The sun is high overhead and the water is warm enough to be likened to bathwater. But it’s crystal clear and just cool enough to take the edge off the intense summer heat as Heather and I wade out past the crowds and look for a place where the water cools off a little.
It’s the 4th of July and Bucket List item #114 is being crossed off as I celebrate American independence in the warm waters of Miami’s South Beach. Ahead of me lies a day of ice cold beers, delicious Cuban food, and fireworks exploding overhead as the American love of pageantry ensures the day is suitably memorable.
That American Fascination
I can’t recall when it was that I realised I had such an abiding fascination with American culture. There are certainly many things I dislike about the United States, but there’s something very attractive about the American dream and all of its bells and whistles. The days spent at the baseball park, going away to Summer Camp, Thanksgiving dinners, White Christmases and all of the competition to have the best decorated house, proms, school plays, high school sweethearts, college sports… it’s a culture similar to my own, but different in a lot of ways that I almost envy.
So it made sense to me that, with my trip taking me to the US for its national day, I should celebrate it in a way that plays to the cliches I was raised on through television, movies, and books.
While I couldn’t spend the 4th of July camping by some beautiful lake with a horde of friends, I could take my beautiful new girlfriend on a trip down to Florida with me and celebrate it with a few thousand of my closest friends. Celebrating the 4th of July in Miami seemed like as good an idea as any.
Welcome to Miami
When it was decided that we’d be spending the 4th of July in Miami, we immediately hit up my new favorite travel resource – AirBnB. In fact, our entire Florida vacation (as well as our visits to New York and Chicago) would have accommodation booked effortlessly through AirBnB. It proved a lot cheaper than finding hotels and a lot more private than hanging a top-sheet in a hostel.
Although that is on the bucket list too…
Our accommodation in this case would be a room at the Whitelaw Hotel that was booked via AirBnB. This isn’t really what the site is for, but it suited well enough in our case. Literally one block from South Beach and in an area laden with restaurants, bars, and cafes – it was a pretty perfect launching pad for our 4th of July in Miami.
If the place had one drawback, it was that it clearly caters to a younger, party crowd. While we definitely appreciated the free shuttle from the airport and the free drinks at happy hour every night, the noise and the people of questionable morale fiber bumping and grinding in the foyer weren’t exactly condusive to a romantic getaway.
How was I supposed to achieve bucket list item #204 with all that ruckus?
We got in to Miami quite late that night, so contented ourselves with a bite to eat at a local deli and an early night. After all, we’d need all of our energy to get through a day of sun, sand, surf, and drinks for the big day.
4th of July in Miami
The day dawned bright and sunny without a hint of the rain that my iPhone insisted we’d be encountering, and we were up bright and early for a bite to eat and to get the necessary beach supplies such as sunscreen, ice cold beers, and a hat to prevent my bald self from being rendered a drooling fool.
Our breakfast location of choice was the South Beach Cafe Deli. We dined on bagels and fruit salad while listening to a local character rant about the sorry state of water fountains (bubblers, for my Aussie readers) in the United States.
“Back when I was a kid,” he shouted to his server in a thick Mexican accent, “There were water fountains everywhere. Now you can’t find them anywhere. The only one I know of is in the mall. Just one. You want water? You gotta pay for water”.
His server, having made the mistake of replying ‘Of course’ to the customer’s request for a glass of water, looked both amused and uncomfortable as the tirade continued.
“What’s wrong with tap water? Everybody just wants bottled water. One day you’ll charge me to stand in your air conditioning. $1 for one hour and I’ll have to thank you at the end”.
He ranted some more, but we tuned him out as we swallowed the last of our orange juice and headed out to join the other people celebrating on the beach.
Soaking in the Sun on South Beach
It was 11am by the time we reached the white sands of South Beach, but the 4th of July in Miami meant the crowds were out in full force. While the beach volleyball courts were sadly quiet (I haven’t had a good game since last year’s visit to Tangalooma) there was no shortage of sun-tanned flesh on display as we picked our way through the sunbathers and partiers in search of our own little patch of sand.
Planes cut their way across the clear blue sky spruiking local DJs while college kids tossed around footballs, frisbees, and frosty beers as the day began in earnest.
