Miami Travel Guide
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Miami is a melting pot that would make America's founders swell with pride.

It used to be called 'God's Waiting Room' because of the many octogenarians eking out their last moments by the pool, but today the old folks mingle with bikini models, fashion designers and Cuban émigrés, and the city that once had the highest murder rate in the US attracts millions of tourists.

Half of Miami's population is Hispanic, giving the city an international outlook. For the casual visitor this means a city peppered with the flavours of Latin American food, language, music, politics and spirit.

Warning
Due to hurricane damage, travellers are advised to check with local authorities before visiting the area as some facilities may not be operational. Massive clean-up projects are underway in Florida.

Facts in a glance

Area: 93 sq km
Population: 600,000
Country: USA
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -5 (Eastern Standard Time)
Telephone Area Code: Metropolitan Miami: 305; Miami and Miami Beach: 786

History

1895: a record freeze enveloped most of the north of Florida, where Henry Flagler's railroads were disgorging thousands of rich and powerful northerners who were coming to stay at his hotels and resorts. The freeze wiped out citrus crops and sent vacationers scurrying, and legend has it that Julia Tuttle (who owned large tracts of property in Miami and had approached Flagler with the offer of partnership in exchange for the extension of his railroad to Miami, which he'd refused) went into her garden, snipped off some flowers and sent them to Flagler, who hightailed it down to Miami to see for himself.

What he saw was a tropical paradise. Flagler and Tuttle came to terms, and Flagler announced the extension of his railroad. Passenger train service to Miami began 22 April 1896; in that year the city of Miami incorporated and development kicked off. At that, thousands of people whose livelihoods had been wiped out by the big freeze, including citrus growers and service industry workers like doctors and merchants, began heading down to Miami in anticipation of the boom that was to come.

It peaked during WWI, when the US military established an aviation training facility there. The early 20th century saw Miami still riding a wave of prosperity. After WWI, the first fully-fledged Miami boom (1923-25) was fuelled not just by the area's idyllic beachfront location and perfect weather, but also by gambling and the fact that it never really took to the idea of prohibition though it was illegal, liquor flowed freely throughout the entire Prohibition era. But the boom was cut short by a devastating hurricane, which was immediately followed by statewide recession and national depression.

A mini-boom saw the construction of Miami Beach's famous Art Deco buildings in the mid-1930s, and this reasonably prosperous period continued until 1942, when a German U-Boat sank an American tanker off Florida's coast. The ensuing freak-out created a full-scale conversion of South Florida into a massive military base, training facility and staging area.

Many of Miami's trainee soldiers returned and settled after WWII, and the city maintained its pre-war prosperity.

1950: Miami Beach had another boom, as the area began to be known as the 'Cuba of America': punters and gangsters, enticed by Miami's gambling as well as its proximity to the fun, sun and fast times of Batista-run Cuba, moved in en masse. After the Castro revolution in Cuba in 1959 Miami's Cuban population swelled.

1965: the two 'freedom flights' that ran every day between Miami and Havana disgorged over 100,000 Cuban refugees.

Tension built up between Cubans and the town's African Americans, who were relegated to an area north of downtown known as Colored Town. Riots broke out and acts of gang-style violence occurred.

In 1970s, Fidel Castro opened the floodgates, allowing anyone who wanted to leave Cuba access to the docks at Mariel. The Mariel Boatlift, as it was called, brought 150,000 Cubans to Florida (including 25,000 prisoners and mental patients), and the resulting economic, logistical and infrastructural strain on South Florida only added to still-simmering racial tensions. The largest flotilla ever launched for non-military purposes set sail in practically anything that would float to cover the 145km (90mi) between Cuba and Florida.

The situation exploded on 17 May 1980, when four white police officers, being tried on charges that they beat a black suspect to death while he was in custody, were acquitted by an all-white jury. When the verdict was announced, fierce race riots broke out all over Miami, lasting for three days.

1980: A plethora of businesses and buildings sprung up all over Miami, and the downtown was completely remodelled. The Miami area gained prominence as the major East Coast entry port for drug dealers, their product and the unbelievable sums of money that went along with them. But it was still a city being reborn while in the grip of drug smugglers: shootouts and gangland slayings by cocaine cowboys were common.

The police, Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency, Border Patrol and FBI were in a spin trying to keep track of it all. And then it happened: Miami Vice. The show, about two narcotics detectives clad in outrageously expensive designer pastels driving around in a Ferrari and million-dollar cigarette boats, was responsible for Miami Beach coming to international attention in the mid-1980s. The show's slick look, soundtrack and music video montages glamorised the rich life in South Florida, and before long people were coming down to see it.

The area is riding the peak of a boom that's been going on for the past several years.

1980: Miami Beach had risen to international standards of Fabulousness. Celebrities were moving in, photo shoots from all over the world were being shot there, and the Art Deco district was going through a renovation that turned the city into a showpiece.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew barely affected the tourist industry, which is the city's backbone. And despite highly publicised crimes against tourists in 1993, Miami is now the third most popular American city for international tourists, after Los Angeles and New York. Despite the Miami murder of Gianni Versace in 1997 and the ruckus over Elian Gonzales, the young Cuban boy who was rescued from the sea after his mother drowned trying to bring him to Florida, Miami continues to flourish: the blithe, brash boomtown still has a few tricks up its glittery sleeve. Its revival as a popular destination was largely due to a highly visible anti-crime campaign that saw tourist-related crimes decrease by 80% between 1992 and 1998.

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