Last month hubby and I took an actual vacation, just the two of us. (Ok, it was really just an extra few days added on to the end of a work trip, but it still counts.) It was my first time in Miami, not a place I had much desire to visit for some reason, but it was way different than I had imagined. South Beach was much more laid back and grungy than I was expecting, in a good way. Parts of the island felt like Florida, but other parts felt like a Carribean island or even somewhere in Europe.
We spent nine nights at The Surfcomber, chosen based soley on Tripadvisor reviews. The beach location was awesome, especially for the price relative to other hotels in the area. Even though the hotel had some problems, the staff was really friendly aat the front desk (although at check-in they told us that each of our credit cards had been declined, leading to a bit of panic, before they realized that the computer was broken). The biggest downside of The Surfcomber was housekeeping. One day they forgot to leave washcloths, the next day they forgot to come at all, and one day they even left the door lock turned in leaving our room door stuck open all day. They were apologetic, and we didn't notice anything missing, but still!
Most of the time, the hotel pool was really empty. We went swimming several times with the pool completely to ourselves, so cool. The beach itself wasn't very crowded either. The hotel stopped doing beach service at 6 pm, and after that it was pretty secluded.
My favorite part of our vacation was walking barefoot along the beach at dusk, watching it get dark. I tried to do this every night. There were so little people out, the daytime heat was replaced by a lovely ocean breeze, and the view of the sky changing colors over the buildings was so beautiful. Once, after a few cocktails, we even went swimming in the ocean at dusk. It was amazing, and luckily we didn't get eaten by sharks.
I wore spf 50 constantly, and, even with all the time we spent on the beach, didn't get the slightest burn. Yay me! The hotel had a free sunscreen bar next to the pool (incredibly helpful since I could only pack 3 oz in my carryon and the cheapest bottle at the nearest Walgreens was $12.99), but it was the really white stuff that doesn't actually ever rub in. Still, I probably used half a bottle a day, at least.
I packed carry-on only, as always, but maybe half of what I packed. I brought a good bit of nice clothes because I thought South Beach was a fancier place than actually it is. I really only dressed up one night for dinner. Next time I would make sure to bring more clothes that I don't mind wearing on top of sunblock, sand, and saltwater. I had also picked up a bikini and coverup for the trip, but in hindsight, I should have waited and bought them on the trip -- instant souvenirs -- since Miami Beach had beach shops everywhere.
Another pleasant surprise was the food. The restaurants we went to during the week were virtually empty, especially the ones that weren't in hotels on the beach. Apparently, summer is the down season in South Beach. And there were so many happy hours, I felt like we were still in Austin. Here's the best of the places we tried, in order of favorites:
Orange Blossom This was my favorite of all the places we tried. They have great happy hour specials, plus a different daily special every day of the week, and the best seafood pasta I've ever eaten. Plus, the bartender Leo is a real gem.
Oolite Nothing on the cocktail menu grabbed our attention, so we let Gary make something, and they were the best drinks of the week. I wouldn't recommend the seafood gumbo if you are picky about gumbo (I am!), but we had a shrimp sandwich and chips that were incredible.
The Bazaar at SLS South Beach The food was really good, as well as the atmosphere. It's small plates, and they recommend 3-4 per person, but make sure to save room for desert. Don't be fooled by the prices, the $55 Secreto was the most expensive dish we tried, and also the least favorite. And pay attention to what comes out; they forgot to send out a shrimp dish that our waiter had recommended as the best seafood item on the menu, and we didn't realize until after we left. It's expensive, yes, but everything in South Beach is. It's really not that much more than dinner at the other beach hotel restaurants, especially if you were to stick to the less expensive ($12-$15) options, and it was a place you can really dress up and feel like it's a special night.
Cecconi's at Soho Beach House What an amazing atmosphere! We went for an early happy hour and it was beautiful, but the twinkle lights and tree lanterns would be even more romantic at night. The food was amazing, and the happy hour $4 and $7 specials were incredible. You have to go through the hotel lobby to get to the courtyard, so make sure to look around especially at the lobby art.
Restaurant Michael Schwartz at the Raliegh This was the first restaurant we tried in Miami Beach, and the Sunday brunch was great, especially the Green Egg and Crab (crave-able for sure). We sat outside in a tree-covered backyard and it was really quaint and beautiful (but also really hot, needless to say).
The Social Club at the Surfcomber We ate the happy hour ceviche and fish tacos almost every day, and went back down for a brownie sundae on a few nights when we got hungry later. The brownie sundae is to die for. The specialty cocktails that we tried were just ok (but the beach drinks were much better, try the Passiflora!), so we mostly stuck to draft beer at the bar. Also, the food was really good through the week, but the same dishes weren't as good on the weekends.
Gratuity was already added at almost every restaurant, ranging from 17-19%. But hey still leave a spot for a tip and it seems rude not to give one, so we wound up way overtipping unless the service was so bad that leaving a big zero in that additional tip line felt ok. There were one or two restaurants that didn't add an automatic gratuity, so you really have to pay attention.
All in all, I really loved Miami Beach and I can't wait to go back. If you're planning a trip, I would try to stick to the middle of the week when things are less crowded and I definitely would try not to go in the peak season.