The Real Yellow Pages

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h, Miami Beach. Early in the 20th century, a few farsighted tycoons, most from the Midwest, who'd made their fortunes in the burgeoning automobile industry, separately conceived an idea for a new playground for the leisure class. Among their most preposterous projects was the dredging of Biscayne Bay to create a man-made beach paradise offshore the new, elegant, tiny city of Miami--which itself was created from a mangrove swamp.

Well, it worked. Elegant homes were built along the new white-sand bulkheads of this beautiful engineered island for those lucky enough to afford them. There were some unforeseen additional benefits to the dredging of the bay and filling in of the sandpit-cum-mangrove swamp that had been the foundation of the new beachfront. Mosquitoes and sandflies no longer had a place to breed. High-stakes yacht races could be staged in the new deep water of Biscayne Bay, formerly a shallow lagoon. The great humorist Will Rogers was to write later about the playboy tycoon who largely built Miami Beach, Carl Fisher: "He was the first man smart enough to discover that there was sand under all that water. So he put in a kind of dredge, an 'all-day sucker' arrangement, and he brought the sand up and let the water go to the bottom instead of the top. Up to then sand had been used to build with, but never upon. . . . Carl discovered that sand could hold up a real estate sign, and that was all he wanted it for. Carl rowed the customers out in the ocean and let them pick out some nice smooth water where they would like to build, and then he would replace the water with an island, and you would be a little Robinson Crusoe of your own. Today the dredge is the national symbol of Florida."

Miami and its offshore vacation spot Miami Beach soon became famous as the new home--at least the new winter home--of the "nice" millionaires (as opposed to Palm Beach, already established as the home of the "naughty" millionaires). There were fishing expeditions, luncheons, teas and tennis at the posh hotels Royal Palm and Halcyon Hall. There were pageants, pig roasts and balloon fests, and land auctions resembled three-ring circuses, with giveaways of china and crystal and gewgaws, all incentives for the rich to buy, buy, buy.

And buy they did. The real estate entrepreneurs were delighted to find that dredging the waters was surprisingly inexpensive. There was no rock or coral to get in the way, only yielding, dredgeable sand, and so they dredged and dredged, creating more and more luxury waterfront property. Elegant hotels, in the latest architectural style that was all the rage, Art Deco, sprang up almost overnight. They housed and pampered the short-term "working rich" who came down for the season kickoff, the "must-go-and-be-seen" New Year's Day Ball at the Royal Palm Hotel (the Dupont Plaza now occupies its site on the north bank of the Miami River where it flows into Biscayne Bay), and stayed only a month or two each year. The William Jennings Bryans and William Kissam Vanderbilt IIs headed an all-star list of celebrity residents.

But exclusivity never remains for long. Witness Saratoga, Newport, Atlantic City. Once the millionaires were entrenched in Miami, the "second tier" of society discovered the newest hot resort. The professionals, including doctors and actors, arrived, soon followed by the upper middle class. It was inevitable that the "third tier" would eventually find out about the party down south, and decide to crash it. And so, the rest of society eventually came to consider Miami its playground as well. Business people are in business to make money, so how could they turn their backs on all the potential money-spenders that would escape to Miami during the winter months?

Today, there's not much left of the sand that drew America's wealthy to Miami Beach in the first place. Most of the island is built up, with hotels and restaurants everywhere. But among the hotels are some of the most fabulous in the world, and the most historic in America. South Beach (SoBe) alone boasts original Art Deco hotels dating from the 1920s, clustered together along the oceanfront and painted in a wild, delightful mix of pastel "Miami colors"--jewel pink and coral, sparkling sea turquoise, dewy frond green, sunny hibiscus yellow. Miami proper boasts a substantial number of these beauties, as well. Although many of them fell into neglect and disrepair during the bleak days of the Great Depression, they've been lovingly restored and are as inviting as ever. They beckon today's traveler, with promises of fine living and exquisite service. Who knows, a visitor may hear echoes of the footsteps of the intrepid leisure class who danced in their ballrooms so many years ago. Thanks to the foresightedness of the founding "pioneers," they have withstood the test of time and the elements. Like the "billion dollar sandbar" on which they were built, they were made to last.

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