MIAMI – The celebration began in Ben-Gurion Airport’s spacious King David Lounge, where El Al staff, passengers and well-wishers toasted the airline’s new direct flight to the southeastern Florida city with champagne and blue-and-white marshmallows.
Looking down from my plum perch on the second floor – conveniently situated next to the scotch bar – I wondered how I would get through the 14-hour ride.
Quite comfortably, as it turned out. Business class is always a world apart; lounging on the almost fully flat bed-like seat, noshing on pargiot and pasta while pouring good Shiraz (chosen from a wine menu) down my gullet while watching a selection of international films wasn’t overly taxing.
Miami, notes El Al, is an important destination on many levels. First, the city has a large Jewish community, which no longer has to take a connecting flight when visiting Israel. Second, it provides Israelis with access to what is a popular vacation destination in its own right – thanks to its welcoming weather and beaches, and the many cruises shipping off from the area – as well as a key business destination. Moreover, it serves as a gateway to Latin America, particularly the Caribbean islands and Central and South America.
As such, with the support of the Tourism Ministry, the airline has enthusiastically debuted the new non-stop Tel Aviv-Miami route. The 14-hour flights will be offered three times weekly and operated on 777- 200 aircraft, with 279 seats, including six first class and 35 business class, and fares from $999.
On our inaugural flight on November 1 was universally respected Shoah survivor and Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who later dedicated an imposing El Al-sponsored Holocaust memorial to the city.
Touching down in “this salsa-merengue melting pot,” as Will Smith famously rapped, I looked forward to getting to know this metropolis again. Though I had spent many a happy time in Miami Beach in the past, I hadn’t visited since before my aliya, eight years prior.
While it still offered the Art Deco-tinged pleasures of pool, sand, surf and early-bird specials alongside a crack-a-lacking nightlife, all with a Borscht Belt-like hint of Jewish nostalgia (epitomized in hotels like the now-defunct Crown, whose half-sour pickles I still dream about), Miami wowed me with its new sophistication and arts scene.
Rolling up to the new East Hotel in the burgeoning Brickell-downtown district, which its general manager dubbed “Miami’s first truly urban hotel,” I had no idea of the modern marvel in store. Feeling a bit like a Luddite, I negotiated the stylish room’s innovations: Touch-pad lighting! A pod coffee machine (hidden behind a nifty panel)! Shutters separating the bed and bathroom areas you can open and close electronically (should you want that view)! “Where is the safe?” I inquired semi-frantically of the hotel reception. “In a bureau drawer,” they directed.
“Where can I get ice?” I breathed, after a fruitless search down my floor’s vast hallway for a machine. They would bring it up in a silver bucket, I was assured.
After a delivery of an extra lamp (I found the room a bit dark, despite the light streaming in from my 37th-floor balcony) and an old-fashioned electric teapot (the pod coffee machine did not boil plain water), I settled into the ridiculously comfy bed, with its generous pillows and duvet, and slept like a baby.
The next morning, after a rousing workout at Beast, the hotel’s well-equipped gym, I savored the blueberries, raspberries and blackberries heaped almost carelessly on the continental breakfast buffet (where else but the USA could one find such bounty?).
Exploring, I was thrilled to find all the American conveniences nearby – a CVS drugstore, Starbucks with its pumpkin- spice lattes, 7-Eleven, an upscale mall with a Sephora and Saks department store.
In addition to the many kosher restaurants sprinkled around the city, the Chabad Dowtown- Rok Family Shul with its kosher deli was right across the street (we later had a lovely Shabbat dinner on its roof deck).
Checking out the hotel, I longed to take a load off at the outdoor pool, which was surrounded by high-rises and gave me a taste of my old hometown of New York City. It quickly became clear that East was the hot place to be: In the evening, people lined up eagerly behind a velvet rope to be granted access to Sugar, the sexy outdoor rooftop bar on the 40th floor with its panoramic views. The hotel’s cachet was confirmed when we spied vaunted rapper, Martha Stewart crony and shiny-robe-wearer Snoop Dogg and his entourage, who were staying there for his concert date at a local dance/ strip club. (Sadly, I could not attend.) But there was no time to waste, as there was much to see and do! Off we went to Wynwood, which many consider a new global graffiti mecca. While the international art fair Art Basel (December 7 to 10) puts Miami on the map, this funky district cements its spot. Our tour of the neighborhood’s “sprawling outdoor gallery” was impressive – not only because of the evident genius and talent behind the colorful, large-scale wall creations (by leading artists such as Lady Pink) but also due to the passion of our guide, a local graffiti artist himself.
Part of Wynwood’s allure is its ever-changing, temporary nature. While gentrification has brought craft breweries, chic boutiques, trendy bistros and bars, and upscale apartments, it also means the street murals will eventually be painted over to make way for progress. Our guide reminded us to enjoy the art while we could, yet added that in a promising twist, new business owners are actually asking grafitti artists to spray-paint their buildings’ facades in order to up their hip quotient.
Those keeping kosher – as well as those wishing to imbibe artisanal bread baked on site, with a minimalist vibe – will want to make a stop at neighborhood bakery/cafe Zak the Baker. We dined amid the art at the popular Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, surrounded by an original mural by Shepard Fairey, cooling off with tasty tuna tartare, fried plantains and rosé.
The art appreciation tour continued at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), the anchor of downtown’s 29-acre Museum Park, a vibrant mix of cultural offerings and green space (where a fellow reporter was delighted to spot a not-native-to-Israel squirrel). Though I cannot say I fully understand modern art, I took a long look at the innovative installations, international works of the 20th and 21st centuries, wishing I had more time to hang out al fresco at PAMM’s spacious, breezy eatery Verde. I consoled myself with a spell on the nearby swings, overlooking Biscayne Bay.
