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With a long list of TV shows that inspired me, from Miami Vice to CSI Miami, from Miami Ink to Dexter, I had plenty of images to refer to when I tried to imagine how Miami would be. At the same time, I was not sure what to expect. Glamorous or Dangerous? Extravagant or Chilled out?
My first impression was a “tropical New York City” with palm trees along every road and every street. Nevertheless, I discovered a city quieter than I thought, in comparison with my trips to NYC when I was living in Canada. From the touristy South Beach (SoBe) to the alternative Wynwood, each district has a different character. The Latino culture, especially from Cuba, is predominant. I spoke Spanish more than 50% of the time in Miami and the most delicious food I tasted had Latin American fusion flavours. My favourites were the arepas for breakfast and the fish tacos for dinner.
Although being one of the most famous city in the USA, Miami is not even in the top ten of the biggest American cities with a population of “only” 420,000 inhabitants (it ranks only 44th). My second surprise was this incredible feeling of space. Only Downtown Miami, covering a small area with skyscrapers, has a higher density. From North Miami to Cutler Bay, the Greater Miami area (Dade County) covers a vast area of 1,946 sqm (5,040 km²) with its international airport right in the middle.
While my plane was approaching, I realise how close Miami is from the Everglades National Park. When we did the U-turn to prepare the landing, we were flying over vast areas of water with a long straight highway crossing it. So, because, in all these series I loved, there was always something happening to someone involving an alligator, I could not dissociate visiting Miami from exploring the Everglades.
My favourite districts of Miami
With a good network of bus and railway, free trolleys & sky trains, and plenty of Uber drivers, it is easy to go around Miami’s districts in little time without spending much. The perfect excuse to visit many iconic districts of the Magic City in a day!
Wynwood Art District, the open air museum
It did not exactly start how I thought it would. After having read so much about the incredible street art artists of Wynwood Art District, my Uber driver kindly told me in Spanish to watch out and to be careful in the area. So I think, ok, business as usual in big cities, just let’s not do anything stupid. On this day of Christmas, the area was certainly quieter than usual with many shops closed but to take photos, it was just perfect. We were few visitors here for the same thing: photo hunting for the best murals of the district. I loved street art in East Berlin and Camden in London, but what I found in Wynwood, both in quality and quantity, is beyond any other place I saw before. My favourite part of the area, also the one that felt safer, was along NW 2nd Avenue, between NW 28th Street and NW 20th Street. Nice places to stop by for a coffee or a bite include Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, Wynwood Diner, Panther Coffee and Coyo Taco. It doesn’t take long to understand this once deprived area is in an advanced hipsterised stage.
Riding the Metromover to discover Downtown Miami
How to explore an American city without paying a visit to its famous skyline? Not much appeals to walk around, nevertheless, Downtown Miami has a strong argument to enjoy the view: the Metromover. This totally free sky train has 3 lines that allow any first-time visitor to get a good understanding of the city. As the train is driverless and fully automated, you can enjoy the view of the buildings. Along the water, you will see the Freedom Tower, Bayfront Park and the American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat basketball team. From Wynwood Art District, I just walked a couple of blocks south to start my Metromover ride at “School Board” Station.
South Beach & the Art Deco District: All that glitters…
If you saw pictures of Miami before, there are 95% of chances that you saw photos of Miami Beach. Administratively and geographically separated on an island from Miami City; this is where everyone goes. Even on a quiet day, Miami Beach is the touristic hotspot that never sleeps. The pastel colours of the old Art Deco hotels to the colourful lifeguards shacks on the beach make South Beach unique. Don’t hesitate to go norther, when the road stops and only a walking path goes along the resorts, to enjoy Miami’s vast sandy beach.
Ocean Drive, between the 10th and 5th Streets, is a must-visit stop to take pictures of the historical hotels from the 40’s. I would like to recommend not to take a drink there if you want to relax. Go one block away, on Collins Avenue, where you can see other interesting buildings. This is where I found the perfect happy hour place after my photo walk: the Limetree Lounge, at 1131 Collins Avenue, in a garden between two Art Deco buildings.
