We are up before 9 so we can trot across the street to sign up for the tour. We will start with a city bus tour, have a couple hours in the middle of the day along a bay front for lunch and end with a 90 minute boat tour along “Millionaires Row” where we’ll see mansions of the rich and famous.
We grab a couple of things from the breakfast table in the hotel, and bring our luggage down to reception. Checkout isn’t until noon, but we’re getting on the tour at 9:45 and won’t be back until 3pm. The hotel doesn’t have a true ‘held luggage’ room, so we stack our bags along with Eve and Leroy’s in the hallway.
The tour is really fun. We start by driving through the Art Deco district and learn that there are over 900 Art Deco buildings within 1.5 kilometers. This is the largest concentration of this type of architecture in the world!
Our tour continues as we cross one of the seven bridges from Miami Beach to mainland Miami. Most of the jobs in this area are from the Port of Miami and Miami International Airport. Miami has the largest cruise ship terminal in the world, able to handle up to seven ships at one time! Figure roughly 3,000+ travelers per ship times 7 equals 21,000 tourists, so all together, 42,000 people with one half embarking and one half disembarking the ships all on the same day. Whew.
Miami, second in size only to Jacksonville, is the only city in the US that is bordered on two sides by national parks: the Everglades and Key Biscayne.
Our driver points out Rio de Miami (Miami River) where the indigenous people originally settled. Then we arrive at Calle Ocho (8th Street) -> home of Little Havana.
First stop is Cuban Tobacco Cigar Store where cigars are handrolled and packaged by just four employees. The owner is 86 years old and usually sits outside his cigar shop daily as his son now runs the business. The owner had a very successful tobacco operation in Cuba, but after the revolution in 1959, lost it all and went to prison. When he was released, he joined his family who had fled to Miami. Here he continues the family tradition and has passed that tradition to his children. It was very interesting and I’m looking forward to see how this small shop compares to what we will see in Cuba.
We walk next door to a souvenir shop for a free “cup” of Cuban coffee. It was only about a thimble sized amount but very tasty. Jeff and I walked around Little Havana briefly and came upon Domino Park where, big surprise, there were several tables of elderly men playing dominos.
It was great to see the social interaction of these elderly men.
Back to the bus we head for Coral Gables which is one of the most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods in the state. Coral Gables was designed by George Merrick as a two-part city: one side to be purely financial, the other residential; Merrick even designed in a swath of land to be left undeveloped between the two sections to further define the division giving a separation between work and family
In Coral Gables no two houses are alike and every house is built of coral rock. Amazing and beautiful houses!
The bus tour continued as we stop briefly at the Biltmore Hotel. You know the Biltmores? Loads of money, huge mansions? This was no different,
but during WWII the Biltmore Hotel was repurposed as a hospital for injured soldiers (queue Downton Abbey music here). In 1999 it was designated as a National Historical site.
Around lunchtime we arrive at the beachfront where there are waterside restaurants, including that all American favorite Bubba Gumps, a food court, shops, waterside charters for Millionaire’s Row and other sites and there is a promenade. We have 2-1/2 hours before our boat tour. Eve and Leroy opt for lunch at one of the waterside venues. Neither Jeff nor I are hungry so we decide to take a walk. It was gorgeous!
We walked for 90 minutes before turning back and saw people looking into the water ahead of us. There was a small buoy making its way along – buoys aren’t supposed to move. Then…up surfaced a large manatee!
Then a smaller one and another large one! I’ve never see a manatee before!!! And, naturally, there was no time to get my camera fired up. It was really exciting! The buoy, of course, is to warn boaters of the manatee’s presence.
Back in the shopping area, Jeff and I sit down at a table with an older woman from Cincinnati and talked with her for a little bit. Clearly, this trip to Florida to visit her sister for a week is her trip of a lifetime. We convince her to take one of the charter cruises – I hope she did. We leave her and go upstairs in the outdoor mall to find the restrooms and visit the food court. Hmmm…the food court offerings were not very good – I end up with a hot pretzel and Jeff got french fries which we share.
All aboard the boat! It is crowded as there is more than one group and my hopes of sitting topside are fading fast. When we do finally get up up to the top, there are Eve and Leroy with their arms spread saving the four front row chairs. Thank you, Thank you!
Everyone who wasn’t lucky enough to get a chair sat downstairs, which in one way would have been okay because it was a little chilly and more than a little windy where we were.
The boat tour went by too quickly, looking at the houses of the rich and famous: Sylvester Stallone, Will Smith, Brad Pitt with their yacht(s) moored in front was Naturally we took lots of photos and now don’t remember whose was whose, though Brad Pitt’s house had little kid’s toys in the backyard and a little boy was playing with a soccer ball at Jackie Chan’s.
After the tour, our driver took us back our hotel where we picked up our left luggage, retrieved Pokey and Gumby, and called for a cab.
It is time to join our SmarTours group at the Marriott by the Miami airport. The cab ride to the Marriott is a flat fare, thank god, because the 40 or so minute drive took just over two hours! Lots of traffic. We arrived shortly before our mandatory orientation meeting.
At the meeting we met our fellow traveling companions for the first time; and we filled out our official Cuban visa information. OMG. I was overtaken by giggles at one point after our instructions were “X” out that box, to which someone asked “Can I just draw a line through it?” The answer was, “No, put an ‘X’ in it!” This could be a long couple of weeks… And, on top of that, if you make a mistake on your visa, you cannot correct it – no crossing out or writing over – if you make a mistake, you have to buy another, new visa for $150 and start over!
Okay, paperwork completed.
Our SmarTours guide is Stevyn Polk who announces that he has arranged for our wake up calls in the morning. Jeff and I head for our room, do a little suitcase/backpack rearranging to make sure we’ll be okay with the 44 pound weight limit and go to bed.
It’s been a long day and tomorrow we go to Cuba!