South Beach, Miami, USA

Sometimes, when travelling, you’re essentially “ticking a box”.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  As I’ve mentioned before when talking about sites like Ephesus and Bangkok, there are certain places you kind of have to see.  Whether that’s for perspective, historical importance, or “box ticking”, it makes sense to take in some of the great sights of the world, even though they sometimes end up packed, shifty and disappointing.
Not sure that Miami Beach deserves its own box-tick, though.

Our trip to Miami was a short one.  Daina’s sister has recently moved there, along with her kids, so this was a chance to see some extended family and a different city.  I was fortunate enough to work in Miami off of cruise ships for a few years, but never really had the chance to explore too much of the city outside of some malls and its Bayfront area.  Most of our time was spent with family, getting to know the little people, but the three of us were able to get out for an afternoon and the start of an evening in Miami’s most well-known spot.

We started our walk up and down Ocean Drive at the Art Deco Welcome Centre, where you could hire guides for $25 a pop to get a little bit of the history of the area.  If architecture is your thing, then South Beach is definitely for you.  The place is known to define the Art Deco style and, in terms of appearing “As Seen On TV”, the architecture sure does.  From restaurant fronts to a host of hotels, the lines, stylized letters and pastel hues present something totally unique to the eyes.

Taking a look at one of the various Miami tourism websites, you come across this gem of a quote;

South Beach is the Miami of postcards; the skyline of Ocean Drive has been featured on television what must be millions of times, and yes, the people are as beautiful and as they look on the tube.”

So about those last fourteen words…

As an outsider, somebody just “dropping in”, I want to add a “some” to that.  Yes, if you’re looking to people watch, the whole area is ripe for that, with both the tanned beauties you’d expect and people trying to grasp that brass ring, with mixed results.  I try not to be one to judge how anybody dresses or presents themselves, but it seemed like everybody there was trying to reach an ideal of what South Beach is supposed to be.  Makes you wonder if you’re tucking the swimsuit up your bum on an everyday basis, or if you’re just doing it because it’s South Beach, and that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Within a few minutes of walking the strip, we knew we wanted to sit down for a couple of minutes, grab a snack, and people watch.  Service seemed to be pretty bad at most places, including one where we sat for about five minutes before anybody would come check in on us.  We were finally, eagerly, invited to sit down at a place called Il Giardino, which seemed to have some reasonably priced sandwiches and beverages for a tourist spot.  We each went for the Cuban sandwiches and I grabbed “a pint of beer” from the waiter, which ended up being a schooner, which ended up being the $30 one I was trying to avoid on the menu.  I drank it knowingly (I do like beer), the sandwich was crap, the restaurant was crap.  Plus, they added 18% onto the bill automatically.  Complete garbage-fest, check out the TripAdvisor reviews if you’re unsure.  Avoid!

We kept walking up the strip, seeing more Art Deco, watching more people trying to hit the “South Beach Ideal”, until we got to a few of the larger hotels (Royal Palm, Loews), which both “check the boxes” on prime architecture, before hitting the beach itself.

Credit where its due, it’s a nice strip of sand and, even though it was pretty packed, you could at least find a half-decent spot for yourself if you wanted to.  Water was warm (summer in Miami, go figure), lots of colourful lifeguard houses dotting the shore.  The guards all seemed to be going off duty, which lead to a plethora of photo shoots going on, which we got in on as well (though I think I bit more ironically than some of the others on the beach).  Again, more great people watching, more people striving for that South Beach Ideal, but a nice walk along the sand to work off the $30 beer.  

We walked back to Ocean Drive and then up and down a few streets, eventually finding a great place called The Local House, with a fantastic craft beer selection, good and reasonably priced food, and gracious service, before we Ubered off of South Beach so Daina’s sister could get back to the kids.

So, obviously, nobody likes to get ripped-off.  I hesitate to say “scammed”, because everything is right there on the menu, and having talked to a few other people, this is a thing many restaurants on Ocean Drive do, but it feels that way.  The architecture is great, the beach is great, the people watching is interesting and, still, there is something about the whole area that just seems so plastic, like a less self-aware Las Vegas.  That and the fact that places on the strip seem purpose made to separate you from your money.  

Is South Beach worth seeing?  Sure, if you want to.   However, and I can’t believe I have to type this about a tourist zone in a major American city, do your research before getting down there, and set the bar lower than you thought you were going to before you get there.  Those heightened expectations are what puts it at the bottom of the pile of my Miami experiences.  

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