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Kid-Friendly Zones: Miami and South Beach, Florida

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

There are two things you need to know about visiting Miami and South Beach:

  1. The area is not simply a playground for the rich and celebrities-of-the-moment.  Families can and do have a good time here – you just need to pick your spots.

  2. It rains.  This is the tropics, folks, so it can rain any time of day or night and every month of the year.  Schedule a weeklong visit as your best bet to beat the weather.

Okay, I’ll do the picking and you do the packing!

Where to stay.  There is nary a model pout in sight at The Palms Hotel on the northernmost edge of South Beach.  Rather, the staff is friendly, helpful and smiles – a lot.  Come to think of it, the guests here are smiling as well, no doubt thanks to the property’s combination of Southern charm and island grace.  A breezy patio faces the ocean and invites you to dine or reflect while whitewashed columns, dark woods and ceiling fans call to mind an elegant Caribbean estate.  Rooms are done in soft tan tones with a dash of blue and green reflective of the sea.  The pillow-top-mattress beds are tops, indeed, with the walk-in closet the perfect family-friendly accompaniment.  Back outside, the pool is cool and the beach that backs the Palms has been carved into two swim-ready coves.  Not to be missed: the breakfast buffet, especially the streudel-like confection baked onsite by the hotel’s Canadian-born pastry chef; a beach umbrella placed just where you want it by a beach attendant wielding a fascinating sand drill (kids will love this); an ocean-view room.  Standard doubles start at $189, oceanfront doubles at $209. 3025 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach  (800) 550-0505; thepalmshotel.com.

The Main Attractions.  A short hop from the beach and right off the MacArthur Causeway is Parrot Jungle Island.  Taking a page from the Sea World playbook, Parrot Jungle showcases its avian residents in a variety of settings and performances.  At the Parrot Bowl, “Winged Wonders” is a 20-minute flight of fancy featuring countless colorful parrots, an Andean condor and a cassowary, an ostrich-like bird that can swallow an apple whole.  Our son was riveted by the cockatoo who rode a bicycle on a high wire above the stage – okay, we were, too.  “Manu Encounter,” evoking the tall cliffs of Manu, Peru, is a more free-form experience, with macaws, parrots and squirrel monkeys having the run of the place and kids chasing after them.  There are tigers and snakes, turtles and ‘gators to be seen, but the real thrill for the kids will be with what’s flying overhead.  (305) 2-JUNGLE; parrotjungle.com.  Directly across the Causeway is the Miami Children’s Museum, a 56,000-square-foot facility where children come to “play, learn, imagine and create.”  Tell them they get to play and everything will be fine.  Older kids will start at Mt. MiChiMu, a colorful climbing wall that greets you as you enter the museum.  It won’t be long before everyone has entered KidScape Village, where you can visit the dentist (his toothbrush is six feet long), “pick” some oranges (they fall fast!) and “rush” to the scene of a fire thanks to an interactive video display.  Upstairs, kids will haul cargo with their own shipping cranes and proceed to navigate small ships as Biscayne Bay Pilots.  The museum has wisely installed climbing structures outdoors for that much-needed fresh air break.  And hey, if junior just has to see “Winged Wonders” one more time (our son insisted on it), Parrot Jungle is right across the road and entrance to both attractions is good all day (be sure to have your hand stamped at each).  (305) 373-5437; miamichildrensmuseum.org.

Life’s a Beach.  Sure, things change over time, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the beauty of Miami’s beaches.  South Beach, the stretch of Miami Beach from First Street to 30th Street, is a wide expanse of sand backed by colorful Art Deco hotels.  The northern end of the beach, from 30th Street down to Lincoln Road (approximately 16th Street) will be most appealing to parents and small kids since it’s quiet and peopled by like-minded souls.  As you move further south, the area from roughly 12th to Fifth Streets is party central, with revelers and their cocktails creating a beach-y moveable feast.  A long boardwalk connects the entire length of South Beach so you can stroll, bike or blade to the beach that best suits your needs. 

