Going to Miami in the summer


Ocean Drive in Miami Beach at dusk. (Henryk Sadura/GETTY IMAGES/TETRA IMAGES RF)

“Why,” people ask when I tell them that I love Miami in the summer, “do you want to go there then? It’s so rainy and hot. And the mosquitoes.”

Well, it is hot. It does rain. And there are mosquitoes. Sometimes there are hurricanes, too. But here’s why I like to go:

One sunny day in late July, I guided my rental car, which I’d gotten for a song, across the MacArthur Causeway in Miami and quickly made my way to Ocean Drive on Miami Beach. Cruising up the famous street, I found — in virtually no time at all — a parking space at the entrance to 10th Street Beach. The sun’s rays were searing — typical Miami Beach subtropical hot — but a fine breeze off the ocean had a cooling effect.

I walked to the ocean on the wide, sparkling white beach with my youngest daughter and a friend, finding a lovely, uncrowded spot near the shore to park a blanket and towels. (Had I wanted to buy a beach chair — they run from $10 to $20 — there were plenty available.) We went into the ocean, which turned out to be delicious, crystal clear and warm enough but refreshing enough, too, for people (like me) who don’t like swimming in cold water. For lunch we headed to one of the many restaurants on Ocean Drive and were seated instantly. No lines. No waiting.

Details, Miami

There were no mosquitoes on the beach. And it was nearly 10 sweltering degrees hotter back home in Washington and in other parts of the Northeast during this unusually warm season.

In the late afternoon, we watched a storm come in from the west. Miami is flat, so its magnificent clouds are its moving mountains. Huge nimbus clouds slowly inched their way toward the beach but did not consume the skyline, so when the rain did come down, it was still sunny.

If I had entertained the notion that I could do any of this with such ease in, say, January, or February or April, in high season, it would be fair to call me certifiable. In those months, when people flee the cold to come to sunny Miami, it’s far more crowded and expensive (as in many-hundreds-of-dollars-more-a-night-for-a-hotel-room-or-a-last-minute-plane-ticket expensive). Tourist attractions are packed. The traffic can be impossible, especially on the beach, and most especially on Ocean Drive, where you can be lucky to move a few inches every five minutes.

But though things are quieter in the summer, that doesn’t mean that they’re quiet. Miami and Miami Beach are still hopping (and tourists still come, especially from Europe and South American countries, where it’s winter).

A happening place

There’s art, movies, classical and modern music concerts, and book events. I went to hear Washington-based author Daniel Silva, as a guest of Miami’s independent bookstore Books & Books, talk to hundreds of people about his new novel, “The Fallen Angel,” which just appeared on the New York Times bestseller list at No. 1.

There’s big-time sports. When I was visiting in June, the Miami Heat won the National Basketball Association championship. The Marlins were playing baseball when I went back in July, and the Miami Dolphins began the preseason this month. There are sports for everyone to participate in, too: skateboarding, skating, tennis, volleyball, just to name a few.

There’s plenty of boating and fishing and, of course, swimming. In the Atlantic. In Biscayne Bay. In Coral Gables’ gorgeous 820,000-gallon Venetian Pool, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the largest freshwater pool in the country. Built out of a rock quarry, it’s fed by spring water from an underground aquifer. And you can choose to swim with other people or with dolphins at various places, including the Miami Seaquarium.

At night, there are great restaurants and clubs, clubs and more clubs. Jamie Foxx just hosted a party at Mansion Nightclub; a week earlier, he’d joined DJ Irie in the DJ booth at the huge LIV Nightclub in the Fontainebleau Hotel. And there are celebrities galore, if you’re into that kind of thing. Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian were visiting at the same time I was (though somehow they never ran into me). Lots of well-known folks — Ricky Martin, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Matt Damon — either live or have homes on Miami Beach or in Miami. The Estefans own some restaurants, too, including Larios on the Beach.

Lincoln Road, which is one of the world’s great people-watching avenues, still offers its attractions in the summer: street musicians and performance artists; great, good and subpar restaurants; some fun stores among the increasing number of chains (think Victoria’s Secret and the Gap). The lines at the most popular restaurants aren’t quite so long.

