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The many shades of Miami Beach From the candy coloured art deco hotels to the coolest nightclubs on the planet South Beach Miami is a magnet for the rich, the famous and those lucky enough to delve beneath the veneer and uncover its hidden gems. Norah Casey survives three days and tells all. My late husband’s view of Miami was heavily influenced by the 1983 movie Scarface where Al Pacino plays a vicious murdering Cuban drug lord. So on our first visit together he wasn’t keen on venturing anywhere near the city and we opted for the more gentrified locale of South Beach instead – a whole world away from downtown Miami. And we both fell in love with it. At that time it was undergoing a transformation. In the 1980s South Beach became a haven for bohemian retirees where the crumbling art deco buildings commanded low rents and the beach was right on the doorstep. By the time we visited in the 1990s the area was on the turn but still magical. We stayed in small hotels all beautiful but in disrepair where you could still glimpse the faded glory of better years in the dilapidated furnishings and peeling wall paper. There was a real neighbourhood feel to South Beach then, a place for shorts and flip flops and hanging out at the beach from morning to sundown. Now it’s transformed yet again. Some areas of South Beach have worked hard to rise above the touristy over-priced strip that is now Ocean Drive creating a destination that is a luxurious urban mecca for celebrities, even if they hardly ever venture into the heartland of South Beach. From its early origins South Beach was always a world apart from the city. It was more a remote sandbar than anything else when an investor John Lum bought it all for just 35 cents an acre – he thought he could create a coconut plantation there but finally gave up in 1890. Until 1910 is was more swamp and mangroves than pristine sand. Then another investor stepped up in the early 1900s, John Collins, and he wanted to grow avocados and out of necessity he started building a canal and a bridge to connect South Beach to the mainland. He went broke before it was finished but two brothers arrived on the scene in 1912 (John and James Lummus) and they had a whole new plan for South Beach. They wanted to build a bathhouse to attract tourists and create a destination out of this small strip of sand. Other entrepreneurs were attracted to South Beach and so the bridge and canal were finished the mangroves were cleared and the bay was dredged. The first luxury hotel arrived soon after and expensive stores opened up in Lincoln Road. The yachts began to arrive as wealthy tourists came to stay and shop. Mansions and more luxury hotels in the 1920s paved the way for the art deco era of the 1930s when South Beach’s landmark pastel-coloured hotels and buildings were finished including the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc – both still the granddames of South Beach. As the years rolled by the facades began to crumble and the investment dried up. Then ironically – television shows like Miami Vice – with scenes often shot against the majesty of South Beach’s fading facades created renewed interest in this little piece of history. The mid-1980s saw a renaissance in South Beach with restoration projects to preserve these beautiful art deco buildings. Artists, fashion designers and celebrities created a new vibe in South Beach – Gloria and Emilio Estefan invested in hotels and the fight back against the prevailing view – that the buildings should be torn down – began in earnest. Property developers and architects collaborated to renovate the hotels of Ocean Drive. We stayed at one such hotel. The National Hotel Miami Beach is an Art Deco landmark designed by Roy France a noted architects of the time. It was one of the grandest hotels on the beach front when it opened in 1940. Tastefully renovated in 1997 when it was reopened under new ownership. Many of the original features were lovingly restored and art deco art and antique pieces replaced those fittings that couldn’t be renovated. But the upholstered barrel chairs in the lounge, the chrome light fixtures and the terrazzo flooring in the Martini Room are all original. The oak bar still stands in the hotel’s main bar and the carpeting and chandelier are all originals in the Ballroom and Oval Room. The guest rooms of the National’s 14-story historic tower and cupola were renovated in 2012 with new dark wood furnishings and modernised bathrooms maintaining the art deco feel. The Terrace Rooms and suites are more generously sized with terraces that over-look the iconic 205 ft. infinity pool – the longest