Stylist contributor Caroline Corcoran wanders up the boardwalk from South Beach to find a very different Florida vibe
The last time I flew to this part of Florida, the airline crew played Will Smith’s Welcome to Miami and I danced in my seat as we hit the tarmac. I was 25 and via rooftop bars on Ocean Drive and enough rum cocktails to make most of my other Miami anecdotes hazy, the trip carried on in the same vein.
This time, while rum cocktails are still very much on the menu, I’m hoping to give my Instagram feed a more well-rounded feel with a boost of Miami culture too. Which is how - tipped off by an artsy friend who moved to the city a couple of years ago - I end up in Mid Beach, an area that’s currently establishing itself as the arts epicentre of the city while still being only a short drive from its fellow cultural hotspots on the mainland. Hop across the bridge to explore Downtown’s growing museum scene with Zaha Hadid Architects’ landmark 1000 Museum and Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science both soon to join the Perez Art Museum and open to worldwide attention, before taking in the lurid murals of Wynwood Walls, the open-air gallery in Miami’s hipster mecca.
Back around Mid Beach - the formerly-sleepy section between 25th and 50th on Collins Avenue that’s just a ten-minute stroll along the boardwalk past the Muscle Beach-style skateboarders of South Beach - the buzz has been building for a while. In the last few years, major names like the Edition have moved in while local hotels like the Fontainebleau have been given glitzy makeovers. Mid Beach is leading the way on the drinks scene as well; leave any dark flashbacks of student travelling days behind when you head to Freehand’s cocktail bar The Broken Shaker. You may be drinking in a hostel but its 1930s art deco aesthetic and very grown-up Old Fashioneds are unlikely to stir any memories of cheap beer being chugged back on a gap year.
It was in 2014 though, when Argentinian developer Alan Faena conceived the Faena District, aiming to transform the area between 32nd and 36th and casually inviting the likes of Baz Luhrmann to play a part, that the cultural side of Mid Beach got interesting. Everywhere in this district - even lift spaces smaller than a metre squared that you inhabit for three seconds on the way to breakfast - places an emphasis on art. Baz Luhrman’s involvement is coupled with that of Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin (his wife), as well as major name architects Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster. During my visit, there is a hum of excitement about the upcoming events Mid Beach will be playing host to for Art Basel and Design Miami.
I’m stopped in my tracks at the Faena Hotel - formerly Sinatra-favourite The Saxony - not by the ocean view (though that’s impressive too) but by a giant gilded wooly mammoth. It’s a Damien Hirst and not the only one on display at Faena. Upstairs in the hotel’s Asian restaurant Pao, Hirst’s giant unicorn stands watch as you tuck into your tuna. Outside busy hipsters carry giant boxes into design hub Faena Bazaar or chat animatedly on phones about the upcoming Malawi benefit that Madonna will host across the street a few days after I leave. There are pop-up offices I can see from my sunbed which give a hit of Soho on a Wednesday to what’s otherwise an 100% holiday vibe.
Word of mouth says the whole Faena project is worth over a billion dollars and on my way to the beach, I see a woman craning her neck backwards as she points out to a friend a penthouse apartment that has just sold for $60 million (£47 million). I confirm it with someone in the know later on. “Easily,” nods my Faena tour guide, barely looking up. It must seem like a stupid question, really, since we’re currently strolling around the Faena Hotel and oh my god it’s fancy. At Faena Hotel’s bars, you have the feeling that Jay Gatsby is about to emerge from behind a curtain raising an eyebrow and a coupé and it’s difficult not to hear my mum in my head tutting as I glance down sheepishly at my sliders and beach dress.
This time round I don’t get the debauched Gatsby experience - luckily for my pride (and my mum) I’m staying at the far quieter boutique Casa Faena over the road - but instead make do with a long, sleepy lunch at Los Fuegos, Francis Mallman’s poolside Argentinian restaurant. If a terrace next to the pool normally says bottle of beer and fries, Los Fuegos ignores the rules, serving up juicy empanadas, giant Madagascan prawns and prime rib-eye on table-top planchas with a 2013 Oregon wine that has me converted to American reds.
There’s only one small problem here and that’s the background noise. The difference between this area and Miami’s more well-known lively zip codes like Downtown and South Beach is literally audible. As you stroll down the Boardwalk towards Mid Beach the pumping dance soundtrack of South Beach fades and you hear something else. I’d love to say it was waves lapping the shore but in truth, it’s just really loud diggers. Right now with so much going on, the vibe of Mid Beach is half thriving new arts hub, half construction site; I’d suggest planning a trip timed around Art Basel in December to get a perfect hit of 25 degree winter sun, art and digger-free peace.
It’s the perfect time - without humidity holding you back and enticing you to the nearest air-conned mall - to explore the rest of Miami too. The city is too diverse to just see one version of it so for our trip, the plan was to see as many Miamis as we could. We headed to Pelican Cove in the Florida Keys’ Islamorada to drink punch on bar stools and recover with a downward dog at morning yoga on the boardwalk. We saw fancy Miami, staying with friends out in the suburbs of Coral Gables and gawping at the homes of Miami’s millionaires on an afternoon walk to the ice-cream shop. We lazed on the beach at Key Biscayne and we headed out to Islington-esque Coconut Grove to work our way through the Bloody Mary menu at Greenstreet Cafe for brunch. It might have been a different kind of trip but actually, the rest of that afternoon’s got a little of the Miami haze about it too...
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Heathrow to Miami and is offering return Economy fares from £419 per person including tax. Room rates at Casa Faena start from $295 (£234).