Travel Weekly Southeast bureau chief Ernest Blum is based in Miami.
He offers his insights into the city's past, present and future.
It took more than 15 years to happen, but a one-mile strip of Ocean
Drive, with its antique hotels from the 1930s, has put Miami Beach
back on the map -- or more specifically, South Beach -- where the
Art Deco hotels are concentrated.
But it is not the
pastel-tinted hotels, rebuilt and rejuvenated, that are in vogue as
much as their sidewalk cafes and bars, giving people-watching Ocean
Drive the air of a semitropical Champs Elysee.
Facing the palm-tree lined beach, cooled by balmy ocean breezes,
diners from around the world gather to take in the evening scene.
It is a noisy, effervescent, multilingual crowd of hip visitors,
peppered with stunning models, fashion moguls, and movie and music
Gawking at them are visitors who stream in from their hotels all
over South Florida, drawn to the trendy avenue along with locals of
In one recent period, they could have spotted the likes of
Leonardo DiCaprio, Elton John, Oprah Winfrey, Whitney Houston,
Sharon Stone, Spike Lee, Michael Bolton, Nicholas Cage, RuPaul and
Other stars make the scene after location work on films shot in
the area, including the recent "Holy Man" with Eddie Murphy,
"Something About Mary" with Cameron Diaz and Matt Dillon, "Wild
Things" with Kevin Bacon, "Donnie Brasco" with Al Pacino and Johnny
Depp, "The Birdcage" with Robin Williams, "Miami Rhapsody" with
Sarah Jessica Parker and Antonio Banderas, and "Up Close and
Personal" with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Other celebrities gather for the annual gala of one of the
nation's hottest fashion magazines, appropriately named Ocean
Drive, which has drawn Sylvester Stallone, Donald Trump, Stephen
King, Oliver Stone, Jon Bon Jovi and designer Nicole Miller.
As these and just plain folks gather at Ocean Drive's outdoor
cafes, the fabled Miami moon shines through palm fronds, after
favoring the Atlantic with shimmering light, but, judging from the
clutter of tables and the clinking of glasses, few seem to be
As on the French and Italian rivieras, samples of the evening's
culinary specialties are spread out in vivid splendor to entice
passersby. Eager to answer questions are eye-catching
But the scene on Ocean Drive is not the only one on the street
that has symbolized South Beach's startling transformation. In a
tragic event that reverberated around the world, Gianni Versace was
gunned down by a crazed sensation-seeker as the Italian fashion
designer strolled to his Ocean Drive mansion on a sunny
Ironically, the gruesome event served to create another tourist
attraction on the street in the form of the designer's iron-gated
palazzo, which has become a tourist stop. The affair became another
in the irrepressible media glare that has made South Beach trendy,
beginning with the TV series "Miami Vice" in the 1980s.
Today, the roster of locally based TV shows grows, including
"City Desk," "The Magic Hour," "Sins of the City," "Maximum Bob"
and one which is the street's namesake, "Ocean Drive."
South Beach's current hip scene is a long way from the sedate
Art Deco hotel strip of post-World War II days, when the country's
nouveau rich flocked in by train, unpacking fur stoles for display
in terrazzo-paved lobbies or on breezy terraces facing the
When the jet age arrived, however, travelers from up north could
get to San Juan and Cancun faster and cheaper than they ever
dreamed, and Miami Beach was on its long spiral downward. By 1982,
the coup de grace came with the opening of Epcot Center in Central
Florida. By then, the Art Deco hotels were down at the heels,
peopled by as many aging locals on Social Security as tourists.
A buzzing sidewalk cafe was nowhere in sight. What was in sight
was the magnificent beach, newly replenished by the U.S. Corps of
Engineers, and European tour operators soon discovered it. For the
price of a week or two in Spain's Costa del Sol, they could package
the pristine beach and its quaint and inexpensive hotels.
European fashion photographers also discovered that South
Florida's faded winter light, unobstructed by rain, was ideal for
fashion shoots. The photographers, with international models in
tow, started flocking in, followed by U.S. modeling agencies
opening shop in the hotels on Ocean Drive.
