Miami with the FT
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When travellers say they’re going to “Miami”, they often mean that they’re going to Miami Beach — the area’s top tourist destination. The City of Miami is on the mainland. Miami Beach — a separate city — is the southern part of a skinny barrier island that runs alongside Miami (both are part of Miami-Dade County).
The main part of Miami Beach is an area roughly nine miles long and one mile wide, connected to Miami by several long causeways. It’s surrounded by Biscayne Bay on the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Around 90,000 people actually live there but millions visit every year.
Miami Beach also includes a number of small, mostly residential islands on Biscayne Bay such as Star Island, Belle Isle and the four Sunset Islands. These are linked by bridges or causeways except for Fisher Island, a private retreat off the southern tip of Miami Beach that can only be reached by boat (or by helicopter, if you have one). The streets are public on most residential islands (not Fisher or Indian Creek), so even though there’s a guard gate, you can drive around and gawk.
Without traffic, it’s about a 20-minute drive from Miami International Airport to the middle of Miami Beach. Causeway traffic can slow to a crawl during rush hours, though you may get to watch a cruise ship come in. Parking is an epic battle too; unless you’re planning to leave Miami Beach often during your stay, it’s easiest to take taxis or Ubers, rent bikes or walk.
A brief history
When I was growing up in Miami in the 1970s, we’d visit my great-grandmother on Miami Beach (then, as now, everyone just called it “The Beach”). She lived at the Hotel Breakwater, one of a series of then-dilapidated Art Deco hotels along Ocean Drive. All around, other elderly Jews — many of them immigrants (my bubby was from a village outside Minsk) — sat on their front porches in vinyl strap chairs.
Though the City of Miami Beach was then just 60 years old, it had already seen many incarnations and would soon go through several more. The area began as a mangrove swamp, then it was briefly a failed coconut plantation. In 1913, developer John Collins — of the eponymous Collins Avenue, now one of Miami Beach’s main thoroughfares — completed a 2.5-mile wooden bridge linking the island to mainland Miami (that link is now the lovely Venetian Causeway, a low-lying series of streets and bridges flanked by sidewalks and white guardrails).
Collins and other developers, including an Indiana automotive tycoon named Carl Fisher, then set about turning Miami Beach into a ritzy resort. They built grand hotels, stately homes and posh country clubs — many in the Mediterranean Revival style. In 1921, Fisher managed to lure president-elect Warren G Harding — a golf buff — to stay on Miami Beach and pose with an elephant.
Amid the hype, wealthy northerners began flocking there to holiday and buy property. But it was a winter getaway for white Christians only. Black Miamians were banned from hotels and most beaches, and only allowed to spend the night as live-in servants for white households. Jews were allowed to settle in the area south of Fifth Street. Elsewhere, signs in some hotel windows said “Gentiles only”, and one advertisement boasted “Always a view, never a Jew”.
The population changed after a devastating 1926 hurricane, the collapse of a land-speculation boom and the 1929 stock market crash (triggered, some say, by Florida land speculators). Developers began building smaller, more affordable hotels and apartments in the style of the day: Art Deco. New buildings had curved edges, neon stripes, “eyebrow” horizontal ledges over windows, bas-relief panels and a rainbow of pastel colours. There were glass bricks, porthole windows and terrazzo floors too. Between about 1925 and 1943, hundreds of Art Deco buildings went up in southern Miami Beach.
To populate these new hotels and apartments, the middle and working classes soon arrived, including former US soldiers who’d trained on Miami Beach during the second world war. A massive population of exiled eastern European Jews came too. When the Polish-born writer Isaac Bashevis Singer arrived in Miami Beach in 1948, from New York, he sat in cafeterias that served blintzes and chopped liver. He’d eavesdrop on Yiddish dialects, familiar jokes and love stories that had begun decades and continents earlier, and use this rich material in his stories.
Singer also found the landscape of Miami Beach enchanting. “Everything — the buildings, the water, the pavement — had an indescribable glow to it,” he recounts in the book My Love Affair with Miami Beach. Swaying palm trees dotting the island “created a mood in me, and maybe in other people too”. (Years later, Singer would be in nearby Surfside when he learned he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature.)
Further north, bits of the island were turning glamorous again, this time with a Hollywood twist. From the mid-1950s, Frank Sinatra performed regularly at the opulent, newly opened Fontainebleau Hotel, one of many fanciful designs by Modernist architect Morris Lapidus.
It was still whites only. Leading black singers and musicians would perform on Miami Beach, but weren’t allowed to sleep there. They’d stay across the causeway in Overtown (previously called “Colored Town”), a black neighbourhood that — at the time — had a thriving entertainment scene too.
By the 1970s, Miami Beach was rundown and overshadowed by more exotic destinations in the Caribbean. Some Art Deco hotels were demolished and others converted into retirement homes. But true to form, the city would rise again. In 1979, a group of activists who’d rediscovered the neglected Art Deco buildings and formed the Miami Design Preservation League succeeded in having the Art Deco District listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Many historic buildings still risked demolition, but they were seen in a more appreciative light. In the 1980s, they appeared in episodes of the hit TV show Miami Vice and as the backdrop for glossy fashion shoots.
A new generation of developers and promoters arrived to convert old hotels into bars and clubs. Soon South Beach had a thriving gay nightlife scene. For a few years, a dwindling number of eightysomething hotel residents sat on their porches while music roared from clubs next door. (Writer Brian Antoni later wrote a novel set in a Miami Beach apartment block, in which an elderly Holocaust survivor lives alongside a young gay man dying of Aids).
By 1992, the world knew about Miami Beach: Vanilla Ice and Gloria Estefan had homes on Star Island. Gianni Versace bought a house on Ocean Drive, tearing down the 1950 hotel next door to build his private swimming pool and garage (he was later murdered on his front steps); and Madonna spent a then jaw-dropping $4.5m for a mansion in Miami, a short drive across the MacArthur Causeway.
By then Miami Beach was also known for high culture: the Miami City Ballet was founded in 1985 (its dancers rehearsed at a storefront on Lincoln Road, Miami Beach’s main pedestrian shopping street). The New World Symphony — a training academy and performance space for young musicians — opened its doors two years later. In 1995, local philanthropist Mitchell Wolfson Jr opened The Wolfsonian, a South Beach museum devoted to 19th and 20th-century objects and design. The Swiss art fair Art Basel launched an annual Miami Beach edition — Art Basel Miami Beach — in 2002.
What’s it like today?
Miami Beach is in the midst of both a high-end real estate boom and a restaurant renaissance, despite the threat of rising tides.
The city remains a popular vacation spot, but it now has many cosmopolitan year-round inhabitants. Ask a Miami Beach resident where they’re from, and you’re likely to hear an elaborate origin story that includes a list of countries, languages and passports.
The pandemic, and its attendant possibility of working from anywhere, has also attracted members of the financial and creative classes from New York and elsewhere in the US (during the early days of Covid, realtors sold them properties via FaceTime). Northerners have helped fuel the recent surge in house and apartment prices, with some buyers making offers you can’t refuse on homes that aren’t even for sale.
Although 85 per cent of homes in Miami Beach are in risk zones for flooding, that isn’t at the top of many residents’ minds. “It’s very rare that anyone talks about Miami going underwater,” said Nicholas Griffin, an author and local resident. “Why aren’t we building buildings on stilts? We’re very very bad at thinking about tomorrow in Miami.”
The city recently pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050. It has elevated some streets, installed water pumps, planted trees and added hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of sand to prevent erosion. There are plans to do more.
But in the great tradition of Miami Beach, developers just keep building and selling waterfront properties. Why not? They soon hand over responsibility to the buyers.
