Archive for the 'Travel' Category

South Beach’s 180 Degrees from Richmond

Colony Hotel, South Beach

Colony Hotel, South Beach

Last month I escaped our humble home base to see the glitz and glamour of South Beach for a summer getaway.  And I did all of this flying solo – a daring move some friends said.  A few said, “I could never travel alone.”  To the contrary, I highly recommend traveling on your own.  You get to set your own schedule, don’t have to argue over where you want to go, and if you are disappointed with a certain activity, it all falls on you.  Although only in Miami Beach for four days, it was a substantial taste of this tropical setting and its surrounding locale.

All that glitters

South Beach is surreal.  It’s over-the-top and doesn’t disappoint on the amount of attractive people and places to see.  My first night was filled with a late-night stroll on Ocean Drive taking in the neon accents of restored Art Deco boutique hotels and multi-use conversions.  The narrow sidewalk on the hotel-side of Ocean Drive keeps pedestrians walking through a busy corridor of cafe patios that spill into your path of travel.  A walk through these sidewalk cafes takes you past diners, street performers, and maitre’ds pulling you in for their restaurant’s special at any given hour of the day.

Anything goes regarding fashion – a far cry from the conservative scene of Richmond.  Don Juans and their lady friends are decked head to toe in Ed Hardy and Christian Audigier among others.  Bold fashions statements heavily influenced by designer shops lining Collins Avenue and the Lincoln Road Mall sprinkle the landscape.  All of this is within walking distance of the hotels on scenic Ocean Drive.

South Beach At Dusk

South Beach At Dusk

Although the sun hid behind clouds throughout most of my trip, this didn’t discourage me from taking a couple walks on the beach.  Each morning, huge plows comb the beach to clear debris and the water remained a lovely shade of seafoam green.  If you start your morning at 8 a.m., the beach is yours – most people are still recovering from partying the night before.

The South Beach Local, a bus that circles the town, costs a quarter and stops at convenient locations.  The bus connects at Washington Avenue and Lincoln Road to take you into Downtown Miami – for $1.50.  Once downtown, a free Metro Mover will take you around to tourist spots and government centers.  Bayside Mall at the Port of Miami is filled with independently owned shops with an odd array of services available.  In addition to getting a gyro or Indian sari, you can also get your teeth whitened onsite.  Flagler Street is a main thoroughfare of downtown and reminiscent of run-down portions of Broad Street and Grace Street, but with a more international flair.  Most store fronts in this strip of downtown completely close shop by 6 p.m. – including the Macy’s.  South Beach is where it’s at in the nighttime.

Where’s the beach?

On my first night visiting, it was apparent that South Beach is clearly not about the “Beach.” Many restaurants serve well past midnight and most clubs stay open until 5 a.m.  This non-stop party does not come without a cost.

Lincoln Road, South Beach

Lincoln Road, South Beach

While I saved money traveling during the rainy season, food and fun were still pricey.  You could spend $20 on cover just to get into the door of several nightspots including former theater, now danceclub Mansion and B.E.D., which creates its niche as a lounge with twenty beds for mixing and mingling.  I couldn’t justify spending this for a night on the town.  My first night in town, a Tuesday, I attempted to get into Score, which boasts Planeta Macho, its gay latin night.  The drag queen at the door shot me down because I was wearing sandles.  She said if I had straps in the back, I could have gotten in.  Too bad I left my strappy stilettos in Richmond.  I ended up buying a pair of Steve Madden loafers a few doors down – some shops on Lincoln Road stay open until midnight.  This was all too fussy to deal with after a long day of traveling, so I decided to walk back to the hotel and call it an early night.

The following night, Wednesday, I checked out Twist, which is the self-proclaimed hottest gay nightclub in South Beach with an impressive seven bars.  They were not actually that impressive because of the lack of patrons.  I took a seat at the bar upstairs in what appeared to be some sort of video lounge.  The bartender put in a DVD of Mariah Carey’s most recent tour and the fellows around me just watched in awe as she belted out a dance remix of “My All.”   You dare not interrupt a gay man watching Mariah Carey.  Queens love their divas.  I did order a Corona for $6 and a vodka-cranberry for $8.  As if overpriced drinks and Mariah’s seven (or is it eight) octaves weren’t enough, I ventured downstairs to the outdoor patio and into a glass-enclosed room that featured exotic dancers accompanied by a narrator.  This announcer introduced Pablo from Ecuador explained how he could pound members of the audience hard enough to see fireworks on the Fourth of July.   Tasteful.

