Miami at top of its game

LeBron James - #6 of the Miami Heat - shoots against Paul Pierce - #34 of the Boston Celtics - in...

LeBron James - #6 of the Miami Heat - shoots against Paul Pierce - #34 of the Boston Celtics - in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 30, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images/AFP

KATHY RUMLESKI, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:44 AM ET

The golf pro who will be helping me improve my swing talks about the appeal of Miami as he takes us for a spin, showing off the highlights of his Biltmore Golf Course, where Bill Clinton pops in and Sylvester Stallone learned to make his own swing work.

Armando Echeverria gamely tells me: "The nice thing about Miami is you're so close to the United States."

Indeed. The cosmopolitan city, where 68% of its residents list a language other than English as their first, is pulsing with international flair. And if you're not feeling it from the locals, you're getting the vibe from tourists.

Canada has been replaced as the country sending the most tourists to Miami. That distinction now belongs to Brazil. Still, Miami's tourism industry welcomes Canucks, and thus, two Canadian journalists were invited to see the sights, especially the sporting scene, on a recent visit, sponsored by the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Participation sports are plenty, but if you prefer to be an armchair quarterback, there are also lots of choices. The Big 4 sports are huge in Miami.

It's tough to get tickets to see the Miami Heat, where superstars LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade are known as the Three Kings. American Airlines Arena is where the action heats up (pun intended) with diverse activities, such as video games of the NBA team and marching bands, to entertain as game time approaches. The heat are currently battling it out with the Boston Celtics for the Eastern Conference finals.

The NFL's Miami Dolphins have a loyal following. The Fins are still the only franchise in the league to complete a perfect season. Their Sun Life Stadium was the host site for the 2010 Super Bowl and opened its doors last month to Wrestle Mania 28, setting a record attendance of more than 78,000, who watched Dwayne, The Rock, Johnson, defeat another wrestling superstar, John Cena.

During our visit in April, the NHL's Florida Panthers were on the cusp of starting their playoff series against the New Jersey Devils. It was the first time in 12 years the Panthers d made the postseason.

The team struggling in this intense sports milieu is the Marlins, the baseball club that won the 2003 World Series couldn't fill the house on its first Saturday night game of the season, when it continued to unveil its brand new stadium on the site of the former Orange Bowl. The posh $515-million stadium, with a land and sea theme, includes aquariums and a swimming pool on site, from which you can watch the game. Interesting, but are the women in bikinis hired to be there, as many speculated?

Even if some fans stayed home from the ball park, Miami has really been recession-proof. It is celebrating a 7% increase in overnight stays, which topped 13 million last year. Certainly its sports activities help to bolster those numbers.

If you can't find a sport you love in Miami, you're not trying. The weather is conducive to playing and watching. Pro golf and tennis tournaments, horse racing, cycling, sailing, motorsports, judo world cup, even beach polo and beach soccer are on the menu. The Miami Pocket Guide lists 10 pages of sports activities and sites.

Homestead-Miami Raceway pulls in 450,000 out-of-town visitors a year. Homestead is about 50 km south of downtown and its season includes NASCAR and Grand Am racing. In April, it hosted the Miami Grand Prix and is now gearing up for NASCAR's championship weekend, in which the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series will all crown champions in November. We got to go for a spin in a 2012 Ford Mustang. Taking turns with 20-degree banking at 200 km/h is certainly a thrill.

A worthwhile stop on the way to the speedway is Zoo Miami, home to 2,000 species, 40 of which are endangered, including the black rhino.

While it wasn't nearly as fast as rocketing around Homestead, a bike was a perfect way to exercise and take in the experience of Key Biscayne, the southern most shoreline of the U.S., which was once home to pirates, wreckers and the Tequesta Indians.

Dragonfly Expeditions offers a guided bike trip which goes through Bear Cut Preserve, Crandon Park and past historical structures, including the 1855 Cape Florida Lighthouse. Tour leader Jim Martin, an Ohio native who spent a decade in Toronto, tells us we're getting 5,000 years of history in two hours. It's worth listening in.

Add, to your recreation or professional sports experience, great weather, ocean vistas and rich culture and it's not hard to see why Miami is setting tourist records.

GREAT SLEEPS

Viceroy Miami -- This luxe property is in a 10-acre enclave with the Miami River running alongside and adjacent to two public parks. The TV screen will greet you when you arrive. Be sure to check out Club 50 on the 50th floor with its stellar skyline views and private pool deck, where parties last all night long.

Biltmore Miami -- Set in 150 tropical acres, the Biltmore, a 1920s classic hotel in trendy Coral Gables, has been host to Al Capone and Judy Garland and one of its swimming instructors was Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan). The hotel offers tennis, golf, fitness classes, sports camps and the largest pool in the United States. Celebrities still come and go. There was an Ivana Trump sighting when we were there as she was unveiling her own champagne brand. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush rents an office in the Biltmore and brother George drops by for visits. The golf course, designed by Donald Ross, is famed for its junior tournament that has produced winners such as Tiger Woods and Mark Calcavecchia.

JW Marriott Marquis -- Close to American Airlines Arena if you're going to see the Heat, the Marquis also offers the choice to play your own basketball on its 930-square-metre NBA approved basketball court. The Heat sometimes practice there. The multi-use portable floor system can serve up the same tennis court surface used at the Sony Ericsson Open on Key Biscayne. A virtual bowling alley, billiard room and 418-square metre fitness centre are also available for guests. It's also home to the Jim McLean Golf School, with virtual golf simulators that take you to top holes around the world. Unique guest room features include tap water that changes colours.


Videos

Photos