I’m in south Florida, heading down Interstate 95 (I-95), the main Interstate highway on the east coast of the US.
In some areas, this heavily trafficked road, which runs from Maine to Florida and serves major cities such as Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, reaches four and even five lanes in each direction.
Beginning in the northern state of Maine at the Canadian border, I-95 (despite a few small patches yet to be completed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey) ends its nearly 3,200-kilometer run in the southern part of the city of Miami.
Reaching the outskirts of Miami, I spot white apartment towers and high-rise office buildings gleaming in the sun. I recall Florida’s reputation as the “Sunshine State” and so far, nature has not let it down.
Welcome to Miami, the city of museums, nightlife and ethnic food, also known as the “Magic City,” the “capital of Latin America” – a city replete with the sounds and flavors of the Caribbean. The city’s mosaic includes thousands of residents from Cuba, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, and Spain. Demographically, the population of Miami-Dade County, which includes Miami, Miami Beach and other smaller municipalities, contains about 2.7 million persons. Approximately 123,000 Jews, including 5,200 Israeli adults, live in the 1,300 sq.km. Miami-Dade County, which has been described as “brash, beautiful, exotic and vibrant.”
Since two-thirds of the population are of Hispanic origin, Miami remains one of America’s great multi-cultural cities.
Business-wise, Miami serves as the headquarters of Latin America operations for more than 1,400 multinational corporations, including Cisco, Disney, Exxon, Microsoft, Yahoo, Oracle, and Visa International.
Like many visitors, I begin my usual visit to Miami by heading to the Bayside Market Place, a 6.5-hectare, waterfront area of more than 100 shops, restaurants, and attractions that sometimes feature free concerts.
While the area is very touristy, it is close to Bayfront Park, an attractive waterfront public space.
One of my favorite haunts is the nearby American Airlines Arena, the home of the Miami Heat basketball team and a venue for major music events. Israeli basketball fans, many of whom follow the Cleveland Cavaliers, once led by Israeli coach David Blatt; remember that the star of the Cavaliers, LeBron James, bolted from Miami to Cleveland. Israeli fans also know that Micky Arison, Israeli-born, American businessman and chairman of Carnival Corporation, is the owner of the Miami Heat.
Hardrock Café Miami, a popular watering hole, is situated in Bayside Market. Located nearby is Museum Park, a lush greenway. Here tourists scan the Port of Miami, the cruise capital of the world – funneling more than four million passengers a year to destinations in the Caribbean.
Any snapshot of Miami features the Freedom Tower, one of the historic buildings in downtown Miami.
Built in 1925, the peach-colored Mediterranean Revival tower was the home of the now-defunct Miami News. After the overthrow of the Batista regime in 1959 in Cuba by Fidel Castro, the structure served as a processing center for Cuban immigrants who fled the Communist takeover. Today the edifice hosts art shows and cultural events.
Book lovers flock to Miami every November for the Miami Book Fair International held at the downtown campus of Miami-Dade College. Another attraction is the Historical Museum of South Florida. The city cherishes its art, especially in such facilities as the Perez Art Museum Miami. A visit to the Adrienne Arscht Center for the Performing Arts is recommended.
Art also can be viewed outdoors. Travelers drive to the Wynwood Art District, bounded by North 36th St., North 20th St., 1-95 and Northeast First Avenue, where they discover funky galleries sandwiched between auto repair shops. This area features one of the largest openair street art installations in the world, the Wynwood Walls.
I spent much of an afternoon at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, 3251 South Miami Ave, a subtropical setting not to be missed. Vizcaya was built as the winter estate of Chicago businessman James Deering, (1859 to 1925).
The house contains antique artworks and furnishings collected in Europe and the US, including outstanding fabric paintings. It also features formal lush gardens so beautiful that brides in their white gowns come to take pre-wedding photos in the gardens.
The view of Biscayne Bay is magnificent.
I OFTEN break up a visit to Miami, especially in the summer when the temperature reaches 90+ degrees (F), by taking a sightseeing cruise around Biscayne Bay.
The glistening bay water remains a wonderful backdrop, especially if your heart’s desire is see the huge billionaire yachts and the mansions on Fisher Island and Millionaire’s Row, or as they love to say in Miami, “the homes of the rich and famous.” It is exciting to view the downtown Miami skyline and Port of Miami.
You can board Island Queen Cruises docked at Bayside Marketplace.
I stopped at the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay, 1633 North Bayshore Drive, Miami, (marriottbiscaynebay.com). Located at the intersection of Miami Arts and Design districts, the hotel is minutes to the Port of Miami, South Beach, Bayside Marketplace, American Airlines Arena and Jungle Island. A short drive brings one to the new Marlins Park, home of the Miami Marlins baseball team.
The hotel features 31 floors with 600 guest rooms, including 21 suites, including stunning views of the bay or downtown Miami. Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay is only 12 kilometers from Miami International Airport, the gateway to South America.
A favorite site in Miami is “Little Havana,” where you can partake of Cuban culture, with no passport required. Stop there, if you can, on what is called “Cultural Fridays,” the last Friday of the month when the whole neighborhood feels like a block party on Calle Ocho, which is actually Southwest Eighth Street between 13th and 17th Avenues. Wander past restaurants, markets and monuments related to Cuban history, including Domino Park, where men play spirited games of dominoes, a national pastime in Cuba. Area restaurants abound, though most tourists head to Versailles Restaurant, 3555 Southwest Eighth Street, at the far western end of Little Havana.
Miami still attracts even long-time residents of South Florida, including many from the Jewish community who once lived in Miami and moved north to Palm Beach County, an hour’s drive north.
Many South Floridians, like Marshall and Bernice Cohen of Boynton Beach, often travel to Miami. Their daughter, son-in law and grandchildren all live in Miami-Dade, and Cohen taught in the Miami-Dade school system for many years. They still attend High Holiday services at Temple Judea, Coral Gables. Others frequent kosher restaurants in Miami-Dade. Three Jewish community centers flourish in the area, as do 81 synagogues, of which 52 are Orthodox (23 are Chabad), seven are Sephardic, 12 are affiliated with the Conservative movement, seven with the Reform movement, two are Reconstructionist; and one “other,” according to Dr. Ira M Sheskin, editor of the American Jewish Year Book.
After you’ve seen the myriad of sights in Miami, head to nearby Miami Beach with its glamorous South Beach, the Jewish Museum of Florida, the Holocaust Memorial, the Bass Museum of Art and Bal Harbor.
All await you! Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published
Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press)
; The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press)
A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, (Pelican Publishing Company). Follow him on twitter @bengfrank.