SOUTHEAST FLORIDA:
A Region of CONTRASTS

BY CHELLE KOSTER WALTON

South East Florida Travel Guide -  Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Florida experiences no greater mood swings and character changes than in its populous Southeast Region. From West Palm Beach south to Miami and the Florida Keys, no area in the state embodies more contrasts.

With trendy fashion districts, a refined arts scene, chic beaches and Latin-Caribbean vibes, Miami possesses a tempo all its own. At its backdoor lies the unspoiled wilderness and Native American cultures of the Florida Everglades. Just south of Miami, the Homestead area is all about tropical fruit and vegetable farming and it's also the gateway to the Florida Keys, a long string of islands with a temperament as much Caribbean as American.

A big mood swing occurs north of sophisticated Fort Lauderdale with its beautiful beachfront and stylish downtown. From here, big-city frenzy begins to mellow into Deerfield Beach and the affluent community of Boca Raton. At the north end of the region are charming Delray Beach, West Palm Beach and finally Palm Beach, historically a playground for the rich and famous.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Miami Beach boasts the largest collection of art deco architecture in the world. Concentrated in the South Beach area, about 800 significant buildings represent a period from the 1920s to the 1940s when the city was being promoted and developed as a tropical playground (miamiandbeaches.com). Building after building sprang up in the art deco style, however the area eventually suffered an economic decline and the vibrantly colored stucco hotels, apartment complexes and homes fell into disrepair. Since then, a district-wide rejuvenation program has restored the majority of them and in 1979 Miami Beach's Art Deco Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the area is one of the city's biggest attractions, particularly along Ocean Drive where some of the buildings are now popular restaurants, nightclubs, martini bars and chic hotels. Often frequented by the rich and famous, this is the place in town to see and be seen.

RECOMMENDED DRIVES

Route A1A provides a beautiful oceanfront drive past the mansions of Palm Beach and the coastal communities of Delray Beach and Boca Raton, all the way south to Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.

The region's most celebrated drive is the Overseas Highway, the southern leg of US Highway 1. It picks up in Key Largo and stretches south through the Florida Keys to Key West, the city at the southernmost point in the continental United States.

CITY LIGHTS

As a crossroads between the US and the Caribbean, Miami pulses to the beat of a different drummer (miamiandbeaches.com). Its confluence of cultures adds texture to a city filled with skyscrapers, historic neighborhoods, ethnic enclaves, fine restaurants, sophisticated beach resorts and high fashion. Next-door neighbor Fort Lauderdale is mostly about the beach but it too touts an international flavor and a vigorous shopping and entertainment scene. Venetian-like canals honeycomb the city making it fun to take a gondola ride or explore by water taxi (sunny.org). Farther north and quieter than Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Delray Beach has one of the most charming downtown sections in the southeast (delraybeach.com). It has a distinct sense of community with a main street lined with galleries, shops and restaurants. Farther up the coast, Palm Beach has consistently been a playground for the rich and famous and its upmarket hotels, restaurants and exclusive Worth Avenue shopping are a testament to its affluent character.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Miami has changed considerably since wealthy American industrialist Henry Flagler brought his railroad to town in 1896. The first newcomers to the city were warm-weather seekers from the northern states, followed much later by refugees from Cuba who settled in a neighborhood known today as Little Havana. The city's ethnic blend also includes Haitians who populate an area called Little Haiti. Latter-day arrivals from other Caribbean islands as well as South America contribute to the mix of cultures that now defines the city.

One of Miami's most important cultural attractions is the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a grand estate featuring a marvelous Italian-style villa built in the early 1900s by wealthy American industrialist James Deering (miamidade.gov/vizcaya). Surrounded by 10 acres of formal gardens and overlooking Biscayne Bay, the villa is filled with a vast array of art, antique treasures and elaborate furnishings. Miami's other cultural venues include the Bass Museum of Art (bassmuseum.org), one of the area's earliest art deco buildings, which now houses a priceless collection of art, sculptures and tapestries. Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art (moaflnsu.org) anchors the downtown cultural scene, together with the Broward Center for the Performing Arts (browardcenter.org). Key West brims with art galleries and museums such as the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum where the renowned novelist wrote many of his famous works (hemingwayhome.com). An important historical venue in Palm Beach is the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum (flaglermuseum.us), a legacy of the "man who built Florida." Completed in 1902, this mansion-turned-museum is one of the purest expressions of Florida's Gilded Age.

