South Beach for Grown-ups

by Elaine Sosa

 

Whoosh! Another rollerblader glides along South Beach's Ocean Drive, poetry in motion, tight body glimmering in seafoam-green spandex. A group of leggy models stands under a tall palm tree in front of the News Cafe, Ocean Drive's favorite see-and-be-seen spot. Wait a minute. Those models aren't standing, they're slouching. Just like in Vogue. I guess they're on even when they're off. Across the street, a group of teenagers is running across the sand, colorful kites trailing behind them. A well-dressed couple strolls hand-in-hand along the boardwalk in front of the teenagers. A tiny gold lame backpack rests between the woman's shoulderblades, picking up the sunlight and making her, literally, shine.

Is this really South Beach? Boy, how times have changed. I went to high school in Miami in the mid-70s. Any time that wasn't spent on schoolwork or chores was spent at the beach. Miami Beach was a long stretch of sand with correspondingly hip, hipper and hippest spots. South Beach didn't even rate. It was the southernmost tip of the Beach, an area full of squat, rundown buildings populated by the bingo set. The beach was pretty, but we wouldn't be caught dead in that crowd. That crowd was dead. Why did things change? Call it urban renewal. Most of the buildings on South Beach went up in the 1930s and 40s, in the Art Deco style of the day. This area was the hot spot on the Beach through the 60s, but was largely neglected after that as developers engaged in a bigger-is-better contest along the middle and northern stretches of the Beach. In the late 70s, some local preservationists saw opportunity written all over the humble structures of South Beach. They spruced up the buildings and splashed them with a palette of pastel hues. The area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Investors came in and opened hotels, restaurants and shops. Calvin Klein and the rest of the fashion world arrived on the scene to shoot their ad campaigns. The media christened South Beach the new American Riviera, a glitz and glam spot for anyone with a penchant for fun in the sun.

So where does that leave the rest of us? In really good shape. South Beach has become a great destination for just about everyone. Airfares to Miami are relatively cheap, especially along the East coast. Once you get to the Beach, you don't even need a car. Excellent hotels and restaurants can be found in almost every price range. The new South Beach is a marvelous mix of young and not-so-young, trendy and low-key, sporting and sybaritic. Everyone is happy to be there, and you will be, too. With the following pointers in hand, you can't miss. And by the way, the beach is a dream. The Army Corps of Engineers paid a visit in 1979 and basically rebuilt the beach. The result of their efforts is a beach that feels as wide as it is long. Lots of soft, white sand, too. Alas, your tax dollars put to some very good use.

Where to stay

I'm sure there are tens of thousands of hotel rooms to choose from on South Beach. Hundreds of hotels. I've managed to choose three. And you'll love them all. I don't expect you to stay at all three on your visit, so you'll have to decide which suits you best. Life should always be this easy.

The best bet on the Beach has got to be the Park Central Hotel. Why? For starters, it's right on Ocean Drive, across the street from the beach. Fortunately, the hotel is located at the quieter end of Ocean Drive. On this strip, a few blocks can make a world of difference. Second, the Park Central is not a wild and crazy place. No models or rock stars partying till 3 AM. Third, it's neat and comfortable. Don't take this to mean boring, because it's not. Lastly, the price is terrific, making the Park Central not only the best bet on the Beach, but also the best deal. This baby-blue Art Deco gem was originally opened in 1937 and reopened in 1987. From the moment the front doors are opened for you by the attentive staff, you will not be left wanting. The lobby is huge and caters to your every whim. You'll find lots of cozy seating areas, a juice bar, a cocktail lounge, a vintage pool table, chess set, backgammon...and a grand piano. You don't play the piano? Owner Tony Goldman does, and you'll often find him tinkling the ivories just for fun. The rooms have a beach-y feel to them. It starts with the palm-tree motif on the carpet and continues through the white wicker chairs and soft green fabrics. You'll probably catch a glimpse of the deep blue sea out your window. The chenille bedspread will remind you of the one at grandma's. The staff offers free 15, 20 and 30-minute massages on the rooftop sundeck on weekends and will pamper you the rest of the week as well.

