LIVE TALK

Transcript: Miami Vacations

Mark Ellwood answered your questions February 17, 2004

By , Tuesday, Feb 17, 2004, 12:00 AM

Always wanted to vacation in Miami but never knew where to see or do?

Mark answered your questions on Tuesday, February 17, at noon EST.

Read the transcript below.

Mark Ellwood has lived out of a suitcase for most of his life. After finishing university in England, he spent several years as tour director leading art tours around cities like Florence, Rome and Paris. He then joined the Rough Guides team and left garlic and Gallic passion behind, moving across the Atlantic to America. Since then, he's zigzagged around the country, researching destinations as diverse as Key West and Niagara Falls; but has always loved Miami for its weather, nightlife and Cuban coffee.

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Mark Ellwood: Hi Mark Ellwood here - thanks for joining me. I'm a travel writer, who specializes in Miami and am here to answer as many of your questions as I can over the next hour.

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Manchester, NH: I will be taking in a long weekend in Miami Beach soon with my wife (we're newlyweds). Where can I catch good "Broadway style" shows in the Miami area?

Mark Ellwood: The best place for shows in Miami is actually on the mainland, in Coral Gables. The Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables is a top notch theater, where a lot of Broadway shows try out -- the current revival of Little Shop of Horrors was workshopped there last spring.

Otherwise, the Coconut Grove playhouse has some good plays, though if you're looking for spectacle stick to Coral Gables - the building's also astonishing.

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Teaneck, NJ: There's a restaurant in Miami that I am curious about. The restaurant has beds as tables and couples are served their dinner in bed by candlelight. It's supposed to be very trendy and there was also a plan to have a similar kind of restaurant in NYC. Do you know what the name of the restaurant is? I have friends that are flying to Miami in April and would like to suggest that restaurant to her. Many thanks.

Mark Ellwood: The restaurant's called B.E.D. - it stands for Beverage, Entertainment & Dining, and is on Washington Avenue. It's certainly great fun, especially on Wednesday nights when the uber promoter Michael Capponi hosts a night there. There are two seatings (or lyings, I suppose) each night: as a tip, book into the later one.

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Anonymous: I was thinking of taking in a few days of warm sun and have chosen Miami. I want a hotel on the beach that is at least "average" in amenities (if not higher-end) and I don't want to break the bank. Is there a steal on the beach?

Mark Ellwood: Absolutely. There are two gems there that are reasonably priced, staffed by happy, helpful people and super groovy. The Townhouse on 20th St is owned and run by Jonathan Morr, the restauranteur & nightlife maven from New York; it's all white, with smallish rooms & no pool, but the rooftop terrace has a bar & huge bright red waterbeds where you can sunbathe. Prices can be as low as $99 per room. Otherwise, check The Albion: Jennifer Rubell is one of the beach's nicest movers & shakers, and she owns this place. It's designed in a nautical deco style, like a ship, and has a huge pool with portholes on the side which you can see swimmers through. Rates are usually around $150 there.

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Brooklyn, NY: Mark, Every time I try to find a bookstore in Miami Beach, the locals look at me like I'm crazy. I love Miami but find the lack of culture (outside of nightclubs) to be a little tiresome after a while. Can you suggest some museums or art galleries or bookstores? Signed, Not Ashamed to be Brainy

Mark Ellwood: It's fair to say that Miami isn't a place for bookworms, or for that matter, anyone who wants to hole up in museums. But there are options: at the beach, you can pick up a used paperback at Kafka's Kafe on 14th & Washington or there's a small selection at the News cafe on 8th & Ocean. Otherwise, head to Lincoln Road for Books & Books, a smallish satellite branch of the main outlet in Coral Gables.

My favorite museum in town is the Miami Art Museum which is just by the bus station downtown: its selection of modern art is stunning & very smartly curated - some lovely conceptual pieces from the Cuban artist Felix Gonzales-Torres especially.

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Denver, CO: I'm gay (and hoping my partner of ten years and I can get married someday soon). So, where's the gay nightlife in Miami? South Beach?

Mark Ellwood: Miami's gay nightlife is shifting - in fact, some of the long-term club owners have headed up the coast to Fort Lauderdale, which now has quite a buzzy gay scene. Stalwarts include Twist on Washington Ave, which has about 6 rooms and lots of different music/bars or the Laundry Bar on Lincoln Lane just north of Lincoln Road, which is mixed but great fun (the name comes from the working washing machines there). I think another gem is the Magnum Lounge on the mainland, 79th street or so, which is lush, kitschy piano bar/restaurant where you can sing along with the pianists most nights.

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New York, NY: My friends and I are going to South Beach for the music conference. Can you recommend us a good place to stay, which is not far from all the action, has an affordable price, and has decent quality standard? Please, also mention some good places to eat and must see clubs. We are flying into Ft. Lauderdale and are not sure what is the best and cheapest way to get to South Beach.

Mark Ellwood: The cheapest way to South Beach from Lauderdale for a group is definitely to hire a car: rates are very reasonable in Florida, and most firms offer pretty similar prices.

Aside from Townhouse & Albion, another funky, cheap option is Aqua, on Collins & 15th - it's a remodeled motel with concrete floors & modernist, brightly colored decor.

Must-see clubs? Well, Mynt is a good bar/club hybrid -- Miami's a place where clubs are often bars or restaurants earlier in the evening. Everyone's looking out for the opening of Mansion, where the legendary Level used to be, though there's no firm date yet; ditto Rok Bar, next to Mynt - it's co-owned by Tommy Lee & won't be a dance music place, but sounds like a really cool hangout.
As for eating, I love David's Cafe, the cheap Cuban off Lincoln Road; and there's a fantastic hidden gem further up the beach if you want to get away from the crowds - Cafe Prima Pasta on 71st St is a real local's favorite, cheap, fantastic Italian food.

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Anonymous: If you were visiting Miami for only 2 days, what sites would you be sure not to miss?

Mark Ellwood: Must sees?
1. The Holocaust Memorial on South Beach, which is one of the most moving, disturbing such memorials anywhere
2. Dawn on Ocean Drive: it's so full of people these days that the only time you can really amble & enjoy it is before the crowds tumble out of bed. And the light at that time shows exactly why all the photographers loved Miami so much in the early 1990s.
3. A stroll down Lincoln Road to see the locals strutting.
4. A trip to the mainland - the real action these days is migrating to a new strip north of downtown called the Biscayne Corridor: go to the Design District to see the Living Room building, an office that's been built to look like someone's living room (hence the name) and see all the trendy stores there. Then grab lunch at Dogma hot dog stand at 73rd & Biscayne.

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Pickering, Ontario: We would like to take a trip to Miami during mid-March during spring break, but we are over 50 and looking for a bargain that doesn't include a lot of 'party animals' from the high school and college set. What would you recommend? Also, just because we're over 50 doesn't mean we don't like to dance, etc., but we do want to be beach bums with a little ambience, without the price tag. Think in terms of the movie "10", rather than "Animal House" for this ROAD TRIP! Please advise. Thanks!

Mark Ellwood: It's quite simple to avoid the Animal House action now. Most of the raucous, rowdy bars are crowded along Ocean Drive south of 14th street, so stay away from there & you should be fine. The Roney Palace hotel at 23rd & Collins has lovely, large rooms plus balconies; or on the mainland, you could try the Miami River Inn in Little Havana, which is a cluster of houses turned into a B&B, decked in lovely old furniture and with very friendly, helpful owners. For the beach, just get in a car and head to Haulover Park at 104th on Miami Beach: it's primarily known as a nude beach, but there are plenty of sections there for anyone who prefers to keep their costume on, and the sand's frankly much nicer than down south. Or head over to Key Biscayne to one of the parks there, which are always less crowded.

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Spickard, MO: My husband and another couple are flying to Miami this next coming week. Please give us a heads up on reasonable, but nice places to go to have a nice supper. Then also be sure and let us know the places we must go to see. We will be staying at the Trump Sonesta and they say they have a shuttle bus service, but should we rent a car? Thank you for your time.

Mark Ellwood: I would definitely rent a car from Trump Sonesta - it's a lovely resort in Sunny Isles, but you'll feel you can zip around to the sights more easily with a car of your own.

For a wonderful old time Miami diner experience, you don't have to go far though: the Rascal House at 171st and Collins is the diner that time forgot, staffed by the same people for the last 50 years. Fantastic for breakfast.
As for dinner, treat yourselves at Tambo on 18th & Purdy Ave - it's Asian/Peruvian fusion, but the food's fantastic and the wine list impressive. And Cafe Prima Pasta's not far away either -- again, great place for a lovely supper.

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St. Simons Island, GA: I saw and taped the Today Show recently with travel tips. It was great and informative, but I am a single mother with a 6-year-old. I know about the all famous trips for kids; in fact, I plan to go for a Disney cruise next year, but have a hard time thinking of a kid-friendly trip or getaway. My husband and I went on some great trips (he is now deceased) and eventually I will take her to some of them: Montana, Hawaii, Maine, etc. Can you guide me now on where to look for kid-friendly trips other than Walt Disney, cruises, etc.? Anything else out there that is also good for kids? Thanks.

Mark Ellwood: Check out singleparenttours.com-- it's a company that runs trips expressly for parents who'll be traveling solo with kids. Not sure when they're planning a Miami trip, but they certainly offer sun & beach vacations.