FUN FOR FAMILIES

In addition to miles of beaches that are often the first choice for family fun, each of the region's coastal cities offers plenty of family-oriented entertainment. Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Discovery and Science (mods.org) is one of the state's best hands-on museums and Miami has several family-friendly venues including the Miami Children's Museum (miamichildrensmuseum.org) and the Miami Science Museum (miamisci.org). Tapping into the animal kingdom, Jungle Island (jungleisland.com) provides people with up-close-and-personal encounters with rare birds, mammals, primates, reptiles and fish. One of its highlights is a show featuring unleashed tigers, leopards, lions and cougars, a performance produced by The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.). Other city attractions include the Miami Seaquarium (miamiseaquarium.com), Zoo Miami (miamimetrozoo.com) and Monkey Jungle (monkeyjungle.com). High on the popularity list with adults and kids alike is a day trip to the Florida Everglades and a visit to the Everglades Alligator Farm (everglades.com).

FAMILY-FRIENDLY RESORTS

Beach resorts that welcome families are found along the region's entire coast as well as inland. One of the best-known inland properties is the Doral Golf Resort & Spa, a member of the Marriott Hotels and Resorts chain, which makes up for not having a beach with its Blue Lagoon Water Park featuring a giant kids' pool and waterslide. Appearances from cartoon characters, SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer, plus arts, crafts and a special fun camp keep youngsters entertained. Adults are equally well served with five world-class golf courses, a large tennis center and one of the top-ranked spas in the state (doralresort.com).

SPORTS SCENE

Miami is the region's hub for spectator sports and the city is home to the NFL Miami Dolphins (miamidolphins.com), the NBA Miami Heat (nba.com/heat) and the Florida Marlins major league baseball team (http://florida.marlins.mlb.com).

Touted as "the tennis capital of Florida," the Delray Beach Tennis Center has 14 clay courts, seven hard courts and 19 night-lit courts (delraytennis.com). The facility attracts widespread attention in late February when it hosts the annual International Tennis Championships (yellowtennisball.com).

Miami and area boast more than 20 golf courses, some of which are ranked among the top 10 in the world (miamiandbeaches.com/visitors/golf.asp) including the Doral Golf Resort & Spa (doralresort.com) and the new Fairmont Turnberry Isle (fairmont.com/turnberryisle).

SPORTS MUSEUMS

The International Game Fish Association's Fishing Hall of Fame & Museum in Dania Beach near Fort Lauderdale sets the standard for facilities dedicated to the sport of angling (igfa.org). The facility features interactive fishing-related kiosks, antique rod-and-reel displays, contemporary tackle exhibits, life-sized replicas of more than 200 species of fish and a virtual reality "Catch Gallery," where visitors can attempt to reel in a marlin or a sailfish. This attraction is an angler's mecca and a must-visit venue for Florida-bound sport fishermen.

Also in Fort Lauderdale, the International Swimming Hall of Fame is a shrine dedicated to the history and recognition of famous swimmers, divers and water polo players (ishof.org). More than 40 exhibits illustrate the history of aquatic sports including artifacts such as the Olympic medals earned by Johnny Weissmuller, the man also remembered for his movie role as Tarzan.

CALLING ALL SHOPAHOLICS

The region's shopping options run the gamut from huge flea markets to some of the most upscale venues in the southern states. Worth Avenue in Palm Beach (worth-avenue.com) is renowned for exclusive stores and luxury brands while Delray Beach's Atlantic Avenue is lined with shops selling a variety of goods for all budgets (downtowndelraybeach.com). Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale (lasolasboulevard.com) is home to a fine selection of galleries and fashion boutiques, and Miami's Bal Harbour Shops (balharbourshops.com) boast the most extensive selection of couture clothing outside of Paris and New York. Vacationers looking to score bargains head to Sawgrass Mills, a mammoth outlet mall west of Fort Lauderdale where name-brand goods are sold at discount prices (simon.com).

SPA LIFE

Although the Southeast Region has a huge inventory of spas, the renowned Doral Golf Resort & Spa (doralresort.com) boasts one of Miami's oldest and most respected. In addition to offering all the typical day spa services, the facility is also home to the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa (pritikin.com), one of the world's pre-eminent wellness centers, which treats a variety of health challenges.

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