By Adam Lloyd

Miami – the name conjures images of sandy beaches, models in thong bikinis, fast boats, hot nightclubs, and Don Johnson. Or, maybe you think: Salsa music, hand-rolled cigars, black beans and rice, and strong Cuban coffee. On the other hand, what could pop into your head is vintage cars, Art Deco hotels, New York retirees, and huge pastrami sandwiches. Strangely enough, Miami is all of these things and more, and believe it or not, these disparate elements come together to create one very attractive package.

The Journey

As a disabled traveler to Miami Beach, my first concerns were not about how quickly I would get a tan or whether I should hang out at Sean Penn’s night club or Ricky Martin’s; no, those were only a close second. My first concerns were with wheelchair equiped transportation and my fear that despite being accessible, my room at a circa 1939 hotel would be little more than a dilapidated closet.

After an hour’s worth of research, the only Miami cab company I could find that had any wheelchair taxis was Key Biscane Taxi (305-365-2222), and they offer just one such vehicle. A ride from the airport to Miami Beach is between $24-$41 depending on your destination. It seems that Miami-Dade county provides “special services transportation” (305-263-5406) for the area’s wheelchair users. However, if you’re visiting from out of town, you must “prove” your disability before hand in order to schedule a pick-up.

Miami Beach, especially the popular South Beach area, is fairly self contained with little need for driving. I, however, had plans that included two day-trips outside the beach area and therefore opted to rent a wheelchair van. The choice in rental companies was Wheelchair Getaways (800-642-2042), a national outfit, and the regional Rainbow Wheels (888-696-VANS). Despite a prior good experiece with Wheelchair Getaways, I picked Rainbow Wheels, seeking to broaden my first hand knowledge of these companies.

At $100 a day for 100 miles of use and a $120 pick-up and delivery fee, Rainbow Wheels is just slightly more expensive than Wheelchair Getaways. The Dodge Caravan came with a lowered floor, 4 point tie downs, automatic lift and door, and a kneeling system. The person delivering the van was there, waiting for my party and I, as we reached the baggage claim. He spent ample time explaining the operation of the van and making sure we understood everything. Throughout my stay, the van performed without a hitch, and based on the quality and demeanor of the service we received, I would definitely use Rainbow Wheels again.

South Beach

The drive to our hotel was roughly twenty minutes and we found the road signs in Miami to be very precise and helpful. South Beach, where we were staying, is also known as the Art Deco District. Most of the hotels were built in the 1930’s and have, in the last two decades, been restored to their original luster.

There are four main thoroughfares along which all of the activity takes place, Washington Street, Collins Avenue, Lincoln Road and Ocean Drive. As expected, Ocean Drive borders the beach, and is where many of the cafes and hotels are located. We were pleasantly surprised to find empty disabled parking spots every couple of blocks on an otherwise packed street. As we later saw, violators of the handicapped parking laws face not only a hefty fine, but a large orange sticker applied to the driver’s window that looked very tough to remove.

Miami Beach has an abundance of hotels to choose from. I selected the Park Central Hotel (640 Ocean Drive; 305-538-1611) for its $150-a-night price, its accessibility, proximity to the beach and boardwalk, and because on paper it looked as good as anywhere else. As it turns out, luck was on my side. In my opinion, I ended up in one of the three nicest hotels in South Beach, along with the Tides (1220 Ocean Drive; 305-604-5000) and the Loews (1601 Collins Avenue; 305-604-1601).

The pleasing Art Deco facade of this seven story hotel is a precursor to its handsome, refined interior. A ramp on the side of the building provides access to the requisite South Beach patio, which surrounds the hotel’s entrance. Friendly doormen welcome visitors inside and an equally friendly staff makes checking in a pleasure.

The lobby is fairly small, with a door to the outdoor pool at one end, the reservation desk and elevator at the other. Up two stairs is the hotel’s restaurant in an open area that overlooks the lobby. They have a table set up in the lobby, propper, for wheelchair users, but the isolated seating is an awkward solution which I never opted to use.

Exiting the elevator on the third floor, I could have sworn I’d been transported inside the film Casablanca. The silent, narrow hallway was decorated in green, palm leaf patterned carpeting, the off-white plaster walls displayed large black and white photographs from the thirties, the doors to the rooms were louvered and green, and a row of ceiling fans spun slowly in unison.