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New York, NY: Where, in your opinion, is the best sushi in South Beach?

Mark Ellwood: I love Bond Street's sushi - it's in the basement of the Townhouse hotel on 20th St, and the rolls are really, really good - especially some of the vegetarian options. What's even nicer is that it's a scene, but not a crazy one. Otherwise, Tambo's also an option on Purdy Ave.

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New York, NY: What makes Miami more appealing than the Caribbean and is it safe?

Mark Ellwood: Firstly, Miami is now as safe (if not more so) than any other big city in America. The tourist violence which really plagued it during the early 1990s is gone - certainly, you have to pay attention in some areas, but that's no different from NY, Chicago or LA. If you stay on the beach, you should be fine wherever you go.

I think Miami's distinct appeal is its schizophrenic personality. Downtown, where you'll hear more Spanish spoken on the streets than English, could be in any Central American country; while there's a vibrant Haitian community on Biscayne Boulevard north of 50th street (the signs there will be in English & Creole). There are growing groups of Nicaraguans and Dominicans, as well as the long time Jewish community. In that way, it's thrillingly mixed and mixed up place. In many Caribbean resorts, you'll go simply for the sand & sun - in Miami, there's so much more.

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Anonymous: I'm flying into Miami on Thursday night and will be driving to the Keys on Friday morning, then returning to Miami on Monday to fly home Tuesday morning. Any suggestions for: 1) a place to stay Thursday night with a great view of sunrise and 2) things not to miss during some free time on Monday and Monday night? Thanks!

Mark Ellwood: Wow. Quick visit. The Keys are fantastic though.
Here's a couple of thoughts: the Pelican Hotel on Ocean Drive is great fun, and has good views from its beachfront rooms. But if you're brave enough to stay somewhere other than the beach, try the Grove Inn Guesthouse near Homestead - the owners are lovely, and it will mean you'll break your drive into equal halves.

Things not to miss? Aside from everything else I've mentioned, try eating at Yambo in Little Havana - it's a Nicaraguan place that seems as if it was shipped wholesale (customers included) from Nicaragua. Fantastic, so cheap and buzzing any night even Monday.

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Atlanta, GA: I am taking a group of 150 21 to 35-year-olds on a cruise in November that leaves out of Miami on Sunday the 7th. Most of us will be flying in on Friday the 5th to hang out and see the Miami sights. For our age group, what do you think would be an ideal (and not very expensive) hotel to stay at? In what area of town? Also, what clubs would you recommend contacting to see if we can get group rates on bringing our group there? Gracias.

Mark Ellwood: 150 people is a lot - and most of the hotels in Miami are boutique sized. I'd recommend contacting the Loews Hotel on Collins, close to Lincoln Road - it's large enough to house your group, and you should be able to negotiate a good discount.

Club-wise, things change so rapidly, and frankly a lot of promoters won't worry about discounting to get you there on a weekend. I'd check the larger places like Crobar, which is terrific & really cool, despite being open for several years; or the new place Mansion I mentioned, as that should be quite large & good for groups.

Check newtimes.com closer to the time to see what's opened up (and closed) - 9 months is a lifetime in nightlife as far as Miami's concerned!

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Sarasota, FL: Mark, Having traveled a few times through Miami, I'm not so much concerned with Miami once I've arrived, but rather, the problem escaping the airport. Every time I've flown to, from or through Miami's "airport", the experience has been horrific. I've vowed to never again use it unless I'm forced through it on the way to a loved one's funeral. The employee's are the most disengaged I've come across, the layout is laughable, and the queues are pathetic. Do the 'powers that be' in Miami realize this? And, if so, are there plans to raze it and start over? The airport alone has put me off Miami. Thanks.

Mark Ellwood: I hear you. Miami airport is certainly the city's Achilles heel, though I've never had problems with staff (who've always been charming), more its odd layout. No plans from the city as far as I know to change anything; the option most people take if they need to go M.I.A. from MIA is to fly to Fort Lauderdale - it's only 40 minutes' drive & a lot of the cheaper airlines land there anyway.

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New York, NY: Hi Mark! I'll be visiting Miami with my 5-year-old and my 1-year-old. Beside the beach, what sites will they most enjoy visiting? And what are the most "kid-friendly" restaurants (FYI: being from NYC, we don't do McDonalds, my kids eat Thai food, Japanese food, etc. by kid friendly, I mean places where people won't get upset if the baby's a little loud. They'll eat almost anything I put in front of them). THANKS!!

Mark Ellwood: I love Parrot Jungle: it's moved to a new location on Watson Island near the beach, which lacks a little of the rickety old charm of its original site, but is still wonderful - the animals are very friendly and the colors mesmerizing. There's also the new Miami Children's Museum right across the road.

