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Miami heat
Special to the Online Edition of Windy City Times
by Andrew Davis

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It's a cliche but, oh, so true: Words fail to express the beauty that is omnipresent in Miami Beach, Fla. Yes, there are azure waters and sugar-white sands—and there was the blinding beauty of the people, which was possibly amplified by the fact that Miami Beach held its Gay Pride Day April 17.

I was part of an international contingent of writers for LGBT publications that took part in a media fam trip to the Florida city to sample its hotels, restaurants and erotic-arts museum. ( There'll be more on that last one later. )

An Epic occasion

Upon arriving in Miami, I was whisked to Epic Hotel ( 270 Biscayne; 305-424-5226; ) , a luxury boutique hotel along the Miami River in the city's financial district.

Epic is known for Exhale, a 12,000-square-foot facility located on the 15th and 16th floors. The space contains ( among other things ) a mind/body gym; a yoga studio with incredible views of the river; a hammam detox chamber; and beauty bar for nails, waxing and other treatments. Of course, an array of massages is available ( including fusion, deep tissue and deep flow and craniosacral therapy, which removes blockages within the brain ) . After experiencing Exhale, you may not want to leave the hotel. And, I have to say, this hotel has the best-looking staff I've ever seen.

However, there is so much outside the hotel to explore—and one of the treats is SugarCane Raw Bar & Grill ( 3250 NE 1st; 786-369-0353; ) , located in midtown Miami. The eatery offers tapas such as crispy sweetbreads, duck egg, veal meatballs, golden beets and even crispy laughing bird shrimp. Items from the robata grill range from skirt steak to Japanese eggplant, and the substantial raw bar contains such delicacies as young amberjack sashimi, conch salad and yellowtail jalapeno sushi rolls. I didn't like dates before this trip, but I quickly converted after having those items wrapped in bacon.

Vizcaya and Versace

The next day was full of activity, and it started with breakfast at Epic's Area 31 restaurant ( 270 Biscayne; 305-424-5234; ) , which features sustainable seafood from the restaurant's namesake, fishing Area 31. Chef John Critchley's cuisine definitely is a standout—but the terrace and pool bars represent another eye-opening aspect of the restaurant. The terrace bar offers breathtaking views of the city's skyline while the pool bar offers seating around two mosaic infinity pools. It definitely was an amazing way to start the day.

Robert Geitner of the Miami Downtown Development Authority took the free metra and eventually stopped in the Brickell neighborhood, where we all went on a walk. While being entranced by everything from the luggage stores ( Hey—large cases were $9.99! ) to the architecture, Geitner filled the tour with many intriguing items, including the fact that Miami was actually founded by a woman—the only major U.S. city with this distinction. Eventually, the group ended up at the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts ( 174 E. Flagler; 305-374-2444; ) . The venue has a stunning interior, and seats almost 1,600 people. Originally opened in 1926 as the Olympia Theater, the theater was later rechristened the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in honor of local entrepreneur Maurice Gusman, who bought the property in the 1970s as the home of the Miami Philharmonic Orchestra.

We stopped for lunch at CVI.CHE 105 ( 105 N.E. 3rd; 305-577-3454; ) , a Peruvian restaurant with a chef, Juan Chipoco, who's certainly easy on the eyes. Even better, his cuisine is easy on the palate, although the names of the some of the items ( seafood orgy and virgin-sliced fish among them ) may make wonder what's really on the menu. However, there was not a bad item to be had.

Later during the day, we were taken on a tour of the Vizcaya Museum & Gardens ( 3251 S. Miami; 305-250-9133; ) . Agricultural industrialist James Deering, who wintered on the property during the years 1916-25, built Vizcaya; today, the estate and national historic landmark includes a house filled with stunning art and furnishings. In addition to the main house, there are outbuildings and gardens, with their architectural elements and statues.

The writers had a chance to witness a historic event when we attended the grand opening of the LGBT Visitor Center ( 1130 Washington ) , which included the official dedication of the Michael Aller LGBT Community Conference Room within the new space. ( Aller is often called "Mr. Miami Beach" for his many years supporting LGBT issues. ) Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, activist George Neary, Miami Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Steve Adkins, commissioners and, of course, Aller were on hand.

After the celebration, we had dinner at The Villa by Barton G. ( 1116 Ocean; 305-576-8888; ) , a boutique hotel that was one the home of the late fashion designer Gianni Versace. The Villa has 10 custom suites—each with its own personal butler, Versace fabrics, Frette linens and even Bose music systems and Amazon Kindles. The restaurant has only 30 seats ( adding to its air of exclusivity ) and has dishes such as lobster with lobster-stuffed tortellini, and Dover sole.

The suites range from $2,100 to $5,200 a night. ( By the way, there's no chance of stumbling or sneaking into this place, which has a velvet rope and locked gate. ) A tour of the Villa Suite, which was once Versace's bedroom, contains a nine-foot double king-size bed. According to the tour guide, one resident complained because he had to roll five times before getting out of bed!

