Monday, April 9, 2007

Miami South Beach – salsa y playa!

I decided to spend last weekend in Miami after the business trip to Orlando. It didn’t start off well. My morning plane with American Airlines from Orlando to Miami got cancelled without explanation so all the passengers were forced to go claim their baggage and go back to the check-in counter again. After spending two hours waiting in a line with surprisingly cheerful co-passengers – it must be all the sunshine that makes them so happy and relaxed so that no stress or let-downs can affect their good humor – I was rebooked on another flight in the afternoon. This one got delayed 1.5 hours due to an overloaded plane – one of the engines wouldn’t even start before they had offloaded six of the passengers and their luggage! Once we finally got on the runway, we had to wait for a thunderstorm to pass... ‘Thunderstorm’ sounds scary to Europeans but the captain said it like he had a slightly annoying fly in cockpit. A poor French (or French Canadian, perhaps) woman sitting next to me and who didn’t speak English, must have been afraid of flying because she was noticeably worried over the engine issue and the thunderstorm and was fiddling about in the seat. I was mostly irritated that my whole first day of only 2.5 days’ weekend vacation in Miami was getting ruined.

Six hours later than planned, I finally landed in Miami and took a cab to South Beach. My brother’s girl-friend’s mother (the cat rescuer) has an apartment on Washington Avenue, on the 15th floor with a marvelous view of a good part of South Beach. She had been kind enough to let me borrow the apartment over the weekend while she was in Los Angeles. This turned out to be only a few minutes’ walk from the beach (poor me!) and a couple of blocks up from Lincoln Road, so I was all set.

South Beach area
Washington Ave.

Lincoln Road is very good for shopping and has plenty of outdoor restaurants and cafés on the boardwalk. It looks a lot like Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica (CA). After dropping my luggage in the apartment, saying hi to the one remaining cat residing there (the rest are now all in Los Angeles), I went straight down to Lincoln Road, sat down at a café and ordered a cold beer. I let the irritation wash away and started enjoying watching people, the fact that I was in flip-flops in late March (usually winter with snow at this time of year in Sweden) and that I was going salsa dancing that night.

Lincoln Rd

The first night I had dinner on my own at a Thai restaurant on Lincoln Road. The second night I met up with some Canadian and Swedish colleagues at Ocean’s 10, a very popular and happening outdoor restaurant with live music performed by two musicians playing paso doble, salsa, merengue and Gipsy Kings songs with a female dancer basically doing the same moves regardless of music genre but in different costumes. I liked the atmosphere here, though. It was nice to sit outdoors with a lot of people around you, rhythmic music, good company and absolutely fantastic food. This place served delicious pasta!

Rob, Fahrad & I at Ocean’s 10

Johanna, Rob, Christian, Fahrad & Andreas

The South Beach area was a funny place with lots of gay people with wimpy dogs, fancy people going out at night along the fashionable and nightclub dense Collins Avenue (next time I’ll try this; it looked fun as I walked north after dinner at Ocean’s 10), tourists and local originals like the patriotic old man on the photo below with the dog. Common for all the locals in Miami seemed to be that they spoke Spanish first, and some of them didn’t even know English.

I mainly had two objectives with this trip: to unwind at the beach and to go salsa dancing.

Salsa clubs
Salsa Mía is a social event that happens every Friday and Sunday at Yuca Lounge. You can take classes and then stay for Latin nightclub. Yuca Lounge was conveniently located on Lincoln Road, so it was very easy and close for me to walk there. This was a quite decent place with good music and a mix of beginners, intermediate and some more advanced salsa dancers. I met two nice fellows, Hiram and Juan, who invited me to dance and then we started talking. It turned out that they go out dancing regularly so they know the best salsa places.

For Saturday night, Juan and Hiram had actually recommended Bongos, a club owned by Gloria and Emilio Estéfan in downtown Miami, which apparently has an outdoor patio where people dance salsa, whereas inside they play a mix of reggaeton, merengue and rock en español. Since I didn’t have a rental car, and the mixed music description didn’t sound too great to me – it usually means “Latin disco” type of crowd, not salsa dancers – I however decided to stay in the South Beach area and try my luck with Café Nostalgia on Collins Avenue and 34th Street. I had read on the web that this "plush little club [...] draws crowds with guayaberas and tight glitter tops while sipping mojitos next to A-listers like J. Lo and Marc Anthony. It's business as usual with top-notch live bands (regional and national acts) until 1:30am or so. After that, the dance floor fills and the DJs spin latin-tinged hip-hop and salsa." After this description, I thought that this would be THE place to go and I anticipated a good salsa crowd.

