Miami spice: glitz and glamour in south Florida’s melting pot

Whether walking around the art deco districts, taking a graffiti bike tour, or just people-watching in South Beach, you’ll feel like you’re in a Will Smith song

Miami Beach

Miami Beach

 

A weekend in Miami sounds like a line from a Will Smith song – okay, it is a line from a Will Smith song – but with direct flights from Dublin, a long weekend in the playground of the stars has become a doable, if ridiculously over-the-top, holiday.

Miami is a throbbing, electrifying city. It’s a multi-cultural melting pot in the truest sense: temperatures here rarely dip below 20 degrees, and climb high into the 30s in summer. For most Irish people, it’s the humidity that will hit you. It hovers around 80 per cent year round, climaxing in spectacular thunderstorms, mostly from July to September.

I visit for a long weekend in September and, when we land in Miami International Airport, two fire trucks greet us, spraying an ornamental arch of water over the plane. The rainbow effect is dramatic and glitzy – a sign of what’s to come in Miami – and as we alight into the stormy Florida heat, it feels as if the trucks are following us for the weekend, dumping gallons of water in sudden, powerful showers.

The airport is 30 minutes from Miami city, but we head across Biscayne Bay to stay at the Grand Beach hotel (miamihotelgrandbeach.com) on Miami Beach, an island city connected to the mainland by four causeways. It’s a long barrier island that originally comprised scrub forest and mangroves. Today it is home to famous landmarks such as South Beach, Ocean Drive, and some of America’s flashiest holiday homes.

Ocean Drive
Ocean Drive

If you’re staying at Miami Beach, a walking tour is a good way to get your bearings and to see beyond the bronzed demi-gods and $100,000 cars. The Miami Design Preservation League runs daily Art Deco walking tours ($25 per person, mdpl.org). Miami Beach’s Art Deco Historic District has the largest collection of art deco houses in the world: there are around 1,200 buildings in the preservation area, of which some 1,000 are protected. The 90-minute tour is run by local historians and architecture buffs. They work on a volunteer basis so are incredibly enthusiastic. Our guide, Gregg, seem oblivious to the torrential downpour as he walks us past the pastel-coloured hotels on Ocean Drive, such as the Leslie, the Carlyle (where they filmed the movie The Birdcage) and the Cardozo, which is owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan.

Eileen Gray table

The Art Deco movement in the US occurred around the Depression, when the style was cheap to produce, so there are no balconies, no elevators and, most pleasingly, the buildings generally stand three storeys high or lower, with the modern, high-rise behemoths further along the coast. Art deco is everywhere in this part of the city. During yet another brief shower we take shelter under the awning of a property rental office and spy two Eileen Gray E1027 table reproductions inside.

Some of the area is a little incongruous. The gangster Al Capone’s former headquarters is now home to a Crunch gym and The Playwright Irish Pub; the old city hall is now a boutique cinema, but it’s a kitsch, fascinating introduction to the island.

Ocean Drive
Ocean Drive

The art continues across the causeway in downtown Miami – in fact, the city is home to some of the biggest private collections in the world. The area of Wynwood – once a collection of low-rise industrial buildings – is now home to a thriving arts community. Wynwood Walls is the brainchild of the late developer Tony Goldman who began a programme of sponsorship for graffiti and street artists in 2009, creating a series of curated walls, painted by some of the world’s top street artists. The park is open daily, and is free of charge (thewynwoodwalls.com) Overlooking the walls is the Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, run by Tony’s daughter Jessica Goldman Srebnick. This warehouse-style restaurant serves Latin-influenced cuisine – think 48-hour-cooked pork belly, fancy tacos and ceviche. It is overlooked by an enormous Shepard Fairey mural (he created the famous Obama “Hope” poster in 2008), and is a good spot to refuel before heading off on a bicycle tour of the street art and graffiti around the neighbourhood.

