Miami for one
Finding peace and colorful quiet, from street art to the beach
When I typed “cheap flights” into my search bar shortly after New Year’s Day, I already had some requirements in mind. I’d found myself with three free weeks in between jobs, and I firmly believe that God does not give you that long of a breather without expecting you to take a trip somewhere. First rule: No repeat destinations to somewhere I'd already been. Second rule: Escape the cold. So, with my eyes scanning the list of last-minute flights that wouldn’t cost a crate of gold bullion, I settled on Miami.
But I also had a third rule: This was a trip to help seal up the cracks in my nerves from all that 2018 had wrought. Most travel packages for Miami, though, flashed promises of South Beach parties lasting until dawn — never-ending, high-BPM night terrors were not the desired vibe — or resort stays promising more abs than I felt prepared to face without a flask of something strong.
I wanted a quieter Miami, a Miami for one.
Take yourself out
Staying on South Beach struck from the possibility list, I found cheap accommodations in the Wynwooddistrict, a colorful, trendy area known for its galleries and street art. Strolling past vibrant murals would have to wait, though. I started my one-man Miami takeover by getting an answer for the first thing people back home would ask: Did you eat a Cuban sandwich? A pro-tip for traveling alone: find a place with good counter service. A quick, early evening walk to the unpretentious Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop (186 NE 29th St.) brought me to melty, juicy layers of ham, roasted pork, cheese and pickles held in tight by crusty bread. I added croquettes to the sandwich — might as well check a couple of Cuban food boxes at once — and topped it all off with café con leche for the hat trick.
Making peace with the fact that I was not physically capable of eating another Cuban sandwich, I took a short bus ride to the Pérez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Blvd.) for the peaceful contemplation I'd come for. (The city's public transit phone app is a dream.) As far as contemporary art museums go, the walk-through time is modest. Of note: José Carlos Martinat’s biting, witty “American Echo Chamber” installation, running through January 2020, swept me into its neon spell. Mechanical light sculptures on alternating timers are as mesmerizing as they sound. Walking out of the museum into my first solo Miami sunset, Museum Park Baywalk complied with my internal demand for impeccably spaced palm trees, clear waters, pink skies and a balmy breeze. I thank the Baywalk for its service. Bliss achieved.
Long after the sun had set and I’d made the traditional vacation Target run, I decided to indulge in my one fancy dinner of the trip, a late-night reservation for one at Mandolin Aegean Bistro (4312 NE 2nd Ave.). Opened in a 1940s bungalow in the Design District by a husband and wife, Mandolin’s friendly, open-air dining area glowed by lantern light, just enough to read by between bites of stuffed zucchini and a sandwich stuffed with the catch of the day. If you go, finish with the galaktoboureko, a Greek dessert of custard layered with phyllo dough. It made it impossible to say no when the server asked if I wanted Turkish coffee, too.
Making the most of the coast
After an evening of art, sunsets and encountering each end of the sandwiches-and-coffee price spectrum, I'd gained enough footing to pull off the ultimate trick of this particular solo trip: visiting Miami Beach by myself the next day. After an early rise, a 45-minute bus ride and hearty multigrain pancakes at the Front Porch Cafe (1458 Ocean Drive), I was strolling the streets I’d envisioned when I bought my plane tickets.
Miami Beach invited a walkabout. The island is known for its Art Deco District — pastel paint jobs and old Hollywood sign letters putting a romantic face on everything from restaurants to tourist trap gift shops to condos to clubs that would make Daisy Buchanan blush. (Gatsby would be down to rage, though.) The residential neighborhoods along Pine Tree Drive, which I cut through on foot to get from one side of the island to another, made for good sightseeing, too. They're lush with well-kept greenery that keep aspirational estates barely veiled.
The ultimate point of all that walking, though, was to find a quiet spot on the beach, away from any crowds. The 21st-45th Street Beach corridor, starting just on the eastern side of Collins Park, was a great place to put foot to sand, away from the busiest bustle of South Beach. (I can't take credit for discovering it; Time Out calls it a "locals beach that lies slightly north of the South Beach chaos.") Trees shaded the adjacent boardwalk, their overhang creating a tunnel for easy passage to each section of the beach. Other solo beach bums and some families dotted these sun-baked expanses — my people. Spreading the straw beach mat I'd bought at Walgreens on the walk from breakfast, my only regret was that I had not invested in a beach umbrella, too.
My bottle of sunscreen warded off the worst. And the water, as they say, was fine. Swimming in Miami Beach on a weekday felt like the height of relaxation. I admired the skyline as I floated. Every now and then, another person would swim out some yards away. I thanked God for the distinct privilege of being able to get in a plane, fly to the coast and float in my own quiet little drop of the bluest waters.
