– Traveled Fall 2014 –
Early November is a good time to visit Miami; the weather is nice and tempered (average temperature of 81 degrees) and the Summer humidity is nowhere to be found. There is a lot to do in Miami and its surroundings; from savoring the local cosine, shopping, resting on the beach, visiting local museums, etc.
Transportation and Accommodations
There are many airlines that fly to Miami. The best option to maximize your stay is to take a direct flight and avoid jet-lag. Delta offers a red-eye direct flight to Miami from LAX leaving at around 9:30 p.m. and arriving to Miami at around 6:00 a.m. This flight gives you a full day in Miami to enjoy.
Having a car makes it easier to move around the city. At the Miami airport’s car rental center you can find all major rental companies and a few small companies. If you plan to rent a car, book it prior to your trip so you can avoid the long lines. We arrived at 6:30 a.m. and Dollar rent a car had a line of at least 100 people. We arranged our rental from one of the big rental companies and the car was already waiting for us, we didn’t even have to go to the counter. The airport has a convenient people mover to take you directly to the car rental center (the entrance is located on the third floor) so there is no need to exit the airport and pick up a shuttle bus.
Gas Station Locations
Being at a metropolitan city, gas stations can be found everywhere; however, when taking the turnpike pay attention to the sings, especially outside Miami. The signs provide information on many miles the next gas station is located; they are few and far between so gas up before you leave the city. There are not than many exist in the turnpike so once you are in it, you are there for the long drive.
Miami has many hotels available. If possible, find a hotel in Miami Beach, since the beach is within walking distance of the hotels and there is no need to drive, find parking, unpack beach chairs, etc. and carry them to the beach. Many hotels offer beach chair to their guest, and there are many places to rent chairs and umbrellas for $10 each (Prices as of November 2014). The Four Points By Sheraton is a nice small hotel located in the middle of Miami Beach. From here South Beach is about 7 minutes by car or about 45 min walking on the boardwalk. The hotel is also very close to interstate 195 (so there is no too much driving on surface streets) which you will need to take to go across the bay to Miami.
If you rented a car the best place to stay the night before your departure is the Sheraton Miami Airport Hotel and Executive Meeting Center. The hotel is located right across the street from the car rental return and it is within 5 minutes from the airport. The hotel has its own shuttle service to the airport. You have two options when returning the car, you can drop off the car yourself (to return to the hotel, go down to the first floor walk across the car return parking structure and exit via one of the emergency exits at the first level) or, the hotel provides you with a rental car service option, for a $20 fee (check with the hotel for the latest rates) the hotel staff will return the car for you, will take care of the return paperwork and bring the rental car receipt back to your hotel room.
Where to go
Located at the south end of Miami Beach is a must see. This place is full or restaurants, hotels and shopping. The nightlife is very active with a lot of parties up and down Ocean Dr. Across the restaurants and before the beach you will find Lummus Park, were you can go for a stroll, play volleyball, roller-skate or people watch. Two blocks away from the beach, in Collins Ave, you can find more affordable restaurants and shopping stores.
Another must see when in Miami. The East edge of the Everglades is about 1 hour away from Miami Beach. There are a lot of things to do, from air boat rides to Indian reservations and National Parks. From Miami and Miami Beach take Hwy 41 (Calle 8) to the West. Right before entering the park, at the corner of Hwy 41 and Hwy 997 (Krom Ave) there is a gas station where you can fill the tank.
There are many private companies that have alligator farms, air boats and other attractions. Gator Park is a mid-size operation that can offer an intimate setting. The tour guides are very friendly with the visitors and the local alligators. Take the first tour of the day, there are not that many people, there is not too much noise from the other boats and the alligators are more willing to get closer to the boat. Another added feature is that this company offers a two for one tickets before 10:00 a.m. on week days. After the 1/2 tour you can enjoy a 10 minute alligator show. Stop by the gift shop for some souvenirs or a local snack (alligator tail, alligator sausages, frog legs, etc.)
Shark Valley Trails National Park
You must visit Shark Valley Trails National Park for a true wild encounter with birds and alligators. These creatures roam the park free and are not afraid of people. This is the place to get within 3 feet from a wild alligator! The alligators are well feed by Mother Nature so they don’t see humans as a snack. But like any wild creature, caution and common sense is the name of the game – don’t try to pet an alligator!
The park offers a couple of walking/biking trails and a tram tour. Bikes are available for rent on premises. You must go to the observation tower which is located about 7 miles south of the visitor center and at the end of the trail. From here, you can get a clear view of the everglades from about 60 ft. high.
The Southernmost point of the Unites States. This is one of a kind experience, 120 miles of driving over bridges, keys (small islands) and man-made inlets. On a clear day the drive is spectacular, from the bridge in some areas you get to see the original bridge where some movies have been filmed, the blue ocean extending forever and small islands. There is plenty of pay parking on the streets. Depending on traffic the two lane road can get a bit congested.
While in Key West you must visit the Southernmost point of the United States (91 miles from Cuba), the Hemingway Home – the guided tour provides an insight at Hemmingway’s live and his cats (there are about 50 cats in the house and many have extra digits on their paws), one of the original light houses (across the street from the Hemingway home; the self-guided tour at the museum provides great history about the life in Key West. To move around the city you can rent a scooter or a golf cart.
