Beach Bohéme

Beach Bohem Typically, I don’t spend much time hanging out under bridges. But Art Basel Miami Beach is in town—a contemporary art show second only in scope to its sister show in Basel, Switzerland and the luminous Venice Biennale. This particular exhibit directly below the overpass is a maze of tall walls covered with real grass and large glossy photos of supermodel Naomi Campbell in couture.

Some of them are well-known Vanity Fair and Vogue cover shoots. Others are portraiture, effortlessly sexy and/or exuberantly suggestive. Standing there on a balmy winter morning amid throngs of collectors, I’m thinking this installation wouldn’t work as well anywhere else in America.

Miami culture is about fusion, with no shortage of steamy and sophisticated Latin American, Caribbean, African and European energies. If America is a melting pot, then Miami is on full boil. Just 45 minutes north in Fort Lauderdale, cultural experiences for groups tend to be a little more classically-oriented, as it were, but no less ambitious.

For example, the present American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale showcases 30 original paintings, the patriotic Four Freedoms series of canvases, and 323 Saturday Evening Post covers.

“It’s definitely not anachronistic because issues like freedom of speech and race relations are still very much topical,” says executive director Irvin M. Lippman, over wine in the big curvilinear lobby. The lobby hosts 300 for receptions, while the Marks Gallery and outdoor Sculpture Terrace cater to 225/250 seated. From there it’s a short walk to fashionable downtown restaurants like YOLO, which can host up to 500.

“Rockwell was an absolute coup for the museum,” says Deidre Everdij, partner of Cream of the Crop Events & Logistics. “What was considered kitschy is now a deeply satisfying experience through history.” She also points to the next show, Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years, 1923-37. During that era, Steichen was chief photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue, and the 200 vintage prints from the height of his career chronicle the very birth of modern glamour. That show runs Feb. 26-April 11, 2010.

Everdij explains that almost all of her groups coming to Fort Lauderdale will book culturally-themed tours to Miami and Miami Beach, such as the Art Deco Tour, Little Havana, the Spanish Monastery, Vizcaya and the Women’s Heritage Trail. Also, CSR-savvy Cream of the Crop donates a portion of proceeds from their programs to a select list of local charities.

“And culture extends to the whole club culture of Miami Beach, too” she says. “Being chic is still a part of culture in South Florida.” Everdij mentions events she’s organized at swanky Nikki Beach in a semi-secluded spot in lower South Beach. The outdoor lounge is right on the beach with lots of day beds and flowing white drapes, well suited for 500 under a clear open tent with torches, Latin tunes, mojitos and lobster quesadillas. That’s an iconic South Florida group experience, and there’s over 50 miles of chalky white sand to work it.

MPI GOES TO MIAMI In August, the four MPI Florida chapters—North, South, Tampa and Orlando—gathered at the glitzy, 631-room oceanfront Eden Roc Renaissance Miami Beach for the annual MPI Southeast Educational Conference. Fresh off a $200 million renovation and expansion, Eden Roc is still the mid-century modern Miami Beach hotel, with 46,000 sf of group space, including two new Ocean Ballrooms and a rooftop terrace.

“It’s an absolutely gorgeous hotel and very fitting for this year’s theme of ‘Building Tomorrow Today’,” says Tracy Wallach, 2009 SEC chairperson. “The property looks and feels brand new but it’s kept that original Old Miami appeal.”

This year’s attendance numbers were the highest ever, with around 450 planners visiting the tradeshow floor.

“The reason we were able to attract the attendance in a down economy, the biggest sell, was because the event was in Miami,” says Wallach. “People just like South Florida, it’s just interesting, it’s a different culture. People are much freer and there’s a little taste of everything in such a small area…. Miami has an amazing exotic appeal and that’s a major factor.”

BEACH BITES Now in its 9th year, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival this February hosted at Loews Miami Beach Hotel has evolved into one of the country’s premier culinary events. Many of America’s best toques are visiting, including Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, Todd English and Emeril Lagasse, who operates a restaurant in the Loews. This year, we’re especially looking forward to Dim Sum & Disco featuring “dumplings with a side of Donna Summer,” hosted by TV celeb chef Ming Tsai at The Setai South Beach.

With the 2009 festival being the most successful to date, interest in Miami fine-dining continues its meteoric rise.

“There’s been an explosion,” says founder Lee Brian Schrager. “Some people may not normally associate a beach resort area with a great culinary scene, but we have that here…. I think the festival has brought a lot of attention and excitement in the past nine years to Miami.