Surprisingly, the keys were electronic, and unlocked a decent size, handicapped accessible room. Plain, wooden dressers, a refrigerator, king size bed, coffee table and a t.v. were the main additions to a decor which carried over from the hall. A “welcome basket” of fresh fruit awaited us, as would a dish of sweet grapes that arrived every night with turn down service.

The light switches, thermostat, and ceiling fan cord were all lowered so that someone in a wheelchair could use them. In the bathroom, which was tiled in pale aqua and black, there were grab bars by the toilet, an accessible sink, and a roll-in shower with grab bars and a built in bench. Considering when the hotel was built and the amount of renovation that had to be done to make the room accessible, I was pretty impressed. The one possible drawback with the room’s wheelchair accessibility was the height of the bed, which, due to an unusually thick mattress was a bit tough to transfer into. Alert kits are available for guests with hearing impairments, but unfortunately, the absence of braille number plates on the doors is a glaring oversight.

Ocean Drive is bordered by the beach on one side and wall-to-wall hotels and cafes on the other. It is also the location of the late Gianni Versace’s home, and quite often you will find visitors paying homage outside the mammoth, white mansion’s gates. Virtually every hotel along this strip has outdoor seating for their restaurants placed along the edge of the wide sidewalk, creating a pedestrian corridor between the hotel and the tables. On crowded days, and most days are crowded, it is easier to travel along the beach-side sidewalk than squeeze through the hordes of people walking and dining on the hotel side.

One of the nicest, and most popular, places to eat breakfast is the 24 hour News Cafe (800 Ocean Drive). Dozens of green umbrella topped tables offer a great, relaxed spot for people watching. The food, everything from french toast to shrimp kabobs, is sure to please. My personal favorite is the ever changing soup of the day. Be careful though, most restaurants in Miami Beach automatically add a 15% gratuity onto your check. It is clearly written on your bill, but habit could have you tipping another 15% on top of that if you don’t read carefully! In addition to the restaurant, the cafe’s store sells jazz cds, beach wear, sun tan lotion and newspapers from all over the world.

The beach itself is long and wide, with a cement board walk and sea wall some tweny yards before the dunes, followed by another thirty yards of sand before you get to the water. There is wheelchair access near the beach patrol station, and a beach wheelchair is available for rental. The sand at this accessible entrance is well packed down as far as the dunes. In my power chair, I ventured up as far as was sensible, but still couldn’t see the water, so I went even further. The pristine white sand, azure waters, and beautiful sun bathers are quite inviting, and almost worth the trouble of the fuse I blew after getting stuck in the sand. Luckily, I carry a spare, but decided it would be smart to get some more backups just in case.

There is nothing like searching for a specialty wheelchair item to quickly familiarize oneself with a new town. Though everybody I encountered was extremely helpful, it still took two hours of exploring to locate an inexact, but near enough, match at a local Radio Shack. By that time, I knew South Beach like the back of my hand.

One thing that struck me was the extreme contrast in atmosphere between the tourist filled streets of Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue and the local, residential and commercial areas. Within three blocks of the beach, with it’s Armani, Versace, Guess and Prada shops, are a plethora of seedy liquor stores, tattoo parlors, exotic dance clubs, and $.99 retail shops. Miami Beach’s veneer of elegance and exclusivity is surprisingly thin – not a great thing for vacationers trying to get away from it all.

One way to recapture the feeling of being in the “American Riviera” is to have dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab (11 Washington Ave.), the legendary restaurant serving Miami’s legendary stone crab claws. Established in 1913, Joe’s has been serving it’s huge stone crab claws and mustard sauce to adoring diners for nearly 90 years. The restaurant is extremely large, and looks like a private club; the mature wait staff wears tuxedos and even the bus boys don formal yellow coats. It truly feels like you are dining in another era. Unfortunately, the prices are very twenty-first century, and can easily cost upwards of $60 per person for dinner. If you do decide that you can take the hit to your wallet, definitely make reservations as multi-hour waits are common.

By sheer coincidence, the week that I was in town, Ocean Drive Magazine was hosting its annual Volleypalooza tournament. Every year, twenty of the nation’s top modeling agencies compete in a sand volleyball tournament for charity. Needless to say, the eye candy was plentiful and the crowds were large and enthusiastic. ESPN 2 and the Playboy Channel both covered the event.

