Cultural Odyssey: Fort Lauderdale and Miami

by Peter Morrell on 12 December 2014, 15:12PM

Peter Morrell gets a cultural and culinary adrenalin shot on the final leg of his journey in Florida

After a couple of days of culture and relaxation in the Fort Myers / Sanibel area it was time to drive across the Florida peninsula to Fort Lauderdale before moving on to Miami.

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My destination in Fort Lauderdale was the Museum of Art at the end of Las Olas Boulevard one of the city’s most fashionable street. Like all the other places I visited in Florida the museum had much to offer. It has a collection of more than 6000 permanent exhibits ranging from the pseudo cartoons of Roy Lichtenstein to the pop art of Andy Warhol.

Home for the night was the Riverside Hotel, just a short walk away. Built in neo Spanish colonial style, it is the only hotel on Las Olas Boulevard. The boulevard is lined with bars, art galleries, boutiques and restaurants and is a highly sophisticated area to spend some time.

With only a couple of days to go before the end of my cultural odyssey my final destination was Miami Beach. I headed straight for the Beacon Hotel, one of the iconic art deco buildings on Ocean Drive overlooking Lummus Park. The classic design of the exterior was perfectly reflected by the decor inside.
It was a quick change before hitting the streets to meet my guide, Mirka Harris, for a combined culinary and architectural tour run by Miami Culinary Tours of the Art Deco area.

She was impressively knowledgeable about the food, culture and history of the area. There is huge influence from both Cuban and Latin American culture in the city and that is particularly true of the cuisine.
Within minutes Mirka had us tasting a fresh seafood ceviche in the bar of The Anglers Hotel, once a favourite watering hole of Ernest Hemingway on his journey to Key West. After a one block diversion east to Ocean Drive we heard about the history of the Art Deco area and how these beautiful buildings were rescued from property developers by the dogged persistence of one woman, Barbara Capitman. She saved for posterity not only hotels like the Essex, the Victor and the Congress but also an Art Deco post office and even a public loo!

Before continuing our culinary quest Mirka also updated us on more modern history, the Versace mansion, the second most photographed building in the U.S., and the tragic shooting of its owner Gianni. Mirka had provided a fascinating insight into the city and its history. I was so impressed by two of the restaurants on the tour that I returned for dinner and lunch respectively to both eateries. 

Our tour ended at the New World Center, home of the New World Orchestra. The Center is a stunning building designed by master architect Frank Gehry. To give people the opportunity to enjoy the music there is a the ‘Wallcast’ where the concerts playing inside are projected on to a huge flat exterior wall and the lush gardens in front of the building have 160 speakers concealed in pipes. That evening  I joined hundreds of others that evening to listen to a Christmas score that included Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
Walking back down the strip after the concert the whole place was buzzing with music to suit every taste. Rock, pop, country and opera reverberated from the bars and restaurants where glamorous guests were enjoying seafood platters and cocktails from glasses the size of a birdbath.

Next day, my last on the tour, was an early start to spend the morning with Charles Kropke, head of Dragonfly Expeditions. What Charles doesn’t know about Miami, isn’t worth knowing. He is the author of SOUTH BEACH: Stories of a Renaissance, the definitive history of the salvation of the Art Deco district. But today our focus was on how the Cubans had left their home island and brought their unique culture with them to Miami.

Our destination was Calle Ocho in Little Havana. Here we had a strong, sweet Cuban coffees before paying a visit to the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company, a shop and factory owned by the Bello family, who for generations have made the finest Cuban cigars. Here I watched a craftsman hand rolling what is reckoned to be one of the best cigar brands in the world.

We popped in to Gomez Park or more popularly known as Domino Park, groups of men were playing the game and talking. Apparently the subjects discussed are different from group to group, football, politics etc.
A slow drive down Cuban Memorial Boulevard, a turning off Calle Ocho revealed a collection of statues and monuments, including an eternal flame burning in memory of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Interspersed with the memorials are massive Ceiba trees with large, above-ground roots. Amongst the roots are piles of chicken bones, ritual sacrifices by practitioners of Santeria, a religion of West African and Caribbean origin with influenced of Roman Catholicism.

After a deli lunch there was just time for a walk along Ocean Drive for a final look at the Art Deco buildings and to soak up the unique ‘party town on sea’ atmosphere of Miami. These final few hours had been a cultural adrenalin shot that I will never forget.

Driving back to the airport I reflected on my 8 day, 500 mile road trip which had featured so many highlights. Although the schedule had been almost impossibly tight my trusty Buick from Hertz with its SatNav had delivered me safely and on time to all the events and meeting that I had.

Florida is well known for its sun, beaches and theme parks but there’s so much more. So don’t forget when you visit to take full advantage of the vast amount of culture that the state can offer.

Useful Links

Fort Lauderdale Information www.sunny.org

Miami Information www.miamiandbeaches.com

Florida Information www.visitflorida.com

Hertz Rent a Car www.hertz.com 


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