640 Ocean Drive (305) 538-1611. Double rooms $65-135 summer, $125-175 winter.

If you want to stay at one of the Beach's deco palaces, the definitive choice is the Raleigh Hotel. Their restoration is the most authentic and lovingly-rendered of any hotel on South Beach. Granted, pedigree counts for plenty, and the Raleigh was always one of the best properties around. You'll like the location, too, on Collins Avenue and 18th, which is a safe distance from the Ocean Drive scene and beachfront to boot. The Raleigh caters to those who want to do the Beach with a bit more style. The hotel was designed by legendary South Beach architect Murray Dixon in 1939. The piece de resistance, surprisingly, is the pool, with its beautifully scalloped edges. It was once voted the prettiest pool in America by Life magazine. You can be Esther Williams for a day as you take a swim under the stately palm trees. Large, amply-cushioned loungers dot the pool terrace. Then there's the hotel. The property was fully renovated in the early 90s and is in the true spirit of the deco era. Most of the furnishings in the lobby and dining room are period pieces which were purchased at second-hand stores and refurbished. Notice the angel above the front door -- it was the first item purchased by the new owners in the hopes that it would bring the project good luck. Safe to say it worked. The rooms are minimalist yet comfortable. Both the bed and desk have curves which echo those of the pool. If you're feeling a bit awe-struck at this point, go for broke and ask for the "DeNiro Suite". It's apparently his favorite place to stay on the Beach. And don't overlook the Raleigh's restaurant, a seductive spot where chef Marc Lippman creates South Florida fare pleasing to both the eye and the palate.

1775 Collins Avenue (305) 534-6300. Double rooms $139-209 summer, $169-249 winter.

Then there's the Van Dyke Loftel. Simply put, it's the ultimate suite. The top hotels on the Beach will charge you between $350 and $550 for their suites. The Van Dyke will charge you $650. In relative terms, it's a steal. You pay less than twice as much and get about ten times more. Located above the bustling Van Dyke Cafe are two "loftels", a cross between a loft and a hotel. Each loft is a 2,500-square-foot dream. In the lower loft, a large bed at one end of the room is wrapped in soft white sheets and a fluffy down comforter. A shiny black grand piano beckons across the way. The room also has an elegant dining room table which seats six, a fully-equipped desk, TV, VCR, stereo and living area with roomy, overstuffed couches. There's also a fully-stocked kitchen and a sumptuous bathroom with a walk-in cedar closet. In the center of the loft is a gurgling fountain replete with fish. You'll also find pennies in the fountain, along with French francs and Spanish pesetas. The second loft may not have a fountain, but it does have a hammock for two and French doors all around. Throw open the doors and let the soft breeze rock you to sleep. After your nap, you can take a bath in the shiny, fire-engine red tub. You will want to move in, trust me. The Van Dyke just might make you forget about everything else that awaits you outside. But then you didn't come to the Beach to stay indoors. Or did you? I can only see one minor flaw here. No pool. "But we have the ocean," manager Eric Cravello tells me. He has a point. It's only a few blocks away.

846 Lincoln Road (305) 534-3600. Suite is $650 year-round.

 

Where to eat

More choices. Yep, hundreds of restaurants, too. The good news is that quantity means variety, at least on South Beach. If you mix the old with the new, you will eat very well on your visit. Here's how.

The "South" in South Beach has generally meant the foot of Collins Avenue. It's quieter down here -- not a lot of hotels or restaurants, not much activity at all. At First and Collins is Nemo, offering its thoroughly modern interpretation of South Florida cuisine. The dining room is a light and airy space courtesy of the wraparound French doors which are usually wide open, letting in a silky sea breeze. No butter or your bread here -- the waiter will bring you a small dish with a smooth white bean puree flavored with cinammon and cumin and drizzled in olive oil. Dunk your bread in it and pray you have some room left for your meal. Try to maintain and order the wok-charred salmon, a sizzling slice of pink meat nestled on a bed of sprouts, onions, red and green peppers and cilantro and infused with a garlic-soy vinaigrette. The bad news? You must have dessert. Order the "Moon over Miami," a flourless chocolate cake with a dewy dome of whipped cream perched on top. It's perfect.

