Categorized | Travel & Leisure, Take a Trip

Miami: Where colorful neighborhoods beckon

March2014_travel

By Victor Block

MIAMI —

A rooster strolls by colorful storefronts where vendors hack pieces of sugar cane, which passers-by purchase and chew to extract the sweet juice.

Not far away, other kinds of foods tempt hungry shoppers. Pigs’ feet and papaya, coconuts and mud-thick coffee are among taste treats — some familiar, others less so — that stock grocery shelves and tiny carryout eateries.

Welcome to Miami and Miami Beach, Florida, whose broad swatches of white sand and glittering nightlife are among attractions that draw most visitors. But behind the glimmer of sun and glitz of entertainment lies a collection of diverse neighborhoods that offer an enticing mosaic of cultures, architecture and lifestyles.

South Beach, the two-square mile enclave on the southern tip of Miami Beach, has been likened to an American Riviera. No matter what time of day, the scene pulsates with life and surprises. During a recent visit, I spotted a middle-aged couple holding hands, two policemen and a very large woman leading a very small white dog — all of whom were coasting by on roller blades.

Restaurants and nightclubs serve up food, fun and in some cases ear-splitting music until early in the morning.

The whimsical Art Deco architecture, which adorns the neighborhood, adds to the setting. Dramatic styles of building design and decoration from the 1920s to the 1940s have equally dramatic names like Zig Zag and Depression Moderne. A confetti-like mixture of colors vies with electrifying neon lights to overwhelm the eye.

The scene is very different in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, more than 30,000 Haitians arrived in the city. Most of them settled in a 200-square-block area north of downtown, transforming the community with their culture.

Today, women in multi-colored flowing dresses still gather at markets to buy coconuts, plantains, salt pork and other favorite foods. Shops sell  “kremas mapou,” a tasty blend of milk, egg yolk, sugar cane and light alcohol, along with flaky dough pockets brimming with meat, fish and flavor.

Little “botanicas” offer medicinal herbs, incense and other supplies for voodoo ceremonies. Tiny dolls and pins are available for casting spells.

Tempting odors of food, both unfamiliar and delicious, waft from restaurants. A blend of English, French and Creole is the everyday language of many neighborhood residents.

Cigars and dominoes predominate in another enclave known as Little Havana. That neighborhood is home to numerous refugees who left Cuba beginning in the 1960s. They proudly cling to their traditions and dream of the day when their homeland will be free of the influence of the Castros.

Signs are both  “en Espanol” and in English. Shops sell “fotos de Cuba,” embroidered “guayabera” shirts and memorabilia. The aroma of high-octane “cafe Cubano” draws people into little bakeries and snack shops.

Many visitors to the streets near Calle Ocho (8th Street) stop by  “tabacaleras” to watch experts roll cigars. They also may check out markets where what some consider unusual parts of pigs and other animals are sold, along with more recognizable tropical fruits and vegetables.

At Maximo Gomez Park, known locally as “Domino Park,” gray-haired men puffing on cigars loudly slap tiles onto tables in good-natured competition.

Descendants of refugees from elsewhere in the Caribbean have given color and culture to Coconut Grove. Bahamians were among the first settlers in that area during the late 19th century, and Bahamian-style wooden homes serve as reminders of those early residents.

They were followed by writers, artists and other intellectuals — and later by hippies and counter-culture types. In recent years, gentrification has changed the face of the neighborhood, but old-time “Grovites” who remain still hang out at gathering places that serve as reminders of former bohemian days.

Coral Gables is adjacent to Little Havana, but far apart in terms of atmosphere. Built during the 1920s by developer George Merrick, it was one of the first fully planned communities in the country.

Merrick envisioned a kind of American Venice, interlaced with canals lined by gracious Mediterranean-style homes, splashing fountains and ornate gateways. Broad boulevards and lush landscaping complete the picture. Adding a touch of whimsy are little pockets of  “international villages” with homes in French, Norman, Dutch, Chinese and other modes.

The feeling of fantasy evoked at Coral Gables stands in stark contrast to the earthy way of life in Little Haiti and Little Havana. This intriguing variety presents enticing alternatives beyond the sun and sand vacation opportunities that draw the majority of visitors to Miami.

For more information, call 800-933-8448 or log onto miamiandbeaches.com.

 

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