It's a win-win situation: World-renown Miami Beach, a flip flop-wearing tourist's haven, and Downtown Miami, a vibrant new hot spot for upscale locals. Vacationing in these districts gives visitors the best of both worlds: Big beach fun and deluxe city life.
South Beach Has All the Fun
Walk down Lincoln Rd., South Beach's pedestrian mall, and what's noticeable is that tourists have taken over. They're in the restaurants, nightclubs, galleries and performing arts centers. You pass them by and expect to hear English spoken. Instead you hear snippets of Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Italian... South Beach is a tourist mecca, filled with people on vacation looking for a good time. Keep that in mind...
Finally, a Comfortable Hotel in South Beach
Kimpton's new Surfcomber, a boutique Hotel on Collins Avenue off 17th St., is only three stories high and sits right on the beach. It's not overbearingly snobby, like other South Beach hotels. Instead it has a stylish, friendly, informal and non-pretentious atmosphere. At Surfcomber, you can let it all hang out. You'll know this the second you walk into the lobby and see the eclectic furniture, statues of sheep and bovines and the surfboards on the walls. The 186-room hotel is eccentric and fun and its guests look comfortable, like they can really relax.
The intimate guest rooms, with cheery patterned interiors are quiet as a nun's convent. Wake up in one and you'll have no clue that the 77-foot-long heated pool and the pool scene are so lively. Singles, couples, families. Americans, Europeans, South Americans. A din of laughter. In other hotels, you're afraid to get in the pool and muss your hair because you think everyone is looking at you. And they are! At Surfcomber, the cocktails flow, guests float around nonchalantly on air mattresses and beach balls are batted around with abandon. It's almost like you're in someone's backyard. Except, there are statues of bovines, a constant reminder that you should lighten-up, grin and have fun. The pristine shoreline is just across a footpath and inundated with sun seekers egging you on to the beach.
You can bike up and down the boardwalk that extends 77 blocks from South Point to North Beach. Tennis at Flamingo Park is going to get even better, they're adding a new drainage system to the clay courts. The people watching, café hopping and window shopping on Lincoln Rd. is an all-day, all-evening event: Apple Store, Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, William Sonoma. However if you're a serious shopper, take a 35-minute drive up to the Sawgrass Mills Mall (12801 West Sunrise Boulevard, Sunrise, FL), arguably the best discount shopping mall in the country: Barney's, Hugo Boss, Burberry, Saks Fifth Off, Nike, TJ Max, Best Buy... If you can't find a bargain here, you can't find one anywhere!
Spas on the Beach
The Canyon Ranch Spa (6801 Collins Ave.) is South Florida's largest: 70,000 square feet. The saunas, steam rooms, Jacuzzis and waiting rooms are as lavish as a Fellini film set. Try the Deep-Tissue Thermal Therapy or the Muscle Melt for "Road Warriors" or the Ashiatsu, Deep Barefoot Massage. Martha Stewart, Justin Bieber, Alex Rodriguez, Eva Longoria and Ricky Martin have all stayed in one of the apartment-sized suites at Canyon Ranch or lounged on its beach.
The La Maison de Beauté Carita treatments and European wellness and beauty rituals at the Ritz-Carlton Spa (1 Lincoln Rd.) includes their signature Rhythm Massage. This unique service combines the distinct flavor and culture of Miami using Latin music to create a tropical feeling of relaxation. You wake up refreshed, almost craving a margarita.
Eating and Swinging
At Surfcomber, Chef Ferdinand Ortiz's Asian cuisine Lantao restaurant serves up Blue Crab Spring Rolls and signature, slow-cooked-all-day Korean spiced BBQ Pork Ribs that start a meal with a bang. The Singapore Chili Prawns & Crispy Kale (spicy Singapore crushed chili sauce, toasted sesame seeds, scallions) is perfect for dinner and the Crisp Citrus and Thai Basil Marinated Whole Fish looks like it will jump off the plate.
Billowy white curtains drape and flow against pillars in the night breeze at the indoor/outdoor Italian restaurant Bianca, at the Delano. The Grilled Octopus (char-grilled, cherry tomato salad, aged balsamic) has the consistency of a thick tender pork belly and a deliciously smoky taste you can't pinpoint. For pasta, the Veal Ravioli is just right. The King Salmon (organic faro risotto, Barolo reduction, roasted baby eggplant) will wrestle your taste buds to the ground.
Stroll down Lincoln Rd. at night if your sweet tooth is craving something sugary and creamy. Take an outdoor seat at Icebox Café and order The Bomb, Oprah Winfrey's favorite dessert: Layers of dark chocolate, creamy cheesecake brownie and chocolate mousse filling with dark chocolate ganache. For evening excursions and culture, hang out at the Britto Art Gallery, Colony Theatre, New World Symphony and Regal South Beach Cinemas.