Thursday night’s going abouts were more fruitful.  The night prior, I learned from some locals that Buck15 was the place to be.  After-hours, this art gallery turns into a full-blown bar with an impromptu dancefloor.  Going up the inconspicuous stairs on the edge of a Chinese restaurant, the unsuspecting venue is jam packed with wall-to-wall people.  After a little mingling, I crowd-surfed to the bar and ordered a simple Diet Coke, no liquor – $4!  Traveling a city solo means that you are also traveling to the bar solo.  This ain’t no thing on the home front, as you’ll always run into someone you know, but away from home, you are a tiny fish in a huge ocean full of sharks.  Perhaps my social graces were not on the up-and-up, but I didn’t care because I didn’t have to see these people again.  After trying to wedge my way into several friendly-looking social circles, I introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Kevin and I’m from Richmond, VA.”  I realize that these people are bombarded with tourists on a regular basis and really have no personal investment in getting to know outsiders, but the native gays I met were not the friendliest.  The nicest people I met were actually immigrants and those vacationing from other countries.  It certainly put the social scene in Richmond in perspective.

After becoming acquainted with a friendly fellow from the Dominican Republic and his friends, we finished up at Buck15 and I finally made it to Score, which had an impressive setup.  We entered the club from the alleyway.  My new friends were regulars and the bouncer let us in without paying cover.  Clubgoers naturally migrated from Buck15 next door to the second floor of Score.  The venue has two bars in the middle and and has a surrounding circular walkway/dancefloor.  One side of this circle is for mingling and the other side is for dancing.  A DJ spins electronic music as she is accompanied by a live drummer.  En fuego!  The lack of personal space for moving around did become slightly overwhelming and I left shortly after.

Say no to egg salad

Interior of Jerry\'s Famous Deli

Interior of Jerry\

After leaving Score, I grabbed a late-night bite at Jerry’s Famous Deli, for which I had high hopes.  I passed by earlier in the day and saw a monsterous egg salad sandwich that looked delicious.  I don’t even like egg salad that much, it just looked SO good.  One bite and I was disappointed, not because I didn’t like egg salad, but because it was so dry.  It was hard-oiled egg on stale bread.  Bleh.  And for $15, it felt like robbery.  But Jerry’s Deli sure was pretty on the inside…which seems to be the story in Miami.  You are paying for a lot of pretty.

Rewind to my first night in South Beach.  I allotted myself one fancy meal – my love for Sushi had me venture over to SushiSamba Dromo.  This Miami extension of the NYC original serves up an infusion of Japanese-Peruvian-Brazilian cuisine.  I ordered the Green Envy roll, which sounded like a very creative concoction of tuna, asparagus, keylime-mayo, encrusted in crushed wasabi peas.  I also had a side of the fried sweet plantains, which arrived in a beautifully displayed tower of crisscrossed strips of yumminess.  The sushi roll was good, but nothing particularly special in taste or presentation.  I’ve had more impressive, flavorful roles from local favorite Osaka.  While the sushi roll wasn’t wow, the atmosphere was uberchic with clean lines, rich red lighting, and pops of white set to a DJ rolling out house music from his iPod.  The SushiSamba experience included the two mentioned items and a glass of wine for a total bill of $33 after tip.

Puerto Suego had the most authentic Cuban food that I sampled in Miami – and it was right around the corner from my hotel!  You can’t go wrong with a Cuban sandwich and tostones.   The combination of roasted pork, ham, and Swiss with pickles and mustard on French bread was delicious, but predictable.  Yes friends, Richmond’s Kuba Kuba, serves up the real deal (not to be biased, but after tasting my Miami sandwich, I actually prefer Kuba Kuba’s version – maybe because it’s made with love.  Who knows?).  I had my fill of plantains during my trip – these tostones were huge and served with a very salty and oily garlic sauce.  This no frills lunch counter pressed French bread was a tasty and humble escape from the surrounding fancy eateries.

I ate an aweful lot of ham in Miami – maybe I was salt-deprived, but I don’t know what got into me.  In addition to the Cuban sandwich, I also had a ham and Swiss croissant at a French pastry shop for a mere $5 and a Hawaiian sandwich at fast-food chain Qbano Sandwich for $8.  Strangely, my meal at this Spanglish eatery was probably the most noteable because it was so unexpected.  The French bread was toasted to perfection and the cheese was gooey and melty and made a nice pairing with the sweet pineapple – it was served up with a really tasty garlicy mayo too.  Deliciouso indeed.

