From the April 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Our writer puts the social-networking tool of the moment, Twitter, to the test, becomes part of the conversation—and discovers a Miami he might have missed.
I can't mistake her. In Miami, a subtropical city that classifies hot pink and neon violet as earth tones, Corinna Moebius (Twitter address @bordercross) is a snowflake, dressed in white skirt, blouse, and beret. Eagerly, she threads me through the streets of Little Havana. "Up here," Moebius says as we pass a dozing coconut seller and climb the stairs to a second floor dance studio. She introduces me to Marisol Blanco, a Cuban émigré who teaches the Afro-Cuban dances associated with Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion akin to Haitian voodoo. She turns on a CD player, and drumming fills the space. Blanco and three pupils begin to move, swishing their voluminous skirts. "That's the yemaya, the dance of the ocean," Moebius whispers as Blanco leads her followers in a blur of motion. The tempo increases. The bodies follow. Hips jut. Waists bend. The women twirl, becoming human waves imitating the timeless tides.
I, too, am riding a wave. The social media application called Twitter has led me to Calle Ocho, or 8th Street, the heart of Miami's Cuban community. The online microblogging phenomenon counts more than 17 million users who can follow each other and exchange messages instantly via the Web on their computers and cell phones. Twitter's uses have ranged from the entrepreneurial, like hawking cupcakes, to the political, like organizing protesters in Iran. Time, I figured, to put Twitter to the traveler's test. Would using Twitter enhance my trip or ruin it? I headed to Miami to find out. The experiment wasn't without risk. If your Facebook page, feathered with friends, family, and colleagues, is a cozy nest, then Twitter is an ocean of strangers.
Before I leave, I "tweet" Champ, a social media expert, at her Twitter address (@champsuperstar—an "@" is a tweet's postage stamp; you can't send a tweet to someone directly without it). Her advice: "1. Find and follow local people so they will follow you back. 2. Follow locals who have interesting things to say. 3. Tweet often, mixing questions about Miami with interesting observations."
"And share information?" I ask.
"Exactly." She replies.
By the time I arrive, I have 150 Miami followers. They are the birds on my shoulder, and I will only go where they send me.
Or as Champ puts it: "You're crowd-sourcing your vacation. How cool is that?"
Gliding into Miami Beach over the MacArthur Causeway certainly feels cool. Miami, I realize, is a terrific Twitter test market. To the average tourist stuck on that spit of glitz and sand called South Beach, the rest of the place is a mystery. This 1,946-square-mile metropolis is home to two million-plus people, 60 percent of whom are Latino, with the rest a mix of Anglos, African Americans, Haitians, and others. Constrained by Everglades National Park to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the city sprawls north and south.
The town is better known as fiction—home of CSI: Miami and Eagle-Scout-turned-serial-killer Dexter—than fact. But Miami possesses a series of fascinating yet unheralded neighborhoods ranging from the up-and-coming Biscayne Corridor with its MiMo (Miami Modernism) architecture from the 1950s and '60s, to scruffy, artistic Wynwood, to the banyan-shaded, polo-playing elegance of Coral Gables. If any traveler needs a constant stream of advice from the locals, it is I, trying to stir Miami's polyglot stewpot and sample this international city with tastes at once familiar and exotic.
My hotel, the Essex House, is classic Miami Beach art deco, with a lobby like a Warner Brothers film noir set, decorated with rattan club chairs and cantilevered curves. The guest rooms are small but attractively furnished. Finding accommodations proved a snap. I tweeted for Miami hotel advice and got a fast ping—signaling an incoming tweet—on my BlackBerry. @resideo, a booking service, suggested the three-star Essex House, for $140. Hmm. Could I trust Resideo? Like the real world, the "Twitterverse" demands you do your homework. A visit to Resideo's booking site, the hotel's own Web page, and a prompt e-mailed reply from Resideo's customer service rep convinced me that the deal was for real.
After unpacking, I grow hungry. "Where can I eat?" I type. I'm nervous. What if nobody replies?
