5:39 PM / Tuesday September 26, 2023

23 Dec 2010

Mellow out in Miami

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December 23, 2010 Category: Travel Posted by:

By Renée S. Gordon


“I was present at all the invasions and conquests and pacifications which were carried out”

–Juan Garrido 1538


In April 1513 Ponce de Léon led the first party of Europeans to set foot on what is now the Florida peninsula. The land was lush and rife with colorful blossoms and he named the land in honor of the day on which it was “discovered,” Palm Sunday, “Pascua Florida.” He had been commissioned by Ferdinand the King of Spain to search for gold, locate the island of Bimini and, it is believed though not documented in the official records, the Fountain of Youth. I tend to believe Ferdinand did send him in search of the fountain because, after the death of Isabella, he wed a woman 35-years younger than he and probably thought a little assistance couldn’t hurt.


Ponce de Léon’s voyage was notable not only because he was the first European in the region but also for who accompanied him. Juana Ruiz, the first non-native female in Florida was aboard his ship as were several blacks including Juan Garrido (1487-1547) an African born conquistador.


Garrido is the first documented free African to explore and eventually settle in the New World. Interestingly, much is known about his life because he was a Spanish citizen and applied for a pension in 1538. In his ‘probanza’ to King Charles V, he details 30-years of service to Spain. At one point he enslaved Africans and Indians to work his land and he is credited with introducing wheat as a crop in the New World.


The native culture was more than 11,000-years old and when they reached the Miami area they were met by thousands of members of the Calusa tribe whose settlements were strung along the shores of the bay and the river they called “Mayami,” or “Sweet Water.” The modern city of Miami is located where Tequesta, one of their principal villages, stood and many of the roads mirror ancient Indian paths.


Florida would be controlled by Spain until 1763 when it passed to the British. The land was returned to the Spanish 20-years later as a result of the British loss of the American Revolution and in 1821 they gave the territory to the US in the Adams-Onis Treaty in exchange for $5-million. Florida entered the Union on March 3, 1845.


Miami remained largely unsettled until the end of the 19th-century. Mary and William Brickell purchased 2500-acres of land and built a store on the shore of the Miami River from which they traded with the Tequesta Indians who lived there. Julia Tuttle took ownership of 640-acres in 1891 and she and the Brickell’s began to encourage development of the area. After William’s death Mary established the posh ‘Millionaire’s Row’ beside Biscayne Bay. By the 1920s Miami was a renowned tourist destination famous for its beauty, beaches, nightlife and the restorative powers Ponce de Leon sought so long ago.


For more than 100-years Miami has remained a premier tourist draw. The things that originally drew people to the city have not changed but additionally it manages to provide an ever-changing, world-class, palette of accommodations, dining options and activities. It is a perfect place to do everything, or nothing. I opted for a trip to Miami to do three of my favorite things, rest, rejuvenate and engage in a serious retail experience.


The best and most obvious choice for this totally hedonistic experience is the newly refurbished Mandarin Oriental, a destination in itself, located on the 44-acre Brickell Key. This luxurious hotel provides outstanding views of the bay and the city of Miami from the private terraces and balconies of the rooms and suites. The service and hospitality are excellent and the rooms are designed to induce serenity and are outfitted with the latest technology, designer lines and amenities. The Oasis Beach Club has a private beach complete with cocoon daybeds (a lover’s alert), chaise lounges and luxury cabanas with flat screen televisions. The award-winning Azul serves gourmet cuisine and has an extensive wine list.


These are the accommodations of choice for the rich and famous that want opulence, comfort, privacy and proximity to all Miami has to offer. Shanghai Tang, the Mandarin’s sumptuous boutique, has been closed, most recently for Jennifer Aniston, for exclusive shopping expeditions and then there is the tri-level spa. The Mandarin Oriental has the only 5-star spa in the area and a visit is awe-inspiring. The world-inspired treatments and therapies were created for the spa and incorporate especially designed products.


