Down through Little Haiti we go, passing Mexicans, Argentines, and Panamanians, and then we skim the border of Little Havana, a cocktail of Cubans with a splash of Costa Ricans and Brazilians. This is where South America meets peninsular USA. Welcome to Miami.
Our cruise through this melting pot brings us to the Art Deco district of South Beach and its showpiece alleé, Ocean Boulevard. Everyone from the Rat Pack to Gianni Versace has passed along (and posed on) this street searching for nighttime nirvana. As we reach the northern end of the boulevard, neon bar life gives way to gentler hotels, and at the tip stands our graceful colonial-style home for the next few nights, the Betsy.
The staff is friendly but efficient. The valet takes care of the rental car; bellboys haul our luggage from the trunk; the concierge, in pleasing designer uniform, swings open the doors. We are greeted by Cory, the front-of-house manager, with a surprise: we were supposed to have arrived yesterday. Gulp. But, ‘Hey that’s no problem,’ he says. He’s held the room and we can still stay for two nights. (Now that’s American-style service at its best.)
Opened in 1942, the Betsy was designed by L Murray Dixon, one of the two daddies of Miami’s Art Deco District. (The other was Henry Hohauser.) The Betsy was the last Florida Georgian style building erected near the beach – it’s on the landward side of Ocean Drive – and some say it is Dixon’s masterpiece in the genre. The Betsy reopened in 2009 after a full makeover from architect Carmelina Santoro.
The high-ceilinged, ground floor houses the open-plan reception, restaurant, and a lounge bar perfect for sofa-flopping and caipirinha-sipping. (Cocktails are expertly mixed here.) This is ceiling-fan-cooled heaven. It is also a showcase for the hotel’s changing art exhibits: during our stay, the walls were filled with photographs of rock stars, with Jill Furmanovsky’s photo of Blondie crowning an impressive line-up.
Across the road on South Beach, the Betsy commands its own strip of sand, replete with chaises, parasols, well-stocked bar, and excellent service. Within moments Mr and Mrs Smith are lounging by the water, iced drink in hand. South Beach is a melting pot of people-watching: gay, straight, young, old, the toned and the tubby – all amble past. Some say South Beach is the country’s finest stretch of sand: you can walk its 20 miles, if you so desire, but a stroll and a quick dip before stretching out to bake is more our style.
With the sun starting to dip, it is time to catch up with the luggage and check out our suite, which turns out to be the perfect place for a prolonged love-in. Dark-wood floors are offset by soft white linens. There are two rooms, both made for recline. One has a comfy sofa, mini bar, and flatscreen TV, while the other doesn’t mince words: the luxurious king-size bed is front and centre. In place of chocolates, bookmarks grace the pillows, each made from recyclable paper, embossed with romantic poetry, and embedded with seeds, a hint that here your love should grow (or maybe bear fruit?) The bathroom is a vast white-tiled oasis, housing a huge walk-in shower – big enough to sit down in and watch the television tiled into the wall should you run out of ideas (or just need a break from the action).
Thanks to the ever-obliging front-of-house team, there’s no wait for a coveted table at BLT Steak, the in-house restaurant. Chilean wagyu bavette is what I plump for, while Mrs Smith opts for the lighter, sustainably sourced grilled local yellowjack. A browse through the extensive wine list is followed by freshly baked popovers and a jar of warm pate. Delicious. Starters of fish ceviche come highly recommended – justifiably so – but it is my wagyu steak that gets the Oscar, with the fries winning for best supporting side. The $60, three-course set menu also gets a good-value award, especially on Ocean Boulevard.
To walk off dinner these Smiths stroll north to the nocturnal playgrounds of the Delano and the Shore Club. Philippe Starck’s wide-columned Delano lobby plays host to a big-name DJ and top-dollar drinks. It’s cooler and friendlier by the pool. Next: Delano basement club or the Shore Club’s penthouse party? An 18-floor elevator ride delivers us to the Shore’s alfresco roof jam, where Mrs Smith charms the bouncer; we are soon enjoying great views and whispered tales of that 1999 shooting during a P Diddy soirée.
Key Biscayne’s southern end beckons the next morning, and we head to the of a mere 20-minute drive from the South Beach frenzy and the site of the Key Biscayne National Park. With deserted beaches, nature trails, and a friendly man who rents bicycles, it is the perfect place to kick back after a night on the tiles. Our mojo restored, we explore on bicycles and are rewarded with a cooling ride through a forest alive with butterflies.
On our way back to town we make a pit stop at Jimbo’s. Set in its own tumble-down marina, Jimbo’s is a watering hole straight out of Ken Kesey’s Electric Cool Aid Acid Test. Resident eccentric Jamaican Pete shows us his Mick Jagger moves as his mate dishes out the Budweisers. It’s all very laid-back and plays home to an eccentric mix of waifs and strays: all well worth a visit, an authentic remnant of Sixties’ counterculture with heart. Tip generously.
Had we arrived back earlier, a spa treatment would have been on the cards. As it stands, we’re just in time to admire the sunset from the Betsy’s stylish rooftop bar. We clink glasses and congratulate ourselves on finding this tranquil haven as we watch the hordes of hedonists starting the weekend on Ocean Boulevard below.