I've got tweets. @amgastronomer mentions a bistro called Bin No. 18 and a communal dinner the restaurant is hosting at 8 p.m. Okay. Let's vet with my followers. I peck out "Bin 18" on my BlackBerry: "Can anyone recommend?" I hit "Send."
In less than 15 minutes I receive two endorsements. "Love Bin 18," @MiamiDish writes. "Great, casual hangout with good food, great wine, and beer selection. Go there all the time." From @frodnesor: "Try the 'reconstructed' Cuban sandwich; good wine & beer choices too." I'm sold.
Bin No. 18 is on Biscayne Boulevard, just north of the three-year-old Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts (home of the Florida Grand Opera, Miami City Ballet, and the New World Symphony). On this night, long communal concrete and stone tables are set for the meal, and there's a warm light emanating from candles and dangling chandeliers. Owner Alfredo Patiño, a Venezuelan with an affable grin and a NYC baseball cap, is in the kitchen with chef de cuisine Ricardo López. Soon mouthwatering smells waft from the galley: sautéed garlic for the shrimp risotto, roasting lamb, and caramelizing sugar for the warm apple tart. Within five minutes, Patiño and I are chatting like old friends over a glass of Spanish white. Within ten, I'm introduced to Adrian Blaga (a Romanian), Adriana Barba (a Colombian), and Morten Bjoern (a Dane).
Clustered around a table groaning under the weight of various cheeses and salumi, nobody finds this impromptu UN meet-up unusual in Miami. The city belongs to the world; it's a refuge for half of Latin America and one of Europe's favorite sandboxes. The mix is best glimpsed visiting Lincoln Road, Miami Beach's over-the-top street mall that functions as a democratic red carpet where anyone can preen or pose—speaking a Babel of tongues. "Languages heard:" I tweet after surveying the bistro crowd. "English, Spanish, French, Italian, Swedish, Japanese, Chinese, and was that…Creole?" At Bin No. 18 I'm the only person at a table of seven who was born in the U.S.A.
I share with them my Twitter mission, and Blaga muses, "You know, using social media is not Second Life," referring to a popular online virtual community. "Social media brings people together not only virtually, but physically. Look at us. We're here. We're talking. We're drinking. We're eating." As if to prove it he reaches over to twirl up a shaving of carmine-colored carpaccio and places it on a chunk of the fresh bread. "This is real. You can't substitute Facebook or Foursquare for a face-to-face meeting. We use social media to help us come together in the real world."
Blaga's observation that people take technology and refashion it for their own ends resonates the next day. Twitter, I discover, is also good at providing instant reviews. I wondered whether I should swing by the Wolfsonian-FIU, in Miami Beach, so I query my Twitter stream: "Worth visiting?" @frodnesor, whose advice I'm beginning to trust, pings back: "A very cool place. Most definitely."
The small, eccentric museum is devoted to the applied arts from 1885 to 1945—a period that embraces Miami's early years as a city. Swing music echoing through the lobby sets a period mood, taking me back to Miami's heyday as the "American Riviera." Or maybe it was the aluminum statue, a six-foot-six-inch Futurist wrestler with a big ball bearing for a head that was created for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and cast by sculptor Dudley Vaill Talcott. The upstairs galleries display the history of industrial design: sinuous café chairs, chrome-plated vacuum cleaners, Bakelite radios, each more streamlined than the last. I discover the iPod generation isn't the first one obsessed with technology: A video clip from New York City's 1939 World's Fair pitted "Mrs. Drudge" against "Mrs. Modern" in a dishwashing contest. The former scrubbed her stack by hand. The latter flipped the switch on her Westinghouse dishwasher. You can guess who won. The Wolfsonian exhibits prove that Twitter is nothing new. It's part of the long evolution of personal tech.
Twitter's greatest strength for travelers is that it can actually midwife those chance encounters that make journeys so rewarding. Fate still works in Twitter town.
