Update: I originally posted this in 2017 but I've updated in 2023 following another visit
Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals ****
From snowy to sunny
You can find the updated 2023 trip details at the bottom of the article, including the Gurdwara
I booked my tickets fairly late so they were relatively expensive, in fact a similar length journey from London to Spain would cost a quarter of the price. I was fairly surprised with how expensive the tickets were, even if I had booked in advance, with most tickets not less than $300. There's a stereotype that Americans aren't very well travelled, well with prices so expensive I'm not particularly surprised.
I haven't found that stereotype to hold. In fact, during my second trip to South East Asia two years ago I met a group of American's that I became good friends with. We stayed in contact and early last year they stopped off in London during a trip they made to Asia. I showed them around the city and they made me promise that I would visit them so they could return the favour. The group that I met is from Florida, and when I landed in New York one of the group mentioned she would be meeting a friend in Palm Beach then heading for Miami and that I should join them.
I flew out from La Guardia airport in New York. With a snowstorm approaching, I had a couple of emails in advance asking me if I wanted to switch my flights to another day free of charge, but with people waiting for me in Florida, I decided to risk it and push ahead. La Guardia was a fairly nice airport. Every seat in the food court had little iPads that you could play on and these had information about flights, the city, or you could pay extra and use some of the other apps. I didn't really understand it, but it looked cool. As it was my first time flying since Trump's inauguration my biggest concern wasn't the snowstorm but airport security.
I got to the security line which was very busy and slowly I inched my way forward. I got to the front took off my shoes and anything metal that I had on me and walked into the full body scanner like everyone else. I walked out the other side fully expecting to get my usual patdown and the guy just looked at me and waved me through. No questions asked. I grabbed my bag and realised they'd also let my salai through (never a foregone conclusion) so I decided to grab my belongings as quick as possible in case they called me back. It was my second experience with American airport security and surprisingly thats 2/2 positive experiences.
After a short delay due to the snow, I boarded the plane and we began to taxi along the runway. We were stationary for a long time before the pilot informed us we would we taking a short detour to get the plane de-iced. At this point the snow was beginning to fall very heavily and I'm not a good flyer at the best of times. Its the first time I've sat in a plane while it gets de-iced. It's a strange feeling, kind of similar to taking your car into a carwash. After a few minutes getting de-iced we were off for the roughly 3 hour flight.
Touching down in Palm Beach, the difference between the two cities couldn't be any greater. The temperature was 30 degrees celsius and I walked out to palm trees and blue skies. My friend was waiting for me and we jumped into her car and she gave me a brief tour of the town.
Palm Beach is one of the most affluent areas in the United States and the large houses were testament to that. We first drove to the Flagler Museum, a sort of memorial to Henry Flagler, a man who established the area in the 1900's by extending the East Coast Railway. The city has a seasonal population that almost trebles in size during the spring and summer months. The most famous part time resident is someone by the name of Donald Trump and his estate of Mar-a-Lago which we visited next. The locals seem to be split on his presence. The area is Republican and voted for him, but every time he returns to his estate during his presidency, pretty much the whole island of Palm Beach gets closed down, costing the city a fair bit of money. Driving around the island, I was shown the residences of a number of famous or rich people and it reminded me of certain area's of an old Grand Theft Auto game I used to play when I was younger called Vice City. Bleached white walls, large gardens, this really was a billionaire's playground.
The island of Palm Beach is separated from West Palm Beach by the 3000 mile Intercoastal Waterway, an expanse of waterway that runs along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico from Boston in the north, to Florida in the South and then westward toward Texas. We crossed the Intercoastal and headed toward the town of Jupiter via West Palm Beach. Up to this point, literally everyone I saw was white and I won't like it felt like a little uncomfortable. It was only when we crossed into a rundown area of town did we finally see people of other races. On one side I was happy to see a more mixed crowd, but this was actually a ghetto, an area of town completely separated from the the more affluent areas.