Not all homeowners are invested in the city’s future either. Some are foreigners parking cash in condominiums while they wait out an economic crisis back home. Others see their Miami Beach pad as a holiday residence and can afford to walk away.
And yet, when you’re on Miami Beach, it’s clear that there’s something very special here. It’s every bit as enchanting as Isaac Bashevis Singer found it some 70 years ago. There are sublime parks and boardwalks for strolls; swanky decks for sunset cocktails; and ambitious chefs cooking up deliciously fresh and local fare. And its ultimate experiences are still free: a dip in the warm Atlantic Ocean, and a walk on the pink brick path that runs for miles alongside it.
Each neighbourhood of this diverse strip has its own history, architecture and ever-changing social microclimate. It can be daunting just to decide where to stay: there are some 20,000 hotel rooms, plus countless short-term apartment rentals (study these offerings carefully; some reviewers warn of dirty sheets, misleading listings and outright scams).
And while Miami Beach has some excellent restaurants, there are also many terrible, touristy ones with indifferent service. When you’re on Ocean Drive, it’s hard to know how to escape the booming tourist zone.
Here’s a brief guide to decoding Miami Beach’s main neighbourhoods, and some highlights of each.
South of Fifth
As the name implies, this area runs from the southern tip of Miami Beach to Fifth Street. It was once a sleepy enclave prized by surfers; when its first ultra-luxury high rises went up in the 1990s, they complained that the condominiums cast a shadow on their waves.
Now it’s a walkable high-end district with many glossy, new, extremely expensive condos (though it’s still dotted with more modest, smaller buildings). Many of the new condos are second homes that, during the pandemic, became first ones — and still are. The northern end of the neighbourhood gets some run-off from the South Beach party crowd. But further south you’ll find reclusive hedge funders, Latin American media moguls and wealthy retirees, some from the Miami area.
A favourite lunch spot is the divine Israeli restaurant Abbalé Televivian Kitchen at 864 Commerce Street. If you can get a table, sit on the bougainvillea-draped terrace and try chef Samuel Gorenstein’s homemade pickles, arak-cured salmon and fire-roasted shakshuka.
Joe’s Stone Crab at 11 Washington Avenue is a Miami institution founded in 1913 and now run by the fourth generation of Joe Weiss’s family. (It was named America’s top-grossing independent restaurant in 2019.) Joe’s still has old-world charm and delicious food, and you still usually have to queue for a table. There are some online reservations, and it’s easier to walk in for lunch, or an early dinner from 5pm. There’s also a long tradition of slipping a bill to the maître d’. Or just get takeaway. Stone-crab season runs from October 15 to May 1, though there’s lots more on the menu. Don’t leave before having a slice of the justifiably famous Key lime pie.
When you need a break from fine dining, locals recommend a low-key dive bar called Ted’s Hideaway at 124 Second Street. Walk off your cheeseburger at South Pointe Park, a gorgeously landscaped green space on the southern tip of Miami Beach, which got a massive makeover in 2009. You can watch the fishermen along the South Pointe Pier, and there’s a seaside branch of Smith & Wollensky steak house right in the park.
Miami Beach’s pink-brick boardwalk starts here and runs all the way to 79th street, along the ocean (there are plans to extend it even further north). It typically features a cross-section of the city: middle-aged power walkers, dog owners, shirtless tattooed men, bikinied bikers and elderly Ultra-Orthodox couples.
The Jewish Museum of Florida, inside a former synagogue on Washington Avenue and Third Street, attests to the neighbourhood’s Jewish past, and displays photos, documents and artefacts dating back to the arrival of Florida’s first Jews, in 1763. Book a visit online.
Named after Carl Fisher, this 216-acre private island off the far south of Miami Beach has its own drive-on ferries (there’s no bridge). Once there, residents mostly zip around on golf carts. Often described as “one of America’s richest zip codes”, Fisher Island is also beset by semi-regular scandals. The most recent one occurred in April 2020, when the Island managed to buy Covid-19 antibody tests for its residents and employees while they were in short supply across the state.
