By staying just 10 minutes from Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive, the girlfriends spent half as much money and had just as much fun on their weekend in Miami.

By Jennifer Stevens

Sunday afternoon, sitting under large umbrellas on Lincoln Road, my girlfriends and I thought we'd grab a quick bite before saying our goodbyes.

A barefoot man walked by pushing a bicycle. He had a tanned hide and wore only a metallic bronze Speedo. Not long after came an elderly couple singing show tunes from Cats. Then a parade of leggy women in miniskirts.

We ordered more refreshments and settled in for a few hours of the main attraction here – people watching. Which we could still afford after a girlfriends getaway weekend in Miami a mix of wonderful splurges ($20 cocktails) and smart bargains (a hotel just off the beaten path).

From the Art Deco buildings and boutique-lined streets to the beaches and nightlife, Miami is fascinating – and not just to young women looking to blow off some steam.

I remember my first visit. My parents took my little sister and me to South Beach for a family vacation. It was a four-hour drive from our small town north of Tampa, but Miami felt like another country. As we rode up busy Collins Avenue, my sister and I hung our heads out the car windows, excited by beautiful young men and women in bathing suits, and music blaring from sidewalk cafes. The smell of slow-cooked pork and plantains made us hungry.

At the News Café, a woman at the next table wore a diamond necklace and giant sunglasses. She seemed so cool, like Julia Roberts. I wanted to be her.

Fifteen years have tempered my fantasy. My three girlfriends and I are still climbing that financial ladder, and it's slippery. We each had about $400 to spend for the weekend, or as much as some might pay for one night in a Miami hotel.

But it helps to have local connections. My friend Lauren is a Miami native and suggested we stay in the "up-and-coming" neighborhood of Brickell to save some cash. By sleeping just 10 minutes from Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive, we spent half as much money and had just as much fun.

Brickell, in downtown Miami, turned out to be the greatest surprise of our trip. Streets in the financial district used to shut down after business hours. Now young people have moved into condos and the neighborhood is bustling.

We set out from the Hampton Inn & Suites to explore. The aroma of fresh seafood and roasted garlic invited us into cafes and bars where young professionals drank, dined and danced. We chose Fado Irish Pub in a charming outdoor mall called Mary Brickell Village. We made note of several other places: Rosa Mexicano, Burger & Beer Joint, Blue Martini and several houses that had been converted into restaurants.

The next day, instead of the beach, we stayed in the area. A friend from college persuaded us to walk over to his 300-foot-pool at Icon Brickell. He called it  "the best pool in Miami," with views of Biscayne Bay, plus comfy lounge chairs and beds.

The Icon Brickell shares a property with the Viceroy Miami hotel. For $45, the hotel's spa offers a day pass, allowing guests access to the pool, gym, steam room and sauna from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Towels, robes and sandals are included.

We had a great day in Brickell, but a weekend in Miami is incomplete without a night on South Beach.

We put on our heels and cocktail dresses and had dinner at a small, candlelit restaurant called BONDST Lounge in the basement of Townhouse Hotel. We spent two hours feasting on ginger salads, tuna tacos, spicy crispy shrimp, Toro tuna with sliced mango and a variety of sashimi. We each spent about $80, including cocktails.

Some of Miami's best nightlife is found inside hotels. On previous trips, I visited The Rose Bar at the Delano Hotel, where large Venetian chandeliers hang from the ceilings, and the oceanfront bar at the Asian-inspired Setai, where we drank flutes of champagne with NASCAR drivers.

On this trip, we headed to the Perry South Beach Hotel's rooftop bar, with its swaying palm trees, private cabanas, couches, pool and a view of Miami's skyline. The drinks were just as expensive, at $20 a cocktail, but some gentlemen insisted on picking up the tab.

We were grateful, but we weren't interested in meeting men. When my girlfriends and I get together, nothing matters but us. It's a chance to dance, to laugh and to spend a weekend away from our busy lives selling real estate and teaching children.

At 3 a.m., as we shared a $20 taxi ride, we felt blessed to have maintained such a strong friendship. We can't wait for the next great adventure.

If You Go

The Hampton Inn & Suites in Brickell

Viceroy Miami

BONDST Lounge, In the Townhouse Hotel

The Perry South Beach Hotel (formerly Gansevoort Miami Beach)



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