After a quick stop off for lunch we headed to my friends' parents house for the afternoon. Both parents, as with the majority of locals, had voted for Trump and they seemed quite curious when they first met me, asking me a lot of questions. The house was like a mansion; a large house, an outdoor swimming pool and even a tiki bar in the garden. After spending a couple of hours sharing stories mainly about travels, we picked up another friend and headed back to house for dinner. I have to admit, these guys were very friendly and very hospitable and I almost felt a little guilty for being worried before I met them.
We had an amazing home cooked meal and hung out in the tiki bar for a while before getting a ride from my friends dad toward West Palm Beach and a bar along the Intercoastal. It's such a change from England, but I quickly got used to the concept of outdoor bars. The one we went to wasn't huge but it backed onto docks and it looked like something from a 90's American teen programme. Just like the rest of the town, the people seemed really friendly and the place was very fun but I'll be honest, its been one of the few places I've felt like I had to keep my wits about me...just incase.
It was a two hour road trip to Miami along the coast and I-95. Miami has the third highest skyline in the US and the tall skyscrapers of the city was the first thing I saw whilst still on the Interstate. Despite the number (and size) of the skyscrapers, it wasn't something that I was particularly impressed with. None of the skyscrapers had a memorable design and they all looked pretty dated, in fact the whole city did. I'm not sure if its because when I think of Miami I automatically think of cheesy 80s movies or GTA Vice City but the city did feel like it belonged somewhere in 1980.
My trip coincided with Spring Break and before I headed out a part of me thought I might be borderline too old for it, but I figured it would be close. By the time we got to Miami Beach I realised I was borderline too old about 10 years ago. Everyone was young...very young. My friends had a good laugh asking me if Spring Break was everything I imagined and I've got to say, 6/7 years ago it might have been fun, but as a lay on the beach surrounded by kids, I felt more uncomfortable than anything else but spent a couple of hours on the ocean's edge. For a large city, the beach was a beautiful golden colour and fairly clean and the water was cleaner and bluer than I imagined. I can definitely see the lure of the city.
We walked around the lively Miami Beach area and the buildings here were much nicer than Downtown, mostly built in the Art Deco style of the 1920's when Miami achieved rapid growth. We headed toward a Cuban restaurant to try some of the local food. 70% of the population of Miami is Hispanic and of this one third is Cuban. Immigration from Cuba has occurred since the turn of the 20th century with the conclusion of the Spanish-American War but really increased in number following Fidel Castro's rule. This really showed in the sights, sounds and smells of the city. Everywhere I went there was a Cuban restaurant, Spanish hip-hop or the sounds of locals speaking to each other in Spanish, even the Uber drivers barely spoke a word of English, nearly all of the ones I met were recent immigrants.
The coolest neighbourhood in the USA
After eating, we decided we would spend the night in Wynwood, recently voted by Vogue magazines as one of the 10 coolest neighbourhoods in the United States. Wynwood was every bit as contemporary as Miami Beach was dated. Every building was covered in art and murals and the whole place was just one big street party.
Home to over 70 art galleries and museums, the area was gentrified just over a decade ago and is now hipster central. It's basically the Shoreditch of Miami, only much cooler. The famous Wynwood Walls are blocks of buildings covered in street art. Even the pavements have cool little messages, stencils or images on them. We headed to a bar which backed off onto an outdoor art gallery and it was very unique. Walls of art, walk-in art galleries and DJ's playing music in the street. Unlike most other places where you pay to enter, you could walk in and walk out of anywhere as many times as you like.
We went into a number of bars and also stumbled onto a huge outdoor street party, it felt very surreal. We finally found a place that played old school hip hop and spent a couple of hours in there. Everyone seemed to be having a good time and the whole ambience of the area was just very nice to be around. I'd definitely recommend a trip to Wynwood without doubt and I had a very enjoyable time there.
The next morning we headed to midtown in Miami for brunch. Midtown is home to a lot of the cities shops, which i'm sure are nice, but not on a Sunday afternoon when pretty much everything was closed. We didn't stay long after brunch,saying goodbye to one of our friends then heading for a walk along Downtown.
