Miami is a great wintertime escape
by Ed Walsh
My trip timing wasn't so good. When I arrived in Miami two weeks ago, Florida was in the middle of a cold snap. The famed Miami Beach was deserted except for a few surfers in wetsuits and tourists posing for pictures in winter clothes. It had gotten down to 34 degrees that morning. It wasn't predicted to go above 53 degrees all day and was going to be another night in the 30s. San Francisco's low temperature that day was the same as Miami's high temperature.
But the typical year-round summer weather in Miami returned two days later. The "crisis" was over. Summer was back. The beaches were full of people soaking in the Florida sunshine in the middle of December.
Barring a rare cold snap, Miami is a great escape from the Bay Area cold and rain. It is also a very gay welcoming getaway. And the gayest thing to happen in Miami in a while is happening this week. A gay hotel, Lords South Beach, is scheduled to have its official grand opening, following a soft opening that began last month. It is the only gay hotel in the greater Miami area and is already generating a lot of buzz.
Miami is an easy getaway and like San Francisco, you can get along fine without a car. The gay beach, as well as several gay bars and nightclubs, are all in easy walking distance. And it is getting even easier to get along in Miami without a car. A bike-sharing program called DecoBikes will begin any day now. Getting from the Miami airport without a car is also easier and cheaper than ever. The city recently inaugurated a new $2.35 airport shuttle to Miami Beach.
Most of the action in the greater Miami area is centered in South Beach, in the city of Miami Beach, which is part of a barrier island between the ocean and the city of Miami. Parking and traffic can be challenging in South Beach, and gets more difficult the farther south you go, so a car is more trouble than it's worth.
Miami Beach is a living monument to the Art Deco style. With rare exceptions, the city won't allow the old 1920s and 1930s hotels to be torn down. Instead, developers have kept the exteriors and lobbies of the hotels intact while completely gutting and renovating the interiors with all the comforts people have come to expect in the 21st century.
Ocean Drive is the most famous ocean front street in South Beach known for its art deco hotels. The Carlyle is the hotel where The Birdcage, the remake of the La Cage Aux Folles, was filmed. Tragedy struck on Ocean Drive in 1997 when Andrew Cunanan gunned down Gianni Versace. The Versace Mansion on 1116 Ocean Drive is now an upscale hotel called The Villa by Barton G.
South Beach has an official gay beach. It's easy to find. Just look for the two rainbow flags on the beach opposite 12th Street. It is one of the most crowded sections of Miami Beach. It is directly across from the Palace Food Bar, a gay bar and restaurant that is most popular during the day, especially in late afternoon as people start to return from the beach.
If you stay in South Beach and don't have a car, don't let that deter you from seeing some of the best sights of Miami. A guided tour is the best way to get around without getting lost. The Grayline hop-on, hop-off bus is a great way to spend a day or two exploring the best sights of the city including Little Havana, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, and the Jungle Island theme park/zoo. Grayline offers a tour that loops downtown and another that loops Miami Beach.
The Grayline transfer point is the Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami. That's a stop not to be missed. Downtown has undergone a revitalization. Bayside Marketplace is the city's version of Pier 39. The Freedom Tower, which was once the tallest building in Florida, is across the street. It was the former newspaper building. It got its name because it was used to process more than a half-million Cubans fleeing Castro in the 1960s and early 1970s. You can ride the futuristic people-mover around the skyscrapers downtown for free.
If you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing, be sure to buy a Go Miami Card. It includes a number of tours including the famous Duck Tour and your choice of everglade tours. The Duck Tour cruises along Miami's canals for a peek at the private front lawns of the rich and famous. Most of the celebrities don't like their houses being pointed out, but Rosie O'Donnell has been know to buzz the Duck Tour and "quack" a greeting to the tourists. The Go Card also includes admission to several attractions, including Jungle Island and area museums. It will more than pay for itself if you plan on taking in a lot of sights.
While you are in Miami Beach, be sure to check out the World Erotic Art Museum (http://www.weam.com). It boasts the world's largest public view collection of erotic art and includes gay and lesbian sections. Photos are not allowed inside except in front of the giant penis near the exit!
Miami provides many opportunities to glimpse into the early days of the state. A good example is the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens (http://www.vizcayamuseum.org). The property's centerpiece is an Italian Renaissance-style mansion surrounded by 10 acres of gardens. James Deering, of the Deering tractor company, wintered at the property between 1916-1925. Deering, by the way, was a "lifelong bachelor." He may have been gay, but like so many other gay men of his era, he kept that part of his life well hidden.
If you are in the mood to shop and can afford to splurge, the city of Bal Harbour, just outside Miami, has Florida's version of Rodeo Drive set in an open-air mall called the Bal Harbour Shops (http://www.balharbourshops.com). Most of the shops there are designer upscale and expensive but they also have a Gap store for us mere mortals. Even its lushly landscaped parking lot is upscale ($4 per hour or $1 per hour with validation), with palm trees that gently shade cars from the South Florida sun.
