Art, culture and empanadas: Can you fit Miami into a long weekend?

Art, culture and empanadas: Can you fit Miami into a long weekend?

Deep in concentration, competitors glide their weathered hands across the table like experienced croupiers. The place is near-silent but for the gentle, methodical clack-clack-clacking of domino tiles on small plastic tables, and murmurs from elderly observers.

And then – crash. A triumphant player rises, carefully but purposefully, to his feet, while dejected competitors slump further back into their fixed-to-the-floor green metal chairs.

The temperature is a balmy 22C, though many of the locals are wearing jackets, and there’s not a mobile telephone, computer or tablet in sight.

Locals in Little Havana play a game at Domino Park (Ryan Hooper/PA)
Locals in Little Havana play a game at Domino Park (Ryan Hooper/PA)

Welcome to Domino Park – a slice of 1960s Cuba in the heart of 2019 Miami, where time appears to stand still.

“A tropical storm could pass by here and they would still be playing,” says tour guide Marie Perea, a naturalised Miamian who can barely take two steps through the streets of so-called Little Havana without embracing someone she knows.

A cultural mix of the two Americas, where road signs often appear in Spanish and English, Miami is a city proud of its past and excited about the future. Its story is told through the laudable architecture, close-knit communities and a reverence for art and design.

A bus makes its way down Calle Ocho in Little Havana (Ryan Hooper/PA)
A bus makes its way down Calle Ocho in Little Havana (Ryan Hooper/PA)

Little Havana: The Fifties fiesta

Once nothing more than a thoroughfare, Calle Ocho (158 SW 8th Street) – the heart of Little Havana – is a now popular tourist destination. Here, the locals, who are largely of Latin American descent thanks to the arrival of tens of thousands of Cubans during the revolution years of the Fifties and Sixties, mix with visitors eager to take a step back in time.

There is an evergreen feeling to Little Havana.

The octogenarian plodding opportunistically along the streets selling cones full of peanuts for a dollar has been doing so for decades, despite an apparent turf war with an entrepreneurial rival.

The memorably named El Pub on Calle Ocho, a sports bar with snacks, coffee and live music, hosts a soothing mixture of daytrippers keen to get their fingers on the renowned colada coffee and beef empanadas ($3/£2.30 a pop). Locals, who like their brews sickly sweet and almost strong enough to stand a stick up in, are of the same mind.

A beef empanada at El Pub in Little Havana (Ryan Hooper/PA)
A beef empanada at El Pub in Little Havana (Ryan Hooper/PA)

Across Calle Ocho, the Ball & Chain (ballandchainmiami.com) pub entices weary punters with its pulsating live music and lip-smacking mojitos. Today’s band is an all-ages ensemble of local men, who join a distinguished list of musicians to have delighted crowds at the Ball & Chain, including the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Billie Holiday.

Along the way at El Exquisito (elexquisitomiami.com), we stop for a classic Cuban sandwich – slow-cooked pork, marinated in citrus juices, garlic, bell peppers and onion for two days, served with Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles and wedged between two slices of Cuban bread.

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“A few years ago, this used to just be somewhere people passed through to get to Downtown,” Miami Culinary Tour guide Marie says. “But there is a lot more here. It’s more vibrant now.”

South Beach: The art deco masterpiece

South Beach is perhaps the best-known destination at the base of sunshine state Florida, with nearly three miles of golden sands bordering the Atlantic Ocean.

Its fine grains, warm waters and Instagram-ready lifeguard towers make it a haven for beach bums, fitness fanatics and artists, many eager to spot a famous face.

Perhaps the most famous landmark of all, however, is Casa Casuarina, built in 1930. Also known as the Versace Mansion, home to tragic designer Gianni until his assassination in 1997. Now a luxury hotel and restaurant, the sprawling beachside building stands out among the scores of art deco buildings across South Beach.

A walker strolls along South Beach, Miami, at dawn (Ryan Hooper/PA)
A walker strolls along South Beach, Miami, at dawn (Ryan Hooper/PA)

In fact, the area is a real Mecca for those with an eye for the distinctive architectural style.

