A sane traveler's first impulse upon debarking at Miami International Airport is to turn around and run back to the plane. Resist the urge. Deviously perplexing and inhospitable, the airport should be seen as the first of many adventures on a surreal urban safari. People who say they're going to Miami usually mean "the Greater Miami metropolitan area," which is chamber-of-commerce code for everything between Fort Lauderdale and Key Largo, from the Atlantic shore to the Everglades.
The diversity of habitats, and habitués, is boggling. A day that begins basking among supermodels on a topless beach can end knee-deep in a snake-infested swamp. The two experiences, each primordial in its own way, are separated by only an hour's drive. Confusion about South Florida's geography can be blamed on early tourism promoters, who purposely made no distinction among the area's disparate towns and cities. From the beginning, it was packaged and peddled as one balmy destination—a strategy that worked.
Around the world, the name "Miami" came to evoke hokey postcard images of sugary beaches and swaying palms. No wonder so many visitors are surprised to learn that the city itself is miles from the ocean; that Miami Beach, with its celebrity-clogged Ocean Drive, is a separate and very different locale.
The municipality of Miami still has Brickell Avenue and funky Coconut Grove, but more emblematic is Little Havana, the epicenter of the Cuban-exile experience.
Take a ride down Southwest Eighth Street, frenetic Calle Ocho, and you happily realize that tourism was an afterthought here. A busy grid of working-class neighborhoods, this is where hundreds of thousands of refugees came—and still come—for the serious business of starting new lives.
Continue westbound, where the road out of Little Havana becomes the old Tamiami Trail, and you soon understand why Miami is so difficult to define.
Within minutes you're on the steamy fringe of the Everglades, where the Miccosukee Indians improbably have erected a large, very prosperous casino. The resort attracts busloads of tourists and retirees who, when needing a break from bingo, can watch alligators being tussled in a dirt pit. (There's such a serious shortage of qualified gator wrestlers that the competing Seminole tribe has been advertising for recruits. The pay: $8 to $12 an hour, plus medical benefits.)
Visually as well as culturally, South Florida is a panorama of extremes—jarringly ugly sprawls of concrete and asphalt, broken by splashes of astounding natural beauty.
Miami's glittering blue soul is Biscayne Bay, above which rises the city's unruly skyline. No other downtown on the continent is blessed with such a stunning tropical vista.
Daydreaming office workers might look out the window and see, amid the Jet Skis and cruise liners, frolicking dolphins or crashing schools of silvery tarpon. One glimpse is enough to make you momentarily forget the abutting urban tumult and its scandal-filled headlines.
That any wild thing, or wild spot, has survived Florida's craven politics and relentless bulldozers seems miraculous. Yet the intrepid visitor can still reach amazing places that are untrammeled, if not untouched. Leave them that way, please.
Every day spent Rollerblading among Jennifer Lopez look-alikes on South Beach can—and should—be matched by a day kayaking the Shark River or snorkeling off Elliott Key.
Anyone hardy enough to survive the airport experience should have no problem dealing with a lovesick indigo snake or an inquisitive moray eel. Nature takes many spectacular forms in Miami, and I'm partial to the ones that bite.
A columnist for the Miami Herald, CARL HIAASEN is the author of Sick Puppy and seven other novels set in Florida.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
Browse all the submissions and check back for the winning images.