Miami Tours for locals and tourists

 

On these tours, you’ll learn about the world without leaving South Florida

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Jonathan Tosoia and his mother Kathy Tosoian at the famous TapTap Hatian Restaurant. Patricia Laylle / For The Miami Herald
 

By Marjie Lambert

I was on a Segway, the tour guide was on a bicycle as we rolled smoothly over graveled trails in Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, across from the beach in Fort Lauderdale. There was Joe Namath’s former bachelor pad. Here was a perfect picnic spot next to the Intracoastal. Up there, over the narrow lagoon, was the trestle where a train once carried passengers on a three-mile circuit around the park.

I have lived in Broward County for 18 years — how is it I had never visited this pretty park with its shaded paths, picnic tables, coastal dune lakes and a history that includes a train?

Like people everywhere, I visit the parks and museums and attractions in my hometown when I’ve got out-of-town company, but rarely on my own.

We’re trying to fix that. My colleagues — Amy Rose Reyes, Cammy Clark and Fred Gonzalez — and I want to introduce you to some of the local attractions you’ve been missing. Maybe you don’t know about them, maybe you think they’re closed in summer, maybe you’ve been saving them up for when the cousins stop in before going on a cruise.

Whatever the reason, this is the time to get to know your town, when tourist season has ended, crowds have dwindled and discounts are available. We’ve chosen nine tours — by tram, Segway, bicycle and on foot — to introduce you to South Florida. Welcome home.

•  Segway tour of Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, Fort Lauderdale

Once the estate of Hugh Taylor Birch, a Chicago attorney who moved to South Florida in 1893, the state park on the land he donated is a 180-acre island of tropical hammocks and freshwater lagoons that sits between the Fort Lauderdale beach and the Intracoastal Waterway on the north side of Sunrise Boulevard.

The tour of the park is done by Segway, and before we set off, I had a lesson in riding the vehicle. Lean forward to speed up, lean back to slow. I wobbled, sped up, slowed, wobbled, stopped, turned. The turning, I discovered, was easy. The fat wheels responded to the slightest pressure on the handlebars. Staying in one spot was harder, for it required perfect upright balance. Speed up, turn, slow, wobble in place. And then, just like learning to stay upright on a bicycle, it clicked.

Brent Wysocki, owner of M.Cruz Rentals, led me out onto a trail to point out the park’s flora. He showed me his favorite tree, a lofty fig that drops roots from its branches like its relative the Banyan tree, and talked about how it had survived Hurricane Wilma, which had taken out 30 percent of the park’s trees.

We turned onto loose gravel that took us to the rotting trestle of the Birch State Park Scenic Railroad, which operated from 1965 to 1985. The rest of the track was removed when the train was sold, but two trestles over freshwater lagoons remain, unused.

Out by the Intracoastal Waterway, we saw the squat, concrete-walled house once owned by Joe Namath, ugly on the outside but with glass floors that jutted out over the water. Nearby, trees shaded picnic tables at the edge of the waterway.

A little further along, we stopped on a spot maybe 20 feet wide, with the Intracoastal on one side, a lagoon on the other. The tide was going out, the current visible as it pulled water from the lagoon through a large culvert and into the Intracoastal. The current moved the algae from the lagoon as well, Wysocki said, spitting it out where manatees feed on it. I jumped to attention. Manatees! There aren’t too many here now, Wysocki said quickly, but in the fall and winter, they hang out near this culvert.

• South Florida Segway Tours, M.Cruz Rentals, just inside the Birch State Park beach entrance, 3109 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-235-5082; www.mcruzrentals.com. Thirty-minute tour $50 includes Segway and helmet use; 60 minutes $75. Tours four times daily (10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m.). If you drive in, park entrance fee is $6 per vehicle.

— MARJIE LAMBERT

•  Little Havana Cuisine & Culture Tour

A bit of advice for participants in History Miami’s Little Havana Cuisine and Culture Tour: Leave the kids at home.

The little ones will love sampling the snacks like guarapo (pressed cane juice), fresh croquetas and pastelitos de guayaba - all typical island favorites. They may stay still enough to watch cigars being rolled by hand. But they will whine about Domino Park’s age requirement (55 and older), and they will probably try to wander into Eighth Street traffic while the Bay of Pigs monument is being explained.

