South Beach Is An Iconic Vacation Spot That Can Still Surprise You

Hope Carter/UPROXX

South Beach, Miami is the land of party lore. For decades, it’s been the hottest spot in Florida (and arguably the whole American south). A haven where the beautiful, the rich, and the famous are easily spotted out at the club, on the strip, and lounging on the beach. What we don’t see as often are the everyday people who live in and around the area, whose culture is just as — if not more — rich and colorful as those running the party scene. While the latter is definitely a draw for tourists, the former is what will keep visitors eager to come back for more.

On a recent trip to Miami, I was fortunate enough to experience just how much genuine culture there is in Miami when the sun is shining. I was there for the re-opening of the Gates Hotel in South Beach — a just-renovated property perfectly situated to showcase Miami’s rich Cuban culture and arts and music scenes, while also giving travelers the ideal “Miami party weekend” experience they’re probably expecting.

For me, the party came first. Walking straight to the pool deck after arriving at the hotel, I found straight up music video vibes — complete with club lighting, cabanas, and an unmatched view of downtown Miami. The in-house restaurant, Agaveros Cantina, offers light bites and assorted tacos and salads at the pool bar. For the hotel’s opening party, the tapas kept coming and the drinks kept flowing as women covered in body paint and other hotel guests mingled and took photos for the #UnlockSouthBeach Instagram hashtag. It was a very visceral reminder that showing the best of Miami may not be all about the party scene, but it does include it.

The Gates was popping and so I partied, of course. “When in Rome,” after all. But before too long, I wandered down to my ten-zillion thread count bed. In order to discover South Beach the daytime, I’d have to actually wake up when the sun was shining.

Hope Carter

The morning air has a special feeling in Miami. Literally. It was noticeably cleaner than the air back in my hometown of Houston. That could be because there are fewer pollutant particles per square inch (okay, it’s probably that), but it also might be that the location of the Gates allows the ocean smell to pervade your senses.

Loving the fresh air, I started my first morning in town with a short walk to The Bass contemporary art museum. Besides the colorful pillar outside the museum and the view of the beach from its front yard, one of the museum’s most notable installations is the Good Evening Beautiful Blue installation by Ugo Rondinone, which is actually equal parts dope and horrifying. Depending on your possible traumatic experiences as a child or having seen “It” a tad too early in life (or as an adult), the floor space filled with life-sized clowns in various poses will either excite or terrify you.

I chose the former and took the opportunity to sit and get acquainted with some of the posse.

View this post on Instagram

Insane clown posse.

A post shared by Hope R. Carter (@hopecarter) on

As I walked the streets of Miami, I stopped in at the Historic Post Office building in Downtown Miami to check out some of the art installations being prepared for Art Basel 2017. The building no longer functions as a post office and was being repurposed to serve as the location for the Young Artist Initiative’s presentation of RAW — a 10-day multi-sensory, 3-floor immersive pop-up experience during Art Basel. Many of the installations were being completed as I toured the building and I got to meet artists knees and elbows deep in supplies and miscellany to add to their artwork before the opening day.

Many of the art pieces and spaces encouraged posting on Instagram, and the multi-sensory nature of the artwork, featuring lights, movable elements, and interactive features made it easy to oblige.

View this post on Instagram

(Little) Havana days.

A post shared by Hope R. Carter (@hopecarter) on

Later on in the day, after a juice, I was ready to hit the beach. The Gates is an easy walk to the sand, but who wants to carry all their gear with them while they walk? Luckily, the hotel offers a Thai-style “tuk-tuk” service to get you and your crew (and beverages) there in record time with little hassle. It was the sort of experience that I am most-definitely down for.

Upon arriving at the beach, I discovered that it was far cleaner than I expected — considering how many visitors it sees on the daily. The water was clear and the sand was trash and cigarette free. There are millions of places for a beach vacation on this planet, but Miami was quickly moving up my personal power rankings. For the grand re-opening, the Gates offered setups with beach chairs, towels, umbrellas, and cabanas provided by the Boucher Brothers, so no one would have to sit out in the heat or be harassed by the sometimes heavy winds.

After lunch in a lounge chair (the only way to lunch if you ask me), I tried to be productive on my laptop before realizing quickly that it was crazy and playing a game (or five) of cornhole. A few drinks and a swim and I was ready to head back to the hotel and get ready for dinner at the restaurant of the Gates’ sister hotel — Salinity, in the Hilton Cabana Miami Beach.

Salinity was a highlight for me and another reminder that with decades of party glory, South Beach has also grown pretty refined. The restaurant makes its own salt, hence the name. This may seem trivial, but knowing what mass produced food goes through before it hits our table, I could appreciate it. The appetizer exhibited the difference between the seasoning we’re used to and fresh salt, laying out a couple oysters on a bed of the stuff. The chef even came out to explain the use of the salt in every course of the meal — including a sushi dish and fresh scallops, pairing each with an appropriate drink and ending it all with a rich chocolate cake.

Hope Carter

The next morning, I was far more bright-eyed than someone staying in South Beach expects to be, and ready to experience Miami’s rich Cuban culture. The entire morning felt like I’d stepped into a time warp (or literally traveled to Cuba). I had a tour guide who was well-versed in Little Havana life, history, and culture, and got a walking tour of some of Little Havana’s most legendary spots — including a tree famous for residents practicing Santeria, an historic cigar rolling shop, and several of the small businesses in Little Havana that sold Cuban coffee, fashions, and produce.

This wasn’t the “I’m in Miami, B*tch” city, it was normal people going about their days, playing dominoes in Domino Park on Calle Ocho, and running their businesses. It made my trip feel less touristy, something that literally every vacation should aspire to. Is Miami iconic? Yes. It’s one of our country’s most iconic destinations, but it’s also just a city with real people living their real lives.

I guess in the end that’s what I loved so much about the trip. It all boils down to that terrible cliché that every travel writer tries to avoid, the word “contrast.” A city where you can dance by night and play dominos while sipping cafe con leche the next morning? Where you can enjoy fine dining, a cheap Cuban sandwich, and rum drinks right on the sand? A place where you can see emerging artists and tour museums by day then hit the club ’til the sun comes up?

Yes to all of it. It’s my jam.

Hope Carter

Hope Carter

Hope Carter

See the Uproxx statement on press trips.