100 Collins Avenue, (305) 532-4550. Entrees $16-21.

In the mood for something very Mi-amm-eee? Sample the Cuban cuisine at Yuca, which has left Coral Gables and moved to a bigger and better home on South Beach. This is Nouvelle Cuban, not the usual black beans and rice. Chef Guillermo Veloso is taking the traditional elements of Cuban cookery and lightening them up a bit. He is also influenced by the cuisine of the Caribbean isles with a dash of Peru and Colombia for good measure. The result is fresh, intensely flavorful food. The grilled fillet of Chilean salmon over Japonica black rice with a bacalao and tomato garlic marinade will make your tastebuds dance. While seafood is a good choice here, the chef is seeing more demand for meat dishes and is happy to oblige. If you're feeling adventurous, try the braised oxtail in a fiery red wine sauce. Cool your palate with the homemade sorbet, and then work your way up the stairs to the cabaret. Chanteuse Albita Rodriguez serenades the after-dinner crowd on weekends. Madonna was in the audience recently and was heard to say that in her next life she wanted to return as Albita. Was that a compliment? Hope so.

501 Lincoln Road (305) 532-9822. Entrees $16-23.

The quintessential eatery on South Beach has to be Joe's Stone Crab. This place has been here since the early days of the Beach, 1918 to be exact. They haven't had a slow day since day one. The wait, for lunch or dinner, can be excruciatingly long, and they don't take reservations, but trust me: WAIT. It's worth it. What to order? Stone crabs, of course. These crustaceans are found only in the waters off the Florida coast. At Joe's, they boil them and then serve them cold, with drawn butter or a tangy mustard sauce for your dipping pleasure. Have your crabs with a side of creamy cole slaw and an order of crispy hash brown potatoes. Leave room for dessert, because the key lime pie at Joe's is arguably the best in South Florida. The summer of 96 will be the first summer season for which Joe's will be open -- dinner only. No stone crabs either, but there are plenty of other tasty fish on the menu to go with your key lime pie.

227 Biscayne Street (305) 673-0365. Entrees $14-39.

If you're looking for something light, go to the News Cafe. You'll be there, and so will everyone else. Before you take your first bite, there are about a dozen things you can do here. You can buy newspapers and magazines from around the world. Postcards and stamps. T-shirts, sweatshirts and baseball caps, all emblazoned with the "News Cafe" logo. Cigars, too. Try not to lose your focus -- you're here for something to eat. The cafe is open 24 hours a day and offers a classic cafe menu -- salads, burgers, sandwiches, pastas. Busy as the place is, the service is surprisingly solicitous. Two rules at News: get a table outside, and order something with tomatoes. The sweetest tomatoes anywhere are at the News Cafe. As if that wasn't enough, your outdoor table will have a view of the beach directly across the street. Lucky you.

800 Ocean Drive (305) 538-6397. Cafe menu $5-10.

A couple of other worthy spots are Norma's on the Beach for an island lunch in a calypso setting (try the jerk tuna steak with papaya mango salsa) and Pacific Time for Eurasian cuisine in a sexy setting. Wolfie's may be a bit frayed around the edges, but it's still the best place to go for a reuben sandwich at 3 AM. And where to go for that most romantic of cocktails? The upstairs lounge of the Van Dyke Cafe, where a three-piece combo will serenade you in a room that oozes Bogie and Bacall. Had enough to eat yet? Probably. Time to get active.

