THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 29th
On my way to Miami from The Keys, I found my plans to stay in a hostel foiled, when as I called around I discovered parking is NOT included and seriously expensive. It was already 1:30pm and I'd be arriving in Miami in just a few hours, so I stopped in Homestead to send out some last-minute couchsurfing requests, and to my surprise about 30 minutes later I received a phone call from Christy, an angel from couchsurfing who generously said yes to my request to stay with her! PHEW! When I reached Miami I picked up a thank you bottle of limoncello to bring to Christy's (one of her favs), and received a text message from Nick, another potential couchsurfing host who was eager to meet up!
I drove over the causeway into South Beach, aka SoBe (Christy's neighborhood), which comprises the southernmost 2.5 square miles of Miami Beach, located on a series of natural and man-made barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay, east of Miami city proper. It's a major entertainment destination with hundreds of nightclubs, restaurants, boutiques and hotels, distinguished by its unparalleled tropical Art Deco architecture, strong Latin influence ("in 2000, 55% of residents of the city of Miami Beach spoke Spanish as a first language") and well-established gay & lesbian community.
Then I spent some time on the wide, white sandy beach, sunning and swimming and trying not to stare at all the beautiful bodies that passing by. This popular section of beach attracts a mix of locals and guests of the trendy hotels on Ocean Drive, but when they started taking the rental cabanas down the beach was relatively calm and quiet, and I happily looked above me at the pink cotton candy clouds illuminated by the sun setting behind the high-rises in back of me.
I got to Christy's around 7 or so, she met me at my car, gave me a Visitor Parking Pass (essential!) and welcomed me into her quintessential SoBe apartment - modern, clean lines, white n' bright. She gratefully accepted my gift of limoncello (she said it was the good kind/right brand, yay me!) and gave me a try of her own homemade stuff - THE BEST! She explained as I took interest in her creative art on the walls (and her fascinating morbid-mouse-in-box creations, heh heh). We shared travel stories (I even got to look through her impressive journal of extensive world travels) and she graciously prepared us a thoughtful dinner that included a delicious egg-based Asian dish, simple green salad, avocados, and cherries.
After walking around a while she took me to Zeke's Roadhouse, a favorite place of hers, which soon became mine as I discovered their selection of over 250 beers from around the world, 24 on tap - each only $4! I asked for a rare one and got my Oktoberfest on a couple days early with a Narragansett Fest lager (crisp but subtle hops). We grabbed a table outside and spent the rest of the evening laughing and sharing and people-watching, before returning home for some shut-eye.
Upon returning to Christy's, she kindly invited me to her friend's dinner party (their first of hopefully many). After seeing if it would pass (to no avail), we braved the thunderstorm and I followed behind her in my car (the floor of which was soaked from rainwater that rose above my the door line - it had only been raining for about a half hour!). Believe me when I say that the dinner party was nothing short of magical; the eight of us laughed to tears as we shared hilarious conversation over a marvelous 3-course homemade menu of refreshing watermelon mint gazpacho, succulent spiced yellow tail glazed in orange with oven-baked brussels sprouts and grapes, and rich bananas foster with coconut zabaglione - sublime! The night couldn't have been any better; it was as if I had died and went to heaven, and to top it all off I received a lovely little surprise jar of pesto to take with me!
Here along a stretch of 8th Street (referred to as Calle Ocho) between 16th Street and 42nd Ave, "a vibrant Hispanic culture permeates — colorful murals, monuments to heroes past and present, elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, and cigar rollers deeply at work amidst Little Havana’s ever-present aroma of Cuban coffee. These scenes of daily Little Havana life play out amidst a backdrop of pulsating music, vibrant storefronts, unique art galleries and quaint restaurants."
My self-guided tour began with lunch at iconic Versailles, a landmark eating establishment (with free parking lot!) founded in 1971, seating 370 in its dining room adorned with ornate etched glass and statuettes, it's popular among local Cuban exiles and tourists for its Cuban cuisine and connection to anti-Castro politics.
"This is where (Cuban) exiles gather to plot against and to topple Fidel Castro (at least with words), or so the urban legend goes. This is where U.S. presidents, governors, legislators, mayors and commissioners come to court the Cuban vote and be photographed sipping that potent brew of café served by waitresses who call you by terms of endearment: "cariño", "hijo mío", "mi amor". This is where the nation’s television cameras converge to gauge Cuban-exile reaction when crooner Juanes is singing in Havana or militant Luis Posada Carriles is acquitted in Texas. This is where the media will surely be staged one day for The Big Party the day the tyrant (Fidel Castro) finally falls. Television networks have already reserved space around the restaurant to stage their live trucks when The Day comes (The Miami Herald, July 10, 2011)."
