Seekers of the urban beach scene looking to catch waves among the barely clad beautiful people and hang at hot spots sipping cocktails just because. Stroll the sand of South Beach, and you might be surprised to find that not everyone has the well-toned, sun-soaked bods attired in barely-there bikinis and low-rise-style trunks epitomized in those famed Armani Exchange ads. Despite the stereotype, mainstream folks like you and me are plentiful in this oh-so-cool destination. Lounging beachside on a sweltering afternoon are four svelte Latino ladies in suits a tad too small, making their way toward the ocean for a quick cool-down. They chat nonstop with a staccato beat while salsa music blares from a boombox nearby. Farther down this urban stretch, a 40-something British couple — their first time in SoBe — happily exclaim that they’ve been hanging out on the beach for three consecutive days. It shows. Their creamy skin is now spotted with sun-kissed pinks and reds, despite a tube of SPF 45 sunscreen sticking out of their beach tote. They’re readying to play a game of backgammon. This is South Beach — Florida’s most famous beach.
Whether it’s rays or the surrounding action you seek — boogie-boarding, volleyball or just hanging with friends (or getting lost in a good beach read) — different spots have different personalities. South Pointe Park, SoBe’s southern tip, is where you’ll catch glimpses of mega cruise ships making their way through the bayside Government Cut. Best viewing is from a seat at Smith & Wolensky’s bar late Saturday afternoon when ship traffic is at its heaviest. The beach beyond the pier is particularly peaceful at sunrise, when you’ll see South of Fifth (SoFi, as the neighborhood is called) locals, stopping here with bicycles, morning newspapers and coffee in hand. At the same time, teeny terns dig into the sand for food while scurrying along the shore.
Models And Wannabes
In the place hailed as a must for cover girls, plenty of great people-watching remains. But much depends on the time of day and where you might find yourself. For instance, you’ll see some of the best bods middle to late in the day as they take to their in-line skates on pedestrian-only Lincoln Road. As for the beach goers, the public Beach Walk access at 17th Street and Collins Avenue, near the Surfcomber and National hotels, is the spot to watch runway types sprawl on the padded terry-cloth teak loungers.
Access the beach just south of Third Street and Ocean for morning and evening yoga classes held near lifeguard house No. 1. Here, a mix of limber bodies — college-age to baby boomers — breathe in peace and tranquility with the rising or setting sun as the backdrop. It’s also where an artist has laid out color-splashed oil canvases decorating the sidewalk. He simply can’t be missed, thanks to his movie-star swagger. The paintings look as if “Ricardo Montalban” had dipped his paint- brushes in a can and then threw them in reckless abandonment, sending colors flying this way and that. His deep voice has a seductive Spanish ring to it; his shirt is unbuttoned to the waist. “I like your sandals,” he bellows. “I used to make them in Cuba.” This is but one conversation among many as people pass by. There’s an international pulse on SoBe, detectable in the sounds of fluent Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. Overheard snippets among friends lunching at Ocean Drive’s perennially packed News Cafe include a debate over the hottest Washington Ave. clubs.
Make it a point to stop at 10th Street and Ocean, also known as Barbara Capitman Way, named for the outspoken preservationist who’s credited with saving Miami Beach’s art-deco buildings from the bulldozers in the 1970s. Catch a view of the facades of the Ocean Drive hotels at night in an illuminated neon glow. On the shore, the pink and yellow art-deco-style lifeguard stand is visible as soon as your tootsies sink into the sand. “It’s a focal point,” says Nic Carlo, a talkative beach chair and umbrella hawker for the Boucher Brothers. “Go up and down the beach, no two lifeguard stands are alike,” he says. According to Carlo: If it’s a slow day on the beach, you’ll only see three rows of beach chairs and umbrellas. But once there are four rows, it’s pretty well packed — the signal to reserve your spot quickly. The access point of 10th and Ocean is also where photo ops are plentiful, thanks to the sandy-hued art-deco “Welcome to Miami Beach” clock tower. There’s also an ultra-cool shop with art-deco furnishings, tchotchkes and vintage Bakelite bracelets from the 1930s to ’50s. This is the meeting point for art-deco walking tours conducted by the Miami Design Preservation League. It’s the perfect way to get introduced to the Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival and Miami Modern (MiMo) styles found within the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District.
The Casillas Cigars stand at 1052 Ocean Drive will remind you that Miami is home to a large Cuban-American population. A dark-haired 30-something Cuban beauty in shorts and a T-shirt works her magic, layering tobacco leaves and rolling them into medium-size cigars. From the rich aroma filling the air, it sure seems like the real deal.
The Park Central Hotel is a true art-deco landmark that dates back to 1937. Black-and-white historical photos line its walls; retro furnishings decorate the lobby. This boutique jewel, marked by the 1947 Buick parked out front, sits on Ocean Drive directly across from the beach. Alternatively, the Sagamore Hotel is full of amazing contemporary art, including Pablo Cano’s Lady Liberty, composed of industrial materials, and Massimo Vitali’s hypnotizing photograph of people picnicking. It all spills from murals in the stairwells to video installations in the garden and onto the lobby walls. The Sagamore’s location puts you steps from both the shore and Lincoln Road. miamiandbeaches.com
More Favorite Beaches
- Key West – Bask in the sun at what feels like the edge of the world at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West. Grab a hot ham and Swiss sandwich at Cayo Hueso Café.
- Bahia Honda – Snorkel in the bountiful waters or just soak up the rays on one of the Florida Keys’ few natural beaches.
- Hollywood Beach – The pedestrian broadwalk adds to the retro feel; tandem bicycles are as much the norm here as double scoop rainbow cones and kitschy souvenir shops.
- Key Biscayne – Climb the lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park for a view of Miami’s Biscayne Bay. Picnic and play paddle ball on the white sandy shore.
- Pompano Beach – Shipwrecks and vibrant coral reefs await beneath the waves where scuba divers play with giant stingrays, moray eels and nurse sharks.
- Delray Beach – Rent loungers on Delray Beach at Ocean Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. Later, chow down on conch fritters and kick back a cold one at Boston’s on the Beach.
- Singer Island – Nestled on a barrier island, John D. Mac-Arthur Beach State Park on Singer Island has miles of pristine sandy shores for walks and mangrove fringes for kayaking.
- Blowing Rocks – Park your beach chair at high tide and watch the waves bash the rocky coast.