Fun can come at any price in Miami. If you're toting wads of cash, go all out. If you're stretching a modest budget, weigh options more carefully. If you're dipping into an account you promised never to touch, pinch hard and cut corners.
Why not play all three roles at once? Maybe skew your budget toward great accommodations and hold back on dining and attractions costs. Or stay cheap and invest in memorable meals. Or pile it all on a big night out and otherwise lie low.
Here's a three-way cafeteria plan designed to let you pick a Miami vacation that fits your budget. Choose how you'll spend your money based on the depth of your pockets and the breadth of your interests.
WHERE TO STAY
You can almost always swing a deal for rates lower than those stated if you're flexible about room size and when you go.
$$$: The Morris Lapidus-designed 1954 masterpiece of curves, Fontainebleau Hilton Resort & Towers, still packs a romantic punch. The 1,200-room resort sports a rock-grotto pool, beachfront cabanas, full-service spa, and glitzy floor show at the Cuban-style Club Tropigala. Picture guests Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, and Jackie Gleason in their primes. Today it's more of a family destination than during its racier, star-studded heyday. Kids like the new pool dominated by a giant octopus that sprays water everywhere. 4441 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach; (305) 538-2000 or 1-800-548-8886. Rates: $209-$359.
Long known as The Tiffany, The Hotel, a restored Art Deco 52-room landmark, still sports a blue neon tower blaring that name. Guests enjoy an attentive concierge, in-room entertainment systems, a rooftop pool, garden dining at Wish, and step-outside proximity to swinging South Beach nightlife. 801 Collins Avenue, South Beach; (305) 531-2222. Rates: $225-$405.
Another restored Art Deco classic, the 54-room Hotel Nash packs designer surprises within its stark-white exterior. Sweeping curves accent an intimate lobby with a museum-vintage concierge desk and slot-style mailboxes. Belgian linens, shield-shaped armoires, and sepia-toned photographs accent bedrooms. 1120 Collins Avenue, South Beach; (305) 674-7800. Rates: $210-$775.
$$: Cross the Rickenbacker Causeway from downtown Miami to reach Key Biscayne and Sonesta Beach Resort Key Biscayne, a family-style 300-room resort. The white-sand beach begins just past the Olympic-size pool. Sailing, tennis, and nearby golf beckon. Kids enjoy beach volleyball, water balloon fun, sandcastle contests, and field trips to nearby attractions. 350 Ocean Drive, Key Biscayne; (305) 361-2021 or 1-800-766-3782. Rates: $195-$435.
The best reason to choose the Mayfair House is to be close to the Coconut Grove shopping, dining, and nightlife district that surrounds it. Each of the 179 rooms has either an outdoor hot tub on the veranda or an indoor whirlpool clad in marble. A rooftop pool area overlooks Biscayne Bay two blocks away. 3000 Florida Avenue, Coconut Grove; (305) 441-0000 or 1-800-433-4555. Rates: $159-$649.
$: Bust your budget elsewhere by opting for Hampton Inn Miami-Downtown, a clean and safe but otherwise basic motel near the toll bridge to Key Biscayne. A no-frills fenced-in pool serves your need for a quick dip. 2500 Brickell Avenue, Miami; (305) 854-2070. Rates: $84-$129.
From Doubletree Hotel Coconut Grove, you can walk easily to downtown Coconut Grove attractions and to the waterfront on Biscayne Bay. 2649 South Bayshore Drive, Coconut Grove; (305) 858-2500. Rates: $109-$289.
WHERE TO EAT
An international range of cuisine tempts Miami diners. Try some new twists on fresh seafood, produce, and regional spices-- a trend widely dubbed "Floribbean" but also known as New World, Tropical Fusion, and Nuevo Latino. Dig in to rib-sticking Cuban dishes too.
$$$: Chef Norman Van Aken created Norman, a mainstay of top-notch service, excellent food, and superbly matched wines. For starters, try the cheese blintz with spinach-mango salad in bacon-balsamic vinaigrette ($10.50). Move on to wood oven-roasted pork tenderloin over Haitian grits with smoky plantain and a salsa of red onions, black beans, and sweet corn ($29.50). 21 Almeria Avenue, Coral Gables; (305) 446-6767.
Spotting celebrities is a popular pastime at Wish, the tropical-courtyard restaurant only slightly hidden from sidewalk view at The Hotel. Appetizers ($8-$16) on the ever-evolving menu range from baby greens with tomato, mango, and hearts of palm to foie gras. Entrées ($14-$32) include spicy seared tuna and roasted rack of lamb. 801 Collins Avenue, South Beach; (305) 674-9474.
Located off the lobby of Hotel Nash, Mark's South Beach roasts scallops and lobster, sautés shrimp, grills octopus and quail, braises grouper, and steams clams. The dessert of warm banana beignets with Key lime caramel, roasted pineapple, and lychee sorbet is a pleasant surprise. Appetizers: $11-$20. Entrées: $18-$38. 1120 Collins Avenue, South Beach; (305) 604-9050.
$$: Dine by the bar or under shade trees at Nemo, a casual South Beach favorite. Pulled barbecue sandwiches and hefty burgers loaded with extras cost $11 at lunchtime. Dinner begins with crispy duck confit ($12) and such entrées as wok-charred salmon ($24) and Indian-spiced grilled pork chop ($24). 100 Collins Avenue, South Beach; (305) 532-4550.
The chef at Astor Place, Johnny Vinczencz, shows a maverick streak at the Hotel Astor's dining room with wild mushroom pancakes, sunflower seed-crusted herbed goat cheese, and blue corn-crusted leg of duck confit cakes on the appetizer menu ($8-$18). Main courses ($20-$36) stretch all boundaries with such combinations as wasabi skillet-seared tuna steak marinated in a red curry sauce and served with pineapple sauce over stir-fried rice laced with spicy rock shrimp. 956 Washington Avenue, South Beach; (305) 672-7217.
$: You'll find Versailles in the heart of Little Havana on famous Calle Ocho (Eighth Street). This open-late combination diner, bakery, cigar shop, and neighborhood hangout offers hearty fare at low prices, as well as a window into a traditionally Cuban community. Linger over folded meat pies, rice and beans, mule-strong coffee, and thick toast (all for about $10). 3555 SW. Eighth Street, Miami; (305) 444-0240.
At 11th Street Diner, dig in to comfort food in a silver-skinned railroad dining car flanked by decks. Choose from Philly cheese steaks, turkey clubs, tuna melt sandwiches, mashed potatoes and gravy, or omelets at any hour--and most of it priced less than $10. The malted milk shakes ($3.50) are meals unto themselves. 1065 Washington Avenue, South Beach; (305) 534-6373.
WHAT TO DO
After you've settled on lodging arrangements and made dinner reservations, decide how to spend the rest of your time in Miami. Here's a glimpse at just some of the options.
$$$: Take in a performance by the Miami Symphony Orchestra, the New World Symphony, or the Miami City Ballet. Sit for a play or a concert at Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Jackie Gleason Theater, or the Lincoln Theatre.
Hit the glittering nightclubs of South Beach. They're plentiful--and constantly evolving. You'll know by the sounds coming out (Latin, hip-hop, heavy metal, jazz, and others) and the people going in (dressed to the nines in black-on-black formals, whooping it up in screaming-loud party dresses, sheathed in tattoos and body-piercing jewelry, and others) whether any given nightspot is right for you.
$$: See the performing whales, dolphins, otters, and other sea creatures at the Miami Seaquarium. Let colorful birds perch on your outstretched arms at Parrot Jungle and Gardens. Take in a big-league sporting event--Miami Heat basketball, Miami Dolphins football, or Florida Marlins baseball.
$: Stroll paths and greenhouses at Fairchild Tropical Garden. Meet nearly 200 different species of animals at Miami Metrozoo. Tour the Italian Renaissance villa known as the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Hit the public beaches at South Beach and Haulover Point (caution: designated and otherwise, each has areas where nudists gather), at carousel-accented Crandon Park, and lighthouse-accented Bill Baggs/Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne.
WHERE TO SHOP
$$$: The Bal Harbour Shops take the cake for ignore-the-tag browsing by elite shoppers. Anyone interested in interior design and architectural accents will enjoy walking around several square blocks in the resurgent Miami Design District.
$$: Two fun open-air malls include CocoWalk (and the Coconut Grove business district surrounding it) and Lincoln Road Mall, a pedestrians-only zone in South Beach.
$: Look for bargains at the Bayside Marketplace downtown, or head north to Fort Lauderdale's infamous Swap Shop for everything from garage sale junk to discontinued lines of clothing and appliances.
"Miami: Three Days, Three Ways" is from the November 2001 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.