Social life centres around the nine-hole golf course, 17 tennis courts (including two grass courts) and the Fisher Island Club in a 1936 mansion built by William K Vanderbilt, with a saltwater pool. The island’s Democrats say that if they want to keep finding golf partners, they don’t dare bring up politics. If you’d like to visit, get a resident or club member to invite you, or stay at the hotel.
South Beach, east
This is Miami Beach at its most iconic: pink sidewalks, palm trees and groups of young women walking around in bikini tops. It runs from Fifth to 23rd Streets along Ocean Drive, Washington Avenue and Collins Avenue and forms the heart of the candy-coloured Art Deco district. (The Art Deco Welcome Center at 10th Street and Ocean Drive offers architectural walking tours ($30) from Fridays to Mondays at 10.30am.)
It’s also the heart of the local party scene, especially when tens of thousands of young tourists visit at spring break and Urban Beach Week, an annual hip-hop festival in May.
The neighbourhood is more tranquil during the day. Lummus Park runs along the beach over a 10-block stretch between Fifth Street and 14th Place (including the famed gay beach at 12th Street). There are volleyball courts, two kids’ playgrounds and free outdoor workout areas, including the official “Muscle Beach” at Ninth Street.
La Sandwicherie at 229 14th Street (between Washington and Collins) has been serving up French-inspired sandwiches at its funky outdoor lunch counter since 1988. It does fresh salads, smoothies and veggie juices too, and is open daily from 7am to 5am. (Its North Beach location is at 7349 Collins Avenue.)
One oasis of calm is The Bass museum on 21st Street and Collins Avenue. Stroll around the park out front, then spend a worthwhile hour in this petite contemporary-art space, opened in 1964 on the site of a former library.
South Beach, west
The western side of South Beach is a charming residential neighbourhood that feels a world away from Ocean Drive. You can bike past the low-slung Art Deco apartments and private houses that line gorgeous leafy streets.
Flamingo Park Tennis Center on 11th Street and Jefferson Avenue (inside the sprawling Flamingo Park) offers lively, daily adult tennis clinics that are open to anyone. Sign up in advance, online. To really hone your game, call the desk to book a private lesson with coach Delio Pacifici.
Yardbird on 16th Street and Lenox Avenue serves delicious, expert soul food and has a pleasant terrace. Its fried chicken (on a biscuit!) is crispy on the outside, thick and tender on inside, and comes with pickled okra. Chase it with a watermelon mojito or strawberry lemonade, or order one of its “chicken wines” — bottles that pair well with poultry.
Zak the Baker (aka Zak H Stern) is a thirtysomething Miami native whose sourdough, challahs and corned-beef sandwiches have become local institutions (he has twice been a semi-finalist for a James Beard award). Stern’s colourful bakery and café is in Wynwood, but his people deliver pastries and sourdough to the Whole Foods on South Beach, at 10th Street and Alton Road.
Belle Isle and Sunset Harbour
Belle Isle is the easternmost of the Venetian Islands — six residential islands that were created (or, in the case of Belle Isle, enlarged) in the 1920s by dredging fill soil from the bottom of Biscayne Bay.
The low-lying islands, connected by the Venetian Causeway, have become sought after by displaced New Yorkers and others. From Belle Isle you can walk to shops (there’s an embarrassment of high-end grocery stores nearby), restaurants and Pilates. And unlike the resort atmosphere elsewhere, here there’s a young-professionals vibe: after work, inhabitants like to jog across the bridges and take their paddle-boards out on the bay.
Though mostly residential, Belle Isle has a spectacularly hip hotel, The Standard (part of the chic chain), which has been restored to its mid-century glory. A neon sign out front attests to its previous incarnation as the Lido Spa, which a local blog described as having been “less hip than hip replacement”.
