It seems like every time I sit down at one of the restaurants or cafes on Ocean Drive a big silly looking boat on wheels drives by with tourists hanging over the rails yelling at pedestrians and ‘quacking’. I always dismissed it as a silly tourist gimmick until a friend told me equally silly named “Duck Tour” was pretty interesting. One afternoon I decided to take the tour for myself, the price tag of $32 seemed a little steep at first, but I paid my fare and hoped for the best from this ‘land and water’ adventure.
The tour departs four times a day, so I decided to catch the final, 5pm tour. As I waited in line I chatted with some of the other riders, they came from all over the world to visit Miami and were excited about the infamous Duck Tour. Once we were on board we received a set of rules, a few lines to yell including ‘quack, quack, quack’ and were instructed to ‘jump over the side’ in the event the boat was to sink. Needless to say, I still had my doubts at this point.
As we turned the corner from Lincoln Ave onto Washington Ave. the guide pointed out several local attractions including Espanola Way, Club Mansion, and B.E.D. He spoke about the history of the area and explained why the buildings were referred to as ‘Art Deco’ — due to the mixed style of architecture including cubism, nauticalism, and futurism. My interest was peaking.
As we crossed the McArthur Causeway over the bay, he pointed out celebrity homes on Star Island and Palm Island and entertained us with trivia questions and corny jokes. We were encouraged to yell out and interact with the guide and our fellow riders. I admit I was starting to have fun.
As we pulled up to the dock our ‘vehicle’ instantly became a boat as we “splashed down” into the bay. This is when the real lesson began. The tour guide was very educated on the history of the bay and the beach. Despite living in Miami for several years he shared facts with us that even I was unaware of. I did not know that the massive Biscayne Bay, which averages 8-12 feet deep in most areas, was once a three-inch deep swamp that spanned from Downtown Miami to what is now Washington Ave. The City of Miami Beach and South Beach, was once called ‘Ocean Beach’ and the area only included Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and Washington Ave. All of the streets after Washington Ave, including Alton Rd. and Bay Rd where several South Beach luxury condo buildings now sit, were made by sand dredging the swamp to make more land.
As he quoted the history of all of the islands and bridges of Biscayne Bay he also pointed out celebrity homes of famous gangster Al Capone, Leicester Hemingway (brother of Ernest Hemingway), Latin singer Paulina Rubio, and Rosie O’Donnell. When we passed the homes everyone outside stopped to wave, the riders (the real tourists) were very excited and all seemed to be having a great time. He even helped my job a little by pointing out real estate that is currently for sale.
When the tour returned to land we cruised to Ocean Drive where I, like the people I always shake my head at, quacked at the people seated at restaurants and cafés, sang loudly, and screamed at couples walking by asking them to kiss. Some cooperated, some didn’t, but ALL laughed and waved as we passed by.
When the hurricane of 1926 wiped out everything on South Beach but coral houses, J.N. Lumus sold all of the land on the ocean from 5th St to 15th Street to the City of Miami for $40,000 under the condition that it never be developed and forever be a park. I always wondered why the ocean front real estate started at 1st street in the SoFi neighborhood, ended at 5th and picked back up on 15th. We should all be forever grateful to Mr. Lumus because without this condition South Beach would not be what it is today.
By the end of the 90-minute tour I had learned so much about the city I live in, met some cool people, and had a great time. I would absolutely take the tour again, there is never a dull moment and I highly recommend it to tourists and locals alike. To make the deal even sweeter, the Duck Tour ticket serves at a coupon to several local restaurants and attractions so I definitely got a bang for my buck.