Travel: The city at the end of the ocean

Published June 15, 2014
By the deep blue sea
By the deep blue sea

Miami is its geography. Like Dubai, it is a peninsula city poised between the worlds of the haves and the have-nots. Flat land on the ocean — a gateway from troubled and troublesome South and Central America to the land of opportunity. The sky is a dense matrix of flight paths and the harbours are packed with offloading boats and ships. For many immigrants, washing up hungry on the shore, refugees from communism or violence or poor economies, Miami is the first of America they see: its temperate climate, its clear water, its swaying palms and its pleasure-seekers.

Miami is pleasure promised. The city’s boom and bust on a loop – the product of violent weather patterns and economic cycles — are a powerful metaphor for personal regeneration. And many of its conspicuous consumers are the embodiment of that metaphor: Jewish and Hispanic immigrants who arrived here with very little and are now its political and financial leaders.

Miami is an exercise in life-coaching. Visualise your goals. You wanna hot body? You wanna Bugatti? You wanna Maserati? You better work.

The girls hard-selling $5 breakfasts on Ocean Drive and $1,000 handbags at BalHarbour, and the boys serving wagyu burgers or parking fancy cars, you can see that want in their eyes. The immigrant want that built America.


Constantly being rebuilt, renewed and revitalised, Miami is where dreams meet reality


As you approach by air from the east, the city extends endlessly along the coast — a horizon of glittering skyscrapers and pale beaches. Nearing it, it’s all golf courses and waterways. The cab driver who took me from the airport to my hotel was a lanky Haitian who talked to me about escaping violence and finding God. Also the crazy power of voodoo, fried fish and custard apples. Through looped, coiled, motorways, through non-descript urban America and eventually across a bridge that divides a bay and a harbour with giant docking cruise ships and tankers and unloading machines onto the island of Miami Beach.

Watch tower for the life guards
Watch tower for the life guards

Ocean Drive — Miami’s most famous neighbourhood — is a street that runs along a beach on the Atlantic. Between the beach and the road, there is a narrow strip of grass and palm trees and a path with topless joggers and tourist hunters on Segways. It’s lined with hotels, built in a post art deco style called Streamline Moderne — testament to the tourists that first started arriving a hundred years ago and came in peaks and troughs from the thirties onwards. Think low buildings in soft pastels, with rounded edges and clean lines and signage in bold modernist fonts. In the troughs of the 70s and 80s, this was the dilapidated stage set for the crime and cocaine years chronicled in Miami Vice, but the series inspired its rejuvenation and it’s the tourism centre of Miami once again.

Now there are shops — selling essentials like crystal-studded bikinis and platform stilettos — and many restaurants. Each hotel has one but there are others too. Tables under awnings or umbrellas, where pretty Latina hostesses hustle you in with meal deals and you can eat pasta and sushi and burgers with piña coladas at lunch and watch old men in bright convertibles drive slowly by.

Gianni Versace’s home is about half way down the street. The son of a seamstress who worked his way to the top of the fashion ladder by making clothes for the baby boomers who’d worked their way to the top and wanted everyone to know it. The house has a high gate ornamented with gold medusae at the top of the short row of steps where he was shot in 1997. A wall of tall trees and hedges and a Spanish colonial frontage. Pictures of the property show mosaics and columns and frescoes and cherubs and damask and brocade and marble urns and terracotta urns and bronze fountains of women holding urns. A bright 1980s history lesson in ancient Greco-Roman ornamentation. It sold recently for $41.5 million as the Miami property market began to recover after the recent financial crisis to the owners of the Victor Hotel next door who intend to incorporate the property within the hotel.


In many ways it’s everything a city dweller or traveller could wish for: buildings by the best architects, restaurants by the best chefs, hotels by the best hoteliers, shops by the biggest brands.


