Miami casts its spell…even when things don’t go as planned
By Steven Bereznai
I was strolling along South Beach in May 2017, just hours before the Miami OutGames were set to start, and my phone suddenly went wild with emails, texts and social media posts announcing the games were abruptly being cancelled. Organizers said they were unable to meet their financial obligations. Thousands of queer athletes and allies had already arrived (or were en route) from around the world to compete in a variety of sports.
Amidst the anger, disappointment and a fraud investigation, I was amazed and impressed at the local Miami organizations that quickly stepped in to make everyone feel like they’d won gold. Several gay clubs offered free drinks and no cover to athletes, and a local organizer stepped in to hold hastily arranged track competitions.
I was there as a member of the Toronto Triggerfish water polo club. We were one of the few (along with those in the swimming and diving competitions) to have our events go ahead as planned. That’s because the aquatics organizers, sensing that “something was up,” had secured their funding for venues in advance. (Country western dance and soccer were also able to proceed.)
The athletic competitions were fierce, but in the social arena, locals showed us Miami Vice and Miami Nice.
As the Out Games (or as some began calling it, the “Not Games”) wound down without ever officially starting, my team fought our way to bronze. No one complained that there were no official medals to take home. It was time to dance! As is the Triggerfish way, we turned the closing aquatics party into an underwear party, held at the over-the-top Scottish Rite Temple. This special events space is an Egyptian Revival gem and the first Art Deco Building in South Florida. Surrounded by what felt like eclectic Aztec modernism, the Miami spirit once again shone. When two of my teammates snuck up to the off-limits balcony area and began voguing, staff could have sent security to call them down. Instead, they shone a spotlight on the gyrating pair to the wild approval of the boys and girls in briefs below. More than the gluten-free protein cupcakes I devoured at CraveClean Protein Bakery or the wild murals of Wynwood Walls, it’s the Miami spirit that would bring me back again.
We discovered that while “The Magic City” is known for its hedonistic side, its arts, architectural and food scenes are flourishing in various neighbourhoods, each with their own flavour. Here’s IN’s guide on where to eat, sleep and play in Miami.
For the nerd in you, stop by the Frost Science Museum (1101 Biscayne Blvd). Miami’s brand new quasi-futuristic science museum makes the Ontario Science Centre look ready for retirement. It features a multi-level aquarium (the jellyfish were a personal favourite), an exhibit on flight, and a planetarium that looks like a giant golf ball. Inside is a 250-seat IMAX cinema. I openly cooed when Sigourney Weaver’s voice began guiding us through the “life” of an asteroid. I waited for a sense of IMAX vertigo as we “spun” around an asteroid—that dizzying effect was my favourite part of the IMAX documentaries at Toronto’s now defunct Ontario Place. Despite signs that warned of this possibility, my stomach stayed disappointingly calm. The museum’s design more than compensated with its open-air atrium and minimalist white, future-city feel, providing stunning views of Museum Park’s green lawns (dotted with outdoor sculptures), the skyscrapers of downtown, the blue waters of Biscayne Bay, and the beautifully modern parkette shared with the neighbouring Pérez Art Museum (also worth a visit).
When you’re ready for something to eat, you can check out Quinto La Huella. Located in the upscale hotel “East, Miami,” this Uruguayan restaurant is a swank oasis in the city’s centre, cozied up against the revamped Brickell City Centre Mall. For air-conditioned elbow rubbing with a suit-and-tie crowd (and electro beats), stay inside. I preferred the chill, dressed-down vibe and Miami heat of the outdoor patio, full of lush greenery. Beef, seafood and sushi are specialties, including octopus a la plancha (crusty on the outside, tender on the inside) and grass-fed beef skirts with the chef’s secret recipe (which pairs amazingly with a Tannat Uruguayan red). I started with a refreshing “Chili Parador” cocktail (a house specialty that’s heavy on fresh lime juice with a light kick from Thai chili leaves).
“I’m wildly comfortable,” said my teammate Gregory, who is afraid of heights, as we took in the panoramic view of Miami’s skyline and bay from the 25th floor balcony of the Conrad Hotel’s Atrio restaurant (1395 Brickell Ave). Atrio serves “Mediterranean cuisine with a local touch,” according to Milan Kalajdzic, its food and beverage supervisor. That includes Cuban and South American influences, as seen in the Cuban pork sandwich and the ceviche. We were big fans of the goat croquet and plantain chips.
