Miami Beach, Fla., just across Biscayne Bay from Miami, was once nothing more than a refuge for shipwreck surviviors. In the the early 20th century it was home to a coconut plantation, but then real estate developers saw its potential. It was incorporated as a city in 1915 and had grown into a bustling metropolis by the 1920s, when Miami Beach’s South Beach area first became a playground for the rich, attracting titans like the Firestone family, J.C. Penney, and Albert Champion, who all built mansions there. A development boom sparked an explosion of Art Deco architecture that replaced boxy buildings with curvaceous (and colorful) marvels, many evoking luxurious ocean liners, with design features that mimic bows of ships and round porthole windows.
Above: The Leslie, one of the gems on the Art Deco tour
That over 800 of those buildings still stand is primarily due the dedicated efforts of a pivotal woman, Barbara Baer Capitman, who went to great lengths to prevent their demolition during the region’s next development boom in the 1970s and ’80s. Her efforts led to a square-mile Art Deco district being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now Miami Beach is home to more preserved Art Deco buildings than anywhere in the world, making the South Beach Art Deco Walking Tour by the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL.org) a fabulous introduction to the neighborhood.
Capitman had help in saving Art Deco architecture, of course — including from Andy Warhol, who helped popularize the area in the 1980s. South Beach’s queer cred grew over the years (there’s a reason The Birdcage with Nathan Lane was filmed here), and one famous gay man’s former South Beach residence is now the third most photographed home in the nation (after the White House and Graceland): the late Gianni Versace’s mansion. It was on the steps of this opulent, Mediterranean revivalist mansion that the fashion designer was murdered by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Now a luxury boutique hotel, The Villa Casa Casuarina (VMMiamiBeach.com) still features Versace touches, like thousands of 24-karat gold tiles lining the pool.
Above: Miami skyline from Stanton SoBe
For accommodations a little less audacious, and even closer to the beach, the Marriott Stanton South Beach (Marriott.com) with its recent $22 million transformation (on top of a total room renovation in 2013) offers a specialty fitness and training center, an award-winning Japanese restaurant, and a full-service spa (where I had the best massage of my life). The Hot Sea Shell Therapy, with heated seashells filled with minerals, algae, salt water, and essential oils, set the stage for a truly sublime Swedish full body massage.
Stanton SoBe is one of the few resorts on Ocean Drive with direct access to the beach where you can rent chairs, umbrellas, and cabanas. The resort’s two pools overlook the beautiful sands where early risers can start the day with 3rd Street Beach Yoga’s sunrise yoga (3rdStreetBeachYoga.com).
Above: The former Versace mansion
Stanton SoBe’s Japanese cuisine experience Azabu Miami Beach offers delectable options like Wagyu Sirloin on Hot Stone and Robata-grilled Yakitori. Try one of its many specialized whiskeys too. But if you’re a sushi fan you must ask (and pay) to be seated at the hidden sushi counter. In The Den’s cedar-lined inner sanctum, Tokyo-trained sushi chefs serve chef’s choice prix frixe menus featuring fresh fish flown in from Japan.
At the Stanton-adjacent Lolo’s Surf Cantina (just out the side door and down the steps), chef Richard Ampudia demonstrates why he garnered the title “Godfather of Mexican Street Food,” with favorites like the Mexican-style grilled corn topped with queso cotija and street-style tacos (ribeye, Mahi-Mahi, carnitas, or mushroom).
When you’re ready to venture farther afield for food, start your day at Puerto Sagua Restaurant
(PuertoSagua.RestaurantWebExpert.com), for an authentic Cuban breakfast with Perico(scrambled eggs, diced ham, green peppers, tomatoes, and onions), Cuban toast, and café con leche.
Above: Upland’s Truffle Fettucine
For lunch, visit the historic News Café (NewsCafe.com) for one of its tomato salads (my favorite was Sliced Tomatoes with Feta Cheese & Olives); or check out the amazing drag brunch at Palace (PalaceSouthBeach.com) where the Hangover Sandwich promises to get you over yours. For dinner, Upland Miami (UplandMiami.com) features a gorgeous open exhibition kitchen with wood-fired ovens all flanked by walls decorated with museum-lighted jarred lemons. Start with the wood-fired Florida Prawns or Little Gem Salad (with avocado, cucumber, ricotta salata, and walnut vinaigrette). If you’re on a date, splurge on the Coal Roasted Short Rib for Two (or the delicious Truffle Fettucine) and end the meal with an orgasmic Roasted Pineapple Sundae.
For nightlife there’s plenty to choose from. Walking distance from the Stanton SoBe, the upscale club Story (StoryMiami.com) hosts some of hip-hop’s biggest names — on the stage and in the crowd. At the Basement (BasementMiami.com), drag queens and lesbians rule the rainbow bowling lanes while couples crowd the dance floor. Close out the night at the famous gay club Twist (TwistSoBe.com). Founded in 1993 by Richard Trainor, Twist is the longest-running queer club in South Beach, never has a cover, and incorporates seven different bars, each with its own decor and flair. Stop in on Thursday night for Sabroso’s Latinx showcase for a taste of the Miami area’s gay Latin culture.