The Architectural Travel Experience: Art Deco in Miami Beach

art deco drawingLater on this month here in Toronto we’ll spend a wonderful spring weekend touring architectural gems in this city. For the past seventeen years our city has been celebrating its edifices with Doors Open Toronto. This is an extraordinary opportunity for locals and tourists alike to see inside the walls of buildings that are not normally open to the public, or that they usually just walk by obliviously. This year there are 130 open, and we will be visiting the Bloor Street United church (because we never go inside churches in Canada except for weddings and funerals), Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island (because we always fly out of Pearson International), the Campbell House Museum, Osgoode Hall, and the Arts and Letters Club or Toronto (because we walk by them all the time and have wondered about it), the Canadian Music Centre to name a couple. These buildings tell a city story, just like the stories told by the architecture in places we visit around the world.

For example, Barcelona (one of our very favourite cities in the whole world) provides one of the richest architectural travel experiences that should be on everyone’s travel bucket list in our view. How can you visit a city like Barcelona without marvelling at at least a few of famed architect Gaudi’s extraordinarily creative edifices? And who can visit Chicago without experiencing it Chicago School architectural marvels, or Paris without the Louvre? Or Miami Beach without the Art Deco?

So we did spend a week in Miami Beach this year enjoying the architecture which transports you (if you let it) back in time into the 1920’s, 30’s and early 40’s to a style the exuded glamour and pleasure. And where could the hedonistic aesthetic be more pronounced than in a place like Miami Beach? So as we did our walking tour of Miami Beach architecture, we imagined what it might have been life to stay on the beach in those art deco styled hotels in the 1930’s.

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The Blue Moon Hotel where we stayed in Miami Beach fit right into the Art Deco aesthetic.

 

The art deco district is located in the South Beach neighbourhood that has also been referred to as the American Riviera. (If you’ll pardon us, we believe that there is only one Riviera and it is in the south of France – there is no Mayan Riviera either!)

This area of Miami Beach is purported to contain the largest collection of 1920’s and 1930’s architecture in the world. There is no doubt about it that these low-rise buildings evoke a sense of history – a time when life was simpler and pleasure ruled the daily activities (as it still does today in this touristy area!).

We began our own walking tour at the Art Deco Welcome Center located at 10th Street and Ocean Drive where in the gift shop we bought a map guide to the important buildings. This is invaluable since it provides not only the location of the buildings but some of their history as well. Knowing each building’s exact provenance adds an important dimension to the enjoyment of the tour.

The art deco aesthetic is one that we particularly enjoy with its porthole windows, glass block and shiny surfaces, stepped roof lines, zig-zags, chevrons, sunbursts – these elements are what makes the buildings different than what is generally designed these days. And it tells a Miami Beach story – one you shouldn’t miss!

Cruise Ports on Your Own: “Doing” Gustavia, St. Barth’s

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Lovely Gustavia

St. Barth’s – the very name conjures up pictures of powdery white sand beaches with photogenic celebrities cavorting in the surf, evenings at chi-chi cocktail bars and designer boutiques with that French je ne sais quoi. And so it is. But we’ve been to St. Barth’s twice now and have never once laid eyes on a single celebrity – major or minor. Gustavia is, however, a charming Caribbean cruise port that is worth exploring on your own.

 

The first time we set foot on the tiny island was a few years ago when we took our first Silversea cruise. St. Barth’s isn’t a regular cruise ship destination because it does not have any cruise ship dock or dockside facilities and it isn’t the kind of place that caters to the mega-ship passenger. You’ll find no trace of Señor Frog’s, Margaritaville or rafts of duty-free shops lining sweaty streets. Instead, you tender ashore to a tidy, sleepy well-heeled French town filled with the likes of Dior, Chanel and even a Longchamp Paris outpost. It’s lovely.

During that first visit, we had organized a car and driver to give us a tour of the island (which was, by the way ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1493) and drop us at Le Gaiac, the restaurant at the exclusive resort Le Toiny, a Relais and Chateaux property on the private, not-yet-developed southeastern coast of the island. It was a lovly, relaxing lunch. [Evidently the restaurant has been completely refurbished and is now referred to simply as Le Toiny Restaurant.]

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Beautiful vistas in St. Barth’s

 

For anyone who wants to see the island (which doesn’t take long since it’s only 25 square kilometres, not quite 10 square miles, in size) hiring a taxi at the pier would work just as well – and at considerably less expense than we spent arranging in advance. But on our recent visit this year, we decided to spend the time in little Gustavia.

Patty did have a goal in mind: when offered the opportunity to visit a French town or city, she makes her way to the nearest Pharmacie to discover the latest stash of French, drug-store skin-care products. She wasn’t disappointed. Even in this tiny French outpost, the Pharmacie was filled to brimming with the likes of LaRoche Posay, Embryolisse, Caudalie, Vichy and Nuxe to name a few.

We took a walk along the pretty, tree-lined streets around the edge of the tiny harbour where the lines of yachts bobbed in the gentle waves. We did a bit of window-shopping at Cartier, Eres, Chopard, Roberto Cavalli and Longchamp to name just a few of the shops we passed and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the French-imbued surroundings.

If you have two-and-a-half minutes, join us on our walk through Gustavia.

Malta: An island steeped in history

malta - fishing villagePeople who live on Canada’s Atlantic coast have seen the name many times – Valletta. That name is emblazoned on ship after ship that enters the container terminal in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We have often wondered if most of the people who see this on a daily basis have any idea where Valletta is. As travelers interested in the wider world, we knew that it was in Malta, but Malta was a mystery to us – until recently. [The reason the ships bear this moniker is that ship registration is a major industry there.] 