Coconut Grove, the historical Bahamian district
This historical district of Miami, south of Downtown, is where the first Bahamian immigrants settled. The “Grove” is now a chilled out area perfect for a Sunday brunch on Commodore Plaza, some shopping at the elegant Coco Walk Mall or a relaxing walk in the shade of the Barnacle State Park. If you are ready to walk a bit more, explore the residential area of Coconut Grove, along Charles Avenue, to find the Bahamian cemetary (N°3650). It was built according to the tradition with cement coffins above the ground, the idea being to prevent damages caused by potential floods. The place is claimed to be famous for being the filming location of the Thriller video clip of Michael Jackson. Humh? OK, let’s watch again the video…
Where to stay in Miami?
It was not a big surprise, despite 6 lane highways, in the land where you need a car to do anything, traffic can be sometimes horrific in Miami. So arriving on Christmas Eve after a 10-hour flight, just on time to make it for an excellent dinner, I did not want to go far and I wanted a comfortable bed to treat my jet lag right away to be in great shape for my road trip. I did not wish to stay in the Airport zone either.
Even if for most people, staying in South Beach would be a natural choice, when I saw that even hostels were reaching ridiculous price levels for a bunk bed, I was sure of my decision: I would stay in a 4* hotel in Doral, the district after the airport. For cheaper than the hostels of South Beach, my friend and I had each a double bed that felt like sleeping on a cloud.
We chose the Intercontinental Doral at Miami for the great value it offered. Recently refurbished, it has stylish, spacious rooms, a terrace with a large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees and overly friendly staff, it was the perfect place to start my scuba diving road trip.
They have a free shuttle from the airport and the ride to Downtown Miami with Uber was only 20 minutes and 16USD! About the shuttles at the airport, be aware that the organisation is not good (airport fault), the shuttles can stop anywhere on the level 2 of the arrivals, so be there before 20 past the hour and look for the white and orange shuttle bus of the Intercontinental Miami at Doral.
After our day exploring Miami, we picked up our rental car in the evening. The hotel has a large free parking. The next morning, we were ready to go to the Everglades, escaping Miami traffic, thanks to the excellent situation of the hotel close to the Turnpike Highway. We reached Homestead in 40 minutes!
Not to be missed: The Everglades National Park
The famous home of the alligators of Florida is incredibly close to the city. So close that you can easily take a day trip there if you decide to stay a little longer in Miami. However, the Everglades are so much more than a couple of alligators hiding in a huge swamp. Marshes, Pine tree forests, Mangroves, Ponds, and even Beaches: From Homestead to Flamingo, each trail we went on was different.
My only disappointment was not to have a kayak as obviously one of the best to discover the Everglades is above the water. We took entered the park in Homestead, but there are two others entrances to the Everglades. One is even closer to Miami; it is called Shark Valley.
Bird lovers will be in paradise: I saw many species I’ve never seen before like the ibis, the egrets and the vultures. Unfortunately, no flamingo anymore in Flamingo! There is still the roseate spoonbill, but I was not lucky enough to see one. I could also see a manatee having lunch in the small harbour of Flamingo from where boats are leaving for the dolphins and manatee tours in the Bay of Florida.
My favourite trails were:
- the Anhinga at the Royal Palm with its waterlily ponds, home of shy alligators
- the Flamingo coastal prairie trail where I saw the greatest number of birds
- the West Lake Trail in a shady mangrove capturing a surprising amount of sea foam, it ends with a magnificent view of the Florida Bay
Tips to enjoy the Everglades National Park:
- You need to rent a car, make sure to book in advance from Miami Airport.
- The entrance is 20USD for all the people in one car for 7 days, so you can take your time and enjoy it, at least, another day.
- Bring a hat as some places have no shade at all and extremely efficient repellent for extremely aggressive mosquitos
- If you want to enjoy an air boat tour because like me you always dreamed of doing that, you have to know the place is not actually in the park but a bit before the entrance. Look for the signs for the Alligator Farm, once you passed the famous locally grown fruit store “Robert is here”! After a 20-minute air boat ride with high adrenaline sensation when they make the boat turn 360°, you can see many animals from Florida. Besides the snakes and the Florida panthers, it includes an impressive colony of alligators from their early days to an old age.
Do you need more information to plan your dive trip to Florida ? Check these additional articles about travelling and scuba diving in Florida:
- Road trip in Florida & Scuba diving: 15 things you need to know
- Scuba diving in the Florida Keys, my American dream
- Springs of Florida: diving in Crystal River & the Devil’s Den
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