It's a staggering statistic: 40% of Miami residents were born outside the USA, and the majority of these immigrants were originally from Cuba. The result is a city that feels like a foreign destination to everyone except those who have always lived there. It's even a foreign destination to most US citizens.
The main reason is the language barrier. Catch a cab and the chances are that the driver's first language is Spanish rather than English; check out the local newspapers and the headlines will more often than not have upside-down punctuation marks at the start; and wander down the street and the language you'll hear will be anything from Spanish to Creole, but it probably won't be English. In the USA English might be the lingua franca, but it's by no means universal.
One of the best places to soak up this multiculturalism is in Little Havana in southern Miami. This is where most of the 150,000 Cubans settled who escaped to Miami in the Mariel Boatlift, and the feel is more that of a suburb of Cuba than Florida.
And what better way to get into the atmosphere than by eating, drinking and smoking? None, and one of the best places to enjoy all three pursuits is at the Versailles Bakery and its companion, the Versailles Restaurant.
It might be just an unassuming coffee shop to the casual eye, but the little-known Versailles Bakery is one of the greatest spots for people-watching this side of the immigration kiosks. If it's a nice day - and in Miami, that's most of the time - pop into the bakery, pull a numbered ticket from the dispenser, and spend your short queuing time choosing from the various types of coffee on offer and the copious Cuban pastries displayed in the glass-fronted food counter. If you're a fan of sweet milky coffee, go for the caffe con leche, and if you're a fan of seriously strong black coffee, just order a standard coffee.
But that's not the important bit. Go and sit out at one of the tables on the street, and sit back and listen. Middle-aged men sit round talking about business, politics and the youth of today - all in impassioned Spanish. Everyone's draining coffee cups and drawing on cigarettes like there's no tomorrow, holding the latter in that uniquely tropical manner, the cigarette pinched between all four fingers and the thumb, cupping it for the drag. Older men chomp on Cuban cigars, the stogie smoke drifting in the hot air in time to the flow of conversation.
From your seat you can see a mind-boggling array of shops lining the impeccably clean streets. Across the road is the Fantasy Show peddling its dubious morals; next door is Ranger Seat Covers, and towards town is the Sosa Cielar Hand-Made Cigar Shop ('the home of Imperion Cubano', according to the sign); red bougainvillaea blooms outside the Riviera Funeral Home, almost covering the sign for El Padrinito Restaurant as a black stretch limo navigates a junction with the accuracy of a London bus. If you're used to middle America or Europe it's unique, combining the orthogonal flatness of a modern planned city with age-old customs, dialects and beverages.
So get yourself a coffee, spark up a cigar and soak up the environment as the skin forms on your drink. And if the mood takes you, have another one. After all, mañana is a Spanish word...
If you want to experience a little more than Cuban coffee and conversation, then the Versailles Restaurant - next door to the bakery - is one of the best places to eat real Cuban food in the whole of Miami. It's unpretentious, pleasantly off the tourist trail, and excellent value for money - for a full meal that you won't finish (ie main course, dessert and drinks), expect to pay about $20.
Billing itself as 'Miami's most popular Cuban restaurant since 1971', it's easy to see the justification. If you've never tried Cuban food before then choose one of the following dishes (otherwise there's a comprehensive à la carte menu to pick from). You won't regret it.
The Classico - This huge meal (you won't need a starter) consists of a collection of classic Cuban dishes, all served up on one plate in bite-sized portions. You get beef chilli with olives, tamale (a roll made of pork and ground corn), roast pork, white rice, a garlic dip, deep-fried plantain (a relation of the banana), onions and yuca1 (which is white, not unlike turnip in consistency and relatively uninteresting until you dip it in the garlic). You also get a bowl of black bean sauce to pour over your rice.
The Criollo - This is exactly the same, except it comes with spicy braised pork stew instead of the chilli, and is served with yellow rice instead of white.
It's unlikely that you'll manage to fit in a dessert after one of these, but if you do then go for one of the flans on offer; they're obscenely good. And whatever you do, make sure you have a coffee to round things off... but beware. If your idea of coffee is closer to milk and two sugars then you're in for a shock, because Cuban coffee is the kind that strips the enamel off your teeth, turns your tongue brown and leaves you with a graphic reminder of what 'virile' really means. Where Greek coffee is gritty, Cuban coffee is like a thick, strong syrup with the consistency of double cream and a brown head of bubbles that is as obstinately persistent as the head on a pint of Guinness. The effect of the resulting caffeine injection is not unlike that of knocking back a shot of malt whisky, and although it's highly pleasant, bear in mind it can make signing the credit card slip slightly challenging.
Garlic fried bread is served at the start of your meal, there's free iced water provided throughout, and the service is courteous and efficient (well worth the normal American tip of 15%). In other words, go there.
If you've got a car, getting to Versailles is too easy. Head west from Downtown Miami on SW 7th St (which you can get to by taking exit 2 off I-95). At the junction with 22nd Ave Rd the road veers left and joins SW 8th St (also known as Calle Ocho, the main thoroughfare through Little Havana). Keep heading west along SW 8th St and Versailles Restaurant is on your right at the junction with SW 36th Ave (just after Versailles Bakery). The address is 3555 SW 8th St, and you can't miss it.
And if you haven't got a car, get a cab. It's worth the fare.