Miami: South Beach


Most people in South Beach – weekenders from New York, party people from Planet Fashion, hip/rich Europeans clutching style magazine guides – go there to soak up the some sun and stay up all night. Not me. Though normally nocturnal by nature, I go to get up early. South Beach may have built its reputation as one of the most fashionable, fabulous places in earth, swarming with cool and beautiful aficionados of taste, but in fact it is at its most heavenly without them.

There are few things as effortlessly pleasurable as stepping out of your hotel at 7 or 8am and walking down Ocean Drive for breakfast.

For once, Ocean Drive is virtually empty. The cocktail-drinking club kids and over-loaded aficionados of gay disco, techno, hip-hop and salsa are sleeping it off or probably still raving. Cuban old-timers sit around on their porches or potter about tending to their gardens. Local store workers get the newspaper and stock up on OJ for the day. Despite the glorious certainty of some sun, everyone has something to say about the weather, casting a suspicious eye to the skies, spying a solitary cloud or sensing a sniff of a breeze and declaring that the temperature will only make 79.

“It sucks man, I’m telling you,” a guy wearing a pristine purple Polo shirt tucked into his pristine white tennis shorts sweeping the sidewalk told me, as I looked out at the gorgeous blue skies and vast white beaches stretched out before me.

Early on like this, in South Beach, even the sun is cool. When it is deserted like this, even the buildings are good-looking. The combination is sensational – the fondant-coloured Art Deco hotels catching the light, standing out like blocks of pink and yellow Neapolitan ice-cream. Looking down the strip unhindered, past the famous Versace gates towards the city, you inwardly acknowledge Miami’s favourite landmarks, the Marlin, the Tides, and the Delano: the holy trinity of hip hotels, where your (lethal) afternoon Long Island Tea awaits.

This is a time calm enough to take in the bombardment of smells in the air: the croissant and coffee and cinnamon, the Palm Trees, the sea. Sprinklers are still gently watering the islands of grass that parallel the croisette separating Ocean Drive from the beach. The sands (artificial – like everything else in South Beach; imported from Jamaica) are spotless, combed by an almost military convoy of tractors.

There is no traffic on Ocean Drive save the occasional lazy Harley or the gentle swish of a couple in matching lycra roller-blading down the middle of the road walking/skating their dogs. Even at the News Cafe, there is no difficulty in getting a table for your pre-requisite South Beach breakfast (eggs, designer hash browns, watermelon).

This is the time when you congratulate yourself for being somewhere so civilised. You are good-looking/looking good, you can tell yourself. You are in shape, in vogue, and in South Beach, where every day starts the same way. It is 8am, bliss. And it is all about to change.

THE one thing people never say about South Beach is how small it is. They are so taken by the over-powering glamour of the place – the sheer chic of it – they never mention that the area where most of the action takes place is just a small strip roughly the size of busy bit of the beach in Brighton or Blackpool – between 5th and 14th Street, along Ocean Drive and one block deep on to Collins Avenue. Hence the New Yorkers’ nickname for it as SoHo in the sun.

By 11am on your first morning, this small, self-contained set of streets belongs to the beau monde of models and bronzed Body Beautifuls who treat Ocean Drive as their own private/public catwalk.

They all look the same, like replicants from some sort of genetic experiment to breed perfect specimens: impossibly well-groomed, all-American blondes with pretty tattoos and piercings and gleaming, sleek muscles – all wearing thongs, shades and roller-blades. (Not to mention the women.) With them, come a coterie of make-up artists, stylists, photographers, DJs, dancers and designers – the beautiful bohemians and American Dreamers drawn to Miami like a magnet from no-hope towns all over the States. South Beach probably has the best-looking waitresses and barmen anywhere outside of Hollywood.

By the time breakfast is finished, photo shoots are taking place everywhere, backed up down the beach like planes circling over Heathrow. Outside my hotel, a long blonde in a red dress and red high heels was standing on the roof of an old red Chevrolet – the sort of sight that would stop the traffic in virtually any other town in the world. But not here.

No-one stopped to watch or wolf-whistle. Other models walked by carrying portfolios under their arms on their way to early morning ‘go-see’s, but didn’t even show her the courtesy of even feigning a professional interest. Even noticing that a fashion shoot is taking place in South Beach is a kind of fashion faux pas that marks you out as a mere tourist. It announces that you are Not Fashionable. It also suggests you are not very discerning. After all, if you stopped to look at every model walking past you on your way to breakfast, you would die of starvation.

It sounds great, but, by mid-afternoon, the novelty of being permanently shoulder-to-shoulder with an angel/Adonis starts wearing off.

Surveying the sheer multitude of models, a cold shiver hits you. It’s like being in an episode of The Twlight Zone where you suddenly realise you are out-numbered, surrounded, the last normal person left, trapped in a giant advert for Calvin Klein’s Obsession. It is The Night of the Living Babe, Invasion of the Body Snatchers – except the aliens are all Melrose Place extras or Hugo Boss poster boys.

As time goes by, it will gradually dawn on you that the cumulative effect of all this is that you are the least good-looking person here. Even in the cheapest cafes, the people waiting on you are just much better looking than you and they know it. (They should just re-name the whole place Vanity Fair and have done with it.) You start to get depressed. No-one is going to say “hi” to you as they swish by on their roller-blades. You start to regard the models not as objects of desire, but as figures of resentment and hatred. (You want to be beautiful too.)