in Miami Beach (and perfect for laps). A second pool allows for sun-bathing and more leisurely swims while a few steps away you can access the beach directly and avail of the National Beach Club’s own chaise lounges and umbrellas. Breakfast is served on the terrace or inside next to the Blue’s Bar and lobby and sundowners on the terrace are the perfect way to end a blissful day of doing nothing. And as night falls the National is the perfect location for exploring South Beach – we walked almost everywhere and most of what you need is on the door step. We took taxis only when we had to. If you’re going to stay in South Beach my advice would be to stay in an Art Deco hotel. Remember however that they are old, most are sympathetically renovated but that comes at a price in terms of mod cons so expect some problems with plumbing and electricity you might expect from a beach-fronted 80+ year old building (and the Wi-Fi rarely works). Also they will inevitably be more expensive and the room sizes in South Beach are small by average standards and even smaller in the historic hotels. But all I can say is that it is worth it because the ambiance and décor transports you to a different era and adds to the magic of the holiday. You will never experience a truly authentic art deco historic district like this and it is far better to immerse yourself in it than to watch from the side-lines. The National Hotel Miami Beach, 1677 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, FL 33139Telephone 305- 532-2311 email email@example.com; web site www.nationalhotel.com We had only three days in Miami and we made the most of it. Day 1 We arrived late in the day – Delta had lost our luggage and kept it for a day or two – so it took some time to get organised with something to wear (but we saved time on the unpacking!). We had already planned to go to one of the hottest restaurants in Miami but only one problem – it takes no reservations. The rich and famous have to stand in line with the rest of us and I’d been warned that the queues were sometimes hours long. But I have wanted to go to this place for years – it was a favourite haunt of Al Capone and Frank Sinatra – and I had already read everything there was to know about it – it’s history, the menu, who owns it, who runs it – in short I had overdone the homework and had was in danger of over-hyping it for everyone else. The place is none other than Joe’s Stone Crab which began in the early 1900s when Joe and his wife Jennie discovered this little known delicacy – stone crabs – which were teaming in the waters around Miami. Since then it’s been frequented by famous actors, sports stars and politicians and even featured in Goldfinger the Ian Fleming’s novel (under the nom de plume of “Bill’s on the Beach” ) where James Bond ate the best meal he had ever eaten in his life. Now there’s a recommendation. And to give you a sense of its popularity Joe’s is also the second highest grossing restaurant in the US – the October 2014 issue of Restaurant Business Magazine placed Joe’s Stone Crab number two in the country with revenues of $35.3 million (number one was Tao Asian Bistro, Las Vegas with revenues of $64.6) Joe and Jennie opened the restaurant in 1913 in the front room of their bungalow and their son Jesse Weiss who took the mantle on is widely credited as having created the enormous celebrity following. “Anyone well known who came to Miami Beach, from anywhere in the world, would stop in at Joe’s” the maître’d told us later that night. Jessie knew them all – Amelia Earhart was a regular and according to Jessie :”She was down to earth. You knew where you stood with her. If you’ll pardon the expression, there was no bullshit to her.” Other regulars included The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Swanson, J. Edgar Hoover, Mohammad Ali. Joe’s uses its own boats which is fortunate because during the stone crab season (October to May) it uses up to a thousand pounds of crab a day. During the season Joe’s can serve up to 2000 diners a night on a first come first served basis and that’s after 1000 for lunch. The first stop on arrival is the Maître’d stand. We arrived out of season in the summer months so the good news was the queue wasn’t too long but the bad news was we didn’t get to try the stone crabs. Despite our wonderful Maître’d’s attempts to explain the texture and taste of the sweet succulent meat dipped in Joe’s famous mustard sauce we felt a little hard done by that we didn’t actually get to taste them ourselves. We had a drink in the huge oversized bar while waiting and were soon ushered to our table. There were five of us in the party and we ate in the main high ceilinged