“Have a seat by the window; it’s better to watch the wildlife that way,” the host at Osteria del Teatro said with a wink as he led me to a table with a view.
Before long, I was enjoying the show–a parade of people streaming toward Washington Avenue, one of the most happening thoroughfares in Miami’s Art Deco District. Some were rubbernecking with bewildered looks on their faces; others strutted by confidently wearing little more than a few strips of fabric.
On my last trip to Miami Beach, I remember thinking that I didn’t need to come back–that I’d seen it all–after enduring a healthy dose of nightclubs with bottle service, haute couture, and glitz on steroids.
No matter what your tolerance for fabulousness, I reasoned that everyone needs a break. There had to be another side to Miami out there, and I was determined to hunt it out.
Following a tip from a local, I drove to Grove Isle Hotel and Spa for an early lunch one day. I love The Today Show and had recently seen Miami native son Pitbull featured–which is how I recognized him as I bit into my fish tacos. The place was nearly empty, so I got to exchange a few pleasantries with the Cuban-American rapper (who was quite nice by the way). I knew that if “Mr. 305″ was escaping from the chaos of Miami here, I was on the right track!
Here are a few other places where I got a taste of a lower-key Miami:
> The City’s Creative Districts
Flashy, colorful murals are the hallmarks of the city’s Wynwood Arts District. If you’re looking for budding entrepreneurs and artsy types, Panther Coffee is where you’ll find them. Don’t leave without visiting the Rubell Family Collection, one of the largest private assemblages of contemporary art in the world.
One night, when I wanted to be outside but not in the thumping beat of South Beach, I found incredible warmth at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in the city’s manicured–and growing–Design District. Cozied up in the courtyard, I passed over the four-pound snapper in favor of well-sourced small plates–a crispy rice cake topped with a poached egg, farro salad with feta, and pistachio-roasted broccoli.
> Key Biscayne
Many locals I talked to want to move to Key Biscayne so they can avail themselves of its quiet beauty while staying close to the action (it’s only a 15-minute drive–and a scenic one at that–from downtown Miami). I loved exploring Bill Baggs Cape Florida Park with its historic lighthouse (guided tours are available) and white-sand beach. Tip: Pick up a picnic lunch before you visit; there aren’t a lot of options for food there.
On your way back into the city, make a stop at the Pérez Art Museum of Miami. Opened at the tail end of 2013, the striking glass-and-concrete structure is noted as much for its exhibits as it is for its setting overlooking Biscayne Bay. After exploring the museum, head outside to admire the hanging gardens–then grab an Adirondack chair and watch the water, and the world, go by.
> Bal Harbour
A friend told me that Bal Harbour is “completely different than anywhere else in Miami”–and it’s true. Conceived as a “dream village” on the northern end of the barrier island commonly referred to as Miami Beach, Bal Harbour retains its old-school elegance and small-town charm, providing a welcome antidote to its more frenetic surroundings.
At family-owned Bal Harbour Shops, palm trees and pools full of bright orange koi create a lush jungle feel. Stanley Whitman, who’s now in his 90s, started building the shops when everyone else was opening big-box air-conditioned malls, because he wanted to be across from the beach. His vision paid off; the shops now generate more revenue per square foot than any other shopping center in the world
> Purdy Avenue
This trendy but quiet strip in South Beach became my favorite spot to unwind. It’s easy to spend a day browsing the beautiful shops and chilling out at one of the area’s oh-so-cool restaurants (try Barceloneta for tapas or Pubbelly for sushi). This emerging neighborhood is definitely worth exploring.
> Home Base
Having a solid home base is a must in any place. I found serenity at The Setai, a dreamy hotel with a trio of temperature-controlled swimming pools and a fantastic gym and spa. (Who wouldn’t feel relaxed after being greeted with a lemongrass iced tea and a cold towel?) The property, located on swanky, ocean-hugging Collins Avenue, allowed me to dip into the fun whenever I felt like it, while offering a quiet respite that felt worlds away from the throb of South Beach.