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South Florida coasting

Jellyfish decor, Shaq's house, Dr. Quackalot: Fort Lauderdale and South Beach are about Art Deco and good demented fun.

January 28, 2007|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Miami — EIGHT cruise lines list Miami as their home port. The city calls itself the "cruise capital of the world." (By comparison, three lines call the Port of Los Angeles at San Pedro home.) Happily for Miami's many cruise visitors, the port is close to South Beach, the Art Deco capital of America, a vibrant area that combines sea, celebrity and world-class people-watching.

Downtown Miami hotels are nearer the port, but I would choose South Beach, about 25 minutes by cab from Miami International Airport (flat rate: $32) and seven miles from the port. Another option is the Port of Miami Shuttle ($14 per person by reservation, [954] 722-9904). In South Beach, a car is superfluous. The area is very walkable, and getting from there to Miami is easy: The Metrobus zips over the MacArthur Causeway ($1.50).

From South Beach, you'll be well positioned for some great sightseeing. A good starting point is the Art Deco Welcome Center at 1001 Ocean Drive. The Miami Design Preservation League's 90-minute guided walking tours leave from there and give a history of the area, which until the mid-'70s was dubbed "God's waiting room," where the elderly whiled away hours on the porches of dilapidated hotels and rooming houses. We saw where films, including "The Birdcage," were made and watched tourists posing outside of Casa Casuarina, a private club at 1116 Ocean Drive that once was the mansion of designer Gianni Versace, who was fatally shot on its steps in 1997.

With Miami Nice Tours, I took a five-hour excursion that included a harbor cruise past Star Island celebrity homes, including that of the Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal, where a little Shaq statue perches on his dock. (Visiting sports fans might get to see the Heat play at American Airlines Arena on Biscayne Boulevard; the schedule is posted at Miami Nice allows 90 minutes for lunch and shopping at Bayside Marketplace on Biscayne Bay before continuing on to exclusive Coral Gables and a quick spin through Little Havana.

Another option -- with kid appeal -- is Miami Duck Tours, a land and sea sightseeing adventure. An amphibious vehicle swooshes down a ramp into Biscayne Bay as Dr. Quackalot, in green scrubs, instructs passengers to quack on cue.

Those seeking a glimpse into South Florida's pre-Depression gilded age should visit Vizcaya. The Biscayne Bay mansion, completed in 1916, was the onetime home of James Deering of the International Harvester Co. family. It has the original European antiques in its 34 rooms; the 10-acre formal gardens are a fantasy of fountains, pools and gazebos.

In a 1930s South Beach building, a former storage warehouse, is the Wolfsonian, an eclectic collection of furniture, glass, paintings and industrial oddities from 1885 to 1945 that shows how culture changed and was changed by design. These include "Wrestler," an aluminum sculpture exhibited at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Those Art Deco hotels in South Beach -- once the destination of those who couldn't afford Palm Beach -- are now chic. But guest rooms behind those fancy facades can disappoint.

After a brief stay, I recommend the Nash on Collins Avenue. It has maximum style, minimum attitude and a top restaurant, Mark's. There are three pools -- fresh, salt and mineral water.

I also stayed at Hotel Impala, thinking some people might prefer its warmer Mediterranean ambience. It was undeniably charming, tucked behind a garden at 1228 Collins Ave., but it needed a little TLC. It does not have a pool or an elevator.

The more elegant beach hotels are clustered north of Lincoln Road. For a splurge, if not a stay, have a drink at the beautiful Asian-inspired Setai, 2001 Collins Ave. Lincoln Road is in itself a destination -- a lively pedestrian mall for shopping and dining.

Hotel choices for those with deep pockets might include the opulent Victor, Hyatt's first boutique property. The Victor was designed by Parisian Jacques Garcia, whose mantra is "Why do things simply if you can make them more complicated?" It's a bit over the top, with its jellyfish tank, fringed jellyfish-inspired lamps and lots of drapery -- but it's fabulous. There's a pool, a spa and a smart restaurant, VIX.

Although most South Beach hotels are on Ocean or Collins, just two blocks in from the ocean is the beautifully renovated Astor, at 956 Washington Ave., a 1936 Art Deco stunner. It has a top-end restaurant, Johnny V's, but no pool.

South Beach restaurants can be pricey. A good bet for a fresh fish dinner, served with pasta or salad and corn on the cob, is Grillfish, on Collins Avenue. It's an inviting, family-friendly space with an open kitchen. I had good homemade ravioli at Spiga, an intimate indoor-outdoor Italian restaurant in the Hotel Impala. The 24-hour Jerry's Famous Deli, at 1450 Collins Ave., which looks like a moored ocean liner, is a must -- if only to admire its Art Deco interior, once a ballroom.

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