exactly a random tourist was supposed to do there.

...particularly in the case of Coconut Grove, which had me driving past an outdoor shopping mall--Coco Walk--unable to find parking and then driving through some nearby residential streets.

So I moved onto Coral Gables, beginning with the opulent Biltmore Hotel--I actually went inside--and nearby Congregational Church, both designed by Coral Gables' planner and architect, George Merrick.

I also saw the beautiful Venetian Pool, some amazing Banyan Tree-lined streets and an area of Chinese-styled homes that Merrick had created.

After this, I made my way to Marlins Park, parked in some guy's driveway for $15 and bought the cheapest ticket I could, which essentially let me sit wherever I wanted.

Even in sitting in a better section than my ticket, an usher came up to me and told me I was free to move up. Although attendance was cited as around 20,000, in trying to count approximate numbers of fans in each section, I only got around 5,000.

As noted above, the Marlins are bad, superstar Giancarlo Stanton was on the disabled list and their opponent, the San Diego Padres, are also rather desultory. So although I was glad to check the stadium off my list--and appreciated learning the weird centerfield sculpture is by Red Grooms, an artist I enjoyed learning of through an exhibit at Chicago's Cultural Center some years back--I didn't care all that much about the game.

This was exacerbated by twice finding myself having to vomit, which after a day in which I had awoken at 4:45am and flown to Miami, had me leaving the game in the 7th inning with the Padres ahead 5-2 (they won 5-3).

Thus I don't have too much more to report about the game, stadium or food at the park, but will note the glass display Bobblehead Museum on the concourse behind home plate as being rather unique.

With the help of the GPS, I queasily drove across the bridge to Miami Beach to reach my hotel, the Thompson Miami Beach at 41st and Collins.

I managed to check in and go to bed with just one more upset-stomach incident, fortunately the last of the trip.

Sunday, August 2

Although I had selected the Thompson because it had offered one of the best deals of any beachfront hotel in Miami Beach, I think it may well have entailed--especially if you include the unavoidable $39 daily valet parking charge--the highest average nightly rate of any hotel in which I've stayed.

And though it could well be argued that what I did mostly may have been accomplished a good bit cheaper from a Motel 6 or other inexpensive lodgings I often find quite accommodating, I wanted to stay on Miami Beach--and am glad I did.

So even if I couldn't tell you where the hotel spa was located, didn't patronize either of the the indoor & outdoor cocktail lounges, didn't get a massage, spent less than 45 total minutes in the pool area and on the hotel-designated beach area and didn't even turn on the TV in my room, I was generally happy with my choice of hotel, just for the location and quality of the room. (The bed was great, though I only accessed hot water in the shower seemingly by accident as the controls confused me.)

My hotel was at 41st St., so a good hike from the more famed South Beach area around 5th-20th. But it provided access to the Miami Beach Boardwalk, so not feeling too badly Sunday morning, I intended to take a long walk south along the Boardwalk.

But I unwittingly began my hike by going north, which I really only discerned by recognizing the Fountainebleau Hotel (at about 45th) from photographs.

After turning around, my board-walk was then curtailed by construction that cut off Boardwalk access somewhere in the 30s. 

So I took a cab down to the News Cafe, a famed 24-hour outdoor cafe at 800 Ocean Drive, and had a bagel and orange juice.

I then spent some time exploring and photographing several Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, as well as the former Miami Beach City Hall and the exterior of the Villa hotel in the former Versace Mansion.

On the way back to my hotel--eventually abetted by a cab that I had take me past the Holocaust Memorial--I stopped into the Delano hotel because the tour book noted it has original Dali and Gaudi furniture, but I forgot to look for it amidst the modern but nondescript lobby.

Back at the hotel, I put on my swim trunks and headed to the pool area. I had an attendant set up a lounge chair with a towel, took a quick dip and laid out for about 5 minutes before I was bored.

So I went to the beach, and briefly into the Atlantic Ocean, having last been in it off Copacabana Beach in Rio.

I then went to lie on a chair, but was soon interrupted by an attendant, who asked if I was a hotel guest.

I said I was--showing my room key card--and was told that as a guest I was entitled to two towels and two chairs (both on the beach and by the pool) but that an umbrella (as attached to my chair and dozens of other empty ones) was $19.

Dumbfounded, I quickly switched to a non-umbrella chair and soon departed the beach altogether. That a watered down cup of Diet Coke at the pool bar cost me nearly $7 including tax and included tip only furthered my annoyance at the hotel's ticky-tack add-on pricing, even if it is probably standard for the locale.

Sunday afternoon I drove up I-95 to West Palm Beach a little over an hour away.

I drove a bit through WPB and Palm Beach to the famed Breakers hotel, but couldn't see the inside since
the only non-guest parking option was $25 valet service.

But my real target in WPB was the Norton Museum of Art, which had an excellent collection that well-warranted the drive.

Arriving around 3:00, I found the museum cafe closed and a small refreshment stand featuring only rather nebulous options: some kind of vegetable chip mix, trail mix and a bag of small wrapped candies.

