The Betsy provides a cultural oasis on trendy South Beach

The Betsy's cozy library has room for up to 25 guests.
The Betsy's cozy library has room for up to 25 guests. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

Miami's South Beach is known most famously for sun, sand and partying.

But don't tell Betsy Hotel owner Jonathan Plutzik that there isn't more to the neighborhood in which his property stands.

"Miami Beach is much more nuanced than what we stereotype it as," Plutzik said as he gave me a tour of the 130-room property during a recent hosted stay there. "I believe the cultural story about Greater Miami has not been written about sufficiently."

If Miami is indeed a budding center of cultural sophistication  and May's opening of the $305 million Frost Science Center in downtown is only the latest evidence that it is  then the Betsy has played a role in that emergence.

The resort on South Beach's famed Ocean Drive, which doubled in size last December when it completed a renovation of the former Carlton Hotel, hosts poetry readings and literary talks, offers near nightly jazz concerts and even gives a nod to Miami Beach's heritage as a center for Jewish life by hosting monthly Yiddish-speaking breakfasts.

More noteworthy still, the Betsy actually has a hotel room dubbed the Writer's Room, where authors, poets and other artists are invited to stay and work for free in exchange for giving just one talk or presentation while they are in residence. Since it opened in 2012, the Writer's Room has played host to more than 300 artists.

Paying guests don't get to stay in that room, but they do get to listen to the talks, and they can enjoy the small, smartly curated libraries of 20 to 30 books available in each guestroom. And if that's not enough, guests can spend time in the hotel's cozy library, where there is a larger book selection and space for 25 people.

Meanwhile, the Betsy has also created its own street art for passersby to enjoy. The new bridge that connects the Florida Georgian-style original Betsy building with the Art Deco design of the former Carlton is encircled by "The Betsy Orb," which is a popular spot for selfies.

This focus on writing and the arts comes naturally to Plutzik, whose father Hyam was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry in 1961. And surely the Betsy's reputation as a cultural center is one reason that its lobby bar and sitting area must be among the most subtly sophisticated public spaces on Miami Beach.

The bedroom in the Betsy Skyline Penthouse suite. The suite even has its own grand piano. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

During the two days that I was hosted by the Betsy in late August, I enjoyed live jazz at night in that lobby bar. But I just as thoroughly enjoyed sitting in a lounge chair, reading the morning paper and watching people wander through.

The Betsy's main entrance sits just across Ocean Drive from the beach, and the lobby is also conjoined with the hotel's LT Steak & Seafood, run by Laurent Tourondel, who was a co-founder of the BLT Steak chain.

Of course, you can't (or at least shouldn't) spend an entire weekend in a lobby bar. Fortunately, my room at the Betsy also proved a nice respite from my work-a-day routine.

A spacious one-bedroom suite in the old Carlton, which the Betsy now calls the Art Deco Wing, it featured two balconies, one overlooking Collins Avenue and the other overlooking the hotel's atrium courtyard. The plush king bed, coupled with fortified glass windows and walls to keep out the South Beach noise, made for excellent sleeping. And I enjoyed the light streaming in during the daytime as I sat reading on the living room couch.

The hotel itself is a bit of maze for the first-time visitor. Getting to my room from the main lobby, for example, required an elevator ride to the third floor, a walk through the hallway bridge that connects the original Betsy, (called the Colonial Wing) with the Art Deco Wing and then a second elevator ride to the second floor.

But while the labyrinth that is the Betsy can be a bit of an inconvenience, it's also part of what makes the hotel extraordinarily charming.

Walking those halls and touring the facility with Plutzik, I was struck by how many unconventional public spaces the Betsy houses. Indeed, there are a dozen public areas, and that doesn't count Poeti, the Italian restaurant that Tourondel will open in November. Among the more unusual public spaces is the expansive Ocean Deck, which sits on the rooftop of the Colonial Wing, offering a bar and free morning yoga. It adjoins what Plutzik says is Miami's only completely outdoor spa.

I was also impressed with the small boardroom that opens out to an amphitheater-like garden terrace with tiered seating. In total, the Betsy has 17,000 square feet of event space.

Of course, no South Florida hotel is complete without a pool. The Betsy has two of them, and the larger of those, like all else at the hotel, is far from ordinary. Constructed as a rooftop bridge between the Colonial and Art Deco wings, it is something of an engineering wonder, requiring 30,000 pounds of steel reinforcement on both sides.

The Betsy pool bridges the roofs of the hotel's Art Deco and Colonial wings.

That pool is where I spent my late Saturday afternoon. I stood in the comfortable water, the sun beating down on my head, and enjoyed a couple beers as I gazed out on the nearby Atlantic.

After all, even at a literary hotel like the Betsy, there's nothing wrong with finding time for relaxation of the mindless variety.

Visit the Betsy website for more information.

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI