Marco the macaw, a former Miami showbird, preens his shining turquoise feathers in retirement now. Aged 63, he is the oldest of a large and vividly colored flock of tropical avians sharing one of southern Florida's oddest, most appealing tourist lures: Miami's venerable Parrot Jungle. Marco's palm-shaded perch, where he is joined by a dozen of his old buddies, is dubbed the "Senior Psittacine Village."
I'm not often tempted by the sometimes tacky commercial attractions with which Florida abounds. But I was on the trail of exotic Miami, and I couldn't hope to find anything much more offbeat than a lush jungle park full of hundreds of parrots, macaws, cockatoos, flamingos, toucans and parakeets. Many of them were cageless, flying freely overhead shrieking and cooing in an unworldly raucous chatter.
The Parrot Jungle was an important stop on my self-guided, idiosyncratic tour into Miami, the intriguingly strange. This city is very, very different, I was beginning to learn, but it also was proving to be a lot of fun. After all, the pursuit of fun always has been the city's primary marketable product.
In a sense, my plan was to explore the Miami area almost as if it were a foreign city on American soil -- as in many ways it is. The setting is tropical Caribbean, a resort community sun-splashed and washed by a warm sea. A large influx of Cuban exiles has added a distinctive Latin flavor. And the exuberant optimism of boom times past and maybe future has bequeathed it an eclectic array of architectural styles from the sublime to the outrageous.
Miami is a young city with a youthful outlook and a creative flair that has given it a unique style -- a sort of flamboyant elegance in tropical dress. European photographers are flocking to town to use it as a backdrop for their fashion layouts. The buzzword in Miami is "buzz." There's a buzz to the city and its suburbs, a pulsating excitement that even a tourist picks up on quickly. Forget those out-of-date forecasts of Miami's imminent demise. The city is very much alive and lively.
I stayed across Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach in the new and authentically chic Art Deco Historic District. A handsome, beach-front neighborhood of tastefully restored little hotels and innovative cafes, it seems primarily to have captured the imagination of sophisticated travelers from Europe and Latin America. Casually elegant and maybe a bit eccentric, the district beautifully preserves the sleek, streamlined architecture of the 1930s.
Some 800 art deco structures are clustered in a few square blocks at the southern end of Miami Beach, forming an amazing and mostly pastel-shaded ensemble that in my mind fully qualifies as exotic. From this appropriate base, I ventured forth to other Miami exotica old and new -- the sort of places and things you find only in the Miami area. My tour -- exotica, mind you, not erotica -- was a perfectly respectable one and entirely suitable for families.
Along the way, I hiked through a damp and shadowy rain forest at the Fairchild Tropical Garden, the largest tropical botanical garden in the continental United States. I strolled along Flagler Street, downtown Miami's principal shopping street. Catering to South American tourists, the narrow thoroughfare looks entirely like a typically bustling street in an old South American capital. I bought a donkey pinåata in "Little Havana," a very Latin neighborhood that has become home to many of the Cuban exiles.
And still there was more to explore. I watched sleeping little koalas at Metrozoo; relaxed over tea and fruit pastries in Coconut Grove, a funky, flower-draped village on Biscayne Bay; gawked at the stunning but oddly shaped skyscrapers soaring above Brickell Avenue, Miami's posh financial district; and cooled off with a swim in the Venetian Pool, an incredible rock-ringed public plunge in luxurious Coral Gables. Conceived as a Venetian fantasy with an arcing stone bridge, deep blue swim-in caves and tumbling waterfalls, the pool is among the most beautiful -- and unusual -- in the country.
To me, Miami is fascinating because it is so unlike any place else in America. Plus it's got sun, surf, sand, sophistication and pizazz. If you have a long weekend coming up, I recommend taking a look.
Long one of America's premier playgrounds, the Miami area took a steep nose-dive as a dream destination a decade ago when almost simultaneously it was hit by terrifying racial disturbances and a massive influx of Cuban exiles -- tens of thousands of them -- that all but overwhelmed city services. Illicit drugs flourished and a violent crime wave erupted. Prosperous winter vacationers opted for the Caribbean, which already had become a major competitor for the tourist trade with the advent of jet travel.
But in the intervening years Miami has bounced back, due at least in part to intriguing portraits of the city displayed in the popular "Miami Vice" TV show. New office construction transformed the downtown skyline in the '80s as Miami assumed the role of commercial capital of the Caribbean and South America. The Cubans were absorbed, adding economic vitality to southern Florida, and racial tensions eased. Crime does remain a presence, but probably no more so than in most other big cities. Tourists have returned by the millions, although they are a different breed from those of two decades ago.