That was it. So despite starving, I abstained.

The artwork, however, sated my appetite. 

There were strong, previously unseen (even in books) examples by cherished artists--Hopper, de Chirico, Monet, Pissarro, Picasso, Stuart Davis and more--and some real nice paintings by names I didn't much know, including Gertrude Fiske and Walt Kuhn.

There is also an interesting sculpture by musician Nick Cave and, currently, a special exhibit on transportation imagery and an excellent photography exhibition, Summer of '68: Photographing the Black Panthers.

Featuring photos by husband & wife, Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion, the exhibition was illuminating for the way it--as opposed to mainstream media at the time--showed the tranquil, familial side of the Black Panthers, including leaders like Huey P. Newton.

I didn't get to the Boca Raton Museum of Art, nor any museums in Miami--despite both the Bass Museum of Art and the WolfsonianFIU being nearby in Miami Beach--so I have nothing to compare the Norton to, but an art museum would have to be really for it not to be the best art museum in Miami outstanding (though I have read great things about the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota).

I really enjoyed my visit, and liked the reiteration of how great art renders time & place rather meaningless while serving as a unifying thread throughout travels to disparate locales.

With an 8:30pm dinner reservation back at my hotel, I took a leisurely drive back from West Palm Beach along A1A, which allowed me to see the ocean and numerous shorefront mansions while going through such towns as Delray Beach, Pompano Beach, Hollywood, Ft. Lauderdale and Boca Raton.

The latter was the only town I briefly deviated from A1A to drive through a bit. I mainly saw a central square area surrounding Mizner Park, which interested me because Addison Mizner's development of Boca Raton was chronicled in Stephen Sondheim's Bounce musical (later renamed Road Show).

Having not been able to secure a reservation at a restaurant that interested me at Fountainebleau, I had made one at Seagrape within the Thompson.

This worked out well, as the restaurant run by a Miami celebrity chef named Michelle Bernstein proved comfortable comfortably within the lobby of my own hotel.

Though I was prepared to enjoy something of a vacation dinner splurge, the thought of paying $5 for another Diet Coke annoyed me to the point of asking the waitress how much one would cost.

She initially imagined $3 but in checking confirmed the $5 price with incredulity.

As with many other Miami restaurants, Seagrape was participating in a promotion called Miami Spice, akin to Restaurant Week in Chicago or New York. For $39 I got a 3-course meal beginning with Pork Rillet--essentially ground pork that could be spread on bread, accompanied by mustard--then a Pan Seared Snapper Filet which was rather delicious.

So too was the dessert of Lemon Pudding Cake with berries and sorbet.

And fortunately I had no further stomach issues, as I had to awake at 5:45 the next morning to catch a 6:30am tour bus to Key West.

Monday, August 3

Through an online tour broker called Viator, which I had successfully used to book a tour to Teotihuacan while in Mexico City, I had booked a Key West Day Trip, also pre-paying for a Hop On/Off Trolley Tour.

The tour was operated by Grayline, and though I didn't think to check before booking, pricing is the same through Viator or Grayline.

Although I was happy to have someone else do the driving to & from Key West--Highway 1 is a single lane in each direction most of the way--what I got from Grayline/Viator could really be described more as a bus ride than a tour, as nothing guided was provided in Key West.

There was a woman at the front of bus providing some information as we rode through the Keys. Nothing was deficient about what she was doing, but she was more the trip facilitator--checking travelers onto the bus from various hotel stops--than a provider of great insights.

And I thought it was kind of lame that though Viator had charged me $31 for the Trolley Tour, the guide didn't have such a ticket for me ahead of time, but made me wait 10 minutes as she went to purchase the same pass I could have bought on my own for $10 less.

As it was, I wound up barely using the Trolley, adding to the rental car toll option, hotel parking and beach/pool access (factored into my room rate) as money spent without nearly equal value coming back.

But oh well, that's vacation life for you. And just as I was happy with my hotel choice, so too was I glad to visit Key West without having to do my own driving.

The bus dropped us off near Mallory Square--kind of tourist central on Key West--around Noon and would pick the group up in the same spot at 5:30pm.

Some of the group opted to pursue parasailing and/or snorkeling options, but my primary focus was the Hemingway House, where Ernest lived from 1931-1939.

Before getting there, I almost by accident came across the Little White House that President Harry S Truman used as a vacation home and functioning White House from 1946-52. Several other Presidents have also utilized the house.

I didn't take a tour but enjoyed freely seeing a small room of Truman memorabilia.

After seeing a rooster wandering down the sidewalk and then crossing the road, I then walked down the main tourist drag of Duval Street, stopping into the Hard Rock Cafe for a look around and a Diet Coke--only $3 including tip and a refill!

Among other sights, I enjoyed seeing a local movie theater with a Marilyn Monroe statue out front, a cool rock 'n roll photo gallery called the Pop Culture Vault, a Walgreens housed in an old movie theater, the oldest house in Key West and a striking old church.

I eventually crossed over to Whitehead Street and came upon the Hemingway House, which I was told was the largest in Key West (and standing on the most acreage).

