Front Porch Cafe
Located at the more sedate, northern end of this beachfront strip, the Front Porch dishes up fair-priced, hearty portions from morn' till night. The best seats in the house are, as the name would suggest, on the front porch, where the scenery stretches from Lummus Park to the dunes to the Atlantic. Or lower your gaze slightly to watch the parade of pedestrians without anyone sashaying into your salad. Weekday breakfasts or late lunches are blessedly peaceful, but expect a wait on the weekend as locals line up for the bounteous brunch. And with a full bar, it's also an ideal spot to quench your post-beach thirst with a cocktail in a casual but civilized environment.

Most drivers en route between Miami Beach and Miami via North Bay Village likely pass unawares through this North Beach neighborhood. Overshadowed by nearby Little Buenos Aires (Collins in the Seventies), Normandy Isle is a discrete entity, surrounded by the bay and canals, including one that divides the island in two, offering many residents water access and providing a training ground for crew teams and skullers out of the Miami Beach Watersports Center. The northern half is rooted by the Normandy Shores Municipal Golf Course while the southern half has the commercial district centered around the fountain, informally dubbed the Place Vendome (nearly all the Normandy Sud streets have French names). With sections of single-family homes and predominantly small apartment buildings dating from the Forties and Fifties, it's home to a mix of long-time residents and newer arrivals, Anglos and Latinos (of which Cubans and Argentineans are only the most visible), families and singles (straight and gay), who manage to co-exist. The area is in transition, though, as Section 8 rentals give way to condo conversions, with the accompanying dislocations. But the City of Miami Beach is also investing millions in fixing up the streetscapes and in refurbishing the Normandy Isle Park, to the benefit of all.

Sun may scorch our skin. Heat and humidity can blanket us. Heavy rains could bombard. Tornadoes might threaten. Hurricanes may barrel our way. No sweat. Don Noe's presence -- calm, cool, reassuring -- and his finely tuned forecasts are all we need. As chief meteorologist at Channel 10 (WPLG-TV), Wisconsin native Noe, a fixture on the South Florida airwaves for 24 years, is the consummate pro, confidently standing in front of his map and carefully explaining fronts, fog, barometric pressure, rip currents, and the like to a more-than-skeptical viewership. Telling it like it is, was, and will be. And more often than not, he's right.

Although this past season featured several premieres, the best of them was Nilo Cruz's steamy, sophisticated saga with its heady blend of raw emotion and poetic language set against an era of wrenching cultural and political change. The play was commissioned by the New Theatre and its artistic director Rafael de Acha, and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Cruz, who was born in Cuba but came to Miami at age ten, now spends much of his time in New York. His reputation skyrocketed recently when, in the course of one week, he was honored twice -- first with the American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award and then with the Pulitzer Prize, both for Anna in the Tropics. Despite his now widely recognized talent, Cruz has been largely ignored in his hometown. Fortunately the New Theatre has commissioned yet another play -- and residency -- for next season. As Miami struggles to reinvent itself as a cosmopolitan, world-class community, perhaps it's time for us to recognize that world-class artists like Nilo Cruz are already here.

Sometimes the safety and efficiency of your Toyota sedan is positively suffocating. With so many SUVs hogging the road and polluting the air, yours screams mindless conformity. There are times when you need to break free and feel a liquid-cooled, 115-horsepower, 1130cc fuel-injected Harley engine vibrating between your legs as the wind blows through your hair. American Road Collection has daily and weekly rates for its Fat Boys, Road Kings, V-Rods, and Electra Glide Classics. At roughly $150 per day, that's likely to get your motor running. Think of it as an investment in your inner wild child.

