Prefer a Hot Spot? Try Miami

Miami, our nation’s youngest big city—founded in 1896—may also be the most vibrant.

By: Ann Cochran

Sun worshippers and art lovers come from all over the world to Miami, which is home to trendy restaurants and Cuban eateries, high-end shopping and street fairs, first-class hotels and bargain motels. The architecture ranges from South Beach Art Deco to North Beach modern.

Nightlife sizzles—could that be because Miami is home to a larger percentage of foreign-born than any other city on earth? Cubans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans, and Venezuelans influence the food, art, and culture. Art Basel Miami Beach, which began in 2002, is an international art show that draws an equally international crowd. This year it’s December 2 through 5.

The tropical climate makes Miami a year-round destination, but be aware of hurricane season, June through November. In July and August, this city on the edge of the Everglades gets very hot—and it rains briefly almost every afternoon. The best time to go, in terms of weather, is November through March, but there will be crowds and higher hotel rates. April and May offer lower rates and mild weather.

See and Be Seen
South Beach is a great place to sunbathe—and to see and be seen. Third Street Beach is known for topless sunbathing and colorful Art Deco lifeguard stations. Or try family-friendly Crandon Park Beach on Key Biscayne, which has a water playground.

For something different, join a Beach Yoga class (Third St. and Ocean Dr., 305-202-0130; yogasouthbeach.org). Every day at 7 am and 5 pm, certified teachers hold mixed-level 75-minute classes for $5.

A boat ride on Island Queen Cruises (islandqueencruises.com) gives another perspective on Miami. Glide along on a yacht while historians talk about Miami’s pioneers and point out homes of the rich and famous. One tour goes to an area called Stiltsville, where houses were built on stilts in the middle of the bay in the 1930s, before building codes were enacted.

There’s a lot of up-and-coming as well as established talent in the Wynwood Art District. Among the 70 or so galleries, two collections are worth a visit. The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse (591 NW 27th St.; 305-576-1051; margulieswarehouse.com) features installation art, video, and photography. The Rubell Family Collection (95 NW 29th St.; 305-573-6090; rfc.museum) displays contemporary works by such artists as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

Another artful diversion: Vizcaya Museum & Gardens (3251 S. Miami Ave.; 305-250-9133; vizcayamuseum.com), an ornate 1916 Italian villa on Biscayne Bay with European antiques in 34 rooms and ten acres of formal gardens.

If you want a contemplative outing, drive to the Cloisters of the Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach (16711 W. Dixie Hwy.; 305-945-1461; spanishm­onastery.com) to see its chapels, stained glass, and marble reliefs. Built in Spain from 1133 to 1144, it fell on hard times till William Randolph Hearst saved it in 1925. Structures were dismantled stone by stone, packed in hay in 11,000 crates, and shipped to the United States around the time hoof-and-mouth disease broke out in Spain. The Department of Agriculture opened the crates and burned the hay, but it didn’t put the stones back in the same numbered boxes, which were stored in a warehouse for 26 years. In 1952, they were bought by two private citizens who spent 19 months and $1.5 million rebuilding the monastery.

Madonna Slept Here
The Betsy (1440 Ocean Dr.; 305-531-6100; thebetsyhotel.com) is a landmark with 61 rooms and suites, a courtyard pool, and a rooftop solarium with views of the Atlantic. It’s elegant yet relaxed, with a Wellness Garden offering herbal teas and yoga, and a BLT Steak restaurant. Rates from $240.
It can be noisy in South Beach, but noise isn’t a problem downtown at the Four Seasons Hotel (1435 Brickell Ave.; 305-358-3535 or 800-332-3442; fourseasons.com/miami). It’s a bit disappointing to pull up to what looks like an office building, but if you enjoy flawless service and museum-quality art—including 12-foot-high Bo­tero bronze sculptures—you’ll love it here. A two-acre terrace on the seventh floor has three pools, including a wading pool with 24 palm tree islands. A 50,000-square-foot spa and Sports Club/LA has state-of-the-art equipment and classes. The outdoor bar Bahía attracts a Friday-night happy-hour crowd that, in the summer, appreciates the DJ’s Brazilian-jazz playlist. Rates start at $325 a night.
If money’s no object, check out the Villa by Barton G. (1116 Ocean Dr.; 305-576-8003; casacasuarina.com). This Mediterranean-style mansion was Gianni Versace’s home. If you don’t mind tourists by the entrance—most of them taking photos of the site of the fashion designer’s 1997 murder—the Villa is one of the most unusual places to stay in Florida. It has ten luxe suites, a mosaic pool, and a romantic restaurant. Rates start at $2,100 a night, with a three-night minimum on weekends.

