There’s just something about Miami. The more I travel, both domestically and abroad, the more I’ve come to appreciate this great big backyard of mine — and while there are many places within the fifty states that tug at my heartstrings, in just two visits Miami has easily climbed the ranks of favorites.
It’s a place I could see myself living someday — big city sophistication with a stunning sea backdrop, a thriving arts scene alongside an active beach-bum contingent, beautiful weather year-round, prices than any ex-New Yorker will find downright reasonable, and a generous dash of Latin culture sprinkled throughout the city’s food, music, and nightlife.
beauty, man-made and natural
I’ve been itching to return to Miami ever since my first epic visit concluded, and when I started planning a major Florida jaunt I knew it would be my final stop. With my girl Michelle by my side, we arrived at the high-rises of downtown Miami to check into my favorite kind of accommodation — the couch of a dear friend or family member. In this case, it was my cousin Eric, who is successful model and personal trainer to the stars, living in a gorgeous apartment overlooking Biscayne Bay. In other words, we all hate him. Way to hog all the good genetics in the family, am I right? Just kidding, Eric! We love you. Want a new roommate, for, like, ever?
Sadly, Eric had to leave town last minute and so we didn’t get to spend too much time together over the weekend (though I did return for some cousin time after Michelle departed). Still, we loved having his suggestions for how to spend a few days enjoying Downtown — a different Miami entirely from the South Beach most tourists know and adore. It was such a treat lounging around Icon, hitting the luxury gym, sipping smoothies poolside and just generally fantasizing about being residents there ourselves.
We had a really fun Friday night out in Brickell rubbing shoulder’s with Miami’s stiletto-ed, cash-flush, Spanish-speaking set. Favorites spots included the rooftop lounge at Area 31 and Icon’s own skybar FIFTY. One bar we didn’t quite make it to but is high on my list for next time? The hipster-ific Blackbird Ordinary.
But as much as I love hanging in Brickell, it’s not a true Miami trip without a little South Beach thrown in. So two nights after arrival, we made our way across the bay to check into the Freehand, a much-buzzed about design hostel just two blocks from the beach. I’d been to the über-hip, onsite Broken Shaker cocktail bar on my previous Miami trip, and vowed to return one day to stay.
At $35 a bed it might be pricey as far as international hostels go, but by Miami standards? It’s a steal.
And unfortunately, I think that could be a bit of a problem. I’d read reviews in the trip planning stage that hinted that the crowd at Freehand was sometimes less than desirable, but I brushed them off. How could a hostel created by the Sydell Goup attract an unsavory element? Yet we arrived to find two crazy-eyed women having an all-out brawl in the lobby, one of whom the flustered receptionist indicated to me was homeless. Later, by the pool, we were pushed out of our lounge chairs by a loud, chain-smoking family who I highly suspect did not flock to the Freehand due to their write-up in Travel and Leisure magazine.
I hesitated to even mention this aspect of our stay, because it’s not about age or getting past some coolness dorm bed bouncer — I’ve met plenty of families and travelers of all ages that I’ve bonded with on the road. But it is about the spirit of hosteling versus those just looking for the cheapest digs possible. I went to a hip design hostel hoping to meet other young and young-at-heart travelers with similar interests, not to choke on Virginia Slims and get splashed by unsupervised toddlers and feel like I was in a mental institution at check-in.
I want to believe we just caught a weird weekend, but I know from speaking to management at other popular US hostels that it is sometimes tough to keep the upbeat traveler vibe they are striving for and not turn into local flophouses. Some institute policies that require out-of-area IDs, age restrictions and maximum stays. I wouldn’t mind seeing Freehand give some of those policies a try.
That aside, there are so many positives about this place. It truly is a stunning hostel in an unbeatable location, and I would recommend it to friends — just with the caveat above. I mean, beach or pool — take your pick! The pool is right downstairs, and the ocean less than a five minute stroll.
The rooms were charming and detail-oriented, and my designer heart swooned at everything from the room keys to the carved wooden bed number plaques. And though we didn’t skip any meals out on the town, a full service kitchen was a nice treat that allowed us to keep our beach drinks cold, and have small snacks on hand.
