In the north, in the dead of winter, snow falls, cold winds blow and freezing temperatures chill you to the marrow. But in Miami, midwinter, the sun shines, warm sea breezes envelope you and the 76-degree temp warms your body.
If a balmy vacation is on your mind, head to South Beach or downtown Miami and turn your winter sojourn into a memorable exploration of off the beaten path adventures.
7 Cool Places for Dining, Wining and Playing Around. Hidden Gems.
1. Il Mulino New York, South Beach -- If you've ever traveled to Italy and eaten its finest cuisine, returning to the States and going out for Italian food is often a disappointment. The food doesn't taste the same. Unless, you go to an upscale, elegant restaurant like Il Mulino New York in South Beach's trendy South of Fifth neighborhood. This sophisticated eatery takes great pains to bring its customers the finest qualities of Italian cuisine in their perfectly decorated, well serviced and friendly restaurant.
Il Mulino New York, with its lush white interior and walls filled with glossy prints, fits in with the neighborhood's ritzy aura. You'll feel at home the minute you walk in, before you've even had a morsel. As the attentive service staff surrounds you, and you eye the perfectly curated wine list and tempting menu, you'll know this is pure, luxury dining. The kind you'd expect in Milan, Venice and Florence.
Hints: 1.) Sip on the Pinot Grigio Conte Brandolini from Venice, Italy or the Notorious Pink Rose from Provence, France. Enjoy the delicate tastes. 2.) Start with the Langostino (jumbo prawns with risotto or sautéed spinach). 3.) Go for the delectable Ravioli Ai Porcini with Champagne and Truffle Cream Sauce as your pasta dish. 4.) The tasty Branzino, whole roasted or grilled Mediterranean sea bass, is perfect. 4.) Watching the waiter prepare the fiery Grand Marnier Flambé Oranges for dessert is so thrilling you'll want to calm yourself down with a glass of homemade grappa (limoncello, fragola and other seasonal flavors), the after-dinner drink.
2. American Social Bar & Kitchen, Brickell Location -- If you're a recluse, this is not the place for you. If you want to get out and socialize, especially with revelers who love a cold beer as much as watching football, basketball or baseball on large screen TVs, then this place will be your castle. Customers are laughing, talking and smiling. The bartenders are warm and friendly. This is where you go for meat, potatoes and to watch the Super Bowl, NBA Playoffs or MLB World Series.
The setting in the high-ceiling main rooms is festive, a DJ plays the hottest cuts and the atmosphere is electric. The outdoor space is more serene with a view of the Miami River where yachts pull up and dock as casually as cars going through the drive-thru at Wendy's.
Hints: 1.) Drink up. Pick a local beer like the Biscayne Bay Saison. Or sip on the bar's signature drink AmSo Mule, made with Tito's Handmade Vodka, ginger puree, ginger beer and fresh limes. 2.) One of the house specialties is the scrumptious Rock Shrimp Tacos with Florida salsa, iceberg lettuce, coconut cheese sauce and avocado mousse. 3.) For the meat course, go big or go home. Feast on the Niman Ranch Strip Loin, a 10oz cut with porcini powder, butter roasted mushrooms, truffle butter and served with duck fat fries.
3. Smith & Wollensky Miami Beach South Pointe Park -- The Smith & Wollensky steakhouse chain has hubs in New York. Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Houston, Vegas, London and its most idyllic location is in South Beach, at the southernmost tip of the swank South Pointe Park. The backdrop is the Government Cut Channel, a waterway that cruise ships, freighters and yachts navigate as they head from the Atlantic Ocean into the Port of Miami.
In the distance you'll see the downtown Miami skyline, condo buildings/hotels in South Beach and at dusk gorgeous sunsets. Palm trees line the waterfront. Dine outside with the smell of the sea, or inside in any of the newly renovated dining rooms or private event spaces that often have dramatic water views. It's up to you.
This is traditional dining, very classy and professional. USDA Prime dry-aged steaks, succulent chops, fresh seafood are house favorites. S&W is open 365 days a year, so if you travel to Miami for Christmas, New Years or Thanksgiving, expect to be welcomed with open arms and a special holiday menu.
Hints: 1.) The chilled appetizer Colossal Lump Crab Meat Cocktail got its name for a reason, they don't skimp. 2.) The Cajun Marinated USDA Prime Bone-In Rib Eye has just enough seasoning to push this entrée over the edge. But it you're not a meat eater, there's always the BBQ Yellow Fin Tuna with wakame seaweed salad. 3.) After gorging on the fine cuisine, go all in with the miles high Coconut Layer Cake, a delicate coconut sponge cake soaked with Malibu Rum syrup and layered with an airy coconut whipped cream, served with a crisp tuile and freshly shaved coconut. Yummy. And now it's time to hit the gym.
4. Toscana Divino -- Once upon a time tourists and the "in" crowd converged in South Beach almost exclusively. Then those in the know snuck over to the Wynwood neighborhood, making it the "Brooklyn" of Miami Dade. Now forward thinking partygoers are hunkering down in Mary Brickell Village, in the downtown section where the new shopping and condo complex Brickell City Centre (BCC) towers over the neighborhood. BCC includes high-end shops (Saks, Porsche Design, Armani Collezioni, Victoria's Secret), premium residences, office space and 352 guestrooms. Once the Cinemex Movie Theater opens, downtown Miami will become an even hotter spot for shopping, entertainment and enjoying the clubby nightlife scene.
