The word ‘conventional’ doesn’t apply to Florida. Where reality ends, Miami begins, and its wealth of accommodation captures its gaga way of life perfectly, whether partying on a hotel rooftop, trying your luck at drag queen-led bingo nights, or bedding down in an art hotel with ‘Picasso happy hours’.
This southern tip of Miami Beach — the ‘billion dollar sandbar’ hovering three miles off the coast of Florida — is far more than a location; it is Miami. Pastel-coloured buildings square off against the Atlantic on Ocean Drive; tanned, honed figures sashay down the boardwalk on rollerblades; and celebs and ‘snowbird’ pensioners share the buttery sand. From the sidewalk cafes to the open-air lounges, South Beach is loud and proud, and its hotels tend to be part of the action — most have a lounge, nightclub or pool deck that’s popular with the public as well as guests.
Most hotels on South Beach work the art deco look, but not the Betsy. Sheltered at the quiet(er) end of Ocean Drive, this demure Southern mansion of a hotel has a colonial-style vibe, with whirring ceiling fans, potted palms and breezy shutters.
A hotel since 1942, the Betsy reopened in 2009 after extensive renovations. The plantation-style look extends from the public areas to the 61 sun-drenched bedrooms, their black walnut floors offsetting white lacquered furniture and graceful four-poster beds. Frette sheets, a pillow menu and trendy Malin & Goetz toiletries in the white marble bathrooms are the icing on the cake. Frenetic South Beach is just across the road, but the Betsy is oceans away in atmosphere — it’s a cultural retreat, with books in each room, regular poetry readings and concerts in the lobby, and a zen ‘wellness garden’ on the rooftop, offering yoga, massage, and herbal tea fixes. It’s Miami, but not as you know it.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $249 (£156). 1,440 Ocean Drive. T: 00 1 305 531 6100. thebetsyhotel.com
■ X-factor: It’s not all culture — down in the basement lurks the decadent B Bar, popular with outsiders as well as hotel guests.
Best For Parties:
The Catalina isn’t for the shy and retiring — it was the subject of a hedonistic reality TV show this summer — and if you’re here to party, this is the place to be. The retro rooms are small, but after a couple of drinks at the nightly free happy hour, you’ll barely notice. There’s a ground floor pool, but the real action is at the Beach Club on the roof — which supposedly ‘makes Vegas look like kindergarten’.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $85 (£53). 1,720-1,756 Collins Avenue. T: 00 1 305 674 1160. catalinahotel.com
Best For Pizazz:
SLS Hotel South Beach
The precocious little sibling of the eponymous Beverly Hills hotel, the SLS arrived on the Miami scene in June 2012, and its whimsical Philippe Starck interiors and celeb chef-helmed restaurants, set in a 1939 art deco tower, have already made their mark. Starck brings a dash of pre-revolutionary France to the bedrooms; while Hyde Beach, the pool club, is already one of South Beach’s most fashionable suntraps.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $325 (£203). 1,701 Collins Avenue. T: 00 1 305 674 1701. slshotels.com/southbeach
Above South Beach, a finger of land splits from the bulk of the sandbar, leaving a two-block-wide sliver where most of the Mid Beach hotels are located. This used to be the place for grand dame resorts — the ‘more is more’ MiMo, or Miami Modern, architecture movement was centred here — but recent years have seen boutique properties spring up amid the behemoths. It’s not as hectic as South Beach, the crowd tends to be a little older and quieter; but there’s still plenty of pulse if you’re looking for something more refined than the bars and clubs down south.
Soho Beach House
South Beach chic meets English country house at the Florida outpost of private members’ club Soho House; and while you don’t have to be a member to stay here, you may just find yourself filling out an application form on departure. The rooms overlook either the beach or the bay, while the gargantuan bathrooms are stocked with full size bottles of Cowshed products and some have freestanding baths. Guests receive full access to club facilities — including a retro Cuban bar, spa, library, and an art collection with work by the Chapman Brothers, Shepard Fairey and Jonathan Monk. The crowning glory? Access to fabulous members events. So if the allure of the beach ever starts to pall, you can get stuck into cooking lessons, dance classes, lectures on anything from fashion to tattoos, or, umm, drag queen-led bingo nights.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $400 (£251). 4,385 Collins Avenue. T: 00 1 786 507 7900. sohobeachhouse.com
■ X-factor: The impeccable splicing of cultures. A tiki bar next to smart Italian restaurant Cecconi’s shouldn’t work — but it does.
Best for Budget:
Thought your hostelling days were over? Think again. This self-styled ‘high-end hostel’, from the hoteliers behind the hipster Ace brand, opened in November, a block from the beach. Although it has 60 rooms, 15 of them are private and en suite; the decor spells summer camp, with wood-panelled walls, gauzy drapes and a palette of navy and cream with pops of red. Local art lines the walls of the bar, Broken Shaker, which started life as a wildly popular pop-up cocktail lounge, and the hotel lays on art classes, bikes and ping pong.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $129 (£80). 2,727 Indian Creek Drive. T: 00 1 305 531 2727. thefreehand.com
Best for Bling:
Bling is beautiful at the Fontainebleau. Sofas curve round marble columns, chandeliers drip from the ceiling, and the famous ‘staircase to nowhere’ winds round a gilded wall (it once led to the world’s most glamorous coat check) — and that’s just the lobby. One of Miami’s most iconic hotels — it opened in 1954 and had a $1 billion revamp in 2008 — the Fontainebleau’s 1,504 rooms showcase breezy whites and pastels; but it’s the public areas that really wow, from the pool network, private beach, and six acres of Versailles-replica gardens to the 12 restaurants and lounges. Did I mention there’s even a nightclub?
