Miami Beach's Art Deco District is the first 20th-century neighborhood to be recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, with 800 structures of historical significance, most built between 1923 and 1943. The fanciful pastel buildings, with porthole windows, ship-like railings, sleek curves, glass blocks, shiny chrome, and gleaming terrazzo floors are prime eye candy.
Start your stroll where 5th Street dead-ends into the beach at Ocean Drive, heading north. As you walk along Ocean Drive, you'll notice the porthole windows, curved metal rails and flags copied from the big ocean liners that docked at the Port of Miami in the 1930s. You'll want to shoot postcard pictures of each hotel, but keep an eye out in particular for (1) Park Central (between 6th and 7th streets). Built in 1937 and renovated in 1987, it was the first hotel to be returned to its original splendor. The hotel was a hangout for Hollywood stars, such as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Rita Hayworth. Also in the 700 block of Ocean Drive: the wedding cake-like 1936 Beacon Hotel and the 1935 Colony Hotel, with its prominent sign and neon accents.
Cross the street to linger at (2) Lummus Park at Ocean Drive and 7th Street, where you can take a few steps east, over a dune, and be on the beach. Look back to the west for a great view of the Art Deco skyline, particularly stunning at night, when the hotels turn on their neon signs. There are usually musicians singing and playing bongos or guitars in the park.
Back on Ocean Drive, keep moving north past the Waldorf Towers, 860 Ocean Dr., with its round glass tower that looks like a lighthouse. When you get to 10th Street, you'll find the (3) Art Deco Welcome Center. It's home to the Miami Design Preservation League (www.mdpl.org), which formed in 1976 to save the historical hotels from being razed by developers and restore them to their glory days. You'll find books, brochures, and guided tours here. Self-guided tours are available Wednesday through Sunday.
Take note of the hotels around the center, including the (4) Clevelander, a 1938, five-story hotel known for its outdoor, poolside bar.
Continue another block north to 1116 Ocean Dr., the area's most infamous residence. The large white, 1930 Spanish-style mansion is (5) Casa Casaurina, once the home of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was shot to death in 1997 on the steps. His killer, Andrew Cunanan, committed suicide days later on a houseboat in Miami Beach. The home has been turned into a private, members-only party mansion.
Keep walking north to (6) The Tides hotel, between 12th and 13th Streets, a severe art deco monolith designed in 1936 by L. Murray Dixon, with porthole windows at the entrance to the 12-story tower. Check out the art deco curves on the stylish (7) Carlyle Hotel at 1250 Ocean Dr.
Look for the brain coral imbedded in the railing and columns at the (8) Cardozo Hotel, a 1939 gem at Ocean and 13th owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Also on this block is the lemon-colored Leslie Hotel, originally built in 1937, with eyebrows that wrap around the building.
If you started early, consider stopping for breakfast at the (9) Front Porch Café and Restaurant, on the porch of the Penguin Hotel, 1418 Ocean Dr. Most of the restaurants along Ocean Drive are tourist traps, but this place still draws locals for cheap, delicious breakfasts (French toast and bananas, omelets, pancakes, granola).
When Ocean Drive stops at 15th Street, turn left. Then take the next right on Collins Avenue. Peek into the restored two-story lobby of the (10) National Hotel at 1677 Collins Ave., where reproductions of the original furniture and light sconces can be found. Check out the 205-foot-long (62-meter-long) pool in the back. (It's not from the Deco period, but it's an impressive reflection of the towering, streamlined 1940 Deco building.) The National is part of a lineup of tall, graceful hotels, including the (11) Delano (the tallest building in Miami Beach when it was built in 1947) and the (12) Sagamore, known for the impressive contemporary art collection inside its flat, white Modernist façade.
One more block to the north, stop at the (13) Raleigh Hotel, 1775 Collins Ave. Consider a dip or martini at its famous oceanside Deco pool. The sculpted outline and waterfall was a backdrop for movie star-swimmer Esther Williams' flicks in the 1940s and '50s. Decades later, MTV filmed The Grind dance show here. The turquoise stunner, which lately has thrown in inner tubes to up the lounging possibilities, has a wood-burning pizza oven next to the deep end and a full-service poolside bar.
Double back and head west down 17th Street. Cross Washington Avenue and find yourself at the beginning of (14) Lincoln Road, a pedestrian-only, outdoor mall, where you can end your walk browsing through the boutiques and shops. Linger over lunch at tiny (15) Icebox Café, at Lincoln Road and Michigan Avenue, for quirky comfort food served on old-fashioned plates and memorable desserts (www.iceboxcafe.com).
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