Miami: Don’t get me wrong: This is not a bizarre story of me jumping out of a plane and wading through a foamy sky. Far from it.
The disclaimer in place, I must confess that if there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught me, it is the transience of life.
Not uncoincidentally perhaps, it was this ephemeral truth that struck me all over again when I recently visited the all-new Superblue Museum in Miami, Florida. I could feel it everywhere, whether it was at the art studio DRIFT’s kinetic installation Meadow and its mechanical flowers that showcased the impermanence of nature; artist Es Delvin’s three-minute film Forest of Us that dwelt on the paths we choose every time we reach a fork in the road; or the virus-like clouds in an immersive creation by the art collective teamLab.
Called the Massless Clouds between Sculpture and Life, the vaporous sculpture, a visualisation of order or energy, evoked in me a surreal feeling as I walked through its dissipating soap bubbles in PPE-like gear amid COVID-19 times.
According to the ultra-technologists of teamLab, viruses are “considered to exist between living and inanimate”. They say what separates the living from the inanimate cannot be defined biologically to this day. "That you continue to be tomorrow who you are today is against the law of increasing entropy (a measurement of lack of order in a system). In other words, in a universe where entropy is supposedly being maximised, life is an entity that resists this trend…”
Emirates’ maiden flight to Miami
Superblue, a unique art initiative that sprang up during the pandemic, although conceptualised earlier, was my first stopover when I was in Miami as part of a press trip organised by Emirates airline on the launch of its maiden flight to the party city from Dubai on July 22.
Emirates operates four, conveniently timed weekly flights to Miami (see box), allowing you to take off on a whim. Of course, it goes without saying that like your visa, you will have your vaccination card in place, besides a pledge to yourself that you will maintain social distance, mask yourself and take all other due precautions against the still deadly coronavirus and its variants.
The sprawling Superblue has ample space to ensure the social distancing. As Olee Fowler, the museum’s marketing manager, lets on, the museum, set up to house large-scale art installations by out-of-the-box artists, is spread over 50,000 sq ft.
According to her, “A few years ago, our co-founders realised that some artists were doing large-scale art productions but did not know where to house them as existing art galleries could not accommodate them. This is how the idea of Superblue was born.”
At its inaugural exhibition, Every Wall is a Door, artists Es Devlin, teamLab and James Turrel take viewers through a variety of immersive light, video and sound environments. Much of the experience here depends on the viewer, with installations being "created by artists" but "completed by you". For me, the journey was not just a physical experience, but deeply reflective and profound. The installations were like portals inspiring a new level of awareness.
Duly reinvigorated by the Superblue visit, I was now ready to soak in the sights and sounds of the rest of Miami and I was not disappointed - even as a second-time visitor. There’s so much to do in the party city, which is not just about its famed beaches, mega clubs and samba dancers. Even if you’re on a short five-day trip like I was, you can pack in a lot.
MIAMI’S MUSTN’T MISSES
Wynwood Walls – an Instagrammer’s delight
The eclectic urban district of Wynwood in Miami is a visual delight. A place where you can keep walking while admiring giant murals and street art. Chris of Wynwood Buggies who took us on a tour of the place says, “The neighbourhood has come a long way since the early days when it was just an industrial area with a bunch of warehouses.”
He talks of how the place was home to the Carribbean immigrants and the Garment District up until the early 1990s, following which it was abandoned. However, it began to come alive when artists started using the windowless buildings as giant canvasses to do graffiti. Somewhere along the line, the legendary MSG of Maimi Style Graffiti was born, with its founding artist Crome influencing the Miami graffiti scene over the decades.
In 2009, “community revitaliser” Tony Goldman transformed Wynwood, starting with the 25th–26th Street complex of six separate buildings. The Wynwood Walls, an open air museum of murals, attracts millions of visitors like me every year. As do Outside the Walls, the epic murals that cover entire buildings in the neighbourhood.
Home to several art galleries, retail stories, funky eateries and bars, Wynwood sure is a day well spent in Miami.
Little Havana for a slice of Cuba
Little Havana with its trademark roosters is the heart and soul of Miami’s Cubans, besides immigrants from Central and South America. The place gets its name from the Cuban capital Havana. It is a national treasure awarded by The National Trust for Historic Preservation. As our area guide, who met us at the Bay of Pigs Monument and Cuban Memorial Boulevard, explains, the four-block boulevard off Calle Ocho, the Southwest 8th Street, houses various monuments paying tribute to Cuban freedom fighters.
The Eternal Torch of Brigade 2506 is the most prominent of all, commemorating the soldiers who gave up their lives in the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba. The picturesque block, a statue of Virgin Mary and a large Ceiba tree with buttress roots are replete with historic and religious significance for the local population.
The main street is lined by charming eateries featuring Latin specialty foods. One such is Azucar Ice Cream, an artisanal ice cream and sorbet boutique, where I dug into a mouth-watering flan.
There are also many art galleries, souvenir shops selling among other things, crisp linen shirts and dresses, Cuban coffee and hand-crafted cigars; the Domino Park where some elderly residents unfailingly meet during the day for a game of dominoes; the Tower Theater that screens films in Spanish and English; and the nearby Walk of Fame. In short, Little Havana is another day sumptuously spent in Miami.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens: Once a businessman’s winter home
A cruise in the waters off Miami may give you a glimpse of the plush homes of the world’s top celebrities, but nothing perhaps can compare with the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, the villa and estate of the late businessman James Deering of the Deering McCormick-International Harvester fortune.
