This Dave Barry column was originally published November, 1994 in Tropic Magazine
As a Miami resident, I was shocked when the readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine -- veteran, sophisticated travelers -- voted Miami the world's least friendly place.
Are they serious, I thought? Do they honestly think that my town is the least friendly travel destination on the entire planet? The same planet that includes New York City?
I was hurt. I've lived in Miami since 1986, and I love it. I love the climate; I love the beaches; I love the water; I love the skyline; I love the nightlife. Above all I love the ever- changing kaleidoscope of people. Miami is no melting pot: Miami is a steaming cultural stew, constantly being spiced by new arrivals from all over the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, and occasionally even the actual United States.
Compared with Miami, the rest of the U.S. seems bland to me -- like one giant Dayton, Ohio. This is not to disparage Dayton, which is a nice city full of nice people. It's just that most of those people are from there, and they're probably going to stay there, all shopping in the same malls, forever. Whereas in Miami, it seems as though everybody you meet is from somewhere else, and will probably wind up somewhere else again, so that the city is always changing, never static, and never ever boring.
So I asked myself: Don't the Conde Nast Traveler readers see this? Don't they feel the throbbing pulse, the passion, the energy, the excitement of my town?
And then I realized that the answer is: No, they don't. They're too busy trying to figure out how to exit from the rental-car lot.
That's the thing about visitors: Their impressions of a travel destination are not based on the Big Picture. Visitors tend to remember the little things, such as: Was the hotel desk clerk polite to them? Were the restrooms clean? Did they, personally, get mugged?
On this score, I have to admit, Miami doesn't do so well. For openers, Miami does not have a visitor-friendly airport. In other major tourist destinations -- I'm thinking particularly of Orlando and Las Vegas -- the airports are spacious, inviting, brightly lit, almost theme-park-like; the message you get, from the moment you get off your plane is: "Welcome! Let's Have FUN!" At Miami International, a cramped and dingy labyrinth, the message is: "Just TRY to Find Our Baggage Claim Area!"
Also, Miami International seems to always be under construction, although you never see anybody actually constructing anything. What you do see are signs featuring a smiling, cartoon-airplane character named "Wally Wing, " who gives you helpful messages like, "Hi! To improve your airport, we're blocking off this corridor and forcing you to drag your luggage an extra 3.7 miles! Have a nice day!"
As a frequent flier, I want to kill Wally Wing.
Speaking of violence, another problem with Miami is that unfortunate things sometimes happen to those tourists who manage to find their way out of the airport. Not too long ago, for example, some Norwegian tourists were hijacked and robbed at gunpoint while riding in a hotel courtesy van. This surely did not create a favorable impression of Miami back in Norway, where most incidents of violence involve trains running into moose.
Likewise, South Florida's international reputation was definitely not improved by an incident last March involving a German tourist who, when checking out of a Miami Springs hotel, complained that there was an unpleasant odor in his room. It turned out that the source of the odor -- you may have read about this -- was a deceased person under the bed.
I want to stress, for the record, that this tourist was NOT charged extra for the additional room occupant. But still, this kind of thing had to create a negative impression back in Germany, where (1) there are no corpses under the hotel beds, and (2) even if there were, they would be changed on a regular basis.
And then there is Miami's language barrier. Out-of-towners are always asking me, "Doesn't ANYBODY in Miami speak English?" I admit that sometimes it seems as if nobody does, but in fact virtually all Miamians know at least a few words of English. The problem is that very often these words are: "No speak English."
So you tend to hear a lot of Spanish spoken in public. This can be intimidating to a person who has not been exposed to Latin cultures, because -- and I do not mean this as a criticism -- Spanish tends to be spoken in a very enthusiastic manner, compared with English. Spanish-speakers will discuss a bus schedule in the kind of intense, emotional vocal tones that people from, say, Nebraska would emit only if undergoing surgery without anesthesia. So a non-Spanish-speaking visitor to Miami can easily get the impression, just from the decibel level of public discourse, that all the residents are absolutely furious. Whereas in fact they're just chatting.
Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that, as much as I love it, Miami does not always present its friendliest face to travelers. Travelers don't want a place with too much energy, too much excitement; travelers want a place that makes them feel safe, a place with a gentle and serene ambience, a place whose name consists almost entirely of vowels.
A place like Kauai.
No Pain, No Gain
Kauai, which is one of the Hawaiian islands, was voted the most friendly destination in the United States by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler (four other Hawaiian islands -- Maui, Hawaii, Lanai and Molokai -- also ranked very high). What, I wondered, was Kauai's secret? Is it really that different from Miami?
I realized that the only way to find out was to go to Kauai personally and hang around for a while, if necessary eating at fine restaurants and staying at expensive resorts. "No pain, no gain" -- that is my journalistic motto.
So I flew to Kauai with my 13-year-old son, Rob, who would undoubtedly have provided many additional insights for this article except that he has become obsessed with his laptop computer and spent most of his time in Kauai writing an extremely complex program that he believes will some day make him as rich as Bill Gates if he can ever figure out what the program does. I'd be on a hotel balcony, admiring some heart- stopping Pacific sunset, and I'd say, "Look at that sunset!" And Rob, tapping away on the laptop, his eyes fixed on the screen, would say, "If people pay you with MasterCard, do you get the money right away?"
I myself had an insight the moment we arrived in Kauai, namely: One reason why visitors like it so much is that they're so happy to get out of the damned airplane. If Kauai wanted to be really friendly, it would locate itself closer to the mainland. As it is now, you have to spend, depending on your airline connections, approximately a month flying there, trying to get comfortable in an airline seat that -- I think this has something to do with the Theory of Relativity -- gets progressively smaller the farther the plane goes, so that by the middle of your second week en route (around hour 163 of the FAA- required In-Flight Movie That Nobody Ever Heard Of) your body has been compressed into a space the size of a gym locker, but somehow not as comfortable.
So when you finish an airline journey like that, the lunar surface is going to seem hospitable. Although I have to admit that when we finally arrived at the airport in Lihue, Kauai (after changing planes in Honolulu), it really did seem genuinely friendly. There was no sign of Wally Wing. Instead, there were smiling people in traditional Hawaiian garb, putting leis around the necks of the people who were traveling in package-tour groups (Official Motto: "Mooooooo"). This is a nice gesture, although in this modern era a person does have to be concerned about the possibility of lei-transmitted diseases. (Not that I wish to start any rumors.)
I have to say that the car-rental procedure in Kauai was also pretty friendly. In Miami, you rent a car via a five-step procedure: (1) You board a courtesy van; (2) If you are not hijacked, you are taken to a rental-car facility at a secret off-airport location that has been scientifically chosen on the basis of how hard it is to get anywhere from there without getting lost; (3) You get lost; (4) You stop to ask directions from helpful local residents ("No speak English"); and (5) Depending on what neighborhood you elected to get lost in, you either eventually reach your destination or wind up under a hotel bed.
Whereas in Kauai, you merely walk out of the terminal, and there, across the road, are the rental-car counters, with the cars right behind them. Also it's hard to get lost driving. Kauai is like that ride in the Tomorrowland sector of Disney World, the one where you sit in a little putt-putt car, and it doesn't matter which way you turn the steering wheel, because all the cars are on the same track, going to the same place. There just aren't that many roads.
There aren't that many people in Kauai either -- around 50,000 full-time residents.
"We almost all know each other, or at least recognize the face, " one Kauaian told me. "So we might as well be friendly."
When you're driving in Kauai, other motorists constantly yield to you. You get the impression that there are Kauaians who just like to drive around yielding, as a hobby. Sometimes they yield AND wave AND smile. This is in stark contrast to the situation in Miami, where drivers would cut off the popemobile.
Hawaiian Crime Wave
I do not mean to suggest, however, that Kauai is some kind of unspoiled Eden, totally free of hostility, crime and violence. Au contraire. I picked up a copy of the main Kauaian newspaper, The Garden Island, and checked out the Police Blotter, which listed these chilling incidents, among others:
* "There was a report of loose brown cows by the coffee fields in Lawai'i."
* "There was a complaint about loose dogs chasing horses in a Kua Road pasture."
