We stood on the Everglades boardwalk, an hour south of Miami Beach, squinting in the sun, looking like fools. He was as white as milk and as gangly as Napoleon Dynamite, with a gaudy beach towel we'd bought at a Kmart tied around his neck. I was dressed head-to-toe in blue-light specials: a bright orange cover-up and plastic sandals three sizes too big. As we stood in our absurd get-ups, marring the blue-skied Florida backdrop, he told me I looked like a Dreamsicle.
But the anhinga bird we were staring at in the bushes looked, if anything, worse. Moments before, it had plummeted through the air like a feather-duster bomb, snaky neck pointed downward. Landing in the slough with a messy splash, it emerged with a fish, and instantly gulped it down. Now the bird was clinging to a branch a few inches above a napping alligator, shaking out its pompom of black feathers. It unpleated the full span of its wings in slow motion -- crick, crick, crick -- then, lapsing into a frozen posture, hung itself out to dry.
Apparently it was not only normal to look ridiculous in southern Florida; it was required.
That anhinga sighting occurred on my first trip to the Miami area in 1991. Whenever I go back -- I've returned a dozen times over the past two decades -- I think of that freakish bird and wait for the inevitable Floridian serendipity to splash down once again. It always does. Each trip has brought some new pleasure or quirk that has colored my conception of what I have come to think of as "my Miami" -- whether it's a shrimp feast on a dock in Coconut Grove or the sight of a burly man in short shorts, fishnets and yellow stilettos on Collins Avenue, brandishing a plantain and yelling into a pay phone. Experiencing "my Miami" actually involves leaving what most people think of as Miami quite a bit, and exploring wondrous, but not necessarily glamorous, places in the Everglades, Coral Gables and Key Largo.
What it does not involve is staying at an ostentatious $500-(or $5,000)-a-night Herod's palace of a hotel and hobnobbing with i-bankers and anorexic scenesters with balloon breasts. Nor does it involve Art Basel, nightclubbing or being seen at whatever outrageously expensive new restaurant or louche dive bar is being buzzed about by Northern foodies.
Before my most recent jaunt in February, a model friend of mine (a veteran of Art Basel) complained, "Most of the allegedly cool stuff in Miami is actually stuff for New Yorkers who go there -- it doesn't have to do with Miami."
I fervently agree. My theory about Miami, which has accreted like a coral reef over the years, is that, for the most part, it's best to skip the "allegedly." It's the uncool stuff that's cool about Miami -- the salty fried food, the lime-drenched cocktails, the crowded beaches, the tawdriness, even the "touristic" stuff, as foreigners call it. All this bounty will remain after the hot spots of the present have evaporated and new hot spots replace them, as long as the sun, sand and sea remain.
THIS FEBRUARY, my allegiance to the uncool was tested the first night I arrived. I had brought Cressida, my best friend from New York, who was sleeping at our hotel on Ocean Drive while I took a long walk to assess what had changed in South Beach since my last visit. South Beach, like Manhattan, is a walking town, which means you can absorb the evolving cityscape through the soles of your feet. I'd been wandering for two hours on that balmy night, when, around 2 a.m., I spotted the glowing letters "CLUB DEUCE" above a bar on 14th Street, and recalled that an in-the-know New Yorker had urged me to check the place out, because, although Mac's Club Deuce has been in South Beach forever, chefs from Miami's most desirable restaurants have taken to going there after hours, which lends the place fresh cachet.
To me, going to Miami in search of cachet is like going to a strip club in search of Sunday school teachers; but the bar was across the street from one of my favorite hangouts, an unassuming restaurant called La Sandwicherie, where I suddenly resolved to get a café au lait. I decided to duck into Club Deuce for some chef-spotting first. I was halfway across the street when I overheard two flashily dressed patrons chatting by an idling limo that blocked the door. "No stretch marks, no bullet wounds, just sex, hot, hot sex!" one man raved to the other. Their cryptic, unsavory exchange was the jolt I needed to remind myself that I knew better than to go cachet-hunting in South Beach. I spurned the allegedly with-it, just in time, and returned to La Sandwicherie for my café au lait. La Sandwicherie, which looks like a cafe car on a train and has been there for a quarter century, lacks cachet but it was, I realized, my kind of with-it.
