Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann was invited to attend events celebrating Virgin Atlantic’s 25th anniversary of service between London and Miami. He wrote a news report about the reaction of the airline’s president, Richard Branson, to the granting of antitrust immunity to American Airlines and British Airways, and a column about Virgin Group’s unique operating structure.
Arnie also filed two dispatches that focus on "the fluff — parties, venues and hotels in South Beach, and the singular and contrarian nature of Richard Branson himself," as he wrote in Part 1. This is Part 2.
While up in my hotel room working on a news story and column following my interviews with Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic CEO Steve Ridgway, I ordered room service from the hotel’s restaurant, Asia de Cuba.
The restaurant is an outpost of a very popular restaurant in New York, and I was uncommonly happy about the prospect of ordering from a room service menu. In fact, I splurged: A lobster/blue crab quesadilla with guacamole.
When the order arrived, the server told me to call down when I was finished, and someone would come up to get the tray. I typically don’t do that — I put the tray outside my door, or simply leave it in the room for the housekeeping staff to get later.
But after I finished my two stories, I decided to walk around South Beach a bit, and took the server’s advice, calling the operator just before I left my room to let someone know they could come and get the tray.
To be honest, my walk down Collins Avenue (from 11th Street to 6th Street) and back up Ocean Drive was a bit depressing.
I first started visiting South Beach in the mid-80s, which was a time of fascinating transition. Interesting, trendy clubs were appearing on the lower end of Ocean Drive, but as you walked up, you’d suddenly pass terrific Art Deco buildings where the elderly would sit on the lawn, blankets across their laps despite the summer heat and humidity.
At that point, Collins generally felt comfortable to walk down, but Washington Avenue was fairly hard-core — drug-addict territory.
Today, Washington and Collins are, for the most part, lined with mall stores that could be found in any city in America. To me, Ocean Drive felt as if it were on a downward arc, lined with gaudy restaurants that try to outdo one another with the size of their drinks.
I’m no teetotaler, but I cringed at the sight of enormous frozen margaritas with four bottles of Corona turned upside down in them. It was late afternoon, and it seemed as if everyone were racing to become blotto.
I did find one terrific shop on Collins called Kidrobot. It has an artistic, almost museum-like quality, yet also interested me as a shrine to marketing. In a minimalist setting, it sells T-shirts and small, vaguely unsettling plastic figures, clearly influenced by Japanese anime.
But it also has what was a fascinating approach to sales and marketing: You are shown all the figures in a "set." The figures are sold individually, but you must buy these figures "blind" — you purchase sealed boxes, knowing only that you’ll get one of the set, but not which one.
My initial reaction was: Who in their right mind would pay $6-8 for a small figure without even knowing what they were getting?
But then I saw one I really, really liked. And I liked the other figures in that set more than the ones in other sets. When I told the clerk I thought I might buy one, despite the 20-to-1 odds that I would get the exact one I liked the best, she told me that this particular set was on sale: Buy two, get one free.
I didn’t resist. I did not get the one I wanted, but I very much liked two of the other three enough to want to keep them. Here is the photo of the one I don’t care for as much. If you like it and are the first to email me asking for it, I will send it to you.
Incidentally, the clerk at Kidrobot told me that the scarcest and most popular of these figures sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay; there’s a subculture collecting these. (The one I’m giving away is not particularly rare.)
When I returned to my room, my food tray was still sitting on my desk, to my surprise. Although normally that wouldn’t have bothered me, the Mondrian had set my expectations. I’ll admit, I was a little bothered.
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this dispatch, I love The Mondrian, but I’ll pause here to give a few rants and raves:
• The overall design.
• The room’s primary mirror, which I’m fairly sure is a slimming mirror (and it has a cheery orange tint to it).
• A large drawing of the face of a vaguely Asian alien goddess on the wall.
• The bathroom, featuring a six-foot-long trough sink, a showerhead coming out of an ornate light fixture and seemingly randomly placed lights attached to the bathroom mirror above the sink.
• The kitchenette.
• An unglazed, unpainted fruit bowl made of ceramic pieces of fruit on the kitchen table.
• The odd blue Delft motif in the midst of high modern style.
• The view out my window of Biscayne Bay.
• The only full length mirror is in the shower stall. While that is not without merit under certain circumstances, it does make it difficult to see which shoes really go better with a pair of pants and shirt, particularly if you’ve taken a shower just before dressing.
• The shower door seal doesn’t do a very good job of keeping the water in the shower.
•I hate to have to mention it again, but my food tray wasn’t picked up as I was led to expect it would be!
When I came back from my walk around South Beach, I had time to go to the fitness center in the hotel before the evening party. It’s a nice gym and, unusual for even style-conscious hotels, blends the property’s over-the-top design motifs into the gym.
The aerobic machines are positioned in front of floor-to-ceiling windows with a view over the bay, which is also a welcome change. I’m surprised at how many of the better hotels stick the gym in whatever space they can find, which often ends up being a windowless room in the basement.
When I returned to my room, my food tray was still on my desk.
I showered, dressed quickly and went downstairs for the transfer to the Raleigh Hotel for the evening party.
This one was a much bigger affair, with hundreds in attendance — perhaps five times the size of the party the evening before. One had to cobble together a meal from passing hors d’oeuvres, but they were both good and plentiful.
The champagne flowed freely. Richard Branson arrived in a Lamborghini, driven onto the pool grounds by a young model. She and Branson made politically incorrect small talk on stage, and then a fireworks display lit the sky. The celebration was on.
The night could not have been more hot and humid, and before I left three hours later there were dozens of people wading in the hotel’s swimming pool, dresses hiked and pant-legs rolled.
British singer Ellie Goulding joined the talented cover band, Shay, for a few songs. Supermodel Karolina Kurkova left the roped off VIP area to dance, check her phone for texts and mingle.
There was a cigar maker sitting at a table, pinball machines, a ping pong table and other diversions, but mostly people talked, sweated, drank, ate, sweated and sweated. I parked myself for long intervals in front of some strategically placed industrial fans, but it didn’t seem to help.
When I returned to the Mondrian around 11 p.m., there was one more surprise waiting: My lunch tray was still on my desk.
I worry it may be there yet.