COCONUT GROVE has come a long way since the 1960s, when it was peopled by down-at-heel artists and writers: these days, it rivals South Beach in trendiness, with a glittering cluster of art galleries, fashionable cafés and restaurants, and towering bay-view apartments.
There's more to "the Grove," - on Biscayne Bay about four miles southwest of downtown - than people-watching, however. A century ago, a strange mix of Bahamian salvagers and New England intellectuals laid the foundations of a fiercely individual community, separated from the fledgling city of Miami by a dense wedge of tropical foliage. In 1914, farm machinery mogul James Deering blew $15 million on re-creating a sixteenth-century Italian villa within this jungle. A thousand-strong workforce completed his Villa Vizcaya , 3251 S Miami Ave (daily 9.30am-4.30pm; $10), in just two years. Deering's madly eclectic art collection, and his concept that the villa should appear to have been inhabited for four hundred years, result in a thunderous clash of Baroque, Renaissance, Rococo and Neoclassical fixtures and fittings; the fabulous landscaped gardens , with their fountains and sculptures, are just as excessive. Frequent guided tours (45min) leave from the entrance loggia and provide solid background, after which you're free to explore at leisure.
Blatant statements of wealth predominate as you approach central Coconut Grove. The marina on Dinner Key sports lines of million-dollar yachts, and the neighboring Coconut Grove Exhibition Center is usually consumed by top-of-the-range trade shows. It was at the Dinner Key Auditorium (a forerunner of the Exhibition Center) in 1969 that Jim Morrison , singer with the Doors, dropped his leather trousers during the band's first - and last - Florida show, bringing the band more infamy than they knew what to do with.
About two miles south along the coast, the 83-acre Fairchild Tropical Garden , at 10901 Old Cutler Rd (daily 9.30am-4.30pm; guided tours hourly 10am-4pm; $8), is the largest tropical botanical garden in the continental US. The entire range of tropical environments has been reproduced, and there's a good section on native south Florida areas.