Tucked away on Biscayne Bay in the current Coconut Grove area of Miami, the estate consists of 50 acres with the villa and Italian Rennaisance gardens overlooking the sea, besides native forests. The mansion, which has an open-air courtyard, boasts more than 70 rooms furnished with rich European decorative art. Legend has it that some of the original ceramics which were shipped from England in 1912, the year in which construction on the villa actually began, sank along with the Titanic. Deering, who used the place as his winter residence from 1916 to 1925, had them replaced as they were insured.
The magnificent décor and lush landscape of the extensive gardens against the backdrop of a stunning stone barge in the waters has made the mansion a highly popular photo shoot spot for weddings, graduations and other occasions. But be warned, if you are a selfie addict, the sheer expanse of the estate makes it almost impossible for you to capture yourself in its entire frame.
Evergreen Everglades: Eco-adventure beckons
If you are willing to take an hour’s drive from Miami, you can visit two national parks: the Florida Everglades and the Biscayne National Park. I chose to go the Everglades in the hope of spotting alligators, manatees and dolphins in their natural habitat.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the national park, spread over 1.5 million acres, is made up of sawgrass prairies, mangrove swamps and subtropical jungles. Flamingo, 38 miles from the park’s main entrance, is where the manatees, dolphins and sea turtles, not to mention 350 species of birds, come from. The combination of fresh, salt and brackish waters makes Florida Bay the only place on earth where freshwater alligators and rare saltwater American crocodiles co-exist.
I was lucky to spot a colony of dolphins playing in the waters, besides some alligators and their babies that could easily be mistaken for rocks. The tour guide accompanying us went to great lengths describing the rich flora and fauna of the place, with many plants being unique to the Everglades.
What’s a trip to the US without shopping?
True, no trip to the US is complete without a shopping spree. In the five days that I was in Miami, I visited the Miami Design District and the Aventura Mall, besides Target for some compulsive buys.
The upscale Miami Design District is great for an evening visit, its choice designer stores and chic art galleries tastefully laid out, with public art adding to the ambience. I was particularly struck by Buckminster Fuller’s Fly Eye Dome, Konstantin GRCIC’s Netscape and Xavier Veilhan: Le Corbusier.
Yes, there was also the Omega Olympic Swimming Pool art installation where visitors lay on a hard surface inside the waterless pool to get pictures of themselves.
A Dubai resident like me was more at home at the Aventura Mall, where I popped in and out of the showrooms in calibrated time. The mall also showcases some exclusive art.
As Crystal Rouhani, the mall’s vice-president for retail and business development, told us, it features 20+ museum-calibre sculptures and installations by renowned artists like Louise Bourgeois, Lawrence Weiner and Ugo Rondinone, besides vibrant murals by local artists.
Sun-kissed beaches and the waterfront vibe
Despite Miami’s many attractions, its sparkling beaches remain its biggest draw.
While South Beach and Ocean Drive are the stuff of the movies, the Art Deco District with its architecturally protected buildings is spectacular. According to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, “The rest of Miami Beach continues to thrive, reaping the benefits of its proximity to the Art Deco District’s plentiful entertainment and dining offerings. Hotels that put Miami Beach on the map during the swinging 60s, including the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau, are still going strong, completely updated, while neighborhoods like family-friendly Surfside and a revitalised North Beach draw many with unpretentious charms, great local restaurants and easy beach access.”
There are any number of hotspots along Surfside, North Beach (a.k.a. NoBe), Faena District Miami Beach and Sunny Isles Beach.
In mainland Downtown Miami too, the shimmering waters of Miami are visible everywhere. Staying at JW Marriott Marquis, all I had to do was walk to the Bayfront Park, a few metres away, to soak in the waterfront vibe.
Miami is a foodie’s paradise
Here are the top picks among the restaurants that I visited during my trip to Miami:
Smith & Wollensky, Miami Beach: Go for their hand-butchered and dry-aged-on-site steaks, angry shrimps and crab cakes. Being a vegetarian, I settled for Burrata, spinach salad and vegetable bouillabaisse.
Wynwood’s Bakan, Wynwood: It’s Mexican tacos and tostadas hands down here; Try also their Robalo Chileno (Chilean seabass, veggies, yuzu-basil, guacamole and black beans) and Ceviche Vegeno (hearts of palm, giant corn, peppers, cucumber, tomato, portobellos with avocado-cilantro sauce).
Le Jardinier Restaurant, Design District: Michelin-starred Chef Alain Verzeroli’s small, medium and large plates are not just elegant but are super healthy. Must tries: Heirloom tomato salad, black olive, basil and anchovy noisette; roasted ora king salmon, trio of carrots, lemongrass emulsion and pistachios; and white chocolate cheese cake with mango and passion fruit gelee.
Jaya at the Setai, Miami Beach: Pan-Asian delicacies served in an vibrant courtyard to live performances makes it the perfect fine-dining choice in Miami. Executive chef Vijay Veena’s sumptuous menu offers everything from the signature peking duck and truffle dumplings to an Indian vegetarian thali for vegetarians like me.
Boulud Sud: Chef Daniel Boulud’s popular restaurant at the JW Marriot Marquis, Downtown was my go-to breakfast place, their mushroom omelet or avocado tartines with a berry parfait going down well with me. Lunch and dinner too have great options, including the signature Boloud Sud Burger and Catalan Grilled Hanger Steak.