As the plane circled Orlando, I had a feeling that I was flying over a gigantic golf course. Orlando is not just the city of theme parks, it is a theme park. Well manicured gardens, little ponds, white roads and clearly outlined neighborhoods, it appears very pretty from the top. I obviously am not sure of what the ground realities are! This however, appeared to be a very promising beginning to our seven day trip to Florida
Stepping out of the airport, it was nice to feel the sun on the face, a refreshing change from the chilliness of the mid west. The plan was to drive straight to South Beach, Miami via West Palm Beach, and it being Thanksgiving the highways were not as crowded. We covered the distance to West Palm in around 3 hrs.
West Palm Beach is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. Its Ocean Boulevard is as famous for its sprawling bungalows as for the views of the Atlantic. When we reached West Palm, it was well after sunset and most of the stores and restaurants in the main town area were closed. Even as we drove along the road, it was hard to not be awed by the Mediterranean styled villas that spotted Ocean Boulevard. We were trying to locate Lennon’s residence, but 3-feet thick and 20 feet high hedges that typically surrounded each villa made it impossible for us to figure out where it was exactly. The ocean front side of all houses is visible from the street and in spite of the risk of looking like gawky tourists, one cannot help but stare!
The primary landmark of West Palm Beach is Bethesda by the Sea – one of the oldest churches in Florida. Closed for visitors in the evening, its open grounds and courtyard gave us a chance to walk around. There is something surreal about walking in an empty silent churchyard lit up by soft yellow lamps. Architecturally, this is not the most stunning place that I have been to, but it’s one of the most memorable.
It was clear as we left West Palm, that all roads lead to Miami. The traffic was bad and the toll roads kept us quite confused. Very soon, we were comforted by the sight of the shimmering sky scrapers of Downtown Miami. Our destination was however, not Miami itself, but South Beach. It was already 9 PM and most of the shops were closed, but the restaurants were abuzz with people and special thanksgivings meal was on the menu.
We struggled to find our hotel and parking space on the narrow and congested roads. Most hotels offer overnight valet parking which can be as high as $30/day. If you are willing to walk a little or are not planning to use your car, then there are public parking lots that let you park for $13-14/day.
We stayed at Penguin Hotel which is one the many smaller art-deco buildings converted into hotels on the Ocean Drive. We paid a lot of money and were quite disappointed by the rooms and the general condition of the place. The best thing about the hotel was the porch that allowed for people watching. They also lent you beach chairs and towels of very questionable history.
My first night in Miami was spent eating blackened Tilapia and getting drunk over half a glass of Mojito. As a result I was dead asleep by 11 P.M! Kapil banned me from alcohol for the rest of the trip!
The next morning was lovely, just warm enough to be pleasant. We had a nice leisurely breakfast and then we walked out to the beach. As November is just start of the tourist season, the beaches were not crowded and we settled down a few feet away from the water. It was nice to just sit back and relax and watch the waves. It did get very windy after sometime with sand blowing into every pore of my body. Lunch was at extremely popular News Cafe. News Café serves American fare and with some Cuban cuisine, but is more famous for people watching. We were seated in the courtyard and it was just nice to enjoy the weather and the crowds. I also had my first cup of the Cuban coffee – “Cortadito” which was just delicious. That is probably the closest thing I have had to a south Indian filter coffee in the USA! News Cafe is a good and reasonable dining option on the otherwise expensive stretch of South Beach and its open for 24 hrs.
After lunch, we loitered around in the Art-Deco district, taking pictures. As we aimlessly stored through South Beach, I couldn’t help noticing that the architecture of the residences was very similar to houses back home. Flat roofed two to three story buildings with large balconies – it almost felt like being back in India. We strolled into the Spanish neighborhood on Espanola way and were quite enchanted with quaint little pick buildings with beautiful balconies. This place had the most beautiful restaurants and if we had more time we would have definitely tried some.
If you are in Florida, it’s almost a must to experience the Cuban culture, and where better to find it than in Little Havana. This Cuban neighborhood is famous for its restaurants, shops and its monthly Viernes Cultarels (Cultural Fridays). We were just plain lucky to be there on the last Friday of the month, and walked right into a local beauty pageant and an art fair! It was really nice to mingle with local Cuban crowd. The sight of wizened men playing dominoes in the very aptly Dominos Park was just plain endearing. We topped off the evening with authentic cuisine at “Versailles”, one of the most famous Cuban restaurants in Miami.