The cadre of local chefs is why dedicated diners keep coming back. Schrager says, “Miami chefs like Michelle Bernstein (Sra. Martinez/Michy’s), Michael Schwartz (Michael’s Genuine), Clay Conley (Mandarin Oriental Miami) and Jonathan Eismann (Pacific Time) are all getting much more attention on the national front, which also draws culinary interest here.”

Such as those following New York’s chef Scott Conant, who helms Scarpetta at Fontainebleau Miami Beach. Critics have suggested this is Miami’s first true fine-dining Italian menu, although based on a recent visit, don’t overlook sharing a plate of Conant’s homemade spag around the table.

A pioneer in fresh fusion cooking in South Beach, restaurateur Myles Chefetz operates one of the city’s hottest steakhouses, Prime 112, and the Prime Italian restaurant across the street inside The Hilton Bentley Miami/South Beach (next to Nikki Beach). Upon opening the menu, the $18 caesar seems a bit pricey, until you discover it serves three. This is a great sharing menu for groups, and one of the few places you’ll find a brick-oven Maine lobster pizza.

DESIGN DISTRICT/WYNWOOD Interestingly enough, the four chefs that Lee Schrager mentions above operate kitchens off South Beach. Chefs Schwartz, Eismann and Bernstein are a major impetus behind the success of the Design District just 10 minutes across Biscayne Bay. Suggest attendees find time to visit 40th Street to browse the edgiest collection of design and fashion in the Southeast, including Tomas Maier and Y-3 by Yohji Yamamoto.

At night, the tony new, tiki-themed Grass Lounge is the open-air group restaurant on everyone’s lips. Another gem, tucked away in the Wynwood Arts District just south of the Design District, Joey’s is a new and artsy local restaurant able to host 75 indoors and out. The brick oven pizza is bellissimo! Wynwood is Miami’s ex-textile warehouse district filled with over 50 independent art galleries, and some like Kelley Roy Gallery host private events for 100, with classical music recitals and gourmet catering. On the second weekend of the month, the galleries all open at night with free wine and canapés for the popular Second Saturday Art Gallery Walk.

DOWNTOWN VS DECO Walking into the new Viceroy Miami & Spa downtown on a Friday night, you pass two beefy guys in suits to meet what I can only surmise is the elevator hostess. After she pushes the button, you head up to the 50th floor before squeezing by more well-dressed security and two police officers. Not just anyone walks off the street into Club 50’s exclusive rooftop pool lounge, decorated with one of the best views in Miami. Capacity is around 200 comfortably, inside and outside by the pool in the updated Roman pavilion built with Carrera marble.

For larger groups, the huge 15th floor pool deck can host well over 1,000, overlooking Miami River, Biscayne Bay and the glittering cityscape. Also on 15, Greek chef Michael Psilakis oversees the ovens at highly-rated Eos Restaurant, blending ingredients from Spain, Portugal, France and Morocco.

Local event planner Sharon Rauvola recently organized a party for a well-known local decorator at Club 50.

“I look at an event as basically an art medium, and you sculpt that out to create an original experience. The Viceroy gives your event a feeling that this is all just terribly chic,” she says. “It’s bigger than what’s fashionable in Miami, bigger in a global sense, which was what we were going for. Miami is all about minimalism, but [designer] Kelly Wearstler is Old Hollywood made new, it’s very glamorous and her use of color and details—it’s phenomenal.”

For Art Deco digs, Rauvola likes The Raleigh, as does Sports Illustrated for its swimsuit issue, Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and oodles of video directors due to the Rita Hayworth-era pool. Prettiest spot for brunch on the beach.

“The Raleigh is Old Miami, very relaxed, very organic, there’s no pretense or high design,” says Rauvola. “So you feel the beach, you feel the palms, you feel the saltwater. I like the term ‘sexycool.’ That’s The Raleigh.” The 6,000-sf penthouse with 12” ceilings and outdoor terrace hosts 250.

Just down the beach, the slinky Bancroft Supperclub opened this fall in the Art Deco Bancroft Hotel. Designed specifically for group parties, there’s a 20-ft runway in the center of the room for fashion shows and “elevated dancing” below seven authentic handblown Murano glass chandeliers. A host of theme nights include 007, Latin Lover, and when we swung by, a Pajama Party. The dining room seats 120 with an organic menu swinging from Portuguese octopus to grass-fed cowboy ribeyes. Reception capacity is 500 with the patio.

