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No city in the United States has evolved into as many disparate identities in so short a time as has Miami. A bit more than a hundred years ago this former Spanish settlement, located along the Miami River where it spills into Biscayne Bay (now the center of the city of Miami), attracted neither interest nor population. That's understandable since up until that point, the only way to reach Miami was by boat.
That changed in 1896, when financier Henry Flagler extended his new Florida East Coast Railroad south from its previous terminus at West Palm Beach. By the turn of the 20th century the first of Miami's real estate booms was underway, a pattern that continued unabated right up to the Great Depression. Miami was one of the few places on earth where someone could offer you a get-rich-quick deal on 10 acres of swampland, and there was a good chance that you could actually get rich on it. Many made their fortunes here and left monuments to their achievements in places such as the grand Mediterranean-style estates like Villa Vizcaya and the slew of privately developed islands along the causeways crossing Biscayne Bay.
The city of Miami sits on the Florida mainland. Offshore, due east in the Atlantic, are a series of barrier islands. The southernmost island in the near vicinity is Key Biscayne. Next to the north is Virginia Key, then Fisher Island, and then comes Miami Beach. The body of water between these islands and the mainland is Biscayne Bay. Early on, resort developers looked to the Atlantic Ocean beaches of Miami Beach, beginning their development with the elegant Art Deco hotels at the southern tip, now better known as South Beach. As development proceeded northward its complexion changed, becoming more "high-rise" and grandiose, with amenities geared to a wider range of interests, from yachting to golf.
The 1960s saw another sea change in Miami, generating another boom cycle, brought about by the unlikely combination of the advent of universally available air conditioning and the rise to power of Fidel Castro. As Cuban refugees fled in droves to the U.S., they settled in that part of our country most like their former homeland in climate -- namely, South Florida. Miami, whose tropical temperatures were now tamed by indoor climate control, thus tolerable to an influx of workers, became the gateway to the Caribbean for any number of businesses, which soon rivaled tourism as the keystone industry.
The Caribbean population influx also profoundly changed Miami's personality. It is now largely bilingual, with French and Creole also gaining a foothold with increasing waves of immigration from Haiti. It's hard to walk a block in Miami without coming into contact with Cuban food, Cuban music, Cuban culture. It is a dynamic, vibrant city steeped in multiculturalism. These new Miamians and their businesses have also contributed directly to the revitalization of the mainland portion of Miami, leading to a number of tourist assets along the western shore of Biscayne Bay, such as Bayside Marketplace.
Across the bay is the renovated Art Deco district, including South Beach (SoBe), which has become a mecca in its own right, attracting celebrities and those who follow them, whether it be with camera or with autograph book. SoBe is also home to Miami's nightclub, fashion, music and hip dining scene, and rivals Venice, California as the place to go to people-watch.
Not all is development (or overdevelopment, some would say). Though the seaside corridor has been urbanized almost from the tip of Florida to midway up the coast, there is still much for lovers of nature and the great outdoors. The Everglades are within a half-day's drive to the southwest. Off the Atlantic coast a short distance to the south is the only living coral reef in the continental United States. Birders wax poetic over opportunities to spy tropical shore birds and waterfowl found nowhere else in the States. And where else in the U.S.A. might you have to brake to avoid alligators crossing the road?
Whether Miami is your port of embarkation, debarkation or a port of call mid-cruise, it is unlikely that you will encounter a city anywhere on your travels that appeals to as many tastes: foodie, shopaholic, eco-tourist, golfer, water sportsperson or lover of traditional tourist attractions.
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A bikini from Ritchie Swimwear (South Beach, 160th 8th Street, Miami Beach; 305-538-0201) that sells tops and bottoms separately in a variety of sizes, and the tan to wear with it.
English, but you'll hear a fair amount of Spanish spoken, as well.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the U.S. dollar, and ATM's are readily available.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the Port of Miami, five minutes from downtown.
