It may seem like Miami didn't exist before Don Johnson, but compared to these sites, even Miami hotels are young whipper snappers. So take a break from your Florida vacation to visit some places that give Florida its unique character.
Cape Florida Lighthouse
Climb the 119 spiral steps to get a magnificent view of the aqua ocean. Before you begin your ascent, stop into the keeper's cottage to learn the conflict-fraught history of this beacon. Originally built in 1825, Seminole warriors burned it in protest of the U.S. presence in South Florida.
Southern Florida's very own Taj Mahal. Edward Leedskalnin, jilted by his fiancee 24 hours before their wedding, set out to provide a monument to his love for her. Over about 30 years, working with only hand tools and the chassis of an old truck (he did not own a car himself), he moved coral 10+ miles and then carved it into this fortress. That a 5-foot-tall man weighing little over 100 pounds with a 4th-grade education could hand-build something weighing more than 125 pounds per square foot (each section of wall is 58 tons) is a testament to the power of unrequited love.
Part Garden of Good and Evil, part Versailles, this elaborate castle-like mansion with its formal gardens is as European a villa as you're going to get south of Asheville and west of Venice. The industrialist James Deering built it and quickly allowed the public to visit the grounds, watching silently from the balcony — seeing how delighted his tranquil gardens made visitors. Inside is an impressive collection of old masters paintings and American artifacts.
Ancient Spanish Monastery (a.k.a. St. Bernard De Clairvaux Episcopal Church)
Where would America be today if William Randolph Hearst hadn't pillaged the finest treasures Europe had to offer? This monastery was originally built in Sacramenia, Spain in 1133-1144. It remained home to Christian monks for over 700 years until revolution converted it into a stable. Not long after, Hearst fell in love with it had it dismantled, packed in hay, and shipped to the USA stone by stone. Alas, the U.S. government, fearing infectious disease, opened the crates, burned the hay, and failed to put the stones back in their carefully numbered boxes. Hearst went broke, and the "monastery" stones were ensconced in a Brooklyn warehouse until a family bought them, and over 19 months (and $1.5 million) reassembled it, with the "where-do-these-go?" stones resting in the back lot. If the back story alone does not make it worth a visit, it may quite possibly be one of the oldest structures you can visit on American soil — if a wee bit modified from the original. The monastery is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday 12 to 4:30 p.m. Here are the details:16711 West Dixie Highway, North Miami Beach, 305-945-1461, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn't been found.