The Calle Ocho street festival isn't just sweaty Spandex, lip-synching, hip-swinging, and flag-waving. It's also a multimillion-dollar fundraiser that allows the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana to provide desperately needed services to the neediest residents of the poorest city in the United States. With more than 150 volunteer members and a full-time staff of five, Los Kiwanis are busy year-round: running basketball, soccer, and baseball leagues for inner-city kids; building playgrounds and parks throughout the city; caring and feeding for senior citizens and the homeless; funding a scholarship program that currently puts 48 students through Florida universities. But the list doesn't end there. The Kiwanis Club runs voter-registration drives, plants palms along city streets, and passes out presents to kids at Christmastime and school supplies come September. They send cash-strapped softball teams to championships, urban teens to camp, and drug addicts to treatment. There is hardly a charity in town that has not benefited from Kiwanis largesse, from the Catholic Home for Children and Boystown to the Children's Miracle Network, Capernaum House, Deed Cancer Clinic, and Dade County Public Schools. Chances are if somebody needs help in Miami-Dade County, the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana will figure out a way to lend a hand.

MICHELLE BERNSTEIN

AZUL, 500 Brickell Key Drive (Mandarin Oriental Hotel), Miami ,305-913-8358

Michelle Bernstein is that rarest of Miami creatures: a true native. Which is why last year she was honored as Best Local Girl Made Good: "After working for others and then co-owning a short-lived but ambitious venture (The Strand), Bernstein took a major leap: She left South Beach for Brickell Key and the luxe Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Within a year Esquire magazine named her restaurant, Azul, the best of 2001. The Food TV network hired her to host a series on tropical foods. And the Vita-Prep people picked her for an advertisement that numero uno trade mag Food Arts featured prominently. Can any other native make that kind of claim to national fame?" So what's left to say? Well, only that Bernstein's Azul has since received the American Automobile Association's highest commendation: the Five Diamond Award. No other Miami-Dade restaurant can boast that distinction.

BEST PLACE FOR FRESH FRUIT

I probably sound like a princess for saying this, but Epicure is my favorite place for fruit. The colors are vibrant, the fragrance hits you when you walk in the door. What kills me is that I buy a huge amount of produce on a daily basis for the restaurant and I never get such beautiful fruit as Epicure does. Not just that, they get seasonal fruits before we do. I patiently wait for cherry season, plum and peach season, and sure enough, Epicure is loaded with not just the fruit I search out but specialty types like white cherries, sugar plums, and doughnut peaches. They make a honey tangerine juice that is addictive.

BEST MONTH TO BE IN MIAMI

Being a Miami native, there is definitely one month that sticks out in my mind: December. Where else can you spend Christmas on the beach? There is a certain magic in the air. The tourists are here scrambling for their SoBe purchases, the restaurants are boisterous and hopping, the sun is shining, and we have a total of, say, eight days to wear our best winter couture.

BEST PLACE TO SAVOR THE FLAVOR OF MIAMI

I cannot imagine showing off our city's flavors without first stopping at El Palacio de los Jugos. I marvel in their fruit juice selection (made to order), from sugar cane to tamarind to papaya-coconut. As you try to make a fruit-drink decision, the chicharrónes call out your name like a little devil on your shoulder. Take no more than two steps and the fresh mariquitas (thin slices of green plantain) are being thrown into the fryer. They're placed into a little bag so you can attack the crispy critters on your way home. But don't leave just yet -- the best part of this little jewel is the pan con lechon (shredded pork on bread). Ask for a little extra mojo while you're at it. Savoring these Latin flavors is part of our lifestyle; it's what I grew up with and what I live for.

BEST CHEAP THRILL

One of my greatest thrills in Miami is a very personal one. I started going down to Homestead when I was four, to the various U-pick fields, as I do today. First wed stop at the field where you can pick tomatoes, warm and fragrant from the vine. Then corn on large stalks and lettuces of different types. But the best part was (and is) the strawberries. Oh, the strawberries! A group of Old German Baptists run a place called Knaus Berry Farm, which has the sweetest, juiciest, biggest strawberries youve ever seen. The best part: Once youre done picking, you stop at the roadside stand to gorge on strawberry shakes made with fresh strawberry ice cream and the just-picked strawberries. Its the most intense frozen-strawberry smoothie you can ever imagine. But dont go anywhere yet. They also sell big hot cinnamon buns fresh from the oven.