Erotic and exotic

Friday, April 16, was a day of transition as we checked out of Epic and into Z Ocean Hotel South Beach ( 1437 Collins; 305-672-4554; ) , which has 79 suites on five floors, including 27 rooftop terrace suites that feature incredible views and expanded interiors. ( There really isn't a bad view to be had in this city. ) In addition, there is a spiral staircase that leads to a personal rooftop lounge that has a four-person Roman tub. The possibilities are endless.

However, before checking out Z Ocean, the writers attended a breakfast hosted by the at the Calix Gustav Gallery ( 98 NW 29th; 305-576-8116; ) , which hosted the festival's April 23 opening-night gala. ( By the way, the Chicago-produced lesbian film Hannah Free was a part of the festival. ) As for the photos, let's just say they can, uh, expand one's horizons. For those who may disagree, I have three words: Cum Rag installation. The exhibit, "Sticky & Sweet" is filled with items associated with sex and kink—and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Then, we continued our art-felt tour across the street at the Rubell Family Collection ( 95 NW 29th; 305-573-6090; ) , a 45,000-square-foot site inside a former Drug Enforcement Agency confiscated goods facility. ( Interesting fact: Late Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell was the brother of co-founder Mira Rubell. ) The space is loaded with intriguing items, including a homeless man under a blanket that looks all too real.

Developer Tony Goldman then took us on a tour of Miami's Wynwood Arts District that included many fascinating wall murals. ( Among the artists who painted murals are Kenny Scharf, Futura and Shepard Fairey. ) Goldman—a developer who has had a hand in reviving the South Beach and SoHo areas—is now turning his attention to Wynwood, a former industrial neighborhood. One of the new businesses in the district is Joey's ( 2506 NW 2nd; 305-438-0488; ) , a self-described "casually elegant modern Italian cafe" named for Goldman's son. Executive chef Ivo Mazzon has incorporated everything from fresh salads such as a warm octopus and chickpea salad to lamb chops with a juniper berry reduction served with polenta to baked cod with eggplant-and-tomato gremolata ( a chopped herb condiment that usually contains garlic, parsley and lemon zest ) .

And then there was the World Erotic Art Museum ( 1205 Washington; 305-532-9336; ) —and, of course, the name says it all. The museum ( which bars everyone under 18, so I had a slight problem getting in—ha, ha ) contains thousands of pieces of erotic art. The then-current show was "Golden Gals Gone Wild: The Erotic Art Show" while "Erotic Food & Body Art" was an upcoming exhibition. For some reason, the En Vogue song "Free Your Mind" kept echoing through my mind—but once I did, I truly was stunned ( in a good way ) by the collection. ( Life changes a little after seeing Disney characters having sex with each other. ) And, by the way, don't forget to visit the gift shop!

We ended our night at RED, The Steakhouse ( 119 Washington; 305-534-3688; ) , which, for me, offered the best meal on the trip. The Noah's ark of a menu revolves around delicious cuts of beef, veal, lamb, chicken and seafood. If you can somehow make room for dessert, RED offers doughnut holes, key lime pie and molten chocolate dessert.

Pride on!

There was a day ( and night ) of celebrating to do, as April 17 was Miami Beach Gay Pride Day. So, the writers got their nutrients by having breakfast at Half Moon Empanadas ( 1616 Washington; 305-532-5277; ) with owner Pilar Guzman. Half Moon offers 16 flavors of Argentinean empanadas with a Mexican touch, and three types of sweet pasteles.

Then it was on to the parade! Approximately 20,000 bronzed, frenzied, happy people crowded Ocean Drive to watch grand marshals Lt. Dan Choi and actress Sharon Gless ( who, incidentally, starred in Hannah Free ) as well as some floats that were colorful, to say the least. ( An added bonus was that the parade lasted for an hour—the perfect time frame. ) We writers were far from the madding crowd with a prime perch on the rooftop of the Hotel Victor.

The Pride Festival did not disappoint, with events that included "Drags Gone Wild," hosted by Tiffany Fantasia, Noel Leon and Shanaya Bright.

We then went on the Miami Design Preservation League's "LGBT Leaders, Legends & Lovelies" feature, where we witnessed a talk spotlighting the iconic drag queen Adora and her partner, Teddy Behr.

After a lot of activity, we were taken to D. Rodriguez Cuba at Astor Hotel ( 956 Washington; 305-673-3763; ) . I was looking forward to the restaurant's cuisine most of all—and the food met all of my expectations, and then some. The menu features tapas such as fritta sliders and empanaditas; ceviches such as conch and snapper, and tuna foie; and entrees ranging from crispy-skin Cuban pork to seared New York strip steak to mahi mahi fricassee served over crispy yucca. I found myself loving the chuleta empanada ( breaded pork chop ) , coconut mojitos and flirtatious waiter—and not necessarily in that order.

Last, but certainly not least, we partied at Proud: The 2010 Miami Beach Gay Pride Closing Event at Dolce Ultralounge ( 1501 Collins; 305-672-2221 ) . There were lots of muscular guys there but you might want to load up before going on; a bottle of water set me back eight bucks ( and, no, that's not a misprint ) .

The following morning—at 5:45 a.m. ET!—I checked out of Z Ocean. I may have been sleepy but I was had this sense of exhiliration. I did miss Chicago, but Miami definitely has its own mystique.

Thanks to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau for sponsoring the trip and arranging the various events.

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