When I go to Miami, I stay at a hotel on Miami Beach, or, more often, with a friend whom I’ve known since our West Miami Junior High School days, who has a stunning Mediterranean-style house in Coral Gables near the University of Miami. I was able to drive my younger daughter to her music camp at the university in June in four minutes flat, if I hit the traffic lights right.

Of course, not everybody is lucky enough to have friends who open their Miami homes, but there are all kinds of housing options at just about every price range. There are inexpensive hotels and motels, condos to rent and, for those who want to splurge, luxury hotels. In summer, of course, it’s easier to get into them at a moment’s notice, and the price tag is smaller. For example, you can stay in the Vice President Suite at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel on Collins Avenue in August for $1,350 a night; but in January, it’ll cost you $2,500. There’s a big difference even in lesser accommodations: A room with a grand king with direct oceanfront views starts at $449 in the summer, but it’s $559 in January.

Let’s get it straight

It’s time to separate the facts from the fiction.

About the temperature: It’s hot, but as News Cafe general manager Tony Magaldi said, “It’s hot everywhere.” Maybe not everywhere, but it’s hotter than it used to be in a lot of places. When I was in Miami in late June, and then again in late July, it was almost always hotter in Washington. On July 26, it was 100 degrees in Washington and 91 in Miami and Miami Beach.

About the rain: Yes, it rains in Miami in the summer. It’s the rainy season. But most often it doesn’t rain all day, and on Miami Beach, the wind off the ocean keeps away storms that batter the inland. “Normally it’s just a passing shower,” Magaldi said.

About the mosquitoes: Yup, they are there, gazillions of them. Forty-five species, in fact. (And this year, according to the Miami Herald, they arrived early thanks to an early rain season.) They can make some outdoor activities difficult, so the idea is to come prepared with anti-mosquito spray that contains DEET. Mosquitoes are attracted to bright colors, so wear neutral-colored clothes, and they like sweet fragrances, so watch your perfume and body lotion. (Too bad we can’t carry around geckos as anti-mosquito protectors; a small one can eat four or five of the insects every minute.)

The mosquitoes will be especially annoying if you decide to go into Everglades National Park — the country’s largest subtropical wilderness — to take an airboat or a tram ride or just to walk around in Shark Valley looking for alligators and taking pictures. But the 43 mosquito species (13 of which will be delighted to bite you) in the Glades are important to the mangrove estuary’s food chain.

Although many animals go into hiding during the summer season in the Everglades, you can still see alligators (the largest ever recorded in Florida was 17 feet, 5 inches, but don’t expect to see any that big), turtles, fish and wading birds. If you have a hankering to hear the breeding chorus of the grass frog, nighttime in summer is your chance, or, if you prefer the large choruses of oak toads, go in the daytime.

Likewise, come prepared for the mosquitoes if you want to go see the gardens of Vizcaya, an Italian Renaissance-style villa built by James Deering in 1916 as his winter residence, which are actually more beautiful in the summer, or if you go to Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, a world-class collection of plants, trees and shrubs. It, incidentally, hosts all kinds of events year-round; the International Mango Festival in July is a favorite of mine at Fairchild, which has over the past two decades introduced new varieties of the delicious tropical fruit that are flavorful yet fiberless. (That means something to us mango aficionados.)

And one more thing about mosquitoes: They aren’t exclusive to Miami. I get eaten alive by them outside my Washington home every summer.

About the hurricanes: I lived through several as a child (unadvisedly running outdoors as the eye passed and playing Monopoly by candlelight with my older sister), flew into one in a hurricane hunter plane three decades ago for 14 hours (which my stomach did not appreciate), covered a hurricane or two as a reporter, and unsuccessfully tried to get my parents to leave the path of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, then to leave their house even though it had no power for a week. Yes, hurricanes hit Miami, but as we know, they hit other places, too. Washington has been struck by several tropical storms since I’ve lived here, and once we were evacuated from the Outer Banks in North Carolina because of an approaching storm. The danger of hurricanes isn’t exclusive to Miami.

Admittedly, the thing I like best about going to Miami that most travelers don’t have is this: seeing lifelong friends whom I love. But I’d go in the summer even if they moved away.

Details, Miami

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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