There’s no doubt that first impressions count for a lot and my first night in Miami didn’t leave me with a great one. But once I adjusted to the change from the Southern US cities I’d visited a few days before and realised what an entirely different kind of animal it is, I really kind of liked it.
In fairness Miami had been on my travel wish list for so long that I was very excited to finally fit in into a US itinerary and my expectations were pretty high. Added to that the earlier parts of the itinerary, Washington DC followed by Charleston and Savannah, were completely fab and I expected more of the same.
Instead, on our first night staying at South Beach, we found the infamous Ocean Drive seemed to be a string of very loud, over priced restaurants and bars selling over sized cocktails and not especially nice food. Most had staff outside trying hard to persuade you to go in, so as we’d arrived late and ŵere hungry we succumbed to the Penguin which was the first one that looked to have a reasonable menu. I think it was an hour before we got our lukewarm pasta.
It was Saturday night and Ocean Dive was heaving so after dinner we headed back up to Collins Avenue to try out a couple of bars near our hotel. Things improved then as both the Rose Bar at the Delano Hotel and the Sky Bar at the Shore Club were really cool places, but the drinks were pretty pricey. $30 for a Cosmo in the Rose Bar though we did enjoy the people watching. A not very large glass of wine at the Sky Bar was worse value at $27, but it’s in a lovely garden setting and again there were plenty of interesting (and probably very rich) people to watch.
The following morning we woke up feeling a bit short changed in various ways and left our hotel to go for brunch at the 11th Street Diner. Here things started to really look up as not only was it a fab Art Deco dining car, the service and food were great. Two eggs any style with toast and home fries for just $4.99 and a stack of other options for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or any time you fancy as its open 24/7.
Not far from there we found the Wolfsonian, Miami’s art and design museum. Probably not surprisingly for a sunny Sunday morning visitors were scarce, so we enjoyed having the place almost to ourselves as we browsed the collection which spans from the industrial revolution to the Second World War. The shop had quite a lot to offer too, though again the staff had few customers to look after, so were busy watching Obama’s speech from the White House Correspondents Dinner the night before.
So it was a really good morning that led into a great afternoon as we enjoyed what has to be one of Miami’s main attractions, the beautiful beach. Our bit was particularly nice as we were staying at the Surfcomber Hotel on the upper end of Collins Avenue. The pool area behind the hotel leads straight onto the beach and has its own sun beds and umbrellas. That’s a nice little plus in South Beach as many of the hotels are on Ocean Drive which is across the main road from the beach, or on the lower end of Collins which is a road further back.
Miami’s other great feature is of course the architecture with amazing Art Deco buildings at every turn. It’s great to wander around and absorb them, but I’d also really recommend the walking tour that’s available from the Art Deco Welcome Center on Ocean Drive at 10th Street. Its run by the Miami Design Preservation League, a non-profit founded in the late 70s and the first Art Deco society.
Doing the tour means you learn lots more about the history of the district and look at features on buildings you might not have otherwise noticed. You’ll soon become an expert spotting porthole windows, eyebrows and a finial spire like the Tiffany one on the top of the Hotel of South Beach. That’s a nice one to pop inside as the Art Deco features continue there too.
Other highlights to look out for are the Art Deco post office in Washington Avenue and the lovely Carlyle and Cardozo Hotels on Ocean Drive which were the first to be rescued when developers starting planning to bulldoze South Beach’s Art Deco buildings in the 1980s. I also really like the Essex House Hotel in Collins which looks a bit like a cruise ship and the Cavalier which was inspired by Mayan or Inca temples – and any readers of my blog will know how much I love those!
Also look out for the famous Versace Mansion, once the home of the designer Gianni but now a very exclusive hotel. It stands out amidst the deco buildings because of its Mediterranean Revival style.
The welcome centre offers two options to see the Art Deco District – a guided tour that you can book onto or you can hire the self guided audio tour. We chose the latter as it means you can do it whenever you like at your own pace and stop off for drinks or to browse in shops along the way.
On that note shopping is also pretty good in Miami. There are plenty you’ll come across as you do the walking tour or meander around, but the Lincoln Road Mall is worth a special detour. Although it’s called a mall it’s not indoors and is actually just a very nice wide street with shops, restaurants, fountains and palm trees.
There’s also an arts centre on Lincoln Road and a few nice deco buildings to spot including the Colony Theatre and the old Lincoln Theatre that now houses an H&M store. And at the top end of the road there’s a very impressive parking garage sitting on top of shops and apartments.
Lincoln Road Mall is also a good place to eat and we had a nice lunch sitting outside YUCA which is short for Young Urban Cuban American. Not quite our demographic but being London dwellers for years we can definitely claim urban. We did also find a good spot we liked on Ocean Drive, the News Cafe. Nothing fancy but good service and decent food and drink that wasn’t ridiculously priced, as well as a ringside seat to the Miami people parade. Has to be said that I’ve never seen as many sports cars, nose jobs and fake boobs in one place before.
And in the end, after we’d got over the fact we weren’t going to find the sort of Southern charm we’d got used to in Savannah and Charleston, we embraced the Miami scene for what it was. That included watching the colourfully clothed Latin dancers strutting their stuff on the bar at Mango’s Tropical Cafe and buying $35 mojitos while listening to live music at Sandia.
We also really liked our hotel, the Surfcomber. It looks good on the outside as is one of the best deco renovations on the beach and has a lovely lobby. Every night there was a wine hour with drinks and snacks and although the rooms were small they were well put together and as mentioned earlier it has a pool and very quick access to the beach.
So despite the somewhat shaky first impression I was very glad I got to know Miami better and that I finally ticked it off my bucket list.
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery and visit the USA section of my blog for posts about some of the other places I’ve mentioned.