One of south Florida’s most popular vacation spots harbors far more attractions than most visitors realize.
By Nancy Baren Miller, F176955
Miami-Dade County, Florida, may not be as well-known as its biggest city, Miami, but it should be. It encompasses not only Miami, but Miami Beach, Coral Gables, and points south. Especially when the weather is chilly up north, Miami-Dade County becomes a popular spot for relaxing near the ocean. But the area offers so much to see, you may find yourself in need of a beach break in between sights.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “This is old hat. I’ve been there, done that.” After all, Miami has been a popular tourist destination since the 1930s. The Parrot Jungle and Monkey Jungle have enticed visitors with animal antics for years. In 1955 the Miami Seaquarium opened with a splash. The art deco district of Miami’s South Beach has flourished since the mid-1980s.
Yet many visitors fail to realize the area has even more treasures. Following are a few spots worthy of a good look.
For starters, try visiting downtown Miami’s Cultural Center Plaza, home to the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. It’s easy to become enthralled with the museum’s encrusted European cannons, colorful Seminole Indian clothing, and treasury of historic photographs through the 1940s. This museum’s permanent exhibit traces 10,000 years of southern Florida and Caribbean history.
Starting February 20, 2003, the museum will host a temporary special exhibition called “Florida Remembers World War II.” And while you’re there, take time to watch the slide show about Ralph Munroe, an area pioneer. (You’ll learn more about him when you visit the Barnacle State Historic Site in Coconut Grove.) The Historical Museum of Southern Florida is open daily, and a small admission fee is charged. For more information, phone (305) 375-1492 or visit www.historical-museum.org.
The suburb of Coconut Grove is where Ralph Munroe, a yacht builder, shipwreck salvager, naturalist, and photographer, first visited south Florida in 1877. After living in his boathouse for five years, he built his home, dubbed the Barnacle, in 1891. This house, now a state historic site, is the oldest Dade County home in its original location.
Originally a one-story structure raised off the ground on wood pilings, the Barnacle remained a bungalow until more space was needed in 1908. At that time, the whole first floor was lifted and a new structure inserted below. The boathouse still stands on the property where Munroe made his popular yachts. A replica of a boat he built called the Egret, a 28-foot modified sharpie, is moored offshore.
Visitors can tour the Munroe family home, which is filled with original contents and furnishings, as well as the boathouse. The historic site is open Friday through Monday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; a $1 admission fee is charged for visitors ages 10 and older. For more information, phone (305) 448-9445 or visit www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/districts/barnacle/index.asp.
Near Coconut Grove stands Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Built between 1914 and 1916 through the efforts of 10 percent of Miami’s population at the time “” approximately 1,000 people “” this estate was the winter home of International Harvester vice president James Deering. It’s Miami’s version of an Italian Renaissance villa. However, it contains all the conveniences of the early 20th century, such as telephones and elevators.
Three architects created the mansion and its extensive formal gardens. One designed the home; a second, the gardens; while the third, Paul Chalfin, was general artistic supervisor. Deering and Chalfin spent much time in Europe purchasing art, antiques, and furniture. Deering reached his goal of creating an estate that appears as though a family had lived in it for 400 years, with each generation adding its own furnishings. During your visit you’ll view 34 rooms furnished in such styles as Neoclassic, Rococo, Renaissance, and Chinoiserie. You actually walk through history as you stroll through the rooms.
The gardens, Italian in scope, contain such highlights as extensive sculptures and balustrades, fountains, a secret garden, and a maze garden. Their beauty invites visitors to wander. An ornate stone barge on the bay serves as a breakwater.
Important events have taken place at Vizcaya. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II held a historic meeting there, and in 1991 her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II toured the estate. In 1994 it was the meeting site of the Summit of the Americas, wherein leaders of the Western Hemisphere met with President Clinton.
Vizcaya is open daily, and an admission fee is charged. For more information, phone (305) 250-9133 or visit www.vizcayamuseum.org.
After visiting two homes with a “don’t touch” atmosphere, it’s time to let the kid in you break loose. Head across the street from Vizcaya to the Miami Museum of Science. There, visitors of all ages are encouraged to build puzzles and test their problem-solving skills at Solve-It Central, which is making its national debut at the museum. A show called “The Sky Above Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” “” for kids and kids at heart “” is offered at the planetarium. Other planetarium shows for adults and older children also are offered.
