The best way to see Greater Miami is by car. Though you'll find the points of interest spread out, Miami has an extensive system of highways and expressways that makes them easy to reach.
Immediately south of Little Havana lie the broad boulevards of wealthy Coral Gables, and south of downtown Miami lies trendy Coconut Grove.
Coral Gables, the dream-come-true city of poet George Merrick, is Miami's prestigious planned community. Elegant gates to his city still stand in testament to Merrick's grand scheme to build “a place where castles in Spain are made real.”
He cleared citrus groves, laid streets and sidewalks, and built Mediterranean-style buildings, calling it his “Miami Riviera.” In his extensive promotions, he boasted that “those who visited Coral Gables would find endless golden sunlight and bronzed people.” He laid out 12 square miles of broad boulevards and leafy streets lined with elegant Spanish and Italian homes and commercial structures.
Merrick differed from his fellow real estate developers in that, instead of building fast and cheap to make a quick fortune, he designed his community to last. He was more of an artist and creator than a developer, and was in love with Mediterranean Europe. To achieve his goal, he enlisted the expertise of architect Phineas Paist and artist Denman Fink, Merrick's uncle, to plan the plazas, fountains, and carefully aged stucco-fronted buildings that made up his Mediterranean town. The city is a labyrinth of winding streets that's often difficult to navigate.
As soon as workers paved the first streets and completed the first buildings, Coral Gables land started selling overnight. In five years beginning in 1921, Merrick took in $150 million, a third of which he used to fund the biggest promotional campaign ever known. And though Coral Gables developed quickly, the Florida real estate boom ended just as fast as it began, and Merrick went bust.
Merrick planned eight grand entrances to his city, so visitors would know it was someplace special. He completed only four by the time he went bankrupt. Entering Coral Cables through the Douglas Entrance on Northwest Twenty-second Street, Merrick's most ambitious, you'll travel along a two-block commercial strip known as the Miracle Mile, the centerpiece of his dream city's business district. Nearby along Coral Way stands the Coral Gables House, Merrick's childhood home. In 1899, when George was twelve, his family arrived here from New England to operate a 160-acre fruit and vegetable farm, which became so successful that his parents replaced the farm's original frame house with an elegant coral-rock home with gabled windows in 1907. It was this house, in which he lived until 1916, that inspired Merrick to create the name of his new city. You must take the forty-five-minute guided tour to see it. Admission is $5 per adult, $1 per child. (Open Sunday and Wednesday 1–4 P.M., 305-460-5361, www.coralgables.com)
Once you're in “the Gables,” as locals call it, you'll spot the stately spire of the Biltmore Hotel on Anastasia Avenue, Merrick's crowning achievement. He promoted it as “the last word in the evolution of civilization.” Everything about the place was pretentious, from its 25-foot-high fresco-coated walls to its vaulted ceilings, imported marble and tile, immense fireplaces, and custom-made carpets. To mark its opening in January 1926, Merrick chartered special trains to bring in his guests. They dined on pheasant and trout and had the run of the casino. During their stay, they could play polo, go fox hunting, or swim in the country's biggest pool under the watchful eye of Johnny Weissmuller, the hotel's first swimming instructor and later Olympic champion and the first to play Tarzan on the big screen. Today, it once again stands as a pinnacle of high society as a superdeluxe resort boasting the largest swimming pool in the country. (Toll-free 800-727-1926, www.biltmorehotel.com)
The Venetian Pool was another of Merrick's inspired ideas. In 1924, with the help of Paist and Denman, he took a limestone quarry pit and created a sprawling lagoon retreat, favored by celebrities such as Esther Williams and William Jennings Bryan. Bordered by a Mediterranean villa, surrounded by palm trees, it was originally called the Venetian Casino. Coral caves, vine-covered loggias, shady porticos, Venetian lampposts, and cascading waterfalls that spill into a freeform lagoon, with coral caves and a palm island, add beauty. (Open weekdays in summer 11:00 A.M.–5:30 P.M., weekends 10:00 A.M.–4:30 P.M., closed Mondays in winter, 305-460-5357, www.venetianpool.com)
JUST FOR PARENTS
The Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, established in 1938, features 83 acres of rare tropical plants and trees, eleven lakes, a tropical fruit pavilion, and a conservatory with an extensive collection of unusual tropical flora. Take the narrated tram ride around the grounds, departing on the hour from 10 A.M. until 4 P.M., to learn more about them. Admission is $20, $1 extra for the tram. (Open daily 9:30 A.M.–4:30 P.M., www.fairchildgardens.org)
One place you may want to visit while exploring the Gables is the Lowe Art Museum, which houses a collection of 8,000 pieces of Renaissance and baroque art, including works by Goya and El Greco, Greco-Roman antiquities, Latin American art, American paintings, and Native American baskets and textiles. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for children. (Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 A.M.–5 P.M., Thursday noon–7 P.M., and Sunday noon–5 P.M., 305-284-3535, www.lowemuseum.org)
Coconut Grove, known as the Greenwich Village of South Florida, was the area's first winter resort, catering to wealthy winter residents in the late nineteenth century. The Grove, as locals call it, offers a blend of bohemian and chic. Hippies, seeking a laid-back lifestyle in a warm climate, thronged here in the 1960s, followed in the 1990s by jet setters, intellectuals, and Yuppies. And though posh estates exist next to modest frame houses, the Grove has become more upscale and sophisticated, with art galleries and sidewalk cafés where the literati hang out along Main Highway. Stroll along its red-bricked pavement or take an evening rickshaw ride, a truly Grove experience.
