It was awful, one of the most disgraceful examples of urban blight imaginable. Block after block of gorgeous buildings gone to seed, paint peeling, plaster crumbling, porches sagging, weeds, filth and decay. And there on the porches impoverished retirees clinging to the last vestiges of life, sick, dying, tubes sticking out of them, slumped in their wheelchairs.
It was a warehouse for the sick and infirm and a playground for junkies and gangsters. South American cocaine ran like blood through its parks and alleys. To think it could ever come back to life was a stretch. But then a miracle happened.
Crockett and Tubbs
A miracle in the form of a television show. In 1984 Miami Vice aired for the first time. The show was groundbreaking in many ways. It was one of the first to use rock music in the soundtrack. It was one of the first to broadcast in stereo. It was one of the first to incorporate the quick cut editing of music videos. And it was one of the first to be shot entirely on location in a city other than Los Angeles.
Miami Vice was shot in Miami Beach, and more specifically in that impoverished area near the south end, near Lummus Park, where Ocean Drive met 2nd Street, a place that would become internationally famous in time.
But when Miami Vice shot there it was a cesspool of decadence and crime, so hopeless you could buy property there for a song – and what properties they were! Curvaceous, streamlined art deco masterpieces from the Art Moderne movement of the 1930’s, colorful confections of stacked concrete and glass touched up with whimsical ornaments and filigrees, and glowing neon lights now dusty and dying, flickering out, until alert investors saw that show and saw an opportunity.
No Place Else Like It
In the mid-1980’s they started moving in, fashion industry professionals, gays and lesbians, real estate developers and venture capitalists. The neon flickered back on.
All through the 90’s the buildings were repainted, rehabbed, refurbished, the streets were repaired, the sidewalks widened, the storefronts resuscitated.
Sleepy retirement hotels awoke to new lives as swank bars and thumping night clubs. The mile long stretch of white sand beach before Lummus Park, once the haunt of prowling drug dealers and prostate junkies, sprouted colorful umbrellas and posh cabanas and became the go-to-place for the international jet set, and the place got a new name: South Beach. And Miami Beach became the sexiest city in America.
To go there is to enter another world, for no place else in America is quite like South Beach. In some ways its more like Europe with its mélange of languages, its topless beaches, its class driven pretensions, its gratuities included. At the same time it’s unmistakably American with its relentless optimism and restless becoming.
Doing it right means going to the heart of it, rubbing elbows with the beautiful people. Consequently, no visit is complete without a visit to the stylish bars in the art deco hotels that line Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive.
The Ultimate Oasis
One of the swankiest is the newly remodeled Setai, an Asian-themed 120-room hotel featuring a tranquil courtyard surrounding a 200 foot serenity pond, a zen-like refuge from the bouncy exuberance of South Beach.
In 2013 The Setai was named the Best Hotel in Miami by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. But don’t make that reservation just yet. Like most hotels on South Beach it’s not cheap. A room here will set you back $575 a night. Yes, we’ve come a long way from the early 1980’s when $575 would practically have bought you the whole building!
Just down the street from The Setai is the The Delano. Long a favorite of visitors to South Beach, The Delano calls itself the “the ultimate oasis of sensuality and soul”, a bit of hyperbole that can be forgiven when you walk through the soaring glass doors onto the back veranda and take in the long stretch of cerulean blue pool. Opulent bungalows with billowy white curtains and moss-green marble line either side and at the end a comfortable poolside bar serves drinks to members of the public (and other mere mortals) after 5pm.
When Thomas Kramer, a German real estate developer bought the southern tip of South Beach in the early 1990’s for $45 million some doubted his ability to attract sufficient investors to the area. In retrospect such misgivings seem laughable but then it’s easy to pick out the winning horse after the race is run. Kramer and others like him were able to look into the future and see the unique appeal of South Beach and predict that high end hoteliers like the Morgan Group, owners of The Delano, and Sam Nazarian, owner of the SLS would flock to the area.
The SLS is one of the newest 5-star luxury hotels on South Beach. Advertised as “a creative cocktail of sophistication and playfulness”, the Phillipe Starck designed interior is indeed a whimsical melange of Latin and Asian motifs that sacrifices nothing when it comes to style. To bask in its elegance, if only for awhile, is sublime.
And you can bask in its elegance. Though it’s true that lodging at one of these hotels will blow the vacation budgets of most people in short order, their bars and restaurants are open to all comers. You might want to skip the flip-flops and cargo shorts when you patronize one of these places but if you make a modicum of effort to bump up your style, you’ll soon find yourself breathing the rarefied air of the rich and the influential.
And where money and style hold sway, sex is not far behind. Since the early 90’s when the fashion industry discovered South Beach, the area has been a magnet for models and photographers. A walk down Ocean Drive will turn many a head as those impossibly slender and beautiful young creatures from the pages of Vogue or Elle go strolling past. Just where are they going, you might ask. Well, a good bet is Nikki Beach Club.
Ground Zero for the Beautiful People
Nikki Beach Club, located at the south end of Ocean Drive, is an indoor-outdoor nightclub set in the sugary white sand beneath the swaying palms of South Beach. Models, jet setters and celebrities lounge on day beds and relax in cabanas drinking champagne and cocktails, listening to DJ’s and live music, and noshing on award winning gourmet cuisine.
If you want in but don’t want to wait behind a velvet rope, check out the Sunday brunch. Everyone is welcome – as long as they’re willing to pony up the $50 price tag before drinks – but the spread is lavish, including sushi, paella, and stir fry, along with the usual fare of waffles, omelletes and crepes. While you’re dining, you can feast your eyes on the eye candy, which is everywhere at this ground zero for the beautiful people.
But premium people watching of the very best kind can be had entirely gratis just a few blocks away. Walk along the surf on South Beach and you’ll see another reason why Miami Beach is the sexiest city in America.
The beach is lined by lithesome beauties and buff fellows from all over Asia, Europe and South America. After New York and Los Angeles, Miami is one of the premier North American destinations for international travelers, and when international travelers come to Miami, they come to Miami Beach.
Pool vs Bar and Bar Wins
At night the art deco hotels that line Ocean Drive spring to life with al fresco dining, poolside bars and frenetic night clubs. The party scene on South Beach rivals any to be found anywhere in the world, yet the bath of colorful neon that spills out from the hotels is uniquely Miami and one of the signature appeals of the place.
For a taste of genuine South Beach nightlife, one would be hard pressed to do better than The Clevelander. This quaint art deco hotel at 10th Street and Ocean Drive has been all but eclipsed by its massive poolside bar which has expanded over the years, gobbling up the hotel’s footprint, until even the pool itself has become an afterthought. Nevertheless, the party rages nightly at The Clevelander with drinks and dancing until the wee hours and everywhere beautiful, sexy people.
It’s hard to believe that this was once a slum, this haven of 5-star luxury hotels, international jetsetters, and comely models, this resort of celebrities and the spectacularly wealthy. It’s hard to imagine that, not so long ago, these lovely properties with their stylish architecture, which is so uniquely Miami, were abandoned and desecrated, left for dead, and could be had for a song. It’s hard to believe that anyone ever doubted it could be revived, and that it took a television show and a few courageous investors to realize its potential and plant the seeds that allowed Miami Beach to become the sexiest city in America.
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My American Odyssey Destination Map
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All images and video by Malcolm Logan