By 11.30, you are ready to flee the Ocean Drive beauty parade and hit the Beach. This is an act of foolishness bordering on the kamikaze. For the average exercise-indifferent Brit, unveiling your sun-starved, out-of-condition body in Miami is an experience akin to get undressed in Selfridges’ window, particularly as you will be surrounded by people who are pretty much professional sun-bathers. The only solution to this problem is getting a tan before you go to South Beach: ie, going on holiday before you go on holiday. The sun is so strong that after an hour, you go from bright white to ridiculous red. Brown, you don’t even get close.

By mid-afternoon, the beach in any case is hell, especially at weekends, like one of those MTV beach parties or Bruce Weber photo shoots, full of people/models playing volleyball (with all the whooping and high-fiving that that seems to require) and listening to techno on ghetto-blasters the size of coffins.

The conversations around you is like being in one of those Brett Easton Ellis novels full of characters who talk about “doing narco-dicks at pardies” and, like, turn the end of all their sentences into, like, a question (?). One living doll sitting next to me volunteered the news that someone had told her that sand “was like glass ? With the same structure as crystals ?” This meant it was “like, toad-ally super-positive.” She had already been to the gym twice that day and was thinking of going again. (Being asked to “go for a work-out” must be SoBe’s most common, most casual chat-up line but disappointingly refers strictly to exercise.)

Ironically, for somewhere so fundamentally fashionable, compared to the bodies or faces, clothes are relatively irrelevant.

On peak days, the beach will be so crowded with competitive males sunning themselves and standing up puffing out their chest muscles and looking round for admiring glances, it’s reminiscent of those penguin-infested ice-bergs in David Attenborough documentaries.

In South Beach, the days of schlepping down to the beach with a grubby towel and a paperback are long gone. Everyone is on roller-blades, skateboards, bikes, or dressed for volleyball, basket-ball or the gym. They are doing Tai Chi, press-ups, jogging, running, walking. (I thought it was meant to be a holiday.) On the volleyball courts, there are more people playing or watching than Wimbledon. Even the police – on their racing bikes – are athletic, super-cool posers. By mid-afternoon, the sallow-faced, sun-shy, gym-free, knobbly-kneed, red-nosed Brits are easy to spot, retreating from the Beach as everyone else arrives, hands raised to the sky, hiding from the sun like Nosferatu

The truth is, besides working out or working on your tan, once you’ve left the beach, there really isn’t much to do in South Beach. The shops are empty and exorbitant. The shops assistants run their eyes over the old tennis shorts or plimsolls you are wearing, and a look of actual pain appears on their faces, as if a tramp had sat down next to them. You can see their expression say ‘hey, this guy’s not a model ! Christ, he hasn’t even got a tan. Gettouttamysight !!”

The restaurants are over-priced, over-crowded, and pumping out techno. The waiters and waitresses in South Beach (all aspiring models) are pretty, but as bad as anywhere in the world, more interested in checking their hair in the mirror than remembering your order.

South Beach is one of those places, like LA or Las Vegas, where literally no-one goes for the food. So everywhere along Ocean Drive is the same: onion rings the size of Goodyears, burgers and swordfish with chips like boxers’ fingers, salads like overgrown allotments, and endless re-fills of 7-Up full of ice.
“I can’t believe you ate all that !” the snub-nosed sex-kitten gasped as she took my plate. “You scare me.” (I didn’t realise the fashionable thing was to pick at it. Not just eat it all.)

The only way to enjoy South Beach is to remember that, however cool it is meant to be, being British, you are still cooler. Whatever the style magazines say, South Beach is basically a beach resort, over-run with all the inherent naffness that that entails. At night, there are more people offering a $ 20 polaroid poses with their pet tarantula/iguana/python named “Madonna” than you’ll find anywhere from Brighton to Ibiza.

The Delano, The Tides and The Marlin are fine for an hour but the blend of vacuous pretension and humourless style-over-content quickly becomes unbearable. The swimming-pool at the Delano, with a table and chess-set placed out in the middle of water is a particular embarrassment – like a Hypnosis album cover for Supertramp. The reception is like The World’s Largest Drapes Championships.

For somewhere supposedly so chic, South Beach is still firmly immersed in the 80s. Prince, Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke all used to own night-spots here. Vanilla Ice, Madonna, and Gloria Estefan all lived here and the legacy of that awful era is still there.

The music you hear is Steely Dan, Bob Marley, The Police. The South Beach style is still all Calvin Klein, Versace, Miami Vice. You actually still see people with jacket sleeves rolled up, and wearing white alligator-skin shoes. The barmen obviously all think Tom Cruise in Cocktail was cool and at night the number of Harleys, limousines and sports cars cruising up and down Ocean Drive as if they were cool is worse than the Kings Road in its hey-day. The roller-blades girls remain defiantly unashamed of their Jane Fonda/Olivia Newton-John headbands.

Thus the best sporting activity is people-watching, sitting outside a bar all night and watching the frantic, manic vanity parade that takes place every night go by – the drag queens, leather queens, body-builders who look as if they’re made of sausages and crazies.

Before long, you will become proud of the fact that you have no muscle definition, you have no $ 80 designer basketball shorts, no personal trainer, and above all, no suntan. You have a red nose.

From the point of view of watching the most unfashionable place in the world walking by – as if it were the MOST fashionable – South Beach couldn’t be better.

Catwalks, after all, are for watching not for appearing on.


jim shelley stayed at The Franklin Hotel
860 Collins avenue, South Beach