This is the second post in Dave Zuchowski’s three-part series on southeastern Florida by car. Part one is here.
The drive down I-95 from Daytona Beach to Miami was fairly, make that very, monotonous. Flat as a board with the same mix of vegetation that framed the interstate for miles, the humdrum terrain certainly kept my eye from wandering off the road. But once I got onto the MacArthur Causeway over Biscayne Bay, the vista opened up magnificently. The blue waters of the ocean were a brilliant contrast to the line of sleek skyscrapers and palms that dotted the beach.
Vibrant and sophisticated, Miami Beach is alive most hours of the day and far into the night. The hotels that line Collins Avenue draw the trendy, the chic, the celebrated, and the curious who come for the clubs, cafes, restaurants, boutiques, galleries, the art deco heritage and, of course, the beach.
Arriving in early evening, I checked into the Raleigh, built in 1940, the first of three Art Deco hotels a block apart on Collins Avenue I stayed at during my three-day visit. You might think it a bit tedious unpacking and repacking, then heading to a new hotel each day. But the experience gave me a chance to see three hotels very different from one another that were all within walking distance. For me, it wasn’t a big issue, and it gave me a chance to absorb a mix of Art Deco flavors of the Miami Beach hospitality industry.
Later that evening, after a marvelous dinner at Juvia, a really upscale restaurant on the ninth floor/penthouse level of a high-rise on Lincoln Road with a wonderful view of the city, I explored the Raleigh. Walking through the lobby past the time-capsule martini bar, I stepped out back and discovered one of the most beautiful pools ever.
Life magazine agrees. Surrounded by palms and dotted with daybeds and lounge chairs, the pool was designated most beautiful by the magazine in 1947. Maybe that was one of the reasons why guests sometimes found film/swim star Esther Williams splashing around in the 1950s. Walk a little further past the curvilinear, scalloped pool and you’ll find the sunny, white sand beach of the Atlantic just a few yards out back.
The Art Deco ambiance of Miami Beach
Those with an interest in Miami Beach’s lauded trove of Art Deco buildings, built between 1923 and 1943, might want to take a guided walking tour of the historic district. Several tours are available and include stepping inside some of the interiors, listening to stories about the pioneers, movers and shakers and criminal element that influenced the development of the city, and getting the lowdown on some of the 800 buildings that make up a fascinating experience in pastel. Before or after a tour, stop by the Art Deco Museum, operated by the Miami Design Preservation League at 1001 Ocean Drive, for a deeper understanding of the city’s architectural heritage.
And speaking of Ocean Drive, one of my best experiences in Miami was strolling the adjacent curvaceous walkway in the park that skirts the beach on one side and some of the town’s chicest hotels on the other. It’s also great for people-watching. Come evening Ocean Drive is packed with folks dining outdoors on the patios or heading for the bars and clubs.
On day two, I bee-lined directly across the street and checked into the Redbury, a more intimate boutique hotel with a 12,000-square-foot rooftop pool as well as access to the pool at the Raleigh. The Redbury’s rooms are somewhat larger than those at the Raleigh and have a more contemporary feel, but still maintain an Art Deco vibe. Interestingly for nostalgia buffs, each room comes with an old style record player along with an assortment of LPs for your listening pleasure.
Exploring the region
A couple blocks away, I boarded a double-decker and began a Big Bus tour of the city. Big Bus offers three distinct loops, the beach (blue line), the city (red) and uptown (green). One ticket gives you access to all three. Along Ocean Drive, our guide, both informative and witty, pointed out many sites such as Gianni Versace’s mansion, the News Café, where he had his last meal before he was shot just outside his home, the 1941 Art Deco Carlyle Hotel, where the opening scene of Miami Vice was shot, and the Fifth Street gym where Cassius Clay trained for his 1964 fight against Sonny Liston.
Big Bus goes by both Miami and Miami Beach’s major landmarks and makes 30 stops along the way. Included in the city loop is a walking tour of Little Havana and a cafecito, a shot of Cuban coffee.
