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Miami: Come for the beaches, stay for the Art Deco style

The ‘Magic City’ boasts world-famous beaches, an exciting culinary scene and vibrant neighbourhoods like Little Havana, the Art Deco District and Coconut Grove.

Pulling out of Miami airport’s rental car parkade I’m greeted by a glittering, pastel sky as the sun begins to set.

This is my first visit to Miami and it’s immediately obvious why this subtropical spot is called “Magic City.”

Over the next three days my plan is to see as much of Miami as possible, from its world-famous beaches and exciting culinary scene to some of its most vibrant neighbourhoods, like Little Havana, the Art Deco District and Coconut Grove.

Day 1:

First on the itinerary is South Beach, which is what most people think of when they think of Miami. This neighbourhood boasts two miles of pristine, white sand beaches, top restaurants and shops and is known around the world for its historic Art Deco District.

My sister and I check into Lord Balfour Hotel, on the main drag of Ocean Drive just steps away from the beach. The 1940 hotel, which has undergone a multi-million dollar overhaul, still maintains its aesthetic integrity. Many of its original fixtures remain, like the terrazzo flooring, and a hand-stencilled, gold elevator door with a porthole window — something you’d expect to see in a 1940s Humphrey Bogart film.

We spend our third night in Miami at the iconic Avalon Hotel, further down Ocean Drive, which I remember from the 1983 film Scarface, with Al Pacino playing a Cuban refugee turned Miami crime boss.

It’s easy to spot the Avalon with its streamlined look and neon sign spelling out its name. And if the sign wasn’t enough, this 1941 art deco hotel is distinguishable by the bright yellow, 1955 Oldsmobile Super 88 convertible parked out front — reportedly one of the most photographed cars in the United States.

That evening we get a taste of what it was like in Cuba’s capital in the 1950s by eating at Havana 1957, nearby. The main dining room’s vintage memorabilia evoke a sense of Havana in its heyday, right down to an old-fashioned tray slung around the neck of a “Cigar girl” selling diners an assortment of cigars after they finish their authentic Cuban cuisine. Think roasted chicken, rice, beans and sweet plantains.

Day 2:

We start the day with Sunday Jazz Brunch at Jaya in The Setai, an Asian-inspired, super posh resort with impeccable service. As a jazz quartet performs on a raised platform over the pool we’re offered mimosas before enjoying one of the most varied and plentiful food buffets I’ve ever come across. The decadent desserts are too numerous to mention, but I’d be remiss not to give a nod to the liquid nitrogen ice cream station.

Later, we drive half an hour to Coconut Grove — and to an entirely different Miami — to enjoy a relaxing afternoon at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a National Historic Landmark. The grandiose villa, located on Biscayne Bay and completed in 1916, was once owned by wealthy American industrialist James Deering. The avid antique collector filled the Mediterranean Revival style mansion full of European treasures and created 10 acres of formal gardens, modelled on the Italian gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries.

For dinner we head to mid-town Miami to Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, with a globally inspired menu featuring American and Latin classics. I had an incredible, whole roasted branzino, taco appetizers and delicious torrenjas, which is a Latin American version of french toast with dulce de leche and apples.

To get a sense of Miami nightlife we spend the rest of our evening at Little Havana’s Ball & Chain, a restored jazz era nightclub that has been part of Miami’s entertainment scene since 1935. This is a favourite among locals and tourists alike and on the Sunday evening was full to capacity. The Cuban salsa dancing instructor definitely helped kick off the fun.

Day 3:

After so much great food it was time to walk it off. So our day started with a 90-minute Art Deco Walking Tour with the Miami Design Preservation League. Tours happen daily, beginning at the Art Deco Welcome Center, located in the heart of South Beach’s Art Deco District at 10:30 a.m. and cost $35 US for adults. Definitely worthwhile to gain a better understanding of the city’s history and architecture.

“South Beach has the largest amount of art deco buildings assembled in the world,” says preservation league director Mark Gordon.

“Between 6th to 23rd Street, from the ocean to the bay, there are between 800 and 850 buildings under preservation, the majority art deco.”

Gordon says South Beach has seen dramatic changes, from the boom years of the 1920s and 1930s, when more than 100 new hotels and apartment buildings were built on Miami Beach, to the 1970s when it fell into decline.

“As a 20-year-old I remember Miami Beach when it was a dump and ravaged with crime,” he says, adding most of its residents at that time were senior citizens.

The fact that much of Miami’s stylish architecture remains is thanks to those seniors who had long term rental leases. Had they not, in all likelihood the mostly three-storey art deco buildings would have been demolished in favour of towering condominiums, says Gordon.

“Miami Beach is constantly reinventing itself. The buildings are still there but the clientele is different. The restaurants and the hotels are way more upscale. The food of Miami Beach can rival any city.”

On this point I definitely concur. On our last day in Miami we dine at two of of the city’s most well known restaurants — both in South Beach. The first was lunch at Gianni’s, located in the former Versace mansion, and the second was dinner at A Fish Called Avalon, located in the Avalon Hotel.

Now called Villa Casuarina, the only way visitors can take a peek inside designer Gianni Versace’s former home is to either book a room in the luxury resort or dine in the restaurant adjacent to Versace’s famous mosaic-lined, 24-karat gold pool.

While the food was great and well presented at Gianni’s it was also the best place to people watch. My ever competitive sister and I spent our lunch playing a game we called “spot the Versace” since so many patrons came dressed in the designer’s clothes. To be fair it was an easy game to play since the Versace-clad usually took selfies by the pool.

At A Fish Called Avalon we ate on their outdoor patio, which again was a great place to people watch as locals and visitors strolled along Ocean Drive.

I happily sipped a Negroni cocktail, served in a small model convertible, and enjoyed fresh seafood, which they are known for, like the Macadamia Crusted Snapper, jumbo sea scallops and spicy bigeye tuna tartare. Everything was outstanding but the big surprise of the evening was the dessert — a delicious key lime pie, which also happens to have won the last APC National Pie Championship, held in 2019. Who knew the sophisticated Miami holds the title for best American pie?

Air Canada has made it easier to get to Florida by offering direct flights between Miami and Vancouver while West Jet does a direct flight between Vancouver and Orlando.

Kim Pemberton was hosted in Miami by Visit Florida, which did not review or approve this story. Follow her on Instagram at kimstravelogue.