W HOTELS SWOOPS IN In 2009, W Hotels entered the South Florida market twice, with typical glam gusto. On the heels of Hong Kong and Istanbul, both of the new hotels had fueled great expectations.

The 517-room W Fort Lauderdale opened in June with the biggest bash seen in these parts for some time. Over 500 well-turned out guests took in the fresh ocean air atop one of Florida’s most dramatic beachfront pool decks, with peek-a-boo glass bottoms, while as many more mingled in the long oceanview terraces below. Cindy Crawford and hubby Rande Gerber unveiled their first Whisky Blue lounge in Florida, with Frank Gehry-designed tables. Wunderkind restaurateur Stephen Starr opened Steak954, his first restaurant south of Atlantic City, with semi-private seating for 120. And in one night the face of Fort Lauderdale’s meeting scene changed forever. Indoor group space is 12,400 sf.

It was quite the encore one month later when the highly anticipated 312-suite W South Beach opened, with global brand leader Eva Ziegler announcing, “W South Beach will serve as a flagship hotel for the W brand globally.” This is W’s first all-condo hotel, with suites starting at 575 sf. The indoor function rooms top 10,000 sf.

One of the most striking features of the hotel is a feng-shui-proper pool deck filling most of the backyard between the hotel and beachside WET Bar & Grille. No elevated levels or chopped up sections—just one big even plane for easy networking next to the sound of the ocean surf. Planners can add some local color with group DJ lessons.

The signature restaurant is Mr. Chow, with sister stops in London, New York and Beverly Hills. Fresh from arguably the best restaurant in China at Beijing’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, exec chef Nick Jinson Du serves up modern Chinese to private groups of 60 indoors or 50 outdoors. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean restaurant Soleá and aptly named Living Room lobby lounge lead out to a private grove with lily ponds and 1920s park furniture from Provence.

A WEEKEND OF TUNA + TANGO The Westin Fort Lauderdale opened in October so we popped up for a FAM weekend to sample the 433-room oceanfront resort and some of Fort Lauderdale’s cultural venues. For a fun meet ’n greet, director of marketing/sales Ty Brassie and GM Amaury Piedra welcomed everyone in the presidential suite, where the bartender taught us how to make our own strawberry and blackberry mojitos.

We followed that with a private cooking class and dinner in the new conference kitchen. Together, 20 of us prepared seared Hawaiian bluefin tuna next to a heart of palm salad enhanced with 30-year old balsamic oil, with the hotel’s executive and sous chefs. Sitting down at a long dining table facing the kitchen, hotel waitstaff served wine while the chef and group discussed topics like the benefits of the much lauded Pacific bluefin versus the locavore trend.

Can’t say enough about how engaged the group was during this event, especially when you’re only slightly searing the tuna and Atlantic halibut. We had to work together quickly in unison due to the short cooking times, and everyone seemed proud of producing a fine-dining quality meal at the end. The exotic tuna and decades-old balsamic soared on the palate, but the real takeaway was the interactive cooking.

The 433-room Westin works on a variety of fronts. First, it offers the newest and second largest conference space on the city’s most popular beach across the street. The lower level, 32,000-sf conference space houses two ballrooms totaling 18,000 sf, and the 3rd floor pool deck is fun for 250-person receptions overlooking the sea. Following a total renovation to the studs, the resort feels like new, and the room product sings with one whole wall of sliding glass doors framing views of the Atlantic or Intracoastal. And Don Shula’s steakhouse offers two private rooms seating 50, plus an outdoor patio.

By far, the group’s fave event was a private box at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Ranked among the top 10 opera houses worldwide in yearly visitation by Pollster, the facility hosts a slate of world-class performances.

Like that of a struggling Jewish milkman in Tsarist Russia coping with five unruly daughters and one noisy wife. Feeling like a Fiddler on the Roof, he tries to create a little harmony in life in a precarious situation. The award-winning Broadway play brought the crowd to its feet, with actor Topol performing his Oscar-nominated lead role from the 1971 film.

We also looked in on Tanguera, the “first-ever tango musical,” playing in New York, Vienna, Zurich and here. A whirlwind of hot and bothered male dancers fighting for control of our heroine Giselle, Tanguera is not a show from which you go straight home. For pre/post-theater dining, we like the Caribbean/Southwestern barbecue at the 200-seat Johnny V on Las Olas. Chef V helped invent South Florida’s fusion food scene back in the mid-90s.