What to do

What to do? Silly question. You're at the beach, by golly. South Beach. One of the prettiest beaches in America, maybe the world. Let the soft white sand tickle your feet. Put on your straw hat, load up on the sunblock and take it easy. Since this is a big beach, some ground rules are in order. South Beach starts at First Street and meanders up to about 21st Street. From First to 12th, it's "open" -- couples, families with and without kids, everyone. From 12th to 17th, you'll find the gay section. The stretch of beach from 17th to 21st Streets is also open and somewhat upscale as it's nearer to the larger hotels like the Raleigh and the Delano. Scattered along the beach are small stands with a "Penrod's" sign overhead. These are a one-stop shop for chaise lounges ($5 all day), beach umbrellas ($10 all day), soft drinks and tanning supplies. Now that you know the rules, find your own personal nirvana and daydream a little. If you get restless, go for a swim. The soft waves of the Atlantic off the Florida coast are always warm and soothing. Looking for a little more activity? Take a jog along Ocean Drive. Start at the very tip of South Beach and work your way up. The beach is on your right and all the hot spots are on your left. Do a little people-watching and show your fine form. If you want to see more, faster, rent a bike at the Miami Beach Bike Center on 5th Street. Cool mountain bikes are available for a mere $3 an hour, one of the best deals on the Beach. Skip Ocean Drive and take your bike along the side streets -- most of the streets from First to 21st (west of Washington Avenue) are a visual and tropical treat. Zigzag along, soak up the scenery and smell the flowers along the way. Feel like some company? Take a walking tour of the deco district offered by the Miami Design Preservation League. The knowledgeable volunteers do their 90-minute spin on Saturdays at 10:30 AM and Thursdays at 6:30 PM. They'll even tell you a thing or two about the Versace house, like the fact that it was originally designed after a castle that Christopher Columbus built for his son in the Dominican Republic. In the mood to spend some money? The best place to go shopping is along 8th Street. The two-block stretch from Ocean Drive to Washington Avenue has the big names (Armani, Banana Republic, Kenneth Cole) along with some lesser-known but worthwhile choices. Stop in at Helium for one-of-a-kind decorative items and don't miss Paris in Town for colorful, stylish clothing and accessories you can wear at the beach and back home. Need a break from your significant other? Now's the time. Gentlemen: go fishing. The Miami Beach Marina, at the foot of Alton Road, has lots of boats for hire. My tip: Call Capt. Al Oakley, who's been taking fishing parties out for over thirty years. He's got a 45-foot Hatteras, the Sissy Baby, that comes with everything from bait and tackle to your fishing license. You bring the food and drink, and he'll help you spot that big blue marlin. Ladies: go to a spa. You'll thank me for sending you to Agua, located on the top floor of the Hotel Delano. The accent at Agua is on relaxation. No workout room, no aerobics. Just lots of soothing therapies, everything from massage to body masks and hydrotherapy. You can relax between treatments on the rooftop solarium. After you leave Agua (hard to do), waltz down to Stella on Washington Avenue. This is the South Beach outpost of a top New York City salon. Ivana gets her hair done here, and so should you. See if Louis Gignac is available to give you that tres chic cut. Or get your color done -- Stella was trained by none other than Louis Licari. Refreshed and renewed, meet your mate for a little golf or tennis. Flamingo Park has close to twenty tennis courts available to the public. Further up the road is the Bayshore Golf Course, with eighteen holes of fun in the sun. A little culture to wind up your day? The Wolfsonian museum has an excellent collection of design, decorative and propaganda arts dating from 1885 to 1945. Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. managed to collect over 70,000 American and European objects covering a wide range of media -- among them glass, ceramics, metalwork, sculpture and industrial design. You'll find Stalin plates and other commemorative plates of world leaders like Bismarck and Roosevelt side-by-side with beautiful jewels. Luxe and thought-provoking. Once the sun sets, get dressed up and indulge your senses. The New World Symphony, the baby of Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas, is composed of young graduates from prestigious music schools around the world and plays at the beautifully-restored Lincoln Theatre. The Miami City Ballet, a repertory company under the watchful eye of Artistic Director Edward Villella, performs its pas de deux at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts. The Great One's namesake also hosts a "Broadway Series" and is the venue of choice for top-name performers visiting the area.

The best of the Beach

One of the nice things about being a grown-up is that you've learned a thing or two along the way. Like pacing. You no longer have to do everything. Sometimes it's nicer to pick your spots. That's what's great about South Beach. Sure, you can do just about anything here, but do you really want to? Nah. Take a leisurely walk along the beach. Stop at a sidewalk cafe and people-watch. Write a few postcards, but only if you really want to. You're in paradise. Relax. That's all you really have to do.