The New Face of an Old Friend

On a recent Sunday, I began the day by wading into the tropical waters off the coast of South Beach in Miami.

It was a stunner of a morning, a perfect 75 degrees, the water a just-warm-enough temperature. This stretch of sand is as appealing as ever, with its signature colorful lifeguard stands and ladies strutting around at lunchtime selling empanadas. I had a big book in my bag, plenty of sunblock, an umbrella — all the fixings for a long and leisurely day at the beach.

IMG_20150407_091855-1Yet when the clock struck noon, I packed up my bag and left the beach behind. It turns out, there’s much more to the Miami of today than just the beach.

I lived in a very different Miami, back in the early 2000s. There were no craft cocktail bars and few chefs reached celebrity status with their forward-thinking cuisine. The design, music, and food were often one note. We didn’t even expect more — this was just the character of the city. Since leaving Miami in 2007, I have returned, like clockwork, just about every winter when Airfarewatchdog presents an irresistible flight sale and the New York winter has been such a grind that a dose of sunshine is almost a physical necessity. What I find when I arrive continues to astound me.

Yes, the traffic is definitely worse, but the city is growing at a remarkable rate, and not just growing, but expanding culturally in a way that is truly dynamic. There’s the Perez Art Museum Miami, a striking building of contemporary art, complete with a waterfront restaurant and bar called Verde, where you can dine overlooking Biscayne Bay. Before asking for the check, order one last drink, and take it out towards the water, finding a seat in a maze of chairs and swings. Miami is becoming as known for art as it is for night clubs. During my recent visit, I was in bed before midnight every night. The day’s pleasures were more enticing than the legendary nightlife.

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I packed up my beach bag that Sunday afternoon to head over to the Design District, on the mainland, in an area of Miami that I never set foot in during the four years I called the city home. This neighborhood is now home to high-end shopping and destination-worthy restaurants, such as the charming Mandolin (reserve a table outdoors and feast on gloriously simple, homemade Greek fare) and the cult favorite Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, where I gathered with old friends that Sunday afternoon at an outdoor table and snacked on small plates and raised icy glasses of cocktails. None of this is news to the people in Miami, who have adored these restaurants for years, but their excellence is a happy surprise for a former resident who was never completely satisfied with the local food scene.

After brunch, we moved over to neighboring Wynwood, an arts district with over 70 galleries that has quickly gained a reputation for its powerful large scale murals. There are beer gardens and restaurants, coffee shops with lines out the door, galleries, a butcher shop where you can sit down for a burger, and everywhere, art covering the walls. One wall is covered in tiny writing with the same message, written over and over again: Love is a risk, do it anyway.

In one day of strolling and sipping, I know I barely scratched Wynwood’s surface. But for people that used to come to Miami, sit on the beach for a weekend, and go home completely satisfied — be prepared now for something different. There’s still the sun and the surf and I will continue to indulge in those pleasures, but now when I leave, it will be with a hint of sadness, as this city has found a vibrant stride, and there’s much more to see and not enough time to see it.

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