When people hear I’m going to Miami they usually recoil, as if I’ve grown a second head slathered with product imploring the DJ for more Black Eyed Peas. The things they associate with Miami clash dramatically with what they know about me. But unlike my daily bike ride along Flushing Avenue, I've found Miami to be disarmingly free of abrasive elements, and I’m as surprised as those “people” are that I like it so much.
The truth is that despite global warming, I’m just not going to stop taking planes to paradise if I can afford it. And we might as well enjoy Miami’s last gasp before the rising sea buries it forever (along with parts of NYC, for that matter). (The self-loathing carbon emitter may also consider tithing here.) Since first venturing down there toward the end of 2011, I’ve been back five times, and while that doesn’t make me any sort of expert, it does say something about how and where I spend my hard-earned cash, and the city’s appeal beyond the decadent club scene, which has never interested me. There is also an argument to be made for visiting Miami in the summer, when air travel and hotels are significantly cheaper. The way I see it, if I'm going to be lacerated by oppressive heat, just medivac me to a beach or pool and let me unplug everything while I'm sweating it out.
My most recent visit was in the first week of June—who can afford Miami in January or February? Sure, there was sporadic rain half the time, but what savings! A direct roundtrip airplane ticket, purchased through Travelocity, cost $174 round trip out of NYC, including taxes and additional “Airline & Agency fees.” A full-size rental car from Enterprise, which was only necessary because my girlfriend and I planned a three-day expedition to Key West, came to an absurd $160 total, including $25-per day chump insurance. What follows are some of my highly subjective suggestions for a trip to Miami and points south.
The Seven Mile Bridge in the Keys (via)
Key West: Having been permanently scarred by the garishness of Myrtle Beach and Virginia Beach, I worried Key West would be more of the same. But the town’s tackiness is downright demure compared to most beach tourist traps, and the salty, end-of-the-world seafaring vibe makes the more commercial areas tolerable. Charming even. The people watching is delicious, and I’m not just talking about the ridiculously costumed tourists. You get the sense that the local population is largely comprised of hippies who drifted as far south as they could until the ocean slapped them in their leathery, disoriented faces. Key West is, in fact, the southernmost point in the contiguous United States, and there’s a monument to that achievement next to which visitors line up to have their photos taken.
The town is closer to Havana (106 miles) than it is to Miami, which is about a two and a half hour drive away. It’s a spectacular road trip. If you can swing it, rent a convertible (or at least a car with a sun roof, as we did). The first part of the drive takes you through a fenced-off section of the Everglades, and isn’t very interesting at all, but within the hour you’ll suddenly realize that the land has fallen away and you’re just cruising south over a series of bridges and dainty islands. These are “the Keys,” and if you’ve got time for snorkeling, you’ll want to make a slight detour to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where you can rent a boat and explore 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps.
For lodging, my girlfriend and I used Airbnb to find a two-night room at a house in Cudjoe Key for $95 a night. It was a ground level room right on Cudjoe bay, about a half hour drive from Key West. The room itself was blah, but the bay lapped just outside our sliding door, and we would have sat there all night if not for the relentless mosquito onslaught that almost bled us white within minutes. For a New Yorker accustomed to constant light and noise pollution, the darkness and the lizards and the goofy crabs soft-shoeing everywhere conspired to create a palpable sense of remoteness. You really feel “out there” in the Keys, in a way I didn’t anticipate, and we were glad we rented a place on the water. But there are obviously a lot of options on Airbnb, not to mention fancy resorts and traditional B&B’s.
A rowboat indoors? Now I've seen everything! (Mangrove Mama's)
The best meal I had in the Florida Keys was at Mangrove Mama's, a low-slung hippie joint operating out of an early 20th century railroad stop on Sugarloaf Key, about 25 minutes north of Key West. The Lobster Reuben sandwich here is just bonkers—succulent and sloppy, a real five napkin job. The second best meal was at a casual vegetarian cafe in Key West called Help Yourself, where you can order a phenomenal raw vegan lasagna or a wild salmon wrap or a smoothie and enjoy it outside in a little patio. As for libations, I didn’t have anything that was very memorable, and I think you’re better off sticking to beer, cigars, and Key Lime pie. There are many places to sample the latter delicacy, and no shortage of opinions about which is the best, so I’ll save you a lot of angst and direct you to the Key Lime Pie Factory, which is the only place in town that makes everything on premises. The pie here is more tart than at the second best place, Kermit’s, but that’s because there are no additional sweeteners. We thought Kermit’s was pretty killer until we hit the Key Lime Pie Company, so YOU be the judge.
