For some reason (wait, I know why—it's portrayed this way in all of popular media) I imagined Miami to be the East Coast equivalent of Las Vegas, minus casinos, plus the beach: a celebrity playground with lots of bright lights, and people throwing money around as if it was chump change. But I was in Miami this past week and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found there: a convenient beach locale not very far from home with beautiful public beaches, decent dining options, cool art spots, and an interesting "scene"—all for a rather affordable price, which equal the right ingredients for a good beach vacation if you ask me. Here are some of the nice surprises I found when I visited Miami:
1. The beaches there are awesome. Granted, they might not compare to the "most secluded" or "most exotic" slices of heaven they call beaches in the Caribbean or the Pacific Islands, but for a place you can get to for about $160 round trip, they aren't bad. In fact, they're better than just "not bad": The soft, nearly-white sand is edged by clear, bright teal Atlantic waters. For families, or people who aren't as fond of the ocean as they are of the beach, the warm shallow tide is perfect to play around in, and you don't have to worry about cutting your feet on rocks, coral, twigs, or other debris (not to mention the absence of sea critters that have always contributed to my fear of the deep blue). A nice cooling sea breeze also keeps you from roasting in the sun—though I can't say the same would be true come summer.
On top of that, the beaches are mostly crowd-free, unless you want to congregate with all the other sun-lovers that line the shores of South Beach (which, admittedly, is good for people watching). Head north of 17th Street in Miami Beach and you will have a fairly large spot to lay out a towel and tan or build sand castles—or whatever else you plan to do at the beach. (Disclaimer: I haven't been to Miami during Spring Break, and that could very well turn the peaceful beach into a zoo.)
2. The public transportation is actually very easy and convenient. Everything I had read online previous to going gave me the impression that you had two options for transportation in Miami: a cab or your own car, but forget about the buses. But from the moment we left the airport on a public city bus (take the J bus to Miami Beach if that's where you're headed) to the moment we returned to the airport on that same bus line, we found that the public transportation system was very convenient, and cheap to boot. The buses cost $2, and come about every ten minutes, though sometimes more often than that. If you don't see the exact bus line that you want, you can most likely hop on another one that has a similar route, and will get you to your desired destination all the same.
3. Miami is surprisingly affordable. You can spend a few days in Miami and easily make it out without spending too much dough. I was fully prepared to come back a pauper (though with a tan, dammit), but we were able to eat out and get the mandatory mojitos/margaritas/other fruity cocktails without feeling like we'd just blown a huge hole in our savings. Compared to similar fare in comparable D.C. restaurants, some of our meals were actually very moderately priced. Check out Creek 28 (their toasted pita and three spreads appetizer is to die for) in the Indian Creek Hotel or La Locanda with homemade pastas on Washington Avenue in South Beach. Both have really delicious food at affordable prices, and are set back from the tourist craziness on Ocean Avenue along South Beach. The Front Porch Cafe in the Penguin Hotel also serves great cafe food and from 4-7 has a cheap happy hour that includes strong $4 margaritas and other tall colorful drinks. Also make sure wherever you go (but especially for establishments along the main South Beach strip) to always ask about special deals (like half off the entire menu—really) and happy hour prices because, as is appropriate for Miami, any time of day of any day of the week can be "happy hour."
Another quick note: It's wholly possible to find hotels within your budget. There are a lot of affordable boutique hotels, such as the Penguin, the Chesterfield Hotel, and the Catalina Hotel that are right in the heart of South Beach. Many hotels also offer discounted rates when you stay three nights or more (and what's a vacation if you don't stay three or more nights?). Just temper your expectations: If you're paying $100 a night for a hotel, don't expect five-star amenities.
4. It's not all glitz, clubs, and celebrities. At least not where we were, or not where we chose to go. We spent every night in South Beach, and perhaps we weren't hanging with the right crowd, but I never felt like I was missing out on any huge, bass-pumping club scene where there was a line snaking around the block. I was perfectly happy lingering over food and drinks on Lincoln Road, people watching, and enjoying the friendliness of locals. If partying is what you came to Miami to do, you can certainly find it in large supply, but if you'd rather keep things low-key, it's easy to have a good time without the crazy nightlife as well.
5. Miami really is as international as you've heard it is. Everywhere we turned, people were speaking languages other than English: Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, something Slavic that I couldn't quite pick out. And if they were speaking English, it was clear it wasn't their first language. It seemed like we were the minority, and that could very well be true. Miami draws tons of international travelers, as well as immigrants from other countries. All of it adds to the effect of feeling like you've traveled somewhere a little more exotic than you really have. And for just a 2.5-hour flight from home, feeling farther away from all that stuff you left at home on vacation is actually a pretty nice thing.
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