Even if you don’t stay at The Standard, drop in for sunset drinks by the water. Or rent the Bayview Suite, where you can host private cocktails for up to 15 people. Then wander through its lush central gardens, past the swings and the fire pit, and into the stylish gift shop.
Much of Miami Beach’s best casual dining is on and around Sunset Harbour Drive, five minutes’ walk east over the bridge from Belle Isle. Stiltsville Fish Bar serves fresh oysters, crab cakes and a selection of icy cocktails. Kid-friendly options include Lucali pizzeria at 1930 Bay Road for the Angus-beef meatballs and pizza margherita, and Sushi Garage, around the corner on 18th Street. Given the neighbourhood’s achingly high coolness quotient, there’s of course a branch of Miami-based Panther Coffee. (Kayak and paddle-board rentals are nearby too.)
On the site of a former funeral home at 20th Street and Sunset Drive, Italian restaurateur Tonino Doino opened the Sunset Juice Café, a restaurant and bakery that makes its own smoothies and wholewheat ciabatta. There’s also Anatomy Gym, which has partnered with wellness and fitness professionals it calls “leaders in age management”. It doesn’t get more Miami Beach than that.
North Bay Road, Nautilus and La Gorce Island
The truly privileged of Miami Beach live in enormous private waterfront mansions along North Bay Road, Pine Tree Drive and La Gorce Island. “It’s a mix of affluent New Yorkers, hedge funders, CEOs, rock stars, energy-drink people, nightclub people and original old Miami Beach families that have been around forever,” explains Jaime Rubinson, a longtime resident (and high-school classmate) who buys and sells homes in the area.
Rubinson explains the lingo among insiders: “Dry side” means that a property is across the street from a waterfront house but not itself on the water (waterfront lots can be many times the price of dry ones); “Wide bay” means you have an unobstructed view of Biscayne Bay from your backyard; “No bridges to bay” means you can drive your yacht out to sea without passing under one (ergo, you can buy a really big boat).
Locals pours over the Miami section of The Real Deal, which tracks real estate news, to see who’s moving to town and what they paid. A seven-bedroom waterfront “spec mansion” on North Bay Road recently sold for $29.5m; a nine-bedroom place down the road went for $32.3m.
The area’s private clubs long ago relaxed their membership rules, although La Gorce Country Club, founded in 1927, specifies that “only individuals nominated by existing members are able to apply”. If you’re invited to play golf there, be sure to read the dress code.
The Nautilus neighbourhood in the 40s, east of Alton Road, is a quiet, slightly less rarefied residential area (though for waterfront North Bay Road residents, it’s practically the other side of the tracks). It’s populated by professionals with children, and is “one of the last areas where you can send your kid out on bike,” says resident Vanessa Menkes, a publicist, who recommends an old-school Italian restaurant on 41st Street called Café Avanti.
This hotel and condo district runs from about 23rd to 63rd Streets. Mid-Beach can get pretty fancy, but there’s now a fresh, low-key stretch between 27th and 32nd Streets. An anchor of this is the Freehand Miami hotel at 28th Street and Indian Creek Drive, which has a determinedly relaxed, young, beach-house vibe and pool scene. Its in-house 27 Restaurant, with casual Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American cuisine, served one of the best meals I had on a recent trip to Miami, using fresh, local ingredients (think Key West shrimp dumplings, yucca with pickled onions, and a summer salad with mint and pomegranate seeds).
The same owners run The Generator hotel a few blocks north on Collins Avenue, with an on-site taqueria. If you need to turn the hipster level way down, there’s the basic but reasonably priced Tradewinds Apartment Hotel on Pine Tree Drive.
Nearby but on a completely different channel is the opulent Faena District on Collins from 32nd to 36th Streets — proof that Miami Beach is still a moneyed playground. It was opened in 2015 by Alan Faena, an Argentine fashion designer turned property developer, with backing from Ukraine-born billionaire Leonard Blavatnik. The District has four restaurants (Pao and Los Fuegos are favourites), an arts centre, a live-music venue at The Living Room, the revamped Saxony Hotel (now called the Faena Hotel) and — of course — extreme-luxury condominiums. Locals say it’s fun in an over-the-top way (on the patio, there’s a Damien Hirst sculpture of a gilded mammoth skeleton).