I highly recommend this property not only because of the singular experience it offers but because it is also a member of the World Heritage Alliance for Sustainable Tourism. It promotes and practices environmentally and economically sustainable business practices around UNESCO sites. For each spa treatment given a tree is planted in the Everglades and the hotel will arrange for guests to engage in a volunteerism activity in the Everglades during their stay.


A 10 minute ride takes you into the heart of South Beach. You will be awed by the sheer number of restaurants and overwhelmed by the variety of cuisines. The area is filled with eclectic boutiques and trendy shops. Arguably the most popular street within the 23-block area is Ocean Drive and this is the nexus of any tour of SoBe. The street runs north and south and begins below First Street and ends at 15th.


Fort Dallas’ Barracks is situated at the southern end of Ocean in Lummus Park. It is the second oldest structure in the county and was built originally on land that was part of James Egan’s Spanish land grant. The third owner established a plantation in the 1840s and laid out the Village of Miami. It became Fort Dallas during the Second Seminole War and was eventually taken over by the US Army. The army left in 1858 and the structure served a variety of functions since then.


The Barracks, the single surviving structure, was taken apart, relocated and reassembled using original materials in the 1920s. The 95′ by 17,’ one-story, coquina building was erected by the owners’ 100 slaves in the masonry vernacular-style and was once the slave quarters.


South Beach’s internationally famous, square-mile, Art Deco Historic District was listed on the National Register in 1979. The District, the largest grouping of Art Deco architecture in the world, includes edifices constructed 1923-43. More than 800 buildings display Egyptian, Aztec and racing stripe motifs in gemological colors. The Art Deco Welcome Center provides information on self-guided walking and cellphone tours and offers guided tours.


The most photographed site in Miami must be Casa Casuarina, the Colonial Spanish mansion that was the home of Gianni Versace. Oil magnate Alden Freeman built the palatial house in 1930 and modeled it after Santo Domingo’s 1510 Alcazar De Colon, the oldest residence in the Americas, constructed for Diego Colon, the son of Christopher Columbus. Versace purchased the house in 1992 for $2.9-million and expanded it by 6,100-ft.


Casuarina’s exterior architectural design includes clay tiles, crested iron gates, massive columns and arched windows. Breathtaking interior elements include a pool covered with 1,000 24kt gold tiles and Versace’s 1,400-sq. ft. bedroom. The bedroom walls and ceilings feature hand painted frescoes by Barton Weiss. There are three balconies, a double king-sized bed, seven closets a bar that seats six and, in case you have a fashion emergency, a mini-runway. 1116 Ocean Drive.


The World Erotic Art Museum is not on Ocean Drive but it is just a few blocks walk. The museum, showcased on Fox News, is a 12,000-sq. ft. facility housing a 4,000-piece collection of erotic art dating from the Biblical era and spanning the globe. There are highlights but you must choose your own. Admission is restricted to over age 18.


SoBe’s paramount shopping street is Lincoln Road, a pedestrian mall west of Ocean Drive beginning on 16th Street. It is filled with shops, restaurants and clubs and you just might sight a star as you walk along.


Two must-visit sites are the Jewish Museum of Florida and the Holocaust Memorial. The Jewish Museum is housed within two restored synagogues, one of which is Art Deco and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The most outstanding structural features are 80 stained glass windows. The museum preserves and presents Florida’s Jewish history from 1763.


Sculpted of Jerusalem stone and marble, the 1990 Holocaust Memorial is a moving commemoration to the 6-million Jewish victims. A massive bronze arm, hand open toward the sky, is etched with a concentration camp number and life-sized, carved, statues of victims cluster at the base and frantically attempt to climb upward. The sculpture is set amidst a photographic history of events etched into black granite.


Miami is like a comfortable old friend with a new attitude. You have to see it to believe it. Several non-stop flights leave from Philadelphia daily. You can leave in the morning and sip mojitos by the bay in the afternoon. Information is available on the website.


I wish you smooth and restorative travels!

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