The two most popular gay clubs in Miami are Twist (http://www.twistsobe.com) and Score (www.scorebar.net). The clubs are about a mile apart in South Beach but it's an enjoyable walk with plenty of people-watching and window s
Score is a cavernous dance club along South Beach's pedestrian Lincoln Road shopping area. The upstairs lounge at Score is Creme. Its Thursday night party, Creme and Sugar, draws a big crowd after midnight. Score and Twist stay open until 5 a.m. and are busiest late at night.
The Buck 15 Lounge is behind Score. It has different themes on different nights. By the way, for a great overall nightlife guide to South Beach, be sure to check out http://www.SoBeSocialClub.com. It is run by Edison Farrow, South Beach's unofficial gay social director.
Mova is an upscale lounge bar near Score just off Lincoln Road. College night on Wednesdays always attracts a big crowd.
South Beach's newest gay club is across the street from the Buck 15. It's called the 721. (It gets its name from its address, 721 Lincoln Lane.) Although it's about 90 percent gay, it draws a more mixed crowd on Saturdays.
The aforementioned Palace restaurant and bar is the only gay bar on Miami Beach's famed Ocean Boulevard. It's open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is the perfect place to people watch in South Beach. It's the place to go earlier in the evening. It also does a brisk daytime business. It closes at midnight most weekdays, depending on how busy it is, and at 1 a.m. on weekends. The Palace is famous for its Saturday "Drags Gone Wild" drag show with crowds that spill out into the street.
South Beach has a couple of weekly events geared towards lesbians. Every Sunday, Score hosts "Panty Raid," a tea dance that is run by the locally well-known club promoter Lynn Bove. On Thursday nights, Mova hosts "Sweet Thursday." Aqua Girl (http://www.aquagirl.org) is the East Coast version of Dinah Shore. It runs May 11-14 next year and benefits the Aqua Foundation for Women. The Women's White Party takes place in March.
A word to the wise when eating out in Miami, more and more restaurants automatically add in a tip to the bill. That began about 20 years ago in response to foreign tourists who didn't tip because they came from countries where it was not customary. Unfortunately, most restaurants don't go out of their way to tell you that the tip is included, so be sure to check the bill closely before leaving a tip.
Fine dining aficionados will find plenty to chew on in South Beach. The La Marea Restaurant is part of the Tides Hotel (http://www.tidessouthbeach.com), a beautifully restored art deco treasure conveniently located just across the street from the gay beach on Ocean Drive near 12th Street. La Marea features northern Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. Farther south along Ocean Drive at 8th Street, you will find the landmark News Cafe (http://www.newscafe.com). It paved the way for the other Ocean Drive restaurants when it opened in 1988. It is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For Asian food lovers, the China Grill (http://www.chinagrillmgt.com) is the southern spin-off to the China Grill in Manhattan. If you like a good, filling breakfast, don't pass up the Greenstreet Outdoor Lounge and Restaurant (http://www.greenstreetcafe.net) in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood. Try their famous blueberry pancakes.
The aforementioned Lords Hotel is in a perfect location in South Beach. It's a 54-unit property on Collins Avenue, just a block from the gay beach. The art deco building was formerly the Nash Hotel. The hotel now has a gold and white motif with a picture of Elizabeth Taylor in every room. The Lords bills itself as the first gay hotel chain in the U.S. They hope to open other Lords in New York, Chicago, and West Hollywood. The hotel is in a promotional partnership with Absolute Vodka, Levi, and L magazine. The Lords is pledging to donate 10 percent of the proceeds of select rooms to LGBT charities. Amenities include three small pools. The middle one is a Jacuzzi. Even if you are not staying there, be sure to stop by the restaurant or bar.
The Tides Hotel is directly across the street from the gay beach. The upscale property is known for its white coral rock steps and exterior. Amenities include a pool and small gym. The rooms are extra big here and offer great views of the ocean and the scene on Ocean Drive. With only 45 rooms, the hotel's employees give all guests very attentive service.
Z Ocean is a modern trendy hotel at the end of Ocean Drive. It has a beautiful courtyard pool that is sheltered from the wind, making sunning and swimming comfortable even on a rare cold day. The trendy upscale deign of the 80-unit hotel has earned it a gay following and the hotel has an LGBT section of its Web site geared to the gay traveler.
For more information, including a video tour of the Lords South Beach, view Ed Walsh's multimedia blog: http://www.gaymiamitravel.blogspot.com.
Gay dates for 2011
Winter Party Festival March 2-7
Miami Beach Gay Pride: Saturday, April 16
Aqua Girl: May 11-15
Sizzle Miami: May 26-29
Miami Beach Bruthaz: July 2011 (exact dates TBA)
White Party: November 23-28