Four days in Miami and not once did I step foot onto its seven square-mile stretch of white sandy beach. Something that only strikes me as strange in hindsight. But then, if friends’ post trip tales, social media, and resident Will Smith, are anything to go by, I ‘did’ my first holiday to this south Florida city all wrong. ‘Every day like a mardi gras, everybody party all day… all night on the beach till the break of dawn,’ says Smith. ‘Drink all day, play all night,’ adds potty-mouthed lyrical scribe, LMFAO. Five days, four nights, not a party in sight, more like.
I should’ve been strolling down Ocean Drive in my fishnet dress, inflatable neon pink flamingo under one arm, double-parked Pina Coladas in the other. Instead, I was making the most of the 8-hour time difference-induced jetlag, getting to bed at a decent hour, up with the lark for sunrise laps in deserted hotel pools, and spending every hour in between exploring the delights. On a hedonistic quest for the fabulous food I was told to expect, the Art Deco and mural-adorned architecture I’d seen in pictures, lounging in a duo of very different, but equally fabulous hotels, and soaking up as much vitamin D as I could.
The Miami I enjoyed, immensely, was far different from the Miami Smith and friends had me expecting. Less party central, more laid back Americana cool. It had that assemblage of cultures I love London for, and similarly bold fashion choices walking its streets (those fishnet dresses are a real thing), but there’s also a much mellower side, one that involves stand-up paddle boarding, rooftop cocktail lounges, and leisurely al fresco dinners.
Stepping off the plane and into The Standard Spa (via a 20-minute cab ride) was an excellent way to ease into a new city and time zone. This adults-only hideout on Belle Isle, across the water from downtown Miami and a mere cycle ride to South Beach, is a place you could come to rest your over-partied head; where you can be part of the buzz, without diving into the deep end. There’s a complimentary hydrotherapy spa I meant to, but didn’t, set foot in – too busy taking advantage of the 24-hour pool with sunrise swims soundtracked by the underwater music and stretching my flight-tight limbs with 7.30am waterside yoga classes. Too absorbed in lazy breakfasts in the Lido Restaurant & Bayside Grill, lolling in a freestanding bath of coconut-scented bubbles on the wood-decked porch of my room, hopping on a house stand-up paddleboard for an instructor-led tour around the island, or watching the sun setting around the high rises across the bay.
The Standard, is anything but. It feels more like a residential complex than a hotel, with sweet little touches scattered throughout the palm-dotted property, from hidden hammocks and fire pits, to the Scandi-cool lobby made playful with board games and ping pong. The brief sojourn made me want to explore the other hotels in its group; I’m particularly excited to meet the new outpost, opening opposite the St. Pancras Renaissance in London’s King’s Cross circa end of 2018/early 2019. It’ll fit in perfectly.
The other two nights were spent downtown in Brickell, the financial district, in the 40-storey EAST, Miami. Floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of my 28th-floor room meant I spent a vast majority of my in-room time captivated by the views: a collage of skyscrapers sprawling into Biscayne Bay and out to an infinite sea, silent weaves of traffic, and pedestrians of Lilliputian proportions. Views that beckoned me out on to the breezy wraparound balcony; sights too good to hide behind black-out curtains.
I kept them open at night and woke up to a psychedelic sunrise of vibrant purple, peach and all the hues in between, and ordered breakfast to my room so I could linger in there for longer – pipe-dreaming about moving in, while tucking into chimichurri and avocado on toast and a pot of Earl Grey Supreme. Straight lines and raw materials bring a calming symmetry to the interior spaces, while the pool area, alfresco dining, and rooftop bar and garden have a Soho House vibe that had me coveting every fixture and fitting in sight, and wishing I could extend my stay a little longer.
But really, you do not come to a buzzing, sun-drenched city such as Miami to spend all day indoors. For all the hotels’ loveliness, I was itching to get up and out, as soon as I’d touched down. First stop, South Beach.
There are over 800 protected Art Deco buildings in this part of town; the largest collection in the world. Painted in jolly ice-cream hues, these pleasingly symmetrical structures, with nods to Bauhaus and dottings of flamingo kitsch are (dare I go there), pure Instagram fodder. A design-lover’s dream. Inside these photogenic beauties, hide subtle throwbacks to the Prohibition era: symbols incorporated into the stone floors, covertly pointing in the direction of alcohol and other forbidden fun. I’d have written them off as mere design details, had it not been for joining a 90-minute walking tour of the historic district with the Miami Design Preservation League (at the time of press $25 p/p).
The arrival of annual Art Basel (North America’s largest contemporary art fair) 15 years ago, helped put Miami on the map as somewhere other than just a town to party. As such, there are some excellent art and cultural spots to spend lazy days and evenings exploring, when you fancy something other than the beach or bars. When the going gets hot, and you’ve had your fill of Ocean Drive, get off the strip and into the Wolfsonian. Not always high on my list on a trip, museums, especially in sunny destinations when time is tight, but this one is not only a welcome shelter from the midday rays, but the collection of art and design from 1850-1945 is worth it. Head to the 5th floor, where the permanent collection features a quirky display of World Fair souvenirs, Kem Weber furniture, and Mad Men-era advertisement posters.
Downtown, those with kids in tow will enjoy the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, which encompasses a fantastic four-floor aquarium, opening up to a rooftop aviary and deep pools housing sharks and other sea life, complimented by cityscape views. Inside, the 8K planetarium, takes you to space with 30-minute shows every hour. There’s also the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center. Home to the New World Symphony, this former parking lot is lapped by a manicured public park area, where regularly between May to September, around 2000 people pitch up with picnics to take advantage of the free WALLCAST Concerts, when the classical music performances attended by paying visitors in the auditorium inside, are projected on to the front the building, with an impressive speaker set-up providing the sound. Their complimentary Yoga Mornings to classical, are also very popular. If you’re travelling with friends, book a lane at the Miami Beach EDITION Basement Bowl, a tiny technicolor den, with table service and DJ.