A temporary exhibit on tourism, called "Tropical Dreams," in Miami's Historical Museum of Southern Florida explained: "From 1972 to the present, Dade County's typical tourists drifted from middle-class Americans to Latin Americans, students and Europeans -- especially those from West Germany and Great Britain." So prevalent are foreign voices -- predominantly young voices -- in the Art Deco Historic District today that you figure the sea out there surely must be the Mediterranean.
I count the cosmopolitan mix yet one more point in Miami's favor. At night, quite spiffily dressed crowds of foreign tourists spill from the art deco hotels to promenade along Ocean Drive and visit its outdoor cafes and bars. The center of activity is a bustling, eight-block stretch of the drive, where the cafes face the sea across a wide beach dotted with coconut palms. The air is sultry and the setting tropical. In a way, the scene reminded me of Rio de Janeiro and the fashionable Copacabana beach area at its best 25 years ago.
I stayed on Ocean Drive in the peach-colored Cavalier Hotel, a three-story, 44-room art deco gem nestled in the midst of this quite romantic scene. Each night I sat at a different sidewalk cafe watching the crowds pass by and dining on extraordinarily good food. The passersby provided much of the evening's entertainment. One night a dozen young fashion models gathered for drinks at the next table, each dressed in the sort of designer garb you see only in magazines.
On another night, it was the menu -- not the name -- that attracted me to the Stars and Stripes Cafe in the Betsy Ross Hotel, another new art deco lodging. The restaurant features fine, fairly expensive American cuisine but with a decidedly ethnic accent, nicely reflecting the nation's mix of cultures. I ordered what the menu described as "rhum- and pepper-painted blackened grouper with plantains on a mango chardonnay puree." I decided it was the best new dish I've eaten all year. Dessert was equally exotic: "Havana bananas," a tasty concoction of rum, chilies, chocolate sauce and vanilla bean ice cream. Dinner for one with two glasses of house wine and tip came to about $48.
Much of the Cavalier's clientele is in the fashion industry. One morning I returned from a dawn swim in the Atlantic when I noticed a large plastic screen covering the inside of the hotel's huge glass doorway. Was I being barred? Quickly a young man with a German accent whisked the object aside and opened the way for me with apologies. In the lobby stood huge lights and other photographic paraphernalia. A young blond woman in mini-skirt and blouse, obviously a model, sat ready to pose. I later learned I had intruded upon a quick fashion shoot for a new Austrian catalogue. The group was taking advantage of the rising sun -- a brilliant orange-red ball -- that beamed through the doorway, highlighting the Cavalier's stylishly sleek decor.
The array of art deco structures so impressed me that I joined a 90-minute walking tour of the historic district, which is offered every Saturday at 10:30 a.m. by the Miami Design Preservation League. Founded in 1976, the organization has battled to save and restore the neighborhood. Not quite half of the structures -- mostly built between 1923 and 1943 -- have been refurbished, according to our guide. Individually delightful, together they form a sort of futuristic world of orange blossom make-believe. Mostly three and four stories tall, they are a contrast to the concrete wall of high-rise hotels and condominiums at the northern end of the island.
The clean, precise look of art deco glorified the machine age in an era when new technology dazzled the world. But on Miami Beach, new construction coincided with the Depression, so most of the buildings were of modest stature and were aimed at winter visitors on a budget. Still, fine decorative touches such as etched glass and fancy wrought-iron trim were added. Unfortunately, the area went into decay after World War II -- abandoned to the poor and the elderly -- when the Fontainebleau and other high-rise resort hotels just up the beach caught the tourist fancy for a while.
Much of the Art Deco District remains scruffy, and a number of buildings are still boarded up, awaiting their fate. Older residents gather in lounge chairs outside faded apartment buildings, quietly observing the changes occurring around them. And yet these diversities blend reasonably well, I think. For just in front of the historic district linking everything is a splendidly uncrowded beach -- as much as 50 yards wide and extending north and south as far as you can see. In fall, the surf is calm and the water clear and warm. Each day at dawn I went for a swim, and I returned again at sunset.
The Miami area is sprawling, and about the only way you can get around easily is by car. My sightseeing excursions took me west from Miami Beach across Biscayne Bay to downtown Miami and then south and west through some of the area's fanciest neighborhoods. With a map in hand, I had no trouble finding my way.
My first stop was downtown Miami, which has undergone considerable revitalization. Facing Biscayne Bay is the Biscayne Marketplace, a new upscale shopping pavilion with lots of ethnic food stalls overlooking a yacht marina. In a hurry, I grabbed a quick lunch at the Latin American Cafeteria, which serves Cuban specialties. I ordered ropa vieja, which turned out to be shredded beef on rice with a tasty creole sauce.