The home had been built in 1851 by a guy named Asa Tift. Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, had been renting living space in Key West since 1928 when she came upon it in 1931 and purchased it for $8,000 with family funds.

A tour guide from Boston gave a pretty good tour, although focusing less on particulars of the home than on Hemingway's four marriages, general biography and the myriad cats on the property, most 6-toed descendents of Hem's beloved Snowball.

I made a note of this comment from the guide, regarding not only the cats but the author's love of hunting:

"Hemingway had a lifelong affair with animals; he either sheltered 'em or shot 'em."

Along with the main house, I enjoyed seeing Hem's writing studio--he wrote some of his best works there--along with a swimming pool and a urinal from Sloppy Joe's bar that Ernie converted into a yard feature providing water for the cats.

After the tour, I walked past the Key West Lighthouse on my way to the Southernmost Point in the United States, and also saw the southernmost house before finding the Hop On/Off Trolley that I had paid for.

Time didn't allow me to take the trolley around the entire island, but I valued the narrated trip through the historic district. The driver pointed out the Mile 0 sign that she said was the most photographed sight on Key West.

Back toward Mallory Square, I stopped into Cap'n Tony's, one of two bars that claim to have been frequented by Hemingway, with Sloppy Joe's being the other.

The latter offered food, and getting a Sloppy Joe seemed apropos. The latter bar also had a larger collection of Hemingway photos and artifacts, and a nice waitress provided some good information, including about a trove of Hem's photos found on the premises long after he had lived in Key West.

Given the connection to the Keys, whose limes are its key ingredient, getting a slice of Key Lime Pie at a nearby shop seemed mandatory.

I could sense that it might have been nice to spend a bit more time in Key West, perhaps staying overnight, as the vibe was definitely more mellow than in Miami Beach.

On another visit, perhaps as a cruise ship excursion, I would probably check out the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and/or the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservancy.

Though I would stop by Hem's again, too.

As it was, I think I got a decent feel for Key West and believe it nicely enhanced my Miami vacation.

The bus didn't get back for me to do much but go to sleep, which leaves just a few hours on Tuesday to recap.

Tuesday, August 4

Content to sleep as late as I could, in the morning I strolled up Collins Ave. to the Fountainebleau, not only because it is the largest resort hotel on Miami Beach, but because my mom and her family had stayed there--in an earlier incarnation--in her youth.

I liked walking through the property and stopped at a fine bakery called Chez Bon Bon to get a delicious Cherry Almond Financier (a type of pastry).

Having not indulged in the famed club scene of South Beach, I wanted to take a gander at LIV, the club within Fontainebleau that I had noted online as being one of Miami Beach's hottest (albeit in a 2013 article).

With its entryway serving as a luggage storage room in the daytime, I was allowed to take a look at the large, multi-level club but forbidden from snapping photos.

Curious, I asked how much it would cost for a jamoke like me to patronize the club had I opted to do so on a Wed.-Sun. evening. I was told that it depends on what DJ is playing, but the cover is $40-$80 and four guys together often get a booth with bottle service for $1,500.

To each their own, but I felt good about not having gone "clubbing, " especially as it would have consisted of me sucking on a Diet Coke--$10(???)--and watching people dance.

I was also told--by a cool employee who led me back to the Boardwalk even though I didn't have pool access as a non-guest--that LIV is about to undergo a $2 million renovation because it's not hip and new enough anymore.

I couldn't help think how much money might be spent on more important things, but SoBe it (although technically the Fountainebleau and Thompson are Mid-Beach).

After checking out of my hotel and retrieving my red Chevy Cruze, my final tourist destination was a zoo-type attraction called Jungle Island. Although in a different location, it dates back to 1936 when it was called Parrot Jungle and per Wikipedia was one of the first tourist attractions in the Miami area.

As you can see, I submitted to having my picture taken with a trio of parrots as part of a staged souvenir photo that cost me $30.

Several more beautiful parrots were perched throughout the park, but not in cages as were most of the more wild animals.

I attended one show that featured three tigers, including a cub and a white one, and though the attraction was certainly touristy, my love of animals--and photographing them aplenty--surpassed my general disdain for the concept of zoos.

All told, I sufficiently enjoyed my trip to Miami, which included Miami Beach, West Palm Beach, Key West, a nice drive and a good ride.

Even though I didn't relish the oppressive heat & humidity, it didn't really put a damper on things, and despite largely abstaining from beaches, pools and nightclubs, I found enough of what I enjoy--baseball, art, architecture, history, Hemingway, etc.--to make it well worth my time.

At least once.

Though by 3:00pm Tuesday, with my flight not until 8:00pm, I essentially ran out of things to do in Miami.

So I headed to the airport in hopes of catching an earlier flight home, but couldn't as I opted not to spend $75 to catch a slightly earlier departure.

But I've been home for nearly a week now, and didn't necessarily mean to write up everything I did in Miami, but guess I have.

Hope you enjoyed my trip, too.

Here are a bunch more photos: 

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