The vintage hotels had been saved from the wrecking ball by
residents who thought they were of some kind of architectural or
artistic interest and fought to protect them. South Beach was thus
declared the Art Deco Historic District, and its heritage was
By the mid-1980s, the hotels were being scooped up at
bargain-basement prices by European and American entrepreneurs,
including Tony Goldman, a developer of New York's SoHo, who brought
that district's cosmopolitan flair to Ocean Drive, opening up the
News Cafe that is now "ground zero" of the Art Deco district.
The area, which largely coincides with the Art Deco Historic
District, extends from Government Cut below Biscayne Street (south
of First Street) to 23rd Street at the northern boundary.
Compared to the 30- to 70-room boutique hotels to the south, the
northernmost Art Deco properties top 100 rooms, including the
historic Delano and National Hotels as well as the newly opened
Loew's Miami Beach, an 800-room giant with an Art Deco look.
Running perpendicular to Collins, between 16th and 17th Streets,
is the city's chic shopping street, Lincoln Road, which also ran
into hard times but is on the rebound. Once a kind of royal
palm-lined Rodeo Drive, Lincoln Road today is a mall with theaters,
fashionable art galleries and a variety of sidewalk cafes, anchored
by Michael Caine's South Beach Brasserie.
Strollers on Lincoln Road can also take in dance rehearsals by
members of the Miami Ballet, which take place in a store front. And
it's just a short walk to the Lincoln Theater, home to the New
Set to open this spring is the $40 million South Beach Cinema,
featuring the 3,000-seat Regal Cinema, with stadium seating and
digital sound systems, along with a shopping and restaurant
Lincoln Road is also home to many pop music companies and
studios, where local superstars Gloria Estefan, Albita and Jon
Secada record albums. These and other local studios have also been
used by Eric Clapton, Julio Iglesias, Aerosmith, U2, David Byrne,
the Eagles, James Brown, Luther Campbell, Placido Domingo, Aretha
Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Tina Turner.
South of Lincoln Road and parallel to Ocean Drive is Collins
Avenue, with more boutique Art Deco hotels and a collection of some
of the world's leading fashion names, including Giorgio Armani,
Kenneth Cole, Vidal Sassoon and Sephora, which just opened.
Washington Avenue, the city's main drag, features still more
restaurants and some of the city's hottest clubs and discos, where
the night is just starting at 1 a.m., and festivities continue past
dawn. The area has so many clubs that the Miami Herald employs a
club reviewer. A recent issue of the Herald's Weekend Guide listed
just under 40 in South Beach alone, including an article on the
recently opened Bar Room in the old Flamingo Theater on Lincoln
Road, challenging other recent rages such as New York-style Liquid
and celebrity hangout Joia.
The Bar Room is so "in," in fact, that the Herald reported that
an upcoming performer is none other than Demi Moore, slated to do
her new single, "Do You Love Me?," which is a poem set to disco
In the fresh air outside the clubs, South Beach, which is easily
navigable by bicycle, has a small-town look. But instead of homes
on oak-lined streets, there are palm-tree lined streets and
two-story apartment buildings: the world's best preserved
collection of 1930s and 1940s Art Deco and Art Moderne
Besides the fashion models and photographers, other residents
who traditionally hob nob with the area's mix of locals include
European and American yuppies, fashion and music industry
executives and the members of a thriving gay community.
Although visitors were once largely Europeans and Latin
Americans, as well as hip New Yorkers and Los Angelenos, the
visitor profile is becoming more mainstream as South Beach ascends
in media prominence. Among the attractions is South Beach's parade
of models, supplied by as many as 35 modeling agencies. The
peripatetic glamour, both female and male, is impressive even in
Back at the Ocean Drive cafe scene, the decibel level is too
high for many picky diners. For these, restaurants on Lincoln Road
and Washington Avenue offer an ambience more congenial for
concentrating on food.
As on Ocean Drive, the menus are light years away from the
matzoh ball soup and cheesecake of such luminaries of bygone days
as Wolfie's and Pumpernick's.
In their place are chefs like Jonathan Eismann of Pacific Time
on Lincoln Road, who was in such demand for his Asian fusion
cuisine he opened another venue, called Next Door.
And on Washington Avenue, at Astor Place under the glass atrium
in the Astor Hotel, newcomer Johnny Vinczencz is touted for his
jerked tuna, wild mushroom pancakes and corn-crusted yellowtail.
It's a long way from the days of Arthur Godfrey and Jackie Gleason,
who first put this area on the map.