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Do the salsa and soak up the razzle-dazzle in Miami

Judith Ritter on 06 Jul 2019

The Straits Times


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MIAMI - I love Miami. In fact, I even kind of gush about it.


Friends are surprised. I am not the type for lavish late nights or the feverish crush of stylish Art Basel gatherings. But I do find the dazzle of this extraordinary confection of a city mesmerising.


My favourite early morning Miami view is from my wicker perch on the veranda of The Betsy. It is a splendidly restored, small Art Deco hotel with a passion for poetry and the arts and perfectly located right across from a long sandy beach, a runner's dream.


From The Betsy's front porch, I sit with my steamy cafecito, music of Cuban legend Ibrahim Ferrer drifting in the warm breeze.


Here, I watch the early-morning return of the party people, still glittery but now stylishly dishevelled from their bacchanalian night. As they head home to sleep, I plan my adventures starting with a trip to a small nearby museum.


Miami has stellar museums, but I choose the lesser-known Wolfsonian, a small welcoming space affiliated with Miami's innovative, public Florida International University.


Each gallery is packed with artefacts of the history of industrial design. There are cameras, clocks, shiny toasters and phonographs from the early 20th century. The mix of serious design history and playfulness is compelling.


The Wolfsonian's cafe-cum-design store is also a great place to meet student artists, design aficionados and shop for handcrafted Deco-inspired items by local artisans.


My search for a mid-morning snack takes me on a 10-minute walk along the not-yet-gentrified Washington Avenue. It is lined with shops whose mannequins sport beachwear, sunglasses and T-shirts with cheesy sayings.


A little farther along where beachwear yields to tattoo establishments and hookah parlours is Charlotte Bakery. It is always packed with regulars lined up for little cups of dark Cuban coffee and a choice of a dozen varieties of Latin America's handheld small pies and stuffed pastries.


There is a Venezuelan arepa domino stuffed with black beans and white cheese, a Colombian cassava and cornmeal pandebono with sweet guava and the sensational Argentinean fluted-edged torta pascualina with spinach and ricotta.


Regulars at the counter and little high-top tables have endless easy conversations in Spanish and English, sharing their favourite snack suggestions and even their own immigration stories with visitors.




The Latin vibe in Miami, a city sometimes called the "capital of Latin America", is palpable and profound.


With limited time to explore, one way to get a feel of one of the most influential of Latin cultures is to head to Little Havana, the enclave where exiled Cubans first settled in the 1950s after fleeing Fidel Castro's Cuba.


A half-century later, despite the influx of other immigrant newcomers to the area, Little Havana, if no longer the residential hub, is still the political and social heart of the Cuban community.


The focal point is Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street) and the heart of Calle Ocho is most certainly Maximo Gomez Park, also known as Domino Park. There, dozens of people are hunkered down at tables playing dominos with the same passion, clicky soundscape, laughter and sighs of anguish as in mahjong.


Even in the early afternoon, music wafts out from nearby restaurants and bars.


The legendary Ball & Chain, a stylistic recreation of a 1930s Miami nightspot, is the noisiest and most vibrant.


Its live band play while elderly Cuban exiles, their hipster grandchildren and visitors like me can dance inside and outside on the sidewalk to old-school live Cuban jazz and cantineros (bartenders) serve up tropical fruit and rum drinks.


After working up some salsa heat, it is a relief to step just next door and cool off at Azucar, a hole-in-the-wall ice cream shop with flavours such as platano maduro (sweet plantain) and mamey, the curious cross between pumpkin and sweet potato.


That sugar rush provides enough energy for one to take in the all-in-one Cuba culture stop, Cubaocho.


It is an art gallery with a pre-1958 collection of paintings and objet d'art, a bar with live music and a back wall that is a floor-to-ceiling library of classic Cuban books.


The nostalgia-driven ambience of Cubaocho is symbolic of the mood of the entire old neighbourhood.


But nowhere is nostalgia more palpable than at Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company.


There, where the aroma of cigar tobacco leaves mixes with the odour of cafe cubano, Mr Peter Bello, a fourth-generation cigar-maker, with his son watch over the creation of Cuban cigars.


Master roller Ariocha Mena sits meditatively while carefully transforming precious, delicate leaves into fine cigars, oblivious to onlookers while Mr Bello's elderly mother and father keep an eye on the whole shop from the back of the room.


A Miami acquaintance, Ms Paula Gomez, reminiscing about her childhood trips to Little Havana, reminds me not to miss La Casa de Los Trucos. Hers and a thousand other childhoods passed through the half-century old costume and magic trick shop.


The genial elderly owner, Ms Carmen Torres, not only holds court over 10,000 to 15,000 costumes and hundreds of magic tricks, but is also the keeper of as many local legends and happy to share them with visitors.


Yes, the neighbourhood is changing, she says, but there will always be a new generation of children chattering in English and Spanish sticking on moustaches and masks and making Little Havana memories.




After one more steamy Cuban coffee at El Exquisito's long lunch counter, surrounded by sentimental prints of old Cuba, it is time to head to Little Haiti, another one of Miami's special neighbourhoods.


This neighbourhood consists of Haitian immigrants who, over the years, have fled everything from warlord "Papa Doc" Duvalier's vicious Tonton Macoutes to the country's endless stream of natural disasters.


The community in exile has flourished and though now joined by newcomers from other Caribbean and Latin countries, the spirit of the area is still Haitian.


The area's epicentre is most certainly the Little Haiti Cultural Complex with its art gallery, theatre, marketplace and outdoor stage where bands direct from Port-au-Prince, such as Tropicana and NuLook, perform and crowds dance compas, a steamy sort of merengue.


Dance-fuelled street parties go late into the night.


If extreme nightlife is not for you, there is plenty to do in the day.


Just around the corner from the Cultural Complex outdoor stage is Libreri Mapou, a hub for the area's Haitian-American artists and writers and a place to pick up books and papers in French and Creole.


Nearby, Sonny's Sound is packed with CDs of the latest Haitian hits and, not far away, you will hear laughter and music drifting out of Tigeorges Kafe.


Inside, the few tables are packed with neighbours playing ludo, a colourful board game, as they wait for owner Georges LaGuerre, who is behind the counter, to finish cooking rice, beans and chicken that his informal diners will have with pikliz, the spicy cabbage-based condiment laced with fiery scotch bonnet peppers.


There are plenty of places in the neighbourhood for a taste of Haiti.


All official tours lead to the celebrity magnet restaurant, Chef Creole, with its legendary whole steamed red snapper and walls covered with photos of famous visitors from singer-songwriter Erykah Badu to musician Wyclef Jean.


Another more low-key and locally adored hot spot is New Piman Bouk.


With its wood panelling, tiled floors, vibrant turquoise plastic table cloths and lazy ceiling fans, this cosy cash-only haunt is famed for its goat and oxtail dishes, Haitian cuisine staples.


The name "Little Haiti" was coined by the late community activist Vitor Juste and his son, Carl, an internationally respected photojournalist, still lives there.


Today, with Little Haiti under the gentrification gun, the younger Juste is determined that the area's character will be saved by the arts.


As we walk through the neighbourhood on the way to his studio, he points out magnificent street art on the walls of concrete block buildings around the Cultural Complex, including that of renown muralist Serge Toussaint's Welcome to Little Haiti, Wilfrid Daleus' ethereal Dancers and Little Haiti Mural by street artist duo, The Color Dreamers.


Mr Juste is on a mission. "Come here and see Haitian arts," he says. "Smell, breathe, see the spirit."




For some, Miami's magic resides in Wynwood.


A once industrial working-class area, the neighbourhood is now an art-saturated destination known primarily for its sticker-shock galleries and its walls extravagantly painted by world-famous street artists, including Shepard Fairey and Ernest Zacharevic.


Although Wynwood Walls are look-worthy, make sure to look up to see the Wynwood Silos reaching for the Miami sky.


Local artist Danny "Krave" Fila transformed four old, 23m-high silos into giant art-covered spray paint cans, an homage to Miami's street artists.


Back on the ground, the place to meet up-and-coming artists is a converted old bakery, Bakehouse Art Complex. Stroll around the building and peek into the studios to watch artists at work.


From there, I head out to a real bakery, the shoebox-sized Pink Pie, a low-key escape from Wynwood's gastronomy hype.


The young husband-and-wife team specialise in 40 flavours of micro-pies. These 7cm tasty bites run the gamut from a sweet corn and custard pie to key lime and guava.


Top off the pie with a milkshake and head to Walt Grace Vintage for cars and guitars.


On one side of a sprawling room, rare cars line the shiny floors. On the other side, rare guitars cover the walls.


It is an emporium of nostalgia, a fantasy land for vintage-loving gearheads and would-be Joan Jetts and Jimi Hendrixes.


Wynwood is also a haunt for late-night revellers, but the quieter and more intimate alternative venue is rooftop lounge No. 3 Social.


Inside, sofas are arranged to create small comfy enclaves for conversation and, outside, the large deck offers killer views of Miami's midtown.


Back in Miami Beach, my sanctuary hotel, The Betsy, awaits, but there are a few more early evening stops for those who, like me, prefer D-I-Y fun versus straight out past-your-bedtime debauchery.


Just two blocks from The Betsy is Espanola Way, a cobblestone- walking street lined with 1920s Mediterranean revival buildings with wrought-iron balconies and red-tiled roofs.


Espanola Way was Miami's first commercial area and home to the city's earliest cohort of bohemians and artists.


With a recent revitalisation, the area is now alive with restaurants, cafes and, my reason for being there, dancing in the street.


Thursday evenings are for salsa with a live band and enough cover for even awkward amateurs like me to feel for a few moments that I positively sizzle (or sort of sizzle).


After salsa, you may want to drown your sorrows or self- inflicted salsa humiliations at one of Miami Beach's very local nightspots such as Mac's Club Deuce, Miami's oldest bar.


There, I paused to inhale a bit of the old divey ambience with the regulars who shoot pool and love the blinking neon and worn familiarity of the place.


For Miami's bronzed and bejewelled partygoers, the night is young. But back at my hotel, I dial back the frenzy.


I may check out the string quartet playing in the library, stop in the lobby lounge for a game of chess or just take up my post on the veranda and watch the party people head out for hip watering holes and another night of Miami razzle- dazzle.


• Judith Ritter is an American freelance journalist living the bohemian life in her adopted home of Montreal, Quebec.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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