The lines outside Mansion nightclub on South Beach stream in both directions, like open arms welcoming the dozens of young, sweaty, thirsty partyers eager to get past discerning doormen and burly bouncers. Cars slowly cruise by, occupants gawking at the sexy clubgoers lining the streets.
It’s 1 a.m. and a sticky 83 degrees, a typical summer Saturday on South Beach, just east of Miami. But the heat and humidity of what is arguably the worst time of year to come here don’t seem to bother those seeking Dionysian pleasures amid the clubs, restaurants and hotels of this cutting-edge hotspot.
While the area’s evolution from a wintertime resort to a year-round destination began years ago, lately it seems like every celebrity in the country — from Paris Hilton to Shaquille O’Neal — is hanging out on South Beach.
MTV’s decision to hold its Video Music Awards here on Aug. 29 — at the height of hurricane season — is just another sign that the city has come of age. That the awards have been held only in New York or Los Angeles until now even hints at the emergence of a third glam capital amid the palm trees, pulsing clubs and Cuban food of Miami.
“The nightlife, the parties, the beach. It’s great,” says Chris Johones, 34, who was vacationing with three friends from Trondheim, Norway, and waiting to get into Mansion. “Long lines, though.”
Once thought of as a place to visit grandma in January, Miami’s reputation as a party city has grown since the days of “Miami Vice,” through the birth of the Art Deco fashion district in the early 1990s (think Madonna and Versace) and the more recent explosion of the South Beach club scene. Tourists now flock here all year for high-end shopping, electric nightlife, fine dining and the Atlantic’s warm waters.
South Beach the place to be
While other areas of multicultural Miami, such as Coconut Grove, Coral Gables and the downtown area, have their tourist attractions, 70 percent of all visitors come to South Beach, said William Talbert, of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The area boasts the offices of several Latin music labels and other entertainment-based industries, including film and television production.
“South Beach is able to stay up with the times, reinvent itself, keep itself fresh,” Talbert said.
Just ask hip-hop magnate Missy Elliott. “I love the beach,” she told The Associated Press in an interview. “I have cars that aren’t good for riding in New York. These streets are the right streets for me to get my engine roaring. I love being able to drop the top.”
R&B singer Usher, meanwhile, digs the glitzy nightclubs — where he can have a reserved table whenever he wants — and the Cuban food.
“It’s really my home away from home. It’s so sexy out here,” Usher said. “It’s the beautiful weather, beautiful people.”
In June, visitors such as the Smiths’ Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce were seen hanging out at the Delano Hotel, while tennis star Venus Williams had a party to unveil her Web site. In July, members of N’Sync, including heartthrob Justin Timberlake, held their own charity event, with Timberlake’s girlfriend Cameron Diaz in tow.
Athletes Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas and Josh Beckett have been recently spotted at Crobar, Eddie Jones and Ricky Williams at Opium, Warren Sapp at B.E.D. Rapper-businessman Luther Campbell is a South Beach regular as well.
Walking naked on the beachEven National Basketball Association star Shaquille O’Neal, the Miami Heat center who’s also a rapper and actor, brags about being able to walk naked on the beach in his new city.
“I see celebrities every time I come down here,” said Yasima Latour, 30, a lab technician from Atlanta who has made several visits to South Beach in the past five years. “I saw (rapper) Li’l John on the flight down here.”
Statistics gathered by Smith Travel Research show that Miami has experienced a lucrative increase in summer travel from last year alone. The numbers reflect a 9 percent jump in hotel occupancy, to 61.7 percent, and a 12 percent increase in the average daily room rate, to $92.36.
Talbert attributes the increase to better marketing and an effort to attract celebrity-fueled events. He says the MTV awards are as popular as other wintertime events hosted by Miami.
“When this first was announced, I got more calls for tickets for the Video Music Awards than I get when we book the Super Bowl,” Talbert said.
But beyond the numbers and sales pitches, people just seem to like Miami’s mix of sun and fun.
“You come down here and forget all your problems,” said Mike Ebbecke, 35, a highway worker and volunteer firefighter in Stony Brook, N.Y, who was having a beer at The Clevelander hotel. “The night life is the same as New York — they try not to sleep either.”
Italian actress Ilenia Lazzarin, in town filming a movie, took photos and soaked up some rays while on the sandy beach with friend Paola Bossola, a 22-year-old producer who was born in Italy but lives in Miami.
“There are cultures from everywhere. It’s easy to meet people,” Bossola said. Lazzarin, 21, said with a laugh that Miami is “very relaxing. I sleep all day.”
Visitors create problems for locals
Any downside to the city’s growing popularity is mainly felt by the locals — higher-than-normal food and drink prices, troublesome parking, congested traffic near the clubs and noise.
Bartenders and waiters who work during the day haven’t noticed more tourists, and South Beach’s streets seem emptier than normal on a couple of scorching-hot days. But at night, the area teems with people.
“Even the summertime has been steady. The action is constant,” said Roman Jones, owner of Opium, Prive and Mansion nightclubs.
Jones said there’s a palpable European feel to South Beach.
“People here have that South American or European attitude,” says Jones. “They eat later, they go to sleep later, they’re out at cafes like in Europe.”
Inside Mansion, bartender Audra Seminaro wears a tight white shirt and tiny skirt as she shovels drinks to customers inside the packed club. Lights flash, bodies grind on the dance floor and partygoers lounge on plush couches.
“It’s insane, crazy in here, especially on Saturday nights,” said Seminaro, 26.
Before and after the awards show, celebs such as Hilton, P. Diddy, Dennis Rodman, Jessica Simpson and OutKast plan to host their own parties at clubs around South Beach.
Club owner Jones — who calls Miami “the Hollywood of the East” — and others claim South Beach is catching up to L.A. and the Big Apple as a place to see and be seen.
“Whenever New York looks too intense, or California too laid back, we have a happy balance here,” said Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.