Not Your Dad’s Miami

Russian and Arab languages now join English and Spanish in the streets.

Florida’s population grew almost 15 percent during the last decade—doubling the overall US population growth rate. 

Miami, the state’s second most-populous city, is home to approximately half a million souls, including snowbirds, Latin American immigrants, and digital nomads.

All drawn by the irresistible combination of excellent weather, multiculturalism, and the lack of a personal income tax.

Gentrification has bridged South Beach with the mainland to form the sprawling city of “Greater Miami and the Beaches.”

On holiday weekends, the town brims with simultaneous events like Art Wynwood, the Miami Boat Show, concerts, fashion shows, and street festivals.

Driving back from Calle Ocho during the last President’s Weekend, I marveled at an unrecognizable skyline more reminiscent of Dubai than the place that welcomed me twenty years ago.

Back then, there were still remnants of the golden age that culminated with the assassination of Gianni Versace.

The mission was to become Urbe’s first foreign correspondent.

The increasingly popular Village Voice-inspired Caracas publication was annoying the new government of Comandante Hugo Chavez with a mix of irreverence and—especially—American pop culture.

My coverage of Madonna’s 2001 “Drowned World Tour” in Fort Lauderdale, FL

We were looking to expand beyond borders, just as the “World Wide Web” began upending our trade by birthing what we know today as the online content industry.

As I executed my first assignments, I watched with trepidation how my country’s government amended the constitution to eliminate presidential term limits.

The writing was on the wall. I embraced my new American life.

Around the time I rented my first studio apartment, a friend gave me his old TV set. The first broadcast images were of skyscrapers collapsing after being hit by passenger jets.

Though early 2000s South Beach still echoed its former glamorous self—drag queens hung out with bodybuilders on Ocean and 12th, scantily-clad rollerbladers handed out flyers on Lincoln Road, and celebrities roamed Española Way—change was in the air.

Season after season, many of the Art Deco District hotels that lodged the rich and famous in the 1920s, soldiers right before WWII, and supermodels in the 1990s crumbled to Mother Nature and the indifference of real estate developers.

The MTV reality show starlet replaced the movie star. Rowdy spring breakers, online influencers, and crypto bros followed.

In Alton Road, a party-kid-turned-middle-aged-dad reminisced about Junior Vasquez’s and Tracy Young’s “dope” music sets of yesteryear at Level and Crobar. The party was officially over.

I became an exile yet again. I was sad to leave good friends and a promising career in hospitality behind. But I had to nurse a chronic tropical hangover and return to my roots as a writer—this time in English.

Three years later, I came back as a visitor. I was ecstatic about the warm weather after a ferocious New York City winter. I shed my coat while skipping like a madman upon landing. The Cuban ladies who sold cafecito in the airport terminal must’ve thought I was loco.

One of my first visits to Miami as a tourist circa 2007

I’d witnessed the city struggle to regain footing on every subsequent trip since. Including during the pandemic, when the local authorities’ laxity might’ve attracted some of the ensuing holiday lawlessness we see in the news today.

But things are finally falling into place once again. Miami seems to be maturing into a world capital where development is ubiquitous and Russian and Arab languages join English and Spanish in the streets.

Old and new friends from around the world met at the heart of Little Havana this winter.

Gays, moms, Cuban refugees—and everyone in between!—danced away and sang along in the street to Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga” and Will Smith’s “Miami.”

Then, the sun beautifully set in this perfectly-unperfect Southern Florida piece of the American Dream.

I Didn’t Bring my “PJs” to Aspen

Aspen will make you feel poor. Then its priceless landscapes will make you believe you are the wealthiest person walking on the face of Earth.

America never looked more beautiful.

The flight from Phoenix to Aspen is an hour and a half spectacle of SIMM-like arid landscapes, dramatically beautiful mountain ranges and majestic rivers.

All perfectly enhanced by crisp and sunny winter skies.

We were still processing the first post-COVID family holiday we had just spent in the Bay Area when the Colorado River greeted us.

