Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009


Miami is a place of many guises. There is the hyperreal Miami of Miami Vice, of alligator attacks and Elián González. There are splashy art galleries and celebrity hotels. There are also lots and lots of strip malls. But this collective weirdness happens to sit on one terrific piece of real estate. Miami has turquoise waters and white-sand beaches. It also has gleaming Modernist architecture and impossibly beautiful people. Joan Didion once described the city as having a "kind of perilous attraction." And it does. You can lose yourself here, among supermodels, nostalgic Cubans and the countless figures who live on the fringes — and remind us that until a few decades ago, this was all still frontier.

Like most modern American metropolises, greater Miami is composed of several smaller cities. Here the cookie-cutter developments all tend to blend into one indistinguishable mass of peach stucco and Spanish tile. For the purposes of navigation, however, the city is essentially divided in two: Miami, the mainland city, which is businesslike in demeanor, with offices, malls, arts districts and residential subdivisions; and, connected to the mainland by causeways to the east, Miami Beach (a.k.a. South Beach, a.k.a. SoBe), the slim, glamorous barrier island that is draped in Deco hotels and where life is lived as if it were one big party. If you have only a few hours to spare, choose one side of town and stick with it — or you may end up spending all your time sitting in traffic.

1. Spa at the Ritz-Carlton, Miami Beach

The beautiful people in Miami aren't born that way. They work at it. Very, very hard. Which means before you even think of hitting the town, you'd better be detoxed, mani'd, pedi'd and adequately coiffed. La Maison de Beaute Carita Spa at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach offers one-stop shopping for all of these services, including a signature SoBe treatment known as the Divine Derriere, which gets your booty thong-ready with an exfoliating treatment and a mask (only $75!). After your session, pop up to Bistro One LR, the hotel's poolside restaurant, where, on the weekends, you can tuck into tuna ceviche and watch the hotel's tanning butler lather up the ladies with sunblock.

2. The Sunset Lounge, Miami Beach

Once you've been primped into submission and are ready to soak up the carnival that is South Beach, head straight to the Sunset Lounge at the Mondrian Hotel, where the Botoxed and the über-muscled arrive to show off their workouts amid a veritable orgy of space-age plastics and Renaissance design flourishes. In addition to postcard-perfect views of Biscayne Bay and downtown Miami — and, yes, incredible sunsets — the lounge boasts an encyclopedic menu of Brazilian cachaca cocktails infused with everything from cardamom to lemongrass. Friday nights are most popular, when the DJ gets Latin-groovy and the Bentley-driving set pours in to nibble Kobe beef sliders and order champagne by the bottle.

3. Lincoln Road, Miami Beach

In the '80s, Lincoln Road was an under-the-radar artists' hangout, chock-full of studios and galleries. Those days are long behind it. (Chain and upscale retail stores have since crept in.) But this pleasant pedestrian mall still harbors plenty of charming spots. Revel in the good ol' days at Art Center / South Florida, where local and international artists develop and showcase their work in glass-walled studios. Down the block, browse to your heart's content at Miami's literary mainstay, Books & Books, or at design outpost Base, which features an irreverent collection of home furnishings, clothing and toys. For lunch, slip into Ice Box, where clean, informal cooking is paired with a mouthwatering list of pillowy cakes — from carrot to coconut to several varieties of chocolate. In the evening, pop into Upstairs at the Van Dyke Cafe for the city's most hopping live jazz and blues.

4. Club Deuce, Miami Beach

The Deuce is a dingy, black-tiled bar that has seen better years, and those years occurred a very long time ago. But in a town where hot drinking spots come and go like the tide, the Deuce still stands alone. In operation since 1926, it is here that you'll find a dedicated lineup of regulars — from after-work types to disheveled hipsters to Mickey Rourke look-alikes — all enjoying the 11-hour happy hour (8 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and basking in the pungent aroma of stale beer and cigarettes. Though the bar eschews South Beach formalities such as velvet ropes and guest lists, it has not been without its moments of high celebrity: in addition to attracting boldface names — Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon and Kate Moss have all been spotted here — it once served as a location for an episode of Miami Vice.