“Mysterious Manatees,” a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, offers amazing photos of manatees and is at the museum now through March 2003. The museum’s showcase exhibit installation is “Smithsonian Expeditions: Exploring Latin America & The Caribbean.” This exhibit re-creates settings found in remote regions; it takes only a little imagination to see oneself exploring tropical jungles, archaeological ruins, and a Mayan king’s tomb. Some objects have never been on display before, and others haven’t been seen for almost a century.
Museum visitors can watch live presentations about a variety of topics; previous shows have focused on sharks, microbes, and atoms. After you tour the galleries, go outside to see the butterfly garden and the museum’s birds of prey rehabilitation center.
The Miami Museum of Science is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and admission is charged; visit www.miamisci.org or phone (305) 646-4200 for more information.
Coral Gables is a city on the outskirts of Miami that was developed only 80 years ago. George Merrick, the city’s founder and developer, laid out the wide boulevards, lush landscaping, fountains, and impressive plazas in a Mediterranean theme before selling the first lots in 1921. At times, the same lots were sold 10 times in one day. But Merrick, a multimillionaire, lost his fortune after a 1926 hurricane and the 1929 stock market crash.
Visitors can tour Merrick’s home on Coral Way Wednesdays and Sundays from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. or by appointment. A video traces the history of the Merrick family; the beginnings of this city; and details about the home, providing an excellent orientation. You’ll learn that the house today exists much as it did in the 1920s, with original furnishings, furniture, and artifacts.
The town name of Coral Gables was the same moniker given to the family home. In 1906, the Merricks made an extensive addition to their wooden cottage using “coral” rock (Miami oolite). The empty quarry that resulted was turned into today’s renowned Venetian Pool, a haven on hot days. This 820,000-gallon pool is fed by naturally cool spring water daily and includes a wading pool, a waterfall, lagoons, and caves. It’s surrounded by Venetian-style architecture designed by artist Denman Fink, George Merrick’s uncle. Behind golden stucco walls and wrought-iron gates, bathers will find shady porticos, a palm-fringed island, a beach, and a cobblestone bridge.
During the pool’s heyday in the 1920s, gondolas plied the water, and movie stars such as Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller swam its length. Paul Whiteman’s orchestra performed there, and William Jennings Bryan gave political speeches. Swimming classes have been held at the Venetian Pool for generations. This little-known treasure is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open year-round. Admission fees and hours vary during the year; admission rates are higher for non-residents. From November through March, the pool is open Tuesday through Sunday. Phone (305) 460-5356 or visit www.venetianpool.com for more information.
George Merrick donated land in Coral Gables to develop the North Campus of the University of Miami. Today the university has a vibrant main campus and is known for its football and baseball programs. But it also has a fine arts museum worth noting: the Lowe Art Museum. The collection there covers art from the classic to the contemporary. Visitors see particularly strong sections of American Indian, Renaissance, Baroque, Ecuadorian, and Columbian art. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, and a small admission fee is charged. Phone (305) 284-3603 or visit www.lowemuseum.org for more information.
Another site to visit while you’re in Coral Gables is Fairchild Tropical Garden. It has drawn raves from local residents and visitors since it opened in 1938. Instead of the colorful flowers of northern gardens, these 83 acres emphasize the varying textures instead. Plants are grouped according to species. The cycads can be traced to prehistoric times; the Montgomery Palmetum is filled with acres of palms; the Keys Coastal Habitat lets visitors step back in time to see Florida’s original plants and the wildlife that co-exists with these species. A 2-acre rain forest exhibit comes complete with bromeliads and orchids, a meandering stream, and a waterfall. Many rare or endangered species find a home at these gardens — approximately 100 species, in fact.
The best way to see the garden is to first take the 40-minute narrated tram tour (included in the admission fee), and then spend time walking the garden paths. Cultural events and plant shows also take place there, and a café and garden shop are on the grounds. Guided walking tours are offered from November through April. The Fairchild Tropical Garden is open year-round, daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and an admission fee is charged. For more information, phone (305) 667-1651 or visit www.ftg.org.
