Oh, those streamlined babies: Trim frames. Smooth curves. Lots of personality.
I mean the buildings, of course.
More about the bathing beauties later on.
Without a lot of planning, I stumbled into the South Beach district in search of beachfront lodging.
I was hoping for a little something in Art Deco, the signature architecture that sprang up in spurts around this part of Miami Beach from the 1920s to the 1950s. Some 800 of those colorful portholed, pyloned, racing-striped wonders now enjoy protection as historic landmarks.
The beachfront collection of Art Deco hotels along Ocean Drive--America's granddaddy of seaside vacation destinations--would seem an unlikely area in which to winnow out bargain prices in high season, but I would give it a try. My mission couldn't have been clearer: If we're going to escape the winter chill with all the trouble and expense that entails, we shouldn't tolerate anything standing between us and the sea.
Well, there was something between us and the sea. Nowhere on the Art Deco part of South Beach can a vacationer step out the hotel door and immediately feel sand between the toes.
First, you have to cross Ocean Drive, a cruising zone where motorists vie for the title of Most Obnoxious Hummer. Then you have to walk through a strip of lawn, sea grass and coconut palms called Lummus Park. After that comes the Promenade, rife with in-line skaters. Finally, the beach comes into view, a light-tan strand that must be at least 100 yards wide, part of it packed down by joggers and cruising Beach Patrol vehicles.
From there, the dedicated bather approaches the softer sand near one of the outlandishly Art Deco lifeguard stations. And at last the beach life can begin. The ocean looks gorgeous and so does the gang of lazing and baking sun worshipers (with a few exceptions).
This isn't necessarily the beach life of one's dreams. Municipal regulations restrict tropical-style frolicking, so you won't find charming thatch-roof bars, reggae bands, pestering vendors, roving masseuses or fin-and-snorkel rental huts.
Snorkels wouldn't help much, anyway. This isn't a section of the Atlantic known for its "gin-clear" water, as the Caribbean resort brochures like to say. And in the dead of winter, the North Atlantic frequently extends its icy finger all the way down to southern Florida. I saw hardly anyone swimming, even though the air held steady at a balmy 70 degrees.
Those who want something to drink beachside may bring their own or get it at a municipally licensed refreshment stand (no alcohol), where a small bottle of Pepsi goes for $3. Sunbathers who would rather not mess with sand or wrestle a beach towel can rent a lounge chair with a bright blue pad for $8. "All day, all you want for $8, that's it," said a woman in charge of one such concession.
So there you have South Beach, the Beach. That's it.
Keeping in mind that my wife, Juju, would join me in three days, I began to canvass a few of the beachfront Art Deco hotels, looking for a room that might please both of us in terms of comfort and affordability. I had no reservation (except the fear that I might end up sleeping in the car).
I quickly found that Ocean Drive hotels divide neatly into two categories: (1) slick and budget-breaking (over $150 a night) accommodations that had been lavishly renovated and lovingly decorated, or (2) inexpensive but presentable Art Deco resorts where renovation stopped considerably short of a complete makeover. Both kinds had vacancies.
In the latter category, I saw rooms that appeared to be furnished with the sort of hand-me-downs found in college-town apartments. I saw rusty refrigerators and '50s-era sofas that bulged cartoonishly. Walls were hung with Art by the Yard.
By the time I reached 8th Street, right in the middle of all the South Beach action, I came close to giving up. I thought either I'd have to take a room well off the beach or start spending big bucks on Ocean Drive.
I just couldn't bring myself to settle for the first places I saw in Category 2. They seemed to be reserved for down-at-the-heels novelists who check in with a case of whiskey and dim prospects.
Then I came upon the Starlite Hotel, a square, four-story chunk of Deco with amusing little corner windows framed in pink. The woman on duty offered a peek at one room with a rate of $105 a night, plus $14 tax. She led me down a brightly painted pink hallway just a few doors down from those pink-windowed corner units.
