Looking for a domestic weekend escape with international flair? Pack a bag and head for Miami. The city, known for beaches, beautiful people, and wild nightlife, has plenty of adventure options.
Paddle: The obvious choice would be to paddle around South Beach (southbeachkayak.com), but I suggest visiting the Deering Estate (deeringestate.com), instead, to get in some culture. You can tour the Stone House, an elegant building with Old-World architecture that periodically hosts classical music concerts, and wander through the gardens—but you'll probably just want to head out on the water. The water surrounding the estate is part of Biscayne Bay, and the seagrass beds are highly visible because the bay is very shallow. You can paddle to Chicken Key, a mangrove island that’s good for bird-watching, but I recommend heading for the mangrove tunnel before the key.
Go before the tide is low, so that you don't have such a hard time navigating the shallows in the narrow passageway. The light is dim, the place smells of decay, and you want to avoid stepping into the muck. The roots and branches are so close, you can use them to maneuver through the tunnel. The feeling will have you half expecting a snake to slither into your boat. If you prefer a self-guided tour, the estate offers kayak rentals.
Cycling: Miami is a bike-friendly city, thanks to DecoBike (decobike.com), so ditch the car and get around via the just-launched public transit system. You can rent a bike round-the-clock, all year, at any of the more than 100 solar-powered stations around town. There are currently about 1,000 bikes available. Just pop in a credit card at a station and go. It’s a great way to get around, sight-see, and people watch. I pedaled from open-air Lincoln Road Mall down to South Pointe Park and back into the city, up the eastern coastline, and had a smooth ride. Miami has a good amount of bike lanes, and the drivers seem to be considerate of cyclists. Make a pit stop at Las Olas Café on 6th St., if you’re in the neighborhood, for a shot of Cuban coffee, a local staple that’ll hit you like rocket fuel.
For longer, more scenic cycling, go to Shark Valley in Everglades National Park (nps.gov/ever). The site got its name because sharks used to swim here back when the sea flooded the valley. Now, there are only slivers of water left in culverts, but they hold a lot of life. Take the 15-mile route, and you’ll see plenty of alligators, turtles, and a variety of birds, including anhinga, wood stork, and great blue heron. It’s best to bring your own bike, though. I used a rental from the park, and the bikes are old and rickety, with poor steering and antiquated brakes. My seat was also very uncomfortable and hard to adjust. But that didn’t take away from the scenery. Be observant, and you’ll spot animals blending quietly into the landscape. It can be helpful to have an expert point out the flora and fauna, so go with Dragonfly Expeditions (dragonflyexpeditions.com) if you’d like a guide. Halfway through the trail is an observation tower, with a spiral walkway; a prime place for taking pictures, with a panoramic view of the valley.
The Food Culture: The local Floribbean cuisine incorporates Latin, Caribbean, and even Asian flavors, and the farm-to-table movement has taken hold among the city’s prominent chefs. Ceviche is big here, and Jaguar (jaguarspot.com) is the place for it. Locals pack this hot spot, where the ceviche comes in big spoons. I found it very refreshing after a morning out biking in the hot sun. Sushisamba Dromo (sushisamba.com) is another good lunch spot. It pulls off Asian-Latin fusion beautifully, with Japanese, Brazilian, and Peruvian elements. The sushi is like butter, and the ceviches are a cool and tart counterpoint. Plus, the restaurant has outdoor seating in Lincoln Road Mall, so you can people watch. If you’re looking for a brunch spot, go to Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (michaelsgenuine.com). The chef and owner, Michael Schwartz, has won a James Beard award, the holy grail of the profession. He’s a proponent of simple, fresh food and local, organic sourcing. Treat yourself to the steak and egg.
For dinner, head to Eden (edensouthbeach.com). It has a rock-and-roll, bohemian-chic, arty, laid-back vibe. The colorful walls are full of paintings, and the tunes are from a classic-rock lover’s collection. I felt right at home. Christopher Lee, the chef, is a James Beard award-winner. You can’t go wrong with his locally sourced salad, oysters on the half shell, and “market” fish. Herb seasonings come from the “Garden of Eden,” a lovely outdoor courtyard extension of the restaurant with a bar and lounge area. Sustain (sustainmiami.com) is another dinner hot spot, with a local, green focus. Try the “50-mile” salad, whose ingredients come from within 50 miles of the restaurant, and the fried chickpeas.
Where To Stay: The Palms Hotel & Spa (thepalmshotel.com). Writers will appreciate the Hemingwayesque lobby, a dimly lit, airy, relaxed space with old-school European, Cuban, and Caribbean touches. All the rooms in this South Beach hotel are newly renovated. Bonus: They’ve got eco-flush toilets. The Palms has its own opening to Miami Beach, a poolside Tiki Bar, and a gourmet restaurant, Essensia, which has a local, organic, seasonal menu.
EPIC Hotel (epichotel.com). This sleek, downtown hotel has stunning views of the intersection of the city’s skyline, Biscayne Bay, and the Miami River. Wake up early and watch the sunrise from your balcony. Stop by Area 31, the hotel’s restaurant, for a meal, and stake a seat outside for fresh air and a beautiful view of the city. Hit the pool deck from 5-6 p.m. for free wine and some people watching, and keep getting your drink on at the hotel’s new lounge, Kyma.
Other Nightlife: Like I said, there’s more to Miami than its renowned nightlife, but a list of the top adventures in this city isn’t complete without mentioning it. Think of it this way: Joining the party scene is simply an extension of your “play hard” motto. You can start at happy hour, but if you want to hang with the locals, take a disco nap. The locals usually eat dinner around 10 p.m., so bars and clubs don’t get busy until later. Go to Skybar (shoreclub.com), a great place to down some beers, mojitos, or other poison of your choice. Part of Shore Club, it’s an indoor-outdoor space with gardens and lush, Morrocan-inspired décor. Nurse your drink in one of the large daybeds, take a dip in one of the two outdoor pools, or dance to the DJ of the night. If the weather’s right, you may never want to leave. I had trouble doing so myself when I hung out in the garden during a trip in early April.
When To Go: In spring, fall, or winter. Avoid summer; the heat is stifling. If you really want to plan your vacation around something good, enter one of the city's triathlons. The Miami International Triathlon took place March 20, and the Nautica South Beach Triathlon, part of the Toyota Cup Triathlon Series, was held April 10. Check out mitriathlon.com and nauticasobetri.com for more info.
Photos: South Beach (Courtesy of Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau); Canoeing at Deering Estate (Courtesy of Catherine Guerra/Deering Estate at Cutler); DecoBike station in Miami Beach (Courtesy of DecoBike); Alligator in Shark Valley (Courtesy of Philipp Grimm/Dragonfly Expeditions); Sushisamba ceviche assortment (Courtesy of Sushisamba Dromo); Eden fish plate (Courtesy of Eden); The Palms pool (Courtesy of The Palms Hotel & Spa); EPIC hotel room (Courtesy of David Phelps/EPIC Hotel); Skybar (Courtesy of Shore Club).