For 22 years, I've been trying to get Miami right. It's my personal "Groundhog Day"; the place where, with each successive trip, I try to fix something that went south on a previous visit or add a new element to my Florida rotation. This sometimes dismays the friends I drag along who secretly want to stay at the Delano, or spend long hours admiring disposable art in the warehouses in the Wynwood District, and can't imagine why I've lured them onto an airboat ride in a swamp a couple miles from the Dade County prison in Florida City.
But a magnet I picked up at the gift shop at that swamp in 1991 (right after observing the anhinga) has held pride of place on my refrigerator for two decades. It depicts a cheerful alligator doing a jig alongside a sign that says "I Survived the Airboat Ride at Everglades Alligator Farm." All year long, that alligator magnet leers at me from the refrigerator, until I feel the pull to undergo the soggy ordeal again.
On that first trip, I'd flown to Miami on impulse with my sun-starved boyfriend. We arrived, my diary reveals, "without summer clothes, underwear, swimsuits or contact lenses." It was helpful not having the contact lenses -- Miami's neon is best absorbed with blurred vision. ("Miami Beach is where neon goes to die," Lenny Bruce once said.) Underwear wasn't necessary, either, once we'd dropped by the Kmart on the then-desolate wasteland known as Lincoln Road, and bought swimsuits.
But soon after that trip, South Beach's Art Deco district started getting a major face-lift, and it hasn't stopped Wildensteining since. In 1995, Brownes & Co. Apothecary (a two-story temple to beauty where I once got a pedicure on the balcony while sunbathing and spying on flâneurs below) opened on the once blighted Lincoln Road. With the new century came the collagen injections of Art Basel and Sobefest (the South Beach Wine & Food Festival), which plumped and glossed the district until Lincoln Road was transformed into a palm-dotted, mosaic-paved boulevard, like a corniche in a Mediterranean seaside town. Boarded-up storefronts were replaced by open-air cafes and shiny boutiques; today that Brownes is a Sunglass Hut (though a smaller outpost has opened around the corner). Lincoln Road now resembles a charm bracelet strung with glinting baubles. The Kmart, needless to say, is long gone.
On my February visit, I had made the error of forgetting to warn Cressida of my scheme to immerse ourselves in "classic, uncool" Miami. When, at our hotel, she produced a list of Manhattan-chef-recommended new restaurants, I whimpered. Not wanting to seem unreasonable, I agreed to try one of them our first night: Juvia, nine stories above Lincoln Road, on the corner of Lenox Avenue. There, despite the matchless view and chic clientele, I mourned its L.A. vibe ($80 for two drinks and eight marshallow-size lumps of raw fish), and wished we'd sat with the zaftig crowd at the alfresco Hofbräu Beer Hall below, downing bratwurst and hefeweizen. In my opinion, if you're going to Miami for food that is more exotic than crab claws and Key lime pie, you are probably overthinking it.
THE NEXT DAY, I was determined to reassert my nostalgic program. This would include a visit to a deliriously kitschy roadside fruit stand in the Redland (the sloughy, mangrovy, agricultural zone south of Miami), a stop at a waterside conch shack in the Keys, and a trip to the Everglades, with its anhingas and alligators.
But first, a word about my choice of hotel, which I had found nine years earlier and was part of my time-honored Miami ritual. The Winter Haven is a serene Art Deco edifice at the quiet end of Ocean Drive. It has no pool but has the great attraction (for me) of being out of shouting range of the cacophonous pickup scene at the Clevelander Hotel. It is also not far from the News Cafe, on Ocean Drive and Eighth Street, where you can read The New York Post and The New York Times as you watch sunburned vacationers lope past, or look past them to the beach.
We had arrived on Super Bowl Sunday, and though the game itself was in New Orleans, sports fans packed South Beach's sidewalks, huddling around the wide-screen TVs that blared from every cafe and bar (this happens a lot: you arrive in Miami having failed to realize that a convention, a parade or spring break will clot the streets). Though it was broad daylight, the six-block stretch between the Winter Haven and News Cafe seethed with roistering tourists and moonlighting strippers, who gyrated on raised platforms, dressed as football referees, shaking their pompoms. "Dressed," on closer inspection, wasn't the word for it; they were nude, except for G-strings and pasties: their skimpy team outfits were sprayed on, and embellished with glitter. A mother, walking by with her little daughters, remarked delightedly, as if pointing out a toucan, "O! La chiquita está pintada!" (The lady is painted!)