Bayside Marketplace -- like Boston's Fanueil Hall and Baltimore's Harborplace, this shopping mall/dining center, which lies on the waterfront is a 15-minute walk along Caribbean Way from the port, offers plenty of diversion for a short Miami pit-stop. The center features services such as ATM's, coat/package check, taxis, valet parking and wheelchair rental. Tour boats and fishing charters can be arranged here, too.
Adjacent to the south, the Mildred and Claude Pepper Bayfront Park includes a memorial to the Challenger astronauts. The 32-acre park includes a small sand beach, a tropical rock garden and waterfall, a cascading fountain and a light tower. Other monuments honor World War II veterans, Christopher Columbus and other dignitaries.
On Foot: Miami is such a sprawling city that aside from port-related activities and the Bayside shopping center you'll either need to rent a car or rely on taxis to explore.
Taxis: Line up at the dock.
Renting a Car: At this point in time there are no car rental companies with offices at the pier proper. Nearly all will pick up and drop off at the port. Logistically it makes a great deal of sense to use an operator with facilities close to the port to avoid the traffic, crowds and hassle connected with going to the airport for car rentals. The major players, the location of the renting office, and their numbers to call for pick up and/or reservations are: Alamo (Airport, 305-633-6076); Avis (99 Southeast 2nd Street, 305-379-1317); Budget (Airport, 305-871-2722); Dollar (Airport, 305-894-5021); Enterprise (400 SE 2nd Ave.,305- 379-3003); Hertz (354 Southeast 1st Street, 786-425-2515); National (2301 NW 33rd Ave., 305-638-1026); Thrifty (1520 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-604-9827).
Hertz has regular shuttle service from Port of Miami terminals to their rental office, every half-hour, Wednesday through Monday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Keep in mind that off-airport car rentals are often cheaper than at the airport.
Watch Out For
Theft from motor vehicles is fairly common, as in most large cities. Don't leave valuables within view in rental cars. Also, if you're renting a car to drive around Miami, avoid arguing with other drivers and road rage. As with any city, don't walk around by yourself late at night. Finally, beautiful people abound in Miami, and particularly Miami Beach. Skip the muffin and take the stairs before your visit.
Miami's South Beach: This Art Deco-styled waterfront district has it all -- beautifully restored historic buildings, funky shops and boutiques, elegant restaurants and casual cafes, fabulous people-watching, and an awesome, wide and clean beach. Technically, the art deco district runs from 6th to 23rd streets between Ocean and Lenox avenues and you can take a self-guided walking tour (the Art Deco District Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Drive, has maps). For serious shopping, head a few blocks west to Lincoln Road (at 17th Street), a four-block-long outdoor shopping promenade with unique boutiques and restaurants.
Rent a car and head to Key Biscayne, an island connected to Miami via two bridges and the Rickenbacker Causeway; nature, beach and marine enthusiasts can choose between the Miami Seaquarium (4400 Rickenbacker Causeway) and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area (1200 S. Crandon Boulevard).
Explore Miami history via the neighborhoods of Coral Gables and Coconut Grove (renting a car is advised). Coral Gables was developed in the 1920s and is best known as home to the Biltmore Hotel, noted for its resemblance to Seville's Giralda Tower); its Miracle Mile (Douglas Road/37th Avenue to LeJeune Road/42nd Avenue) has a mixture of fashionable boutiques and eateries. Bring a swimsuit and head to the Venetian Pool (2701 De Soto Blvd), a fantasy-themed public pool created out of a rock quarry.
Coconut Grove is Miami's oldest section with construction beginning in the 1870s. It's also a place of fashionable boutiques and restaurants. Worth a detour: Vizcaya Museum and Gardens (3251 S. Miami Avenue), an early 20th-century Renaissance style -- and quite grandiose -- estate built for a Chicago industrialist who wanted to recreate a 16th-century Italian estate.
Serious shoppers should head to north Miami Beach's upscale Bal Harbour (9700 Collins Avenue). Shops include the chicest of the chic -- Neiman Marcus, Saks 5th Avenue, Prada, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, to name just a few. Alas, prices are not of the duty-free variety.