Brickell Avenue, Miami's version of New York's Wall Street, was the address in 1910s Miami. Grand homes of the rich lined Millionaire's Row, as residents affectionately called it back then. The money remained. Today, the largest group of international banks in the country stretches for half a mile, the sheer-sided glass walls softened only by the sculpture-filled piazzas, fountains, and palm trees. Miami, cashing in on political instability in South and Central America by offering a secure home for Latin American money, became a corporate banking center in the late 1970s.
With all of the Grove's new, if not necessarily clean, money came a batch of new ultramodern condominiums a few blocks beyond. These million-dollar, pastel-colored towers include the Atlantis, the most striking building in Miami, whose style is referred to tongue-in-cheek as “beach-blanket Bauhaus.” A giant square hole through its middle, revealing a palm tree, a Jacuzzi, and a red-painted spiral staircase, is its focal point.
Coconut Grove's prime attraction is Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, the palatial estate of International Harvester magnate James Deering, perched on the shore of Biscayne Bay. In 1914, he spent nearly $22 million recreating a sixteenth-century Italian villa between Miami and Coconut Grove. It took 1,000 workers — one-tenth of the population of Miami at the time — two years to complete this gargantuan task. Unfortunately, Deering and his designer, Paul Chalfin, had more money than good taste. Deering's eclectic art collection, plus the his idea that the villa should appear to have been inhabited for 400 years, resulted in a mix of baroque, Renaissance, rococo, and neoclassical fixtures and furnishings. It houses a magnificent collection of European antiques, oriental carpets, precious china, and artworks spanning eighteen centuries that will impress you, even if you're not an art lover. Thirty acres of formal gardens with fountains, pools, and statuary, with a Great Stone Barge anchored in front, surround the seventy-room Venetian palazzo. It's a good idea to take one of the guided tours of thirty-four of the rooms and halls, which leave frequently from the entrance loggia, after which you can roam around on your own. It helps to purchase a guidebook for $2 at the ticket booth. Admission is $12 for adults, $5 for children. (Open daily 9:30 A.M.–4:30 P.M., 305-250-9133, www.vizcayamuseum.org)
James Deering's half-brother, Charles, himself a wealthy industrialist and amateur botanist, became so enchanted by South Florida's natural beauty that he purchased the town of Cutler, south of Coconut Grove. He demolished all its buildings, except one, to make way for his Charles Deering Estate at Cutler, completed in 1923 and today encompassing a 420-acre park. Deering kept the wooden Richmond Cottage Inn, Cutler's only hotel, to live in while he built the Stone Mansion, with its interior decorated with checkerboard-tile floors, spacious halls, and immense chandeliers. The park, in which the mansion resides, contains pine woods, mangrove forests, and tropical hardwood hammocks. You can take a free one-hour walking tour of the buildings at either 10:30 A.M. or 2:30 P.M. Admission is $7 per adult, $5 per child. (Open daily 10 A.M.–5 P.M., 305-235-1668, www.deeringestate.org)
A more exciting way to see the Deering Estate is on a three-hour guided canoe tour, departing at 8:30 A.M. for $25 per adult and $15 per child, which navigates the mangrove-fringed inlets. If you're in town during a full moon, you may want to take a special nighttime canoe trip for $35 per person.
Supposedly, it took Latvian-born Edward Leedskalnin twenty-eight years to carve his Coral Castle from 1,000 tons of coral using homemade tools. Located in Homestead along the South Dixie Highway, 31 miles south of Miami, the castle is an engineering marvel. It even has a nine-ton gate that swings open easily at the slightest touch, plus solar-heated bathtubs, and a coral “telescope” aimed at the North Star. Leedskalnin built his masterpiece as a tribute to his fiancée, Agnes Scuffs, who had jilted him decades earlier, just hours before their wedding. Take the thirty-minute audio tour to hear all about it. Admission is $9.75. (Open daily Sunday through Thursday 8 A.M.–6 P.M. and to 9 P.M. Friday and Saturday, 305-248-6345, www.coralcastle.com)