The television woke us the next morning with an exuberant report on the infestation of Burmese pythons that has taken over the Everglades -- our day's destination. We had arrived, by chance, on the last week of the "Python Challenge" bounty hunt. "Folks, there's hundreds of thousands of them in the Everglades, and there's not much these snakes won't try and eat," the anchor boomed.
Armed with this information, we got in the car and headed toward the reptiles, 50 miles south, to a town called Homestead. Before our airboat ride at the alligator farm, a few miles outside the Everglades National Park, we attended a snake show. No doubt because of the day's headlines, the bleachers were packed with tourists, who peppered the snake handler, Albert Killian, with questions. "Are there really pythons all around here?" one asked. "Oh yes," he said. "Farmers bring 'em here and dump 'em. And they bring 'em to us all the time from the prison," he added. "They get into the yard."
"Are the snakes afraid of the noise of the boats?" asked another. Albert shook his head. "The snake has no ears; all snakes are deaf," he said. Thankfully, none of them crawled into our airboat, 10 minutes later, though "Psycho Paul," the longhaired airboat pilot, warned us as we began scudding among the mangroves, "The alligators are hungry today, they smell children!" Squeals all around.
An hour later, we rolled into the Everglades, parking near a sign that read: "Warning: Vultures May Cause Damage to Vehicles" (three turkey vultures stood next to it, feigning disinterest). As we meandered down the boardwalks of the Anhinga Trail, I noticed that Cressida was perking up. The Anhinga Trail may not have been as newsworthy as the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, but the birds' aesthetic appeal was undeniable.
An hour later, we were on our way to Key Largo, which begins about 15 miles south of Homestead. On the way we stopped for smoothies at Robert Is Here, a roadside cornucopia that has occupied the same rural corner of Florida City since 1960. There the obsessive-compulsive can delight in scanning neat rows of jams, jellies, marinades and honeys, labeled in gold, and stacked like edible bullion. Farm tables are heaped with lemons, mangoes, pineapples, tomatoes and avocados; and at the concession stand, a counter clerk can whip up a strawberry and canastel smoothie (canastel is a fruit that tastes like custard), while-u-wait.
We entered the Keys by way of Card Sound Road, lined with waterways and ruffled with mangroves. Soon we pulled into a roadhouse called Alabama Jack's, a 66-year-old place I added to my Florida lineup in 2009. It's a rustic spot, set along an idyllic bay, where a wooden fishing skiff or two bob in the water, and fish splash. Alabama Jack's has no windows, just a roof fringed with Southern license plates, and a low latticed wall separating the restaurant from the water, plus the best conch fritters on the planet. As a gorgeous waiter named Phil arrived at our table, I sensed my retro program sliding into a smoother gear.
Phil cared deeply about the conch fritters and crab cakes. Cressida and I listened attentively as he explained how the conch batter was made; and how the shredded crab was mixed with chopped peppers and spices, rolled in cracker crumbs, then chilled in wax paper. With his elbow, he demonstrated how the crab cakes were pressed down when they were ready for frying. A red-winged blackbird flew in from the mangroves and onto the table as he spoke, as if to steal the recipe. The fritters were savory and subtly sweet; I think I felt the imprint of the chef's elbow on the crab cakes, with their crisp coating and contrasting, meltingly smooth filling. We did not leave one crumb.
That night, back in Miami Beach, we had dinner on Española Way, a lovely stretch of car-free road, lined with Mediterranean revival buildings, where tourists (many of them European) go for gelato, crepes and tapas. I knew Cressida had four foodie-approved restaurants still moldering on her to-do list. But after a margarita speared with pineapple at the decidedly unhip O! Mexico, and a lavish antipasti plate at Hosteria Romana -- served by actual Italians who wore newsboy caps, sang Italian pop and looked like the young Al Pacino in "The Godfather" -- she made eye contact, and said: "Well. I guess this does kind of prove your thesis." Ahh. Old Miami comes to the rescue.
THE NEXT TWO DAYS, we continued our tour. We drove to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in the Keys one morning and snorkeled among barracuda, brain coral and schools of yellow, blue and purple fish. Later we went to Coral Gables, a lushly decayed residential neighborhood, home to the Venetian Pool, a freshwater lagoon that laps around a faux-Italian castle, a relic of the 1920s. As you drive into the pastel-stuccoed mirage of Coral Gables, where ficus trunks writhe on every lawn, you feel as if you are entering an architectural version of magical realism.
