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South Beach combines the playful pulse of Rio, the intense revelry of Manhattan, and the tropical ambience of the Bahamas, all on one relatively affordable island that's just a 10-minute drive from one of North America's largest cities - Miami. You can combine a holiday here with a stay in Orlando if you want to do the theme parks or outrageous Key West, both an easy few hours drive away.
Before deciding where to stay, keep in mind that this is an exceedingly tolerant area, and lesbians and gay men played a pivotal role in turning this once-decrepit retirement community into a hallowed repository of Art Deco splendour.

If you're looking to spend your vacation floating butt-side-up in the lap pool at a clothing-optional gay resort, you'll find many more possibilities in Key West or Fort Lauderdale.


Every evening, the stunning Art Deco hotels and restaurants along Ocean Drive glow with pastel shades of neon.
Photo courtesy of the Greater Miami CVB
On the whole, South Beach is fairly straight but on the palm-shaded lanais of most South Beach hotels, the gay and straight guests - many of them clad in form-fitting designer swimsuits - mix it up to the point that it's nearly impossible to tell who's cruising whom. Of course, a little confusion can be fun, but don't assume anything!

STAYING THERE

If South Beach isn't necessarily the gay mecca many of its boosters once hoped it would be, neither is it as exclusive or body-conscious as it's sometimes described. In the height of the popular winter season, it's fairly easy to book a room at a decent hotel within a five-minute walk of Ocean Drive for well under 70 a night. And while curvy models and moody glitterati traipse regularly through the swanky lobbies of a few notable hotels, you'll be warmly received in most of these places regardless of who you are or what you're wearing.

You practically need a scorecard to keep up with the constantly changing hotel landscape in sexy South Beach. Hoteliers in Miami continue to outdo one another in a seemingly endless quest to land the hottest photo spread or model shoot in the magazine of the moment. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the variety, and also intimidated by the sometimes icy attitudes of many employees. But fear not: whatever your budget, or your tolerance for haughty service, you'll find dozens of commendable, gay-friendly hotels in South Beach - and even some gems in nearby Miami proper.

In the past decade, hotels in South Beach have improved consistently on all fronts, from staff to decor. Still, while many of these Art Deco icons look great from the outside, and even the least expensive of them usually have glitzy lobbies, the quality of the actual guest rooms varies tremendously from property to property. Even in the fanciest pads, bathrooms are sometimes tiny and merely functional. And more than a few Miami interior designers seem to have confused hip minimalism with just plain nothingness.

One final caveat: if good staff are hard to find in any big tourist destination, it's a particularly scarce commodity in South Beach. There's no way to sugar-coat the fact that service at hotels is generally poor, ranging from brusque and indifferent to, at best, well-meaning and dizzy. Before you arrive, always reconfirm your booking and go over every last detail. And, should you have trouble finding the right hotel at the right price, keep in mind that Miami is blessed with a top-notch gay reservation service, Florida Hotel Network, which lists both hotel and guest-house accommodations, plus many short-term rentals throughout the state.

HOTELS

Two vaunted designing minds - preservationist and Art Deco booster Tony Goldman and gay fashion guru Todd Oldham - have teamed to create one of the most memorable properties in Florida, called simply The Hotel. This gloriously revamped 1939 stunner has a rooftop pool and exotic yet liveable furnishings. Extensive in-room entertainment centres, poolside cabanas, and room service from the hotel's to-die-for restaurant, Wish, contribute to the sense of indulgence. The low-key but luxurious Hotel Astor offers the elegance and comfort you'd expect of a high-end property, but without gimmickry or attitude. The sedate, classy rooms are done in off-white and beige tones, with muted lighting and marble baths. It's just three blocks from the ocean and steps from the many bars and clubs along Washington Avenue.

If you're seeking a little more intimacy, opt instead for a room at the 12-room Marlin Hotel. Music-industry executives and recording artists favour this small gem owned, appropriately, by Island Records mogul Chris Blackwell. All accommodations have Jamaican bath amenities, batik robes, vibrant West Indian art and furnishings, and deluxe entertainment centres.

Another of Chris's hotels The Tides has an all-white interior and rooms overlooking the gay part of the beach, all equipped with telescopes so you can observe the action in air-conditioned comfort.

Originally built in 1936, the hotel's architecture is rich with Art Deco influences, creating a nostalgic environment and a unique brand of modern luxury.


