Piano, Pageants & Politics

Hop a flight to Miami Beach. Or to Hollywood.

Here's a first: January has been off to a great start.

Most Januarys, I find myself bummed out about the weather, slow at work and struggling to climb out of a health and fitness rut. Not this year. It's not what happened. It's what's happening. I have SO MANY exciting new ventures, new music and new shows in the fire and I can't wait to share everything I'm working on. Preceding two productive weeks in the studio, I dodged the bomb cyclone and escaped to sunny and warmer Miami. Although I didn't return to Boston with the tan I wanted, I did have the opportunity to explore all SoFlo had to offer. And believe it or not, it's not just old folks and hurricanes.

Day 1

After landing and accidentally almost stealing a BMW (long story), Jaxson's Icecream was the perfect post-flight snack. In addition to being an OG icecream parlor, Jaxson's boasts one of the largest collections of rural American memorabilia in the country.

While the Kitchen Sink was too ambitious of an endeavor, the banana split proved to be no small feat either.

Opting to stay at a beachside Airbnb equipped with a kitchen, I hit up the closest Publix to 1) pick up some groceries and 2) see what the big fuss is about. Sorry Floridians, it's no Wegmans.

After settling in, I explored the boardwalk where I LOVED passing so many restaurants and bars with live musicians. I enjoyed some Cuban coffee and live salsa music at the Hollywood Beach Theatre, but regrettably, was way too shy to dance. Next time.

Day 2

Day 2 kicked off at Dandee Donut Factory in Hollywood. While the variety of interesting flavors was tempting (key lime coconut, cherry cake, mango, dutch-raisin), I went with my favorite: vanilla cream filled. 10/10

After breakfast, I spent the morning exploring the beautiful Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach. Construction of the Monastery began in 1133 in northern Spain and Cistercian monks inhabited the cloisters for 700 years. In the 1830's, the cloisters were seized in a social revolution, sold and converted into a granary and stable.

The cloisters and outbuildings were purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1925, disassembled stone by stone, packed in 11,000 wooden crates and shipped to the United States where they sat in a Brooklyn warehouse for 26 years.

In 1952, the crates were bought by two entrepreneurs and the Monastery was reassembled after 19 months and $20 million dollars (in today's currency). Time Magazine called it “the biggest jigsaw puzzle in history.”

After experiencing a little piece of history (and the backdrop of a quinceañera photoshoot) for only $5 (yay! student discounts), I headed into the Everglades for an airboat tour. This is where things got real wild: I lost cell phone service.

Because it was only in the mid 60's, most of the alligators stayed underwater (and most of the Floridians stayed in winter parkas), where it was much warmer. Alligators can reduce their heartbeat down to 1 bpm in order to stay underwater for up to 3 hours at a time. Still, we spotted one gator basking in the sun, as well as turkey vultures, egrets and snakes.

On my way back to the AirBnb, I picked up some fresh calamari, shrimp and clams at a local fish market and realized my Spanish seafood vocabulary could use a refresher course. For dinner, I whipped up a spicy seafood pasta before heading out to downtown Hollywood, where I enjoyed coffee and dessert at the charming little Tasta Gelato & Cafeteria.

Tasta receives all of its gelato directly from Italy and is committed to serving up organic ingredients, vegan options and intense flavors. My coffee also featured the best almond milk I've ever tasted in my life, which I watched the barista make from a paste. Almond milk made from this jarred paste is a traditional and authentic drink served at Sicilian Cafès during Sicily's very hot and arid season.

Day 3

Day 3 started with coffee and breakfast at Bake Shack in Dania Beach, which whips up 600-900 doughnuts daily. The owner arrives at 11pm each night to crank out the next day's worth of doughnuts and bread, including the amazing challah all breakfast sandwiches are served on.

After spending the day trying to soak up as much sun as possible and experiencing Miami traffic (6th worst in the country), I wondered through Miami's Wyndwood neighborhood, a district known for colorful wall murals, art galleries and artisan cafés aka the hipster neighborhood.

Wyndood homes many free, funky galleries for guests to visit. I stumbled across Peter Tunney's "Excerpts From the Taj Mahal" which housed ornate remnants from the elaborate, but failed, Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Ironically, I had witnessed the Taj's last few weeks of life while competing at Miss America.

Dinner was at uber-hip "1-800 LUCKY", a late-night marketplace featuring seven Asian eateries and Miami's very first foodhall. I snacked on all my favs: poke bowls, dumplings and taiyaki--those matcha fish-shaped icecream cones I'm currently obsessed with (and determined to someday make myself).

Whenever I visit a new city, I try to hit up the local piano bar. The night continued at The Cabaret South Beach, located within the Shelborne Hotel in downtown Miami Beach. I loved the lounge-y feel of the place and the entertainers, doubling as your bartenders, served up soulful ballads (and cocktails) with plenty of jazz and pizazz.

Day 4

On my last day, I wondered through Yellow Green Farmer's Market, South Florida's biggest farmer's market with over 300 vendors. The variety of fresh juices, authentic international cuisine, artisan coffees and vegetarian offerings was truly a dream come true.

However, I arrived with my eyes on the prize: Donut Worry Eat Happy. Each of these fried masterpieces was topped with a syringe to infuse cream or nutella into the center of your donut, and like the name suggests, I was indeed happy and worry-free as a result.

With a few hours (and many calories) to burn, I went kayaking at West Lake Park, navigating the narrow canals and hanging on to those last few moments of sunshine.

With proper planning, taking a few days off to recenter and refocus in a new city doesn't have to be expensive. If you're balling on a budget, your best traveling companions are 1) AirBnb 2) Student discounts and 3) Groupon.

Airbnb, a much cheaper (and cooler) alternative to hotels, offers a homey vibe. Plus, I love that I'm able able to prepare some meals at home, a much healthier and affordable option than eating out every meal. Still not convinced? Here's $40 off your first trip.

If you're a student, or luck enough that your school didn't print an expiration date on your ID, a ton of museums, theaters, sites, shops and eateries will offer a student discount, especially if you're traveling near a university town. Do your research. Groupon can also be a great resource for suggestions and deals on local restaurants and things to do. Often, you can save 40-50% on admission prices, sometimes on activities you were planning to do anyways.

After several hours of flight delays, I was propelled back into the real world---excited to get back into the studio and take on 2018. Rather than coming up with New Year resolutions, I'm creating a New Year bucket list of professional and personal landmarks I'd like to achieve this year. So many things are already shaping up for 2018 to be a breakthrough year and I am just So. Excited.

Bring it on, 2018.

#miami #florida #vacation