MIAMI - Coconut Grove's days as an idyllic and slightly bohemian art colony are long gone, but its charm persists - once you get past the trendy boutiques and chain restaurants.
Like many other historic districts, the Grove, which is a part of Miami, has turned its past into a tourist destination.
Although the lifestyle is more relaxed than in other parts of Miami, such as Coral Gables, it's just as glitzy in some ways, with amenities catering to the whims of vacationers looking to spend. Luxury hotels are ubiquitous, as are many of the stores found in upscale shopping centers across America. The annual Coconut Grove Arts Festival, a nearly four-decade-old tradition, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors and attracts artists from across the nation.
Although the Grove's roots date back more than a century, many parts of downtown have been renovated in the past decade. That's not necessarily a bad thing - a lot of people like spending their vacations shopping, dining or seeing movies in outdoor malls like the bustling CocoWalk, which features a Banana Republic and Cheesecake Factory, to name a couple of tenants.
There is also a playhouse featuring live theater. But the mix can be jarring. One of the best-known historic hotels in the Grove, the upscale Mayfair House, is a short walk from The Limited, Borders bookstore and other chain stores. Although the Art Nouveau-style hotel is striking, the exclusive ambiance ends when you step out the door.
Once you leave the downtown area, however, things start to look a little less like a trip to the mall. A wrong turn sent me into a sleepy residential area with homes painted in tropical pinks and blues - and peacocks strolling down one street. And, although there are several restaurants along the water, there also is a lot of open space and parks. A drive on Bayshore, Coconut Grove's primary waterfront drive, yields beautiful views of sparkling blue Biscayne Bay and pathways busy with bicyclists, joggers and inline skaters. Indeed, there are several places to rent bicycles and water-sports equipment.
Bayshore also leads to some of Coconut Grove's historic attractions, including the spectacular Vizcaya Gardens. James Deering, the founder of International Harvester and one of the area's major employers, built the replica of an Italian renaissance villa in 1916 for a winter home. The villa, which strives to be authentic save for air conditioning and landscaping adjustments required by the Florida climate, is now owned by Miami-Dade County. For $10 (or less if you go to Vizcaya's online Web site and get a coupon), visitors can stroll through the three-story mansion filled with museum-quality antiques or go on docent-led tours. The lush gardens also are open to the public and night tours are held periodically.
Across the street is the Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium.
Closer to downtown Coconut Grove is the Barnacle State Historical Site, the more than 100-year-old home of Commodore Ralph Munroe, a designer of yachts and salvager of boat wrecks. It's a good place for a picnic or to attend one of the occasional evening concerts. There also are guided tours. Admission is $1.
For horticulturists and botanists, the Kampong offers an unparalleled look at tropical plants and flowers. The grounds are part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which also has projects in Hawaii. Because The Kampong is research-focused and has a small staff, public tours are usually available only once a month during the winter. It's best to call ahead.
History buffs also can find something to do here. The Miami-Dade Transit, a county agency, offers black-history tours of the area in February. Blacks from the Bahamas began settling in the Grove in the 1890s, followed by blacks from other parts of the South in the 1920s. Many of their descendants still live in the area. Visitors also can download a brochure from the Internet for a self-guided tour of the area.
Coconut Grove is a 15-minute drive from Miami International Airport and an equally manageable drive from Miami attractions, including South Beach and Little Havana.
If you go, book early. The area is popular with tourists and fills up quickly, particularly in February when the annual arts festival is held. Accommodations tend to be pricey; in most cases, rooms are $100-plus a night, although better deals can be found if you look carefully or go through a consolidator.
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