And lest you think that these were isolated incidents, let me note that while I was in Kauai, I personally saw a LOT of loose chickens running around in a suspicious manner.
Kauai: Island Gripped By Fear.
The Garden Island's Police Blotter also had reports of humans acting up, my favorite one being this:
"A police officer in his personal car stopped at a traffic accident in Nawiliwili to see if he could be of any help, then someone in a rental car hit the officer's car. The officer said the man told him he shouldn't have been parked there and the officer asked if he couldn't see there had been an accident? The visitor handed him his business card and said, well I'm an attorney. The officer handed him his own card and said, well I'm a policeman and I live here. The attorney said he'd be glad to take care of the damages."
I think it was pretty darned polite of the officer to respond to the attorney's business card by offering his own, rather than simply shooting him.
Note that the rude person in this incident was a visitor. The only act of rudeness that I experienced personally, in the week I spent in Kauai, was also committed by a visitor. This happened at the spectacularly elegant Princeville Hotel, which is where people in heaven hope to go after they die. I had reached the front of a small line of people waiting to be seated for breakfast; the hostess turned to me, about to ask how many were in my party, when a loud woman barged past the line, thrust herself between me and the hostess and announced "I WANT TO MAKE A DINNER RESERVATION."
This woman has a disease called "line blindness." You see it a lot in certain big mainland cities, especially New York, where I've had so many people cut in front of me that I sometimes hold my hand up in front of my face to make sure I haven't turned invisible. But this was the only example I saw in Kauai. The hostess politely excused herself from the barging woman and led me to a table.
"I don't know what is her hurry, " she said, looking genuinely puzzled.
Nobody else seemed to be hurrying on Kauai. There's no need: The island is only about 30 miles across, and even at a relaxed pace you can see most of the major sights in a few days. Actually, you can see them in about an hour if you take one of the many helicopter sightseeing tours, swooping over such spectacular sights as the world-famous Na Pali Coast; the picture-postcard sites where Jurassic Park, South Pacific and other movies were filmed; Waimea Canyon ("The Grand Canyon of the Pacific"); and of course the world-famous Pacific Ocean ("The Pacific Ocean of the Pacific").
We took a helicopter tour, and for the rest of my life I will carry in my mind the breathtaking images of these places, mostly blocked by the breathtaking images of my fingers. This is because I had my hands over my eyes throughout much of the flight. I'm sure the pilot was highly skilled, but he seemed to be very casual about how close we got to large objects such as mountains. He'd be chatting away cheerfully in our earphones, telling us some ancient Hawaiian legend about the Menehune, or "little people, " who used to inhabit Kauai, and we passengers would be rigid with fear, thinking, "The hell with the little people! You see this canyon wall here, right? RIGHT??"
The highlight of the tour comes when the pilot flies the helicopter right into an ancient volcanic crater, the top of which disappears into the mist and clouds above you; inside, you're surrounded by waterfalls that seem to descend from the sky itself, cascading down the impossibly lush, green crater walls, creating a scene that is hauntingly beautiful even if your fingers are squeezed really tight together. This is the crater that the Hawaiians call "Wai'ale'ale" -- a word meaning "crater that is hard to pronounce."
No Menendez Brothers
This brings us to the Hawaiian language. It has the shortest alphabet in the world, consisting of only 12 letters: A, E, I, O, U, plus H, K, L, M, N, P, W. My theory is that this helps explain why the Hawaiians are so friendly: Using their alphabet, you can easily spell nice, basic, positive words such as WOMAN, MAN, and HOME; but you cannot spell, for example, AUDIT, PROSTATE or MENENDEZ BROTHERS. Driving around Kauai, getting yielded to, I listened to quite a bit of Hawaiian music on the radio; I never understood what the performers were singing about, of course, but it always sounded like something nice -- love, for example, or maybe fish.
