Best Of :: People & Places
It'll cost you a dollar to catch a glimpse of this postcard setting across the Rickenbacker Causeway, but once over the threshold, you'll see South Florida as most South Floridians only wish it could be. There's so much here to keep you busy that the highlights alone will take a full day.
If the kids haven't joined PETA yet, start with Virginia Key's old-fashioned Miami Seaquarium and its killer whales, manatees, dolphins, and sea lions. Then for a real contrast to the typical tourist trap, find your way to Jimbo's by following the road directly across from Seaquarium's parking lot. A crew of salty regulars soak up the sun with an old movie set as their backdrop. Although it's technically a bait shop, Jimbo's is famous for its smoked fish, cold beer, and crusty characters playing bocce and philosophizing.
The beaches at Virginia Key and Key Biscayne qualify as some of Miami's best, and though Virginia Key's are officially closed and provide no lifeguards, die-hards can still swim and sun there. The less daring can head for Key Biscayne's Crandon Park and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area. The Crandon shoreline is sublime, but don't overlook the hidden treasure: the old county zoo, now called the Gardens at Crandon Park, a serenely beautiful landscape of ponds, wildlife, and lush vegetation adjoining the southernmost parking lot.
At the island's tip is Bill Baggs, named for a former outspoken editor of the defunct Miami News. Still recovering from Hurricane Andrew, which knocked down thousands of Australian pines, the park has been replanted entirely with native species. All the amenities have been rebuilt as well, and now the airy Lighthouse Cafe offers splendid ocean views to match its outstanding seafood soup. The actual lighthouse (South Florida's oldest standing structure) survived the hurricane, was recently restored, and is open for tours every day but Tuesday and Wednesday. A beachside concession rents sea kayaks, hydro-bikes, and sailboards for those who want to get physical.
Bill Baggs closes when the sun sets -- just in time to make your way back to Bayside Seafood Restaurant. This thatched-roof, open-air hangout can be found by following the road for the old Miami Marine Stadium on Virginia Key. The simply prepared fresh seafood is reasonably priced. The fish sandwiches aren't bad either. But the mosquitoes can be. Just ask the staff for some insect spray. They're prepared.
The cover photo for the tabloid weekly "Viernes" almost never fails to deliver the goods. Both of them.
Some know it's there, some hear about it through word of mouth, some are drawn by the sound of the drums and the heady scent of patchouli. For more than a year and a half, with every full moon, masses of people have gathered on the sand of Miami Beach at 22nd Street and Collins Avenue to celebrate the lunar month. Stumble by accident upon this rhythmically inclined horde of young hippies and you're bound to wonder if Phish is in town. Nope, it's just about 200 of Miami's own crunchy granola/henna tattoo/crystal friend set, kicking it new age: beating congas, Grateful Dead-dancing, and lighting incense in homage to the Earth Mother. "Organize" is probably the wrong word to use in conjunction with such a blissfully chaotic event, but Gaia Buhdai of the Synergy Yoga Center does try to keep the circle vibrant each month by making phone calls to some of the talented drummers she knows. "Some nights the drumming is great, some nights it's not that great," she allows. "But you look around and people are swimming, kids are playing, some are dancing in the circle, lovers are making out." A life-affirming, deliciously mellow affair. All hail the Mother Goddess!
Oh, that aquamarine! No hotel lobby does justice to the Rat Pack era like the Eden Roc does. It doesn't look seedy and it doesn't feel old. It looks wonderfully fresh, as if you just walked through the doors to 1956. The Eden Roc, a Morris Lapidus jewel built in that year, does not offer an icy chrome entrance like so many of the earlier hotels further south on the Beach. No, this lobby comes from a time when cars had big fins and guests carried big drinks (it has blue-green carpeting, for God's sake). It's not just the sea color that makes you want to sink back into this world for hours. It's also something about the shape of the chairs, the placement of the pillars, the rust-and-gold diamonds on the walls, the white-and-green lamps, the piano, all those Grecian accessories. But get your fill of sitting in Eden soon, because starting sometime this summer the lobby will be renovated. The bright and light will be replaced, a spokeswoman says, by "stronger" colors like beige and black. Like all those hotels further south. We've already had to say so long to Frank, Sammy, and Dean. Must we lose this gem, too?