I enjoyed imagining what the Cubans were conversing about and watching the retired locals tell the young tourists where to get the best cigars, as I consumed my boiled Yuca (the starchy root is similar to a potato) with minced garlic, Empanada de espinaca (spinach & cheese stuffed pastry), Tost Cubana (baguette-like white toast) and Cafe con leche (espresso sweetened with demerara sugar that I mixed with milk). The restaurant was busy yet I received great service, good food, and the people-watching was terrific, all for only $9.35+tip!
I popped into the cozy, colorful Mildrey Guillot Art Gallery, located between Avenues 16 & 17. Mildrey Guillot migrated to the United States from her native Havana, Cuba in 1961, and studied in Madrid, Spain, where she acquired and developed some of her themes and techniques. She favors charcoals, pastels, and oils, and she exhibits in Spain, Paris, South America, Puerto Rico, The U.S. and Switzerland. To my delight, she warmly welcomed my arrival in person, chatted me up, and even sent me off with a personalized autograph on a visually stunning Don Quixote print of hers (it's set in front of me as I type)! Beautiful art, beautiful soul =)
Just down from Mildrey's, I stopped into Art District Cigars Lounge & Factory, the "exclusive home of the 'Pergamino Cigar' from Nicaragua," and rightly ranked one "Fifty of the Finest Cigar-Friendly Places in the US" by Cigar Aficionado (Oct '08), offering fine cigars, drinks, live music, art and karaoke. The ambiance is dark and masculine, warm, comfy and upscale; a sweet man cave/gentleman's den fo' sho'. Having never purchased cigars before and being a complete cigar novice for that matter, the friendly employee named Geo shared his expertise with me for making my purchase, proper preservation, cutting, smoking, etc.
As a nice father-son surprise, Geo neatly packaged a couple Robusto-cut Dominican-Cubans to ship to my dad, so we could smoke 'em together when I'd return from my trip in a few weeks. As it turned out (for the better), the shipping was delayed by two weeks and they proactively (I hadn't yet talked to them) sent four extra complimentary cigars to ensure satisfaction with my order (done!), including a couple medium-full bodied Mederos-brand, Fifty-4 Double Coronas (not only a mouth full to say, but also literally, as they were nearly 7 inches in length, oh baby!). Now THAT'S quality service! I need to ship more often, lol.
Continuing down Calle Ocho, I briefly watched the older Cuban guys playing tense games of dominoes, checkers and chess at little Máximo Gómez Park, or Domino Park, as the locals refer to it. There may have been some sort of tournament going on, because there was a camera crew filming at one of the tables. I snapped a few pictures, including ones of the memorial to Generalisimo Maximo Gomez (Ten Years War & Cuba's War of Independence) and the large mural depicting the Summit of the Americas (Cuba was the only country not invited to participate.
After taking advantage of a photo opp in a rumba costume cut-out, lol, I explored Cuban Memorial Boulevard Park, a two-block parkway lined with monuments commemorating the heroes that fought for Cuban independence, speaking to the Cuban exile presence in Miami. There are memorials to Jose Marti (poet and revolutionary), Antonio Maceo (war hero), the Island of Cuba Memorial, and the Memorial Flame (to the heroes of the Bay of Pigs). "There is a large ceiba tree considered sacred by most African religions. Practitioners of Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion, leave ritual sacrifices of chicken bones and bundles of cloth among the tree's roots in hopes of gaining the blessing of a saint. Other believers claim a miracle happens every afternoon at the Virgin Mary statue when a beam of light shoots through the leaves overhead onto the Christ child in Mary's arms."
Other stops included Lily's Records (the lady behind the counter was kind enough to take a photo of me in another rumba costume cut-out, lol), Imago Fine Art Gallery (sleek space, cool art), Little Havana Cigar Factory (they thoughtfully include a thorough cigar specs tag on each box!), and a look at a sweet Lotus parked outside a cafe (the owner received my compliment well, but wouldn't allow a test drive, haha), before returning to my car (a Honda, lol), which thankfully, was in the same condition as I left it =D
This concludes my trip to "The Magic City" - theme parks here I come!