The Colorado River

Next, the real-life map turned snowy as the landscape’s elevation increased, and the Aspen trees appeared as though you could reach out and touch them.

As we overflew the town of Aspen, we saw the last windmills and solar panels of a journey that had taken us from the California skies through Arizona and now the Colorado ones.

“Who knew the US was that much into renewable energy,” I thought with pride.

As visibility was good, and our United Airlines pilot was highly skilled, the much-expected landing at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (one of America’s “most extreme” with its 7815 feet above sea level) was nice and smooth.

It was my first time in town, and my first impression was feeling increasingly poor as we deplaned, claimed our luggage and picked up our rental car.

Here, “PJs” didn’t mean pajamas but private jets.

But whatever feeling of inadequacy at the terminal quickly dissipated when we hit the road and saw one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes.

“Priceless! I can only imagine what it is like in the summer,” I said.

Breathtaking Aspen

We stayed with good friends, which was a welcome change from hotels and AirBnBs and prolonged the theme of familial hospitality that we began during the Christmas holiday.

Besides, their place is fabulous.

I’m not an expert skier (not even an intermediate one), but the main point of the trip was for my partner (a much better skier) and our friends (excellent ones) to hit the slopes.

My goal was to make it to “apres-ski” in one piece.

That usually happened after the children tired of watching me fall in my butt all day at Buttermilk, the easiest ski mountain in the region. 

My partner and friends glided with the big boys and girls at Aspen and Snowmass

A caveat: Buttermilk hosts the famous X Games, which were going to take place in two weeks. So, at least, it was cool to say, “I was just there,” while watching from the comfort of my warm home back in New York City. 

Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Creek Valley from the top of Buttermilk

Although I only experienced one mountain, I branched out about the after ski activities.

Aspen Pie Shop was a young and casual place to get excellent pizza and beer. Plus the dining room has a lovely view of the doggie park with the gorgeous Aspen mountain in the background.

There’s something about puppies romping happily in the snow.

The second establishment, The Wine Bar (formerly Chair 9) at The Little Nell was more upscale. The wine list and gourmet snacks were excellent. I particularly enjoyed the fondue, oysters and wagyu beef sliders (we ordered two portions).

Aspen Mountain

The Aspen Art Museum was temporarily closed, an excuse to come back in the Summer. Perhaps during the FOOD & WINE Classic or one of the Aspen Institute events.

Two more culinary experiences you should try: Betula Aspen was a delightful “French Pan-American” dinner. I loved the Ceviche “Bonito” and the Peruvian Lomo Saltado. 

For Sunday brunch, we tried Element 47. Also part of The Little Nell, this posh-chic place serves delicious gourmet food and has a good wine program.

I had the duck ramen, which tasted even better as the powdery snow fell outside, but I was told the element 47 wagyu burger was also delicious.

Eagle County Regional Airport

It was time to come back to reality.

We drove 65 miles to Gypsum, where the Eagle County Regional Airport sits, and from where United Airlines operates a non-stop flight to New York La Guardia.

The ruggedly beautiful Colorado mountains that streamed on our windshield for an hour and a half lend themselves to reflection.

On the radio, a single mother shared tips on making ends meet during a global pandemic.

You Can Have Charleston

Stunning architecture, world-class gastronomy and a complicated past: I’m glad I checked the South Carolinian capital off my bucket list.

I don’t know how they do it.

Charleston is immaculately clean despite the number of horses drawing pretty carriages all over the city at all times.

As a history geek and gastronomy lover, I was excited to check out the South Carolinian capital.

And “Chucktown” didn’t disappoint.

For starters, the namesake town of King Charles II treasures its past.

Which is delightful to a Northerner horrified by New York City’s eagerness to destroy icons and give way to sterile monuments to gentrification.

Like London, Charleston memorializes virtually every other corner with markers telling visitors about its rich history.

City Carriage Tours are one of the best ways to learn about the charming Southern town’s history

The examples are abundant. Not only in obviously historical places, like The Battery and The City Market.