Been There, Done That
Little Havana is the famous 3 1/2-square-mile site where many Cubans fled to after escaping their country. "Calle Ocho" or 8th Street is the main drag and central point (particularly between 11th and 17th Avenues) and it's best as a walking-around destination. Diversions include watching cigars being rolled at the El Credito Cigar Factory (1106 Southwest 8th Street) and visiting the Cuban Museum of the Americas (1300 SW 12th Avenue).
Serenity-seekers should head to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (10901 Old Cutler Road) where a mix of man-made lakes winds around one of the world's largest palm tree collections -- not to mention verdant examples of flora and fauna.
Highly recommended: Miami Culinary Tours
Good sustenance stops include the News Cafe (800 Ocean Drive) for all-day casual fare.
For a great dining experience that's chic-with-a-view, ask for a table on the outdoor patio at La Marea at The Tides (1220 Ocean Avenue).
For authentic casual Cuban fare, try Casa Larios (7705 W. Flager St.) for bistec de palomilla, vaca frita, carnero asado and tres leches cakes.
Also consider Versailles (3555 SW 8th St., Miami) right in the heart of Little Havana. Authentic, but ask for the English menu if you don't want to navigate the Spanish one. Try picadillo or ropa vieja at reasonable prices.
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: Miami's South Beach, about a 20-minute cab ride from the port.
Best Beach for the Dedicated Beach Bum: The beach at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area (1200 S. Crandon Boulevard), on Key Biscayne where you can find everything from kayak rentals to food stalls.
The Miami area has a huge range of hotel choices extending from tiny B&B's and boutiques to full-scale resorts, beachfront high-rises and major chain hotels. For the purposes of this report we're limiting our listings to hotels closest to the port, arranged in order of proximity (closest to farthest).
Anchoring a hipster's renaissance downtown, Kimpton's Epic Hotel, 270 Biscayne Way, 866-760-3742, offers an A-list nightlife scene that rivals South Beach. We loved the pool, towering over the confluence of the Miami River and Biscayne Bay. Its excellent restaurants, including London's Zuma, for contemporary Japanese, and the delightful indoor-outdoor-poolside Area 31, mean you don't have to leave the premises if you don't want to. It's a seven-minute cab ride to the cruise terminal.
InterContinental Miami, 100 Chopin Plaza, Miami, FL 33131, 305-577-1000/800-888-6835, (0.56 miles): Adjacent to Bayside Marketplace, excellent view of Biscayne Bay and cruise terminal.
Holiday Inn Port of Miami, 340 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33132, 877-859-5095, (0.84 miles): Next to Miami Convention Center, four blocks from Bayside.
Hyatt Regency Miami, 400 SE Second Avenue, Miami, FL 33131, 305-358-1234, (0.86 miles): Another primarily business hotel, next to Convention Center. Besides typically professional Hyatt service, notable for two amenities: multiple restaurants and babysitting.
Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel and Marina, 1633 N. Bayshore Drive, Miami Fl 33132, 305-374-3900, (1.05 miles): The quintessential pre-cruise Port of Miami hotel, first choice of the cruise lines for forced overnights for the past 20 years at least. This hotel sits right on the shores of Biscayne Bay, with views of the cruise port, bay and Miami River (look for manatees swimming upstream to warm water during winter months!). Decent restaurants, including waterfront dining at the attached marina.
Get more information on Miami Hotels at TravelPod
Staying in Touch
Cybr Caffe (1574 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-534-0057) is a stylish coffee shop with services such as wireless access, printing, scanning and faxing. Open Mon. – Sat. 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sun. 8:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
HC Cell (255 E. Flager St., Miami; 305-675-1959) is a cell phone store and Internet café with Wi-Fi.
Miami Beach Internet Cafe (2745b Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-532-0155) offers full Internet access, printing, copying, faxing and the burning CD's and DVD's. Open daily 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
For More Information
Call the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-933-8448
On the Web: www.miamiandbeaches.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: United States
The Independent Traveler: Florida Exchange
-- updated by Jodi Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor.
"Art Deco Buildings," "Miami Skyline" and "Miami Sunset" images provided by Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.