Three if by Sea Miami Beach; Give yourself a rest in a small hotel

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Few destinations are as romantic, as exhilarating, as a seaside resort.

There is a sense of urgency that heightens its seasonal seductions: those few months of fine weather before heat and humidity descend. There is the exotic factor, too, as familiar architectural styles are rendered in local materials, and horticultural impresarios transform the scrubby maritime landscape into a semitropical arboretum.

Then, there is that sense of bravado belonging to communities built close to the ocean, their inhabitants blithely ignoring the fact that a particularly hearty wave could wipe the beach clean.

Miami Beach is the American exemplar of this stage-set mentality. A city of 92,000 perched at the southern end of an unnamed barrier island of sand and (nonnative) coconut palms, it is the unofficial capital of what Floridians call the Gold Coast -- a strip of the state's Atlantic flank stretching 60-odd miles from Miami Beach north to Palm Beach. Miami Beach is drenched with sunlight so bright that every building, every muscle seems to exist in cinematic hyper-focus.

This brightness attracts a November-to-May parade of fashion models, leathery golfers, pop icons like Madonna, and bodybuilders. And then there is Gianni Versace, who lives part of the year in a Jazz Age palazzo on the otherwise mercantile main drag, Ocean Drive.

Art-deco area

South Beach, an approximately 18-block-by-11-block area at the southernmost end of the island, is known for its art-deco hotels and apartment buildings -- many reborn and painted like candied almonds, many abandoned or sealed off with construction fences. But instead of checking into one of the renovated hostelries of recent renown, we stayed at small, pastel-colored hotels.

First, however, a few words about where we didn't stay. To our chagrin, the 44-room Greenview Hotel was booked solid. Looking something like a chic French beach house, with ice-blue walls, woven-wood lamps and vaguely 1960s white-lacquered furniture, it is owned by Jennifer and Jason Rubell, a niece and a nephew of the late Studio 54 pasha, Steve Rubell. (The young Rubells also are renovating the 110-room Albion Hotel about a block southeast of the Greenview.)

Models and movie people swear by the Greenview's funky sleek; regular tourists might find its location off-putting. Though convenient to the Miami Convention Center and the Jackie Gleason Theater for the Performing Arts, the Greenview sits across from a vast parking lot, next to a construction site and around the corner from a tired shopping strip.

We also considered a series of smaller hotels on the two streets closest to the ocean, Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, all of them opened in the last five years by Island Outpost, a hotel company owned by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records.

The Marlin, his flagship property at the corner of Collins and 12th Street, was too hip for us and frequented by a raucous crowd. The all-suite Casa Grande is handsomely appointed in an improbable but effective Jamaican-Moroccan combination -- dark-wood beds, jewel-tone batik fabrics, low banquettes.

Eventually, working on the theory that smaller meant better, or at the very least, quieter -- after all, this was a vacation -- we settled on the Hotel Impala and the Hotel Astor. They are inn-like, at least in scale: 17 rooms at the Impala, 41 rooms at the Astor.

The entrance of the Impala, which opened in 1993, was promisingly discreet. A pale pink stucco arch, separated from the sidewalk by a tiny dooryard garden, framed an iron gate left temptingly ajar. Beside it was the hotel's terrace restaurant.

Pocket paradise

Beyond it was a pocket paradise: a curving, tree-shaded stone walk, potted orchids and three pairs of French doors open to a high, shadowy lobby where ceiling fans quietly turned above an orderly sprawl of planter's chairs. Underfoot were thick slabs of gray saturnia stone, a pitted, heavily textured Italian travertine.

At dusk, the treads of the minimalist stone stairs are lighted with votive candles. The effect was that of a small, elegant house somewhere in the tropics. The welcome was equally domestic. "Please, put those down. They're our responsibility now," a desk clerk said, shaking his head and smiling as we finally set our bags down.

Though it was billed as a "deluxe room," Room 206, which cost $189 a night, was actually small and tidy, dominated by a queen-size bed. It was hampered, however, by a "Rear Window" view of a neighboring building and an aggressive exterior security light that penetrated the curtains.

Silvery metal buckets stood in for wastebaskets. The bathroom was tight -- when opened, the door barely cleared the end of the toilet bowl -- but gratifying in its luxury. The shower stall, filling fully half the room, was lined with a rosy Mexican stone pocked with fossils, and on the massive stone-topped sink was a Shaker box filled with toiletries. The white towels were thick enough to inspire petty larceny; the bathrobe was made of chunky, waffle-textured white cotton -- but alas, there was only one.

The room's sole incongruity was its major piece of art, a panoramic photograph behind the bed. Its subject -- lower Manhattan -- was initially odd, but eventually understandable. When Miami Beach was developed in the 1920s as a winter playground, its hotels and apartment houses were given Gothamesque names designed to make the largely Northern clientele feel at home. Hence the proliferation of Waldorf Towers, Tudors and Plazas.