I'm window-shopping in the Design District, a collection of design showrooms, galleries, and stores. At an outdoor-furniture shop featuring $4,000 wicker seats, I notice a chair shaped like a crescent moon, with a green ululating tongue for a seat. Lascivious lawn chairs! My fingers scramble across my BlackBerry. "At Neoteric, staring at wild outdoor furniture," I tweet.
A message comes in from @ktchntrvwr. She says she works in the business office of Michael Schwartz, one of Miami's top chefs and owner of the popular local restaurant Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. She's just around the corner, she tweets; stop by.
Her real name is Jackie Sayet. We sit at the bar overlooking the brick oven, separated from the kitchen by a wall of heirloom tomatoes. The place is intensely local. If Miami is America's Casablanca, then Michael's is its Rick's. Everybody comes here. The conversation on the patio and restaurant floor is the gossip of Miami's creative class, its doings, its musings, its affairs of both business and the heart.
"It's usually hard to get a reservation on a Saturday," Sayet notes. I couldn't unless I had pull. Or a Twitter pal like Sayet.
Twitter proves equally adept at removing you from the social conversation, too. In the early morning, Miami Beach's Lummus Park, the palm-tree-fringed serpentine that runs from 5th to 14th Streets, is a classic urban waterfront park where it's possible to collect your thoughts in solitude before the recorded Europop begins leaching from the nearby café. I doubt Chicago's Grant Park or Baltimore's Inner Harbor feature complete body shaves for $45 or the live translucent jellyfish waltzing around a $60,000 aquarium at the Hotel Victor. ("I could watch them all day," sighs a woman next to me. "They're better than the ballet.") I prefer my beaches a little more natural, so when a tweet comes in recommending a visit to Bill Baggs park on Key Biscayne, I grab my SPF 45 and hit the road.
Just six miles from the urban bustle of downtown Miami, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, a 400-acre peninsula of beach and maritime woodlands, is a revelation. Site of a photogenic lighthouse, the park's Atlantic beach seems 600 miles, not six, from downtown Miami. A light breeze rustles the sea grape leaves. Beyond my gaze, it's a straight shot to the Bahamas. As I walk, civilization gradually reasserts itself in its own spindly way. Across the flat surface of the water, Stiltsville—a cluster of fishing cabins erected on the mudflats—looks like water bugs with rickety legs, frozen in place. Now part of Biscayne National Park, the community was once a thriving old boys' club for Miami's business elite, a haven from the police, wives, and traditional rules. Before I leave, I climb to the top of the lighthouse for views of the downtown hidden at ground level. Its sexy, shimmering buildings poised on the edge of Biscayne Bay remind me of runway models, pouting at the edge of an infinity pool.
When it comes to finding food, Twitter proves itself an especially useful maître d'. Time after time Twitterers recommend bistros and restaurants, their comments fresher and more up-to-date than any guidebook. After following @frodnesor's advice for a couple of days, I convince the mysterious tweeter to meet me. "Just tell me where," I type. We meet for breakfast at El Ray del Chivito in Miami Beach's North Beach, a community of garden apartments and exuberant motels built mostly in the 1950s and '60s. @frodnesor—43-year-old commercial bankruptcy lawyer David Rosendorf—is waiting for me. He tells me he loves exploring the city's ethnic nooks and crannies.
"No cardiologist in the world would recommend what we're about to eat," he says, as the waiter sets down the chivito al pan de carne—a traditional Uruguayan breakfast sandwich with a two-inch-thick strata of ham, steak, bacon, and fried egg—and a mozzarella pizza al caballo, topped with a rider of chickpea fritter. We split both. We finish our feast with coffees a few blocks farther north on Collins Avenue at the Buenos Aires Bakery and Café, tucking into a lemon-anise pastry cushioned with dulce de leche, as everyone else is riveted to a soccer match on the flat-screen TVs.