A block to the south, I boarded Miami's Metromover, an elevated "people mover" that makes a 10-minute loop through the center of the old commercial district for 25 cents. I guess it's Miami's answer to Disney World's monorail, and a whole lot cheaper. The Metromover made its brief circuit and deposited me near the beginning of Flagler Street. I thought I'd landed in Caracas or maybe Sao Paulo.
Miami apparently is the place to be if you are a wealthy South American on a shopping spree. City officials estimate that during July alone some 100,000 Brazilians flew into town, and a large percentage of them headed directly for Flagler. For a half-dozen shady blocks or so, the sidewalks of the narrow old street teem with Latin Americans buying stereos, radios, portable TVs, computers and similar merchandise available at much cheaper prices than at home. Dozens of jewelry stores also are clustered in the area.
I didn't go to shop but simply to walk down a street that, because of its special clientele, has become thoroughly Latinized. If anyone was speaking English, I didn't hear it. Signboards in bright profusion promise bargains, and vending carts offer cooling soft drinks and fresh fruit. Large families, each member with a hefty shopping bag, jammed the sidewalks on a steaming Friday afternoon in September when I was there. I doubt there's another street as busy in America.
A few blocks farther west, where the crowds thin out, is Miami's new Metro-Dade Cultural Center, a large complex designed in Mediterranean style with a red-tiled roof, multiple arches and a broad piazza. Housed within are a public library, a fine arts museum and the local history museum -- where in one exhibit I heard a romantic rendition of "Moon Over Miami." The center perches atop a slight rise, giving it the look of a fortified hilltop town in Tuscany. A fountain spills like a rushing stream alongside the entrance walkway. Although the building is new, the style represents an older Miami -- appropriately so, I suppose, because the center is the repository of Miami's past.
New Miami, creative Miami, outrageous Miami is just a glance south across the Miami River to Brickell Avenue. Gleaming office and apartment towers shoot into the sky in a dizzying variety of geometric patterns. But the high-rise everyone points out is the Atlantis building, an apartment structure in the 2000 block of Brickell. A slender rectangle, all in glass, it rises perhaps 18 stories above Biscayne Bay. From about the ninth to the 12th floor, a wide, doughnutlike hole -- but square -- has been cut completely through the building. In that hole a tall palm grows. And at its foot, the residents can splash in a large hot tub with a super view. Exotic, I would say.
From Brickell, I drove west on Seventh Street about two dozen blocks to "Little Havana," Miami's predominantly Cuban neighborhood. Actually, Eighth Street -- Calle Ocho -- is considered Little Havana's main street, but it is a one-way street, and I was headed in the wrong direction. Calle Ocho is a wide, unshaded, rather unattractive avenue lined with neighborhood drive-in shopping malls and gas stations. Look closely and you will see that almost every shop bears a Spanish name. And on every block, there seem to be two or three walk-up windows where you can buy the spicy Cuban-style hamburgers with onions called fritas, and churros, a crispy, doughnutlike pastry the young folks favor.
My goal was La Casa de las Pinåatas at 1756 SW Eighth St. A pinåata is a children's holiday gift -- a papier-ma~che' animal or character filled with candy and other goodies that is hung overhead just out of reach. Blindfolded youngsters try to smash it with a stick, and then scramble for the loot. The shop stocks as large an assortment as I've ever seen, many decorated as comic book characters. More traditional are the donkeys, which come in all sizes, from miniature to almost life-size. I toted a mid-size donkey home with me on the plane.
Across the street, I called on King Cream, a modest-looking ice cream shop that came highly recommended. I soon found out why. It sells homemade ice cream flavored with exotic -- that word again -- tropical fruits, most of which I had never heard of. I ordered a cone of mammee (or mamey), and asked the owner what the fruit looks like. He pointed to a large mural depicting a variety of strange fruits. The mammee resembles a melon, with red fruit and a single large seed.
My tour then took me west and south to:
Coral Gables, one of the area's loveliest communities. Begun in the boom days of the 1920s, it was designed in a Spanish Mediterranean style with plazas and fountains honoring the early Spanish colonization of Florida. Streets carry the name of Spanish cities such as Sevilla and Salamanca. My goal, however, was the Venetian Pool, once a quarry where stone was cut to build Coral Gables. Hollywood stars Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller once swam there, and when I dived in I felt I, too, had plunged into the realm of movieland make-believe.
