Gliding over Miami’s Julia Tuttle Causeway, an intoxicating vision fills the windshield. Palm trees blowing in the breeze, glints of brilliant sun across deep blue water – a picture postcard of Florida.
It’s no wonder South Beach is such a popular destination.
Often (and not untruthfully) depicted as a sunbathe-all-day, dance-all-night party paradise where the right look gets you in the door and the right price takes you behind the velvet curtain, South Beach is renowned as a playground for the wealthy elite.
But beneath that renown lays genuine personality, and a faceted destination that disarms the cliché. Here, travelers seeking simple pleasures can still find their place in the sun.
South Miami is a heady whiff of rich Cuban coffee and steamed milk. It’s a cacophony of shrill seagulls, buzzing scooters and staccato Spanish. It’s a man selling plump, pink shrimp on the street corner, three pounds for $10.
And beneath it all, the soothing crash of waves flows in and out, marking time through an endless summer.
Day One: Bienvenido a Miami
Getting to the real South Beach, behind all the glimmer, can prove a sturdy task. And in this oft-pricey paradise, it's not easy to live like an indulgent socialite-in-hiding when you're supplied only with a writer's sensible budget.
There are countless hotels and motels within easy walking distance of South Beach. During off-peak season (generally mid-May to late October) crowds thin out and rates are easier on the wallet. The weather may be unpredictable, but fiery sun can make an ocean dip more refreshing, and occasional rain showers usually blow past in minutes.
First stop is Collins Avenue, two streets away from Ocean Drive and the beach. Collins features several blocks of restored Deco hotels, many of which offer suitable lodging without the waterfront rates. The rooms may not be luxurious, but a traveler who chooses wisely will get clean and cozy accommodations.
A single room in an older building runs about $100 – a decent base price for the area, especially since it includes continental breakfast. The convenient in-room kitchenette – complete with microwave, sink, fridge and dishware – is an unexpected perk that can also help defray meal expenses.
When hunger starts gnawing, relief comes from La Sandwicherie. Served by a man with a thick French accent, the heavenly $7 sandwich is piled high with turkey and camembert on crusty French bread, dressed with lettuce, tomato, cornichons and tangy Dijon vinaigrette. It’s a running candidate for my best Miami meal: authentic, simple and savory.
Day Two: Explorer’s Notebook
Every new day in Miami begins with café con leche, and for vacationers, a brisk walk along the beach. The sea breeze blows heavy with salt, carrying gulls and their endless chatter.
A few blocks south of Lincoln Road’s bustle, the brick streets of Espanola Way wind through another, quieter outcropping of galleries, shops and al fresco cafés. It’s a window-shopper’s paradise.
The Hotel Astor on trendy Washington Avenue is known for its good value for what you pay to be pampered there. Its online catchphrase, touting “affordable exclusivity,” rings true with contemporary style, thoughtful amenities and fair year-round rates.
Starting at about $100 or less per night during off-peak season, the cushy Astor costs just a fraction more than your basic SoBe motel. During winter’s busy season, Astor rooms can still be booked for less than $300 – a steal for chic accommodations in this neighborhood.
Attentive service offers added value. A porter helps cart luggage to the spacious rooms, decorated with understated elegance in soft taupe and cream. After a hot day of shopping, it’s luxurious to take a cool shower, wrap up in a lightweight robe and stretch out on the downy bed.
The vibe at Ola Bar and Restaurant, adjacent to the spa-style Sanctuary Hotel, is relaxing and sociable. Sip on a fresh mojito and strike up a conversation with some locals.
For the next morning, be sure to make your way to the beach once more. Get comfortable with a magazine, digging your toes into the sand. Relax on the hotel's chairs, where service is very affordable.