For more than 2000 years Chinese health care practitioners have used a potent combination of herbs, needles, and nutrition to cure ailments ranging from acne to obesity. A pioneer in the field of Chinese medicine in the United States, Daniel Atchison-Nevel, a Miami Beach native, brought that knowledge home nearly twenty years ago, after a Gainesville acupuncturist cured his insomnia. As founder of the now-defunct South Florida Healing Arts Center and dean of the Community School of Traditional Chinese Healthcare, Nevel imported teachers from China and later taught hundreds of students the intricacies of Chinese medicine. Now with a booming private practice, he specializes in functional illnesses, which include digestive disorders, PMS, and depression. He also treats patients who want to quit smoking, lose weight, or alleviate chronic pain. Because the American Medical Association has sanctioned the use of acupuncture for some conditions, many insurance companies pick up the tab. Be warned, though: The waiting list for new patients is about two months long.
The great magic of the Everglades can be found in the subtleties of life there, though subtle is about the last word that comes to mind as you pull into Jon Weisberg's over-the-top roadside attraction. The anomaly is as it should be: We don't trap our tourists, boy, we trap gators. It is the illusion of an illusionary Florida. For eight years Weisberg and his staff have pulled off the improbable trick of creating a fake Everglades in the middle of the real Everglades. To differentiate Gator Park from the Tamiami Trail's lesser draws, its entranceway boasts a giant Coke can, atop which rests an airboat, atop which rest a stuffed bear, bird, and deer. Next to this improbable sculpture stand totem poles, a chickee, an American flag. Jutting from the thatched edifice is a big green wood gator head, so goofy-looking that real gators retreat into the swamp from embarrassment. A humanized, human-size gator (jeans, boots, dress shirt) sits in a rocking chair on the front porch, greeting tourists much as a live gator would: with a stony silent stare. Enough tables for a tribe are set up on the porch, the patio, and inside for dining on gator, frog legs, or venison (most meals cost less than ten bucks). The souvenir shop offers what you'd expect, but more of it: shirts and hats with gator logos, gator claws, jewelry (some of it Indian), books and postcards, ceramic gators, raccoon caps, Indian pottery, and other stuff, mostly employing the gator motif, including plastic, rubber, and puppet gator replicas. For a taste of the real Everglades, Gator Park provides five airboats piloted by guides ($12 for adults, $6.50 for kids) who will take you beyond the façade.
If you want to kick back in a nature-intensive, Old Florida kind of way, just take Tamiami Trail to within about 30 miles of Naples, then hang a left at State Road 29. Once you cross the bridge into Everglades City, you're on the threshold of the Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove islets and brackish water between the Everglades and the Gulf of Mexico -- where us city folks get many of our stone crabs. The tiny Twin Cities of southwest Florida have always boasted a curious blend of insularity and bravado, typified by the recently deceased swamp pirate Loren G. "Totch" Brown. Ol' Totch spent most of his life lurking in and around the islands and Everglades National Park, hunting quarry such as "Chokoloskee chicken" (ibis, the killing of which is now illegal) and "square grouper" (bales of marijuana, the trafficking of which landed Totch and many of his neighbors in the pokey some years back). Yet despite the shadiness of his pursuits, Totch wrote a book about his adventures, thus adding to the mystique of his swampy haunts. They're plenty mystical on their own, though. Whether you want to explore the labyrinthine mangroves by canoe, kayak, airboat, flatbottom tour boat, or airplane, Everglades City and Chokoloskee are perfect staging areas. Check with the park rangers at the visitor center (941-695-3311) for boat tours and canoe rentals. The water is jumping with fish, if that's your pleasure. If you just want to gawk at wildlife as you paddle or putter around, you'll see alligators, osprey, pelicans, cormorants, and maybe a dolphin or bald eagle. You can launch your boat from Chokoloskee, and by all means check out the historic Smallwood's Store in the tiny island town, but Everglades City has all of the lodging. There are a couple of charming B&Bs, but why not go whole hog and stay at the famed Rod and Gun Club (941-695-2101). Sure it's a more expensive place to eat and sleep, but hey, presidents have bunked there. You at least need to pop in for a drink and stare at the Barron River as it meanders by the historic, whitewashed inn. Like most eateries in town, it specializes in seafood pulled out of local waters.