Strict planning regulations since the 1970s mean buildings seldom stand taller than three storeys – as to do so would require expensive elevators being installed. Development is allowed, but it must not be seen from street level on the opposite side of the road. Trademark features such as the “eyebrows” (decorative ledges) over windows, neon signage, and soft pastel trim can be found at almost every turn.

The famous Breakwater Hotel in Miami Beach is a textbook example of the art deco style (Ryan Hooper/PA)
The famous Breakwater Hotel in Miami Beach is a textbook example of the art deco style (Ryan Hooper/PA)

There are more than 800 art deco buildings around Miami Beach, though it is the Breakwater Hotel which is perhaps best known, says Howard Brayer, volunteer tour guide with the Miami Design Preservation League.

“There was a very famous Calvin Klein underwear advert in the 1980s, which really reignited tourism in South Beach,” he says.

“It’s been well-preserved here. Expansion is allowed, of course, just as long as you can’t see it from the opposite side of the street. It means the view along here is pretty impressive; folk like to look at it and learn a little bit.”

Not that South Beach is stuck in the past.

Our hotel, The Lennox, originally opened in 1936 as the opulent Peter Miller Hotel. But it lost its way, and by 2010 it was abandoned.

A three-year, £53 million (USD 70 million) renovation was completed in summer 2019, retaining many of its original art deco features, such as marble archways, with 119 stylishly-decorated rooms and an outdoor pool.

For all its modernisation, perhaps its greatest drawcard remains its two-minute walk to South Beach.

Wynwood: The next big thing

Further inland, around 25 minutes in a cab, the cultural district of Wynwood is regarded as Miami’s next big development opportunity. A sprawling network of murals, breweries, and multi-purpose tower blocks make it the city’s equivalent of London’s Shoreditch.

“Wynwood is the hot spot in the city right now,” says tour guide Carlos Raul Aguilera Sosa from Venezuela.

Graffiti at the Wynwood Walls in Miami (Ryan Hooper/PA)
Graffiti at the Wynwood Walls in Miami (Ryan Hooper/PA)

“Three years ago, let me tell you, it wasn’t. But if you are looking to invest, you put your money here.

“There are more restaurants opening every day.”

Back in Miami Beach, the recently-opened Time Out Market Miami (timeoutmarket.com/miami) is among the new eateries opening in this part of Florida.

The second of its kind in the world after Lisbon, it offers 17 pop-up versions of Miami’s best cuisine; Vietnamese pho, Cuban ice cream, and locally caught oysters are sold alongside mouth-watering burgers and fine steaks.

A selection of instruments at the Wall Grace Vintage cars and guitars store in Wynwood, Miami (Ryan Hooper/PA)
A selection of instruments at the Wall Grace Vintage cars and guitars store in Wynwood, Miami (Ryan Hooper/PA)

Key Biscayne: A timeless beauty

Back at ground level, naturalists with Miami EcoAdventures (miamiecoadventures.com) offer a different perspective of the area’s stunning cityscape, a 30-minute cab ride down from South Beach.

A two-and-a-half-hour kayak adventure along the stunning Key Biscayne costs $30/£23 and offers unrivalled views of Miami.

A kayak around Key Biscayne offers a different perspective of Miami (Ryan Hooper/PA
A kayak around Key Biscayne offers a different perspective of Miami (Ryan Hooper/PA

The tour doesn’t venture too far out into the North Atlantic, and it is still possible to make out the odd egret perching on wooden posts near the shore.

Wildlife is thriving in Key Biscayne, an environment protected from new industrial development.

The tour, on tandem kayaks, represents a relatively tranquil paddle – depending on the energy levels of your co-pilot.

How to plan your trip

Rooms at EAST, Miami (east-miami.com) start from £230 ($299) per night. Rooms at The Lennox Hotel (lennoxmiamibeach.com) start from £175 ($225) per night.

Norwegian (norwegian.com/uk; 0330 828 0854) operates a non-stop flight from London Gatwick to Miami, operated by a fleet of brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. Fares start from £159.90 one-way and £275 return in LowFare economy, and from £499 one-way and £940 return in Premium.

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