South Beach emerges with vitality, energy

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Travel Weekly Southeast bureau chief Ernest Blum is based in Miami. He offers his insights into the city's past, present and future.

Pow Wow in Miami Beach. 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.

Pow Wow logoBut 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 industry stars.

Gawking at them are visitors who stream in from their hotels all over South Florida, drawn to the trendy avenue along with locals of all ages.

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 Marilyn Manson.

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 paying attention.

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 hostesses.

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 morning.

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 beach.

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 preserved.

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 World Symphony.

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 complex.

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 music.

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 architecture.

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 street attire.

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.

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