There are various snorkeling excursions and sunset cruises, with dinner or without, with a live band or without. The company Sebago seems to have the widest array of options and the coolest looking catamaran, and you can haggle with the guy who books the tickets on the dock. Of course there’s Hemingway’s house and his legion of cats, but do you really want to pay $18 on that? They don't even let you pick up the cats. Save your money and explore the old decaying waterfront town, where ubiquitous roosters reinforce the feeling of “Deep South.” And like New Orleans you can chase cocks with an open beer in one hand and the cops won’t hassle you. The sunsets are stunning down here; invest that $18 you saved on twilight drinks at one of the bars along Mallory Square Dock—you think Hemingway would have broken a $20 on a museum?
For me, two days were enough to get my fill of Key West, and I didn’t even tour the Audubon House or pose for a photo next to the “WHAT? WE ARE SO FAR SOUTH!” monument. The chewy Conch fritters, a local delicacy, didn't really do it for me, but I did savor plenty of domestic beer and smoke a lot of hand-rolled cigars, and enjoyed some enthralling people watching from the patio of the ramshackle and quintessential Schooner Wharf bar. That place, from what I could tell, was the crusty weathered heart of the Key West waterfront, and you really get a feel for the town while eavesdropping on the regulars.
Back in Miami, we dropped the car off in South Beach and walked back to The Standard, which is tucked away on a tiny man-made island in Biscayne Bay, about a half hour walk away from the grand hotels on the beach. The Standard is sort of the opposite of all that opulence, and bears little resemblance to the flashy Standard hotels in NYC and LA. The property was originally an unremarkable motor lodge called The Monterrey Resort Motel, which opened in 1953. In the early '60s it was renovated and rechristened the Lido Spa, and came to be a beloved return destination for widowed snowbirds. Forty years later, when word spread that the place had been sold to hip hotelier André Balazs, there was considerable consternation and heartache—the Miami New Times wrote, “For hundreds of lovely Jewish ladies of a certain age and the faithful staff who serve them, the Lido has been not a hotel, but a second home. A family.” Now it belongs to the “holistic hipsters.” I guess that's me?
The old pool and grounds before The Lido Spa was taken over by Andre Balazs. The motel buildings were left unchanged.
To their credit, Balazs and architect Alison Spear had a light touch with the renovations, preserving the original motor lodge layout but adding a lush interior garden and vastly improving the pool area, which is steps from Biscayne Bay. The rooms are small and simple, but the property is so gorgeous you probably won’t be spending much time in there. The “infinity pool,” for starters, is open 24 hours a day for guests, which is practically unheard of in my hotel experience. Here are a few other items of note about the pool area:
- No children under 17 are allowed.
- It’s salt water.
- There’s music in the pool, and it’s shockingly good—classic calypso, dub reggae, retro French pop, a smattering of Talking Heads, Fela Kuti, Jimmy Cliff.
- The pool is a few steps away from a hot tub waterfall, and if you spend some time in there, then jump in the frigid “cold plunge” before staggering into the pool, your whole body tingles in a supremely salubrious way.
- Near the pool there’s a dock off which you can jump into salty Biscayne Bay. At night the dock is illuminated with blue lights and, combined with the lights inside the pool and beneath the palm trees, you feel like you’re lost in an enchanting dream and you silently vow to shiv the first unlucky fool who dares disturb your slumber.
The focal point of the small interior garden area is a fire pit that's roaring nightly; it’s surrounded by giant wicker pod beds that you’ll probably pass out in at some point. (It says something about the tone of the place that nobody ever comes and rousts you.) There are also some weird swing chairs near the fire pit, two gigantic hammocks, a ping pong table, a gurgling fountain with lotus flowers, a juice bar, innumerable tiny lizards, and a ten foot tall monolithic totem by sculptor Elaine Katzer.
So then, on top of all that, there’s this thing called the hamam spa, which for me was like accidentally discovering another dimension, starting with the long cosmically illuminated hallway/birth canal that leads into a utopian womb of almost criminal serenity. I had never gone to a “spa” before because as everyone knows I’m a Real Tough Guy, but I had no idea what I was missing. The first thing you see when you pass through the sacred door is a semi-circle of three curved marble slabs, sprinkled with blissed-out humans in various stages of bovine tantric incapacitation. Go late on a Friday or Saturday, when it’s open until midnight, and you’ll probably feel like the guy who blunders into an orgy five minutes too late. So it goes. But then you lie down on one of the slabs, each one hotter than the next as they ascend toward the ceiling, and your back melts into the marble like hot fudge. Fuck orgies. Elusive almost-familiar music vibrates softly in the background; it’s not quite New Age, and it varies, but it often evokes abstract Thom Yorke instrumental B-sides available only in Japan. Time bends and gives up. You're never going home.