But also in restaurants or hotels, former dwellings of legendary figures.

Like Zero Hotel and Restaurant on George Street, former home of Captain George Anson (1697-1762), commander of the H.M.S. Scarborough and defender of Charleston Harbor.

And speaking of traditions, we arrived in time for Saint Patrick’s Day.

Upon checking out the charming parade, we were also determined to experience the many food recommendations our friends had made.

First stop: 167 Raw Oyster Bar.

Let me tell you something about this place.

Just about anywhere in Charleston you will get an outstanding meal.

From Market Street Deli’s killer Classic Club Sandwich to the more upscale Charleston Grill (best wine list in town) and everything in between.

But, if you had to go to just one place, make sure it’s Raw Oyster Bar, and be ready to get blown away by the freshest oysters, spectacular ceviche, and a lobster roll that makes the Maine ones run for their money.

Located on King Street, 167 Raw doesn’t take reservations, though.

Your best bet is to put your name down on the list and go on a stroll.

Or, as we did, have a glass of wine at Bin 152 down the street, which has a pretty decent program. 

Rest assured that in an hour or so, depending on how busy they are, the maître d’ will text you via Resy. 

Not to be confused with the Old Slave Market, Charleston’s City Market is one of the most iconic sights

City Carriage Tours or pedicabs are an excellent way to get around.

But you can walk or even bike if you feel like burning the extra calories from all those delicious meals.

Head to The Battery, the iconic seawall and promenade along the Charleston peninsula, to admire the gorgeous homes surrounding White Point Garden.

Continue north on East Bay Street through the South of Broad neighborhood, and you’ll eventually run into the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.

The former prisoner of war facility operated by British forces during the American Revolutionary War is now a museum run by the Daughters of the American Revolution no less.

Next, you’ll find the Old Slave Mart Museum almost around the corner on Chalmers Street.

Built in 1859, it once housed a slave auction gallery. And it’s a vivid reminder with plenty of painful details about the antebellum era.

Old Slave Mart Museum

Tough to experience, it also contains this uplifting quote:

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again

Maya Angelou

The Charleston Museum, in the Wraggborough neighborhood, is also worth a visit. 

It collects historical artifacts, natural history, and decorative arts.

It also contains a replica of the CSS Hunley, the submarine of the Confederate States of America used in the Civil War. 

So much history opened up our appetite again. And, this time, Butcher & Bee was the answer.

Located in Morrison Drive, a 25-minute drive from the town’s historical center, the popular spot resembles a Los Angeles brunch joint, and it’s known for its burgers and artisanal beers.

We also had to throw in some nightlife for good measure

Luckily, Dudley’s at Ann Street was happy to oblige with a good old Southern drag show, Saint Patrick’s Weekend Edition.

The revue included one of the divas performing to Cranberries “Zombie,” which the whole bar sang along. It was refreshing.

Fort Sumter, where the first shots that started the Civil War were fired

We couldn’t leave Charleston without visiting Fort Sumter.

The tour, via ferry, departs from either Downtown Charleston or Mount Pleasant. It costs $32 for adults, and it lasts 2+ hours. 

Highlights include the original canons, brick fortifications, and Union and Confederate flags.

On the ride back, we had the following exchange:

Fort Sumter Ferry Boy: “How did y’all like the tour?”

Us: “Very interesting. Tons of history!”

Him: “They changed some things a little.” (shows us what he says is a 2013 iPhone photo of flags, including the Confederate one, flying on the fort) 

Us: “How come?”

Him: (shrugs) “Things change, I guess. I don’t necessarily agree with it if you ask me.”

Us: (Google “Fort Sumter flags”)

USA Today, June 2015: “South Carolina lawmakers have been asked to decide the future of the Confederate flag flying at the Statehouse after nine people attending Bible study were shot and killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17. Alleged shooter Dylann Roof posted Confederate-inspired messages on social media.”

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church

The following day on our way to the airport, we stopped at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to pay our respects and think about the future of our country.

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