I pity those who still imagine that Miami is full of Golden Girls characters and neon signs.
This contemporary and vibrant city stays in motion, from the potent coffees of Little Havana to world-class pop art in Wynwood to daring interior design at nearly every turn. You won't find Don Johnson or your nana's retirement village here.
I travel to this tropical town with some frequency and on my last round, I stayed at the InterContinental hotel downtown. Inside, restaurant Toro Toro operates under the direction of renowned pan-Latin chef Richard Sandoval (seen on "Top Chef Masters"), and serves the best ceviche I've ever had. The unexpected combination of ahi tuna with avocado, quinoa, cucumber and sweet potatoes could have been disastrous, but was sublime.
From the creative cocktail list, choose "The Ahumado," a piquant concoction of mezcal, orange liqueur, bell pepper, lime, agave and a blood orange juice-and-jalapeño ice cube. The drink is designed so as the sweet and spicy cube slowly melts, the flavor changes.
The next evening found us at Versailles, the iconic Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho in the heart of Little Havana. This massive diner and walk-up bakery opened its doors in 1971 and has served as a hub for anti-Castro banter, guava-stuffed pastries and teeth-chattering cortaditos (bold espresso with warm milk) ever since.
The day after binging on moro rice, boliche (Cuban pot roast) and some of my friend's pulled pork in garlic sauce, I took a penitent jog outside of the InterContinental and discovered Bayfront Park. This greenspace first opened in 1925 and was redesigned in 1980 by Isamu Noguchi. Today it's infamous among EDM lovers as the location of the Ultra Music Festival.
This pretty, manmade area offers small stretch of imported white sand and Adirondack chairs where anyone can stop and take in Biscayne Bay under a palm tree's shade. Further along is the Bayside Marketplace, a touristy outdoor mall with a few hidden gems.
Yes, Mojito Bar is a Latin version of Hooters (and, in fact, shares a building with one), but grab a stool at the bar around noon--it stays open until 4AM--and sip one of a dozen versions of the iconic Cuban rum cocktail and watch the yachts go by.
Another fun stop in the Marketplace is the Lauren G. Adams jewelry shop. This magenta and white jewel-box boutique quickly transforms any adult woman into a pretty, pretty princess. Tufted pink walls and a glittering chandelier set the stage for collections of "bright color and graceful prints." Some of the pastel charm bracelets and precious details were too fizzy for a cranky New Yorker like myself; I did fall for a few of the black and silver stackable ring sets and found myself leering a little too long at the Caribbean Waters cocktail ring.
Further down the walk is the Effusion Gallery, with works by pop art sensation Romero Britto, Marc Tetro and Fabio Napoleoni. (A giclée of Napoleoni's "Who Would I Be Without You" made it back north to Brooklyn with me.) Back inside the InterContinental I found more street art pieces and limited edition items from graffiti artist Erni Vales and Britto (again) at a pop-up called The Streets, which stays open through December 2014.
The hotel's other shop Shade carries Blabla dolls, Susan Pritchett and Florence Wetterwald's line of charming hand-knit dolls, which were inspired by Peruvian artisans. The result are heartwarming, charming toys that you can't help but nuzzle to your cheek. Another kitchy brand in this carefully-curated store is Sun Bum from a Cocoa Beach, FL-based company that launched in 2010. Their mantra, "Protect Your Lazy Ass," comes from the owners' broader mission to protect the one in five of us who will develop skin cancer due to modern-day UV exposure.
On another bauble-filled shelf sits Aromaflage, which looked like a perfume from the small lifestyle company Mikey & Momo. But this Southeast Asian fragrance line doubles as, get this: insect repellent. The scents are diverse and invigorating with nary a whiff of Off! to be found. Instead, the 50ml bottle, 8ml "purser" or candles contain pleasing aromas of vanilla, orange and cedar.
Miami firmly resides in the 21st century, creating some of the most innovative cuisine, offbeat art and relaxing vistas in the U.S. Put your pastel t-shirt and linen suit away. It's time to discover modern-day Miami.