There's New Life Downtown
During the real estate bust, downtown Miami turned into corridors of tall glistening, empty condos -- an urban ghost town. These days, low rents, and affordable prices have brought bargain hunters and renters to a city center that's one part bustling financial/business hub another part burgeoning residential district. Signs are up for the building of a Whole Foods at 3rd Avenue and SE 2nd Street, and that will be a game changer in an area innundated with swank hotels, condos and precious few stores.
A downtown hotel for all or part of a Miami vacation will suit the off-the-beaten-path vacationer. Kimpton's Epic Hotel, at 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, just around the bend from iconic Biscayne Blvd., makes the perfect refuge in a concrete jungle dotted with palm trees. It's not on busy, four-lane Brickell Avenue; it's off on the banks of the Miami River, a stone's throw from Biscayne Bay where both waterways meet. Cruise up the hotel's circular driveway and you'll encounter a sea of Range Rovers and Mercedes (in Miami, people judge you by the car you drive). The swank cars outside portend whom you will see inside. As do the luxury boats that are anchored in Epic's marina.
A vast, serene, beige-colored lobby leads you to elevators that take to you the 411 guestrooms and suites. Floor to ceiling windows, spacious balconies, marble bathrooms and plush carpets set the tone. This is New Age luxury. By day you can hang out in a private cabana on the sun-drenched 16th floor terrace, which has two swimming pools and a café. It's tempting to sit there indefinitely and enjoy the skyscraper views with Key Biscayne Island in the distance. But if you venture out, activities abound.
Play by Day
Grove Isle Tennis Center, in nearby Coconut Grove, offers lessons or play on 11 Har-Tru tennis courts. Or practice your strokes on any of the 26 courts (18 hard, 6 clay, two grass) at Crandon Tennis Center on Key Biscayne Island, home of the Sony Ericcson Open, which features the world's top 96 tennis players. For peanuts ($13 per hour), you can play on center court and pretend you are whipping the hell out of Murray (a Miami resident), Federer or Serena. Mariano Parris, director of tennis, can regale you with the rich history of the center. Next door, Crandon Golf Key Biscayne is open to the public. This championship, par-72, 18-hole golf course has hosted Senior PGA Tour events and attracted Lee Trevino, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Gary Player. The par-four seventh hole veers to the right and sends golf balls soaring over the bay.
If you're thinking your body needs to get buff, take a "Core Fusion" class at Epic's 12,000-sq.-foot Exhale Spa. A Core Fusion Barre class mixes core conditioning, Pilates, the Lotte Berk Method and yoga. When you're done you will ache in places you've never felt before, but the next day your gut will be tight as a drum. Ask for the instructor Julie Wiesman; she looks like a ballerina but works you like a Marine drill sergeant.
When you've done your last pushup, reward yourself with a Fusion Massage, which combines therapeutic massage with potent herbal and aromatherapy oils; choose from an uplifting, detoxifying or relaxing blend. The unique spa menu even offers DogaTreatments (massage for the dog, yoga for the human).
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Zuma, at the Epic Hotel, is the hot culinary spot in downtown Miami. The clientele tends to be upscale, local and moneyed at this trendy Japanese/sushi restaurant. The crowd here gazes over the extensive drink menu and orders shots of exclusive sakés like "Hidehiro Shinbo" Daiginjo, which sells for $1,900 a bottle; there are only 18 bottles in the U.S. If alcohol is not your thing, try a refreshing Bishonen (muddled raspberries and strawberries shaken with white peach and calpico water). You could eat a full dinner, but the herd comes for grazing, snacking their way through appetizers: like the Caterpillar Maki (prawn tempura with freshwater eel, avocado roll).
The nautical term for the waters from North America to Brazil, where this hip eatery gets most of its fish, gives Area 31 Restaurant & Bar at the Epic its name. Chef E. Michael Reidt serves delicious Fish Fry (citrus aioli) and Confit Of Pork Belly (banana-lentil salad, crispy chicken skin, chili-caramel) for appetizers. For dinner the Tasting menu ($60/$95 paired with wine) features locally grown ingredients in dishes like Crispy Skin Snapper (shrimp grits, fava beans, shrimp powder, preserved lemon).
Literally across the street from Epic at JW Marriott, Db Bistro Moderne, created by famed New York Chef Daniel Boulud, serves an exquisite Duck Pâté, which should be followed with Pan Roasted Diver Sea Scallops (on a bed of black truffles, golden chanterelle mushrooms, risotto with white truffle oil and Parmesan emulsion). Don't trouble yourself with picking a dessert, have two! Fluctuate between the Pandan Scented Rice Pudding and the Deconstructed Key Lime Pie. Forget about the calories, you can hold your stomach in as long as you keep taking the Core Fusion classes.
Visit travel writer Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com.