The Cultural Odyssey – Fort Lauderdale and Miami

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

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

4Musuem of Art Fort Lauderdale

Musuem of Art Fort Lauderdale

4Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale

Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale

6The Beacon Hotel Miami Beach

The Beacon Hotel Miami Beach

7The Anglers Hotel Miami Beach

The Anglers Hotel Miami Beach

On the Miami Culinary Tour

On the Miami Culinary Tour

9The Essex Hotel

The Essex Hotel

Art Deco Public Loo on Ocean Drive

Art Deco Public Loo on Ocean Drive

Ocean Drive

Ocean Drive

10The Versace Mansion

The Versace Mansion

11Jerrys Famous Deli

Jerrys Famous Deli

12Espanola Way

Espanola Way

13The New World Center

The New World Center

14Gardens of the New World Center

Gardens of the New World Center

El Palacio De Los Jugos

El Palacio De Los Jugos

Ramon Puig

Ramon Puig

Bello Family Cigar Shop

Bello Family Cigar Shop

Art Deco Cinema on Calle Ocho

Art Deco Cinema on Calle Ocho

Our Lady of Charity National Shrine

Our Lady of Charity National Shrine

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. The temporary exhibition showing when I visited was Sharks, examining the role of these predators in art and popular culture. It was a very well curated with photographs, paintings, sculptures and video portraying the creature not just in its traditional role but also as that of a victim.

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 and the pop art of Andy Warhol to the stark black and white photographs of Diane Arbus. The gallery spaces are well laid out and do justice to the works of these great artists.

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, otherwise known as the Riverwalk Arts and Entertainment District. The boulevard is lined with bars, art galleries, boutiques and restaurants and is a highly sophisticated area to spend time with the added bonus of the museum.

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. White leather chairs, mirrors and stylised light fittings conjured up the atmosphere of the 1920s.

It was a quick change before hitting the streets to meet my guide, Mirka Harris, for a combined culinary and architectural tour of the Art Deco area run by Miami Culinary Tours. She was impressively knowledgeable about the food, culture and history of the area. As I was to find out over the next two days 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 the people on the tour 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. Then it was corn cakes with hot salsa and empanadas across the road at the Columbian restaurant, Bolivar. 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.

Back on the food trail we sampled gazpacho soup, a strong and sweet Cuban coffee from a kiosk, the world-wide sensation, bubble tea, more empanadas, delicacies from another Art Deco masterpiece, Jerry’s Famous Deli, finishing our tour on the quaint Spanish street, Espanola Way with a creamy gelato.

Mirka had provided a fascinating insight into the city and its history. I was so impressed by Bolivar and Jerry’s that I returned for dinner and lunch respectively to both eateries. The end of the tour by the Lincoln Road Mall, a huge pedestrian precinct of shops, bars and restaurants, was conveniently close to my next place to visit, the New World Center, home of the New World Orchestra.

This is a stunning building designed by master architect Frank Gehry. I was shown around the Center by Craig Hall, Vice President for Communications, and found out about the ethos of the Orchestra and more about the building. Two of the impressive features are the confidence they give to the musicians to perform in front of an audience and the way that they make the music accessible to the public.

The latter is achieved in a number of ways. To give people the opportunity to see if they enjoy the music they play a number of short concerts and only charge an admission fee of a few dollars. Unsurprisingly this leads to a lot of converts. Another example is 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.

These al fresco concerts are free to watch and that evening I joined hundreds of others who settled down in deck chairs with glasses of wine and picnics to listen to a Christmas score that included Prokofiev’s Suite from Lieutenant Kije and Troika, Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves and the score from the ballet I had seen in Sarasota a few days earlier, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

During the day the vast wall of glass which is the facade of the Center reflects the foliage of the gardens but at night with internal lighting the hallmark boat-like curves of a Gehry designed building are visible. The other point to note that I was outside on 20th December, the illuminated sign on the next building read an incredible (for a Brit) 8:15pm – 80f, making the experience comfortable and relaxed.

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, 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 bought their unique culture with them to Miami.

First stop was an open-air cafe/restaurant and shop called El Palacio De Los Jugos, it had a dazzling array of Cuban dishes, fruit and vegetables and freshly squeezed juices. While sipping the delicately flavoured juice of a tropical fruit called a Mamay, Charles outlined the complex history of the lead up to the Cuban revolution and the exodus of so many Cubans to Miami.

Juice break over we headed off to a shop selling the highly stylised formal Cuban shirt called the Guayabera. But this was a shop with a history, its founder was Ramon Puig, known as the King of Guayabera. Ramon started his first shop in Cuba in 1943 but legend has it that he escaped to the US with only his cutting scissors to become the world’s most famous maker of this Cuban style male fashion icon.

Next stop was the main street in Little Havana, Calle Ocho. Here we had another of those strong, sweet Cuban coffees before paying a visit 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.

Passing the Art Deco cinema (it’s not all on the beach) showing Cuban films, we popped in to Gomez Park or more popularly known as Domino Park, groups of men are playing the game and talking. Apparently the subjects discussed are different from group to group, football, politics etc.

Back to the car we take a slow drive down Cuban Memorial Boulevard a turning off Calle Ocho. The central reservation along this boulevard has a lot 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.

A short drive from the end of the boulevard is the Our Lady of Charity National Shrine. This shrine was built by Cuban immigrants to honour the patroness of Cuba. Building started in 1959 and in 1961 a statue of Our Lady was secretly brought over from the Cuban city of Guanabo, and is now the focal point of the shrine.

I said goodbye to Charles and thanked him for one of the most in depth and interesting parts of my entire trip to Florida.

The sands of time were running out for my trip, a quick lunch back at Jerry’s to try the Sky High Deli combo made from piles of hot pastrami and salt beef before 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 particularly this year, its 500th anniversary.

Useful Links

Fort Lauderdale Information
Miami Information
Florida Information
Hertz Rent a Car
The Florida Cultural Directory