Miami is an island

Miami may be the biggest Caribbean city that isn’t actually in the Caribbean. Philip Sander explores Miami’s Caribbean pockets

A memorabilia-filled restaurant in Little Havana. Photograph provided by Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau www.gmcvb.comAfter a hundred and twenty years, The Barnacle still exemplifies Miami’s laid-back style. Photograph provided by Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau www.gmcvb.comCoconut Grove lives up to its name. Photograph provided by Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau www.gmcvb.comColourful lifeguard stations dot the white sand along South Beach. Photograph by R.A.R. De Bruijn Holding BV / Shutterstock.comEnjoying the Bahamian Goombay Festival in Coconut Grove. Photograph provided by Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau www.gmcvb.comThe pastel-hued Art Deco style of Ocean Drive. Photograph provided by Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau www.gmcvb.com

Time for a geography quiz: name a Caribbean city famous for its eponymous beach and its palm-lined avenues, its picturesque Bahamas-style cottages and its annual Carnival; where the accent is Spanish, where you can have Trini doubles for breakfast, Haitian legim for lunch, and Jamaican jerk chicken for dinner, then end the night dancing at the best Cuban nightclub outside Havana. It’s a trick question, but you’ve probably already guessed the answer, and not just from the headline above.

A glance at the map confirms that Miami sits near the tip of the Florida Peninsula, several hundred miles from the Caribbean Sea. And though Miami Beach is literally on an island, Miami proper is firmly on the mainland (squeezed between the Atlantic to the east and the Everglades to the west). But the city’s diverse population — with tens of thousands of residents, more than a third of Miami’s population, tracing their roots to Cuba, Haiti, and other Caribbean countries — makes it a cultural island in the south-eastern United States. And for Caribbean visitors, it doesn’t take long to feel at home here. The climate feels right, the trees and flowers are the same ones at home, and the vibe has the right mix of laid-back and tropical-intense.

Miami’s Cubans are the city’s best-known Caribbean community. Little Havana — with Calle Ocho, or 8th Street, at its heart — is both a cultural and a political force. It’s not the most picturesque neighbourhood, at first glance. But a couple hours’ exploration will turn up hosts of small fruit markets with island produce and botanicas stocked with puzzling herbs, and cafés where elderly gentlemen play championship-level dominoes over strong cafecitos. Then there’s the landmark Versailles, talking up an entire block of Calle Ocho — the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant,” as famous for the anti-Castro politics of its exilio regulars as for its palomilla steaks and fried plantains.

A few miles to the north and east, Lemon City was once known for its citrus groves, until an influx of Haitian immigrants in the 1980s made the neighbourhood Miami’s Francophone centre: Little Haiti. Despite the momentum of recent gentrification, Little Haiti remains rough around the edges. But it’s also a cultural hotbed. Outdoor murals liven up the streetscape, and the pastel-painted Caribbean Marketplace — inspired by the historic Iron Market in Port-au-Prince — is currently under renovation. Trendy Miamians venture in for Big Night in Little Haiti, a free monthly concert and dance party at the Little Haiti Cultural Centre (which also hosts exhibitions and art classes). For a quieter taste of Haitian culture, stroll round the corner to the Libreri Mapou, a bookshop specialising in Kweyol and French texts. You just might bump into the celebrated author Edwidge Danticat browsing the shelves.

But Miami’s oldest Caribbean community long predates the Cuban and Haitian immigrants who have so indelibly shaped the modern city’s culture. It even predates the city itself. When Miami was incorporated in 1896, there was already an established Bahamian community in Coconut Grove, at that time an independent village on the shores of Biscayne Bay. The West Grove is still a centre of Bahamian culture, celebrated every year at the Goombay Festival, complete with drums, Junkanoo, and conch fritters.

Music and food weren’t the only things Miami’s Bahamians brought with them. They also had a distinctive influence on the city’s early architectural style. Their clapboard cottages, built to the same design as houses in the Bahama Islands, came to be called conch houses, after an old nickname for Bahamian immigrants. Raised on low stilts, with big windows, high ceilings, and broad verandahs, they were perfectly suited to the tropical climate in a pre-air-conditioning age, and conch houses soon sprang up around Miami and elsewhere in south Florida. Most have disappeared over the decades, but Coconut Grove is still the best neighbourhood in Miami to spot the quaint survivors.

For a sense of what the Grove was like a century ago, before it was swallowed up by Miami’s sprawl, it’s worth visiting The Barnacle, Dade County’s oldest surviving house. Built in 1891 by a yacht designer, and having survived numerous hurricanes, today The Barnacle is the centerpiece of a state park, along with five acres of its original grounds. Squint at its hipped roof and wraparound verandah, and you could easily take it for an elegant old Caribbean beachhouse, with its fine view over the bay.

Of course, it’s unthinkable to visit Miami and not cross Venetian Boulevard to South Beach, the ultra-trendy strip of hotels, condominiums, and nightspots near the southern tip of Miami Beach. Just thirty years ago, this was a blighted patch on Miami’s map, more famous for retirement homes and drug dealers than for its Art Deco architecture. It was an early, and some might say notorious, example of the power of gentrification. Today, South Beach — SoBe — is an essential stopping point for international jet-setters.

Tourists throng Ocean Drive hoping to spot supermodels, architecture fans explore the historic district with guidebooks and cameras, and the quantity of well-toned and -tanned flesh on display can be thoroughly intimidating. Then there’s the beach itself, mile upon mile of pink-white sand, dotted with colourful lifeguards’ booths. The Atlantic here has a distinctly Caribbean tint of turquoise. And a trace of the actual Caribbean may be closer to hand — or closer to foot — than you expect. A beach isn’t really a beach without that blinding expanse of sand, but tides and currents are constantly hungry for their share. If the locals’ stories are true, in recent years the Miami authorities have quietly shipped in bargeloads of Bahamian sand, to keep South Beach ready for its bikini-clad supermodels.