Children may not pick up on tour guide Pepe Menendez’s nuanced and insightful observations about the changing attitudes within the Cuban exile community. They will, however, be interested to know why people have nailed chicken legs to the ceiba tree located right behind the statue of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. And when Pepe explains that Cuban santeria practitioners leave offerings like candy around the tree, the tour will turn into an Easter egg hunt.

The problem will be solved once the tour visits La Negra Francisca, a botanica where santeros stock up on idols, bracelets and oils. Grab a bottle of an oil called Tate Quieto (Calm Yourself) and pray to Chango that the kids don’t further embarrass you.

• Little Havana Cuban Cuisine and Culture Walk, HistoryMiami members: $20; non-members: $30. www.historymiami.org. HistoryMiami offers a number of historical, ecological, architectural and other tours, although the variety is less in summer, when most are eco-walking tours. See the website for details.

— AMY ROSE REYES

•  Discovery Miami Beach

According to the website, the Discovery Miami Beach tour — a self-guided audio tour — should take 90 minutes if done straight through. Perhaps, if one has on running shoes. Without a doubt this tour of South Beach is not for the lazy. The entire circuit is about 5 1/2 miles. Do yourself a favor and rent a DecoBike.

The tour starts at the Art Deco Welcome Center, where the audio player and maps are available. Chart a route, stopping at one of 29 points of interest and push the landmark’s corresponding number (just like at a museum!). If you are determined to do the route on foot, then you should also chart out your pit stops for food, alcohol and foot massages.

The tour enlists a team of experts to narrate each spot’s story. Nightlife guru Tara Solomon narrates nuggets about velvet rope policies in the ’90s, Miami Design Preservation League historian Jeff Donnelly gives a heaping helping of historical context, Mayor Matti Herrera Bower shares the trials and triumphs of the young city and pop artist Romero Britto provides an infusion of pop art wisdom. And you’ll see the building where the chainsaw scene from Scarface was shot.

Take your time. There are plenty of places to find a nice mojito along the route. They should really highlight those places on the map as well.

• Discovery Miami Beach, Art Deco Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; 305-672-9941, discoverymiamibeach.com. Adults, $14.95, students/children 12 and under, military, seniors $12.95. Deco Bike Package $29.95, Big Bus Package $39 adults, $29 kids 3-11.

— AMY ROSE REYES

•  Original Ghost Tour, Key West

For 16 years, performers dressed in top hats and long black coats have been walking through the back streets and spooky alleys of the Historic District of Key West at night, carrying a lantern to lead willing participants.

The Original Ghost Tour, started in 1996 by Key West writer David Sloan, makes about 11 stops at places rich in the island city’s paranormal and ghoulish history.

“All of the stories have a non-happy ending,” guide Jon Engel says. “One sad story made our paper a couple of weeks ago about the torture and killing of Manuel Cabeza by the Ku Klux Klan back in 1921.”

He tells the story in front of the courthouse on Whitehead Street, near a jail where several hooded men beat him and then dragged him behind a car before hanging his likely already dead body.

“But Emanuel’s wife Angela takes care of the Klansmen with a little bit of black magic,” Engel says during his tour. “She uses a little bit of black magic and puts a spell on them. One by one they perished, all by violent deaths.”

Another stop tells the tale of Count Carl Von Cosel, who stole his wife’s body out of the graveyard and put it into his bed — for seven years.

And no ghost tour in Key West would be complete without the story of Robert the Doll, the creepy inspiration for Chucky in the Child’s Play horror movies and now nearly 100 years old.

“The doll was built in 1904 by a Bahamian maid who was treated poorly by the Otto family,” Engel says. “She handed the doll to a little boy named Gene. Things went bad from there.”

• Original Ghost Tour, Key West; 305-294-9255; www.hauntedtours.com; $18 for adults; $10 for children.

— CAMMY CLARK

•South Beach Food Tour

As you get ready to begin your South Beach Food Tour, there are a few important details to make sure are in order. First, you better have some comfortable walking shoes on, because you are about to take a pretty lengthy, 180-minute tour of South Beach. Yes, you will get plenty of breaks to sit and eat and enjoy some air conditioning, but there will be plenty of walking, a total of about a mile. So leave the high heels at home.

Second, you’d better be hungry. This tour doesn’t make three or four stops. It makes seven or eight stops, with a tasting at every location.