As for beaches, check out the sands on Key Biscayne, by far the most family-friendly beaches in the city; if you want to stay in South Beach, the seafront round 3rd street is best for kids.

As for eating, try the Front Porch Cafe on 14th & Ocean; full of locals, large and bustling, so lively kids won't disrupt the waiters' rhythm. Or Big Pink on 2nd & Collins - it's a funky diner aimed at the 20-something crowd, but the cool menu & fun design should appeal to kids - and it's very laid back.

On another note, there's a charming toy store on Key Biscayne called Toy Town - Nintendo free zone, with lots of old fashioned toys.

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Columbus, OH: My husband and I have been married for four years now and have not been able to afford a honeymoon. Our anniversary is coming up in April and we would like to go on a romantic honeymoon. Could you recommend someplace in the Miami area that is not too expensive?

Mark Ellwood: Aside from the ideas I mentioned above, for a romantic getaway check the city's new boutique hotels web site: it's accessible through miamiandbeaches.com, and has lots of recommendations & deals on the best, hippest places. Another option is the Whitelaw Hotel: it's part of a local mini chain called the South Beach Group (check southbeachgroup.com) which has 6 or so properties all of which are trendy, friendly and cheap.

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New Orleans, LA: Our vacation club has a resort in South Beach and we are considering spending one of our vacations there. Is this a suitable area for a family vacation or does this area appeal more to single younger individuals rather than families?

Mark Ellwood: Certainly, many of South Beach's attractions are geared to adults -- after all, it's nightlife and bars for which it's best known. But away from the beach, there's plenty for kids - other than the beaches on Key Biscayne, the Seaquarium there is filled with animals including manatees. The rangers run very interesting talks, tours and feeding sessions. Or check out the new Zoo, finally rebuilt and restocked with animals after being devastated by the hurricane of 1992.

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Olive Branch, MS: Hi Mark, I'm contemplating going to Miami over the Memorial Day holiday. Are the best deals at a South Beach hotel or would I gain just as much staying on Biscayne Bay?

Mark Ellwood: Memorial Day is close to off-season for Miami - once you hit June, July and August, it's still hot but the humidity means many people don't want to holiday there... so you can get some real bargains.
That said, Memorial Day in recent years has been the time for an impromptu hip hop festival in South Beach, so the hotels have been able to fill rooms at a high rate; I'd suggest you either book now for a bargain, or just stay further up the beach so you can hang out there easily - try the Beach House Bal Harbour at 94th and Collins.

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Portland, OR: I visited Miami for the first time last fall on my way to a cruise and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. Especially enjoyed the food at Tu Tu Tango. Do you have any suggestions for similar restaurants with a very interesting menu? Thanks.

Mark Ellwood: Restaurants come and go so frequently in Miami, so any list is almost out of date as soon as it's written. But my pick of the places to eat right now are all on the mainland, along the Biscayne Corridor. Check out OLA, it's a Latin fusion place at 50th St which just opened and is chef'd by the famous Douglas Rodriguez; or there's Citronelle further up, a Haitian fusion eatery. The place that has the most alternative, Portland-esque vibe is probably Cafe 190, on NE 46th St - brunch there is an all you can eat deal for $15, and there are poetry readings and performances during the week.

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Columbus, OH: Hi Mark, I'm a single person, and have no idea where to stay or go to enjoy the "full flavor" of Miami. Any top 5 list would be helpful. Thanks!

Mark Ellwood: To get the 'full flabor' of Miami, here's a top 5 to show its range:

  • Get ice cream at the Lakay Bakery in Little Haiti
  • Hang out on the beach at South Beach north of 8th street
  • Grab dinner at the cafe-style Yambo in Little Havana
  • Go shopping (well, window shopping) along Lincoln Road in South Beach
  • Visit Villa Vizcaya in Coral Gables for some culture
  • Marietta, GA: Hi Mark! I'm 16 years old, and I'm going to Miami with my mom, dad, and 18-year-old brother for spring break in early April. I've done some research online, and it doesn't seem like there's much to do there unless you're at least 18. What are some fun things to do for my age group? Thanks.

    Mark Ellwood: Great question. Here's what I'd do: I'd rent some rollerblades, and take a trip round South Beach that way - try Fritz's Skate Shop on Lincoln Road.

    The best hangout is News Cafe on 8th & Ocean - it's open 24 hrs, and it's where the teen models still grab a black coffee once in a while when they're waiting for their next assignment. You can hang there for quite a while without problems.
    At night, you're stuck with your folks more or less, though get them to take you to one of the cooler restaurants like Sushi Rock Cafe and you should get a good taste of Miami nightlife.

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    Mark Ellwood: Thanks so much - looks like that's all we've got time for. Thanks for all your questions and hope you have a great time in Miami - it's a magnificent city.

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