Metrozoo, where I wanted to see the rare little koalas, the teddy bearlike creatures native to Australia that eat eucalyptus leaves. I caught the Miami zoo's pair during an afternoon nap, each in its own glass cage curled up in a ball on a tree branch. They slept so quietly they looked as if they had been stuffed and mounted. But then 8-year-old Adele, perhaps reading my thoughts, wiggled her ears and proved herself very much alive. A descriptive sign on the cage noted that koalas emit an odor of cough drops because of their peculiar diet.
Fairchild Tropical Garden, on 83 acres just south of Coconut Grove. The sun had all but scorched me at the zoo, so it was refreshing to plunge beneath the canopy of the rain forest at Fairchild. The garden surrounds several murky lakes, where discreet signs warn visitors to keep away from the alligators. In the rain forest, a sprinkler system provides extra moisture, creating a steady drip from above and a profusion of wispy ferns on the ground. The path was spongy, and thick vines dangled from overhead branches. I thought about resting at a small spring awhile, but a mosquito bit me and I quickly moved on. This rain forest was proving too authentic.
Parrot Jungle, another oasis of tropical verdure just a five-minute drive from Fairchild. About 1,100 tropical birds dwell in the park, many of them uncaged. Some are known to venture abroad by day, returning to their perches at night. Marco the macaw, an original resident when the attraction opened in 1936, was just such a free-flyer, though I doubt he goes very far these days. Marco also once performed in the trained parrot show.
Trained tropical birds still put on a good performance here, appealing mostly to children who delight in seeing the feathered stars race miniature chariots across a small stage. I enjoyed being in the park just to see so many strange birds in profusion. In their flamboyant plumage, Marco and his buddies are as exotic as the big city around them.
At the end of my visit, I said goodbye to Marco, drove back across Biscayne Bay to the beach and went for another sunset swim to reflect on my tour. As the lights popped on along Ocean Drive, I reached at least one solid conclusion: In exotic Miami, the unusual is almost usual.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Most major airlines offer flights between Washington and Miami. Nonstop service is available, and the flight takes a little more than two hours. The Miami Beach Art Deco Historic District is about a 15-minute drive from the airport. The short flight time and convenient access make Miami a good getaway destination, especially in the off season (from late spring through fall).
Pan Am is among the airlines offering nonstop flights and is currently quoting a round-trip fare of $195, available until Dec. 13. The ticket must be purchased seven days in advance; travel is restricted to certain days of the week, and the fare is nonrefundable.
WHEN TO GO: Winter is the high season in the Miami area, although the weather can get quite nippy in December and January. To enjoy the sea, the off-season rates and uncrowded attractions, plan your trip from about May through November. That's when the Europeans and South Americans show up, and they are part of the fun.
WHERE TO STAY: Miami Beach's art deco hotels have the charm of small inns, but services are limited. Currently, about a dozen hotels have been restored and more are planned. Not all are located on Ocean Drive, and only a few rooms have sea views.
Several of the hotels have lobby restaurants that spill onto the sidewalk outside. I chose the Cavalier because it didn't have a restaurant. The lobby was attractive and quiet, and I had a wide choice of restaurants within a few minutes' walk. At the Cavalier, the high-season rate for two people from now through April 14 is $105 for a "deco deluxe" room. An ocean-front room is $135 a night and an ocean-front suite is $175 a night. Service charge and taxes total 21 percent, but a large continental breakfast is complimentary. For information: 800-338-9076 or 305-534-2135.
WHERE TO EAT:
I dined at three sidewalk cafes on Ocean Drive, each of them very good in its own way.
The Cafe des Arts offers a tropical French menu. The day's salad was a tasty blend of apples, pineapples, avocado, capers and melon. Dessert was a tasty first for me, banana cheesecake. I might fly back to Miami to try it again. A full dinner for one with wine was about $43.
Oggi is Italian, specializing in seafood and veal. I ordered a fresh fish dish with dill sauce, but the waiter brought me veal with capers by mistake. I was so taken by the dozen fashion models at the next table that I didn't notice his error until I had consumed half my meal. It was delicious, and I was satisfied. Dinner with wine for one was about $43.
The Stars and Stripes Cafe offers innovative American dishes reflecting the diversity of cultures in this country. Hot bread is served with an accompanying dish of olive oil mixed with crushed red peppers. You dip the bread into the oil for a zesty change from butter. I ordered blackened grouper on a bed of mango chardonnay puree, which was the tastiest dish I've eaten all year. Dinner with wine for one was about $48. INFORMATION: Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, 701 Brickell Ave., Suite 2700, Miami, Fla. 33131, 800-283-2707.
-- James T. Yenckel