A quick drive over to Key Biscayne brings you to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, a cozy stretch of sand routinely voted one of the top ten beaches in the U.S.  The majestic Cape Florida lighthouse, built in 1825 and the oldest structure in Miami’s Dade County, stands sentinel over the beach.  Offshore, a sand bar protects the beach and virtually eliminates waves, making this an ideal swimming beach for young kids.  And then there’s that sand, grains so silky soft you’ll want to roll around in them (and your children will).  You can also rent bikes or walk a nature trail and the place is never crowded.  Life is such a beach.  floridastateparks.org/capeflorida/

A (Sub)Urban Oasis
.  Feeling like a (red) lobster yet?  Maybe it’s time for a visit to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables.  This 83-acre former mangrove swamp has been transformed into a landscape of gardens, ponds and plants with many of the property’s walking trails sheltered from the sun thanks to the lush canopy overhead.  Take the 30-minute narrated tram ride for both its sun protection and wealth of knowledge – you’ll learn about the gumbo limbo tree and the petticoat palm, whose fronds fold down (like a row of petticoat ruffles) once they die.  Through May 2006, the acclaimed glassblower Dale Chihuly has installed an exhibit of his work throughout the garden, a beautiful example of art imitating (natural) life.  10901 Old Cutler Road, Coral Gables  (305) 667-1651; fairchildgarden.org.  Lunch at the nearby Village of Merrick Park.  This upscale, outdoor shopping mall boasts over 100 stores in an Italianate setting.  Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus anchor the space and each has its own café; the Via Quadronno is another good choice for panini and an iced espresso drink.  LeJeune Rd. between U.S. 1 and Bird Rd., Coral Gables; villageofmerrickpark.com

Continue the Italian theme at the Venetian Pool, a massive swimming hole carved from a coral rock quarry and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  This Coral Gables landmark is fed with fresh spring water so it’s nothing if not refreshing against sun-kissed skin.  Kids will revel in the many waterfalls, caves and grottos and enjoy running across a cobblestone bridge.  Note: kids three and under are not allowed in the facility.  2701 DeSoto Blvd., Coral Gables  (305) 460-5306; venetianpool.com.

Where to eatJoe’s Stone Crab is one of those stately institutions that will not rest on its laurels.  Nearly a century after Joe first opened his doors at the tip of South Beach, the stone crab claws, served cracked and with drawn butter or mayo, are still fresh and flavorful and taste like nothing else.  Likewise, the sides of hash browns and cole slaw, just like Joe liked ‘em, are still the way to go.  Order the burger or an incredible lump-meat crab cake for the kids and let everyone share in the South’s best Key lime pie.  11 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach  (305) 673-0365; joesstonecrab.com.  In Miami’s Little Havana district, Versailles is often referred to as “the Cuban Denny’s.”  Huh?  Sure, the over-the-top green and gold décor with countless mirrors would make Louis XVI cringe but the food is sensational.  Start with any of the tropical fruit shakes on the menu – the flavor will easily trump the fact that the fruit is a mystery.  The media noche (“midnight”) sandwich melds ham, pork, Swiss cheese and pickles between lightly grilled Cuban bread while the croquettes, squishy rounds of deep-fried ham, chicken or fish, melt in the mouth.  And don’t forget the plantains, cooked any number of ways and each a delight.  Finish with the flan de turron, a Cuban version of crème caramel that puts King Louis’ version to shame.  3555 S.W. Eighth Street, Miami  (305) 444-0240.  Over at Big Pink, the boisterous crowd is having big fun while loading up on burgers and sandwiches with a heaping side o’fries.  The shakes are terrific and your kids will definitely not be heard above the din.  Plan on a late lunch or early dinner to avoid a big wait.  157 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach  (305) 532-4700; bigpinkrestaurant.com.  The Nexxt Café, smack in the middle of mile-long Lincoln Road Mall, has a reputation for heaping portions and indifferent service.  Next up: smiling waiters!   The café has finally changed its tune and will deliver a quesadilla (the perfect kid-pleaser) promptly and courteously.  700 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach  (305) 532-6643.  The Van Dyke Café, just down the street, has an encyclopedic menu of salads, sandwiches and the like and more outdoor tables than you can count.  The staff is pleasant and tries hard to make up for the many snooty patrons.  846 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach  (305) 534-3600.  At the 11th Street Diner, your kids will have a ball with the retro kitsch and soda fountain-style menu.  1065 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach  (305) 534-6373.

What Else?  The Lincoln Road Mall is South Beach’s version of a town square.  Spanning the pedestrian-only stretch of Lincoln Road between Collins Avenue and Alton Road, the street is teeming with eclectic shops, restaurants and cafes.  Sidewalk tables spill out of almost every establishment, guaranteeing a bird’s eye view of the buff bodies ‘blading by.  The not-so-buff can be happily found at one of Lincoln Road’s many ice cream shops…The Miami Beach Bicycle Center at 601 Fifth Street is your best bet for bicycle rentals by the hour or day – tag-along wheels available.  (305) 674-0150.


Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and four-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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