Looking for a beach break with access to a city and its attractions? Then consider the winning combination of Sunny Isles and South Beach, Miami, for a relaxed beach vibe combined with urban chic
We were searching for an affordable winter break combining beach relaxation and cultural activities avoiding the expensive euro zone.
Miami Beach is a series of islands just offshore from the city of Miami, based on the mainland. The two are connected by a series of causeways that cross the waterways, where there are a series of impressive marinas. Sunny Isles is an island in Northern Miami Beach and has miles of white sand backed by apartment blocks and hotels. South Beach, known as SoBe, is the lively, happening centre of Miami Beach.
We visited in January 2010 just prior to Miami hosting the Super Bowl final.
We were based at the Newport Beachside Resort Miami (16701 Collins Ave, Miami Beach) at Sunny Isles (Airport taxi transfer cost $52). The hotel was on the long white sand beach, beside attractive palm trees. It was situated near the old fishing pier, a regular haunt for the pelicans to sit and survey the waves.
The hotel was lively and informal with friendly staff. Our room was newly refurbished with a sea view so we were very comfortable, perfect for relaxation. It was possible to organise car hire or trips to the Everglades from the front desk. We enjoyed the relaxed beach vibe around the hotel and there was good swimming from the beach.
There was a real community feel on the beach at Sunny Isles. Early mornings bring out the joggers and fitness walkers on the beach – taken quite seriously and very popular. We joined them regularly for a morning run. The sand is firm so is ideal for running, you can smell the sea and the wind is exhilarating.
Within easy walking distance of the hotel are a variety of restaurants and food outlets, including, Denny’s, Epicure Gourmet Market and Cafe (17190 Collins Ave, www.epicuremarket.com) for fantastic key lime pies and fresh fruit salads, Walgreens Pharmacy, Starbucks, Mexico Bravo (16850 Collins Ave) and Tony Roma’s.
The hotel regularly organises social events. Whilst we were there they organised a Haiti fundraiser - a free afternoon event with several local bands playing by the pool. They played music ranging from Santana to the Beatles. Swimming in the pool with the benefit bands blasting out ‘Black Magic Woman’ in the background was a surreal experience.
South Beach (SoBe)
We caught the bus into SoBe (S route) from the stop outside our hotel. The bus route is from Aventura Mall, along Collins Avenue, past Haulover Park and Bal Harbour luxury shops (www.balharbourshops.com) to SoBe, before continuing on to downtown Miami. We exited at the Lincoln Road junction, just a few minutes’ walk from Ocean Drive (fare was $2 for the 40 minute trip). We found the buses very easy to use but crowded at peak times. The return trip is also from Lincoln Road and signed Aventura Mall.
Cosmopolitan Ocean Drive is famous for its pastel coloured Art Deco hotels and lively street scene. Attractive Lummus Park with its palm trees separates Ocean Drive and the hotels from the beach and its quirky lifeguard huts. At one end of Lummus Park there is a handy Starbucks which we used for afternoon coffee and cake. The main shopping district is on Collins Avenue, one block back from Ocean Drive.
We joined a guided tour of the historic Art Deco district, organised by the MDPL (Miami Design Preservation League). These are 1.5 hours duration, cost $20 per adult and depart from the Art Deco Welcome Center (1001 Ocean Drive). An excellent decision, highly recommended. Our guide was Kent, who was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We toured a variety of Art Deco hotels and visited hotel foyers. We learned about various typical features including the use of eyebrows to keep the sun off the windows, the red pavements to suggest red carpet glamour, streamlining and height on deco buildings and the use of tropical motifs such as flamingos.
Our favourite was the glamorous interior of the Victor hotel with its purple and lime green upholstery, its tasselled lamp shades designed to resemble jellyfish and even a jellyfish aquarium! It really demonstrated the style of a bygone age. The Essex hotel and foyer was another gem with its terrazzo floors, mural, fireplace and glass panelling. We were given recommendations for other places to see including the Art Deco Post Office at 1300 Washington Avenue.
We decided to try Big Pink (157 Collins Ave) for lunch. Big Pink is a typical American diner with huge servings. We ordered Greek salad and a barbecue chicken wrap with a bucket of chips. All served with as much coke as we wanted, through constant refills and excellent value for $29.
Time to do some people watching and absorb the local scene! Cars drive slowly on Ocean Drive but the traffic jams and road works prevent any serious cruising. Lots to see including in-line skaters and skate-boarders, bizarrely one carried a surf-board under his arm! There are live bands playing mellow sounds in some of the hotel gardens, especially along Collins Ave. There was an old 50s style green and cream car parked in front of a deco hotel, giving a tropical film set vibe.
Our most quirky sight was definitely a beach buggy parked on Ocean Drive with a snake wrapped round the back headrest! We thought it was a toy until it started to move and darted out its tongue. This takes car security to a whole new level!
We dropped into Mango’s (900 Ocean Drive, www.mangostropicalcafe.com) for the salsa dancing to live bands. However this is aimed at the tourists rather than for more serious dancers.
One of our favourite places was the News Cafe (800 Ocean Drive, www.newscafe.com) - a great spot for people watching and casual lunches. We enjoyed tomato bruschetta and a chicken sandwich ($19) and the chat with the waiter. This is reputedly the last place that Gianni Versace visited before he was shot outside his mansion on Ocean Drive.
We liked Lummus beach board walk trail past the beach frontages of the Loews hotel and Ritz Carlton, especially in late afternoon. Beautiful manicured gardens and pools! It is also a major fitness route in SoBe with lots of joggers, in-line skaters and cyclists.
We visited Aventura Mall (19501 Biscayne Blvd) via the S bus (15 minutes). This is a large mall anchored by Macy’s and Bloomingdales. (www.aventuramall.com). There is a wide variety of other shops including Apple, Jo Malone, Oakley and Nordstrom.
The mall has a number of good snack bars and restaurants. We particularly enjoyed Rosalia’s Trattoria, choosing tomato and mozzarella bruschettas ($8.95) penne pasta capreze ($11.95) and chicken Caesar salad. We sat outside in the courtyard and appreciated the excellent service.
• Epicure Gourmet Market and Café, 17190 Collins Ave. Amazing Key Lime Pies! Also great fresh fruit salads for picnics.
• Rosalia’s Trattoria, Aventura Mall.
• News Cafe, 800 Ocean Drive.
• www.Mdpl.org for information about Art Deco, events and tour information.
• www.Sunnyislesbeachmiami.com for information about the Sunny Isles immediate area and visitor centre.
• www.GoMiami.about.com for good dining options listed by area and budget.