Miami has always attracted the rich and famous. Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Taylor once graced this Atlantic shoreline and these days the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith and the Beckhams live on the islands near South Beach.
I cruise by their luxury homes on the Thriller speedboat tour — which goes around the Biscayne Bay area and then out into the ocean for a rollicking, high-speed splash about…
The two skipper dudes tell one-liners (“There’s Mr. Will Smith’s home. If you look on the grass, you can see his fresh prints”), while blaring music and pointing out cool sites as the sun sets on the sparkly skyline.
The southern tip
It’s easy to see why so many people are drawn to the southern tip of Florida. Not only is there plenty of surf, sand and sunshine, but the city also boasts of great galleries, museums and shopping.
So no matter what the weather’s like (hurricane season runs from June to November — bringing a mix of sunshine and deluges), there’s plenty to explore.
And there are some unique and unusual places to see…
The Ancient Spanish Monastery being one of them.
Built in Sacramenia, Spain in 1133, the monastery housed monks for hundreds of years before being bought by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 1925. He had the entire monastery carefully disassembled (putting numbers on each stone), bundled up in hay and shipped to the United States.
But upon arrival, it was quarantined due to a foot-and-mouth outbreak. The crates were unpacked, the hay was burned and the stones were left in storage. Shortly thereafter, Hearst fell upon hard times, lost money during the Great Depression and never managed to put the monastery back together again.
The stones remained in storage for 26 years and after Hearst’s death they were bought by William Edgemon and Raymond Moss.
It turns out that the stones had not been stored in any particular order and some of the numbers had been washed away by the years. Nevertheless, as Time magazine reported, they rebuilt “the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle” as best they could in Miami.
The monastery and museum have two original stained-glass windows, a 15th-century marble frieze and a wardrobe with the papal seal (it was used by Pope Urban VII in 1644-1652) among other artifacts. And it all sits on a beautiful property with nearly 1,000 plants and trees.
It’s a remarkable site located about 15 minutes north of the exclusive enclave of Bal Harbour — a one mile stretch that was built for the stars in 1946. Known as America’s Riviera, it’s attracted everyone from Count Basie to Frank Sinatra and more recently the former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
Nestled between Surfside and Sunny Isles, Bal Harbour is home to the lovely St Regis resort, the Ritz Carleton and the Bal Harbour Quarzo boutique hotel.
The oceanfront, luxury properties offer wonderful accommodations, fine dining and stellar views — not to mention fantastic amenities such as butler services, decadent spa treatments and kids clubs.
There’s a string of sandy beaches (all with signs advising patrons how to ‘stay out of the grip of the rip’), beautifully manicured landscaping with patios and pools and a convenient trail for people wishing to cycle or walk along the coast.
In addition, Bal Harbour Shops — one of the world’s most exclusive open-air shopping malls — is here and it attracts people from all over…
Some come to dine at restaurants such as Makoto, the Grill and Carpaccio, all of which serve delicious meals. Others come to shop — or window shop as the case may be — in the glamorous mall, with orchid palm trees, beautiful water fountains and about 100 luxury retailers.
The legendary crystal brand Lalique is here, as is Chanel and the newly opened Vasalissa Chocolatier boutique.
But there’s still more to do and see in the city. Guests who stay in Bal Harbour receive an art access pass, which gives them free entry into 18 of Miami’s best galleries and museums — which should be on everyone’s list.
Vizcaya, the winter home of James Deering, who made a name for himself promoting agricultural technology in the late-1800s, early-1900s is one of them. The stunning villa is a treasure trove of European art and furnishings spanning 400 years — with a particular focus on Italian goods.
The collection is so good that even Queen Elizabeth II made a point of visiting the home and gardens when she was in town.
And, of course, the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) with its collection of 20th- and 21st-century contemporary art and the Phillip and Patricia Frost Science Museum, featuring a planetarium, an aquarium and a variety of exhibitions (both in the museum park) are well worth visiting.
It’s also fun to wander around Wynwood art district. The Wynwood Walls outdoor museum showcases massive works by some of the best-known street artists and the area is full of funky galleries, bric-a-brac and colourful murals. And it’s great to take a look at the vibrant Little Havana neighbourhood, too. Both areas have a distinct charm and free spirit about them — with interesting little shops, parks and café/bars.
In fact, the Ball & Chain in Little Havana used to be Hemingway’s hangout. And the bar, with a great back patio and fantastic live music left me with a hop in my step and a total chilled-out vibe at the same time.
That’s one other thing Miami is good for — you simply can’t take life too seriously here. And that, no doubt, is also part of its timeless charm, which keeps drawing celebrities and others back again and again.
The writer was a guest of Bal Harbour. The organization did not review this article.