We walked through Omni toward the 30 acre museum park which is currently undergoing redevelopment as part of the Perez Art Museum. The park was very nice, overlooking a bay on one side and the skyline of Miami on the other. The bay area had some incredible boats, including one owned by a billionaire Arab business man. The weather in Miami was a nice change, but 30 degrees and humidity after a couple nights of little sleep meant we didn't walk too far or for too long.
I'm not sure what to make of Miami. It would be pretty unfair of me to judge a city just on a weekend but I definitely have mixed feelings. On one side, it has a great beach, good weather and some of the Art Deco buildings around Miami Beach are beautiful. But the city does feel dated. Perhaps it was Spring Break too, but I felt a good half a decade too old for the beach area. However, I'd still recommend checking it out, if only for Wynwood, it was every bit as good as the reviews that I had read. Palm Beach was the opposite, very affluent and a little quiet but I liked it, especially the bar on the Intercoastal, it was about as American as I could have imagined it.
Thank you to Kyli and Caitlin for showing me around
During my second visit to Miami I spent some more time in Wynwood and it was just as fun as the first trip. I also spent a little more time in the downtown area and around bayfront park. I've never been a huge fan of downtown areas in the United States and this wasn't any different. The whole place was devoid of character, but I can tell that if you have money to burn, this might be exactly the place you want to spend it given there seemed to be perpetual parties happening at all times of the day.
I walked a considerable distance around the city, but everything is just too far spread apart. In keeping with most US cities, it's walkable to extent that you can walk around a single neighbourhood, but if you try to walk across areas, the distances very quickly become quite large, even if they look small on a map.
One place that I did really enjoy during my second trip was Little Havana. The area is 98% Hispanic of which the majority of residents and businesses are Cuban. At the height of the Cuban exile in the `1980s, 85% of the population was Cuban!
Today the area is home to Cuban restaurants, bars, and cultural landmarks. One of these is Calle Ocho, the main strip that serves as the heartbeat of the area. As well as numerous Latin establishments, it is also home to the Latin Walk of Fame, and small area that celebrates Latin success in arts and culture. I joined a daytime street party, had ice cream at the famous Azucar Ice Cream Company, and enjoyed some good Cuban food in the neighbourhood.
I went during the day and the evening, and there was a party vibe at all hours (in keeping with the rest of the city). Even if my 2017 review was skewing towards negative, I really enjoyed this little slice of the city.
Gurdwara in Miami
During my second visit I also found a Gurdwara in Miami. Well, actually, it isn't quite in Miami. As I just mentioned, maps are pretty untrustworthy in this city, and while it looks close to the city, the Gurdwara (called the Sikh Society of Florida) is a solid one hour drive from Miami and is probably closer to Fort Lauderdale. I caught a very expensive Uber there and back, but it was completely worth the money.
The Gurdwara sits within a heavily residential area, camouflaging stealthily into the neighbourhood given away only by a large Nishaan Sahib. The Gurdwara is Panthic with photos of the shaheeds of 1984 across the Gurdwara and signs asking the Indian government to release Sikh political prisoners. Inside, there were several families, including young children. Kirtanis were practicing their shabads, and I was lucky enough to hear the beautiful compositions of Dasam Bani being sung in raag, a beautiful sound.
The gurdwara is a moderate size, with a fairly large langar hall and darbaar sahib. There are, what seems to be, classrooms for children as well as offices for the Gurdwara committee. The Gurdwara gave me the impression that it is well utilised and offers Sikhiya and knowledge to youngsters.
I spoke at length with a Singh in the Gurdwara who happened to be a recent immigrant from Delhi. He told me that the Gurdwara does get fairly busy on Sundays, however the Sikh community in the area is relatively small and so it can be difficult for new immigrants to get quickly settled. He shared with me his hopes to move on towards Canada where a larger Sikh population could help him settle much quicker. These are stories that many of our parents of grandparents in the diaspora have shared over the years.
It's not easy getting to the Gurdwara, and with little public transport in the city, an expensive taxi ride is your best option, but I promise you, it is well worth the journey.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.