As we often say, there is no better way to be introduced to new places that you might other wise never visit than on a well-selected cruise chosen with itinerary at the top of the priority list. That is how we found ourselves on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta.

Picture a tiny island (really an archipelago) located just 80 kilometres south of Italy and 284 kilometres east of Tunisia in Northern Africa directly in that passage between the Atlantic end of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Because of this strategic position, Malta has a rich history of a succession of ruling countries: the Romans, the Moors, the Sicilians, the Normans, the Spaniards, the British to name a some of them. It is this very richness that imbues the tiny island with its appeal for travelers who are interested in both natural beauty and the influences of historical evolution on a place and a people. We are those travelers.

 

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Hiring the services of a private driver and a guide as we like to do, we were able to make the most of our short visit. We began with a walking tour of Valletta, a world heritage site. It’s a bit like walking through an open-air museum with historical artifacts that tell of the city’s storied past at every turn. The most historic buildings date from the sixteenth century and at every turn there is a story to be told.

 

We then drove out of the city into the beautiful countryside to the fortified city of Mdina (not a misspelling), inland slightly southwest of Valletta. Founded in 700 BC, Mdina was the capital of Malta until the 16th century. A walking tour of this historical masterpiece is a must-do when visiting Malta.

A visit to Malta wouldn’t be complete, though, without visiting a fishing village or two. The colourful boats, markets and buildings combine to provide you with a bit of a snapshot of modern life in the Maltese countryside.

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Malta is a tiny spot in the world that should be on your bucket list, if it isn’t already there. If you get the chance to visit, even if just for a day, jump on that chance.

It’s really difficult to tell the story of a visit to Malta without numerous pictures, so we’ve put together a brief video of the sights we’d like to share with you.

 

Rome: A City for (Walking) Lovers

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Take a beautiful, relaxing walk through the Borghese Gardens.

Rome has long been known as “The Eternal City” allegedly because the ancient Romans believed that wars may rage, tempests might descend, disasters could occur, but Rome would endure all – and it has to be said that looking at the city’s endurance throughout the millennia, they may just have been prescient. Rome, though, is also know as a city for lovers – in our view for walking lovers. If you want to come to love the eternal city, get yourself a pair of (fashionable) walking shoes and come with us.

 

We have visited Rome on three separate occasions at this point. The first visit found us on a group tour with a guide where we spent most of our real walking time in Vatican City and the rest of it viewing the city largely from the windows of a bus, with a walk around the Coliseum thrown in. By the time that visit was over we were certain of one thing: we had a distinct feeling of “been there, done that” about the Vatican which was now forever crossed off our bucket list, and we had no feel for a city whose streets we had not walked.

Our second visit to the city required a bit more planning since we wanted to take a private tour. We had only one day since we had arrived in Civitavecchia on a cruise ship. [As an aside: if you like to cruise, it’s a great way to get a brief feel for a city so that you can return to spend more time – and you need to note that the port of Rome which isn’t in Rome at all is an hour-and-a-half drive from the city itself.]

We booked a driver to pick us up at the port and whisk us into Rome where we picked up the guide. This driver-plus-guide is the only sensible way to do a private tour in Rome since there is nowhere to park at most of the places you’ll want to visit, and you don’t want to waste time. The driver could stop anywhere – and we do mean anywhere – drop us off and return with the click of a cell phone button. Our knowledgeable guide showed us the inside and outside of the Pantheon, many churches, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps etc. We loved every minute of it and yet we still didn’t have a feel for the city.

Then we went back on our own with three full days to conduct our own self-guided walking tour. We checked in to the Grand Palace Hotel, a beautiful, atmospheric property close to the Borghese Gardens and planned our attack.

We would set out in a different direction on each of the three days we would walk the city. We began at the Borghese Gardens because of their proximity and spent the first day exploring around that part of the city. The next day we set out to do Ancient Rome. We revisited the Coliseum, and this time actually went inside. When we arrived though, the line for ticket-buying was too long for us to waste time so we went off to the other ticket spot to gain entrance into Ancient Rome. Much to our delight, it was a two-for ticket so we then had our ticket in hand to go directly into the Coliseum when we returned. We recommend that or buy your ticket in advance.

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It was a fantastic day to walk the hills of Ancient Rome and feel the ghosts of the past.

Ancient Rome is a must-see to get any feel for what this great city was in the days of the Roman Empire. Make no mistake, it is a Roman ruin that has not been restored, but that is its beauty. The walls are real, the cobble-stone streets are real, the tiles are real, the arches are real – none of it is the well-intentioned rebuilding that is based on some scholar’s research. We took our time and walked. Then it was into the Coliseum. Again, the ruin is in its ruinous state and it’s magnificent. To see the labyrinth of halls and cubicles that formed the underground of the “main stage” fires the imagination as we pictured the gladiators fighting one another as well as wild animals and condemned men. Just blot out the sights and sounds of the milling tourists and the sensation grips you.

 

Of course we also spent a day walking the streets of modern Rome, browsing and window-shopping at the likes of Dior and Chanel. We dined in a number of lovely trattorias and savored a new wine each evening.

Is three days enough? If you plan your walking tour well and are prepared to walk seven to ten kilometres a day, you’ll likely end up as we did – with a real sense of the ancient and the modern of the city of (walking) lover

If you have a few minutes, we’ve captured the highlights in this video…