Besides those hot slabs, there’s a piping hot sauna; a steam room so stuffed with steam you can’t see your hand 12 inches from your face; a sublimely illuminated “sound therapy” oval shower room with waterfall faucets you can make out under; and a weird private massage room where you Velcro together rubber curtains for privacy, shower off a padded table, and give someone special a transcendent, half hour massage using some expensive gritty hibiscus sugar scrub she managed to smuggle on the plane. There are also giant metal bathtubs; you can pour yourself a bath with a variety of exotic salts for sale in the gift shop and soak for hours like an early-20th century tuberculous patient recuperating in Saratoga.
(Courtesy Standard Spa Miami Beach)
Eventually you find yourself drifting back down the magic hallway, taking a moment to marvel at the hot pink sunset from the spa’s semi-secret roof patio, where Miami Vice S3 / E6 “Shadow in the Dark” was filmed. And this is where I argue that the hamam is a large part of why going to the Standard during the off season, when it tends to rain more, is still a good move. The weather patterns in Miami are unlike anything I experienced growing up around Albany, where you get used to canceling everything when the forecast calls for rain. If you book a trip to Miami, you’ll find yourself checking the forecast every day leading up to departure and cursing the gods when you see that rain is predicted every damn day.
Don’t despair—it took me a while to understand it, but unless there’s a hurricane or tropical storm, the rain in Miami is usually brief in duration. It moves in quickly and blows out just as fast, especially where the Standard is situated on Biscayne Bay. If you’re lying by the pool, it can go from staggering sunshine to dark and stormy in twenty minutes. And this is the ideal time to withdraw up to the surreal astral plane of the hamam and reduce your back to hot fudge, etc. When you rotate back to the corporeal dimension in an hour, chances are the sky will be blue and fluffy all over again.
The thing about the Standard is that it so completely caters to my somewhat fussy sensibility that it’s difficult to drag myself away and “explore Miami.” But I've been making an effort. For example, it’s fun to walk across the Venetian Causeway to get dinner at Sardinia, an authentic Italian restaurant that nobody really talks about because it’s not on flashy South Beach. If you like Italian you should check it out, and they have a fantastic bottle of Cannonau di Sardegna for $45. There is also a great big upscale supermarket near the restaurant, which a budget-conscious traveler might visit for groceries to bring back to the hotel in order to save money on meals. Excellent almond butter machine. (There's a kick-ass liquor & wine store about a five minute walk away, too. Just sayin'.)
Beyond that, the famous South Beach scene is a mostly pleasant half hour stroll on foot from The Standard. Go at night, when it's cooler and the magnificent old hotels along the beach are dramatically illuminated for party time. I'm into the Delano, which on weekend nights can be somewhat exclusive if roll up wearing swim trunks and a “Date Me I’m Bedbug Free” T-shirt. But pose like someone with money to burn on fancy drinks and they tend to wave you right in. It’s worth getting dressed for this spectacle. The word “enchanting” gets thrown around a lot these days, but the old hotel, built in 1947, qualifies; if you're overheating pause for A.C. and a cocktail at the swank Rose Bar before pressing further through the lobby and out the other side into the surreal pool area and "orchard," which seems to stretch infinitely into the distance toward the beach.
(The Delano at night)
That’s an exaggeration, but not by much; I kept assuming we’d reached the end of the series of elegant Versailles-esque pools and topiary, and then I’d realize no, the opulence was unstoppable. Here, at last, is where they’ll have the beheadings, skulls toppling right into the pool, spiking it with rich blood and oily product. Once you get to the last outdoor bar area you’re up to your neck in a quintessential international party scene, and it’s a shameless decadent decentralized beast that you ought to face if you’re in Miami. These are the top shelf non-state actors, gorging on the movable feast as it flips around the world from party to party and yacht to yacht. But as William S. Burroughs put it, “Wouldn’t you?” Bear witness. Chances are, it’s a beautiful night. It couldn’t hurt to bring a flask because you are paying for the location, which is oneiric, unlike your reality-based bank account.
Across the street from the Delano is the newish Gale Hotel, which you should patronize if you want to “dance and party” without going to DoucheCon 5. On the ground floor there's the Regent Cocktail Club, which is one of the few serious Prohibition-era cocktail bars in Miami. Downstairs there’s Rec Room, a hipster club with no door drama and a heterogeneous crowd getting down to a wide spectrum of vinyl in a big room meant to evoke a ‘60s party basement. The proprietor of both establishments is Joshua Wagner, who has carefully curated an exuberant vibe that seems disarmingly innocent and whimsical. He also bought shots for me and a quickly growing entourage, so be sure to introduce yourself. The only thing that bothered me down there was the cigarette smoking, and the DJ’s decision to cut off Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” before it finished. To be fair, I always seem to have a problem with the DJ.