Kennedy Space Center
The Kennedy Space Center is located about 3 1/2 hours north of Miami. Plan to spend the whole day at this facility; there is a lot to do and see. There are some self-guided tours and some guide tours 2+ hours that take you near the launch path, landing strip, Shuttle assembly building, etc. Plan to spend the night in the area; a good place to do so is The Courtyard Melbourne West at Melbourne which is located 30 minutes West of the Kennedy Space Center. From here, after a well-deserved rest, you can head West to Orlando, South to Miami or North to Daytona Beach.
Universal Studios Orlando
Great place to go with the whole family; especially for the Harry Potter fans. Universal Orlando has two parks side by side. Initially Harry Potter was built in the Island of Adventures section. In 2013 Universal Orlando expanded the Harry Potter adventure and built Diagon Alley in the Universal Studios Park. The Hogwarts Express connects both parks. In order to take this ride you need to purchase a two park pass. You can do this at the main entrance; or if you only purchase a one park pass, you will have the opportunity to purchase a two park pass at the entrance of The Hogwarts Express ride (at either park).
At top of Gringotts the fire breathing dragon makes its presence known about every 15 minutes. A lot of people wait wit their main cameras at the front of the bank but I found that from the side of the building you can get a better picture.
One thing that we found interesting on all the dining experiences is that the gratuity was already included in the bill. This can be good and bad practice depending on your point of view. Based on our dinner experience in all establishments (more obvious in the tourist areas) I believe that this impacted negatively on the level of service that we are accustomed to. In most of the restaurants the service was slow and not attentive and in some instances the service staff justified the bad service to the fact that they were short on staff.
There are many places and culinary flavors to experience in Miami; you will not go hungry or disappointed. Below are just a few examples.
Latin Cafe – One of the best Cuban foods in town; most of the locals eat (that is how you know the food is good). Imagine walking into a 50’s dinner, with its counter and few tables on the floor but instead of American food, Cuban food is on the menu. This is not your glamorous South Beach restaurant, but what this place lacks on stile and d=ecor it makes it up on its delicious, very authentic and fresh food. As they ran out of the plate of the day selection, the staff erases the selection from the white board. Plan to be there early since this place closes at 7:00 p.m. (Gratuity is not included and the service is great!)
Versailles Restaurant – Versailles is the place to go when visiting Little Habana. One of most famous Cuban restaurants in Miami. Next to the restaurant is the cafe, were you can order pastries, the famous Cuban cafe (very strong black coffee) or the “cortadito” the original black coffee with milk, and you can enjoy it on one of its tables. For a more authentic experience go to “La Ventanita” a service window located between the restaurant and the coffee shop. We stop here for coffee one morning and the people were very friendly and willing to engage in conversation.
Cala Cafe. The restaurant is located in the heart of South Beach. All the restaurants on Ocean Drive have the tables on the side walk. This is a great place for people watching. At times it can get loud so be prepared. As you walk on Ocean Drive, many of the restaurants have the menu on the sidewalk so you can see what they have to offer. The food was great but definitely targeted to a tourist audience. The service was not as good as expected for the cost of the dinner. For what Miami has to offer, the service on this restaurant was the worst.
May of the restaurants in this area offer two for one drinks, $25 for two 12+ oz. cups. good for people that like to drink but too much for people that just wants to taste a drink. We asked for a small drink but the waiter indicated that this was the only size they have. After dinner I walked inside the hotel lobby where there was a bar that offered any size drink; another reason why the service was not up to par.
Azucar Ice Cream Company – Voted the best ice cream in Miami in 2013, this is the place to visit for a Cuban flavored ice cream. They have a great variety of flavors to choose, from your standard vanilla ice cream, to tropical fruits (Guava, Coconut, Mango, etc.) to the more exotic (sweet plantain, sweet potato ancho chili chocolate chip). While inside the shop, pay especial attention to the designs on the floor and the “guayaveras” (traditional Cuban shirt) used to cover the benches located by the exit.
Mambo Cafe – The restaurant is located in the Bayside shopping complex. It had a great view of the Miami Skyline and the bay. In this area the food prices are a bit more reasonable than the restaurants in South Beach and the service was better. The food is to die for; it had a selection of Spanish and Cuban food. The lechon asado (roosted pig) was very tender and flavorful.
Maxine’s Bistro and Bar – Don’t let the name full you, even though it has “bar” in the name; this place is more a restaurant than a bar. It has a very good selection of foods, the portions are generous and the food is very flavorful. Most of their tables are located on the patio next to the sidewalk so it has an always changing view. Although it is close to the street, in the morning it was quiet enough to have a conversation without shouting. The menu has a good selection of American foods (Waffles with a good selection of toppings), Mexican and Israeli dishes.
Little Havana Cigar Factory
This is the place to be for cigars in the heart of little Habana right across Maximo Gomez Park where all the exp pats play domino. They have a great selection of cigars from many parts of the world. The staff is very knowledgeable about the cigars and they are always ready and willing to help and answer all your questions. There was no pressured to make a quick decision or to purchase something. The store has a small lounge in front so you can seat and enjoy your cigar, drink some Cuban coffee and either enjoy your time alone savoring your cigar or making small talk with any other patrons that are also enjoying a cigar.
Bayside Shopping Complex
The shopping complex is located South of downtown Miami. In here you can find your standard box stores such as Gap, GUESS, Express, Victoria Secrets, etc. and the more touristic oriented stores. In addition of the many restaurants, ion the second floor you can find a food court for a less expensive option. In the middle of the complex there is a small stage where performers entertain visitors while they shop and eat.
Throughout the day, boat tours depart to give you a glimpse of Miami and Miami Beach from the water.