For culture of the street art kind, go to Wynwood. Seek out Panther Coffee on NW 2nd Avenue for a cup of speciality roast to go, then take to the graffiti and mural plastered streets to appreciate the works of over 100 local and international artists. Keen to see as much as possible, I hopped on the back of a Miami’s Best Graffiti Guide golf cart tour, led by local artist Ryan ‘The Wheelbarrow’ Ferrell, who has an infectious enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge of the artists behind the work. There’s also the dedicated Wynwood Walls, where the crowds descend, but some of the best examples are outside it, in their natural environment.
That tour culminated conveniently at 1-800-Lucky, Miami’s first food hall, and home to Lucky Records. At this Asian-themed spot, you can pick up hearty bowls of ramen, sushi and dim sum platters, and piles of juicy shrimp. It’s also the only place in the city serving frozen beer, which is far better than it sounds. After dark, there’s the buzzy No.3 Social, where cool kids mingle happily with older folks with dogs in tow. It’s the inclusive vibe you’d want from a neighbourhood hangout, with a beaty soundtrack and some excellent cocktails to boot. A few streets away, Wynwood Yard is a pop-up culinary spot with food trucks, a bar and live music, made for the warm evenings Miami enjoys.
To say I ate well in this south Florida city, is an understatement. The overflowing melting pot of culinary influences, reflecting the eclectic roots of its residents, made for many a moment of joyful gluttony. Mexican, Peruvian, Latin American, Italian, North African, Japanese; you name it, they have it. With the Atlantic Ocean lapping at its edge, excellent seafood is also in abundance. The growing trend for food halls makes it easy to sample many dishes in one sitting. In addition to 1-800 Lucky, there’s La Centrale, in Brickell City Centre, focused on Italian fare, and St. Roch Market, over in the design district: a sleek open plan food hall offering multiple cuisines, with a good choice of vegan and vegetarian, from matcha soft serve to deconstructed baba ganoush.
I’m often asked what my favourite restaurant is, an impossible question to answer succinctly. Posed that question in relation to Miami, there are two that would instantly come to mind. The first, is Quinto La Huella, the Argentinian restaurant high up in hotel EAST. I’d suggest booking one of the cosy outside tables, waking up the taste buds with a caipiroska, and ordering a selection of the juicy parilla-grilled meats and seafood – and most definitely the molten provolone cheese – for the table to share. You will leave full and happy.
The second must-book is 27 Restaurant, housed in the Freehand Miami hotel, on the corner of 28th Street and Indian Creek Drive. The homely, mid-century modern décor of this popular spot is all warm tones, house plants, and natural floods of light, while personable waiters, inventive cocktails, and delicious South American-meets-Miami-via-Middle Eastern cuisine, lend additional kudos. The smoked eggplant was so good, we polished it off and ordered another, along with yoghurt and tahini-spiked kale, kimchi fried rice, and spicy lamb ribs.
West of Downtown, in Little Havana, in between shops selling just-rolled cigars, and locals playing lively rounds of dominoes on Calle Ocho, you’ll find unassuming stores and restaurants selling freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice (‘guarapo’) at $1 a pop, guava jam-filled pastelitos, and Cuban sandwiches, oozing with ham and melted cheese. It was here I discovered how delicious deep-fried yukka is, vowing to make it at home, and raised my heart rate with a super sweet and strong tot of cafecito.
Back over in South Beach, at Bodega Taqueria Y Tequila, the creation of self-proclaimed ‘connoisseur of the taco’, Bernie Matz, I discovered first-hand why the Barbacoa (a taco overflowing with guajillo braised short rib and crunchy potato sticks) is so popular they sell over 10,000 a month; found food love in the Al Pastor, a roasted pork, charred pineapple and coriander combo, and got an ice-cream headache slurping enthusiastically on the frozen margarita they have on tap. What I wouldn’t have known, had I not been told, is if you walk inside, past the airstream taco truck, and through the blue door marked ‘Meatmarket AAA’, there lies a speakeasy. This secret lounge, with velvet couches, pool table and wall to wall liquor selection, looks like it’d be a lot of fun after dark. Head there anytime between 6-11pm at the weekend if you want any chance of getting a seat.
Go to the right places and you’ll sup well too. The city’s proximity to Mexico, means you’re hard pushed to find a cocktail menu without mezcal winking back at you. And what splendid cocktails they are. At Sugar, the highest rooftop bar in Brickell with views stretching across to the bay, atop hotel EAST, they’re served among trees and hanging lanterns, to a soundtrack of ambient beats, alongside very good Asian-style tapas (don’t miss the Bang Bang Shrimp). Meanwhile, at the award-winning Broken Shaker, they’re made using syrups and infusions concocted from the garden’s herbs and spices. Add both bars to your to-drink list.
With reliable taxi services such as Lyft beckonable by app, you can get from food hall to hotel to rooftop bar and back pretty smoothly and reasonably in this city. As for the best time to go, aim for February to May, when it’s dry and hot, and you’ll avoid the rainy season, because, as our pal in the know Will points out, ‘the rainstorms ain’t nothin’ to mess with’… Welcome to Miami.
For more information on visiting Miami, visit www.miamiandbeaches.com.