dining room. This is an old school restaurant with tuxedoed waiters and formal service. However it also manages to have that casual Miami feel so that diners were as likely to be wearing shorts as suits. The staff here are veterans, many have been with Joe’s a long time and see it more as a family. Our waiter regaled us with stories from his many years there and talked fondly of the comradery between the staff. He had an incredible memory, not a notepad in sight and steered us gently in menu choices with that old fashioned charm that’s all but lost in the restaurant industry. We might have missed the stone crab season but we feasted on seafood and had a fantastic evening in the bustling dining room at Joe’s. It lived up to the hype and then some and is firmly on the bucket list for a return visit when the stone crabs are in season. We donned bibs, rolled up our sleeves and ate lots of crab. Before that we enjoyed a perfectly chilled Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail ($14.95), a dozen oysters ($16.95), the teens had Fried Calamari (13.95) served with a tangy Key Lime Curry Aioli – my own selection for the table (we shared everything) was Lobster Tacos ($15.95) served with avocado aioli & mango – and they were divine. For the big feast we ordered steamed Killer King Crab Claws (Large 20oz $54.95), grilled King Crab Legs with roasted garlic oil (24oz $72.95); Lobster Macaroni & Cheese ($18.95) we were by now aficionados of “lobster mac” – Joe’s was very different served with a creamy white cheddar from Vermont. There was more than enough for the five of us. On the waiter’s recommendation we tried Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley ($53) which he promised would cut through the richness of the shellfish and he was right – it had a wonderful clean, refreshing taste with lots of citrus notes to balance the delicate shellfish. Afterwards (well quite some time afterwards actually as we needed a long rest in between) our Maître’d was back to encourage us to try Joe’s Famous Key Lime Pie – our first of the visit so we had to try it but only order one portion to share. The teens wanted ice cream and this was some ice cream. Joe’s been a fine old institution of over 100 years teamed up with another fine institution Graeters Ice Cream – which started in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1870. They ship tubs down to Joe’s and it’s served as it comes – by the pint. Three large tubs arrived to the table with lots of spoons for sharing and it was divine – we chose the Original Salted Caramel, Black Cherry with Chocolate Chip and Chocolate Coconut Almond Chip. And then we rolled home content that we had just enjoyed a special evening in one of America’s great institutions. Joe’s Stone Crab; 11 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, FL 33139, telephone 01 305-673-0365; www.joesstonecrab.com Day 2 We enjoyed time on the beach and by the pool at the National Hotel – partly because we were all a bit tired and still digesting the enormous feast at Joe’s the night before but mostly because Delta still had our luggage and we were constantly back and forth to reception in the hope that they might arrive. But by late afternoon our luggage had earned more air miles than we had and we washed the clothes we had worn the night before and hoped they would dry in time for the big excursion that night. One of the highlights of our stay on South Beach was an evening at Hakkasan the haute cuisine of Asian food and a sister restaurant to the Michelin star Hakkasan in London which opened in 2001. There are now five Hakkasan in the US and 12 across the world. We had booked weeks prior to the trip as a special treat. The evening would be even more special as this Hakkasan is based in one of the coolest hotels in Miami Beach, the Fontainebleau. The hotel has several restaurants but Hakkasan was our destination of choice The Fontainebleau opened in the 50s and quickly built a reputation for being the biggest and the most opulent. It was renovated in 2008 and is now firmly back on top. It is also home to LIV – one of the hottest clubs in South Beach. There are some magic ingredients at work at Hakkasan which is why a visit is such a treat. It’s more the whole experience – a sum of the parts – rather than one offering over another. The food is not Chinese per se – there are lots of Asian influences at work and even then that’s not what makes it different. The menu cleverly marries traditional dishes with a contemporary twist often serving classic food with gourmet garnishes that add that glossy finish that sets one meal apart from another. Hakkasan’s menu is tried and tested, Michelin