Sunday 24 June 2018

Miami Heat, Florida Cool

 

Miami Beach is connected by bridges to mainland Miami. Spring breakers party and everyone is impossibly attractive.
Miami Beach is connected by bridges to mainland Miami. Spring breakers party and everyone is impossibly attractive.
Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

It's just after 9am and already a heat shimmer is bouncing off the concrete as we drive down Biscayne Boulevard. It's going to be another hot one.

But no surprise there. This a city where even the professional basketball team is called Miami Heat.

I crank the air-conditioning in the rental up to 11 (like the amplifier in This is Spinal Tap) and take my life in my hands as I make an aggressive dash over four lanes to make the turn down to the Bayside marketplace, a vibrant, somewhat garish enclave that overlooks Biscayne Bay. It is filled with open-air cocktail bars, ethnic restaurants and nightclubs which come to life only when the sun sets.

From here it's only a 10-minute walk to downtown Miami with its towering glass skyscrapers - though, of course, only tourists like us would brave the searing sun and humidity of high summer and actually walk anywhere.

Look skywards and the metro-rail trains whiz past high above the streets giving a Blade Runner vibe to this sprawling metropolis as darkness falls, the neon burns bright and Cuban rhythms fill the night air.

We will explore the city later but first things first, a speedboat ride Miami Vice-style.

We board Thriller an improbably powerful craft that nevertheless gently burbles along at walking pace as it navigates its way past multi-million dollar superyachts tied up in the harbour.

Once clear of the port, the boat explodes forward, pitching us back in our seats, and within seconds we are crashing into azure waves at 50mph. It's exhilarating and wonderful and slightly frightening in those first helter-skelter moments but then you get used to the speed, noise and gut-wrenching turns and suddenly realise you are now far out in Biscayne Bay. We look back at the city entranced.

The Miami skyline is dramatic. It boasts 300 skyscrapers more than 400ft (122m) tall, all dominated by the 860ft (262m) Panorama Tower which is still under construction and will continue to rise as new floors are added.

Thriller makes a beeline for South Beach, a two-mile-long sweep of magnolia sand where celebrities chill, spring breakers party and everyone is impossibly attractive. A tabloid caption writer would have a field day here. It's all "toned abs" "pert posteriors" and "ample cleavage". And that's just the men.

Before the 45-minute trip is over there's also a chance to gawk at the celebrity homes built around Biscayne Bay. Now I'm not usually a big fan of spying on homes of the rich and famous but I can report that young Mr Beckham and Ms Spice have done very well for themselves and Gloria Estefan has the gardeners in working on planting around the new patio.

We stay in the Biltmore, a romantic Mediterranean-style hotel in the chic Coral Gables area of Miami. There's Italian, Moorish and Spanish influences to the architecture. In American terms it's an historic hotel dating back to the early 1920s.

The original Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, was a swimming instructor here back in the day and broke world records in the Biltmore pool. More than 260 rooms with a range of luxury suites are built around elegant terracotta courtyards filled with exotic plants and fountains.

We ate in the Hotel's Fontana restaurant with it northern Italian cuisine of exceptional quality that included home-made pastas and grilled meats and fish. Wonderful with wine from the Nappa Valley.

The next morning we checked out with some regret and a little trepidation, as we had to get behind the wheel and drive to our next destination.

Car hire is expensive enough but valet parking - even in the hotels where you are a guest - can hit you hard, up to $25 a night in some South Florida hotels.

And Miami is a difficult city in which to drive. So many different cultures and driving styles and scant regard for basic road manners meant that my heart was in my mouth on a number of occasions. You have to drive aggressively and sometimes at an uncomfortable speed.

Not so in Fort Lauderdale, named after a series of defensive garrisons built during the bloody seven-year war in the mid 1900s between various tribes of native Americans.

It's a 45-minute drive from Miami to the beach resort which enjoys 3,000 hours of sunshine a year.

This is an effortlessly cool laid back place where retirees ride golf buggies on the main roads, picking up tourists and bringing them at 15mph from the beach to the pretty downtown area for a few dollars.

We are staying at the terribly cool W Fort Lauderdale Hotel which is highly recommended.

It's funky and laid-back with stunning Atlantic views, and attracts South Florida's wealthy hipsters who sip cocktails before dinner in the open-air street-side restaurant.

It has all the bells and whistles, including a very high-end spa, original contemporary art on the walls and an amazing pool. Our 'room' was an exceptionally spacious two-bedroom apartment with two balconies overlooking the pool.

There were two sumptuous bathrooms and a marble jacuzzi in the living room.

