16 January 2008

Winterhaven Hotel, South Beach, Miami, Florida: New Year’s Eve

It was a busy year, 2007. So, we decided to spend New Year’s Eve in a sunny, warm locale. After checking several possibilities, we decided on Miami, specifically South Beach.

We’ve been to South Beach before. In fact, this was our third vacation there in six years. The first time, we stayed at the Avalon. Two years later, we stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. After considering several possibilities, for this trip we decided to stay at the Winterhaven.

Since we were going to be there for New Year’s Eve, we didn’t expect a bargain rate. And there were many things that we liked about the hotel. First of all, there’s location. You walk out the front door, cross Ocean Drive, and you’re in Lummus Park and the beach. It’s also only four or five blocks to the shopping on Lincoln Road and Espanola Way. The hotel offers some nice amenities – beach chairs and towels for guests to use on the beach, a daily breakfast in the lobby, newspapers delivered to your room. For a modest ‘resort fee’ you also can get a free drink in a nightly happy hour.

Our daily routine involved getting up in time to have breakfast, read the paper, and sip some coffee. Then we would take a long walk on the beach. The weather was beautiful, hot, and humid, so after our walk, we’d change into our swim suits, grab our beach chairs and towels and relax for a couple of hours on the beach. After baking in the sun, we’d go back to the hotel, take a shower, then head out for shopping and lunch. We’d get back to the hotel in time for the happy hour, have a drink and relax. Then change clothes and head out for dinner. The Winterhaven was a comfortable home base for this schedule.

But, with just a few tweaks, I think the Winterhaven could be a fabulous place to stay. I think about the great time we had at the Serrano Hotel in San Francisco. It was pretty much the same concept – take a funky old hotel, fix it up and update the rooms and it becomes a unique vacation spot. But the management of the Kimpton Hotels (which runs the Serrano), has a knack for adding just a little extra pizzazz which makes staying there memorable. All the ingredients are there for the Winterhaven to do the same, but they can’t seem to make it work.

I honestly can’t say what what’s the difference. The staff is friendly enough. The lobby and front porch are attractive places to hang out. But somehow, it just isn’t conducive to encouraging the guests to socialize. We did meet some very interesting people at the Winterhaven – a couple, he’s from England now working in Wilmington, Del., she’s from Düsseldorf; another couple from England. But there wasn’t the same kind of social atmosphere we experienced at the Serrano.

Now, before I get to my restaurant reviews, I have just a few miscellaneous observations about our vacation on South Beach.

It’s really a great international gathering place. Miami is sort of a hub that attracts visitors and business travelers from Central and South America. There also are a lot of European tourists. We encountered people from Spain, England, Germany, Italy, France, and Israel. Since the current exchange rates favor the Euro, I imagine a trip to Miami is very affordable for a lot of foreign travelers.

We thought that there was less glamour than our previous vacations. You still see the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and other exotic cars cruising Ocean Drive. But the drivers are dressed in grunge. On our previous visits, we saw more high fashion in the hotels, at the restaurants, and on the street.

We also thought the music was different from our previous visits. Techno is the universal sound of the South Beach night clubs. But in the past, we also heard lots of salsa music. This time, it was almost all techno. They also have a weird definition of ‘live music.’ A lot of clubs advertise ‘live music.’ They must consider a DJ to be live music. (I wonder, can techno even be performed live?)

The restaurant scene is fantastic. I’m really kind of amazed at the generally high level of quality at really reasonable prices. As you walk along Ocean Drive, the restaurants have people on the sidewalk trying to tempt you to eat there, and they always have a pitch. Either it’s happy hour, or dinner hour, or late night happy hour, two-for-one drinks or evening specials. (I saw one young woman wrap her arms around a man and promise her undying love if he’d eat at there.) All the hucksters make you wonder about the quality of the food. But we found that the quality of the food and the overall value was always pretty good.

Most of the restaurants automatically add a tip to the bill. For our meals, it ranged from 15% (for lunch one day) to 18% (most places for dinner). I assume it’s because so many Europeans travelers are used to ‘service compris’ at their restaurants. I think it’s handled very effectively. When you look at your bill, the gratuity is clearly marked, and there’s an additional line for any extra you might want to give your server.

Two days before New Year’s Eve, they closed off most of Ocean Drive to traffic. The restaurants, which all have sidewalk tables anyway, set up additional tables and expanded into the middle of the street. So for two days, Ocean Drive became a pedestrian way.

New Year’s Eve was lots of fun. We had a late dinner. After dinner, we walked on the boardwalk along the beach, past hotels with sounds of uninhibited partying. At midnight, there were fireworks on the beach (though it was a pretty short display). Then the partying continued on Ocean Drive with music and dancing and celebration.

So all in all, it was a great vacation. Hot, wonderful weather. Fun, funky hotel. Great food and restaurants. Relaxing atmosphere (I left my BlackBerry at the office). Wild partying. But I didn’t expect to see signs of poverty on the beach. There were many young women who apparently couldn’t afford tops for their bikinis. (So sad.)

No comments: