Miami: SoBe Exciting

Salsa, speedboats and shopping: Mark Lyndersay flies in to south Florida

Ocean Drive offers opportunities for sightseeing and sidewalk dining. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe dramatic Art Deco architecture of South Beach. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe dramatic Art Deco architecture of South Beach. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe open-air bar of the Clevelander, a favourite with Caribbean visitors. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe stalls on Lincoln Road are a browser’s paradise. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

A phalanx of tall hotels seems to bunch right up against the golden shoreline, a glass wall of hospitality suites, running north as far as the eye can see, that gaze out over the rich green-blue of the Atlantic. Speedboats glide by, leaving spreading zippers of white foam in their wake across the azure waters.

This is the view of southern Florida as an aircraft dips in for a landing at Miami International Airport. It’s a startling sight. And South Beach, the slice of eastern Florida beachfront that sits within the Miami-Dade county boundaries, is an astonishing place to visit.

In a relatively short period of development, beginning in the 1920s, South Beach has been variously known as a retirement community and a haven for the illicit drug trade, most famously portrayed with glorious exaggeration in the popular television series Miami Vice.

Be sure where you want to start your visit: while South Beach is a relatively small area, the blocks are long, and “a few blocks away” might be more than you’re prepared to stroll.

During the day, and particularly on a weekend, be sure to try a walk through Lincoln Road, a browser’s paradise. Vendors offer an eclectic mix of the kind of curated junk that becomes collectible, handcrafted work, and outdoor cafes serve an attractive subset of the food that characterises the vivid ethnic mix of Miami.

By dusk, Lincoln Road begins to fold up, the vendors packing away their wares, but the energised visitor will have left well before that for Ocean Drive, a street that runs parallel to the shoreline and hosts the densest collection of Art Deco buildings, restaurants and beachside action you’ll find anywhere in Miami.

On the western side of Ocean Drive, chilly winds haven’t stopped traditional beach activity. The fading light still picks out bodybuilders working uneven bars on the sand with showy enthusiasm, a photographer preparing to photograph a model clasping her arms against the breeze and volleyballers stretching madly to slap a ball back and forth. As the sun begins to dip lower, the glow of neon on the building facades picks the historic buildings out against the electric blue of the dusk sky.

Traffic begins its slow crawl past the popular sightseeing destinations of the Park Central, Colony, Boulevard and Beacon Hotels, the open-air bar of West Indian favourite the Clevelander – and the house believed to be the most photographed in the world, 1116 Ocean Drive, now known as The Villa by Barton G. Once 1116 was known simply as the home of fashion designer Gianni Versace; now it is another landmark for anyone walking Ocean Drive and at all hours of day and night, people stop to take a photo of it or, more often, to have a photo taken of themselves with the building in the background.

A walk along the western sidewalk of Ocean Drive in the evening means threading your way along a narrow passageway left between the outdoor tables that every restaurant places on the sidewalk. The brisk evening air is held at bay by tall heating elements that radiate in the faces of passersby while keen hosts, aided by bountiful displays and iPad slideshows of the food, invite you to stop and eat at their restaurant. You can find every kind of food here, but it’s wise to get some guidance on what to look for before visiting. There’s so much, in such variety, that window-shopping without forethought for a meal is essentially impossible.

One place that’s likely to feel right at home for the Caribbean visitor is Mango’s Tropical Café, famous for its decor, a mix of earth tones and bright, colourful artistic accents. Music is key to the Mango’s experience, and several house bands perform reggae and salsa – to which the attractive bartenders perform as part of the cast of the in-house “cabaret.”

My visit, still early in the evening for Mango’s, featured the bartenders, male and female, fit and skimpily dressed, taking turns dancing on the large tiled front of the bar, along with reggae band Innasense’s lead singer, to the band’s repertoire of classic numbers.

It isn’t nearly as naughty as it sounds. The servers have clearly been doing this for a while and have an easy, amusing relationship with the singer, who coaxes them along in the faux raunch of the gyrating. Everything is lifted by the capabilities of the band, which attacks the well-known songs with real energy.

It’s possible to visit South Beach and have quite a different experience from the one I had. One tempting option that I couldn’t fit into my schedule was a two-hour tour of the Miami coastline in a fast boat that stirred all my long-dormant Crockett fantasies.

The creative spirit of South Beach runs as deep as the concrete and paint of its distinctive architecture, spreads out into its hospitable tourist outreach and is in the flavour of everything, from its thick sidewalk burgers to its robust, eye-opening Cuban coffee. Have a taste.

 

Art Deco drama

By 1980, the city decided to come to grips with the unique qualities and real possibilities of the area and began to encourage the restoration of the area’s famous Art Deco architecture. Today, a casual walk along virtually any street on South Beach offers remarkable examples of the formal, geometrical style of architectural construction and decoration. For some, the rigorousness of dozens of buildings designed in the style, one after another might seem a bit much, but for an artist and a graphic designer in particular, it’s a kind of symphony in angular concrete and paint, design principles come to life, sharp and bright against the blue sky. The seriously committed can book well-informed tours of highlights of the architecture and learn more about its curious history.

At the most casual and relaxed of times, South Beach breathes art, in the dramatic style of its architecture, in the stylish step of its residents and visitors, in the many curiosities that lurk in its diners and quirky small shops. In December, it takes all that up a notch for Art Basel Miami Beach, an international nexus of contemporary art that consumes South Beach for a week.

 

Caribbean Airlines flies to South Florida from Trinidad & Tobago twice daily. A flight bound for Miami International Airport leaves Port of Spain at 8.30 am. The second flight leaves at 1.25 pm (time may change, depending on daylight saving time) and lands at Hollywood International, Fort Lauderdale. Both flights are meal-serviced and feature movies. Caribbean Miles are redeemable on both flights and web check-in is available 24 – 48 hours before flight departure.