Beach bums and coconuts

I felt very safe walking around South Beach even at night.  The streets are heavily populated at all hours and the panhandlers are pretty laid back.  If I were homeless, I’d want to be on the beach too.

An old man passed me with a shopping cart trying to sell coconuts he had collected from the palm trees.  They also collect palm leaves and weave hats and baskets to sell to tourists.  I saw quite a few homeless people, which was very real compared to all the sparkles and glimmer of the over-the-top surroundings.

Homeless Lady Outside Nightclub

Homeless Lady Outside Nightclub

This picture taken outside a nightclub sums up South Beach’s relationship with the homeless.  A disabled woman sleeps as young girls wait to get into the nightspot.  The same night, walking back to my hotel, I got stopped by a man asking if I was in search of weed or crack.  Just a few moments later, a woman yells outside her cab window and asks, “What did you do to your leg?”  “It’s just how I walk,” I tell her.  She replies, “I can fix that for you.”  Oh my.  Solicited by a drug dealer and a prostitute in the same city block.  That’s quite and accomplishment, but that’s what I get for staying out past 3 a.m.

The next afternoon, walking around Downtown Miami, I run across a coconut that has fallen to the ground.  Curious, I pick it up and slam it to the ground trying to open it unsuccessfully to the glances of drivers passing by.  I think of the man that was trying to sell them the day before.  I be he could have cracked it.

Reptilian adventures

Gator at Gator Park, Everglades

Gator at Gator Park, Everglades

On my last day in Miami, I took a side-trip to the Everglades – a vast coupling of rainforest and swampland mostly left untouched by man.  The tour bus took us to Gator Park, clearly a Disneyfied version of wilderness adventure.  A gruff, Dundee-esque bubba who claimed to live in the swamps guided our group’s airboat tour.  He pointed to four gators that surrounded the boat and was on a first-name basis with them.  How wild these gators actually were was questionable, but being so close to nature was undoubtedly, super-awesome.

Upon returning to the dock, our group had the opportunity to buy fried gator bites, gator sausage, and of course, gator trinkets.  I passed on all of the above.  The bus dropped me off in downtown Miami, where I took public transit to Villa Vizcaya, an estate built in 1916 by a wealthy industrialist.  In the 1910s, Miami’s population was roughly 10,000.  It took 1,000 people to build this guy’s winter home – 1/10th of the population.  It was impressive and completely decadent with furnishings from Ancient Egypt, many dynasties of China, and the Renaissance, but what caught me off guard were the hundreds of tiny lizards I passed during my stroll through the estate’s gardens.  You’ll see a lizard every once in a while in Virginia, but never that many.

Lizard at Villa Vizcaya

Lizard at Villa Vizcaya

Locals told me that it usually rained at least once a day – but usually never more than 5 minutes at a time.  Chances for precipitation are a bit higher during hurricane season and incidentally, I experienced a torrential downpour leaving Villa Vizcaya.  Through thunder and lightning, I ran through massive puddles back to the metro station.  I don’t think an umbrella would have helped.

Back from Oz

Ocean Drive, South Beach

Ocean Drive, South Beach

Although expensive and extravagant, I really did enjoy my time in Miami.  While there are certainly a lot of beautiful things to see, but with transient nature of the area, it felt like South Beach lacked substance.  I talked to a lot of people who were living in Miami and they offered mixed reviews.  A transplant from New York was very vocal on his dislike for the city – he said it was incredibly superficial.  I asked him why he decided to move there and he said he just wanted to get away.  The shop owner of the shoe store I went to moved to South Beach from Brazil and said she loved everything about the town.

The opportunity to travel by myself was liberating – walking everywhere and taking public transit allowed me to explore parts of the city that many tourists would pass by.  I even had a lady in downtown Miami ask me where the closest Walgreens was – I was actually able to direct her.  I guess it all comes down to what you are looking for.  I personally couldn’t see living there, but it would be worthy of a return visit, especially with a group of friends.  Despite the ups and downs, Richmond’s not such a bad place to be.  Miami’s stark contrast put this into perspective.  There’s no place like home.  You need that reminder every once in a while.


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