Also occupying the park is Frost Science, a striking complex of four buildings with an open-armed stance, facing the park’s lawns with high-rise views. The museum is dedicated to sparking wonder and investigation, and fueling innovation for the future. It certainly sparked wonder in me; my solar-system knowledge was fortified and my inner child dazzled by the planetarium show (narrated by the dulcet tones of actor Liam Neeson). I backed away slowly from the alligators, peeped at the hammerhead sharks in the 100-foot wide, 500,000-gallon Gulf Stream Aquarium and opted out of touching a stingray (though my colleagues seemed to get a kick out of it). I hope one day to bring my inquisitive nephew to the explore the world of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) via the interactive exhibitions, enabling us to “journey together through the human body and mind.”
Those seeking lunch and (very non-kosher) seafood may indulge in the lovably kitschy Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in the nearby Bayside Marketplace, while augmenting their knowledge of seminal flick Forrest Gump.
A big part of Miami’s reinvigoration is the emergence of historic Little Havana, which we explored on foot the next morning on a cultural and tasting tour with the Cultural Heritage Alliance for Tourism. Shots of jolting Cuban java gave us the adrenaline to peruse Fidel’s finest stogies in combo coffee/ cigar bars, with munchables including empanadas, sugar cane juice and pastelitos.
Hoofing it down Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street), we passed art galleries, live music and dance venues (the iconic Ball and Chain nightclub is apparently the Miami place to be), plazas and public art. In a park that is a point of pride for the neighborhood, tables of older gentleman played strictly regulated, competitive games of dominoes.
I’m sure these fellows would be formidable opponents to face across a shesh-besh board.
Later, it was time to sample Miami’s famed nightlife: Dinner and boogying commenced at Villa Azure, which bills itself as a restaurant/lounge but seemed to turn into a raucous club at a certain hour. I was glad to see that the “French-Mediterranean with an Italian twist” cuisine included asparagus, another Israeli rarity in which Americans excel. A birthday celebration in the courtyard involved a profusion of sparklers and what sounded like a full brass band, with a hostess riding in on another staff member’s shoulders brandishing a bottle of Champers.
Olé! After all this excitement, I desperately needed to recharge on the sand. Checking into the all-suites Grand Beach Hotel on Collins Avenue, in the heart of Miami Beach, I was reminded of all the old-school fun I have had there. The spacious rooms offered none of the neo-modern touches of the East, yet provided all of the standard comforts, and that was just fine with me; I’ll take a light switch any day, #thankyouverymuch.
Undaunted by short, light rain showers, tourists sporting glittery, bordering- on-cheesy swimsuits and cover-ups marched through the lobby and toward the waves.
Luxurious pool- and beach-side lounging ensued in a bungalow at The Confidante, “a playful beach house-inspired resort seeking to combine the vibrant glamour of Miami’s past with the sophistication and amenities of modern day.” Reclining on a chaise that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of I Love Lucy, sipping a coconut concoction before languidly transversing the pool on a flamingo floatie (as some of my colleagues watched soccer on the bungalow’s flatscreen TV), I had to agree that it lived up to its mission.
Chicken and waffles were on the menu at Bird & Bone, the on-site Southern-inspired restaurant, though I chose (and was not disappointed by) fish tacos. Those wishing to stay at The Confidante have their pick of guest rooms and suites featuring bright colors, whimsical accents and a relaxed, elegant vibe; I coveted an in-room retro bar cart for my Old Katamon living room.
No visit to Miami would be complete without sauntering down South Beach’s Ocean Drive, the Art Deco haven lined with bars and home to Casa Casuarina, late designer Gianni Versace’s over-the-top villa, today a high-end boutique hotel and restaurant. I was gratified to see that News Cafe, a quaint sidewalk cafe/restaurant/bar/ newsstand/bookstore was still a good place to have a drinkie-poo.
Taking an insider tip from a few city residents, I ventured down to the less touristy beach at South Pointe, part of a 17-acre urban park with a charming pier. While indeed less crowded and more authentic, a beach chair and umbrella will set you back at least a hefty $25 for the day. A few blocks away, I loaded up on fuel (in the form of a vegan quinoa wrap) at trendy health mecca Pura Vida.
Exhausted by all this relaxation, it was time to unwind with alcoholic beverages at the Setai, “an oasis of tranquility amid the area’s vibrant energy.” Indeed, the lounge/ bar consisted of couches that appeared to float, flanking a palm-lined illuminated fountain. I learned that the hotel’s practice of equipping some (insanely cushy) rooms with a tub opposite the bed was the height of Asian-inspired luxury. I hope to return one day to experience a serene, silent bath there for myself; the spa beckons as well.
We capped off our glorious Miami adventure with a drive to Sunny Isles for dinner at Gili’s Beach Club at Trump International Beach Resort. No politics made an appearance, thank heavens; just light-hearted grilling in a convivial setting with lovely views – you pick from among vegetables, seafood and meat, then you cook it on your very own, Gili’s-patented Lava Stone Grill.
Being a bit of a pathetic BBQer, I honed in on my baked potato, which was grilled to perfection if I do say so myself.
Settling into my seat-cum-bed on the way back to the Holy Land, courtesy of El Al, I couldn’t help but break into a deeply satisfied grin.
Miami and me: This could be the beginning of a beautiful 14-hour-flight-away friendship.The writer was a guest of El Al and the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.