Strangely, the floor was slightly damp. I chalked it up to seaside housekeeping and went to the beach for the afternoon. Next morning, a water slick glistened in the entry, and a moment's sleuthing found the source: a leak from the toilet tank. A clerk came to the rescue in minutes.

Service was prompt when ordered and gracious when not. When a brief rainstorm blew through town, a desk clerk, a loan umbrella in his hand, materialized as we crossed the lobby on our way out to dinner. At 10: 30 that evening, our room-service request for Key lime pie and a cafe au lait arrived in 13 minutes, about the same amount of time it takes for a car to be retrieved from the Impala's 24-hour valet parking service (a deal at $15 a day, given the abysmal parking in Miami Beach).

On the morning of our departure, the Continental breakfast, included in the room price, was borne on a hefty buttermilk-yellow tray right at the requested time. The lukewarm coffee, served in a leaky container, was disappointing. So were the napkins (paper) and the croissants (leaden).

At the Astor

The Hotel Astor, where we moved for the rest of our stay, is a dazzlingly renovated hotel that was built in 1936, its impressive lobby geometrically paneled in the original black and almond-green Vitrolite, a glass-like material intended to mimic marble.

Room 103 was among the less expensive double rooms, $135 a night, thanks to its less-than-prime location. Instead of a view of the glamorous courtyard swimming pool and its lighted wall of water, the room looked onto the valet parking station. Also beneath our window was the entrance to the hotel's basement eatery, the Astor Place Bar and Grill, widely regarded as the best restaurant on Miami Beach.

That reputation became annoyingly apparent late Saturday night. Into the early morning we heard the sound of hangers sliding on a metal coat rack somewhere in the vicinity of the headboard of our bed, accompanied by the sound of valets shutting car doors and bursts of festive music.

Large, light and sterile

The room was large, light and a bit sterile. The bathroom was basic hotel sophisticated: chrome and blond travertine, great towels and great robes (two, this time).

The decor was updated art deco, from the high, blond-wood headboard on the queen-size bed set with an illuminated glass panel etched with the hotel's monogram, to the desk, its glass top revealing the note paper and envelopes in the center drawer. The imposing armoire was too deep for the space it occupied opposite the end of the bed, and its doors swung open only to be stopped by the end of the mattress. And though the room had been recently repainted a warm shell pink, a closer inspection revealed that the furniture had been merely painted around, not moved.

The Astor's service was swift, if lacking in the hail-fellow-well-met approach of the Impala. Complimentary copies of the Miami Herald were placed at our door each morning, and when an out-of-town paper was requested, a bellboy vanished into the night to find it. When an ironing board and iron were called for, they appeared in two minutes.

On our last evening, we ventured into the Astor Place and discovered the real reason people stay at the Astor: not the rooms, but the food. Dave Barry, the humorist, was seated at the next table. I had the wild mushroom pancakes, layered $l alternately with portobello mushrooms and topped with balsamic syrup" and sun-dried-tomato butter, and, later, wasabi-barbecued tuna with rock shrimp and cashew stir-fried rice and a wakame vegetable slaw.

My companion's appetizer was the blue-corn-crusted duck cakes with wild mushrooms, mango coleslaw and fresh berry sauce. His entree was a pork chop stuffed with spicy sausage and served with red beans and rice. We finished with Key lime pie, creme brulee and two glasses of Bonny Doon's delectable 1994 Vin de Glaciere Muscat dessert wine. The total cost of the dinner, plus a bottle of a 1994 J. Vidal Fleury Cotes du Rhone, was $128.27 including the tax but not the tip -- not cheap, certainly, but satisfying enough to make up for a rackety night.

Next time, though, we'll book the pool view.

When you go...

Hotel Impala, 1228 Collins Ave., Miami Beach 33139; 800-646-7252 or 305-673-2021, fax 305-673-5984. Rates: $189 to $369 Oct. 1 to May 31.

Hotel Astor, 956 Washington Ave., Miami Beach 33139; 800-270-4981 or 305-531-8081, fax 305-531-3193. Rates: $135 to $550 Oct. 20 to June 1.

Astor Place Bar and Grill, 956 Washington Ave., Miami Beach 33139; 305-672-7217. Average price for dinner for two is about $100, including wine and dessert.

Greenview Hotel, 1671 Washington Ave., Miami Beach 33139; 305-531-6588, fax 305-531-4580. Rates: $125 to $200 Oct. 1 to April 30.

Casa Grande, 834 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach 33139; 305-672-7003, fax 305-673-3669. Rates: $230 to $1,125 Nov. 1 to VTC May 31.

Pub Date: 5/04/97

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