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Thursday, August 8, 2019

In Miami, lots of seafood, traffic and tolls; plus don't miss Everglades National Park

COYO TACO: A pair of scrumptious Camaron Tacos were $9 at Coyo Taco in the colorful Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, where streets are lined with murals. But the staff was flummoxed when I asked whether the shrimp wrapped in flour tortillas were wild-caught and from the Gulf of Mexico.
CATCH OF THE DAY: This over-the-top special appetizer at Catch of The Day Restaurant near the airport in Miami is Shrimp Tapas Hemingway or wild Gulf Shrimp with guacamole over large tostones (twice-smashed and fried green plantains). I split them with my nephew, who treated me to dinner on my last night in Miami.


HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Florida's biggest city speaks with a pronounced Cuban accent.

That's no surprise:

For more than 60 years, Miami has welcomed generations of Cubans leaving the Caribbean's biggest island.

On a 4-day vacation last week, I encountered many of them working for a rental-car agency, at my hotel, in restaurants and just about everywhere else.

And I enjoyed reuniting with a Cuban family that opened their Havana apartment and cooked meals f0r me on most of my 7 trips to the island through 2004.

They prepared a wonderful meal of Cuban classics for me -- fish in tomato sauce, codfish fritters, tamal, congris or black beans cooked with white rice, salad, beer and coffee -- and they gave me a bottle of Havana Club Cuban Rum so I can prepare mojitos at home.

Driving, tolls 

What I wasn't anticipating was all of the highway driving I had to do, and all of the tolls I had to pay, not to mention the app that charges $3.25 to $4 an hour for street parking. 

When I picked up a Ford Fusion hybrid at the airport, the Alamo agent explained that cameras on highway ramps would capture my license plate, and tolls would be billed to me later. 

What he didn't say is that without a SunPass, the equivalent of our E-ZPass, I would be charged twice as much.

Highway construction is booming, especially flyovers. During rush hours, roads and highways are jammed. 

Did I land in Los Angeles?

After I posted this initially, I found a notice from Alamo that in addition to tolls, I would be charged $3.95 per day as a "TollPass convenience charge," with billing in 4 weeks to 6 weeks.

Streets, highways

Miami has an ultra-modern street and highway network unlike anything in northern New Jersey, where I live and curse patched and potholed local streets little changed since the 1960s, and where the turn lane seems to be an alien concept.

Still, in Miami, I drove 240 miles in 4 days, and spent a lot of time staring at tail lights in bumper-to-bumper traffic. 

And I never saw a single driver stopped for speeding, racing, slaloming through traffic at 20 mph above the speed limit, tailgating and other reckless behavior.

SLOW AND EXPENSIVE: Bumper-to-bumper traffic is common in Miami. You have to pay for street parking mostly through apps downloaded onto your smartphone.
STAY LEFT: At this underpass, the usual traffic pattern is reversed, and drivers like me hoping to jump on the highway stayed left, not right.

Fresh seafood

Miami is known for great seafood restaurants, and as a pescatarian, I was looking forward to exploring them with my nephew, who moved to Miami 27 years ago.

At Catch of The Day Restaurant, we split a great appetizer of Shrimp Tapas Hemingway -- jumbo Gulf Shrimp with avocado served over crunchy tostones.

My entree was sliced Yellowfin Tuna, prepared rare, served with a bowl of soupy black beans, some of the best I've ever had.

We finished our meal with a colada: Strong, sweet Cuban coffee served in a styrofoam cup, then poured into thimble-size plastic cups.

"The colada is the ultimate symbol of Cuban camaraderie," containing 4 to 6 shots of sweetened espresso "that is shared amongst friends," says Jody Edy of Kitchn.com.  

$23 lunch promotion

We had another great seafood meal at Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill, where our shaded outdoor table overlooked the Miami River.

A 3-course lunch was only $23 during the city's 2-month-long restaurant promotion, called "Miami Spice."

At Coyo Taco, a noisy counter-service restaurant and bar in the Wynwood neighborhood, I demolished a large bowl of Organic Salad with guacamole, pumpkin seeds, queso fresco and chipotle ($8), along with a pair of Shrimp Tacos ($9).

My nephew ordered a pair of Carne Asada Tacos ($9). 

When I looked at my Coyo Taco receipt later, I saw that Jacquelyn C., the woman who took our order at the counter, charged us $2.50 for 2 plastic cups she gave us after we said we wanted to drink water (dispensed by a soda machine).

The receipt listed the $2.50 charge under "Fountain Drinks."

CATCH OF THE DAY: My entree last Friday night at Catch of The Day Restaurant in Miami was this rare steak of melt-in-the-mouth of Yellowfin Tuna, served with a soupy bowl of Cuban-style black beans.
COLADA: The strong Cuban coffee we drank from thimble-sized plastic cups to end our meal was sweet enough to stand in for dessert.
NOTHING FISHY: The entrance to Catch of The Day Restaurant, where outside tables afford a view of passenger and cargo jets landing at Miami International Airport. Valet parking is $3.
MY SALAD DAY: The wonderful Ensalada Organica or Organic Salad ($8) at Coyo Taco in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood.
RIVERSIDE DINING: At Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill on the Miami River, I ordered the Fish Ceviche appetizer, above, prepared with a citrus blend, purple onions, glazed yams and toasted corn. My entree was Braised Mahi-Mahi Escabeche Style with roasted potatoes, tomatoes, onion and olives, below. The 3-course Miami Spice lunch was $23, including dessert. 
MIAMI SPICE: More than 250 restaurants in and around Miami are taking part in the Miami Spice promotion through Sept. 30, 2019, with 3-course lunches for $23 and 3-course dinners for $39.
CRUISING: As we were eating lunch at Casablanca Seafood, a boat motored slowly past our riverside table, then tied up, and a family came in and sat down for lunch.

The Everglades

After the complimentary breakfast at my hotel on July 31, I drove southwest to Everglades National Park, billed by the National Park Service as "the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States."

I parked in the free lot at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, and went inside to see what activities were planned.

On a day when temperatures soared past 90, along with oppressive humidity, I joined a 10:30 a.m. guided walk along the Pine Island Trails of a freshwater marsh filled with alligators, large soft-shell turtles and tropical fish that people dumped in canals.

I sprayed my arms and legs with mosquito repellent and sunblock, and carried 2 bottles of water.

Lubber grasshoppers, intent on mating, littered the walkway, both alive and dead, crushed by tourists gawking at their surroundings.

SHADE LOVING: We saw alligators after our noisy group disturbed them and drove them to find another shady spot to escape the relentless sunlight.
MATING SEASON: Two Lubber Grasshoppers mating on a walkway, oblivious to passing tourists. The smaller grasshopper on top is the male.
TAMING NATURE: The 83-acre Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens in Coral Gables are filled with plants I have never seen before.
RAIN CLOSED THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE: It was raining on the day I visited, bringing comfortable temperatures in the 70s, but the butterfly house was closed and tram tours were suspended. I was admitted for free.
TREES WITH FLOWERS: More exotic flowers hang from the branches of a tree.

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