Hotel by the beach
Hotel by the beach

On that first visit, I stayed at the Betsy, a smart colonial-style hotel at the top end of Ocean Drive, in a room above a Bogartish bar where a jazz band played till late. We ate at Joe’s Stone Crab — a South Beach institution — with loud, back-slapping wait-staff squeezed into jackets and bowties braying at the crowd of regulars and balancing high piles of crab claws thick with meat for us to dip in seafood sauce. A dense wedge of ice-cold key lime pie for dessert. And at Juvia, on a rooftop beside Herzog & de Meuron’s modish carpark on Lincoln Avenue, we enjoyed a view of the beach with a post-Nobu Asian fusion dinner and smart boys and girls in tight dresses. Michael Schwartz at the Raleigh has a more restrained West Coast quality. The Raleigh is one of the grand old hotels on Collins. Grand and old in a Miami kind of way: 1940s, art deco. The restaurant is at the back perched on the edge of the pool under the canopy of a giant rubber tree. The food is described as American — but it’s more like Californian/Italian. The kind of food you can imagine Monica Bellucci feeding handsome Sicilian boys in a Dolce & Gabbana ad: burrata with heirloom tomatoes, grilled swordfish and thin, crisp pizzas with sage and squash and courgette flowers.

On a second trip I had a little more time. We spent a couple of weeks at the Setai on Collins — a few blocks north of Ocean Drive. It was part of the Chedi group and models itself after those luxury hotels of the East and Far East — with East Asian staff who bow and won’t look you in the eye and ornamental Buddhas on pedestals and iced lemongrass tea at Reception. Our room on the 32nd floor overlooked the ocean and the nearby W. And when it wasn’t raining we played backgammon on our balcony and watched the kite-surfers and bi-planes pulling air ads for local nightclubs across the sky. The crowd at the Setai is a lesson in be careful what you wish for: Wives who could be daughters, carrying their Birkins like shields, marching chin first to upbraid pool staff or wait staff or concierge, trailed by pretty children and nannies and overweight balding husbands on Blackberries. The sound of Italian, French, Russian, Portuguese.

And the fresh smell of money and dissatisfaction. We followed them to Mr Chow’s and Nobu and Milo’s and pushed past them to argue with the hostess at Prime Italian for a table that never came. They were thankfully absent at Cecconi’s and Yardbird and Michael’s Genuine. We ate well in Miami. The kind of international cuisine — the kind of Chinese, Japanese and Italian — that is the new comfort food. Burgers and sushi and dim sum and steak Fiorentina.

Like Dubai, Miami works best as a hub — connecting the Americas and Europe — a commonly accepted crossing point. In both cases, that is the product of geography and clever planning. What’s confounding is that like Dubai, it isn’t as much fun as you’d expect. In many ways it’s everything a city dweller or traveller could wish for: buildings by the best architects, restaurants by the best chefs, hotels by the best hoteliers, shops by the biggest brands. That’s partly the result of the frequent redevelopment and regeneration that give it its newness. It’s a mirror held up to the desires of modern man. But like Dubai, Miami has little soul. Perfect planning produces a useful transport hub but has no capacity to generate wonder or surprise. It’s alright for those hungry, hard-working girls and boys who haven’t yet experienced the dissatisfaction of getting what you wish for. And it’s alright for populations of retirees, who want life like Xanax — without the peaks and troughs. For the rest, it’s the bitter taste of unkept promises.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 15th, 2014

Opinion

Editorial

Budget and politics
Updated 14 Jun, 2024

Budget and politics

PML-N, scared of taking bold steps lest it loses whatever little public support it has, has left its traditional support — traders — virtually untouched.
New talks?
14 Jun, 2024

New talks?

WILL this prove another false start, or may we expect a more sincere effort this time? Reference is made to the...
A non-starter
14 Jun, 2024

A non-starter

WHILE the UN Security Council had earlier this week adopted a US-backed resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza...
Budget for stabilisation
Updated 13 Jun, 2024

Budget for stabilisation

The proposed steps lack any “disruptive policy changes", especially to "right-size" the govt, and doubts remain on authorities' ability to enforce new measures.
State of the economy
13 Jun, 2024

State of the economy

THE current fiscal year is but another year lost. Going by the new Pakistan Economic Survey, which maps the state of...
Unyielding onslaught
Updated 13 Jun, 2024

Unyielding onslaught

SEVEN soldiers paid the ultimate price in Lakki Marwat on Sunday when their vehicle was blown up in an IED attack,...