Welcome to round-the-clock thrills—suntanned, G-stringwearing rollerbladers, wild clubs, and celebrity-packed parties. Wait. You've heard all this before. It's the Miami cliché, and one that I have never experienced. After all, for 16-year-olds there are no nightclubs, no celebrity bashes (mind you, not that I haven't tried), and no G-strings (just ask my mother). My Miami is all about great beaches and pools, adventure (ultralight flight, anyone?), and the American ideal—a true melting-pot city with 51 percent of its population, including me, originally from other parts of the world.
I was born in Germany, as were my 10-year-old twin sisters, Ivy and May. Our family moved to Miami shortly after the twins arrived, and we stayed until three years ago, when my dad's work as a photographer (check out his pictures right here) took us to live in Queensland, Australia. Fortunately, Mom and Dad see to it that we get back to town frequently. These visits give us the chance not only to catch up with friends, but also to fully acquaint ourselves with Miami's best enticements, room service included. So allow me to fill you in on our favorite things to do.
The Miami area is a vast patchwork of cities and neighborhoods. To begin to understand the lay of the land, call Tony or Adriel, your pilots at Ultralight Adventures (3401 Rickenbacker Causeway, Key Biscayne; 305/361-3909; 15-minute flight $70, passengers must be at least 10 years old). They'll give you a bird's-eye view of the city from what is essentially a motorbike in the sky. Remember the movie Fly Away Home?Yes, well, this plane is very similar, except instead of landing and taking off from the ground, you fly from the water. Soar alongside the Seaquarium and watch Lolita, the killer whale, perform. Swoop down close to the ocean to race with dolphins. Reach for the clouds. I'll get up at five on a Sunday morning to catch the sunrise from above. (But don't wake me till the very last minute for school, Mom!)
Head to the Center of the Action
As you steer your car along South Beach's Ocean Drive, look at the buildings, not just the bodies. This is the incredible Art Deco district, freshly painted in pastels and lit with neon. You can go on a walking tour with the Miami Design Preservation League (305/531-3484; www.mdpl.org), or you can be kind to your kids and take them directly to the Front Porch Café (1418 Ocean Dr.; 305/531-8300; breakfast for four $50), which serves pancakes and French toast all day. Then hit the beach. The sand is perfect for building castles, and the water is calm.
Take a Stroll on Lincoln Road
Beware of fast-moving traffic. Though it's a car-free stretch, people zip around on bikes, skates, scooters, Rollerblades, and stilettos, going in and out of galleries, shops, and the movie theater. On Friday and Saturday nights, the crowd is at its most diverse, and so are the street performers—watch for cowboys in sequined hot pants, clown-faced mimes, and disco dancers. While you gawk, cool off with some ice cream from the Frieze (1626 Michigan Ave., Miami Beach; 305/538-2028), just off Lincoln Road; their hundreds of flavors are made right there.
Experience English as a Second Language
In Little Havana, which is a 15-minute drive west of South Beach, all of the street signs are in Spanish. You can watch cigars being rolled by hand at El Credito Cigars (1106 S.W. Eighth St.; 305/858-4162), and join the domino and chess players in Domino Park. Buy fresh tamales and churros from the street vendors, who come right up to your car, or have a full Cuban meal of pork, rice and beans, and plantains, followed by tres leches—you'll need a very sweet tooth for that—at Versailles (3555 S.W. Eighth St.; 305/444-0240; lunch for four $40).
Dive into the Largest Hotel Pool in America
It's at the landmark Biltmore Hotel (1200 Anastasia Ave.; 800/727-1926; www.biltmorehotel.com; doubles from $299; brunch $50 for adults, $25 for children 512, younger kids eat free) in Coral Gables. Esther Williams filmed her movies in these very waters. The hotel itself is known for having haunted rooms (Thursday night at seven is spooky-story hour). Even if you don't stay here, come for the amazing Sunday brunch buffet: tables packed with everything from spring rolls and sushi to make-your-own sundaes line the courtyard. You might even be able to sneak in a swim.
But Wait: Keep Your Bathing Suit On...The Venetian Pool (2701 De Soto Blvd., Coral Gables; 305/ 460-5306; $9.50 adults, $5.25 kids 312) is around the corner from the Biltmore. This one is pure fantasy—a public swimming place built in the 1920's on what was a rock quarry. It has man-made falls, coral caves, and a palm-shaded island. For kids, there's a sandy "beach" to dig in. The pool is filled with 820,000 gallons of spring water, which gets replenished frequently, meaning it can be cold—but in Miami, that's a good thing.
Parrot Jungle Island (1111 Parrot Jungle Trail, Watson Island; 305/258-6453; www.parrotjungle.com), located midway between downtown Miami and South Beach, is a theme parklike bird reserve that's also home to orangutans, tigers, and reptiles, plus tropical gardens. You can watch the animal shows or just prowl around.
Try out a Profession
The Miami Children's Museum (980 MacArthur Causeway, Watson Island; 305/373-5437; www.miamichildrensmuseum.org)—in a very cool modern building designed by the firm Arquitectonica—has a mock television studio. And Wannado City (Sawgrass Mills, Sunrise; 888/ 926-6236; www.wannadocity.com), a 45-minute drive west of Miami, is where kids get to fully experience future careers, whether as manicurists, emergency-room doctors, firefighters, or archaeologists. A plus: Wannado City is inside Sawgrass Mills, a giant outlet mall. (Sorry, Dad. We want to shop!)
Take Time Out
When the clouds appear, or we're all zonked, we head to Books & Books (933 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 305/532-3222), which I'm sure is one of the nicest bookshops in the country. The store's specialty is hard-to-find novels and photography books, but there's a very complete kids' section, and a restaurant. Maybe you should hope for rain?
Dance on the Tables
Taverna Opa (36 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; 305/ 673-6730; dinner for four $80) is a Greek restaurant that's not ideal for conversation—the music is too loud. But my sisters and I beg to be taken there, and it's a regular spot for my mother's "girls' night out." We have spinach pie and chicken kebabs, and between courses we climb up on tables and dance! Everyone does, including the waiters. On weekend nights there are even instructors to teach you the moves. The energy is contagious here—and all around this town.