starred and expertly executed. From the moment we arrived we were transported into that distinctive oriental ambiance that could be Shanghai as easily as Miami. The Fontainebleau Hakkasan took some elements of South Beach and cleverly combines traditional dark teak screens and furnishings with hints of blues and turquoise reminiscent of the ocean on its doorstep. The low level lighting and discrete dining areas add to the feeling of grandeur and privacy. The restaurant was full and the staff were busy but within our own dining cocoon you just got a sense of moving shadows beyond the screens. Just at the right moment the waiting staff would appear with various courses before quietly leaving the space to us again. We had the signature Hakka cocktail to start – Grey Goose vodka with sake, coconut, passion fruit and lychee juice. It was a little sweet for my liking but it hit the right note in terms of setting the tone for the evening. This is a “blow-out” dining experience and it doesn’t come cheap. But the food lived up to our expectations and as evenings go it was very special – I have certainly had my share of overpriced meals that didn’t feel that special despite the cost. So all I can say is if you are planning one beautiful meal during your visit then Hakkasan can certainly offer you that. A word about the menu – we took a lot of advice from our waiter who was more than helpful in terms of portion sizes and flavours that worked well together. There was five in our group so we shared all of the dishes so got to try lots of things. We didn’t go for the Peking Duck with Petrossian Caviar at $198 we thought our palettes might not appreciate the expense. However we did have the wonderful grilled Silver Cod served with Champagne and Chinese honey which is a Hakkasan signature dish ($48) and more Japanese (think Nobu). All of the dishes are beautifully presented and a feast for the eyes as much as the palette. To start we had the Dim Sum Platter ($28) – beautifully served and melt in the mouth divine, Crispy Duck Salad ($25) – this was superb and served with pomelo, pine nuts and shallots; Salt and Pepper Squid ($20) and some aromatic Jasmine Tea Smoked Beef Short Rib ($28). As well as the signature Silver Cod we ordered Steamed Chicken with Ginger Sauce ($16) – firm favourite with the teens; Charcoal Grilled Sha Cha Chilean Sea bass ($48) – which had a wonderful kick; Stir-fried Bahamian Lobster with XO Sauce ($58) – Crispy Chicken with Orange Sauce. Miami’s Hakkasan serves local ingredients so while it is true to the Hakkasan menu it has some wonderful original dishes like the stir fried grouper with black truffle. We stayed with the US wines for the meal – a long time ago I narrowly missed interviewing a woman called Delia Viader in Napa Valley (Deer Park, California) during a review trip – she was doing some exciting things with varietals and called the Cabernet Franc something she “dared” to do. And here on the Hakkasan menu was the 2008 Cabernet France “Dare” by Viader – what are the chances! It was like a little blast from the past and I couldn’t deny destiny. It was perfect for this rich, glamorous meal with a wonderful combination of blackcurrant, chocolate and vanilla. Just perfect. As was the whole evening. Before leaving the Fontainebleau we stepped into the ultra-cool Bleau bar in the lobby where it appeared the whole of Miami had congregated for drinks before descending on LIV the world famous night club. I had only seen pictures of LIV before – frequented by the Kardashians, Justin Timberlake, Jay Z, Joaquin Phoenix and the like. David Guetta was playing last month and the VIPs act as a magnet to the local crowd. We chatted away to some of the party goers to get the low down and although there was tremendous excitement among the ultra-glam crowd no one seemed to know who was in that night…but they were fairly certain there were some big-rollers in the club. Many of our new cool friends however were nursing one drink for an inordinate length of time and didn’t appear to be in any hurry to get inside the actual doors of the club. We discovered why when the bouncer told us that the pre tickets at €300 (only available prior to midnight) were sold out at that I could still get a table for 15 on the dance floor for $50,000. And what does that get me I asked? Two bottles of vodka, two bottle of champagne, all the water and red bull we wanted but service and tax was not included! We declined the offer and as we made our way out front to try to catch a taxi every available space was taken up with Ferraris, Porches, Bentleys, Lamborghini’s – all lined up on the kerbside. Fontainebleau Hotel (www.fontainebleau.com); Hakkasan (http://hakkasan.com); 4441 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, FL 33140; telephone +1 786-276-1388 Day 3 As our final day in Miami dawned we had high hopes of being reunited with the suitcases and kept up a steady flow of calls to Delta – even though there was no human being available to talk to us. The online tracker – a great invention if it worked – was showing little action and the hotel had joined forces with us to try to locate a real live person who worked for Delta and actually knew about lost luggage. We took turns sitting in reception as we had been told that unless we personally signed for it the driver would take the luggage away. So in-between times we took a long walk of the historic art deco neighbourhood and dipped in and out of shops to pick up some souvenirs of our short stay. In the early evening we headed to the only place we hadn’t explored – the thumping, beating heart of South Beach. Much of the tourist action is on Ocean Drive (from Biscayne Street to 15th Street). It’s changed beyond belief since I last visited but you will still want to spend some time there. Ocean Drive used to be a really cool night time mecca for great cocktails and casual dining. You won’t get very far on the sidewalk before being accosted by restaurant managers waving menus and pulling out chairs for you such is the competition on the strip. And sadly there isn’t much difference between the dining options – the waitress in the place where we ended up eating told us most of the restaurants were owned by the same company. Everywhere you go on Ocean Drive tables are adorned with massive goldfish bowls filled with luminous cocktail concoctions. I hadn’t seen them before and asked the waitress what the idea was. She said some celebrity arrived in the area and was served an oversized glass of something in one of the bars and she tweeted it and so the rest of the bars and restaurants realised that they could get a social media buzz going just by serving these gigantic cocktails (she claimed that they subsidised the cocktail cost as a PR stunt but I expect they were diluted to the price point asked for!). But they are on to a good thing because myself and my friend ordered two exotically sounding cocktails and even the teenagers had mocktails and then what did we do? They looked so ridiculously large we took endless photographs at every angle and sent tweets and Facebook messages to make everyone jealous. In truth we couldn’t even finish them and the food was dreadful. But that said it was one of the best nights we had on the trip and the teenagers declared it was their favourite place…ever. The sidewalk features a constant stream of people while stretch Limos, open-topped Mustangs and Cadillacs cruise the street blaring music. We met an eclectic bunch of people that night – one guy rapped for us in the hope that we’d buy his record (which we did because he earned it), we had touts selling bags, jewellery, DVDs, at one point a group of sailors (or maybe they were only dressed up in uniform) sang a song out of tune for us. Then a troop of stiletto clad girls click clacked passed us and the sailors lost interest in the impromptu performance and left us in peace. A man with a monkey created quite a stir (and not an animal rights campaigner in sight) and there was much craning of necks to see who was about to get out of a Bentley with darkened windows – even the waiting staff were throwing names about (apparently local celebrities but we didn’t know who they were) then eventually a child of about 12 years old got out of the back and bought an ice cream and got back in again as it slid away from the kerb. Also on Ocean Drive you will find the Pearl and Nikki Beach night spots and I was reliably informed that the best places to eat on Ocean Drive was News Café (which I ate in a million years ago when it was just a café) and Mango’s but we couldn’t get into either of them on the night and hadn’t reserved. Gianni Versace’s former ocean front mansion is also on Ocean Drive. So after our three days in Miami we woke early the next day, packed the cases (well mine had only just arrived so I didn’t need to pack) and headed south for Key West. The verdict. A fantastic exhilarating and hectic few days experiencing all the shades of South Beach – from the celebrity-obsessed party-goers at the Fontainebleau to the street sellers and buskers on the beach front; the touristy fried fast food on Ocean Drive to the sublime Joe’s Stone Crab and the glamour of fine dining at Hakkasan. Miami Beach is not for the fainthearted or those looking for a well-earned rest. It’s high-evergy and high octane adventure and three days was just right.