Five a.m. used to be bedtime in South Beach. But now it's the time we set on our alarms, since my Miami friends have long since traded carousing for careers.
That suits me just fine, because the best times to hit the beach are dawn and early evening, and there are so many things to do in between. Plus, the morning light in South Beach outshines its neon. As dawn blossoms over the ocean, Washington Avenue awakens two blocks away with skateboarding baristas, showtune-humming shopkeepers and, eventually, sharp-dressed figures unlocking doors to intriguing places that most visitors miss while baking on the beach.
Trekking south on Washington Avenue, I can't help gaping at the original city hall, nine stories built in 1927 by tycoon-developer Carl Fisher. Restored in 2008, the Mediterranean Revival gem now houses the Miami Beach Cinematheque. South Beach has the nation's largest concentration of 1920s and 1930s resort architecture, thanks to Barbara Capitman, who formed the Miami Design Preservation League in the mid-1970s. Back then, an immense geriatric population earned pre-sexy South Beach the nickname “God's Waiting Room.”
The buildings boast enchanting porthole windows, zigzagging rooflines and frozen-fountain motifs. A 1922 cottage-turned-seafood-shack is built of oolitic limestone; nicknamed coral rock, it's composed of compacted fossil shells.
A tollbooth salvaged from Miami Beach's first bridge sits in front of an ornately decorated warehouse that holds the Wolfsonian, a treasury of modernist décor, design innovations and political art from 1885 to 1945 collected by Mitchell Wolfson Jr.
Inside the museum, paintings that depict frightful dystopian visions are counterbalanced by objects of optimism — a capricious skyscraper-inspired cabinet, avant-garde appliances, a curvaceous sideboard from the French expo that launched the Art Deco movement.
The story behind a set of stained-glass panels makes them even more intriguing. Commissioned in 1926 to commemorate Ireland's independence, artist Harry Clarke depicted scenes of expressive, and sensual, characters from Irish literature. The windows were never displayed until Wolfson acquired them decades later — because politicians deemed them scandalous.
Farther south, a sign promising “blackberry mojitos” points through a row of potted palms to 660, a Nuevo Latino cafe based at the Angler's Resort, a boutique hotel. Its 1930s Mediterranean Revival buildings once accommodated anglers such as Ernest Hemingway and, in later decades, squatters, before local entrepreneurs turned it into an micro-resort, adding rooftop and patio terraces fringed with foliage, romantic spiral staircases and a pool surrounded by cabanas.
The hotel's revival has been the rising tide that lifts all ships. A shiny rack next to the palms offers cool DecoBikes for rent, and painters brighten storefronts across the avenue where hip mid-'80s venues such as The Strand bustled with celebrities and models flooding South Beach in the wake of “Miami Vice” and Bruce Weber's Calvin Klein photo shoots. Now, it's a peaceful, pretty place to drink, dine and sleep, just a short walk from the island's famous all-hours action.
Aromas drift from pizzerias and Las Olas, a cozy Cuban cafe. A new market, Europa, proffers old-country fare. The neighborhood bike shop sponsors monthly fun-rides with police escorts. Welcome to SoFi, the “south of 5th Street” district. The cosmopolitan community used to house Jewish residents prohibited from buying or renting property north of Fifth until the 1940s.
Two synagogues, one built in 1929, another in 1936 by Art Deco pioneer Henry Hohauser, now hold the Jewish Museum of Florida. You don't have to be Jewish to love this place. Photographs, heirlooms and letters convey experiences to which any hyphenated American can relate: culture clashes, discrimination, family traditions.
One display tells the story of immigrants Joe and Jennie Weiss, who opened not-so-kosher Joe's Stone Crab in 1913. A century later, it still operates two blocks down Washington Avenue. Accounts of other local personalities include Miss Florida pageant queens and Don Francisco, host of Sábado Gigante, TV's longest-running variety show. There's a photograph of a gent walking his dog by the beach; it's gangster Meyer Lansky, known as a good citizen, philanthropist and prompt payer of parking tickets.
It's blissfully quiet as my friend Matt and I walk the southern end of Washington Avenue. Here, lodging spans the spectrum. El Cyclon, a cone-shaped loft studded with fish sculptures and gated by an iron octopus, has a unit renting for $1,000 a day. For $27 a night, you can stay on the same block at the hip SoBe Hostel — breakfast included.
Joe's Stone Crab hugs a corner with its iconic sign and a newer gourmet market that SoFi residents crowd on weekends. Newcomer neighbors include the Flat, a pre-party lounge serving craft cocktails, and Lee & Marie's Cakery, where temptations are baked using local-sourced ingredients by the former pastry chef of Miami Beach's legendary Fountainebleau.
The avenue ends in the shadow of an ultra-luxe condo's 44 floors of salmon-hued stucco and ocean-blue window-panes. For many of Matt's neighbors, the towers “are second, third, fourth, even fifth homes.” Yet at ground level, net worth doesn't matter. Uncommon for South Beach, people here smile and dress for comfort, not show.
Recently, a $25 million landscape job transformed 22 acres between the condos and Government Cut, the ocean-to-bay inlet, from derelict to elite. South Pointe Park thrums with people jogging, walking dogs, pushing strollers, Nordic poling and bicycling on paths crisscrossing native dune grasses, Sabal palms and coconut trees.
People gather with coffee and picnic baskets on knolls, a “seatwall” set into a hill and chaise lounges atop the coffee/juice bar pavilion to watch huge cargo and cruise ships float to the Port of Miami.
The Cutway, a half-mile promenade of fossilized coral rock, borders the inlet from the bay to the Atlantic Ocean. We pass “Obstinate Lighthouse,” a 55-foot sculpture of off-kilter blocks, and 18 towers that illuminate the channel at night. Their turtle-safe wavelength doesn't confuse hatchlings who must quickly scurry from sand nests to saltwater.
An immaculate field bustles with dogs rollicking between sunrise and 10 a.m, “Fetch-the-coconut is a popular game here,” says seasonal visitor Angelka Westphal, pointing to shells being shredded by Penny, her Jack Russell terrier.
Walking to the beach, we're greeted by a police officer comporting himself like a host. Alex Gonzalez has worked here since the day the park opened. “I love my beat,” he says.
The next morning at South Pointe Park, early-risers are living perfect private moments. A man pirouettes while tossing bread to hovering gulls. Lovers tread water's edge. A terrier chases the tide, and a trio of leashed lapdogs tug a woman clutching a travel mug. Next to the rock jetty, someone unrolls a yoga mat. By swaying sea oats, a personal trainer coaches his willowy client.
A cheery red-striped lifeguard stand cants before a backdrop of highrises. Sand cools my feet as I approach.
Two legs dangle above my head. They belong to Allison Cotter. She watched workers build this lifeguard stand, and every morning since she's climbed onto its platform to do sunrise stretches. “Start your day here, and it will be great no matter what,” she says.
Paradise found, along with a free beachfront penthouse.
A man arrives and perches a powder-pink sequined jute tote on the stand's steps. Bruno, a local photographer, is doing a fashion shoot.
It's clear why he prefers this location to Ocean Drive. While sunburned late-night carousers snooze behind hotel blackout curtains and sleep-masks, South Beach's rising sun halos us, and the couture beach-bag, in golden light.