Jenny Southan finds South Beach an irresistible mixture of the serious, the frivolous and the downright bizarre
Miami may be a place more commonly associated with palm trees and beautiful people, but it has a serious side too. After the Second World War, many thousands of Holocaust survivors emigrated to South Florida in search of a new beginning, and in 1984 a small group of them decided to build a memorial to those six million Jews who died under the Nazi regime. It was unveiled to the public in 1990.
Begin your walking tour of the South Beach neighbourhood here – a taxi can drop you off easily by the botanical gardens. The first thing you will see is a giant bronze hand rising from a circular lake, the forearm of which is crawling with human figures. Approach it from the right through the sweeping semi-circular colonnade of Jerusalem stone columns and you’ll see black granite walls etched with graphic photos of scenes from the time.
From midway around the far side you can walk down a tunnel to the unnervingly sad sound of Israeli children singing, and then into the central plaza, where the hand reaches towards the sky and you are confronted by life-size wailing figures. The other half of the avenue that circles the lake features walls inscribed with a never-ending list of victims, including that of US journalist and Jew Daniel Pearl, which was added in 2007 after he was murdered by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. His was the first non-Holocaust victim’s name to be included. Open 9am-9pm daily; free entry. 1,933-1,945 Meridian Avenue; holocaustmmb.org
If you are pushed for time get a taxi to Ocean Drive, but if you can spare 20 minutes, walk down Meridian Avenue to 17th Street and turn right along Collins once you reach the iconic Delano hotel. From here it’s about four blocks to Lummus Park, home to open-air volleyball, lush lawns and palms, and then the golden swathe of sand that is Miami Beach. This is the ideal place to ease yourself into the local vibe, take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean, or simply kick off your shoes and stroll in the warm surf. The lifeguard huts painted sea green, salmon pink and cobalt blue make photogenic landmarks, and you will be hard pushed not to notice the ubiquitous tanned hunks and hunkettes sunning themselves. Visit miamibeachfl.gov
South Beach psychic
Now for something a bit quirkier. A short walk up a path connecting the beach with Ocean Drive is a condo nestled at the end of a long row of art deco hotels. The glass doors are usually open and from the street you can peep in at the gaudy interior complete with baroque furnishings, a chandelier and neon sign. The resident psychic will buzz you in through a side gate and into her living room, where she will explain what she can do for you.
If you are feeling flush – and gullible – full-on spiritual readings cost US$65 as they are “the most precise”, while a tarot card session will set you back US$35. Palm readings (US$20) last about ten minutes and bring forth insights into your love life, career, family, friends and mental state, but be prepared to be told you need “psychic cleansing” afterwards, which can be done over the phone when you get back home (for a fee, of course). If you are a believer then you might get something out of it – if not then it’s an experience to laugh about later with your colleagues over a drink. Next door to Deco Drive Cigars at 1,446 Ocean Drive (enter through the side gate); tel +1 305 538 5514.
If it wasn’t for Barbara Capitman, a writer and activist who fought for the preservation of South Beach’s art deco buildings in the seventies, the district would have fallen by the wayside. During the 1970s and ’80s Colombian cartels and drug gangs were using the former beachside retirement community as a crime base, the properties were in a state of disrepair and TV show Miami Vice came to town, making use of many of the locations. But thanks to Capitman, one square mile of the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places, resulting in a huge clean-up job.
Today, Ocean Drive is lined with pastel-coloured boutique hotels with evocative names such as the Avalon, the Pelican, the Winter Haven and the Tides, along with street-side bars serving fish-bowl margaritas to bikini-clad girls clutching miniature dogs. The Clevelander (clevelander.com), at 1,020, recently had a multimillion-dollar facelift and has a large outdoor pool area and bar open day and night, while the 63-room Betsy (thebetsyhotel.com) reopened at 1,440 last year after a complete revamp. The trendy Hotel Victor (hotelvictorsouthbeach.com) at 1,144 serves top-notch cocktails.
Look out for the Versace Mansion at 1,116, where Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot dead in 1997. The property is now a luxury hotel, restaurant and event space known as the Villa by Barton G. Visit casacasuarina.com
World Erotic Art Museum
This somewhat bizarre museum is a short walk up 12th Street from Hotel Victor, and houses an astounding private collection of naughty curios, toys, antiques, drawings, sculptures, paintings and prints across 20 rooms. A dubious-looking elevator takes you from the entrance on Washington Avenue – a street known for its tattoo parlours, vintage clothing stores and souvenir shops – to the gallery floor. Highlights include Rocking Machine by Herman Makkink – the giant white fibreglass phallus that featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange – and a four-poster bed, each post of which is carved in the shape of a six-foot-tall penis. Open Mon-Thurs 11am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11am-12am; entry US$15. 1,205 Washington Avenue; weam.com
Although Miami enjoys a tropical climate, the most agreeable months are April, May, October and November. Hotels are cheapest from June to August when humidity is high and temperatures average 32°C. Hurricane season is May to October, so expect violent downpours late afternoon.
Go to visitflorida.com