Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Favorite Places - Part 10 - South Beach

Every couple of years when we return to our home state of Florida, Jenny and I enjoy a mini-Honeymoon at Miami's South Beach. Even though I could be sitting by the ocean within a half-hour here in California, Miami's blue water maintains a special hold on my imagination, so much that I often take a mental vacation to the Florida coast whenever I'm in traffic or anywhere else I'd rather not be. It started in 1993 when I attended a conference of the (then-named) Speech Communication Association in Miami and took a bus tour of South Beach neon. Besmitten, I took my family on a 2001 architectural pilgrimage to visit the Miami art deco historical district, a one-square-mile collection of hotels and other sites built between the 1930s and the 1950s. On that trip we discovered a gorgeous array of tropical-colored "moderne" designs: nautical-themed details, streamlined "speed lines," raygun emplacements, fields of glass block, and plenty of neon. Jenny and Vienna thought it was pretty cool, but I was blown away. So ever since that first trip, Jenny and I have made regular overnight visits to South Beach part of our family tradition.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

When it comes to my favorite places, I tend to build and follow certain vacation habits. So here's my ideal trip to South Beach: Since our Florida trips tend to be based in Largo (where our extended family resides), we begin our Miami vacation early in the morning, leaving Florida's west coast no later than five to arrive in Miami by noon. Jenny detests early mornings, so she sleeps a few hours while I cross the Sunshine Bridge and head south toward Alligator Alley. Passing through Florida's swampy interior I keep an eagle eye for highway patrol cars waiting to pick off speeders. Jenny wakes up at this point and we chat for a couple of hours before entering the Miami metroplex. We rarely consult a map anymore, and consequently we often get a bit lost trying to find the right bridge that leads to the barrier island beaches. Once we spot the proper road I turn on my Miami playlist and we cross Biscayne Bay. Essential tunes include Donald Fagen's "The Goodbye Look" and "Walk Between the Raindrops."
In my dreams I can hear the sound of thunder
I can see the causeway by the big hotels
That happy day we'll find each other on that Florida shore
You'll open your umbrella
And we walk between the raindrops back to your door

(Photo by Jenny Wood)

One of us checks into our hotel -- usually a smaller place on Collins Avenue -- while the other parks the car in a public lot. After freshening up in our room we walk to one of the outdoor cafés on Ocean Drive near the Breakwater Hotel. I always order a Bloody Mary and buy a cigar, much to Jenny's chagrin. We drop by the Miami Design Preservation League welcome center, stroll through their museum in back, grab some gelato at a nearby shop, and then amble to the beach. Even on a crowded day we can always find a nice spot to rent an umbrella and some deck chairs. Jenny puts on her sunglasses and relaxes while I jump into the water. I love splashing under a clear blue sky filled with advertising banners dragged from low flying airplanes and the occasional para-glider. After a while I turn around to face the beach, watching shadows slowly cover the big hotels as the sun heads west.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

Eventually I return to the shore, surprised at how far the currents pulled me from our chairs. I walk by a happy and relaxed crowd of beach-goers, some women sunbathing topless, some men wearing Speedos. I sit near Jenny, draping my feet with a towel and listening to tunes on my iPod. We chat about the weather, gawk at South Beach fashions, read diverting books, and nap for the rest of the afternoon. By about five or so we pack up and return to the room, change our clothes, and walk the length of Lincoln Avenue in search of a good dinner vibe. It's hard to find a bad meal along that lovely promenade, so we simply hunt for that certain combination of ambiance and selection that speaks to us on that trip. Jenny loves pulled pork and plantains, so we usually aim for cuban food. For dessert we usually splurge for sundaes at Ghirardelli's. Sometime that evening I'll take out the cigar I failed to finish from the afternoon and puff a bit more, but only while walking outdoors. While the kids are just starting to hit the clubs we take one last walk along Ocean Drive, enjoying the sublime glow of neon on the deco hotels before heading to our room for the night.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

The next morning we sleep in, waking when our appetites command us. We store our bags and head out of the room one last time on our way to the Delano Hotel for brunch. I love passing through the flowing white curtains and entering the long dark concourse that leads to the outdoor restaurant in back. Uniformed workers open doors for us and smile even though we all know that the Wood family can't yet afford to stay in a place like this. We take our seats in the restaurant and enjoy consistently pleasant service. A few years ago I asked our waiter to bring me a different kind of rum drink than my standard Mai-Tai, something cuban. He introduced me to a Mojito long before I'd ever seen them advertised relentlessly on television, and he said the first one was free. I ordered two or three and thanked him for his advice. That really is a great Miami drink. One day we'll ignore budgetary reality and stay a night at the Delano, proving that there's no such thing as a free Mojito after all.

(Photo of Andy dancing on stage at Mai Kai taken by Jenny Wood)

Afternoon is usually spent back on the beach, wishing we'd worn more sunscreen and recognizing that warming glow as the promise of two or three days of peeling skin. By early evening we depart our beloved South Beach and head for Fort Lauderdale. To me, it's hard to beat a night at the Mai Kai, one of the last great Polynesian-themed restaurants in the country. The evening becomes pricey pretty fast when you include parking, "island libations," and an elaborate stage show. Even when we skip the show we always allow time for a walk through their garden under the shadow of tiki idols and glowing torches. After our meal, we make a quick visit to the gift shop and depart. If it's late we take the interstate back, otherwise we take the slow road around Lake Okeechobee. We usually arrive sometime well after midnight, exhausted and a bit "bronzed." And even as I collapse into bed, I yearn of our next visit to South Beach.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

Learn More

  • South Bay Deco: a website I built to celebrate art deco architecture. To learn more about the style, start with my Deco Dictionary.

  • In Cold Blood, and a neighborhood near you: Matt Heller's blog entry that describes the current status of the Somerset Hotel (postcard at the top of this entry), now the Ocean Walk Condominium.
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