South Beach, Miami
Disembarkation is a lot smoother and far less stressful when you don’t have anywhere to be! No plane to catch, no morning commitments, just an afternoon check in at a hotel just across the bridge at Miami Beach. So we slept in, had a very leisurely breakfast with our friends before getting off the ship. Our bags were even ready and waiting for us on dry land.
There was a very impressive (and formidable) woman on taxi duty, who promptly and firmly dealt with those who were trying to hail taxis down the line – they were stomped on very quickly and made to wait like everyone else. I derive pleasure from such disciplinary action – I am not a fan of the queue jumper!
As leisurely as our pace was on this morning, we were still far too early for check in when we arrived at the Impala Hotel in South Beach, Miami. While this hotel is not one of the golden girls of Art Deco fame (in fact, there is more than the hint of a Mediterranean villa about it), it is still a charming and neat little place. But our first impressions of staff at reception were not as positive as that of the building. Roman looked up from the reception desk to see us struggling with the door and our luggage – he was 3 metres away and did not make any effort to assist us. We gave our details and he said he would text us when our room was ready and then did not, we just got tired waiting and returned to the hotel to find our rooms were ready. I also overhead his conversation with other guests, and his tone was not that of a top hospitality employee (there was more than a whiff of condescension in it).
In the meantime, we left our luggage and walked to the Front Porch Café in the Z Ocean Hotel for some lunch. This is a popular spot and we were told that the wait was half an hour for a table, but that is exactly the amount of time we had to wait, no more, so that was precise. The food was very tasty. We shared a veggie burger with sweet potato fries, too delicious! We do have to re-accustom ourselves to paying for alcohol after our on board ship drinks package, plus the addition of tax and tips to everything. Much more maths involved than just signing a stateroom slip!
Antique Car City Tour
After our walk back to the hotel, there was still enough time after check in to settle into our rooms and freshen up before heading to the foyer to be collected for our Antique Car City Tour. What classic cars lack by way of safety features and creature comforts they can make up with pure class. Our 1960 Ford Sunliner, chauffeured by the stylish Sophie, was clearly a much-loved auto, all shiny, peppermint-lolly green, with lots of chrome, that never goes about without a chamois at hand for any needed touch-up.
After a curb-side orientation of the interesting parts of the car, such as the concealed keyhole behind a swivelling letter ‘S’ in ‘Sunliner’ on the boot, we cruised through the streets of South Beach continuously drawing stares and rubber necks. I really felt faux famous. But perhaps it was the car … no, definitely the car.
Touring in a convertible was the perfect way to explore an unfamiliar city such as Miami, which is so spread out in its neighbourhoods and attractions. We wanted to see as much as we could in our limited time, so we booked the full city tour (3hr 30min) and it was money well spent between the four of us. We began to enjoy the attention garnered from cruising in the automobile bling; countless people waved and called out with big grins on their faces. Even struck up a few conversations while waiting at traffic lights in some areas. And despite what some would assume, it was the lower socio-economic neighbourhoods where people were the most friendly. Maybe they were just used to seeing Sophie in her mint convertible!
Sophie used a neat head mic to amplify her commentary as we made our progression through the northern suburbs regions of Greater Miami, firstly along an avenue of millionaires’ houses then across the bridge over Biscayne Bay and grandly though the design district and Wynwood, with its extraordinary proliferation of murals. It seemed every available wall was decorated in a communal explosion of design and colour…and occasionally social commentary.
As we headed south the weather closed in and we collectively feared the downpour that would rain on our parade. At the perfectly judged opportunity, Sophie pulled over and she demonstrated the well-maintained motorised roof. Just as we clipped in the vinyl roof at the windscreen the skies emptied and we stayed snug, dry as we swished through the early evening lights of Coconut Grove.
Perhaps the highlight of our tour was our next stop at the Biltmore Hotel, famous for regular resident, Al Capone (and the haunted tower where someone was murdered because people thought he was Capone). The impressive swimming pool adds to the hotel’s reputation for being THE place to stay if you are rich and famous. The expanse of blue water, edged with stone Greek statues, is 23,000 square feet and is famous for Johnny Weissmuller’s lifeguard role in life, as well as Esther William’s swimming performances.
The ambience as we strolled through the building and grounds oozed opulence, and was host to at least one wedding that day. The foyer was a huge and columned space that featured aviaries with exotic birds, no competition for the colourfully plumed women who walked through the front doors.
When we emerged Sophie was wiping the last of the raindrops from the perfectly peppermint paintjob on the Sunliner. After some selfies in the car with the Biltmore in the background, we continued through Coral Way up to Calle Ocho (8th Street), the main drag of Little Havana with distinctly Cuban Spanish influences abounding not only in the architecture and signage, but in the people and the way they dressed and clustered.
While we certainly got the classy experience we anticipated with Antique Car City Tours, we didn’t expect to have such a wonderful time in the company of our guide, Sophie. What made her ‘guiding’ so exceptional, which made it one of the best tours I’ve taken, was her passion for this city. She actually cares about its communities and the individuals within them. Sophie is very knowledgeable about Miami, but she did not ‘sugar coat’ things – she was very candid in her observations and sharing of knowledge. I loved that she was more forthcoming when she discovered our common interests and concerns about the disenfranchised and disadvantaged of our communities. When we went into lower socio-economic areas, she told it like it is, and shared some very real and honest concerns about the future of the city and the country. Really enjoyed our time with her, and cannot recommend this experience highly enough.
Art Deco Walk
Started the day with an early walk along Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive, admiring the Art Deco architecture, and the locals out for their morning runs/walks/cycles. There were three iconic hotels covered in black, plastic mess for renovation and restoration, one of which was the Carlyle where they filmed The Birdcage. A little disappointed that our view was marred, but happy they are being kept vibrantly fresh with touch ups.
We met our friends for breakfast, and decided to partake at the 11th Street Diner – an iconic 1948 diner that made us feel like we were in a 1950s movie. Nice, solid breakfast – huge portions.
Continuing our Art Deco explorations with full bellies, we checked out the old Art Deco post office, lingering in its cylindrical, brass-lined PO box entry hall, before heading to the World Erotica Museum. Spent at least an hour and a half there; a fascinating museum, not at all the smut-fest that many expect. Although, they really need to add some Norman Lindsay’s to their collection…or at least some prints (who could afford an original?!).
Our ample breakfast meant that, apart from a left over bottle of bubbles and a packet of pistachios, there was no need for lunch. So after a brief rest, we spent the afternoon in pursuits that took us in opposite directions – our friends headed to the shopping district (and found many a bargain), and John and I headed to South Point Park. The weather was sunny, and our bodies screamed for some exercise, so once we reached the point and took a few pics, we turned and headed back. Not tempted by the option to hire bikes, we walked all the way back to 15th Street again. A long walk, but lovely.
Dinner was at Poseidon, the authentic Greek restaurant around the corner from our hotel, and it was some of the best Greek food we’ve eaten…even including Greece and Melbourne Australia (which has the largest Greek population of any city in the world outside of Greece). Our friends were fans of the leg of lamb, while we raved about the vegetable moussaka. The service was another authentic aspect of the experience – friendly, not forced, and perfectly timed throughout.
Not wanting to leave the next day, we made the most of the time we had left that evening. The extended stroll along Ocean Drive, gave ample opportunity to savour the gorgeous Art Deco hotels glammed up in neon at night. I think that next time, we won’t have trouble finding one of these pastille painted ladies to suit!