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Saturday, May 29, 2010



By Heidi Johnson-Wright and Steve Wright

The American Institute of Architects hasn't met in Miami since the year we were born --1964. A few things have changed!

We'll start in Miami Beach, where the annual AIA convention is based, then point the way toward some can't miss attractions that don't show up in the typical tourist guides.

Miami has everything from historic Latin Quarters to Old Florida roadside attractions to chic shopping on the beach to waterfront dining while viewing the ever-changing skyline to the grandest subtropical garden on earth.

Miami’s culture, architecture and cuisine alone could entertain for a month, but for AIA visitors in town for a week or less, here are our can’t miss Miami attractions:

An Avenue You Can’t Drive On: A Stroll on Chic Lincoln Road

Once called the Fifth Avenue of the South in homage to the famous New York shopping district, Lincoln Road now earns mad props for its own unique sexy, hip flavor. This Miami Beach pedestrian mallway, with its lush tropical landscaping and eye-catching fountains, makes for great strolling, shopping and people watching any time of day. But after dark is when the Road’s brand of café society truly starts jumping.

Start near Lincoln Road’s western end at the Colony Theatre (1040 Lincoln Rd; 305-674-1040), a recently-restored art deco dazzler that now serves as one of the area’s best mid-sized performance spaces. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the theatre hosts performing arts, including stand-up comedy, film and opera.

Since South Beach is all about style, fab threads are always a good choice as a souvenir. Base (939 Lincoln Rd.; 305-531-4982) – with its minimalist European interior -- offers duds cut from fine fabrics, home accessories, CDs and more.

Searching for a good read about Miami Beach history or art deco design? Head over to Books & Books (927 Lincoln Road; 305-532-3222;, a delightful independent book seller with a cozy sidewalk café.

After some walking and gawking, cool, tropical refreshment is just the ticket. A hop, skip and a jump south of the Road on Michigan Avenue you’ll find The Frieze Ice Cream Factory (1626 Michigan Ave.; 305-538-2028), a name that playfully puns art deco design details and the temperature of its cool creations. Forget plain vanilla and sample a savory mango sorbet.

To truly experience the essence of Lincoln Road, a night cap or specialty coffee at a sidewalk table is essential. Drop by the Van Dyke Café (846 Lincoln Rd.; (305-534-3600) and take it all in: society matrons with Chanel bags and tiny, pampered pooches, club kids swooshing by on Rollerblades and starry-eyed couples sharing a moonlit stroll.

Calle Ocho: In the Heart of Little Havana

Ladies shade themselves from the searing subtropical sun while strolling to buy Cuban bread. Men in guayaberas speak animated Spanish while sipping tiny shots of powerful Cuban coffee. Youngsters sip frosty coconut milk right from the source – coco frio they call it – after a fruteria merchant swings a mighty machete to cut a groove into the shell.

Miami’s Little Havana is an enchantingly mysterious place of cigar makers, domino players, salsa singers and exile leaders. When Fidel Castro took over the island in 1960, tens of thousands of Cubans settled in Miami -- forever cementing the city’s cutting edge, international flavor.

Spanish is the language of choice in La Pequena Habana, but restaurant menus have subtitles in English and merchants are quite used to the “point and nod” method when gringos are shopping for wares.

Calle Ocho is the spiritual center of the neighborhood. Start at El Exquisito (1510 SW 8th St.; 305-643-0227) with a breakfast of pan Cubano, toasted to perfection in a sandwich press that melts the butter inside the long wedges of bread, and a big cup of café con leche – strong and sugary Cuban coffee lightened with lots of steamed milk.

The historic art deco Tower Theater (1508 S.W. 8th St.; 305-237-3010) next door shows Spanish language films, with English subtitles, on its two screens.

To see and hear top name Cuban and other Latin entertainers every weekend, head west on Calle Ocho to Hoy Como Ayer (2212 SW 8th St., 305-541-2631; The name means “today like yesterday,” as in a little club that exists in the present to showcase the best in Cuban cabaret music of old.

For a hand-rolled cigar made in the finest Cuban tradition, head to El Credito (1106 SW 8th St.; 305-858-4162) on Calle Ocho. It’s a stogie paradise stocked full with the famed La Gloria Habana brand smokes.

Ed’s Place: The Last Great Dixie Highway Roadside Attraction

Can love move mountains, reshape the moon, even transcend space and time? As the magic eight-ball would say: “signs point to ‘yes,’” and you’ll find this answer at one of the last remaining old Florida attractions, Coral Castle.

