In the middle of Ocean Drive sits the Versace Mansion, gates still opened to the world, beckoning revelers to submit to a little South Beach decadence and open love. In 1997, the legendary fashion designer was murdered on the steps of his home, and the date is symbolic in more ways than one. Like John Lennon’s Dakota in New York, everything changed after that time.
South Beach in the 1990s is best personified by the movie “The Birdcage”: drag queens, muscle queens, model queens, street parties till dawn on a strip that was a year-round Mardi Gras for the young and gay and restless. Today, Ocean Drive, and surrounding SoBe, is a cosmopolitan mix of the rich and fabulous and foreign, the middle class and tourists, and, yes, gay men. Much of the older guys died, or headed to rehab and neighboring Fort Lauderdale, a politer, smaller, homier enclave.
Like so much of the country, gay rights has meant fewer gay-specific neighborhoods and more intertwined communities. That’s progress, folks, and Miami Beach’s lower tip is now a must-see for a brilliant stretch of beach, that Art Deco skyline that looks as if it were dreamed up for “The Jetsons,” and, yes, a lingering sense of debauchery.
Restaurants are plentiful and quite good. Lincoln Road, one of the country’s first pedestrian malls, houses lots of tourist traps and some genuine gems. Hit Spris for thin-sliced personal pizzas, and a spot right in the middle of people-watching (can one ever tire of searching for real breasts on spray-tanned women?). Indoor-outdoor dining is common among the strip, and those wonderful water-spray fans cool you down in the hot times. Sushi Samba Dromo is a great alternative to much of the way-fat food calling your name, with a clientele ready to party. No trip to South Beach would feel right without a stop at Ocean Drive’s News Café, the 24-hour coffee shop/restaurant/hotspot where you’re going to want to make sure you Tag your friends. Because, well, everyone needs to know you were here. The food’s not bad, either.
South Beach is made for walking—or biking—and DecoBikes is a great way to explore the beach roads, and get some serious exercise. You pick up a bike at one of numerous locations around town, swipe your credit card, then leave the cycle at any of the dozens of stations around Miami. Ocean Drive cafes require that you walk through them to get by, with Happy Hour enticements, cigarette girls, and drinks as super-size as the superstars being chased by the paparazzi.
As for gay bars, they have a few. Miami is a late town, even by New York standards, so don’t expect to see a crowd till after midnight. On the plus side, go early and you might be able to hear the date sipping a dirty martini next to you. Score and Mova (formerly Halo), are staples, and Bar 721 is a nice, dare I say “homey,” addition. But your pink card’s gonna be revoked if you don’t hit Twist, which, as the name implies, twists and turns with seven different rooms, including the Bungalow Bar, or “Petting Zoo,” where cool drinks are set off by hot lap-dancers who practically fight for your attentions. You might want to hit an ATM before you arrive.
Accommodations are rampant and sometimes as deceptively glam as a Hollywood movie set (great facade; nothing on the inside). I loved two spots, Lords, on Collins Avenue, and Breakwater, on Ocean Drive. Both hotels are Art Deco and originally built in the ’30s, and, because of their age, “always in need of some love,” as one hotel buff told me while I was visiting. That “love” might mean windows that don’t always open (Lords) or elevators with a mind of their own (Breakwater). But charm itself can never be fixed.
Lords (above) opened last November, billing itself as the first “gay” boutique hotel in Miami Beach. Rooms are kitsch-adjacent, with streaks of yellow and lots of gay-icon photos. The service is delightful and friendly, and two tiny pools surround a Jacuzzi, where Cabana Boy Sundays bring in the local and the lovely. Lords is a block away from the beach, and, unless you splurge on a big suite, rooms are small and view-deprived.
The big plus here is the fun restaurant and bar, the prices (it’s affordable), and personal attention. The staff give you towels for the beach, know every location in town, and generally seem to be having as much fun as you are. You also get free day passes for nearby Equinox (Hello, Gorgeous Guys!), which means a stay here is as SoBe-gay as Corona beer chasers plopped in a giant margarita (the new, “let’s pass out by noon” street-side drink).
Breakwater (below), which just underwent a multi-million dollar renovation, is on Ocean Drive, and a sweet oasis in the middle of the strip. “Classy but staid” is a good description of the lobby and 100 rooms, which neither boast pomposity nor lack elegance. The staff, too, is almost a novelty in their total lack of pretense, and their complete supply of smiles and helpfulness. The pool is still in the works, but there’s a chic penthouse bar and lounge area, a gorgeous garden courtyard, a brand-new restaurant, and, my personal favorite, rooms that overlook the glittered chaos of Ocean Drive yet, somehow, are almost sound-free. (I’m still not sure how they accomplished that). Beach access is a big plus (show your room card and you get an all-day chair and umbrella), as is the location in the heart of pretty much everything South Beach.
Miami is known as a winter destination, but I love it in the warmer months too. The air-conditioning is as cold as the sun is hot, and everyone seems to go as loco as the locals. So, after all that decadence, sight-seeing, and fun, how does one end a visit to Miami’s South Beach? With a plan to come back at a different time of year.