Everglades

As strong as my desire to watch bikini clad models play volleyball all day, I had already made other plans. So, after an hour of Volleypalooza, I headed back to the van. A forty-five minute drive later, the surf and sand had given way to the lush greenness of the Everglades.

The only ecosystem of its kind in the entire world, and so close to Miami, the ‘glades should not be missed. Shark Valley (US 41; 9:00-4:00) is just one of five visitor’s centers in this vast national park, but the two hour tram tour makes it an ideal location at which to stop. Reservations (305-221-8455) are recommended, and are really a good idea if you’re a wheelchair user. There is a $10 per car entry fee and the tram tour costs $10, however, everything is free if you request a Golden Access Pass (for disabled visitors, good forever at all national parks) when you arrive. Bathroom, and gift shop facilities are all accessible.

Fold-away benches and a steep, portable ramp make the tram accessible. The 15 mile drive is slow and smooth. An observation tower at the mid-way point is ramped, but with no curb, the trip down the tram’s ramp at this twenty minute stop is prohibitively steep. I opted to enjoy the scenery from the tram while the others ventured to the tower.

Along the way you will see all sorts of birds including Blue Heron, Egrets, Anhinga, as well as turtles, snakes, and of course, lots of alligators. The tram drivers do a great job of explaining all about the complex ecosystem, and make the journey both entertaining and educational. After the tour, visitors are free to walk back up the paved roadway for an even closer look, but not too close, as alligators can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour when hunting their prey. The Everglades are truly an experience to be cherished.

Deep Sea Fishing

The following day I again forewent the Volleypalooza sirens and opted for a day out on the water doing some deep sea fishing. Before leaving on my trip I spent two weeks trying to locate a wheelchair accessible fishing charter in the Miami area. The closest I could come was an outfit some four hours south in Marathon Key – too far. Finally, after phone calls, web searches, e-mails, and reading angling magazines, I was about to give up. Then it dawned on me to call the Miami Project, a research hospital working to cure paralysis. While the hospital didn’t know of any charters, the receptionist gave me the name of a local wheelchair user who she knew loved to fish. Minutes later I had the name of my charter boat, the Blue Sea II.

Located fifteen minutes from the hotel, the Blue Sea II (www.bluesea2.com; 888-737-8122) is a 70 foot boat which caters to local fishing regulars. Unlike most charters which cost $300-$500 a day for a private excursion, the Blue Sea II is $30-$40 a person (includes rod, reel and bait) and takes thirty or so people on half or full day, day and nighttime trips. Snacks are sold on board, or you are welcome to bring your own food. I went on a half day outing, though with hindsight the full eight hours would have been terrific.

According to an incredibly friendly Captain Avery, they regularly take wheelchair users out fishing, including a veterans group which goes annually. In fact, the day I went there was another man in a wheelchair there for his second time. While the crew enthusiastically accepts wheelchair users, the boat itself is far from accessible. There is a two inch gap at the end of the gang plank, and a good two foot step down into the boat. The crew had their work cut out for them easing my heavy power wheelchair down this step and lifting me back up when we returned. However, they did so beautifully without jarring me in the slightest. There is also no bathroom access for those in wheelchairs.

Once on board, they gave me a spot near the rear of the boat to minimize the effects of any turbulence. It was a clear day and the water was relatively calm, making for a surprisingly smooth forty minute ride out to our first stop. The crew was helpful in hooking my bait and casting the line, and as the sun beamed down on us we bobbed along waiting for bites.

The results varied after four hours and three different fishing sites. Some of the more experienced anglers used their various techniques to come up with six or seven mid-size fish, everything from king fish to banana fish to rainbow runners. With next to no fishing experience and no physical ability to actually handle the rod and reel myself, I was quite happy to have caught a single ten inch banana fish.

To be honest, had I caught nothing I still would have loved the entire trip. There was a friendly comraderie among everyone on the boat, the weather couldn’t have been better, the view, sounds and smell of the open ocean were inspiring, and simply participating in a “sporting” activity was both fun and therapeutic.