There’s only so much solo beach time I can log without worrying I’ll fall asleep in the sand and wake up with souvenir sunburn, so I also tracked my sandy Chacos to soak up a little culture on Miami Beach. The aforementioned Collins Park is also home to the Bass Museum (2100 Collins Ave.), a handsome, stately art deco building where the current slate of exhibits echoes the bright colors to be found walking Ocean Drive. Aaron Curry’s “Tune Yer Head” exhibit popped with Day-Glo scribbles and pop culture collages; the Haas Brothers’ “Ferngully” was a walk through a life-size stop-motion cartoon of Seussian creatures. Both exhibits run until April 21. My favorite, though, was Paola Pivi’s “Art With a View” exhibit — running through March 10 — with its neon polar bears and giant climbable mattress sandwich.
Elsewhere on the island, I found a comforting plate of pollo asado, plantains, rice and black beans at the counter of Puerto Sagua (700 Collins Ave.), a Miami Beach institution, before heading off to the World Erotic Art Museum (1205 Washington Ave.). I'll let you use your imagination about that one. But suffice to say, it’s a seamy labor of curatorial love. If you can’t climb a winding staircase up to a beach-town gallery that houses ancient fertility idols and Tom of Finland illustrations in the same space, right next door to a Starbucks, then why travel alone at all, you know? Time sufficiently killed, I capped my beach odyssey off with a screening at Miami Beach Cinematheque, the home of the Miami Beach Film Society, housed in City Hall.
Miami Beach conquered, I filled the last full day of the trip with a few classic sightseeing destinations in Miami proper. After a couple of doughnuts (one guava and cheese, one brown butter and salt — what? I couldn’t decide) at the Salty Donut (50 NW 23rd St. #112), I took a ride to Miami’s most well-known independent bookseller, Coral Gables' aptly named Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave.). Stacks browsed and souvenir Alexander Chee book acquired, a bus ride to Vizcaya Museum & Gardens (3251 South Miami Ave.) turned out to be one of the best photo opportunities of the trip. The decadent, sprawling mansion built in the 1910s by noted rich guy James Deering is now a museum filled with turn-of-the-century wonders — paintings, sculptures, furniture, a dumbwaiter — lovingly preserved. Also well-suited to texting pictures to your friends and pretending you’re at Mar-a-Lago. The estate's large limestone breakwater, shaped like a mermaid-decorated barge, is breathtaking. You’ll want one for your backyard immediately.
From Vizcaya, the famous Calle Ocho is just a short bus ride away. I tried to hit up the hot spots in the heart of Little Havana before it got too late and crowds came. Step one: find a painting of Pitbull, and also stumble upon a mural of Camila Cabello. Step two: a guava, coconut and rum drink at salsa club Ball & Chain (1513 SW 8th St.), with a taste of live music for free in the pineapple-shaped stage on the back patio. (Taking yourself out for a drink is one of the best things about traveling solo.) Step three: a scoop of ice cream parlor Azucar’s (1503 SW 8th St.) "Abuela" flavor, swirling together guava, cream cheese and galletas Maria. Lotta guava in Miami. As the sun set, I went for a bowl of pad Thai at Lung Yai Thai Tapas’ (1731 SW 8th St.) counter and a screening of Japanese Oscar nominee “Shoplifters” at arthouse cinema the Tower Theater (1508 SW 8th St.). That might not have been the usual tourist move on Calle Ocho, but sometimes it’s good to zig when you’re supposed to zag.
Wynwood still held a little color yet before flying back to the city where I’m not on extended alone time. Eclectic hangout bar Gramps (176 NW 24th St.) — which truly feels like the Cheer Up Charlie’s of Miami — lured me into one late-night outing with a drag night, Space Invader and a pizza truck. The next morning, bustling breakfast hotspot Zak the Baker (295 NW 26th St.) made my eyes pop with some of the best lox and cream cheese on toast I think anyone’s ever made, thanks to the fresh-baked sourdough. When I tell you I frowned as I realized I could fit a babka into my suitcase. …
For one last farewell to the palette of my Floridian getaway, I swung my rolling suitcase through the Wynwood Walls, (2520 NW 2nd Ave.) those murals I took a rain check on when I arrived. The walls are part of an outdoor gallery showcasing vibrant, large-scale paintings, the likes of which also adorn many of the buildings in the neighborhood. Stopping to take it all in, I realized how much color had surrounded me during my Miami excursion. The bright pieces of art at the museums, every palm tree's high-def green fronds, the shimmering blue water at the beach, the dusty gold of Vizcaya's artifacts — everywhere had felt like a secret treat that I could keep to myself forever. (Until I wrote a story about it, at least.)
The walls are great selfie bait. But if you want to get back into the groove of talking to other people after a couple days of keeping yourself company, someone will surely oblige you with a picture.