The Tides on South Beach.
One of the finest small accommodations in South Florida, the Hotel Impala's greatest strength is its relatively understated elegance - a welcome relief from the over-the-top, harem-inspired decor of some competitors. Imported cotton linens, Eastlake sleigh beds, and spacious bathrooms with large tubs make this perfect for a romantic getaway. State-of-the-art communication and entertainment centres keep business or pleasure close at hand. The restaurant, Spiga, is commendable.

The peach-and-red Penguin Resort strikes one of the more inspired poses along Ocean Drive. It comprises two artfully renovated and moderately priced Art Deco beauties and has a major gay following. Though fairly basic, rooms are clean, brightly decorated, and outfitted with decent-size closets. In the afternoon local drag queens are often on hand to serve cocktails in the lobby bar. A row of extremely gay-popular, jointly owned budget properties, the 138-room Park Washington Resort takes up a prime block of Washington Avenue. Accommodations are clean if unremarkable, with modern baths and minirefrigerators. A major plus are the grounds, which consist of a foliage-enclosed lanai and pool - both of which are clothing optional. Also a good value, the jointly operated Beachcomber and Nassau Suites hotels are just a block from the ocean. The Beachcomber's spacious and comfortable rooms have beautiful old hardwood floors and small but stylish bathrooms. A block away, Nassau Suites' 22 clean and bright studio and one-bedroom units have fully modernized kitchens, simple but elegant deco furnishings, and plenty of elbow room.

One of the best gay-oriented accommodations around, South Beach Villas is a luxurious but reasonably priced compound on the relatively quiet west side of the island - it's still just a 10- to 15-minute walk to the beach. Many of the smart-looking, elegant rooms have full kitchens. There's a handsome pool out back, and the free parking and local phone calls are something of a rarity in these parts. A few blocks closer to the beach, the nine-room SoBeYou Tropical B&B Hotel has for many years been a reliable and well-run gay guest house. Rooms are in a two-story building behind the owners' 1929 home and are furnished with a mix of tropical resort furniture and Art Deco antiques (they all also have CD players). Here you can also lounge by the pool and patio all day long.

MIAMI HOTELS

Although you might not think to stay in Miami proper, a surprising number of gay visitors to South Beach do. Some people prefer the easy-going pace of some of Miami's most appealing neighbourhoods, including posh Coral Gables and bohemian-turned-trendy Coconut Grove. On the high end, there's Coral Gables' decadent dowager, the Biltmore. Although it dates to the 1920s, this old-money palace has been beautifully updated. Rooms are enormous and reveal an eye-catching Moorish flourish. The 15,000-square-foot spa and fitness centre is among the best in the city - also note the many tennis courts and the acclaimed golf course. Spend a few days amid the Biltmore's cushy confines, and you may never go back to the less-is-more austerity aesthetic that's such the rage in South Beach.

One affordable and highly gay-friendly option is the charming Miami River Inn, a historic compound consisting of four early 20th-century houses edging the city's Little Havana neighborhood - just a 15-minute drive from South Beach. With its lush landscaping, sunny rooms with hardwood floors and tropical furnishings, and palm-shrouded swimming pool and Jacuzzi, it has the look of one of Key West's vintage compounds - albeit with a less social pulse. And falling asleep to the occasional clang of tugboats gliding beneath the adjacent Flagler Avenue drawbridge can be surprisingly romantic.


South Beach Nightlife

THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Beachcomber and Nassau Suites (1340 Collins Ave., 305-531-3755 or 888-305-4683).
The Biltmore (1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, 305-445-1926 or 800-727-1926, Website).
Hotel Astor (956 Washington Ave., 305-531-8081, Website).
The Impala (1228 Collins Ave., 305-673-2021 or 800-646-7252).
SoBeYou Tropical B&B Hotel (1018 Jefferson Ave., 305-534-5247).
Marlin Hotel (1200 Collins Ave., 305-695-3000).
Miami River Inn (305-325-0045 or 800-468-3589, S.W. 2nd St. and S.W. 4th Ave.).
Park Washington Resort (1020-1050 Washington Ave., 305-532-1930 or 888-424-1930).
Penguin Resort (1418 Ocean Dr., 305-534-9334 or 800-235-3296, Website).
South Beach Villas (1201 West Ave., 305-673-9600 or 888-GAY-SOBE, Website).
The Tides( Ocean Drive., 305-604-5070).

Revised March 2017.

 

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