A 10-block stretch of Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive provides a constant carnival of curious characters, cocktails, and colorful neon lights highlighting the fanciful architecture and setting ablaze the international atmosphere.
Tracing up the Miami Beach barrier island, about 500 yards from the shoreline bordering the west side of the sand dunes, palm trees, and grass, is Ocean Drive. One can easily stroll along the open sidewalk on the beachside of the street day or night and get a passing, 10-block view of the nearly contiguous stylish, preserved, art deco-style hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, luxury sports cars and storefronts facing east across “Deco Drive.”
For a more immersive, energizing experience, throw yourself into the human swim and walk on the west side of the street. Maneuver under the awnings covering the sidewalk café tables and wade through the cigar smoke, palm readers, parrots on shoulders, and cigarette girls while hearing people speaking foreign languages in between their sips from bucket-sized margarita glasses with upside down beer bottles sticking up from the ice.
Ocean Drive is like a combination open-air museum and zoo with out bars (other than the ones people are drinking in). Let me serve as a “Deco Drive Docent” and curate some favorites as we stroll from the south up the street:
A walk north up Ocean Drive begins somewhat ignominiously at the corner of Ocean Drive and Fifth Street with a TGI Friday’s, about the only commercial chain restaurant or hotel operating for the next 10 blocks.
The Bentley is one of a number of stylish boutique hotels facing the beach on Ocean Drive. A rooftop patio, pool and Jacuzzi atop the Bentley provide views of both the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Miami skyline and the setting suns to the west.
It seems ironic that a CVS drugstore now occupies the building in which a grizzly chainsaw murder was perpetrated in the gangster movie “Scarface” starring Al Pacino. (Boxes of band-aids wouldn’t have saved the thug who met his maker upstairs in the “Sunray Apartments”).
Tourists cannot climb the stairway to the apartment but the popularity of the spot and curiosity of visitors is acknowledged by a plaque on the front of the unmistakable building.
The neon on “Deco Drive” is apparently not limited to the colorful lighting on the architecturally stylish buildings and storefronts. Colorful hairstyles, bikinis, frozen and all manner of luxury cars attract attention.
Wet Willies and its patio above is a perfectly casual place for the bikini, clam-digger and flip flop crowd who migrate over across the palm trees and grass of Lummus Park from the beach during a hot afternoon on the sands.
Choose your candy-colored cocktail carefully. Potent frozen alcoholic slushies are always ready to rock: “Call-A-Cab,” “Shock Treatment,” and seasonal creations.
Mango’s Tropical Café is the loudest, most colorful, most audaciously spirited fun house on Ocean Drive. The fun starts on the sidewalk where sexily-dressed attendants pose and beckon passersby into an indoor garden of bar-top salsa dancers, live music, and every flavor of mojito imaginable. Customers can have parrots perched on their shoulders for photos in the cool, dark, colorful oasis.
The Breakwater is a timepiece of a boutique hotel right smack in the middle of the action with the most central location possible. The buildings containing its 99 guest rooms surround “Ocean’s Ten,” an open-air courtyard bar and restaurant with live music and dancing late into the night. “Havana 1957” serves Cuban cuisine with a big dose of nostalgia.
The sidewalk Miami Beach clock boasting the time, date and Sunshine State temperature might be South Beach’s best marketing ambassador as hundreds of snowbirds snap photos of themselves in front of it and tweet, text or email the pictures back to their envious friends in dark, cold winter places like frozen Frankfurt, Fargo, and Philadelphia.
Just next to the clock – and kitty-corner from The Breakwater – is Miami Beach’s Official Art Deco Gift Shop. It’s full of retro items, limited edition prints, original souvenirs of Miami icons, one-of-a-kind curiosities, fun gadgets, beach toys, and bits of apparel.
The Clevelander, is a largely open-air day and nightclub and hotel. Its fountain-ways, swimming pool, pastel up-lighting, block glass bar, trees, topiary hedges, breezeways with and overall Art Deco themed-design make it the most visually stimulating restaurant property among its peers.
The banner over the veranda is unabashedly emblazoned: “Every Queen Needs a Palace.” And the Palace provides just that: nightly, live drag queen shows on the street and in the bar’s lively, inclusive environment, plus breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Casa Casuarina was the palatial home of fashion world titan Gianni Versace – who met his demise on the same sidewalk out front where hundreds of visitors pay their respects and snap photos each day. The property is now a private luxury hotel.
On South Beach’s Ocean Drive, even the public restrooms – this one at 14th Street – is presented with Art Deco style.
U Rock, a tiny-but-electric apparel shop, appears to be a glamorous Casablanca-style tented bazaar, but it’s a bejeweled glam shop full of rhinestone belt buckles, audacious apparel, designer denim and leather jackets, dresses and over-the-top fashions for both men and women. The offerings are so unique that photo taking inside is not allowed.