Street art

A bike tour of the Wynwood Arts District with Miami’s Best Graffiti Guide (MiamisBestGraffitiGuide.com) is a must-do. This laid-back tour takes a couple of hours, plenty of time to check out the ever-evolving street art. The tour is run by local graffiti artists (our guide is called Ryan the Wheelbarrow), who know the best walls to visit, along with sharing some history of street art in the neighbourhood and around the world. (Irish street artist Maser has an enormous piece further north in Gainsville). Prices start from $37 per person for two people, or $27 per person for up to nine people.

Cycling around in the sun is thirsty work (and hot – don’t forget the sunscreen), so Ryan brings us to Wynwood Brewing Company (wynwoodbrewing.com), a local father-and-son-owned micro brewery, that serves up some rather interesting concoctions, including a fruit beer called Guava the Hutt, and a Slim Pickins banana and blueberry cider.

Miami is very much a place to see and be seen. The restaurant and bar scene kick off in the early afternoon and go on long, long into the night.

Maya Hayuk painting at Wynwood Walls
Maya Hayuk painting at Wynwood Walls

A great dinner spot is Villa Azur on Miami Beach (villaazurmiami.com). This Mediterranean-style villa has a covered courtyard where impeccably dressed Floridians come to socialise; the food, which is predominantly French, with an American twist, is almost secondary to the spectacle. Waiters deliver $250 bottles of champagne, six at a time, to tables of playboys and their bored model girlfriends. As the night progresses the hushed chatter changes to a wild party atmosphere. Our waitress – who turns out to have worked in Dylan McGrath’s former Dublin restaurant Mint – chuckles as our eyes widen at the sudden outbreak of twerking at the next table. It’s an expensive spot, but a full night’s entertainment.

Bold and the beautiful

The people-watching is fantastic wherever you go in Miami, but especially along Ocean Drive at night when the cafe and bar terraces spill out on to the street and the bold and the beautiful strut their stuff on foot and in souped-up cars.

Another great people-watching spot is the Edge Steak & Bar at the Four Seasons in downtown Miami. The second-tallest building in the city, it offers incredible views across to Key Biscane. Again, art is everywhere – there are three enormous Botero sculptures in the lobby – but upstairs on the terrace is where the beautiful people go for brunch. A staggering array of food is available in various stations; there’s a suckling pig bar, an oyster bar, taco bar, salad bar, the list feels endless (edgerestaurantmiami.com/menus/sunday_brunch/). At $75 per person (or $95 with unlimited drinks) it’s a splurge, but you can balance the budget by spending a cost-free afternoon on one of Miami’s many beaches. South Beach is famous but can be crowded. Further north, try Miami Beach, and be sure to get into the ridiculously warm green sea, which feels a little like swimming in pea soup.

Another water activity worth trying is the Thriller boat tours (thrillermiami.com), which combine the thrill of speeding along at 80 miles an hour with the nosiness of having a look at the waterfront mansions of the rich and famous. Poor Ricky Martin must be really sick of hearing tourists singing La Vida Loca at the end of his garden.

When you’ve had your fill of sun, sea and celebs, there are some museums around the aptly named Museum Park, just off the MacArthur Causeway. The Pérez Art Museum Miami (pamm.org), houses an interesting modern and contemporary art collection, while the Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science is a fantastic family day out. The Frosts – who have a few quid, thanks to Philip’s invention, Viagra – ploughed money into this aquarium, planetarium and science museum that opened in 2007. If you can, catch the Asteroid: Mission Extreme show, a 3D spectacular about asteroids narrated by Sigourney Weaver.

There’s so much to do here, it’s hard to head back to the airport. In the words of Will Smith: “This the type of town I could spend a few days in; Miami, the city that keeps the roof blazin’.”

Rachel Collins was a guest of Aer Lingus, which flies direct to Miami three times weekly, year round. Fares start from €229 each way, including taxes and charges, when booked as a return trip. Business class fares include complimentary wifi and fully lie-flat seats. Visit aerlingus.com for further information

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