People either think this movie is brilliant or pathetic. Whatever. Mary brought Cameron Diaz and Matt Dillon to Miami for quite a spell. Shooting scenes in Coral Gables, Brickell, and various South Beach locales must have rubbed Diaz the right way. She became one of Miami's darlings, hanging out well after the movie wrapped. Dillon also made the most of his time here. He lived at the Hotel Astor, hung at Mac's Club Deuce, and happily mingled with the locals. The movie itself showcased Miami in a more flattering way than any flick in recent memory has.
In December 1998 the Miami-Dade County Commission adopted an ordinance that bans corporations from donating money to commission races. Although it won't end the influence-peddling at county hall, it is a step in the right direction. In the past politically connected individuals could funnel thousands of dollars to their favorite commission candidates by writing $500 checks from each of their companies. Some individuals even created multiple corporations so they could write more checks and buy even more influence with certain commissioners. That loophole is now closed thanks to Commissioner Jimmy Morales's proposal. Companies wishing to do business with the county will now have to find another way to grease their pet pols.
His four-hour talk show, weekdays on WQAM from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m., is ostensibly a sports program, but Goldberg's pugnacious punditry stretches far beyond the wide world of sports. One recent Tuesday afternoon, for example, "the Hammer" managed to pound on the following topics: Bagel Cove restaurant ("I was the only one there who didn't have blue hair"); Hialeah racetrack ("What's that skinny disease? Anorexia? An anorexic wouldn't throw up there"); and the War Between the Mayors over the Miami Circle ("Penelas is getting on my nerves again. If you can't see that he's grandstanding ..."). His relentless self-assurance, whether he's touting a 30-1 longshot at Gulfstream, railing against Miccosukee Indian Gaming, or chatting amiably with a Panthers defenseman, makes his an undeniable voice of authority. If you're looking for a truly independent, passionate, old-school chronicler of Miami sports -- and life -- forget the Herald. Trust the Hammer.
Periodically various sections of vice-infested Biscayne Boulevard emerge as the latest darlings of developers and entrepreneurs. At last, these urban-renewal boosters boast, Biscayne is on the verge of moral rebirth and commercial boom. Speculators buy up chunks of the street. And then somehow it just doesn't quite come together; somehow Biscayne is as resistant to reform as, well, as its crack-addicted hookers. Still the signs of new life on this seamy stretch of the boulevard are encouraging. Key is the renovation from 54th to 57th. High-profile restaurateur Mark Soyka, resident of nearby Morningside and originator of the News Café and the Van Dyke, has just opened a new restaurant and gourmet store at 55th, with several other shops to follow. If Soyka can pull off a planned transformation of the gas station of ill-repute at 54th into a coffee-and-croissant market, that just might clinch the turnaround. On the twenty blocks stretching north, many new restaurants and businesses have begun to move in on the kitschy collection of sleazy motels. Wide-open drug and sex sales appear markedly down, though it's still a bad idea to actually walk along the sidewalks at night. You won't be in much danger, but you will almost surely be mistaken for someone -- old, young, churchgoing, no matter the color or sex or sexual orientation -- who is selling or in the market for something illegal.
Miami's own comeback counselor, former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, pulled off the legal achievement of the year when he ousted a sitting mayor. Coffey argued in Miami-Dade Circuit Court that Joe Carollo lost the November 1997 Miami mayoral election owing to rampant fraud among absentee balloting. He was convincing. In March 1998 Judge Thomas Wilson, Jr., booted Xavier Suarez, the putative titleholder. The expulsion survived an appeals court hearing. The episode occupies a special place in the tropical hothouse of Miami politics, and not just because of the dead man who voted or the arrest of a campaign worker for buying absentee ballots. This was significant because it also signaled Coffey's return to the limelight. In 1996 the federal prosecutor resigned his post after he was accused of biting a dancer in a strip club. To his credit though, the chagrined Coffey didn't flee town. He stuck around, rightly believing that our collective memory would evaporate like a puddle after a summer shower. Then new opportunities blossomed. It was worth the wait for him. What's getting caught taking a little love bite compared to toppling a corrupt government?