■ Rooms: Doubles from $249 (£156). 4,441 Collins Avenue. T: 00 1 305 538 2000. fontainebleau.com
People used to bypass the tower blocks of Downtown and make straight for the beaches when visiting Miami, and while there still isn’t a huge amount going on that’s relevant to visitors, the scene has definitely heated up over the past few years, with an emphasis on the arts and ‘proper’ clubs, focusing on DJs rather than celebrity guests. If you value amenities, Downtown is a great place to stay — most of the hotels here are large, self-contained waterfront properties with bigger rooms, a choice of restaurants, plenty of space and spectacular views of the Miami River, Biscayne Bay and surrounding skyline.
Foolhardy or confident? Luckily, boutique chain Kimpton was going with the latter when it named its 52-storey glass tower, perched on the water where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay. Slick rooms and free extras are the watchwords for Kimpton hotels, and Epic doesn’t disappoint. Bedrooms, huge by Miami standards, are deceptively simple, with mottled beige headboards and ecru curtains leaving the floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies as the main event, while free wi-fi, in-room computers, and complimentary wine every evening are par for the course. Got a yacht? Dock it in its private marina. Two onsite restaurants — Area 31, specialising in seafood, and Zuma, serving modern Japanese cuisine — will keep you in house, but the real draw is the 16th floor wraparound pool deck, with three pools, cabanas and sofas overlooking the bay.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $229 (£143). 270 Biscayne Boulevard Way. T: 00 1 305 424 5226. epichotel.com
■ X-factor: Attention to detail. It’ll even treat you to a goldfish during your stay.
Best for Luxury:
A perennial celeb favourite perched on the edge of a Biscayne Bay island, the Mandarin Oriental Miami adds a little Latin sex appeal to the often serious brand. Renovated in 2010, the 326 rooms exude unabashed luxury — Frette sheets, marble bathrooms, separate bath and showers, and balconies and verandas overlooking the bay, the city skyline, or both. Then there’s the 20,000sq ft manmade beach — complete with daybeds, hammocks, an infinity pool and even a jogging trail. Who needs South Beach?
■ Rooms: Doubles from $249 (£155). 500 Brickell Key Drive. T: 00 1 305 913 8288. mandarinoriental.com/miami
Best for Art:
Art hotels can be a messy concept, but Hotel Urbano gets it right by keeping the crazy out of the bedrooms, which are typical, neutral boutique-by-numbers affairs. Art is, however, everywhere else — from paintings in the lobby and sketches in the corridors, to sculptures lounging beside the retro palm-fringed pool and firepit. The collection is curated quarterly by a local gallery, and the hotel lays on art tours of the property, as well as a ‘Picasso happy hour’, where an art-related scavenger hunt wins you free booze. Let’s drink to that.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $109 (£68). 2,500 Brickell Avenue. T: 00 1 305 854 2070. hotelurbano.com
Coconut Grove & Coral Gables
The names might suggest island idylls, but these days Coconut Grove — on the mainland, south of Downtown — and Coral Gables, its inland neighbour, are as built up as the rest of Miami. The atmosphere, however, remains relaxed — with its malls and boutiques, Coconut Grove is the place to shop, while Coral Gables is Miami’s grandest suburb with stately architecture, great restaurants and art galleries galore. Appropriately for a community wearing its wealth on its sleeve, Coral Gables has the grandest hotels, but Coconut Grove properties win on location — they’re mostly oceanfront and close to parks and green spaces.
Sonesta Bayfront Hotel
Spectacular views are the order of the day here, with panoramic bay and city skylines from the 22-storey Sonesta tower. Catch them from your private balcony, the eighth floor pool deck, the gym or the poolside Sky Lounge, specialising in Latin American drinks as well as a standard cocktail list. Eighth floor restaurant Panorama serves up first rate modern Peruvian food alongside those views; and if you ever tire of looking outwards, the excellent abstract art collection, dotted throughout the public areas, gives you something else to gawp at.
The 205 rooms look more chain hotel than snazzy boutique, but what they lack in originality, they make up for with balconies taking in the skyline from Coconut Grove and neighbouring Coral Gables, to the blue, boat-dotted expanse of Biscayne Bay.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $160 (£100). 2,889 McFarlane Road. T: 00 1 305 529 2828. sonesta.com/coconutgrove
■ X-factor: Excellent service makes this a permanent fixture at the top of the TripAdvisor board.
Best for Pools:
Built in 1926, the Biltmore has had time to get things right, from the architecture — somewhere between a castle and a wedding cake, and based on Seville’s famous Giralda — to the 150 acres of grounds (including a golf course). The 275 rooms are traditional, but the crowning glory is the pool — the largest hotel pool in the continental US, shaded by palms and lined with Italianate loggias; it’s opulence on a scale worthy of the Roman Empire.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $179 (£111). 1,200 Anastasia Avenue. T: 00 1 855 311 6903. biltmorehotel.com
Best for Value:
Mayfair Hotel & Spa
With its art nouveau exterior, palm-fringed atrium and Tiffany detailing, the Mayfair was the epitome of opulence when it first opened in 1985, and a 2012 refurbishment returned it to its former splendour. The 179 suites feature terraces with Japanese soaking tubs, the spa uses organic Jurlique products, and the rooftop pool deck is the perfect place for a drink after dark, thanks to its volcano-shaped firepit protruding over Biscayne Bay.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $129 (£80). 3,000 Florida Avenue. T: 00 1 305 441 0000. mayfairhotelandspa.com
Published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)