That night we took a gondola tour of the waterways spotting the luxury yachts of Steven Spielberg and JK Rowling and other celebs. The gondola tour was so relaxing and a wonderful way to get up close and personal with the real Fort Lauderdale with its network of canals. The rain came literally hot and heavy but just added to the atmosphere, and the tour was cut short by only a few moments as the thunder rolled and a pewter sky lit up with lightning offshore.

Miraculously, the rain stopped just as we docked and we found our way to Louie Bossi, a fantastic eaterie close to the Las Olas area with its antiques and art galleries.

We sat in the garden at the back and enjoyed attentive but never overbearing service. We were well looked after by Amber for food and by Ervin for drinks. The latter has the best job title ever, wine consigliere!

Louie Bossi's makes my top 10 list of places to eat anywhere. It's managed to pull off that very difficult trick of fun casual dining and really high-end food. A really memorable meal.

We could have stayed in Fort Lauderdale for a few more days but already had arrangements to head north again - this time to West Palm Beach.

This time we avoided the multi-lane high speed Interstate and meandered up the coast. It added 30 minutes to what should have been an hour-long journey but after the frenetic pace of Miami we didn't mind stopping at traffic lights every mile of so.

We took brunch at an old-style diner and picked up some novelties in Walmart.

We arrived in West Palm Beach by early afternoon and checked into the Hilton West Palm Beach with the delightful address of 600 Okeechobee Boulevard. At the rear of the hotel is a showroom chock-full of McLaren sports cars priced from $260,000 and mainly twice that with all the extras.

President Trump's 'Winter White House' Mar-a-lago is just down the road so West Palm Beach, in parts at least, is very high-end indeed.

The Hilton has a fantastic cocktail bar where we enjoyed "Speakeasys" made from tequila, blood oranges, agave and ginger beer.

There's a different atmosphere downtown. The walkable arts districts are festooned with outdoor murals, interactive sculpture, antique shops, galleries, museums and performing arts venues.

It all culminates in April and May for SunFest the annual music, art, and waterfront festival now well into its fourth decade which draws more than 275,000 people each year. We checked out Clematis Street and its bars but ended up listening to a stellar cover band with beer and steaks at Copper Blues Rock Pub and Kitchen (clumsy name, great place).

Our three ports of call, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach will be joined up by the end of the year by Brightline - a fast new hourly train service linking South Florida's three main cities.

It means it will be possible to visit all three without car hire as all the stations are downtown and close to the hotels where we stayed.

I took a sneak preview of the sleek silver and yellow Brightline trains, and they are deeply impressive, including leather reclining seats and all the modern perks of high-end rail travel.

When the trains stop at a station, a panel opens to bridge the gap between the carriage and the platform. It makes access for wheelchair users effortless, and the aisles are extremely wide and easy to negotiate.

By Irish standards ticket prices will be extremely competitive though they are not yet finalised.

Brightline will be the first time a privately owned company has developed and operated an express passenger rail system in the US since 1983.

For the millions of people living and working in South Florida, Brightline will end the necessity of a daily commute by car and make it possible to work in the frenetic energy of Miami and live in the laid back beach culture of West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale.

For visitors like us though, it will be a game changer, allowing those who don't fancy the trials and tribulations of driving on the wrong side of the road and the expense of car hire and valet parking, an alternative way to see all the delights of South Florida.

Each train has two diesel-electric locomotives and four stainless-steel coaches and can seat 240 passengers.

Trains will travel between Miami and Fort Lauderdale in about 30 minutes and between Miami and West Palm Beach in roughly an hour, according to a spokesman for the $3bn project.

Brightline plans to extend to Orlando by 2020.

Getting There

* Jerome travelled to South Florida with Delta Airlines, flying from Dublin to Atlanta and onwards to Fort Lauderdale. From €606 round trip.

* He stayed in the stunning Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Miami (305) 913-3200. From €255 per night, double room in May.

* He also stayed at the chic W Fort Lauderdale Hotel on Beach Boulevard. From €350 a night, double room.

* In West Palm Beach he stayed at the centrally located Hilton, West Palm Beach on Okeechobee Boulevard. Prices from €249 a night. (May prices).

* He hired a car from Hertz, the second-largest US car rental company. Prices from €211 for seven days car hire for a Group A economy car such as a Chevrolet Spark or €237 a week for a Group C Toyota Corolla (Fort Lauderdale International Airport).

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Villa Azur

Villa Azur in Miami Beach exudes chic elegance with an astonishing wine list and signature cocktails. Eat inside or outside in a tranquil courtyard by candlelight. Excellent value for money for first rate cuisine.

Wynwood Walls

In 2009 the warehouse district of Miami was transformed into a giant canvas to revitalise the area. It’s worked. Some of the world’s greatest artists have covered more than 80,00sq ft of walls.

  • For more information please visit  www.visitflorida.com

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