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Miami’s Rising Tides

By Ruth La Ferla

MIAMI BEACH

THE skies last Saturday were fickle, dense gray-yellow clouds threatening a downpour. But visitors to the Soho Beach House, an extravagantly trim and tawny contingent that might have breezed in from the set of “Entourage,” were unfazed.

Most were content to stay in the pool, swigging spirits from a pitcher, playing an aquatic form of ring around the rosie and studiously ignoring the wilting heat of August, a time when travelers have traditionally deserted this resort town for more hospitable shores.

“It used to be that August here was slow, reserved mostly for us locals,” said Carmen Ferreira, a graphic artist, who last week dined poolside with friends at the Soho Beach House, a private club and hotel on Collins Avenue. “But that just isn’t true anymore.” In Miami Beach, the once-strict delineation between high and low seasons has eroded of late. Rogue squalls and the intermittent threat of hurricanes (and a restiveness fueled by an unstable economy) have done little to stem the tide of tourists thronging restaurants, bars, hotels and shops, and crowding beaches to catch a vagrant gust of wind.

Their presence has fattened the city’s coffers, driving retail sales and boosting hotel occupancy to new seasonal highs, transforming Miami Beach and its environs from a wan summer ghost town into a magnet for visitors of every stripe. “Summer here has practically caught up with winter,” said Rolando Aedo, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has seen occupancy rates at luxury hotels jump by 16 percent the first week of August, compared to the same period last year.

Torrid temperatures (the mercury last week climbed to the mid-90s) had done little to scare off visitors, he said, since so many were experiencing heat waves at home. In summer here, he said, “the lines are shorter, the drinks are cheaper, and there’s always a breeze on the beach.”

As a result, the gap between the low and high seasons has conspicuously narrowed, with Miami and Miami Beach welcoming 3 million visitors in the third quarter of this year, compared with 3.4 million in the peak months. Deal hunters and heat seekers alike descended on Lincoln Road, the eight-block-long pedestrian street that is South Beach’s town center, chattering in Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian—and a smattering of Brooklynese.

At least half of all visitors are from international markets, Mr. Aedo said, many from Europe but especially Latin America, where, in some parts, winter is just setting in. Some sampled carpaccio di manzo at Quattro or gawked at the perversely skeletal parking garage designed by Herzog & de Meuron, an anchor to the west. Others toted trophy bags from modish shops like Base and AllSaints Spitalfields.

Sales surged this summer at Alchemist, near Drexel Avenue, with the arrival of tourists from Brazil, where a favorable exchange rate has sent vacationers scouting for bargains, and in some instances scouring the city for second homes. The Brazilians are “their own sort of animal right now,” said Roma Cohen, an owner of Alchemist. “Literally, they will call us from the airport, asking ‘Do you have the latest Céline or Proenza Schouler bag?’” he said, and they are prepared to pay $3,300 or more for one of those coveted labels.

Elsewhere in town, patrons jostled for tables at Prime One Twelve on Ocean Drive, where diners in pale linen suits and abbreviated cocktail frocks ordered the chilled crab or the $88 porterhouse, or nibbled fried Oreos, the restaurant’s over-the-top rendition of comfort food.

Attractions in this city are nearly as plentiful now as during the hectic winter months. Clubs like Mynt Lounge, Wall and Mansion continue to draw capacity crowds. At Set, which caters mostly to youthful high rollers, guests on a recent Friday after midnight stood four deep at the bar, gyrated atop banquettes waving phallic neon-colored wands and gulped Grey Goose, contributing to the kind of frenzy more commonly witnessed in Ibiza or St.-Tropez.

At any one of the string of strenuously hip hotels lining Collins Avenue,among them the Raleigh and the Delano, and to the north, the W hotel and the fabled Fontainebleau, visitors gossiped and preened in wispy caftans, eyes darting now and then to catch a glimpse, perhaps, of Cameron Diaz, who has been seen around town on the arm of Alex Rodriguez; Jennifer Lopez, who was said to have embarked last week on a whirlwind shopping spree at Hermès, Dolce & Gabbana, and Pucci; or Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who recently kicked up their heels at the Soho Beach House.

Celebrities busy on a few productions being filmed in Miami this summer, including “Rock of Ages,” and TV shows like the coming “Charlie’s Angels” and “Magic City,” set in 1960s Miami Beach, have lured the paparazzi, who perch on rooftops, prowl the beach and stand rooted like sentries near the doors of the city’s most fashionable dining spots.

“Those guys will put up ladders on the boardwalk to get to shoot our tiki club on the beach,” said Lilaj Segal Battista, the marketing director of the Soho Beach House. “They’ll check into a room at the hotel next door, so that they can shoot our pool from the roof. You can’t fight them off.” Clearly, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

South Beach is no Hollywood-on-the-Atlantic. But the recent influx of A-list stars has been lavishly chronicled on television tabloids and in print. Such streams of reportage “publicize Miami as a destination without our having to pay for it,” said Tony Goldman, the hotel and restaurant entrepreneur. They have been influential, as well, he said, in “converting Miami in the public eye into a year-round fashion brand, the image of a sexy, cosmopolitan city.”

One that attracts deep-pocketed tourists, who contribute unstintingly to the city’s economy. The extravagant spending of many Latin Americans has had “a knock-on effect,” said André Balazs, the owner of the Standard hotel and spa in Miami Beach, turning Miami “into a repository forflight capital” and helping to revive the once-stagnant real estate market. “On a street level,” Mr. Balazs added, “the effect has been contagious,” boosting the confidence of local entrepreneurs.

The locals have reason to feel sanguine. Room rates had jumped 12.1 percent over the first week of August, according to the visitors’ bureau. The Park Central and the Hotel on Collins Avenue were 80 percent occupied, said Mr. Goldman, their owner, compared with about 65 percent at the same time last year. “We’ve never done these numbers in August,” he said.

The 49-room Soho Beach House is booked through the end of this month. Even on the Fourth of July, the hotel was full, said Guy Chetwynd, its national director of sales, with New Yorkers making up 50 percent of bookings. “That was a huge shock to us,” Mr. Chetwynd said. “We thought we would have to beg people to come.”

Lingering over breakfast at the Standard last Saturday, August Miele recalled the highlights of a self-indulgent weekend. The night before, Mr. Miele, a broker of private jets from New York, had splashed out several hundred dollars on cocktails at the Wynwood Kitchen and Bar, a mainland hot spot decorated with raucous street art in the heart of the Wynwood art district. Later, he enjoyed a dinner for four at Smith & Wollensky that set him back “at least $1,000,” he said. A wobbly economy had neither dampened his spirits nor made a dent in his wallet, Mr. Miele said. “Some of us aren’t even thinking about this recession.”

In Midtown, a Miami equivalent of SoHo, Mariano Toledo, the Tim Gunn of “Project Runway Latin America,” dined with Candela Ferro, a television personality, and Nina Surel, an artist, at Gigi, a Bauhaus-like warehouse-turned-restaurant that is a gathering place for local artists, actors and young entrepreneurs.

“Summer or winter, Miami feels fresh,” Mr. Toledo said. “You have the feeling here that everything and anything could be about to happen.”

Having spotted a handful of private art collectors touring the galleries in Wynwood that night, Ms. Surel was no less elated. “I can’t believe the collectors are here already,” she said. “Art Basel is months away.” Their presence this far ahead of the fair in December is but one indication that the city is blossoming, Ms. Surel said.

“Those collectors,” she said, “are my bling.”


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