One of the coolest things about Orlando is its proximity to cities of interest. For Thanksgiving Day, my family and I elected to explore Miami. Because of Miami’s proximity to Orlando and because it is such a large city we decided to focus our initial exploration to two specific points of interest leaving the rest for another quick trip in the future. We stayed at South Beach and ventured to Little Havana for a day of exploration.

As some of you already know and for the benefit of those that don’t, one of my many hobbies is exploring cultures, as well as photographing scenery and architecture. Miami, and especially South Beach, with its Art Deco motifs, gave me the opportunity to do both. Fortunately for my two companions, the exploration included beaches and food so they weren’t too bored.

For a single person, South Beach is the mecca for all-night drinking and dancing with intermittent recovery under the sun during the day. And, it is obvious that excessive shopping is in the mix. Unfortunately, as beaches go, South Beach leaves a lot to be desired. It is obviously tourist-ville, from hawkers, hawking lounges and umbrellas on the beach to cheesy trinkets all over the place. Far worse is that the beaches are filthy.

My girlfriend commented that in comparison, Cocoa Beach was much, much better. As we continued to discuss the disparity of the beaches we finally came to the conclusion that the difference is that those that visit Cocoa Beach are locals who make the trek on a regular basis. Therefore they have an inherent interest in keeping the beaches clean for their next visit. South Beach, on the other hand, seems to be visited by those, intent on partying and probably never coming back, therefore they have no interest in keeping the beach clean and ready for their next visit.

The beach at South Beach could be majestic but it will probably never happen as there seems to be no vested interest by the visitors to care for it for future visits. More interesting and a first for me is that service establishments in South Beach do not ask for tips, but instead, just add it to your ticket at 18%. According to Melissa, a pool-side bartender, the reason is that South Beach is frequented by “Europeans that do not tip” and therefore the practice has become one of automatically adding the tip to the check.

As one who doesn’t believe a tip is to subsidize someone’s wages (spare me the argument about minimum wage and take it up with the legislature that allows sub-wages to be paid to service staff) but rather it should be about rewarding for extraordinary service, this practice took me aback and I feel it was reflected in the lackluster service in some places.

Was I completely disappointed in South Beach? For the most part, yes. The Art Deco architecture is awesome but it is nothing more than a façade hiding the failure of yet another failed manifestation of “new urbanism” permeating the nation. (More on this on a future article on I did enjoy the company of the people who took the time to talk to me about their personal experiences.

Little Havana

Little Havana, on the other hand, was a joy to visit and experience. The graciousness of the people we encountered brought back memories of my childhood in Mexico. It’s that down-to-earth, genuine good-natured, life-loving Latin people feeling oozing from everywhere. Calle Ocho, as the locals refer to it, or 8th Street, is where all of the fun begins. Keeping in mind that this was Thanksgiving Day we really did not expect anything but just a quick bite to eat and some pictures. We had a wonderful time.

It started simply enough, walking down the street with everyone good-naturedly beckoning us into their store to sell you “the best” product on the whole-street. My girlfriend was on a mission, she had eyed a little quaint-looking restaurant when I was looking for a place to park and she was determined to eat there. Unbeknownst to her, it was not a Cuban food place, but rather a Spanish eatery.

As we made our way in, it became evident that they were not expecting any company until dinner time, so the waitress and the chef were enjoying a cup of coffee on one of the tables. As we looked for a seat, our five-year old companion stated that he was “starving”. As finicky five-year olds go, chicken tenders, mac and cheese and definitely no-spicy food is the only thing that satisfies the “hunger”, oh, let’s not forget the pastries and the candy. My girlfriend asked if they had a child’s menu and before the waitress could answer, the chef asked Landon if he would like some chicken fingers for lunch.

Of course that’s exactly what he wanted. I can tell you from personal experience from many countries and many more establishments I really don’t think a five year-old has ever had a chef especially prepare, hand-made chicken fingers that were just absolutely delicious. I don’t think I’ll ever see that again. As for the rest of the meal, let me just say that it was one of the best Thanksgiving lunches ever.

Needless to say we needed to work lunch off before we could contemplate the drive back to South Beach. We went exploring for hand-rolled cigars and pictures to be taken. Outside of Cuba, I challenge anyone to find a better cigar than Little Havana. We savored the aromas and the life of Little Havana on each block we walked and even enjoyed a fresh-made Mango juice prepared by an individual whose family has owned the little fruit market for many generations. Again, the graciousness of the people, sharing their stories with us is what makes exploring fun for me.

Don’t forget to visit the many remembrances to the Bay of Pigs incident and the 100+ year-old tree.

Lion Country Safari

It was such a disappointment that I almost forget to mention it. On the way back we decided to make a trip to the Lion Country Safari outside of Miami. Don’t bother is the best advice I can give you. Yes, the animals roam free but for the truly exciting ones, the ones that any child would love to see surround your car, the lions and the monkeys; well they are all behind moats or chained-linked fences. You are much better off visiting a zoo. I’m sure some of you are muttering, well what did you expect, free roaming lions trekking up to your car? Well yes, that is exactly what I expected for a place with “Safari” in the name. Skip it.

All in all, the trip to Miami was very enjoyable. South Beach is now marked down with; “being there, done that” and finally crossed off my list of things to accomplish. I left disappointed with South Beach but enamored with Little Havana and its people.

Depending on where you live in Orlando, the trip to Miami is easy on the turnpike and costs less than $20 USD for tolls. It is less than 500 miles round-trip. Therefore it should cost less than $150 for tolls and gasoline but you’ll have to add at least one hotel night. Hotels run about $200 a night on South Beach depending on the time of season. Parking will set you back between $25 and $75 a night. My recommendation, avoid staying on South Beach and instead stay in Miami and, if you must, make a quick trip to South Beach to get it out of your system. But whatever you do, don’t miss Little Havana and its friendly people.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...