Mid-Beach has more traditional spots too. The Fontainebleau Hotel at 44th and Collins reopened with a billion-dollar facelift in 2008, and is worth visiting for the poolside scene and the 17,000 sq ft lobby, with a sweeping “staircase to nowhere” (which used to lead only to a coat check).
But if I can find someone to invite me, I’d rather spend the day down the road at the Soho Beach House, a bourgeois-bohemian members’ club paradise (also on 44th and Collins) and part of the Soho House group. It attracts nearby families on weekends.
If you like your martinis dry and your thread count high, there’s the luxurious Bath Club at 5937 Collins Avenue. It boasts three acres of private beach and two clay tennis courts. Founded in 1926 and once open only to WASPs, it’s now owned by Don Peebles, an African-American real estate developer who was the club’s first black member. He calls his revamped version of the club “exclusively inclusive”.
A bit further north, from about 41st to 62nd Streets, is the historic stretch of condominiums known as Millionaires’ Row. These once glamorous, now-dated apartments were built in the ’50s and ’60s, around the same time as the nearby Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc, which was also designed by Morris Lapidus. Miami Beach realtor Allison Turk, another high-school classmate, describes the Millionaires’ Row style as “leather in the elevators”, with staff who have worked there for decades.
If you need to repent after all this luxury — faded or otherwise — help is nearby. West across the waterway is a community of ultra-Orthodox Jews, complete with their own schools, synagogues and kosher shops.
A residential island that’s accessible by the 79th Street Causeway. Perhaps because it’s comparatively affordable, Normandy Isle doesn’t get much love from those in fancier districts of Miami Beach (one person described it as “a really good gated Plan B”).
But locals like its neighbourhood feel and nearby golf and tennis. A pleasant high street is peppered with independent businesses; fans recommend the Silverlake Bistro for a quiet dinner, Bob’s Your Uncle for a boozy, everyone-knows-your-name night out. Many of Normandy Isle’s streets are named after French cities such as Biarritz and Marseille; the island was founded in the 1920s by Henri Levy, who’d made his money in silent film theatres in Ohio but was originally from Alsace.
This is my favourite part of Miami Beach because it has all of the old-world charm with none of the crowds or pretension. It runs from 60th Street up to the town of Surfside, and includes the North Beach Bandshell at 73rd and Collins, an open-air amphitheatre that stages live events.
North of Miami Beach
Though not technically part of Miami Beach, these areas are so close they’re connected in the minds of residents. Be warned: traffic can be crippling on Collins Avenue, the main north-south thoroughfare.
Forget Millionaires’ Row: tiny, private, high-security Indian Creek Island is known as “Billionaire Bunker”. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner reportedly paid $24m for a house here in April (news reports say they also bought an empty lot on the same island). Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen bought a $17m property — including a “teardown” — on Indian Creek last year. There’s no point trying to do a drive-through here: it’s all private and gated.
Surfside is a sleepy town just above Miami Beach that was rocked by the horrific condominium collapse in June. It’s home to a large community of Argentines and other Latin Americans, as well as Orthodox Jews. There’s a low-key shopping district for residents around Harding Avenue. Though historically the poor(ish) cousin of Miami Beach, it’s now home to the improbably luxurious Four Seasons Hotel at the Surf Club, where double rooms recently started at $1,300 per night.
Best known for Bal Harbour Shops — the landscaped, open-air luxury mall that opened in 1965 (only the pretentious British spelling is free). It also has a long row of high-end condominiums, inhabited (at least occasionally) by wealthy Latin Americans, retirees and some young families. Amid the procession of guard gates, there’s not much street life here, and you need a car.
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