The Broken Shaker was lovely as always, and I regretted we didn’t get the chance to check out the newly opened onsite restaurant 27. I would return to the Freehand — and I look forward to checking out their new Chicago location, too!
The best part? Simply being within walking distance or a quick Uber ride — Uber is by far the best way to get around Miami as opposed to traditional cabs* — of the art deco district was enough to send me into tailspins of happiness. I just never get sick of wandering up and down Ocean Drive.
What a treasure this beautiful area is!
For me, it’s not a trip to Miami without one big night out. Our guacamole love bordering on obsession, we were pretty pumped to hit up the Naked Taco — even more so when we arrived and the waitress handed us each a shot. “We don’t do bread for the table,” she deadpanned. “We do tequila for the table.”
My kind of woman. We loved Naked Taco, and I definitely recommend it as the perfect place to for an upbeat meal before a big night out. Just make reservations — we barely snuck into the last table before the kitchen closed.
Our next stop was Mansion, but we had some time to kill before we met our girls there, so we wandered spontaneously into the first establishment we saw. Now, I’m pleased I can report that if visiting a wild, enthusiastic multi-level gay nightclub is on your wishlist for Miami, you can make that dream come true at a place called Twist. An extremely good time was had by all, and soon we were begging our way off the dance floor to skip a few more blocks up the road.
There, joining forces with New York friend Ashlee and two of her Miami-based friends, we skipped past the line (seriously the only way to enter a nightclub that required four inch heels) and into the VIP area of Mansion.
I know that at some point I’m supposed to declare my cheesy nightclub days over, but guys, I don’t think that announcement is coming anytime soon. I just love getting dressed up, going out with a bunch of girls, and dancing to sing-along pop music until my feet are about to fall off and I have to hobble my way out to the cab line.
This was one of those nights. The aerial acrobats spinning overhead lent a Vegas-like air to the place, and I spent a fair share of time staring mesmerized towards the ceiling.
On our final day in Miami, we found ourselves wandering down Ocean Drive once again. Two great tours aside — which I’ll chronicle in upcoming posts — most of our time had been spent pool or ocean-side lounging, or trendy restaurant-and-bar-hopping. For this final day we had not a single thing planned, and somehow found ourselves joining the masses sipping from human-head sized cocktails along the touristy stretch. Initially, we’d sat down to have a sensible lunch of salads. But we quickly decided it would be simply rude not to spontaneously order a 36oz. Miami Vice. No?
For some reason, we ordered impulsively and didn’t even think to ask the cost — after all, the salads were quite reasonably priced. Imagine our surprise when we got a bill for almost a hundred bucks! For two salads and one giant cocktail! Lucky we were both delightfully day drunk at that point and so found the whole situation to be positively hilarious — a later glance at Yelp made it seem like we actually escaped relatively unscathed. Yikes — buyer beware on Ocean Drive.
We decided the only way to cap off such a comical scenario would be to make yet another reckless decision — such as tipsily snarfing an Insomnia Cookies homemade ice cream sandwich on the way home. Is it sad if I say this was literally a highlight of my trip?
And then, the perfect end to a impulsive and hilarious day — ciders on the beach as we recounted all the ups and downs, tops and flops, giggles and greatness of the action-packed last five days. For Michelle, it was her last afternoon of sunshine before returning to the lingering winter in Upstate New York. For me, it was one of my final days in the US before boarding a plane for four months in Central America.
So we savored those final hours on the sand.
I know I say this about a lot of places, but I think Miami and I have a long road ahead of us. It’s a city that makes me proud to call the US home — one colorful piece in the crazy diverse puzzle that I’m discovering this country is. A place where I could spend the afternoon Stand Up Paddling on the ocean and the night at a gallery opening of a new up-and-coming South American artist? Or a day escaping to bike the Everglades followed by an evening at a trendy ocean-side tapas restaurant? A place with year-round sun and easy access to a major international airport? That’s the kind of place I could call home someday.
Till next time, Miami! Stay tuned for two of the adventures that made our stay so special.
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