Speaking of fish, there is one major inefficiency in the Hawaiian language, which is that a lot of words tend to contain repeated syllables. In English, when we invent a word, we tend to use a syllable once, and then get on with our business, as in the word "trombone." Whereas the ancient Hawaiians would have come up with something like "trombonebone, " or even "tromtrombonebone." It's as if their linguistic philosophy was, "Hey, we have a simple, unhurried lifestyle here in paradise, so why should we be in a big rush to finish our sentences? Let's add some syllables!" Thus the name of the official Hawaiian State Fish -- I am not making this up -- is: "Humuhumunukunukuapua'a."
While I was in Kauai, I learned how to pronounce this fish (with the help of The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook, an excellent book that I strongly recommend if you want the kind of practical travel information that you're certainly not getting from this article). My philosophy, as an experienced traveler, is that you never know when you're going to find yourself in an emergency situation wherein you will suddenly need to name the official state fish. Unfortunately, this never happened to me in Kauai, so on the last night, while eating dinner, I casually worked it into a conversation with the waiter, Art Kaneakua-Miner.
"By the way, Art, " I said, casually, after consuming several beers, "the Official Hawaiian State Fish is called 'Humuhumunukunukuapua'a.' "
"All RIGHT!" said Art, giving me a high five. (This is in stark contrast to what would happen in a restaurant in, for example, Paris, where, if you attempt to pronounce a French word, the waiter will react as though you have urinated on his shoe.)
Art told me that, when he's not being a waiter, he's part of a traditional-hula dance group, and that one of the dances the group performs is called (I think I got this right): "Ne'ene'epu'ail'iha'u." This, according to Art, means "Come closer to my bosoms the pretty little flower from the h'au tree." So far I have not memorized this phrase, so if I ever need to use it in an emergency Hawaiian situation, I'll have to refer to my notes.
Speaking of emergency situations, there is one area in which I have to say that Miami is definitely friendlier than Kauai, and that area is: surf. South Florida is located adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, which most of the time produces very polite, wimpy little waves that come puttering in, slap against your shins, disintegrate into little driblets, then skulk back out to sea, defeated. Whereas Kauai is completely surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, which is constantly producing these HUMONGOUS freight-train waves, comparable to the wave that starred in The Poseidon Adventure, the one that was powerful enough to overturn a cruise ship containing both Ernest Borgnine AND Shelley Winters.
The result is that, although Kauai is ringed by fabulous beaches, many of them are dangerous places to swim (Hawaii leads the nation in drownings). The Kauai travel guidebooks are filled with statements like this:
"Wahin'i'i'aa'aa'ele'ele'pu'pu'bonebone Beach is probably the most beautiful beach in the Pacific, but it is best admired from the safety of a rental car at a distance of 300 yards, with the motor running."
If you're not an expert swimmer, you would have to be a complete fool to venture into the big Kauai surf. Or you would have to be traveling with my son. The only thing he wanted to do, aside from working on his mystery computer program, was charge headlong into waves the size of Appalachian mountains, with me, the responsible parent, struggling along behind him, calling out, "ROB! DON'T GO TOO FAAAIEEEEEE" (WHAM).
Fortunately I was always washed back onto the beach, none the worse for wear except for the fact that my heart had temporarily stopped and every orifice in my body was filled with dense wet sand. (Even today, months later, I suspect that there is a colony of tiny Hawaiian crabs living way up in my nasal passages.)
But the fact that I was nearly killed on numerous occasions in no way detracts from the positive impression I formed of Kauai. I have to admit that, overall, it really is an extremely friendly tourist destination, probably the friendliest one I've ever visited where there weren't people walking around wearing giant mouse costumes.
But I want to say this to the readers of Conde Nast Traveler: We Miami residents can be friendly, too. Granted, we don't have the advantage of being a remote one-road island where everybody knows everybody. We're a big city, and people in big cities sometimes forget to treat each other as individuals. But I've found that most Miami residents are genuinely nice, once you get past their brusque urban facade and tendency to resolve traffic disputes with automatic weapons.
So come on, travelers. When you get tired of paradise -- when you want a little more excitement than luaus and loose cows -- give Miami a chance. I bet you'll like us more than you think, and I can almost guarantee that -- thanks to a concerted effort on the part of the tourism industry to improve South Florida's image -- there will be nobody under your hotel bed. Although it wouldn't hurt to check.