5. The Coffee Window at Versailles, Miami

Ever wonder why Cubans are so passionate about ... well, everything? It's the coffee. Specifically, the cafe cubano: a frothy, coal-colored concoction that appears to be made from equal parts espresso and refined sugar. (Drink enough of these and you'll soon find yourself railing against Fidel.) The best cafe cubano in Miami — order a cortado, if you want it with a splash of milk — can be found at the outdoor coffee window at Versailles, the long-running Cuban eatery in the heart of Little Havana. The sit-down restaurant is excellent, but the take-out window is where you'll find the local color — from exquisite ladies in Chanel to construction workers in paint-splattered overalls — all lining up for a caffeine jolt.

6. The Elián González House, Miami

Of all of Miami's unusual sights, none is more surreal than the four-room bungalow where 6-year-old Elián González spent a good part of the year 2000 under the watchful eyes of the international media and the Cuban-exile community. The house functions as a shrine to Elián: walls are covered with photo collages of his face, display cases brim with his toys, and the closets are filled with his old clothes. There is even a room devoted to the nighttime raid by federal agents that led to Elián's return to Cuba. It's all morbidly fascinating and an indelible part of the city's recent history. The house doesn't have a phone number, official operating hours or a required admission fee (it accepts donations), but if you show up during an average day, Elián's great-uncle Delfín will emerge to show you around personally — if he isn't tending to a busload of Japanese tourists.

7. Wynwood Art District, Miami

Won't be in town for the annual Art Basel Miami Beach and its 3 squajillion related exhibits? Never fear. The six dozen exhibit spaces in Miami's Wynwood Art District offer enough visual stimulation to induce a permanent case of Stendahl Syndrome. Start with one of the private collections: the Rubell Family Collection, Margulies Collection at the Warehouse or World Class Boxing. Here, you'll find expansive displays that run the gamut from Isamu Noguchi to Kara Walker. Still standing? Time to hit the galleries. For top-tier local artists, such as Hernan Bas and Glexis Novoa, visit the highly regarded Fredric Snitzer Gallery and David Castillo. During summer months, some places may be closed, so call ahead.

8. Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, Miami

Printed at the bottom of the menu at Michael's is the dictionary definition of the word genuine: "authentic; real; free from pretense." It's a fitting description of the skilled cooking at this Mediterranean-influenced eatery in the Design District: a mix of homey, seasonal dishes, many of which emerge piping hot from the restaurant's wood-burning oven. A roasted sweet onion is stuffed with fresh ground lamb and apricots. Thin-crust pizza is topped with roasted yellow tomatoes and organic ricotta. The wine list is equally inspired. (Look for vintages from Betts & Scholl, the award-winning wines produced by Miami art collector Dennis Scholl in collaboration with master sommelier Richard Betts.) Don't have a reservation? Show up by 7 p.m. to land a seat at the bar in the back, which has uninterrupted views of the open kitchen.

9. Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, Miami

Vizcaya is high on the tourist-o-meter but nonetheless worth a visit. Perched right on Biscayne Bay, on Miami's south side, the rambling Italianate mansion that once belonged to industrialist James Deering (of tractor fame) will take you back to a time when Miami was choked with trees instead of traffic. The beautifully maintained 34-room mansion, built in the 1910s, is surrounded by acres of serene European-style gardens chockablock with fountains and statuary, some of which date back to antiquity. The pièce de résistance, however, is the ornamental breakwater that sits right in the bay. Carved out of Florida limestone in the shape of an oversize Venetian barge, it is studded with all kinds of decorative sculpture — and makes for one of the most sublime sunset photo ops in Miami.

10. El Carajo International Tapas & Wines, Miami

Inside a Citgo gas station, just beyond the end of I-95, you'll find one of the city's more curious dining experiences. At the rear of the station's convenience store, through a Mediterranean-style archway, lies El Carajo, a cozy, dimly lit Spanish restaurant and wine store that features a full assortment of traditional tapas (try the mini sausages sautéed in red wine) and heaping entrées (the grilled meats are tops). The selection of wines is also wonderfully comprehensive, covering vineyards from all over California, South America and the Mediterranean. But the best aspect of eating here is the bizarre spectacle of the fluorescent-lit Citgo shop, which is never out of sight of the dining room. Not that this isn't without its conveniences: if, in the middle of your meal, you find yourself in dire need of a quart of motor oil or a pack of smokes, rest assured that you can secure it nearby.