Checking out a trio of South Beach properties

Cruise editor-turned-weekend-landlubber Rebecca Tobin checked out a few Miami Beach hotels. Her report follows:

here's one problem greater than not having enough choices: Having too many choices.

This is too true in Miami Beach, where art deco hotels seem to have multiplied faster than college kids in town on spring break. Pastel-colored properties line the main drag of Collins Avenue, each one as cute as the next, with names like the Surfcomber, the Pelican and the Shore Club.

But sometimes it's tough to tell if the hotel in question is an all-night party spot or if an inexpensive rate means you've got a deal or a dog on your hands.

After staying in one hotel whose lobby smelled strongly of disinfectant and whose bellhop watched from the doorway as I hefted my own suitcase out of the taxi, I decided an education was in order.

Through my contacts at the Miami Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, I was able to test-run three different types of accommodations in three nights: a venerable Miami Beach institution (the Fontainebleau), a midprice hotel chain (Crowne Plaza's Royal Palm) and a boutique property (the Park Central).

All feature beach access for the sun-worshippers and access to the Miami Beach Convention Center for conferencegoers. And each has its own individual charms.

The Fontainebleau

Many older denizens of the Miami Beach scene have traveled in style to the famous Fontainebleau Resort, whose giant, boxy, crystal chandeliers and a staircase to nowhere evoke its 1950s heyday, and whose curved exterior makes it a landmark.

But the Fontainebleau is getting a face-lift. The hotel just finished a $65 million renovation that meshes the grande dame's midcentury style with contemporary touches.

So far, 440 of the hotel's rooms have been renovated, restaurants have been added, and the lobby has been spruced up with a large bar and lounge that's perfect for people-watching.

Because the Fontainebleau is about 25 blocks removed from the frenetic South Beach scene, the crowd is a little more relaxed and less image-conscious. People-watching revealed the Fontainebleau's clientele to be a mix of conventioneers, older couples and families.

Families, in particular, are well-represented. The Fontaine-bleau offers kids Cookie's World, a 7,000-square-foot, Octopus-themed water park. For the rest of us, there's a pool with a grotto and waterfall, a lawn with hammocks, and access to the beach and boardwalk.

Renovations here will barely be complete, however, when the resort's lobby will undergo another change. When the luxury condo/hotel Fontainebleau II next door is completed in 2004, a glass walkway will link the two lobbies.

For more information, call (800) 548-8886 or visit www.fontainebleau.hilton.com.

Royal Palm Crowne Plaza

About 23 blocks away is the Royal Palm, which looks like a classic art deco jewel box.

But, in fact, the Royal Palm's art deco building is new. It was reconstructed to the specifications of the original hotel, which was condemned and demolished in 1998.

In addition to the "original" building, there are 11 suites in the Royal Palm Tower, 104 suites in the 16-story Shore-crest Tower next door and a long, low building next to that that houses 35 lanai suites.

I had the classic "room with a view" on the 14th floor of the Shorecrest Tower, plus a tiny balcony that looks out over the twinkling lights of South Beach and Ocean Drive. Street noise was muffled, and once the sliding door was shuttered, the room was silent. Other Royal Palm suites have direct ocean views.

Decorations were comfortably minimal and uniform, with blond wood and light tones. The suite consisted of a small living room with a couch, desk and TV, and a bedroom with a bed that directly faced the balcony doors. I left the curtains open, and when I woke up I could see a Royal Caribbean International ship sailing into port.

In the rest of the hotel, angular staircases and ramps connect the pool, the lanai suites, the Sunrise Poolside Bar and the towers.

Unfortunately, the Sunrise Poolside Bar was closing up early, so there was no place to sit, nurse a drink and watch the sunset.

Meanwhile, the Deco Lounge in the lobby is a 1940s throwback, and no wonder: Like the hotel itself, this, too, was reconstructed to look identical to the original lobby.

Whereas the Fontainebleau bustled with energy, the Royal Palm was coolly elegant.

For more information, call (800) 2CROWNE or visit www.royalpalmcp.crowneplaza.com.

The Park Central

From my perch high above South Beach, I descended right into the heart of the action.

The Park Central is in the center of the 24-hour South Beach party, making it perfect for guests who want to stroll across the street to the beach, eat a late dinner and hang out in a Washington Street club.

Hotel rooms are decorated in earthy white-and-green hues.

The 12 suites in the hotel's adjacent building are the right size for an extended stay, and there is lots of room to spread out. In addition to a large living room with a couch and two wing chairs, the suites also have a wood-floored foyer with a table for small feasts, plus a decent-size kitchen.

On the inside, the Park Central might seem more like a quaint Floridian hideaway than a hip hotel.

But a second-story Ocean Drive hotel room is never a hideaway. From the music at the nearby hotel pool to a live Latin band in the popular downstairs restaurant and hip-hop beats from the car of whichever reveler was cruising down Ocean Drive at the moment, South Beach is always right outside the window.

Rooms at the rear of the property, and those on a higher floor, would be less likely to have the same noise levels.

A small, rectangular pool and a garden connect the main building to the suites building, and a fence and a few well-placed shrubs help keep the rest of Miami Beach at bay.

Unlike many South Beach properties, which dress up their lobbies in white and neutral shades, the Park Central has some dark wood, brass touches and indoor greenery.

And, of course, people-watching from the Park Central's streetside restaurant is an entertaining way to spend the day.

For more information, call (800) 727-5236 or visit www.theparkcentral.com.

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