We didn't linger long, because I was intent on scoring some crab claws at South Beach's beloved, antique Joe's Stone Crab, where jacketed waiters preserve 1950s decorum. We hurried in at 5 to avoid the dinner rush, and sat down to asparagus fries with a divine crust of Parmesan crumbs, juicy cracked crab with mustard dipping sauce, and velvety, graham-crumbed Key lime pie.
But I have a guilty confession. In our last 24 hours in Miami, after I'd retraced enough Floridian memory lanes to soothe my limbic brain, we went to the art and design districts in downtown Miami. We explored the Rubell museum and gallery-hopped in Wynwood (one space exhibited "born addicted" baby dolls hooked to Chanel and Prada IV-drips) and we got artisanal sandwiches at a cafe called Panther Coffee, where men in architect's glasses and women with stern expressions sat typing at laptops. I would have thought the place had been airlifted from NoLIta, except that one patron wore only a bikini and Prada sunglasses.
On our last night, I crumbled further, and went to one last celebrity-chef-approved restaurant, an Asian-inflected gastropub called Pubbelly on the northwest tip of South Beach, created by three multilingual chefs: Andreas Schreiner, Jose Mendín (both from Puerto Rico) and Sergio Navarro (from Spain). Pubbelly is tucked alongside a pristine marina where gleaming yachts are moored in Biscayne Bay. As we got out of the cab and I saw tall, white-columned buildings, the bay glistening in the moonlight and outdoor cafe tables, I wondered if we had been magically transported to Barcelona. Tasting the short rib and corn dumplings, flecked with black truffle, fragrant with shiso and Parmesan, resting in a tangy corn and soy nage that suggested béarnaise, I fell into a gustatory trance. I had never before thought it possible to find truly exceptional food in Miami Beach proper (not counting Joe's Stone Crab). I ...I was wrong.
I now, officially, add Pubbelly to the rotation.
IF YOU GO
It's maddeningly difficult to figure out where to stay in South Beach. If you stand in the surf and look back at Ocean Drive, the hotels appear elegant, antique and interchangeable, like a row of stately ocean liners, anchored to the sidewalk with café umbrellas. But as you draw nearer, one hotel turns out to festoon its frontage with sequined, singing transvestites; another surges with frat boys and sorority girls glugging margaritas from goblets as big as goldfish bowls. I suggest staying in the Winter Haven (1400 Ocean Drive; winterhavenhotelsobe.com), a serene, unhyped Art Deco hotel on the quiet end of Ocean Drive. Rooms start at around $225.
Alabama Jack's, 58000 Card Sound Road, Key Largo.
Hosteria Romana, 429 Española Way, Miami Beach; hosteriaromana.com.
Joe's Stone Crab, 11 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach; joesstonecrab.com.
La Sandwicherie, 229 14th Street, Miami Beach; lasandwicherie.com.
News Cafe, 800 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach; newscafe.com.
Puerto Sagua, 700 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach; (305) 673-1115.
Panther Coffee, 2390 Northwest Second Avenue, Wynwood, Miami; panthercoffee.com.
Pubbelly, 1418 20th Street, Miami Beach; pubbelly.com.
Everglades Alligator Farm, Southwest 192nd Avenue, Homestead; everglades.com. Half-hour guided airboat tour, $23, $16 for children.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, U.S. 1 at mile marker 102.5, Key Largo; pennekamppark.com. $8 admission fee per vehicle.
Robert Is Here, 19200 Southwest 344th Street, Florida City; robertishere.com.
Everglades National Park, four miles west of Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, which is at 40001 State Road, on Route 9336.
Homestead, (305) 242-7700, $10 per car admission, good for seven consecutive days.
Venetian Pool, 2701 DeSoto Boulevard, Coral Gables; venetianpool.com. $11.50.
Rubell Family Collection, 95 Northwest 29th Street, Wynwood, Miami; rfc.museum. Admission $10.
LIESL SCHILLINGER is a New York-based writer and translator. Her book of irreverent neologisms, "Wordbirds" illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel, will be published by Simon & Schuster in the fall.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.