Fun Restaurants
Sampling Cuban food is easy and inexpensive at Versailles in nearby Coral Gables (3555 SW Eighth St.; 305-444-0240). Bill Clinton ate here, but more important, so does a regular Cuban crowd. Tourists, too. It’s fun and nothing fancy, but you’ll get authentic Cuban food at bargain prices.

Also in Coral Gables, you can lunch at the Biltmore Hotel’s Cascade Grill (1200 Anastasia Ave.; 305-445-1926; biltmorehotel.com) overlooking its pool. The menu offers contemporary French-Caribbean and spa cuisine. On a free Sunday-afternoon tour of the grounds (1:30, 2:30, or 3:30), learn about guests Ginger Rogers, the duke and duchess of Windsor, and Al Capone.

Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (130 NE 40th St.; 305-573-5550; michaelsgenuine.com) enchanted the hard-to-please former restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who gushed about it in the New York Times. The menu is “New American bistro” and emphasizes local sourcing. Much is made in-house, including potato chips and sodas. The highlight may be the pastry chef’s take on Pop-Tarts.

If you visit during stone-crab season, mid-October through mid-May, head to the mecca: Joe’s Stone Crab in South Beach (11 Washington Ave.; 305-673-0365; joesstonecrab.com). Now in its 97th season, Joe’s claims to be where stone crabs were discovered to be edible. It doesn’t accept reservations unless your party is 20 or more, so expect to wait—two hours isn’t unusual. If you can’t wait, go next door to Joe’s Takeaway.  

At the Dining Room at the Villa (1116 Ocean Dr.; 305-576-8003; casacasuarina.com), nibble and imbibe like Madonna, Elton John, or Princess Diana did when Gianni Versace hosted them at his opulent former home.

Good Excuses to Shop
The Sunday farmers market is an institution. Vendors set up year-round from 9 to 6:30 on Lincoln Road between Washington and Meridian avenues. The market features fruits and vegetables; bread, honey, and jams; and flowers.

Lincoln Road is a popular walking destination, with eight blocks of shopping, dining, and people-watching. As you stroll along this outdoor pedestrian mall, there will be street performers, bikers, and skaters around you. Worth visiting are the music listening bar at the clothing store Base; the Jonathan Adler home-design shop; the Cuban coffee counter at David’s Café; Books & Books, with international magazines and a cool cafe; and the interesting art galleries.

Eighteen blocks of furniture, home accessories, and art make up the Miami Design District (miamidesigndistrict.net). Although some blocks look sketchy at night, stores and galleries are busy by day. On the second Saturday of each month from 7 to 10 pm, galleries fill with music, cocktails, and hors d’oeuvres for Art & Design Night. The city’s best shop may be Tomas Maier (170 NE 40th St.; 305-576-8383; tomasm­aier.com), a boutique stocked with luxe home goods, art books, and clothing and swimwear from Italy and France.

According to Women’s Wear Daily, no other venue in the country does more business per square foot than Bal Harbour Shops (9700 Collins Ave.; 305-866-0311; balharbourshops.com). The outdoor mall, full of lush vegetation and fountains, is anchored by Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. In between are Dior, Emilio Pucci, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, and Custo Barcelona. For shoe lovers, there’s Jimmy Choo, Addict, and Tod’s. Jewelers include Bulgari and Cartier.

Lively Night Spots
To hear Cuban music in authentic surroundings, head for Hoy Como Ayer in Little Havana (2212 SW Eighth St.; 305-541-2631; hoycomoayer.us), a cozy wood-paneled space decorated with old Cuban ads and portraits of such entertainment icons as Celia Cruz and Benny Moré. On its small stage you might see a bolero performance or hear Latin fusion; occasionally a comedian is on the schedule. The busy bar serves Cuban tapas and cocktails.

A bit rough around the edges for some, Bardot (3456 N. Miami Ave.; 305-576-5570; bardotmiami.com) has an unmarked entrance below a red awning. Entertainment includes live music, performance art, and burlesque along with screenings of cultural events such as political debates. Settle into a vintage sofa, gather around the piano, dance, or play chess, backgammon, or pool. Anything goes.

A house band performs jazz-influenced Haitian folk on weekend nights at Tap Tap (819 Fifth St.; 305-672-2898; taptaprestaurant.com), a Haitian restaurant that serves good island fare including pumpkin soup and grilled goat. The name comes from the brightly painted jitneys common in Haiti; neon colors and beautiful murals give the place character.

For More Information
CityStyle (miami.citystyle.com) is an e-mail newsletter featuring what’s new and hot in Miami fine dining, nightlife, and men’s style. You might find an announcement of a new bacon cookbook alongside cigar and cuff-link features.

Miami: See It Like a Native (miaminative.wordpress.com), a helpful blog from the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, provides up-to-the-minute information on what’s happening. If there’s a movie screening, an opera with seats available, or a hotel special, it’ll be posted here.