Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 22, 2017
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Lego with your Deco

Why not make Miami's eccentric South Beach into a family affair?

Who would have thought that the trendy cafés and Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach could be fun for a kid? Up to the late '90s, the so-called Riviera of North America was the place the young and glamorous came to get away from their families. Scantily-clad fashion models, buff body-worshippers and gay and lesbian couples on the party circuit flocked to the area. It was not a place where you'd see couples in sensible shoes lugging diaper bags and pushing strollers.

But South Beach's popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, opening up to visitors of all stripes. Miami is now on a direct flight from most Canadian cities. It's four hours from Manhattan and a major embarkation point for cruises. Meanwhile, the little Art Deco neighbourhood draws more than seven million tourists a year -- many of them children.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see families congregating at outdoor cafés on Ocean Drive, pouring over plates of all-American eggs and waffles. Sitting next to them will be a flamboyantly gay couple ordering a round of gin and tonics.

While it's officially the largest historic Art Deco district in the world, SoBe is actually only one square mile. It's made up of three parallel avenues, with Ocean Drive, its most famous, looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean. Within this small area are 800 Deco buildings whose pastel blue, green, pink or white exteriors and eclectic ornamentation were once at the architectural forefront of 1920s and '30s America.

Kids will enjoy the wide streets and promenades, perfect for strolling, rollerblading and biking, and they will love the district's pervading atmosphere of casualness. Breakfast or lunch in a café along Ocean Drive is worth the extra dollars, if only to people-watch for an hour. One block over on Collins Avenue is the place to window-shop with a fashion-conscious teen: along the street, trendsetting clothing designers sell the latest form-fitting styles at inflated prices.

Every kid will be naturally drawn to the beach, famous for its turquoise water and soft white sand. Parents will appreciate that the strip of beach directly across from Ocean Drive is partially shaded, offering some respite in the afternoon. If you're travelling with teens, you can rent rollerblades or bikes from Fritz's Skate Shop (730 Lincoln Road; tel: 305-532-1954). Traffic moves slowly in SoBe and pedestrian malls are closed to cars. Blades and bikes are welcome along the beach promenade, so you can see the area on two or more wheels without losing a family member in the process.

WHEN THE STARS COME OUT
As soon as the sun goes down, SoBe's streets fill with a parade of club-goers. That doesn't mean children have to be sequestered in their hotel rooms. A pleasant South Beach evening -- dinner, a stroll and a bit of people watching -- can be had at the outdoor pedestrian shopping mall along Lincoln Road. The street is shut to traffic for blocks and businesses spill out onto the pavement. Alongside major jean outlets, you'll also find the Lincoln and Colony Theaters, a few art galleries and upscale boutiques like Victoria's Secret and Dolce & Gabbana.

Like everywhere else in Florida, there's no shortage of restaurants. One of the most bustling casual eateries is Van Dykes (846 Lincoln Road; tel: 305-534-3600), which largely caters to a tourist crowd. It serves up reasonably priced American fare -- breakfast, burgers and sandwiches -- in a lively setting kids love. Further down the road is local favourite Balans (1022 Lincoln Road; tel: 305-534-9191), which has a similar menu but a calmer atmosphere. For a taste of Miami fusion, try the newly opened SushiSamba Dromo (600 Lincoln Road; tel: 305-673-5337), where Japanese flavours go south to Peru and Brazil. A plate of calamari flavoured with tamarind comes covered with fresh chunky salsa and fresh mint. Typical of many of Miami's upbeat restos, SushiSamba tries to reflect the ethnic feel of the city. Sometimes the formula works, other times you feel you're eating a veritable mosaic of crispy, tender, spicy and sweet all at once.

 

To kick off your night out, head to South Point Park before sunset. As the sun goes down, the world's biggest and most luxurious cruise ships steer their way out of port and pass the park on their seabound voyages. You get a good view of the ships and the kids can bid the passengers on deck bon voyage. With binoculars, you can even see inside the cabins. The venerable well-heeled steakhouse, Smith & Wollensky (1 Washington Avenue, South Point Park; tel: 305-673-2800) offers much the same experience over a cocktail and a plate of Prime-grade beef. But being somewhat formal, it's not ideal for the younger set.

ANIMAL KINGDOM
After a couple of days relaxing in South Beach, a lot of families are ready to take in one of the attractions, which in Miami means macaws, alligators and dolphins. Depending on the ages and tolerance levels of the kids you're travelling with, some of these can be half-day outings, others a full day. If it's been some time since you last visited a zoo-like setting, keep in mind that the animals are most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon when it's not too hot. If you've never been to Miami, don't let yourself get caught in rush-hour traffic; you can waste hours in gridlock.

One of the closest attractions to South Beach is the newly expanded Parrot Jungle Island (1111 Parrot Jungle Trail; tel: 305-2-JUNGLE; www.parrotjungle.com), located between South Beach and Miami, along the I-395 or the MacArthur Causeway. It looks like a massive concrete car park from the outside -- apparently there's enough room for hundreds of cars and about 40 buses -- but inside, everything is intimate and tree-shaded. Kids get up close to the tropical birds: there are more than 1000 parrots of different varieties, including macaws, Amazons and cockatoos.

Like all animal attractions, Parrot Jungle runs daily open-air theatres where trainers parade birds, alligators and other local species to a loud and captive audience. Some kids -- and a lot of adults -- will have to be dragged away from the petting zoo; others will be awed by the section called the Manu Encounter, an enclosed area fashioned after the clay cliffs in Manu, Peru where more than 200 squawking parrots and macaws fly free. Visitors can walk through the Encounter in twos and three.

On the other side of the MacArthur Causeway is the recently opened Miami Children's Museum (980 MacArthur Causeway; tel: 305-373-5437; www.miamichildrensmuseum.org). All of the exhibits are indoors -- which makes it a good option on a wet or unbearably hot day -- and all come with an educational slant. In the Castle of Dreams, kids climb through a two-storey sand castle and see sands from around the world. In Pet Central, they learn how to care for pets. At another exhibit, they can dress in costume and cruise on a police motorcycle or steer a fire truck. The Sea of Wonder is perfect for toddlers; it comes with a wall of bubbles and an area to play in the water. Then there's a music area, a TV studio and a cruise ship. The list of exhibits is exhaustive and should tire out any kid up to 10 years old.

If you have time for only one full-day outing, make it the Miami Metrozoo (12400 South West 152 Street, South Miami-Dade; tel: 305-251-0400; www.zsf.org). This is a massive, state-of-the-art zoo where different species roam in expansive areas designed to mimic their natural habitat. Moats, rather than wire, separate the 700 different types of animals from visitors. Being in a subtropical region, the zoo is able to showcase animals that couldn't survive in colder climates. In the Asian habitats, you'll see Asian river otters, Komodo dragons and Bengal tigers. Over in the African Plains, there are giraffes, zebras and lions. The Australian section features koalas, kangaroos and wallabies. The entire zoo covers about 300 hectares -- there's even a monorail shuttle to transport visitors between habitats.

Many of Miami's attractions help kids understand the fragile state of some of the world's rarest creatures. You can tell them, for example, that the Metrozoo does more than simply display animals; it has helped preserve a few endangered species. The zoo has won accolades for successfully breeding the Komodo dragon, the Cuban crocodile and the Matschie's tree kangaroo.

South Beach's image may still be that of a nightclub-strewn wonderland, but as most parents discover there's a whole other party circuit where the energy runs just as high -- but you'll need a couple of juice boxes and a stroller to make it through that one.

 

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