Once back at the dock, the crew takes the catch off ice and divvies it up to the proper owners. A restaurant right at the dock, which is affiliated with the Blue Sea II, will clean your catch and even cook it for you for a fee. I decided to give my fish to one of the crew members who had been especially helpful as I had different dinner plans… something a little spicier.

Little Havana

Little Havana is away from the beach, back in the city of Miami. Somehow I had expected to be transported into an American version of Cuba, with vintage cars, Latin/Caribbean style architecture – something picturesque and exotic. I was slightly disappointed then, when driving down the main thoroughfare, SW 8th street (a.k.a. Calle Ocho), everything looked just like a typical semi-urban residential area. Strip malls, fast food restaurants, gas stations, motels, etc., the only difference being that the signs are both in English and Spanish.

My initial let down was quickly replaced with anticipation as I spotted my destination, the Versailles restaurant. One of Miami’s most popular establishments for Cuban cuisine, and the place Little Havana residents go to eat, Versailles (3555 SW 8th Street; 305-444-0240) is an inexpensive restaurant that tries for an upscale look. However, it misses the mark horribly. Large, noisy and terribly garish, the bright green carpeting, never ending mirrored walls, candelabras and tuxedoed host, make you feel as if you’ve stepped inside a bad parody of a fine dining establishment.

The restaurant quickly wins back your favor, however, with genuinely friendly service, huge portions and outstanding food. The menu is extensive, and offers two sampler entrees which are a great idea for those unfamiliar with Cuban food. Versailles’ soups are a strong point and I opted for the garlic and egg soup which was as sumptuous as anything I’ve ever eaten. Beef broth thick with chunks of garlic and a poached egg, the soup is a must have for anybody who remotely enjoys garlic. My main course was an incredibly flavorful pot roast in dark gravy with delicious beans and rice. Although I was already past full, I couldn’t resist trying a cup of strong Cuban coffee and an order of tres leches (three milk cake), which is a wonderfully sweet compliment to the savory meal.

Versailles runs an adjacent bakery where traditional Cuban desserts and coffee are served late into the night, but other than a nearby cigar shop, there is nothing extraordinary to keep tourists exploring Little Havana after having a good meal.

South Beach Redux

Back in South Beach the nightlife is jumping and everybody’s out looking to have a good time. Of course, everybody’s idea of a good time isn’t the same, so Miami’s got at least three types of nightspots to cater to everyone.

High energy dance clubs are the most prevalent scene at the beach. Clubs like Bash, Chaos, Level and Amnesia cater to young, uber-hip, Armani clad, model types. Since I don’t fit that description, the closest I came was venturing by a long line of club kids hoping to be picked for entry into Miami’s hottest spot, Liquid. More to my taste are the two outdoor clubs along Ocean Drive, Mango’s and the Clevelander. Approaching the atmosphere of a Latin tinged fraternity party, both clubs feature live music, lots of beer, and a lighthearted singles scene. The final option is to relax in a seat in one of the bars or cafes located a few blocks from the beach. The Van Dyke, in particular, boasts a second floor lounge, accessible by elevator, with live jazz.

Normally, I do a fairly good job of researching the cities I’m going to, and rarely do I miss any obviously interesting sights. However, it wasn’t until the last night of the trip, when I found the Van Dyke, that I discovered the wonder that is Lincoln Road. Eight blocks of this street have been blocked off to vehicular traffic, creating a pedestrian’s paradise. Literally dozens of boutiques, galleries, restaurants, coffee houses and more line both sides of the street as well as the area where cars would normally drive. Roller bladers, bargain hunters, people walking their dogs, tourists and residents alike all congregate here. The people watching is incredible; if you’re not on the beach, this is where you want to be. In fact, it was so compelling that I made it a point to revisit the street for the one free hour I had the following day before going home.

It is rather amazing, the breadth of activities, cultures, ecosystems, cuisines, and lifestyles which coexist in Miami Beach and its surrounding area. Jazz lounges and techno clubs, black beans and stone crabs, Versace and the dollar store, sandy beaches and grassy ‘glades, Art Deco and Spanish tile, fitness buffs and cigar smokers, young models and elderly retirees. This city has it all, and more importantly, it has a way of blending these contrasting elements into an entity that draws you in and attracts you to it; an entity that can only be called Miami.