BEST REASON TO LIVE IN MIAMI

There is one good reason why I'll probably always consider Miami my home: the passion. Our city is smoking hot from the sizzling sun, combined with beautiful people, zestful food, and a fusion of many different languages, cultures, and music. Behind all these is a passion that is incomparable. We cook with our hearts, dance with zeal, speak in voluminous tones. Our achievements are accomplished by following our hearts more than our minds. If we don't believe strongly in something, with our hearts and souls, it probably won't even be attempted. Our clothing is bright, our senses alive, and we strive to let ourselves show.

RECIPE

CHOCOLATE MOLE PAINTED FOIE GRAS OVER PORT GASTRIC BRAISED CHERRIES

1 teaspoon ground ancho chiles

1 teaspoon ground almonds

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch of Hawaiian sea salt

1 cup extra-bitter chocolate, melted in a double boiler

Combine above ingredients and keep warm over hot water until just before serving; use a paintbrush to "paint" the mole onto a white plate.

In a pan, sear a 3-ounce piece of fresh foie gras. When golden, place foie gras into a cold pan, set aside.

In the hot pan with foie fat add:

1/4 cup pitted cherries

1/4 cup port wine

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

Reduce until it coats the back of a spoon.

Heat the foie gras in the oven at 350 degrees until medium rare to medium, approximately 3 to 4 minutes, until it feels soft when you press lightly on it. If there is hardness, heat for 2 more minutes. Glaze the foie gras with a little extra chocolate. Place 2 tablespoons of sauce in the center of the "painted" plate. Top with the chocolate-glazed foie gras. Top the foie with a little sea salt and serve immediately.

This place is so over the top that even if you and your date are not a match made in heaven, you'll have to have a good time. Yes, the first-act dancers wear big fruit headdresses, but then the fun really begins. How about Rolando Salazar -- the "funniest comedian of the moment" -- dressed up as Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez! Or Lissette the diva dressed in a Fifties sweater and singing Havana nostalgia. Or a teenager called Divine singing "disco" hits from the Seventies. There's also the Imperial Circus. On Saturdays you'll find the sure-hit Willy Chirino. And come on, it's in the Fontainebleau, keeper of all things Fifties kitsch, in a ballroom with sparkling lights and ice-tinkling highball glasses. You've got your table, you've got your drinks, and neighbors of all ages who are living it up. The two of you have had so much fun you're tempted to return for our own version of Merv Griffin, local TV host Jaime Bayly!

Readers Choice: The Wallflower Gallery

Is it the cakes in the bakery display cases, which look like a quinceñera's dress on steroids? Is it the crowd outside the to-go window sipping café cubano from thimble-size plastic cups while vigorously debating the topic du jour? Is it the muckety-mucks working the room in the main restaurant while the hoi polloi -- and some tourists -- consume gargantuan portions of Cuban fare surrounded by mirrors and chandeliers? The combination of all the above, plus a certain je ne sais quoi, make this Calle Ocho fixture the place to soak up the city's atmosphere, along with hearty eats.

Nestled in a classy residential neighborhood just south of Sunset Drive, this designated historical landmark is the last resting place for more than 200 Miami pioneers, many of them unidentified, most buried in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. It officially became a cemetery in 1906, but settlers south of the Miami River were buried there as early as 1855, making it the oldest cemetery in the region. (Prior to Miami's 1896 incorporation, people living north of the river buried dead kin on their properties.) Not long ago a Boy Scout troop cleared out a lot of the overgrown brush as part of a renovation project, but the place is still dense and lush. Depending on your frame of mind, it's even a bit spooky in its lonely silence. Some tombstones have been restored or replaced by preservation societies and living relatives, while others are weathered beyond recognition. Confederate soldiers are among those interred here, and you can see the C.S.A. insignia along with the Stars and Bars on some markers. A section along the east side mutely testifies to an intriguing family tragedy. This is where the Brook family buried their young. The firstborn, Virginia, died in 1921 before she turned two. Beside her lie siblings Patrick (girl), Patrick (boy), Brown, and Scott, all born between 1923 and 1934, none having lived more than two years.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®