The $119 room had a king-size bed, a window that allowed a fractional view of ocean and palm trees, a TV set with cable and 79 channels, matching white bureaus and nightstands--cheap-motel quality but dust-free. A clear glass bud vase graced the chest of drawers, and that was comforting somehow. A waist-high refrigerator stood by itself in one corner.
The pink-tiled bath impressed me most: clean, functioning and supplied with five bars of foil-wrapped Sweet Bouquet soap (but no shampoo). A strip of paper had been placed over the toilet seat for my protection.
I booked it on the spot.
Why? Not only price. It had a retro kind of feel that I hadn't experienced since the family road trips of my childhood. The festive, bright green paint on the hallway doors appealed to me. I noticed mezuza holders nailed to a couple of doorframes, hearkening to a time when South Beach was a favorite Jewish vacation and retirement retreat. How homey! The mezuza vessels, however, had been painted over again and again, and the occupants who put them there probably had drifted off to that beach resort in the sky.
The Starlite Hotel lobby consisted of virtually nothing but a large mirror, a tiny standup bar and a counter where a reception clerk could sit and watch a small TV. A few steps from that front desk and I was out on the sidewalk, a walkway that pedestrians must share with cafe tables and chairs all along Ocean Drive.
The Starlite Hotel people call their portion of the sidewalk "Starlite Cafe." It's al fresco-only and no cheaper than any of the other places in that glossy neighborhood. I inquired about room service and the woman who offers menus to the passersby looked puzzled for a second. Then she said I could get a well-garnished Starlite Special chicken sandwich at a cost of $14.50, delivered to my room.
"Just asking," I told her. My room had neither table nor chair.
I strolled north, past my new next door neighbor, Wet Willie's--a two-story daiquiri bar with a lively afternoon trade. The next block started with the News Cafe, which had dozens of outdoor tables filled with lunchtime customers. News Cafe has been a favorite South Beach hangout for several years, serving solid American food in a large dining room and on a spacious terrace.
Inside, it really does sell newspapers, as well as magazines, books of local interest, postcards, bottles of wine and a small supply of toiletries.
As I progressed up the street, a lot of beautiful women smiled at me. Each one stood in front of a display of daily specials at her employer's restaurant. The food exhibits resembled those plastic replicas in the windows of Japanese restaurants.
The women--along with a few men--had a friendly expression and a proffered menu for every stranger passing by. "Like to see our specials?" they would say, or "ready for lunch?"
A woman in front of me told each menu person, "No, dear, I'm not ready to eat. I just had a big breakfast." As if they cared.
One afternoon, ready for lunch, I stopped at Bongos Cuban Cafe, formerly Lario's on the Beach. No menu woman there. A waiter said "hola" and looked slightly startled when I asked if I could sit at one of the sidewalk tables, all of which were empty.
I was looking for an ethnic treat, a Cuban sandwich, some water to replace the sweat generated by a long walk.
"I'll have some coffee and water to start," I said.
"We have only bottled water," the waiter informed me. I settled for that. "Sparkling or still?"
My $2.25 half-liter bottle of still water, already opened for my convenience, bore the Bongos Cuban Cafe label. The water tasted perfectly fine. City of Miami Beach tap water also tastes perfectly fine.
My black bean soup (sopa de Negros, said the menu) was worthy of Calle Ocho, the main drag of Little Havana, Miami's Cuban enclave. So was the Sandwich Cubana. It came fresh from the oven: thin slices of ham and cheese with dill pickle and yellow mustard between two wedges of flaky bread.
I felt a tap on my shoulder as I began to dig in. I looked up into a grinning face behind a pair of sunglasses. "Hey, how about a little help for a pal from New Jersey?" said my new acquaintance. A server appeared and shooed him away. "Stop bothering our people," she yelled.
