Out of Town - Miami and South Beach

Long a magnet for gay tourists, especially in winter but increasingly year-round, Miami is the largest and most diverse of the three prongs that comprise South Florida’s GLBT vacation trinity (Fort Lauderdale and Key West being the others). And it’s really a few destinations in one: there’s Miami proper, a city of about 440,000, and – across Biscayne Bay via a series of bridges – the separate city of Miami Beach (population 90,000), plus a slew of distinct neighboring communities that make up the nation’s seventh-largest metro area.

Leisure travelers tend to focus on the beaches, and GLBT visitors have long been particular, drawn to the southern end of Miami Beach, aptly known as South Beach, which bulges with trendier-than-thou luxe hotels, throbbing nightclubs, scene-y restaurants and gorgeous beachfronts (and sometimes appears utterly devoid of bulging tummies – indeed, the South Beach reputation for perfect bodies is both a hallmark and a criticism). What’s terrific about Miami Beach as a vacation getaway is that it’s a 10- to 15-minute drive from museums and growing cultural offerings of Miami proper. And once you’re here, it’s not much more than an hour’s drive to reach the edge of Everglades National Park, the thriving gay scene in Fort Lauderdale and the upper reaches of the scenic Florida Keys (Key Largo, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park). There’s a lot more to see and do on a Miami vacation than merely sunning your buns by the ocean – although there’s plenty of opportunity for that, too.

As you’re planning a trip here, keep a couple of resources in mind: The city’s Greater Miami Tourism has an excellent GLBT travel site (www.miamiandbeaches.com/visitors/gay.asp), which details recommended places to stay, eat, shop and play, along with relevant events. And right in the heart of South Beach, at 1130 Washington Avenue, the official Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce operates an LGBT Visitor Center (www.gogaymiami.com), where you can pick up advice on what to see and do – and where to stay – throughout Miami.

Another point worth considering is that Miami is one of the world’s leaders in gay and lesbian circuit parties and events, and many of these take place in late winter and early spring. One of the longest-running gay circuit events in the country, the Miami Winter Party Festival (www.winterparty.com), a fundraiser produced by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, takes places from March 2 through 7 and delights some 10,000 participants with some 20 parties, arts and cultural events, tours and cocktail receptions – there’s also a extensive roster of events geared just toward women, from a Latin dance party to a jazz brunch.

The following month, the third annual Miami Beach Gay Pride parade and festival (www.miamibeachgaypride.com) draws hundreds of spectators to Ocean Drive – this is one of the more community-oriented, laid-back parties in South Beach, an excellent opportunity to mingle and party with locals, and check out the dozens of bands, vendors, and local organizations at the festival between Ocean Avenue and gay-popular 12th Street Beach. The organizers also run a Miami Beach Pride Cruise to the Bahamas, from April 18 through April 22 (www.pridecruise.com).

Just after Pride, the increasingly prestigious Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (www.mglff.com) comes to the area, presenting dozens of screenings and events from April 23 through May 2. Other noteworthy events of GLBT interest to keep in mind later in the year include Aqua Girl (www.aquagirl.org) women’s weekend in mid-May, Sizzle Miami (www.sizzlemiami.com), which caters to gay men of color, and Sizzle Her Miami (www.sizzleher.com), a concurrent women’s event, both of which are during Memorial Day weekend in late May; Miami Beach Bruthaz Black and Latino Gay Pride (miamibeachbruthaz.com) in mid-July; and the Miami White Party Week (www.whiteparty.org) in late November.

Part of the fun of South Beach, beyond Ocean Drive and the sunny sands that flank it, is sauntering along the main north-south drag, Washington Avenue, a sometimes slick, sometimes raffish stretch of shops, hotels, and restaurants, plus the refreshingly sex-positive World Erotic Art Museum – the curious, extensive collection inside includes phallic fertility relics from 100 BC, exhibits on Lady Godiva and Catherine the Great, Tom of Finland figurines, and a magnificent four-poster bed, whose four “posts” are actually massive carved wooden penises.

Running perpendicular to Washington, the Lincoln Road also abounds with culinary and retail diversions – this pedestrian-only promenade is lined with palm-shaded sidewalk cafes and nightclubs. A full square mile of South Beach comprises the Art Deco District, a historic collection of some 800 prominently preserved buildings that showcase the sleek, distinctive style of 1910s to 1940s Miami. You can learn more about the city’s art deco heritage at the Wolfsonian Museum.

South Beach is one of the country’s bona fide hot spots for dining. Red Steakhouse (redthesteakhouse.com) is one of the most impressive venues, serving deftly prepared Italian fare and tender steaks. For upscale creative Cuban fare, try D. Rodriguez Cuba (www.drodriguezcuba.com) inside the Astor Hotel – crab empanaditas and crispy-skin pork are among the specialties. And, of course, don’t overlook favorite longtime standbys, like the stainless-steel 11th Street Diner (www.eleventhstreetdiner.com), which serves tasty diner fare 24/7; Books & Books, with its sunny sidewalk cafe along Lincoln Road; and touristy but fun Joe’s Stone Crab (www.joesstonecrab.com), which has been serving fresh seafood for nearly a century.