You can watch the bustling neighborhood from a cozy outside table at the very unique Italian restaurant Toscana Divino. Chef Andrea Marchesin, from Treviso Italy, breaks down his influences as the following: "70% Italian, 30% French with a touch of Middle Eastern seasoning." After traveling to France and the Middle East, he brings a bit of those flavors and a predilection for sustainable ingredients to the innovative "farm to table" Italian dishes he prepares. The inventive restaurant is a crown jewel in Mary Brickell Village and it will take you on a culinary journey to unexpected places.
Hints: 1.) Choosing between appetizers like the Ceviche di Pesce (market fish, chili, fennel, ginger, cucumber, coconut and lime) and the Vitello Tonnato (milk fed veal, tuna sauce, capers, arugula and lemon) is the kind of dilemma that should be solved over a glass of the sparkling wine Franciacorta, cà del Bosco Cuvee Prestige Brut. 2.) If the aroma of the pasta dish Maccheroni "al Sugo Toscano" (beef ragu with parmigiano and olive oil) doesn't seduce your taste buds, you'll surrender when you dig into the Pasta Carbonara di Mare (made with three different caviars). 3.) The Maialino al Ginepro (Mary's ranch roast pork, cannellini beans and juniper pork jus) entrée comes from a local pork farmer, which explains its rich fresh flavor.
5. Maxim Water Taxi -- Normally tourists cross Biscayne Bay, the lagoon that lies between Miami Beach, a barrier island, and Miami the mainland, by a car on one of the causeways. But that trip isn't nearly as exciting as taking a Maxim Water Taxi from South Beach over to downtown's Bayside Marketplace. If you're lucky, Captain Vijay Kataria will be your friendly skipper and he'll point out all the places of interest along the way.
On the small boat, usually ferrying just four or five passengers, you get the grand tour of celebrity mansion sightings: There's Shaquille O'Neal's old chateau, which he gave to his wife in their divorce settlement. You can see Mark Anthony's and Jennifer Lopez's separate homes. Chinese superstar Jackie Chan has a regal place, too. And as the boat veers past the Venetian causeway, Pit Bull's huge abode comes into view. By the time you arrive at Bayside you will be astonished by the stately homes and calmed by the soothing ride. This is the way to cross Biscayne Bay, and it's just $15 per person. For $180 an hour, people can rent the entire boat for their own sojourns, and they do.
6. North Shore Tennis Center -- Finding a tennis court in Miami is easy. Some courts are free, and some charge a nominal fee. One of the friendliest is the North Shore Tennis Center, which sits adjacent to a baseball field and soccer field on 72nd Street one block off Collins Avenue. It's set in a mid Miami Beach neighborhood, away from the tourist areas. It's like you're playing in a small town's local park.
Private lessons (ask for Julio), adult clinics, kids' all-day camps and league play on the two hard courts and 10 perfectly maintained har tru clay courts make this the perfect place to find a pickup game. The Center has also become popular with local champion tennis players like Martina Navratilova and soccer legends like Italian player Paolo Maldini and former Brazilian soccer champion Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima. Play at North Shore and you never know who will challenge you to a game of doubles.
Hints: 1.) There's a gymnasium next door, so if you want to work out, locals can for free and visitors for $5. 2.) North Shore has a sister tennis center, the Flamingo Park Tennis Center in South Beach (1200 Meridian Ave), which has 17 har tru courts. 3.) The Miami Shores Tennis Complex (825 NE 100th St., Miami Shores) offers tennis lesson packages, golf packages and combinations. Ask for the tennis pro named Liburd.
7. National Hotel Miami Beach -- It's not easy distinguishing yourself from the other myriad of hotels that dot the shores of South Beach. But thanks to a recent multi-million dollar renovation, the National Hotel has done just that. It's the perfect hybrid between a luxury hotel and a boutique hotel. It has all the fancy appointments, impeccable interiors and stately exteriors of a lavish hotel. Yet it has the friendly vibe and intimate atmosphere of a small hotel that makes a stay here a very personal experience.
Bedding down in any of the 116 newly renovated city and direct ocean view guestrooms in the Historic Tower (dates back to 1939), or resting in any of the 36 luxurious cabanas and suites (originally built in the 1960s) produces a quiet, Zen-like feeling.
Located on tourist friendly Collins Avenue between Lincoln Rd and 17th Street, stay here and you can walk everywhere in South Beach. And while you're at the hotel, swim in their infinity-edge pool. It's the longest pool in Miami Beach and the pool area looks like a hallway to paradise. As you walk by the pool, just before the entrance to the beach, you'll see the hotel's Aqua Club, which has a snack bar, lounge chairs and another pool. Step out onto the beach, and the National has its own section offering chaise lounge chairs, umbrellas and cabana covers. Attentive waiters serve food and drinks as you sun and people watch on what is arguably America's most famous beach.
Hints: 1.) The open-air patio restaurant Tamara Bistro serves breakfast (only $20 for the buffet in summer and $25 in winter), lunch (try the Ahi Tuna Sliders), and dinner (begin with the Chorizo Calamari, and ask them to pan fry the Red Snapper with Capper Cream Sauce). 2.) The striped cabanas on the perimeter of the pool are massage huts. Enjoy a Thai Massage, Couples Massage, or Neck and Shoulder Massage. 3.) There is something comforting and so civil about returning to the hotel at night and finding a crooner at the piano bar singing love songs. Surprisingly talented musicians like J-Sweet, Victor Valdez, Freddie Colloca and Rick Leonard woo guests every Thursday through Sunday night, from 8:30pm to 12:30am. Great time to sit back, nurse a Courvoisier and relish the day.
Cold winter up north, or warm winter in Miami? It's not a tough choice to make if you know where to find a good time before the crowds catch a hint. And now you do.
Visit travel writer Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.