Blasts from the past

 

Before its high-rise heyday, Miami was a seaside burg with bait shacks and balmy charm. But quirky Old Florida lives on here.

Stiltsville
Swinging Stiltsville, pictured here in 1970, remains a popular stop for boaters on Biscayne Bay. Photo: John Pineda
 

By Jodi Mailander Farrell

Before J.Lo and high-rise condos, things were much simpler in sleepy, southern "Mi-a-mah." But these hidden treasures still remind us of a time of pastel-painted postcards and Old Florida kitsch:

The Barnacle - Unknown to most of the college kids prowling Coconut Grove's clubs by night and the brunch bunch at GreenStreet Cafe, this 1891 seaside house was the home of Ralph Middleton Munroe, a Grove pioneer and seaman known in these parts as "The Commodore." Step off the Grove's busy streets for a short walk through a tropical hardwood hammock - a remnant of what Miami's landscape looked like in the 1920s. Pack a lunch to eat on the graceful, sloping lawn overlooking Biscayne Bay or catch one of the park's full moon concerts, when locals sprawl on blankets and barefoot kids scramble around with flashlights as a live band plays. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday-Monday, with guided tours at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Admission: $1 per person; 6 and under free. 3485 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove, 305-442-6866; www.floridastateparks.org/thebarnacle/.

Robert is Here - This famed open-air produce stand is a happening stop on winter weekends, when you might find a guitar-strumming singer sitting on a stool and sun-baked tourists lining up for tropical-fruit shakes and key lime pie on their way to Everglades National Park. The rural oasis has been open since 1959. Depending on the season, you can pick over sweet mangos, strawberries, passion fruit, papaya, mamey, lychees and guanabana, as well as shelves of locally-made jams, jellies, chutneys, honeys and dressings. Open 8 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Closed September and October. 19200 SW 344th St., Florida City, 305-246-1592; www.robertishere.com.

Jimbo's Landing - One of Miami's oldest hangouts, this venerated tumble-down shack has been hiding out in the pines next to a mangrove-laced lagoon on Virginia Key since the MacArthur was a low wooden bridge and the city's skyline was even lower. The outdoor beer joint is hard to find (one reason we like it) and about as no-frills as it gets (the other reason). It shares space with rickety, colorful Bahamian-style buildings favored as backdrops for high-end catalog shoots and Playboy bunnies, as well as scenes from Porky's II, Flipper, Miami Vice and CSI: Miami. Dogs, bikers and bocce players roam free on the grounds, and boat parts, trawling gear, tools, fishnets and old beer cans are scattered throughout. Don't let the flotsam deter you from a cold beer and some of the best smoked marlin in town. Cigar-chomping octogenarian Jimmy Luznar has presided over the scene since 1954.

At the risk of alienating every in-the-know local, here's how to get there: From Rickenbacker Causeway, take the first left after the light at Mast Academy. Follow the road northeast. Stay to the right at the first fork in the road. When you come to the end of the road, stay to the left. After spotting the water treatment plant, turn right (north) and look for the driveway just ahead on the right. Open 6 a.m.-7:30 p.m. daily. Duck Lake Road, Virginia Key, 305-361-7026; www.jimbosplace.com.

Miami Seaquarium
- Ever since Flipper waved a wet appendage, they've been coming to see the dolphins dance here. Opened in 1955, the Seaquarium is the country's longest-operating oceanarium. Offspring of dolphins from the '60s Flipper TV shows and movies still perform here, along with killer whales and sea lions. If you're feeling particularly adventurous (and flush), sign up for the "Swim with Our Dolphins" program in the Flipper Lagoon ($189). Open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Admission: $31.95 adults; $24.95 children, ages 3-9; $7 parking. 4400 Rickenbacker Causeway, Virginia Key, 305-361-5705; www.miamiseaquarium.com.

Native Island & Airboat Tours - We're talking waaaaaay back. Explore the Everglades with an ancestor of one of its original inhabitants on a Miccosukee-run airboat ride. Skim across the River of Grass on your way to a hammock-style Indian hunting camp that the same family has owned for more than 100 years. It's part of the Miccosukee Indian Village experience. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Mile Marker 70, Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), Miami, 305-552-8365; www.miccosukeetours.com.

Tea Room at Cauley Square - This will remind you of lunching with the church ladies circa 1965. Dainty finger sandwiches, homemade banana nut bread, ambrosia fruit salad, Southern pecan pie - all the oldies but goodies are on the menu. Think doilies and lace curtains. It's in the middle of a historic village of South Dade pioneer homes turned into antique and crafts shops. Lunches $5-$12. Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. 12310 SW 224th St., Goulds, 305-258-0044; www.cauleysquare.com.

Cape Florida Lighthouse & Stiltsville - On the southernmost tip of Key Biscayne, inside Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, you can view two nautical beauties. The 95-foot, white-brick lighthouse, built in 1825, is by far the oldest and most austere, having survived Indian massacres, hurricanes and beach erosion. Park rangers provide tours and talks about the bloody history of the tower, which now has an automated light to help night-time boaters find the Florida Channel. Rent a surrey and peddle over to the southeast end of the park, where you can catch the best landlubber views of Stiltsville from fishing piers off the bike path. The collection of rickety fishing and boat shacks rises like a mirage on pilings in the mud flats of Biscayne Bay. The first of the uninhabited homes went up in the 1930s; only seven remain. Used by fishermen, gamblers and partiers through the decades, it's in danger of being torn down. Admission to the park: $5 per vehicle. 1200 S. Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne, 305-361-5811; www.floridastateparks.org/capeflorida/ and www.stiltsville.org.

Coral Castle
- Proof that a broken heart is powerful motivation, this monument to lost love - built single-handedly by Latvian Edward Leedskalnin in an ill-fated attempt to win back the young fiancée who jilted him - has been appealing to the romantic in us for almost a century. Ed (all five feet and 100 pounds of him) used only hand tools to construct the home out of 1,100 tons of coral rock harvested from his property in Florida City and Homestead. He worked on the castle from 1923 until his death in 1951. Open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Admission: $9.75 adults; $5 kids, ages 7-12. 28655 S. Dixie Hwy., Homestead, 305-248-6345; www.coralcastle.com.

Historical Museum of Southern Florida - With exhibits that have focused on Mid-Century Modern homes of South Florida, Miami newspaper archive photography and Everglades art, the past always seems pretty groovy at this downtown museum. But the best part is booking a tour with resident historian Paul George, who has introduced voyeurs to the ghosts of Miami City Cemetery, the infamous crime scenes of our naughty town and some of our most interesting neighborhoods. Museum open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Saturday (until 9 p.m. every third Thursday); noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5 adults; $4 seniors and students; $2 kids, ages 6-12. For tours ($22-$39) call 305-375-1621. 101 W. Flagler St., Miami, 305-375-1492; www.hmsf.org.

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