The Spirit of South Beach.

Cruising down Collins Avenue, marveling the couturiers’ row of high-fashion shops; strolling up the boardwalk fronting Ocean Drive, gasping at the Technicolor whimsy of its art deco hotels and apartment buildings.

Rollerblading east to west along the no-cars- allowed Lincoln Road Mall, watching its revival unfold before your eyes, you can’t help but think that South Beach is not at all real, that this magical place where it seems everyone is forever on vacation is some kind of fantasy cooked up by the animators at Disney.

ou would not be wrong to make that assumption.

South Beach is a fantasy, a stunningly successful fantasy, dreamed of (and even foreseen) a decade ago by a handful of visionaries thought by most to be insane or at least aspiring to be.

A tightly knit group of artists, restaurateurs, devotees of art deco architecture and plain old personalities, they were people who seemed to eke out a living merely by existing for the amusement of others.

These people, in the lowest days of the once-majestic Beach, whenOcean Drive was a boarded-up wasteland, when developers thought it prudent to bulldoze art deco properties rather than restore their splendor, when the shops of Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue specialized in costume jewelry, plaster-cut starfish and souvenir snow scenes.

When people sat in their apartments on Friday night in front of reruns of The Brady Bunch, saw in the town the potential to be surely the coolest place on the planet, where edges would be cut and trends set, where the most creative minds would coalesce into one gigantic artists’ colony, reachable only by bridge, boat or alien spaceship.

They had the vision
to stage the very first Art Deco Weekend,throwing a festival large for themselves, only to watch it grow into a massive January undertaking that covers Ocean Drive with a tidal wave of people.

They had the vision to open the best and most admired live theaters in the Miami area.

They had the vision to turn abandoned deco theaters and restaurants into nightclubs whose VIP guest lists grew to include the brightest movie stars of the day.

Too, they had the vision to stand back and smile when NBC got the notion that the pastel colors and unmatchable ethnic mix of the place added up to a travelogue-masquerading- as-TV-show called Miami Vice, the best free advertising any town could hope for – who’s going to turn down a piece of god luck?

They had a dream that their precious spit of sand could be fabulous again without the benefit of Big Money, that hope and vision and hard work were enough.

They were right.

They were so right, in fact, that they couldn’t keep a secret.

And when the rest of the country and Europe and Latin America – discovered Miami Beach, the Big Money came in bushels, building up luxury condos rising into the sky and a splendid new convention center and megahotel to serve it.

The hottest names in fashion have come to the south end of Collins Avenue

The city’s gleaming renovation of Lincoln Road highlights chic fashion and furniture boutiques that have over- taken the bric-a-brac shops.

The Estefans and other big names now oversee thriving restaurants onOcean Drive, whose northern end is crowned with a multiplex of movies and shopping. Block-long gourmet markets and ultra-high end restaurants are beckoning to the moneyed.

The coolest spot among the smart set is The Forge, a once-dusty old steak house, where on Wednesday nights the most beautiful people in town are dancing atop dining tables.

It’s where Brooke Shields, Andre Agassi, Madonna. Michael Caine. Sean Penn. Liza Minnelli, Cindy Crawford, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Beyoncè, Christina Aguilera, 50 Cents, Puff Daddy, PussyCats Dolls, Sylvester Stallone, k. d. lang or any celebrity du jour just might show up next to you in line for cafe cubano.

The scale of the Beach now is so much more than it was.

Its no longer a testing ground for cool, a place where people with almost no money can invest their vision and little more.

But it’s still a hotbed of innovation, whether it be excursions into culinary invention at Joia, Tantra, Astor Place or Mezzanotte, or exhausting and memorable nights at Bar Room, Liquid or Crobar. maybe the hottest nightclubs in America; or slick Lincoln Road, with its different landscaping and architectural themes for each block; or the condo and townhouse city developing down below Fifth Street, luxurious living within walking distance of it all.

Oh, ad those of you who were perfectly happy with the old Beach – you’re in luck, too.

At the hottest curio shops on Washington Avenue, you can get “vintage” costume jewelry and souvenir snow scenes.

Fantasy comes full circle. That’s, in a few words, is SoBe.

InsideMiamiBeach.comlike no other.

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