Five Fun Things To Do In Miami You Won’t Read In A Guidebook

It turns out my hometown of Miami is actually the fattest, rudest, worst-run city in the country. That’s according to Men’s Health, Travel + Leisure, and a site called 24/7 Wall St. (Well, it’s technically only the second rudest.) Yet for some strange reason, tons of people still want to move to this tropical hellscape, at least for retirement. Let’s ignore this bewildering anomaly for now. I want to tell you about the Miami I know.

So there are a lot of haters out there, but let me set this straight: there’s a whole lot of awesome in Miami. Sure, everyone’s heard of the clubs and nightlife, and most visitors to America’s most tropical city either love or hate them, but Miami’s got plenty of other great stuff to offer independent-minded travelers eager to learn something other than which South Beach bar serves up the best Mojito. This is a list of just five. I’d love it if readers added their own.

1) Eat, Talk, and Eavesdrop at Versailles

The epicenter of the Cuban exile community, Versailles is a gigantic megarestaurant and bakery complex appropriately located on 8th Street, the main thoroughfare running through Little Havana and undoubtedly Miami’s most quintessential street. Cubans come to Versailles for everything from their morning cafecito to their catered Christmas Eve dinner of lechón (roast pork), congrí (black beans and rice), yuca (cassava), and mojo (garlic dressing).

This is the best place in Miami to overhear exiles discussing politics, which will just as likely be about Cuba as Miami, if the two can even be totally separated. It’s also a great place to test out your Spanish skills as you attempt to navigate the rapid fire rattle and dropped s’s of the Cuban accent. The menu comes in Spanish with tiny English translations beneath and is itself not a bad way to learn a little Cuban slang. Stop by for lunch or grab a pastel de guayaba (guava pastry) with a cortadito (espresso with condensed milk) in the afternoon.

2) Rise Early and Go Birding in Matheson Hammock

Instead of waking up hungover after blowing a few hundred at a nightclub where the people were too good looking to have a chance with anyway, try doing something that’ll make you feel active, healthy, and emotionally closer to Miami’s natural landscape: birdwatching. Important as a migratory route for everything from shorebirds to raptors and with a high likelihood of accidentals from the Caribbean, South Florida is easily one of the top five most coveted birding destinations in the continental US.

Matheson Hammock is a great introduction to the beauty of South Florida wilderness without having to leave Miami. Located on Old Cutler Road close to Fairchild Tropical Gardens, Matheson features many of the region’s most emblematic ecosystems, like wetlands, mangrove forests, turtle grass beds, and tropical hardwood hammock. Bring binoculars and a field guide. Birding in Matheson is especially rewarding in winter when warblers, waders, and other avian peregrines are sojourning in warm and balmy Miami, just like you.

3) Head Down to Robert Is Here

Robert Is Here is essentially a fruit stand with a vast selection of tropical produce, a lot of it grown by Robert himself, and other neat hodgepodge like seashell necklaces, sugar cane juice, and a wide selection of bee pollen. The milkshakes are expensive but worth the trip alone. The strawberry is simply beyond criticism.

Technically outside of Miami, take the Florida Turnpike down to Homestead and make your way towards the Royal Palm entrance of Everglades National Park. Before you get there keep your eyes peeled for an open-air building with huge block letters spelling out: ROBERT IS HERE. The story goes that when Robert was six his father sent him to sell cucumbers on the side of the road and gave him an enormous sign that read “Robert Is Here.” He sold everything and eventually started a business in the very spot.

Once productive agricultural land, most of the area between Miami and the Everglades has been bought up for development. Robert is one of the last holdouts. What’s cool is Robert’s been in business since 1959 and really is still here. You’ll often find him behind the cash register or helping to haul in fresh fruit grown on the land he decided was worth staying on.

4) Listen to AM 710, Radio Mambí

Once a critical group in the powerplays of world history, the Miami Cubans still feel they’re fighting the Cold War. Named after Los Mambises, the Cuban freedom fighters who liberated the island from Spanish oppression, Radio Mambí is a mix of American and Cuban current events with a decidedly conservative leaning. The station sometimes contacts Cubans still on the island, and even gets jammed by the regime.

Apart from being another great opportunity to test your Cuban comprehension ability, listening to Radio Mambí is among the best ways to learn about the fears and joys of the refugees who transformed Miami into one of the most prosperous cities in the world, yet more than half a century later still talk about their eventual return to Cuba. Whether you feel moved by their impossible longing or not, this is the true essence of a city where half its residents haven’t stopped dreaming of an island that, regardless of what changes one day come, is gone forever.

5) Jog to the Top of Key Biscayne Bridge

Undoubtedly the best view of the downtown Miami skyline, try a predawn jog that’ll leave you atop the bridge just as the sun comes up. There are parking lots by the beach just before the bridge. Traffic will be light, and the view of the surrounding bay is just as impressive as the city. Keep your eyes peeled for the crossbow-shaped silhouettes of magnificent frigatebirds and other pelagics floating overhead. As the sun rises, size up the metropolis that a hundred years ago was nothing more than a swampy backwater, and now attracts all kinds of visitors who find themselves settling in longer than they might’ve guessed, maybe not unlike yourself.

