The Miami River isn't the prettiest body of water in the city. It's not the clearest or the cleanest, and it's certainly not made for swimming. But along its banks are remnants of Miami as it once was.
Upstaged by the city's sizzling beaches and ocean views, the river often is overlooked. But visitors wishing for an unvarnished yet still charming view of Miami may consider touring the 5½-mile-long waterway with HistoryMiami, the city's cultural and historical center.
"In Miami, you have these celebrity tours that just talk about who lives where: It's strictly a rich-and-famous thing," said historian Paul George, who leads the boat tours. "My tours are heavily historical and architectural."
But that doesn't make them boring. George, a native Miamian who grew up playing around many of the riverside landmarks, displays obvious excitement for his city. Ask him about any of the sights and his voice turns sing-song as the tan and sinewy guide shares his encyclopedic knowledge.
The tour, offered several times a year, begin near the Miami Circle. The Tequesta Indians carved the inverted dome into the bedrock some 2,000 to 2,400 years ago, perhaps as part of the foundation for an important structure at the river's mouth. Discovered in 1998, the circle is one of the last vestiges of the Tequestas, who disappeared in the 1700s.
A few blocks west there is the Royal Palm Cottage, which once housed men working for Henry Flagler, the New York developer who brought in the railroad system and helped build a city from swampland. Built in 1897, the banana yellow cottage is the last of the tycoon's structures still standing in the city.
Up the route, the riverside changes from luxury hotels to weather-beaten fishing boats. This is a working river which produces some $4 billion in trade each year and sustains some 7,000 jobs. Cargo ships use the river to depart for 110 different ports, mostly in the Caribbean.
Amid the industrial bustle, George points to the "hidden gem" of Sewell Park, a 10-acre greenspace on the river's southern bank. Clusters of towering, 100-year-old palm trees provide pockets of shade from the Florida sun. A breeze wafts softly through the park, a touch of salty coolness from the nearby Atlantic.
The tour floats past the riverside eatery Garcia's Seafood Grille and Fish Market, where the food comes in fresh from the family's fleet of lobster, stone crab and fishing vessels.
From the second-floor balcony, diners can watch boats cruise along the urban river.
Decades ago, owners Esteban and Luis Garcia said their father ran a gas station from the property, pumping gas at 33-cents a gallon to cars on the roadside and boats along the back.
The mood along the river is much more mellow than on the ocean, said Luis Garcia. "We're not in South Beach, not a big operation," he said. "It's kind of the opposite. ... We're very family oriented, not very stuffy."
George, the guide, agreed, noting that local Miamians often join the dozens of tourists on the tour.
"They have heard about the river, but they never get to see it in action because it's encased" by development, he said.
"Miami's not just a famous, glitzy, kind of shallow, tourist city," he said. The tour "gives you an appreciation of all the variety of people and experiences and places in greater Miami."
Source: The Associated Press.