Miami Beach: Where the Glamorous People Live
Being in Miami, I thought I would spend a few days in Miami Beach which is a long strip of land connected by bridges to Miami proper. Obviously this is the beach area and the beaches are gorgeous. Long, long wide strips of sand being lapped or thrashed, depending on the weather, by emerald green seas. Yes it looks that good. I am not exaggerating. There is always a wind here I am told so sometimes it doesn’t feel as hot as it. What it does mean is that you still need sunscreen – and buckets of it as my bald head testifies. It is now a shrimp pink colour that’s going to get me into grief from my wife when I get home. And it’s the smell of sunscreen you get in the air whenever you walk along the beach.
So apart from the beach what is there?
In the south is the art deco district. Some of the buildings are immaculate and some are tawdry. Like anywhere really. The Ritz Carlton, about the poshest hotel in the district, is immaculate but expensive. But not everyone can afford to stay there. A wander first thing in the morning or at about 7pm when the main heat of the day has gone will let you enjoy the architecture of the seemingly hundreds of buildings all painted in white or pastel shades. Or you take the bus. There is something called the South Beach Local which costs only 25 cents a ride. It has to be the cheapest tourist ride you’ll get almost anywhere around here. It also takes you to a point where you can see Port Miami from where the vast numbers of cruise ships depart.
Part of being a tourist is shopping and Lincoln Road Mall is one tourist magnet. There are dozens of restaurants as well as gift shops, a couple of galleries and clothing shops. I was only put off by the fountain at the end near Washington Street which had a gurgling noise similar to that when you take the plug out of your bath. I thought it was a strange new bird! And the only birds I saw were sparrows, blackbirds and parrots.
Collins Street is where the upmarket fashion shops are like Gucci or Versace. In fact the Versace mansion is here in South Beach. Or you can spend $4, $2 each way, and catch the S bus to Aventura Mall, the biggest shopping mall around here with a couple of hundred shops, restaurants and department stores like Nordstrom, Sears and others.
In many ways South Beach is like any other beach destination. The kids wear the same clothing, there are the same types of souvenirs; the same coffee shops and takeaways. For those not interested in beaches should you come? If you like the architecture or staring at large powerboats then there is always the Bass Museum or the theatres. The Bass is a small museum with a collection of renaisance art and some modern Cuban American work. There was an exhibition by one, Bert Rodrigues, whilst I was there and one exhibit would catch any child’s eye. There were over a hundred and twenty postcards stretching around the walls all of the artist’s head. But each postcard was different because each had been drawn on to give individual pictures. Exactly the sort of thing a kid would do. It also has two spellbinding tapestries as you walk up the ramp to the second floor.
The other two main attractions are the Holocaust memorial and the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. The memorial is a giant bronze hand stretching into the sky with sculptures at the base of the arm. It looks horribly like those hands disappearing beneath the waves that you saw in old black and white films. The Vizcaya however is a sumptuous house modeled on the sort palace you would see on the banks of the Grand Canal in Venice but without the gardens. Built only about 100 years ago, it reminds of the wealth that was around then and now, for Miami Beach is the home (or second home) to some of the richest people in America.
I said earlier accommodation wasn’t cheap but I was determined to find something. There are lots of hotels in the $55-$80 (£30-55) a night range but what are they like. After experience I have found you get what you pay for. My hotel was the Greenview which is just about opposite the Lincoln Road Mall. Nice and convenient since it takes all of 5 minutes to get to the beach, the shops, the Convention Center or the Bass. Yes it looked shabby inside but I have seen some very pricey hotels look the same. The lobby was perfectly reasonable. The bedroom and the corridors were not. Marked walls and doors in both the bedroom and the passageways suggested this hadn’t seen a paintbrush for years. The TV didn’t work so it didn’t matter that there was no remote. Although the room had supposedly been cleaned I found dirt everywhere as well as long black hairs that couldn’t possibly be mine (for a reason mentioned earlier!)
During the night there was a storm. The rain leaked in which was a bit concerning since I was on the middle floor. The night porter gave me a bucket and said he couldn’t move me that night. So back to bed and in the morning, a couple of inches of water in the bucket. I wanted to see what would happen so I mentioned nothing. No apology, no money off and more importantly, no transfer to another room. I obviously needed to complain more. Still it didn’t rain very hard the second night so the water didn’t come in. No apology at breakfast (if you like sweet pastries fine, if not…)
At check-out I was told that everything was fine. No thank you for staying, no apologies, no explanation. Two days later I had an e-mail thanking me for staying and asking me whether all was OK. Obviously a pre-prepared e-mail with no links to what actually happened or the night porter that I talked to! So here is one hotel to avoid. I think it also shows that if you don’t stand up for yourself then you’re going to get walked over. If you have a problem, complain. Oh and by the way, a copy of this is going to the President of the hotel chain. To repeat what I said earlier, you get what you pay for.
No problems then at my next hotel, the Hilton out near the airport at Blue lagoon. Polite, helpful staff, a good size bedroom with a TV that worked. I pre-booked a breakfast at $10 a night which was a saving of nearly 50% on the cost in the morning. Surprisingly the restaurant bills were no higher than downtown. And the night cost me $99 instead of $64. Guess which I’ll use in the future?
So what of Miami Beach, the place that Mickey Rourke and Matt Damon call home. You’d be hard placed to criticise the beach or the weather. When it does rain, it really tosses it down but it disappears quickly which, given the drought, they probably would rather wish would be longer. The choice and pricing of restaurants is good and the public transport is cheap and convenient. Even if you want to go the airport you can buy a transfer for 50c so the hour long trip only costs $2.50. (Catch a J bus from the airport and ask the driver -mine had the most glamorously adorned fake fingernails I’d ever seen- to drop you off just after you’ve crossed the causeway and got to Arthur Godfrey Road at 41st Street. You can transfer there to any number of buses to take you south.)
The shopping is probably as good as anywhere and the range of food is what you’d expect, American, Cuban and Italian in the main. But I found a good Chinese and a good Argentinian. In the south beach area the main eating area is Espanola which is full of restaurants down a narrow road, all with tables outside. Expect to be invited to eat almost every place as the hawkers outside (I don’t know what else to call them) say that their menu offers the widest choice, is the best, has the longest happy hour and so on. It can be easy to spend $100 for two but you don’t have to.
A bit of local advice was given to me. Don’t go to Miami Beach at weekends. The rest of the world goes there then and it gets crowded. And on memorial Weekend in late May, make strenuous efforts to avoid it. It looked like one long traffic jam, bumper to bumper for most of the time. And people everywhere. And that’s what tourism destinations want! Lots and lots of visitors.