The Miami art scene isn’t just capable of nourishing the soul of the weary business traveller, it has been the catalyst in the revival of the ‘Magic City’ itself – as Director discovered on a recent visit
Time magazine’s cover story on 23 November 1981 was titled “Paradise Lost”. It was a shocking account of how south Florida, particularly Miami, had become overrun by crime and corruption after the self-styled ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ rode into town.
The story marked Miami’s nadir. I first visited the ‘Magic City’ with my family as a kid during the transatlantic travel boom of that time. You never quite forget that moment when you get into a cab and notice the driver has a gun.
“Paradise Lost”, however, also marked the point from which Miami fought back. One of the most important bodies in the battle to save the city was the Miami Design Preservation League. And one of the best ways to understand the story of Miami’s fall and rise is to take the MDPL Art Deco Walking Tour on South Beach.
Tour guides will tell you the tales behind these iconic hotels, some of which featured in the movie Scarface, while giving you a potted history of the city along a stretch of road that used to be a no-go area for tourists but now attracts clubbers and DJs from around the world.
A key figure in Miami’s revival was Tony Goldman, a visionary property developer who reinvented rundown areas in major cities including New York’s SoHo district. Goldman bought a string of decaying Art Deco buildings on South Beach, then turned his attentions to derelict warehouses in the Wynwood District and invited street artists to use the buildings as a blank canvas.
Now they come from all over the US to create and exhibit new works, showing what can be done with a bit of imagination and a collection of spray cans. Go to wynwoodartwalk.com and you can arrange for one of the artists to give you a guided tour.
The next great leap forwards for Miami came in 2002 with the arrival of one of the world’s biggest arts fairs. Every year, for one week in December, Art Basel descends, bringing with it the buyers and collectors, fashionistas and A-listers. Art Basel’s success has resulted in an explosion of new galleries and centres for the arts.
Located just over a mile from Wynwood is the Miami Design District. On one level this is Miami’s answer to Bond Street or Rodeo Drive – a haven of high-end stores. But even if luxury retail therapy is not your thing, it’s worth visiting just to see the extraordinary works of modern art on display from acclaimed artists including Zaha Hadid and John Baldessari.
You may be tempted to stay in one of the boutique Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive, South Beach. But unless you’re under 30, love the sound of car engines being revved at all hours, or live by the maxim ‘work hard, party harder’, you’re better off with alternative accommodation. I stayed at the Biltmore Hotel, which even came endorsed by the man on the US customs desk.
Walk into its foyer and you are immediately struck by the fact that this is a place with a unique character and identity. The Biltmore has old-school opulence and charm. If you like your hotel to have a story or two behind it, well this one has a book. In fact, it officially became a national landmark in 1996.
Biltmore gives you more
Much like Miami itself, the Biltmore has experienced fluctuating fortunes. It is located in Coral Gables, which was intended as a series of small communities, each with its own international theme. The foreign influence is most visible in the design of the Biltmore’s Tower, based on Seville Cathedral’s distinctive Giralda bell tower.
A host of US presidents have stayed and played golf here including Bill Clinton. The course was originally designed by the golfer Donald Ross. Scotsman-turned-American Ross was also responsible for three different Ryder Cup courses – Pinehurst No 2, Oakland Hills and Oak Hill. The Biltmore provides a good test for golfers of all standards as proven by the fact that even I, with my low-20s handicap, could rack up a few pars.
The hotel has four different restaurants. From the reasonably priced 19th Hole Bar and Grill through to the Fontana, which offers generous portions of Italian cuisine, and the fine-dining experience of Palme D’Or where you will be greeted by its exuberant maître d’ – a master in the art of making every diner feel that they are the most special person in the room.
And you can’t stay at the Biltmore without trying the Champagne Sunday Brunch, which attracts diners from miles around who happily form queues in the foyer. Zagat rates it as the best brunch in Miami – and you won’t find me disagreeing. Just when you think you can’t eat any more, you are confronted by its famous “wall of desserts”.
For a trip that nourishes the soul of art lovers and gastronomes alike, Miami is now very much paradise found.
Getting to Miami
Director flew from Heathrow to Miami International with Virgin Atlantic. Economy-class returns cost from £540. For more information, visit virgin-atlantic.com
The five-star Biltmore Hotel offers junior suites from $289 (£214) per night based on two people sharing. It also has a number of special deals including seven nights for the price of five. For more information, go to biltmorehotel.com
Take a video tour of the Biltmore Hotel at here