Take a break to see animals, rather than plants, by traveling south of Coral Gables to the Miami MetroZoo. Currently it showcases more than 900 animals in three sections “” Africa, Australia, and Asia. Most exhibits use moats to separate the animals from the visitors. An elevated monorail, guided tram tours, wildlife shows, and educational programs add to the fun.
This facility is one of the country’s largest zoos, with 5 miles of paths meandering over 300 developed acres. But the zoo isn’t stopping there. Plans are under way to build sections devoted to North America and South America, as well as a large aviary. The zoo’s “Dr. Wilde’s World” is an indoor gallery showcasing seasonal and traveling exhibits.
The Miami MetroZoo is open year-round, and admission is charged; phone (305) 251-0400 or visit www.miamimetrozoo.com for more information.
Travel east of the zoo to the Deering Estate at Cutler, the former home of Chicago native Charles Deering, the brother of Vizcaya’s James Deering. In 1913 Charles Deering bought this property, which already contained an 1896 wood home built by the pioneering Richmond family, as well as an inn called Richmond Cottage. Deering turned the cottage into his private home, and in 1922 he added the “Stone House,” a 14,000-square-foot Mediterranean Revival-style mansion. In spite of its elegance, the home is much more modest when compared with Vizcaya.
The Stone House was built specifically to withstand wind and fire so as to be a safe repository for Charles’ collection of fine paintings, tapestries, and furnishings. (Today the collection is at the Art Institute of Chicago.) The home’s walls are 18 inches thick, and it has succeeded in withstanding hurricanes thus far. Unfortunately, the original Richmond Cottage was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew, so what visitors see is a reconstruction. One highlight inside the Stone House is a secret wine cellar located in a safe hidden behind a bookcase. It held 6,000 bottles of wine during Prohibition.
The Deering Estate at Cutler is situated on a 440-acre preserve that is both archaeologically and environmentally significant. Carbon-dated remains found on the site indicate that people once lived there as far back as 10,000 years ago. A rare Tequesta Indian mound, which dates from approximately A.D. 1600, is located on the site. The environment there, too, has been preserved to protect the endangered pine rockland habitat, and visitors can explore the park’s offshore island, Chicken Key “” home to a restored bird rookery — via canoe tours. The property is open daily, and a small admission fee is charged; canoe tours cost extra. For more information, phone (305) 235-1668 or visit www.co.miami-dade.fl.us/parks/parks/deering.htm.
Finally, don’t forget the fun of seeing south Florida’s most famous creatures: alligators. Travel farther south to Florida City and Everglades Alligator Farm, just outside of Everglades National Park. It’s home to approximately 3,000 alligators of all sizes. Smaller alligators are kept in pens while larger ones lie around breeding ponds. The critters are fed each day at noon.
Visitors can see alligator shows and feedings as well as snake shows. Admission can include a 30-minute narrated airboat tour, if you like. But it’s seeing all these alligators in one place that’s the real interest. Everglades Alligator Farm is open daily, and an admission fee is charged; phone (305) 247-2628 or visit www.everglades.com.
While these are just a few of the attractions in Miami-Dade County, they represent many of the area’s treasures worth exploring. The next time you’re near Biscayne Bay, take a few days away from the beach!
Because Miami is a high-traffic area, it is best to leave your motorhome at the campground and use your towed vehicle to drive around this city. You must use metered parking at the Lowe Art Gallery, but a parking garage is adjacent to the Historical Museum of South Florida. Parking for the Barnacle State Historic Site is on the street. Free parking is available at the rest of the attractions mentioned in this article.
For a travel guide to the Miami-Dade County region, contact:
Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
701 Brickell Ave.
Miami, FL 33131
Following are only a few of the many RV parks in the Miami-Dade County area. Please check FMC’s “Business Directory” for more campground listings (found in the January and June issues of FMC magazine, and online at www.fmca.com), or consult your favorite campground directory.
Gator Park RV Park
24050 S.W. Eighth St.
Miami, FL 33187
Larry and Penny Thompson Campground
12451 S.W. 184th St.
Miami, FL 33177
Miami/Everglades KOA, C8416
20675 S.W. 162nd Ave.
Miami, FL 33187