While many gays flock to South Beach, we favoured the low-key vibe of Coconut Grove, one of Miami’s oldest areas. It combines a bayside bohemian vibe with modern hot spots. The local Marriott (2649 S Bayshore Dr) was friendly, clean, and across the street from The Fresh Market, an upscale grocery store. It was also minutes from Coco Walk, with its little shops and boutiques, and an affordable Uber ride ($3-5 US for Uber pool, and around $16 US for Uber X) to South Beach, the amazing graffiti art of Wynwood Walls and downtown, each about 20-30 minutes away.
Choices Café (2895 McFarlane Rd) will appeal to lovers of organic, wholesome foods, served in a cafeteria-style setting. They have a conventional seating area as well as one for sitting on the floor. Highlights include the kombucha on tap, vegan lentil “meat,” walnut “cheese,” and tempeh “bacon” served in a bowl or wrap. I like my meat, in all its variations, but their hearty and tasty combos brought me back more than once.
“I love your lightning bolt necklace,” one of the greeters said as I entered the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens (3251 South Miami Ave). “It’s very shazam.” It was an appropriate welcome to the estate’s sprawling European-inspired garden full of elaborate fountains and statues of the Greek gods amidst lush vegetation, including the unusual Peach Palm and the humorously named flowering lily “‘Regina’s Disco Lounge.” The brochure says the estate is an “American realization of an Italian Renaissance Villa and an American industrialist’s dream.” According to the greeter, “they wanted it to look old, even though nothing [in Miami] is old.”
As much as I enjoyed Coconut Grove’s ironic flair, it was impossible to stay away from South Beach completely. And why would we? It’s an architectural gem. On a sweaty Miami morning, volunteer tour guide Howard Brayer took one of my friends and me on the Gay and Lesbian Walking Tour of South Beach (he also does a Jewish Walking Tour of the area). He consulted his binder (“you need to be off-book,” a passerby shouted) as he told us of the rise of Miami Beach as a WW2 army base (Air Force planes noisily flew overhead for Memorial Day weekend), the ridding of homosexual staff from Florida universities as part of the Johns Committee during the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, and the days of Anita Bryant in the 1970s. “I was 20 around that time,” he said. “I was more interested in bars than politics. I did volunteer work for a gay hotline. We mostly got prank calls.” We walked along South Beach’s famous strip of art deco hotels, learning how women played a strong role in preserving them in the 1970s, how a gay man got them to be so colourful (to better show off the architectural details), and how an iconic Calvin Klein Obsession print campaign featuring muscled, naked men (“it was risqué at the time”) helped revive the area after a downturn in popularity.
For more great design, we strolled along pedestrian-friendly Lincoln Road Mall, popping into the H&M (541 Lincoln Rd) to appreciate its history as a music conservatory, in particular the area with the enormous screen behind the cash, where it felt like a concert could erupt at any moment. After filling our water bottles at the ornate water fountain, we went out into the street behind the H&M, where we salivated over the new conservatory (designed by Frank Gehry, who used to babysit musical director Tilson Thomas). Gehry’s trademark sweeping forms are inside a huge pane of glass, and the exterior can transform into a giant outdoor viewing screen.
For Miami’s coolest parking spot, we sashayed over to 111 Lincoln Rd. This parking garage is known for its zigzagging triangular forms in the stairwells and support columns. So chic, it’s been used for charity balls, fashion shows and upscale weddings. For bonus points, we ran up the stairs to the parkade’s fifth floor to clothing boutique Alechemist. There, we tried on $3,000 jackets that matched the pattern on my teammate’s red bandanna and took selfies.
Located in the trendy W Hotel, The Dutch (2201 Collins Ave) was laid-back chic with whitewashed walls, a soothing colour palette of pastel greens, and oversized factory lamps. The food is well-prepared American, from the juicy burger and fresh fries to roasted chicken with quinoa. Like the food, the staff is laid-back friendly with a touch of class. Does Dutch have a dress code? The cheeky website’s answer: “This ain’t no country club, but it’s no ball game either. This is Miami Beach. Keep it fresh.” Good advice wherever you go.
STEVEN BEREZNAI is a Toronto journalist, and author of the new dystopian novel I Want Superpowers. You can find him on Instagram at @stevenbereznai.