What I appreciate most is Twitter's ability to parachute me into a world I'd never have known. When @HiddenFlorida (a blogger named Hilda Mitrani), offers to meet me at a place called El Palacio del Jugos, or Juice Palace, I know by now to accept. I drive from Miami Beach into West Miami. The English on billboards and strip malls, tentative in much of Miami, vanishes completely. I drive deeper into communities of Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Cubans, and Venezuelans. The streets of the ordinary-looking ranch homes are buzzing with the rituals and comings and goings of daily life. El Palacio sits on the corner of Flagler and Red Road. Hilda greets me with a cheery wave. She likes to find Florida's hidden treasures; El Palacio is one of them. It resembles a '50s drive-through restaurant that has pushed cars to the periphery, leaving only picnic tables for people beneath its pavilion. At any given moment a hundred customers mill about in delirious stupor as a squadron of workers at five different stations dishes out heaping portions of moros y cristianos (black beans and white rice), crispy pork skins, lechón asado (a pork roast made with a sour orange and garlic marinade), fried yucca, and lots of just squeezed fresh juice—pomegranate, guava, papaya. "Jamba Juice, your days are numbered," I think, sipping on the sweet-sour taste of guanabana fruit. For $20 Hilda and I enjoy a spread, but it's not the food I'm devouring, it's the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with working Miamians.
Adrian Blaga was right. Twitter is just a tool to connect strangers. It's the people you meet who make the travel experience good or bad. On my last day in Miami, I extend an invitation to all my Twitter helpers to join me for a drink at a meeting, or Tweetup. Where? I let them decide. They settle on Scotty's, a frond-fringed eatery frequented by flip-flopsters and boaters in Coconut Grove, next door to Miami's City Hall.
I can't see Scotty's. But I can hear it. Some guy with a guitar is doing a great Jimmy Buffett. The place is on the water but hidden by the marina, which has boats stacked three to five high, blocking my sight lines. As I park my car I wonder who, if anybody, will show. I can hear Blaga: "We come together in the real world." Not here. I see no one. No pings. I'm surprised how let down I feel.
"@andrewnelson?" a slight, dark-haired woman asks. I turn.
"Yes," I reply. She breaks into a smile. I do, too.
"@mango_lime. Nice to meet you." And as if on a cue—or tweet—others arrive: @steveBM, @hobyhappens, @LizaWalton, @ktchntrvwr, @vicequeenmaria, @HiddenFlorida, and @EdibleSoFla. Soon 12 people are eating conch fritters, drinking beer, and watching the shadows grow long. It's a happy table of 11 Miamians and one out-of-towner who have decided that Twitter is where it's @.
Insider Information The author's Twitter followers weren't shy about suggesting what else to see, do, and eat in Miami. A collection of their recommendations:
• The Rubell Family Collection: A contemporary art museum in the Wynwood District. There are several galleries nearby.
• Biscayne National Park snorkeling tours: Hover over the living coral reef with an experienced divemaster. Twitter: @BiscayneNPS
• Vizcaya Museum and Gardens: An industrialist's winter estate inspired by Europe's baroque villas. Twitter: @VizcayaMuseum
• Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar: Latin American cuisine in Coconut Grove.
• Art Deco Historic District Tours: Miami Design Preservation League experts lead architectural tours.
• Charlotte Bakery: Try this bakery in South Beach for breakfast cachitos, Venezuelan empanadas.
• Jimbo's: A celebrated dive run by an old shrimper on Virginia Key, with bocce on weekends.
• Books & Books: Independent bookstore with a café in Coral Gables.
• Historical Tours with Dr. Paul George: This college professor brings the story of South Florida to life (http://www.historical-museum.org/educate/tours/private_tours.htm).
• DiLido Beach Club: The tony beachside restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach is a great spot for people watching.
• Cultural Fridays on Calle Ocho: Celebrate Cuban culture in Little Havana every third Friday of the month.
• El Nuevo Siglo: The lunch counter at this grocery in Little Havana is an affordable place to sample Cuban delicacies.
A-twitter over Twitter? Learn the basics on our website (traveler.nationalgeographic.com/2009/09/twitter-text).
Andrew Nelson (@andrewnelson) lives in New Orleans and the Big Bend area of Texas. Photographer Melissa Farlow recently photographed wild mustangs in the American West for National Geographic .