Lincoln Road is also home to a pair of the most popular gay nightspots in South Beach, MOVA Lounge (www.movalounge.com), a classy cocktail bar, and Score (www.scorebar.net), an expansive place with a trendy see-and-be-seen crowd. Other gay social spots of note include Twist (www.twistsobe.com), an expansive two-level video bar with a big patio out back that’s been de rigueur with revelers since it opened in 1993; and the Palace Cafe (www.palacesouthbeach.com), which overlooks Ocean Drive and is a favorite spot for lunch, cocktails, or dinner, especially after a visit to the gay beach at 12th Street.

If you’ve tended to focus your energy on South Beach in past visits, you really owe it to yourself to hop over to Miami proper for at least a day of exploration. It’s here that you’ll find one of Florida’s most fascinating house-museums, Vizcaya. A short drive north of downtown, the Wynwood Arts District, where you’ll find the outstanding Rubell Family Collection (an amazing assemblage of cutting-edge contemporary pieces spanning several large gallery rooms) and a number of terrific galleries, including Calix Gustav, which made a particular strong mission of including GLBT works, and the Wynwood Walls, a series of large-scale murals. There’s also a great restaurant around the corner, Joey’s Caffe & Ristorante (www.joeyswynwood.com), serving tantalizing thin-crust pizzas, antipasti platters, and elegant salads.

Downtown itself is a neighborhood with a burgeoning restaurant scene – check out Cviche 105 (www.ceviche105.com) for stellar Peruvian cuisine, Tre Italian Bistro (www.tremiami.com), and Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill (www.sugarcanerawbargrill.com), plus such important arts venues as the historic Gusman Center for the Performing Arts (take a tour of the ornate interior) and the dazzling Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Miami also has a few of the top gay bars in the region, downtown’s Club Mekka (www.mekkamiami.com), on Saturdays, for Discotekka); the Latin-flavored Club Sugar (clubsugarmiami.com) in Coral Gables, and the multiracial Club Boi (www.clubboi.com) – which is more Latin on Fridays, and African-American on Saturdays – in North Miami.

Trying to keep up with Miami’s, and especially South Beach’s, constantly evolving lodging landscape requires a scorecard – glitzy new hotels and resorts continue to open at a remarkable pace (this has even been true during the rough economy of the past couple of years). One of the most talked-about openings has been that of the Lords South Beach Hotel (www.lordssouthbeach.com), which opened inside a vintage art deco stunner (formerly the Nash). Reviews thus far have been mostly positive – the Lords has 52 rooms with simple but stylish white, yellow, and turquoise colors schemes and plenty of cushy amenities, from iPod stations to DVD players.

The latest high-profile entry, opened in February 2011 behind the Versace Mansion in a pair of restored Collins Avenue deco gems, Dream South Beach (www.dreamsouthbeach.com) contains 108 chic rooms and suites, the full-service Chopra Spa, and a superb restaurant – The Tudor – opened by vaunted chef Geoffrey Zakarian. Also near the beach and shopping, the the Z Ocean Hotel (www.zoceanhotelsouthbeach.com) a relaxing low-rise that spans a block between Collins and Ocean avenues. Rooms in this contemporary, low-keyed property are richly appointed with large windows, expansive balconies, fine bathrooms, and cushy feather beds.

In downtown Miami, the gay-popular Kimpton brand operates the swanky and chic Epic Hotel (www.epichotel.com), a soaring 411-high rise on the Miami River with expansive views of Biscayne Bay and the downtown skyline. This is a great base for exploring downtown, and it’s just 10 minutes by car to South Beach. Inside the hotel, you’ll find the excellent Exhale Spa, and a pair of superb restaurants, Area 31 – which overlooks the pool – and the sleek modern Japanese eatery from London, ZUMA.

The area also has a few top-notch smaller properties catering significantly to gay and lesbian visitors. With a slightly quirky (but interesting) location just across the Miami River from downtown Miami’s retail, dining, and culture, the Miami River Inn (www.miamiriverinn.com) is a terrific, affordable option if you’re a fan of historic residential architecture – it occupies several stunningly restored early-20th-century houses and cottages, with a total of 40 rooms.

Intimate options in South Beach include the beautifully kept, lesbian-owned SoBe You B&B (sobeyou.us), a 10-room stunner on a quiet street that’s within an easy walk of local nightlife and shopping; and the super-affordable Tropics Hotel and Hostel (www.tropicshotel.com), which has both private and dorm-style accommodations with among the lowest rates in greater Miami – it’s clean, friendly, and a short walk from the beach and Lincoln Road. For such a glamorous city, Miami offers a surprising value, even during the winter season – just book ahead, and expect higher rates, during some of the aforementioned festivals.

Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website About.com and is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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