Everybody raves about Joe’s Stone Crab, but I think it’s overhyped—I’ve never had the patience to wait hours for a table, so we once placed an extremely expensive order to go, and it was fine but not great enough to justify how much my poor girlfriend spent on it. But I am a big fan of the fun South Beach quasi-diner
I love Italian, and besides Sardinia, there are two other restaurants that I’d happily stuff my face at again: Cecconi’s in the sexy sexy sexy Soho Beach House and Scarpetta, the Miami outpost of Scott Conant’s popular Meatpacking District restaurant. Full disclosure: Unlike most everywhere else I’ve been in Florida (including The Standard) both restaurants knew I was press and comped the meal, so jeer accordingly. But I think I can objectively say both establishments are beautiful in different ways—Cecconi's is more relaxed and an aesthetic gem, tucked into a dazzlingly-illuminated garden courtyard with a retractable roof for bad weather. Everything I ate was delicious and not too pricey, and you can stop by for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or just try a cocktail at the beautiful bar. Try the potent Picante de la casa, made with Cazadores Reposado, red chilies, cilantro, lime, and agave nectar mellifluously marries spicy and sweet.
Scarpetta is more formal and pricey; a four course chef’s tasting menu will set you back $89, not including wine pairings, but you’ll stagger away stuffed, and this is the place for those seeking a very fancy Italian “dining experience.” (In August and September, Scarpetta is offering a bargain $39 four course menu.) The most coveted section of the expansive, nautically-themed dining room overlooks the pool and beach, but there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house. Conant’s famously simple spaghetti with tomato and basil made the leap to Miami, as did the outstanding creamy polenta with fricassee of truffled mushrooms. For something you can’t get at the NYC location, try the flavorful Black Gemelli with dungeness crab, vongole clams, corn & chilies.
The other reason I recommend Scarpetta is that it’s located in the grandiose Fontainebleau Hotel, designed by the great Morris Lapidus. The hotel opened in 1954, and if you remember the helicopter shot that opens Goldfinger, you’ll recognize the iconic property. The massive 1,504 room complex is worth visiting to get a taste of the Miami that feels more like Vegas; for instance their massive nightclub, LIV, makes Marquee seem like Pianos. (The hotel also hosts a concert series called BleauLive—Pharrell and Robin Thicke are performing Labor Day weekend.)
The Fontainebleau's capacious lobby, boasting astounding million-dollar Ai WeiWei chandeliers, still feels like Frank Sinatra’s turf, and like the Delano, the sprawling pool area appears to go on forever, until it finally hits the beach. If you're not a guest, you can get a day pass to the pool and private beach by buying a treatment at the crazy space-age fancytown Lapis Spa. (The beaches throughout South Beach, by the way, are clear, pristine and mostly public.) The whole hotel is such an over-the-top plunge into the strange spirit of Miami decadence and extravagance that has to be experienced firsthand to be fully processed... and then you can withdraw back to the mellow old Standard to watch the sun set over Biscayne Bay.
If you’ve got wheels or don’t mind paying for a taxi or riding a bike, there are two other points of interest that make the list. Little Havana is where you’ll find the flavor of “the real Miami,” as it’s called in the hilarious Louis episode “Miami.” (He stayed at the Raleigh in that episode, and you pay that cool pool bar a visit too.) Here old men argue for hours at the Versaille restaurant about when Castro will die and play endless rounds of dominoes in Domino Park. You can buy a cigar at Cuban Crafters and try a Cortadito at one of the many Cuban coffee stands. The gallery Cuba Ocho has one of the largest collections of pre-revolutionary Cuban art, and on the last Friday of every month there are open street parties with live salsa music, wine tastings and cigar cigar.
Wynwood street art (Sam Horine's Instagram)
A similar yet different street party unfolds on the second Saturday of every month in the vibrant Wynwood art district, where roads get so crowded with revelers that some blocks become giant pedestrian plazas, impassable to motorists. The galleries stay open late and serve free drinks, and the whole scene feels electric and a little wild. But if you’re not in town for the art walk, still swing through Wynwood, and not just for the galleries—the neighborhood boasts some of the most impressive graffiti in America, as well as great places to eat, such as Michael's Genuine Food & Drink and Wynwood Kitchen, which is slathered in colorful Shepard Fairey murals.
One final note: if you're in Miami and for some reason not staying at the Standard, you can still pop in for dinner or drinks at the Lido Bayside Grill, which is by the pool on a dock facing Biscayne Bay. There's a literally transcendent "living" raw vegan lasagna there that will destroy everything you ever thought you knew and loved about lasagna. Order that and a Miami Vice frozen cocktail, which is a tall multi-colored hybrid of Pina Colada and Strawberry Daiquiri. For $3 more you can get a "floater" of rum on top. Do it, you're on vacation. Savor the view and squeal like a tourist when you spot dolphins sporting in the bay. Drink your drink. You're one of those "people" now.
The Living Lasagna