I arrived to Café Nostalgia fashionably late, after midnight – and after spending $12 instead of $7 because the cab driver couldn't find the place and ended up driving around the nearest blocks 5-6 times ‘til I told him to just stop and let me out and I would find the place on foot. Café Nostalgia was a hole in the wall on 34th Street but when I walked in it revealed a very dark but decent-sized and authentic Cuban place. I immediately saw that there were only a few people, spread out in the bar and at tables waiting for the next set. I considered leaving again but thought I needed to give the place a chance. The Spanish-speaking only waitress asked me if I wanted a table and I sat down, ordered a Mojito and waited for the band to start. The band for the night sounded more or less horrible the first 10 minutes until someone in the band helped the keyboardist find the right buttons on the electric piano. Then all of a sudden something clicked into place and it started grooving. The singer was quite good. A few more people arrived but nobody (!) was dancing – the waitress admitted that this was more of a “sitting down and watching the band” place than a place for dancing – so after a second Mojito I gave up and left.

The waitress recommended me Mango's Tropical Café on Ocean Drive and 8th Street for best salsa dancing. Since she was Hispanic, I figured she should know. I guess the place would have been fun if you’re into watching scantily dressed girls dancing on top of the counter. I am not. Mango’s was a two-story nightclub with Latin hiphop and disco played in the front room and a salsa live band playing at the back. Upstairs was a small room where they played salsa and merengue. There was also a walkway, like a balcony, along the walls so that you could look down on the crowd and the bar in the bigger room downstairs. I met Johan, a nice Latin guy with whom I had also danced at Yuca Lounge the night before, and who actually knew about Sacuye (a well-known dance company from Stockholm and salsa friends of mine). He was about the only decent dancer there that night, so I ended up dancing with him almost all the time until the place closed at 5am.

Miami Beach
I went to Miami Beach for a few hours both on Saturday and Sunday to enjoy sunbathing, reading a book and watch people. The weather was beautiful the whole weekend and close to 30°C. As I stood in line to buy a lunch salad from the kiosk on the beach, I was rather amused by the gay guy in a thong in front of me. I pretended to type an SMS and then slid open the lens cover on my Cyber-shot™ phone and took a photo (see below). I didn’t dare snapping a picture from the front but what he wore was just a fabric pouch – well, the best way to describe it is really a cotton condom! It wasn’t the beach wear I would have chosen but to each his own…

I was left alone most of the time – perhaps because I was probably snoring loudly in my sleep out of sheer exhaustion after many travels – but there were two men approaching me. The first was probably not more than 16 or 17, who walked by, looked down and tried starting a conversation with the opening line, “You’re very cute.” He noticed my disinterest and commented, “So you don’t want to talk to me?” I started laughing and had to tell him “I’m way too old for you!” to which he replied, “I like older women!” Hmpf!

The second man who approached me simply sat down in the sand next to me and started talking. He was an old, semi-alcoholic Cuban who had gotten his American citizenship by joining the American army. He gave me a very long lecture on war history and politics, from Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, to the long US presidential line-up since the Second World War. He was clearly a Republican and mostly talked about the presidents who had taken the nation to war, from Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan to Bush Senior and Junior. He was of the interesting opinion that the best (or rather only) way to win a war was to go in and make sure you wipe out everybody in the enemy population, otherwise the survivors will spend their life retaliating. Since I didn’t know if he was on drugs – on the whole he seemed rather harmless, but you never know – I didn’t dare arguing too much with him. Granted he had more experience of warfare and politics than I do, I therefore took the opportunity to listen to his opinions, historic analysis and conclusions from all the wars – World War II, Vietnam, Cuba, the fights over the Suez Canal, the Gulf War, Iran/Iraq, etc. Quite interesting but a tad longwinding for a tired Swedish girl in need of rest.

Me on the beach

Beach walk

Although Miami turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment from a salsa perspective, I thoroughly enjoyed the weather, the beach, shopping and restaurants. In this Hispanic Mecca, I had expected to find the same class of dancing as at international salsa congresses where you really find the crop of best dancers from around the world, but maybe I just didn’t find the right spots. Downtown Miami is perhaps the place to go to find the best local dancers and salsa clubs. Next time, I’ll give Bongos a shot. There will definitely be a next time. I have only begun to discover Miami.

1 comment:

Todd Lappin said...

Hello! I'm the editor of Everywhere magazine, a new, user-generated travel magazine that's sold on newsstands in the U.S. I'd love to publish part of this post in an upcoming story we're doing about Miami. Any interest? You can reach me at