We quickly made our way out beyond the crowds and into the cooler, deeper water where we could throw around a frisbee without fear of decapitating a hapless child. While I was left to mourn the absence of anything resembling surf, Heather seemed content to bob in the water and sip beers from the water bottles we’d bought earlier. There was apparently a strict ‘No open container’ law in place, but damned if we saw anybody going to great pains to hide their drinks.
Or their weed, for that matter.
We alternated our time between floating in the water and soaking in the sun, and both of us had not entirely attractive sunburns across our back by the time we decided to take our remaining (warm) beers and retire to the hotel room to rest up and make ourselves beautiful for the main event. But not before availing ourselves of every free sample booth along the beach. I returned to our hotel room with free water, free Vitamin Water, free Monster, and free sweet tea.
Sweet tea may be my new favourite liquid in the universe, by the way.
Fireworks, Cuban Food, and Fishbowls
Our relaxed afternoon soon drifted into the evening and it was time to pull on our Sunday best and head down to the Whitelaw’s foyer bar to partake in the free happy hour open to guests. Presenting our room key got us unlimited basic spirits with mixers between 7 and 8, and I made use of it with three vodka pineapple before we headed out into the balmy evening air.
Word to the wise: Wave a few singles if you want quick service. The blonde barmaid didn’t seem to speak a language that wasn’t written in dollar signs.
One thing I’d been really hankering to try in Miami was a good pulled pork sandwich. Ever since the first episode of Dexter mentioned that particular piece of Cuban fare, I’ve been dying to try it. And while my good mate, Ben did bring me some at work last year, I wanted to try the real thing.
To that end, we made our way to David’s Cuban Cafe, which had come highly recommended from a fellow passenger on our shuttle the previous night. The place was packed but we were soon seated and ordering up our meal. And in the spirit of trying different things, we made sure to select a few of the menu’s more interesting options: a platter of traditional Cuban appetisers and a breast of chicken served in a sauce containing mangoes, watermelon, and honeydew.
To be honest, our plate of assorted meats and plantain chips would probably have been enough for two – but we powered on with the help of a few Coronas (with requisite lime) and were soon waddling out with full bellies and an eye for the night life. But first, we had some fireworks to attend to.
With the first booms and bangs going off, we broke into a run through darkened streets before emerging onto South Beach proper and joining a horde of fellow ‘Oohers and aahers’ to take in the show. While it wasn’t really a patch on the fireworks over Sydney Harbour each New Year’s, it was still an impressive show made more special by having the hand of a pretty girl to hold.
#114 – Celebrate the 4th of July on the water
With fireworks done and the night still relatively young, we scouted out one of the many beachfront clubs and scored ourselves a table. Our venue of choice just so happened to boast a girl table dancing in a stars and stripes bikini. That had nothing to do with our decision to go there, I assure you.
Our bellies were too full for food, but Heather kindly offered to buy us a round of the giant fishbowl drinks we’d seen doing the rounds. While some were extra fancy in that they had beers or mixed drinks that drained into the bowls as the first drink was consumed, we settled for a much more conventional strawberry mojito. The fact that the bowl was big enough to house a pair of goldfish was just icing on the cake.
We began the task of downing our drinks in earnest, people watching and listening to club music as our drinks gradually inched towards the bottom of their bowls. I finished mine a wee bit/roughly forty minutes before Heather polished off her own, but she’s just a little girl and deserves a high five for seeing off the challenge before her.
Not to mention the jaw-dropping $55 bill, and that already included the fact it was 2 for 1 drinks!
With wallets empty and stomachs full to bursting, it was time to call our 4th of July in Miami to an end. While I was all for a late night romantic stroll on the beach in hopes of checking off item #178, Heather was having none of it. It was back to our hotel room for some much needed water and a slightly post midnight finish.
July 5th would see us on the road to Sanibel Island with a stop off in the Everglades so I could check of item #40.
How did you spend your 4th of July this year? If you aren’t American but have celebrated the holiday in the past, how did you do your first 4th of July?
What did I miss in Miami? While I didn’t get to try pulled pork, I feel like I soaked in a good chunk of South Beach lifestyle in 24 hours. What would you have done?