Beauty, art and culture are what make South Florida such an appealing place to visit—or live. While only a few million have the privilege of calling this tropical paradise home, you can experience the hidden gems that may not necessarily make the to-do list of the average tourist. The breathtaking gardens, inspired architecture and historic landmarks are all within a short drive of Solara Surfside™, in the quaint beachside town of Surfside, just north of South Beach. The charming, boutique resort is a popular place year-round, so make your reservations early. Check in, then venture out. There’s so much to enjoy beneath the warm Miami sun. The majority of plants at Fairchild come from other parts of the world, not unlike Miamians themselves. Many are eerie, like the bottle-shaped baobabs and the Pandanus palms with their twisted trunks. Many are showy, like the vibrant claw-shaped Heliconias. And all are grouped into their own neighborhoods.
Take a tram ride through a cool rainforest. Watch a ballet in the butterfly garden. Wander conservatories full of rarities like Mr. Stinky, a permanent resident from Sumatra that flowers every few years with some of the world’s worst smelling blooms. In contrast, there’s also an equally rare gardenia that smells like bubble gum.
Even the mango tree, found in so many Miami yards, is not a native, but originated in India. The fruit of the mango is sticky sweet, somewhat like a peach, and you either love it or hate it. Those who love it also love Fairchild’s July Mango Festival, although the plant sale held every fall by Fairchild members—mostly ardent collectors and cultivators like Dr. Fairchild himself—is a delight for gardeners. Browsing under the tents and in the greenhouses is the botanical equivalent of window-shopping along Rodeo Drive. But the prices are the equivalent of Filene’s Basement.
Unlike Fairchild, which is located in one of Miami’s ritziest neighborhoods, the Fruit and Spice Park is out in the U-Pick ‘Em strawberry and tomato fields of the Redlands, 25 miles southwest of Miami. Years ago, only growers and ranchers lived in the Redlands. Now mansions are rising out of the red clay soil. But the Park is unchanged after 40 years. It still has oddities like black sapote (chocolate pudding fruit) and miracle berries (which make lemons seem sweet). You can still crush allspice between your fingers and inhale its cedar-like scent. And you can still eat anything that has fallen to the ground although you can’t harvest from the trees—that is a privilege reserved for the birds.
As long as you’re in the general vicinity, visit Coral Castle. This South Florida “Stonehenge” was built single-handedly by Ed Leedskalnin, a five-foot Latvian, for the girl who spurned him the day before their wedding. It’s a lot like an open-air haunted house: a massive coral rock dining table has awaited its guests for nearly 100 years and a giant stone rocking chair seems sadly motionless. While Coral Castle is mystifying, it’s even more powerfully evocative of the kind of obsessive love that makes the impossible possible.
Whereas Ed built his castle from coral, James Deering built his—Vizcaya—from the abundant limestone underlying South Florida. It was designed to resemble a centuries-old Italian estate and it does so admirably. Its manicured formal gardens with fountains, statuary and pools echo the opulence of Versailles. Secret spaces like maze gardens, cavern grottoes and a stone gazebo beside Biscayne Bay invite you to linger in another epoch.
While Vizcaya takes you back to the Renaissance, Miami Beach’s popular Art Deco district takes you to an era of bootleg whiskey, gambling and Packard sedans lining Ocean Drive. The stepped ziggurats, glass blocks, porthole windows and terrazzo floors so typical of Deco architecture are reminders of a time until the 50s when Miami Beach was synonymous with high-rollers and headline acts. Now the few remaining examples of Deco architecture have been incorporated into the larger South Beach scene. Places like the Tangerine Bar of the Deco landmark Hotel St. Augustine make it possible to step into the urban glitz of the 30s. You can’t help but drink in the past with dry martinis at the Raleigh. The palm-sugared Bam! Bam! Shrimp and other seafood dishes of Quinn’s are nouvelle, but the tropical vibe is definitely classic Deco.
Surprisingly, a Zen-like botanical garden is also in South Beach. The Miami Beach Botanical Garden is an urban oasis set apart from the celebrity-focused mindset, high-octane clubs, and trendy restaurants that surround it. The nearly austere subtlety of Japanese-style landscaping counterbalances the lushness of tropical plants, orchids and palms. It all harmonizes beautifully, and you are certain to fall asleep on outdoor divans shaded by strangler figs. Before you leave, stand before the vertical landscape—a living wall—and surrender to a feeling of restful awe.
Nature has a wild undercurrent at Flamingo Gardens just north of Miami in Davie. Here, you’ll find the South Florida you expected to find within habitats for river otters, bobcats, Florida panther, birds of prey like the very rare Golden Eagle, and even alligators. Many of the creatures at Flamingo Gardens are not native to Florida, including flamingos. No one cares, however, because they represent the funky side of the state, and lots of hardcore Miamians have plastic flamingos in their front yards. They are weird birds, and some argue they really are from Florida. Just like orange juice—even though oranges were brought here from Spain. Flamingo Gardens holds the most appeal for nature-lovers. If you like aviaries, orchids, reptiles and other wild things—this refuge will fascinate you.
Miami is a new city, with a history dating no further back than the mid-1800s. But you can see an ancient Spanish Monastery more than 700 years old in North Miami. It was dismantled and shipped from Segovia to New York in 1925 and eventually ended up in Miami as a tourist attraction. Today, it has returned to its spiritual roots and is an active parish church. It is a quiet place, despite being open for tourists, and a sense of meditative calm fills its vaulted stone breezeways and simple gardens. This isn’t a sightseeing attraction in the usual sense. Instead, it is a space to pause and look inside ourselves, reflecting on where we have been and where we want to go.