I used Big Bus to stop near the Perez Art Museum in Miami where I enjoyed a wonderful brunch (available Saturday and Sunday) in the museum’s waterfront Verde restaurant. It sports panoramic views of Biscayne Bay, and dining is available indoors and out. The menu features intriguing selections you usually don’t find elsewhere such as “Watercress Salad,” “Lobster Benedict” and “Wild Mushroom Pizza.”
Museums, museums, museums
Speaking of museums, Miami has a slew of them. One of my favorites, the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, is a huge bayfront villa built surrounded by ten acres of beautiful gardens. From 1914 to 1923, James Deering of the Deering McCormick International Harvester fortune built the subtropical rendition of an 18th century Italian villa.
The main house is filled with art and furnishings, the latter considered one of the most significant collections of Italian furniture in the U.S. Outside, the gardens are among the most elaborate in the country and include a “Secret Garden,” a “Theater Garden,” a “Maze,” and a “Fountain Garden.” Moored in the bay in front of the house is an Italianate barge and, to the right, an ornate tea house connects to the walkway via and curved bridge a la Venice. Vizcaya is a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.
Another museum worth mentioning that’s quite the contrast to the Vizcaya is the World Erotic Museum in Miami Beach. The brainchild of collector and arts patron Naomi Wilzig, the museum holds the world’s largest public view collection of erotic art covering all centuries, cultures, media, lifestyles, and sexual preferences. Often embarrassingly fascinating, the museum features paintings, sculptures, photographs, and drawings with more than 4,000 artists represented, including everyone from folk and primitive artists to luminaries like Picasso, Dali, Maplethorpe, and even Rembrandt.
I spent my last night sleeping comfortably at the SLS Miami Beach. This luxury boutique hotel is strategically located at 17th and Collins. Originally built in 1939, the SLS is the tallest Art Deco building in South Beach. The aged beauty has been recently restored and revamped and boasts a stunning interior that blends Latin, Asian, contemporary, and Art Deco influences.
Some fabulous food
During my stay I experienced some great cuisine in an array of wonderful restaurants. Take Miami Beach’s Juvia, for instance. The menu features a triad fusion of French, Japanese and Peruvian cuisine served by an elite team of polished waiters and waitresses. The place sizzled with enthusiastic sybarites intent on enjoying themselves the evening of my visit, and their mood was contagious. Please check out the really avant-garde website for a look at the menu and photos of the interior and decor.
Another Miami Beach standout, the Sugar Factory in the Hotel Victor, is truly unique. Walk in the door and be greeted by sparkling glass cases full of bulk candy, ice cream, croissants, and desserts to die for, then move further inside for some serious culinary experiences like the “Red Velvet Pancakes,” “Strawberry Brioche French Toast,” “Banana Foster Crepes,” “Monster Burgers,” sweet and savory pizzas, and some of the most elaborate and incredible milkshakes ever.
Oh, and the bar shakes and blends up some sophisticated cocktails including the “Lolipop Passion,” the Sugar Factory’s signature goblet, that’s a mix of melon, coconut, pineapple, vodka and rum that’s garnished with lollipops.
Just down Ocean Drive, the LT restaurant in the Betsy Hotel is headed by award-winning chef Laurent Tourondel, hence the abbreviated name. For dinner, I relished the sushi and raw bar specialties such as the seafood ceviche and chilled kumamoto oysters, indulged in a ‘Kale Caesar Salad,” thoroughly enjoyed the grilled red snapper and a side of steamed garlic Chinese eggplant, and, thankfully, found room for dessert: Tres Leches with Cuban San Limo rum-raisin ice cream and chili-confit pineapple. Besides its raw bar and sushi offerings, this stylish, cozy and hip restaurant also excels in its preparation of seafood and beef dishes.
In the trendy and booming Brickell neighborhood of downtown Miami, PM (short for the Argentine port city of Puerto Madero) Fish and Steak House puts the emphasis on fresh seafood and steak with an Argentine flavors and culinary styles. Chef Maite Munoz has held her post since the 2011 opening of this attractive, spacious restaurant where food presentations are remarkably creative and elegant.
In part three, next Wednesday: The roadtrip continues.
For more information on Miami Beach, visit miamiandbeaches.com.
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