Rain or shine, the South Beach Food Tour, which is part of Miami Culinary Tours, has become a staple for tourists and locals looking to discover a taste of Miami and of its influences from the Latin world. What Art Basel is to the art aficionados who trek to Miami once a year, the South Beach Food Tour is for foodies who are ready to explore flavors and challenge their taste buds.

From Peruvian ceviche to Venezuelan empanadas, not only do the tour members get a nice-sized portion to taste, they also get a history lesson from the lovely tour guide. (How many times have you been on a tour and strained to hear your guide? Not here. Thankfully these tour guides wear a microphone and speaker box on their hip, so you don’t miss a detail of the backstory.)

The visit to each restaurant lasts about 15 minutes max. For example, at the Tudor House at the Dream Hotel to taste Iron Chef winner Geoffrey Zakarian’s take on the Cuban sandwich, the group was seated quickly and served glasses of water. Within five minutes our group of 15 was served a small slice of the iconic sandwich while our guide told us about the chef, the restaurant, and the sandwich. Once everyone was finished, it was time to gather the group and head to David’s Cafe around the corner for a cafe Cubano.

Once you imagine this scenario repeated seven more times, you’re willing to accept the $59 cost of this tour — a pretty high price compared to Miami tours in general. But considering you are getting a range of foods from Italian gelato to French lobster bisque, Colombian empanadas to Peruvian ceviche, it does compare to a meal at a South Beach restaurant.

We recommend going with at least one friend, or get a group together and make it feel like your own, personal group tour.

• South Beach Food Tour, $59 per person includes all food and beverages. Lunch tour begins at noon daily; dinner tour at 6 p.m. daily. Open to all ages and fitness levels. Wheelchair friendly. Vegetarian options available with advance notice. Pets and shopping during the tour are not allowed. Participating restaurants change daily. Tickets: www.miamiculinarytours.com/sobe-food-tour or 800-979-3370.

— FRED GONZALEZ

•  Shark Valley Tram Tour, Everglades National Park

We’re crowded onto an open-sided tram, 30 or 40 of us, here in Shark Valley to see alligators. Of course we’re interested in seeing the big wading birds that migrate through the Everglades or live here year-round, and we’d like to see turtles or other critters as well, but we’re really here to see the gators.

Anthony King, our naturalist for the tour, tells about the different habitats we pass — tree islands, sawgrass marshes, hardwood hammocks and the like — how they came to be, what kinds of wildlife they support, how they have been affected by the drought of the last year. He spots a couple small alligators in the shallow muddy water next to culverts. Yes, these are very young gators he tells us, and even though we don’t see them, their mamas are almost certainly nearby, probably in the dark, wet culverts. We don’t want to come between the young ones and their mothers, he warns us, unless we don’t believe that they can move lightning fast on their short, stubby legs. We believe him.

At “Gator Beach” — an excavation pit left from the mining of limestone many years ago — King leads us past mud and pickerel weed to the pit, filled with water. And yes, alligators, lying in the shallow water or on the sun-warmed limestone. None is on our side of the water, so we crowd in and take photos. The alligators mostly ignore us.

Halfway along the 15-mile loop road, we climb what was once a fire observation tower and now is just an observation tower that gives us a good perspective on the miles and miles of sawgrass stretching out across the River of Grass.

At the end of the tram tour, people walk a short distance back to see a gator hangout that King pointed out or walk along the Bobcat Boardwalk or a trail through a hammock near the Visitors Center. We just can’t get enough of those gators.

•Shark Valley tram tours, four times daily (9 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m.), about two hours. Tours leave from the Shark Valley Visitors Center at 36000 SW Eighth St. (Tamiami Trail, 25 miles west of Florida’s Turnpike). Cost: $10/car entrance fee to Everglades National Park; tour is $19 ($18 seniors 62+, $12 children 3-12). Tour information: 305-221-8455, www.sharkvalleytramtours.com. Park information: 305-242-7700, www.nps.gov/ever.

— MARJIE LAMBERT

  Miami River Segway Tour

It’s been dredged and polluted, used as a dumping ground, a sewer, a port and graveyard. The Miami River, the five-mile watercourse that flows from Miami International Airport down to Biscayne Bay, also holds many chapters of Miami’s history on its banks.

The Miami River Segway Tour, offered by Bike and Roll Miami, is a two-hour exploration of the Miami River’s impact on South Florida’s people and vice versa.

