This just may be America’s sexiest city — a symphony of sand, surf and sherbet-colored sunrises set to a sassy salsa beat. It is palm trees and pulsating nightlife; torpid days and tropical nights; shimmering pools and shimmying revelers.
Can you imagine a less glamorous city spawning Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett and his linen suits or C.S.I. Miami’s Horatio Caine and his signature sunglasses?
The epicenter of all this glamor is South Beach — a slice of sand along Ocean Drive, and an accompanying collection of Art Deco buildings (housing mostly hotels and restaurants) along parallel Collins Avenue — that attracts the rich and famous from around the world.
From Muhammad Ali to Madonna, Joe Namath to Jennifer Lopez, Gianni Versace to Gloria Estefan, they’ve all become part of the fabric of the South Beach scene.
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If you want to weave your own threads into that fabric, there’s no better place to start than at the Delano Hotel. The 1947 Art Deco building on Collins Avenue became Miami’s first boutique hotel in 1994, an early collaboration between Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck.
From the billowing white curtains on the front terrace to the oversize chess board on the palm-lined back lawn, everything is carefully designed to evoke an “Alice in Wonderland” fantasy. I would not have been at all surprised to spot the white rabbit nursing a gin and tonic in the elegant Rose Bar, or to see the Red Queen lounging by the oft-photographed pool (or as they like to refer to it, the water salon.)
The Delano, a member of the Morgans Hotel Group, is a work of art in every sense — from the all-white décor of the rooms to the original Brazilian rosewood floors to the daily inspirational quote scrawled on a mirror opposite the elevator bank.
This may be figurative art, but there is real art as well. Director of Housekeeping Tony Costello, whose passion for the Delano knows no limits, will happily take guests on a guided tour if they request it.
He’ll point out an original Salvador Dali chair across the lobby from a delicate Murano chandelier (every piece of glass in the hotel is Murano), and he’ll indicate an unobtrusive chair which might go unnoticed until he reveals it was designed by Antoni Gaudi, who also designed the fanciful La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona.
If there’s a property in South Beach to rival the Delano, it’s the Villa Casa Casuarina, the former mansion of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, and now a boutique hotel. A cross between a Moorish palace, a Venetian palazzo and a Spanish hacienda, the Villa is the third most visited house in America (after Graceland and the White House).
That is largely due to the fact that it was on the front steps of the mansion that Versace was shot to death on July 15, 1997, after returning from an early morning walk to get a newspaper. At any time of day or night, a horde of curious onlookers can be found trying to snap photos of the house.
If you want to get a peek at the inside, however, you will have to book one of the 10 rooms (all with original details such as mosaics, hand painted murals and colored tiles) or make a reservation for dinner at Gianni’s Restaurant (located in the designer’s former dining room).
I stayed for two nights and during that time had a chance to see both the Medallion Suite, which even though the smallest of the bedrooms, was Elton John’s favorite, and the Mosaic Suite, formerly the bedroom of Versace’s sister Donatella, when she was in town. Alas, I didn’t get to see Gianni’s bedroom as it was booked.
My favorite experience had to be dining al fresco one night beside the elaborate pool with its small waterfalls and thousands of 24-carat gold tiles Versace had flown in from Italy and reassembled on the pool’s floor. Like the Delano, the Villa offers its guests a sensory overload along with a good night’s sleep.
Dining and Wining
If there’s one thing you don’t want to skimp on in South Beach, it’s eating and drinking. Both the Delano and the Villa have first-rate fine dining restaurants. At the former, it’s Bianca, which features modern Italian fare. Whatever else you order, don’t miss the appetizer portion (large enough to share) of the Big Eye Tuna Pizza — truly one of the best things I’ve eaten lately.
At the latter, you can dine in either Versace’s former dining room or al fresco poolside. The menu is Italian-Mediterranean, and should you happen to have an extra few hundred bucks in your pocket, there’s a Caviar by Petrossian menu as well.
Save another night for the Sarsaparilla Club in the Shelborne Hotel. The Club is known for what is billed as “American dim sum” — meaning such delectable dishes as drunken deviled eggs with pickled roots, heirloom tomatoes with ricotta, tomato sorbet, basil and crisp olive oil toast, and my favorite, Corn 4 Ways (grilled sweet corn, cornbread butter, cornbread crumbles and lemon popcorn).
If you want dim sum the Asian way in an eye-catching décor, book a table at Komodo in downtown Miami. Glamorous and sexy are the key words at Komodo. You might remember what you ate, but one thing you’ll never forget is the setting, especially if you opt for the outdoor tropical garden with elevated tables known as bird’s nests.
Other great options are Sunday brunch at Prime Fish (the most extensive and innovative array of buffet dishes I’ve ever seen — ever heard of lasagna pancakes?) and KYU (pronounced cue) in the Wynwood Arts and Design District, where small plates such as roasted cauliflower with goat cheese and heirloom tomatoes with chiles, red onion and shiso had my friends and I practically fighting over the last morsel.
Miami Beach certainly has a lively (and loud) club scene, with no shortage of places where revelers can dance the night away. But it has also gained a reputation as one of America’s best cities to experience a classic cocktail culture.
The Regent Cocktail Club in the Gale Hotel is an intimate spot reminiscent of a 1940s lounge, or on nights when a Latin combo is playing, a bar in old Havana. This is definitely the spot for cocktails and conversation, but get there early as intimate means just that.
My favorite South Beach watering hole has to be the Delano’s Rose Bar, sophisticated and sleek, with a backlit bar, Venetian chandeliers and the best spot in the hotel for people watching. Then, there are the cocktails themselves — when was the last time you had a Boulevardier Fume (Woodford Reserve bourbon, sweet vermouth and hickory smoke essence) or a Chelsea Gimlet (Bombay Sapphire Gin, cucumber, basil and lemon essence)?
Both the Regent Cocktail Club and the Rose Bar take the art of cocktail mixing to a new level.
Finally, what’s a glamorous getaway without a day of spa pampering? Whether it’s hot stone therapy or a lavender-scented scrub you’re after, or just a relaxing massage, South Beach has a spa for you.
Two of the best are the rooftop Agua at the Delano (request Elizabeth for the deep tissue) and the casita complex at the Setai Hotel. The ocean view from the Setai room only adds to the sense of serenity.
Indulge in that serenity before heading off to experience more of America’s sultriest, sexiest and most sensuous city.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
Other: The Spa at the Setai Hotel, 2001 Collins Ave., Thesetaihotel.com.