By Charles McCool / McCool Travel
In the late 1970s, Miami launched a memorable ad campaign, using the slogan: “Miami. See it like a native.” The reason it was so popular at the time, and so memorable today, was that one particular ad poster was kinda risqué: It showed the naked back of a snorkeler — and I read that it is still not allowed on Facebook. If you want to can buy one of the vintage posters. it’ll cost you $2,500 on eBay.
Since I spent more than 90 percent of my school time in South Florida (in other words, I grew up there), I feel qualified to present attractions that actually speak to the point of this notorious old PR stunt, places where you really can see Miami like a local. These are not mainstream destinations or attraction, they’re spots I visited over the years on school field trips or with family or with friends.
Read on so you can really see Miami. Like a native.
Escape to Off-the-Beaten-Path Beaches
Cape Florida beach on Key Biscane (Photo: iStock/floridastock)
High-rise development up and down the South Florida coast has turned the sleepy, quaint beaches of my childhood into playgrounds for jet-setters. Two amazing beaches that remain virtually untouched are state parks: Cape Florida (at the south end of Key Biscayne) and John U. Lloyd (in Dania Beach, ten miles north of North Miami Beach). A third beach, Haulover Park, has changed a lot, some say improved while others disagree: It features the longest undeveloped beach area in South Florida (1.5 miles), the marina you will likely use to go deep-sea fishing, and a fantastic kite flying area. The “improvements” include a dog park and one of the world’s most popular clothing-optional beach areas. So now you know where to go to get an all-over tan before your “See Miami like a native” modeling session.
Explore Crandon Park
Crandon Park Beach (Photo: KeyBiscayne.org)
On the way to Cape Florida you pass through Crandon Park. The beach is the highlight of this former coconut plantation (and the original site of the Miami zoo), but there is much, much more to do here. Crandon beach is very popular because a sand bar protects swimmers from the big waves. Activities include nature walks, golf, tennis (home of the Miami Open), kayaking, boating, a marina, and tram rides. Bear Cut is a marine preserve preserving “old Florida” wilderness. On one field trip, a teacher took a small group to observe the various ecosystems. A sea urchin floated on my foot and I kicked it off resulting in a classmate getting soaked…and then a water fight. Ah, good times. Sorry, Todd and Mr. Kappes.
Discover the Coconut Grove Arts Festival
Coconut Grove Arts Festival (Photo: coconutgrovegrapevine.blogspot.com)
I was not really interested in art when I was growing up. However, I was amazed the first time I went to the Coconut Grove Arts Festival and excited for repeat visits. CGAF has become a humongous festival held every February — with music lineups, cooking demos, and outdoor games — a big change from the few small art booths in a sleepy village from my youth. Still, this festival is not on many visitor’s radars.
Find Inspiration at the Lowe Art Museum
Even though I wasn’t an art fan, my most memorable field trip in elementary school was to the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum where I saw a display of Christmas trees from around the world (and creatively, from around the universe). Then we ate lunch in the area around the university pool, where we watched the swim and dive team practice. To this day, one of my favorite sightseeing activities is visiting college campuses.
Climb a Mountain in Tropical Park
Tropical Park (Photo: miamiandbeaches.com)
In southwest Miami, Tropical Park is an oasis with hundreds of acres of open space for bicycling, running, nature walks, frisbee, football or soccer, and many more outdoor activities. One flashback, if I may. When I ran cross-country in high school (not very well), Tropical Park was the site for the regional championship. Almost every runner in that race struggled on the park’s big hill. My driveway is probably longer and steeper than that hill but to Miami natives, that mountain was torture. If you happen to be visiting South Florida in the winter, make sure to visit the park’s Santa’s Enchanted Forest. It is the world’s largest holiday theme park. (McCool Tip: One thing you should know is that South Florida is obsessed with Christmas lights and holiday decorations. Other cool parks: Greynolds Park and T.Y. Park.)
Hunt for Treasure at the Opa Locka Flea Market
Show me a travel article mentioning Opa Locka Flea Market and I will give you, well, never mind. Believe me, this is a truly local attraction. Officially called the Opa Locka Hialeah Flea Market (and in business since 1984!), this is the place to shop for anything, I mean ANYTHING. The fresh produce and seafood would be tops on my list now but, in the day, I would look for used comic books, games, toys, baseball equipment, tools, electronics, you name it. Shout out to Gil, who sold TVs, fixed by his dad, there. He would say to me, “It’s $25 but, because you are my friend, just for you, $30.” As always, gee, thanks, Gil. Alternate: Ft. Lauderdale Swap Shop (the world’s largest flea market).
Sit on the Dock of the Bay at Virginia Key
Virginia Key (Photo: virginiakeygrassroots.com)
Most people pass right over Virginia Key on the way to Crandon Park and Key Biscayne, but locals (and savvy visitors) know that it has some great waterfront spots along the main road. During my years in South Florida, I probably spent more time on Virginia Key than anywhere else, besides home, school, and baseball fields. The main reason is that I had summer internships with the Southeast Fisheries Center during high school and college. Over many lunch breaks I would explore the abandoned Virginia Key Beach Park, which is now a thriving restored area with a mountain bike trail. Other lunch breaks were spent visiting marine mammals and sea life at Miami Seaquarium, then eating my sack lunch with my feet in Biscayne Bay while humming “Dock of the Bay.”
Cool Off at Cuban Storefronts
On hot days, duck into a Cuban shop for ice cold water and pastelito de guayaba. (Photo: Charles McCool)
It gets hot in Miami, you may have heard. One fantastic discovery as a kid were the yellow Igloo coolers of cold water in the front windows of Cuban cafés and stores. Not just cold, but the coldest water on earth. Even colder than water from a stream in Alaska. Am I wrong? Prove it. While the water is FREE, and very refreshing on those brutally hot days, I will usually also buy at least one guava pastelito or a loaf of fresh Cuban bread.
There you go, some of my childhood memories (you are welcome) and eight great places where you can see Miami like a native. What are your favorite local gems in Miami?