The tour starts downtown at Bayside Marketplace and follows the river to the Miami Circle, a site that is believed to have been the location of a prehistoric structure. It passes by the Brickell Avenue drawbridge and Fort Dallas Park, the site of the original 1836 U.S. military post during the Seminole Wars, stopping at other historical sites as well.

Participants get a few tips on Segway operation prior to heading out, but riding a Segway is about as hard as standing still and pushing a button.

• Miami River Segway Tour from Bayside Marketplace, $35 Adults, $25 Kids 12-21. Book at bikemiami.com/miami-tours or call 305-604-0001.

— AMY ROSE REYES

•  Lloyds Tropical Bike Tour, Key West

Don’t expect to see the well-known tourist spots on this leisurely bike tour that is led by a machete-carrying, ex-hippie with a tuned conch shell.

Lloyd Mager began his off-the-beaten-path tour in 1991 and still finds great passion in giving others a literal taste of his native Key West. Depending upon the season, he’ll find mangoes, starfruit, key limes and several other fruits to try, right off the trees. Coconuts are cracked open with his machete.

No two tours are the same. Some days Mager will stop to have a Key West old-timer tell a story from his porch. Most days he will stop at what’s left of Nancy’s Secret Garden, to introduce Mr. Peach, a friendly cockatoo that people can hold.

He’s got a kid’s friendly tour and a more adult version, during which he candidly tells stories about life on the small island in the 1970s when things were really laid back and drug running was a major industry.

His tour now stops at a little known turtle pond at the Key West Wildlife Center. Mager feeds puppy chow to Iggy a friendly but wild iguana. Flocks of ibis and hundreds of turtles watch.

“For 3 1/2 hours I try to give people a real life experience of Key West,” Mager says. “People should slow down and get away from the dumb tourist traps.”

• Lloyds Tropical Bike Tour, Key West, 305-294-1882; www.lloydstropicalbiketour.com; $35, includes bike rental.

— CAMMY CLARK

•  Fort Lauderdale Ghost Tours

I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe in ghosts. But tonight I’m out to be entertained, to have a little fun at the expense of the people who lived in Fort Lauderdale during its pioneer era — the Stranahans, the Cromarties, the Bryans and their associates, some of whom are reputed to haunt the city’s old riverfront houses.

John Marc Carr, president of South East Florida Ghost Research and owner of Fort Lauderdale Ghost Tours, is our guide, giving us a little bit of city tour mixed in with ghost stories. We hear about ghostly happenings in the art museum, in a Himmarshee Street bar, in a building that once housed a department story, in another that once housed a brothel.

But our primary destination is the cluster of buildings just west of Las Olas Riverfront (which is its own kind of ghost town), including the River House, New River Inn, the King-Cromartie House and the 1899 Replica Schoolhouse where Ivy Cromartie Stranahan was Fort Lauderdale’s first teacher.

Carr tells the stories of the people who lived in these old buildings, tales of births, terrible illnesses, suicides and violent deaths — and of the evidence of their ghosts. Some of the tales have credibility, some do not. Some are entertaining stories, other parts are downright cheesy, such as when he calls out greetings to an upper story window where the barest flutter of a curtain is supposedly caused by the ghost of a girl standing behind it, or when he plays tape recordings of almost unintelligible words that could have been spoken anywhere, by anyone.

Then we walk to the Stranahan House, which has its own ghost tour around Halloween. The house was built in 1901 by Frank Stranahan and originally used as a trading post to trade with Seminole Indians. He converted it to a house after he married Ivy Cromartie. Stranahan killed himself in 1929. She lived there til her death in 1971. Carr says there is evidence Frank and Ivy still live there — although Ivy is still so mad at Frank for his suicide that she makes him sleep on the porch.

The tour needs to be edited, both for its length — my tour lasted nearly three hours — and because the cheesiness dilutes the credibility of other tales. But at its heart, it is the story of the city’s earliest white settlers, which — whether you believe in ghosts or not — is a story worth hearing.

• Fort Lauderdale Ghost Tour starts on the corner by the Cheesecake Factory, 600 E. Las Olas Blvd.; Friday and Saturday at 8:45 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m.; adults $20, children $15; 954-290-9328; www.fortlauderdaleghosttour.com; reservations required.

— MARJIE LAMBERT

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