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A TALE OF 2 CITIES // STARRING ... Kevin

MIAMI

"I feel like a little tree. The folks at Parrot Jungle and Gardens told me to hold my arms out straight and the birds would feel invited to land on me. Boy, were they right. I have a parrot on each arm and one pecking at my head!"

KEVIN SAY:

"Miami is an international city. You know you're still in Florida, but you hear Spanish as much as English, and you spy men playing dominos as the scent of cafe Cubano (Cuban coffee) wafts through the streets. You hear Haitians speaking Creole and selling tropical fruits at the Caribbean Marketplace. Located on Florida's Gold Coast, Miami has been described as a subtropical paradise _ that is, when hurricanes aren't approaching. MIAMI IS INTERNATIONAL

Yo estoy en Miami ahora (I am in Miami now). I've returned from an excursion to Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) in the part of Miami known as Little Havana, a 30-block center of Latino living.

I've been trying to use some of the Spanish words and phrases I learned here. I've eaten arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and churros (a fried sweet dough). I'll have many stories to tell my friends about la ciudad con el ritmo Cubano (the city with a Cuban rhythm).

On my wanderings, I found another animal spot: Monkey Jungle. This place is sure a different kind of zoo; people are in the cages and the monkeys roam free.

I checked out the city's famous Art Deco district before I watched a few street performers at the Bayside Market Place in the heart of downtown. Then I headed over to the Hard Rock Cafe to buy a T-shirt; I just couldn't leave town without one!

Next, I went to the Miami Youth Museum where I got the chance to role-play as a fireman and television newscaster. After that I visited the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum north of downtown. They have a real jail cell and more than 10,000 law enforcement-related items on display.

City stats:

- Miami is the county seat of Dade County.

- Population: 358,548

Claims to fame:

- Madonna, Gloria Estefan, Sylvester Stallone and Cher all live in Miami.

A little history

In its formative years, Miami stayed much the way the Tequesta Indians saw it: a wilderness of mangroves, seagrapes and scrub palmetto infested with snakes and mosquitoes.

That began to change in the late 1800s when Julia Tuttle arrived. She envisioned a new city amid the exotic shrubs. To reach her goal, Tuttle tried to persuade railroad magnate Henry Flagler to extend his rail line to Biscayne Bay. Initially he turned her down. But after a freeze in the winter of 1894-95 damaged Central Florida's citrus, Tuttle wrote Flagler to let him know Miami had not been harmed. As a kicker she added an orange blossom from her frost-free home to prove it.

The fragrant sprig worked. Flagler agreed to build a large hotel, streets and finance water and light plants. And most importantly, he started to extend his railroad southward from West Palm Beach.

That railroad extension in 1896 gave Miami its first fixed land link with the rest of the continent, and led to a land boom in the 1920s.

Recent Miami history centers around Cuban immigration and 1991's Hurricane Andrew. Since 1959, when Fidel Castro became dictator, Cubans have fled their country for Miami, only about 200 miles away. In the late 1970s, Haitians did the same thing.

KEY WEST

KEVIN SAYS:

This is the last city on my trip. Key West is the last key in the chain of low islands and reefs that stretch for 180 miles off Florida's coast.

Things are really different here. The architecture is a blend of New England, British Colonial, Spanish and French styles: classically built wooden houses with gingerbread trim and wide verandas. People are buried above ground, and the downtown area isn't in the middle of town at all; it's at the northwest corner of the island.

"I'm at Mallory Square, where folks celebrate the sunset every night. Jugglers, street performers, mimes and musicians all fight for space so they can soak up the scene. Here's my tip: Watch out for the sword swallowers. One of them was standing over my head, and his flaming sword almost set my cap on fire!"

WALK ALL OVER THE ISLAND

I opted to save my $6 and skip a ride on the Conch Tour Train, an open-air tram that drives around the city and offers riders a fly-by look at Key West sites.

Instead, I walked around the island _ it's only 5 miles long and 3 miles wide. Only problem was I had to keep a lookout for the folks touring the city on mopeds. I was almost run over twice!

I started my self-guided tour by having my photo taken (that's what everyone does) at the black, red and yellow buoy on Key West's southernmost point. From that spot, I was only 90 miles from Cuba.

From there, I walked over to the Ernest Hemingway house. Hemingway was a Nobel Prize-winning novelist who lived in Key West from 1931 to 1940. You see his bed, his books,his bathroom _ and a bunch of cats who call Hemingway House home! Nothing is left out. But Hemingway didn't have air conditioning and one was never installed. Boy, did I get sweaty.

The Key West Lighthouse is on the same street as Hemingway's house. I climbed the 88 steps to the observation platform and was able to see most of the city. I got a bite to eat on Duval Street: Conch fritters and Key Lime pie, both Key West staples.

I spent the rest of my stay on Duval Street, the main drag in town. It's full of cafes and restaurants, shops, art galleries and nightclubs.

A little history

The name Key West was derived from a Spanish word that described what the explorers first encountered on the island: bones.

When Spanish adventurers reached the island in the 1500s they found the remnants of Calusa Indian battles. They named the area Cayo Hueso, which translates into "bone key," and eventually evolved into Key West.

After Indian and Spanish contact, Key West was occupied by pirates who were later chased out of the area by a fledgling U.S. Navy Pirate Fleet established in 1822.

Settlers soon followed and were able to make a living as wreckers, salvaging goods from ships that went down on the nearby reefs.

After the wrecking business was no longer lucrative, spongers and cigar makers flourished. And when Henry Flagler extended his railroad from Miami to Key West in 1912, a new money-making element was added: tourism.

Even though it's thriving now, Key West has struggled this century. The cigar makers moved to Tampa, a disease harmed the sponge beds, the U.S. Naval station was closed and in 1935 a hurricane ripped apart the railroad.

City stats

- Key West is the county seat of Monroe County.

- Population: 24,832

Claims to fame

- Key West is the southernmost point in the continental United States.

- In 1890 Key West was Florida's largest city.

- Author Ernest Hemingway and playwright Tennessee Williams lived and wrote in Key West.

- Musician Jimmy Buffett (Margaritaville) and actor Kelly McGillis (Top Gun) both have homes in Key West.

Sources: The WPA Guide to Florida, Awesome Almanac _ Florida, The Rough Guide to Florida, Hidden Florida: The Adventurer's Guide, The Florida Keys, Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. Mileage: AAA, St. Petersburg office.

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