Unlike cheesy roadside museums featuring oddities such as two-headed calves and Fiji mermaids, Coral Castle is a testament to the love of a five-foot tall, 100 pound Latvian immigrant for his bride-to-be that never was. Jilted by his one true love, Ed Leedskalnin created a compound comprised of massive coral rock carvings with the vain hope that his creations would show his devotion, allowing him to win her heart back.

Apparently his sweetheart was one cold ice princess -- who wouldn’t be moved by a nine-ton gate so perfectly balanced it can be opened by a child, a one-ton rocking chair, a massive, heart-shaped table ornamented with an Ixora bush or a 23-ton wishing well shaped like a full moon?

“Big deal,” you say, “so some lovesick Latvian dude carved stuff from rock.” But here’s the kicker: Ed carved all of it without power tools, and moved every massive block of rock 10 miles from an original sight to the current one – by himself!

Did he use ancient principles of engineering? Magic spirits? The world may never know. And while Ed’s ladylove had a heart as hard as coral rock, visitors from all over have warmed to his mysterious creations. In 1961, camp queen director Doris Wishman filmed a movie here called “Nude on the Moon.” Eighties rocker Billy Idol was so inspired by Coral Castle that he wrote his song “Sweet Sixteen” about Ed’s plight.

To see Ed’s magical creations, you can telekinetically transport yourself – or just take the family sedan – to 28655 South Dixie Highway, Homestead, FL.
For the lowdown on admission, hours of operation, and other mundane earthly stuff, call 305-248-6345, or check out the fun factoid-packed website:

Live Like A King, Pay Like a Piker: Visit The Mandarin Oriental Hotel

For a millionaire’s view of Miami with but a modest price, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is the place to be. There’s no need to book a suite with a breath-taking bill. Instead, make a reservation at the restaurant with the breath-taking vista.

The luxurious, Asian-themed Mandarin has several sumptuous places to dine, but it’s Café Sambal that provides the best eye-popping views of the ever-growing skyline along Biscayne Bay, including causeways and high-rise condos. The grounds are spectacular with a man-made beach complete with intimate cabanas. The hotel sits on a spoil island in the bay surrounded by its own skyscrapers that perpetually appear in the overhead shots in CSI: Miami.

Book the hot breakfast on a weekend morning -- for just $28 a head, and take your plate out to a terrace table. Although the view is worth the price alone, you’ll be treated to a superb meal with such fare as savory eggs Benedict, fresh blackberries and raspberries with granola and chocolate brownie-like muffins so good they bring tears to the eyes.

To walk off those calories, take a tour of the grounds, including the hotel’s magnificent lobby with its wood detailing, contemporary furnishings and Zen-like vibe. Venture out to the public walking trail that spans Brickell Key’s perimeter and stroll around for a 360 degree view

The Mandarin Oriental is located at 500 Brickell Key Drive, Miami. For reservations at Café Sambal, call: 305-913-8358. A hot ($28 per person) and cold ($20 per person) breakfast is served Saturday and Sunday from 6:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Check out the hotel’s website at:

Botanical Treasures at Fairchild Tropical Garden

For a fascinating, tranquil and educational destination that the whole family can enjoy, look no further than Fairchild Tropical Garden. Since 1938, this leafy oasis has offered a world-class collection of flora, especially palms, cycads and flowering trees. Some of the specimens can trace their lineage back to a 1940 collecting expedition by the garden’s founder, who sailed from the Philippines to the Indonesian archipelago aboard a Chinese junk.

Narrated tours of the gardens aboard a charming, covered tram are available throughout the day, taking visitors throughout 83 acres that include paved trails, shaded seating areas and water features. Expect sightings of dozens of head-bobbing, bright green -- and sometimes orange -- iguanas, pesky invaders that pose a real challenge to the garden staff, but make kids squeal with delight.

At the end of your visit, stop at the garden’s gorgeous main building with a café and gift shop. Where else can you find a book on jackfruit, palm-accented table runners and flatware, richly scented candles and bug bottles for that summer firefly roundup?

You’ll find the lush serenity of Fairchild Tropical Garden at 10901 Old Cutler Rd., in Coral Gables, FL. For more information, call 305-667-1651, or visit the garden’s website: The website lists what you’ll see in bloom for each month of the year.

Johnson-Wright is an award-winning writer. Wright is an award-winning photographer. They live in the center of Miami and could compose a top 500 list of things to do in their adopted hometown. Contact them at:

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