A Real Travel Writer Is A Bigger Badass Than You

So far so good with the website. It’s a nice platform for my ideas and has been drawing in a humble but steady trickle of traffic. But I’m still working hard to get published in the major travel writing websites, and one of the things I’ve been checking out are the personal websites of some of their contributing writers. What I’ve found has been interesting.

In her “About Me” section, one travel writer boasts about illegally entering a country, being detained by the police, and getting kicked out of a famous landmark. Another boldly proclaims his mission to visit every country on the planet (possibly the most original idea I’ve ever heard), and is also immensely proud that he owns only a few things. A third is for some reason very eager to describe how readily he sunburns.

Is this impressive? If you try to get arrested, you can do it. It won’t be hard. What is difficult or cool about that? I am also still unclear on the literary merits of sunburning easily.

So I thought to myself: how can I leapfrog these people? There is of course only one answer. These travel writers are all such badasses, the only way is for me to out badass them. Hence, I have fashioned a new and improved mini-bio for myself, one that ranks me up there with the best of them. Enjoy:

Frank Izaguirre has been to more countries than any other travel writer ever, including all nine continents. He’s been arrested seven and a half times, abducted twice, auctioned off once, and there was this other time when he illegally crossed the border to go take a whiz real quick, which is also something definitely worth writing about. He has contracted five diseases while traveling, two of them venereal, and keeps all his worldly possessions in a fanny pack.

OK, looks good. Am I famous yet?

How To Pronounce Izaguirre

Once, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, I for the first and only time met two Basques. They spoke both Basque and Spanish. Izaguirre is a Basque name. It was my chance to find out what it means.

“What does Izaguirre mean in Basque?” I asked in Spanish.

“Ah, Izaguirre,” one nodded knowingly. “It’s a last name.”

There are great benefits to having a rare and unusual last name. First is the fame.

“I’m the most famous Frank Izaguirre,” I recently said at the dinner table. I was referring to how the first Frank Izaguirre hit on Google is actually me, Frank Izaguirre. Even though we were in the middle of a meal, my sister immediately got up, went to her room, and brought back her laptop. I enjoyed watching her humiliation when it turned out I actually am the top hit. In the Images search you can see several pictures of me trying to look like a traveler or a writer.

A strange last name is renewable source of entertainment. One of my best friends, someone I’ve known since freshman year of college, still doesn’t know how to spell Izaguirre. Every time I’ve seen him try it’s been wrong. Izzaguirre. Izaguire. Izaguirie. I keep his name misspelled in my phone too.

I also remember submitting a very clear phonetic pronunciation to be read during my college commencement, but the lady calling the names still said something like, “Iza-meh-meh-meh.”

And I know there’s still more fun to come. One of my great motivators for breaking into the travel writing market is meeting other travel writers with a complete ineptitude for pronouncing Izaguirre. Travel writers almost by definition pride themselves on being worldly. Meeting such people and listening to them stumble is a major professional ambition.

To avoid such embarrasment, they could journey to the Basque country on a quest to find out how to pronounce Izaguirre. For late-career travel writers scrambling to come up with an idea for their next well-compensated travelogue, maybe that’s not a bad idea.

A Nice Exchange with Eva Holland

One of my favorite sites is World Hum, a page dedicated to publishing all kinds of insightful and interesting stories, profiles,  links, and lists about travel and travel writing. Possibly my favorite thing about the site is that I’m able to easily post contrarian viewpoints on the nature of travel writing and be in dialogue with some of the industry’s top voices. Open forums make that possible.

Recently, Eva Holland, the senior editor, posted an excerpt taken from a recent Harper’s piece written by Robert MacFarlane which she really liked.

Here’s the excerpt in question:

He saved travel writing by changing its mandate: After Chatwin, the challenge was to find not originality of destination but originality of form.

Among those who have followed Chatwin, the most interesting have forged new forms specific to their chosen subjects: thus Pico Iyer’s sparkily hyperconnective studies of globalized culture and William Least Heat-Moon’s “deep maps” of America’s lost regions. Perhaps most important were W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic “prose fictions”—particularly “Rings Of Saturn”—that likewise hover between genres, make play with unreliability, and fold in on other forms: traveler’s tale, antiquarian digression, and memoir. What Sebald, like so many of us, learned from Chatwin was that the travelogue could voyage deeply in time rather than widely in space, and that the interior it explored need not be the heart of a place but the mind of the traveler.

I disagree with the implications of what MacFarlane’s saying, and I said as much in the forum. In my reading, MarFarlane’s postulating that because essentially every destination had already been written about in Chatwin’s day, Chatwin shifted the dynamic by creating new forms and making that the emphasis of the genre.

What bothers me about this is that people and places aren’t static, so it’s not like every place on earth had or has been written about. Once even a little time has passed, the destination will be different, especially in our rapidly changing world, which means that it is in effect a new place and worth writing about for that reason alone. New forms can be great, but I don’t believe they’re inherently necessary because the fact that people and places are always changing means that there’s always new places to write about.

In fact, I believe an emphasis on constantly creating new forms puts travel writing on a dangerous uphill trajectory, where it becomes increasingly difficult to come up with these new forms. The result may be a race to gimmickry. Check out the rest of the conversation and Eva Holland’s response here.