My bill at the cafe turned out to be typical of South Beach. Not that I would always have to pay $20.71 for soup, sandwich, water and coffee ($1.95), but everywhere I went the tab would bear some form of the typo-marred message at the bottom of the Bongos bill: "For your convenience, a 15% gratuity has been included. Please feel to raise, lower or remove at it your discretion."
The general tips-added policy saved us some money, because I tend to add 20 percent, and not one of the places where we dined had the gall to tip themselves that much. I did not raise, lower or remove any tip at my discretion. Not all bills had that many typos in the tip section, but even at Bongos, I got the point.
The wife, Juju, arrived and found the hotel room appalling.
"But it's cheap and it's on the beach," I reminded her. "Besides, there's so much to do around here that we won't be spending a lot of time in the room."
"You got that right," Juju said.
After the week is up, I promised, we'll spend the weekend in far more sumptuous quarters, the Mediterranean-style Hotel Ocean, near the late Gianni Versace's Mediterranean mansion, Casa Casuarina.
We knew Versace's old place well, because we heard the shocking news of his 1997 murder at the hands of Andrew Cunanan on CNN while staying at a hotel in London. All that week, the house and the South Beach scene in general appeared frequently on television. Such ill fame hasn't been fleeting. Tourists still pose for pictures by Casa Casuarina's front gate.
In recent years, South Beach has become a faddish sort of place. Some winters it's in, other winters it's out. The hype would have you believing the shoreline teems with fashion models and movie stars. Maybe a few pop in, but most of the people looked like refugees from the North with fresh sunburns and college sweatshirts. (Hard to believe so many tourists went to Harvard.)
Here and there, of course, glamor does raise its well-coifed head. We saw beautiful people at the restaurants where we splurged and at Ocean Drive curbsides, where they surrendered Porsche and Jaguar keys to valet parkers. Now and then we'd even spot a perfect body baking on the beach.
At night, crowds gather on the sidewalk outside Mango's Tropical Cafe to watch the salsa and line dancers make their moves in the violet-hued smoke. A few doors away, bands and singers perform for patrons of the Clevelander, who sit around the swimming pool at glass-block bars tinted with pink neon. At the Cro Bar on Washington Avenue, the marquee hints at naughty activities inside, which is believable considering that Dennis Rodman used to hang out there during his Carmen Electra period.
Some hotel dining areas would feature a single guitar or saxophone player. Others had full Latino bands. One night during dinner at Cafe Med on the Breakwater Hotel veranda, a very loud flamenco group wailed and clicked heels, forcing customers to converse mouth to ear.
Away from the ocean, a few clubs promote mud wrestling and other exotica. Farther north, around where Lincoln Road meets Collins, tall hotels styled in Art Deco or MiMo (Miami Modern) provide various levels of hedonistic pleasure behind their flashy facades.
That was South Beach in a nutshell. Farther north, the atmosphere becomes more sedate--vastly more sedate. We didn't go there, reasoning that the time had not yet come.
Instead, we booked a short jaunt on the good ship Island Queen. It left the dock at the Bayside Mall in downtown Miami and sailed past the big cruise vessels moored at Dodge Island, past the crane forest of the container ship seaport and then alongside a few islands that hold, as the captain claimed, "the estates of the rich and famous."
Our Island Queen narrator pointed out the big white mansion owned by Rosie O'Donnell and said it played an important role in the movie "Scarface." We saw Al Capone's old hideaway, Oprah Winfrey's Fisher Island retreat, Julio Iglesias' villa and the winter homes of various tycoons. Most of the residences were Mediterranean or Spanish-hacienda style with a yacht anchored near the front yard.
As the boat headed back to the Bayside Mall, rain came down in torrents for the first time in our week at the beach.
Fortunately, by then we had moved out of our unfashionably minimalist but undeniably Art Deco digs and into the Hotel Ocean. Ensconced in a luxury suite with amenities galore, we could laugh at the weather and look down upon the soggy South Beach parade to see if anyone managed to keep up appearances.
Next week: Zihuatanejo, Mexico.
E-mail Robert Cross: email@example.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times