Finding My Zen (Again and Again) in Miami Beach
I grew up in Florida, but never wandered southeast down the 268 miles to Miami Beach. I didn’t see the point: my hometown, St. Petersburg, is a peninsula, so I was never far from the beach, fresh seafood, and sun-kissed skin. Besides, my vision of Miami included bronzed bodies in Brazilian bikinis, convertibles blasting obnoxious music, sweaty clubs full of seizure-inducing strobe lights and bottle service in shiny silver buckets, and lots and lots of hair gel.
The thought of it stressed me out.
However, time heals all wounds. So when my new, much paler and much tenser New York City self won a free Miami Beach weekend for two courtesy of Visit Florida, I found myself looking forward to relaxing with my boyfriend – because anywhere is more relaxing than NYC.
Chartered as a town in 1915, and dubbed a bona fide city of its own just two years later, Miami Beach has been a top sun-and-sand destination for over a century. As its popularity boomed in the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of glamorous Art Deco buildings sprouted up, lining the streets. (Architecture enthusiasts and nostalgia lovers rejoice: Miami Beach’s Art Deco Historic District is home to more than 960 historic Art Deco buildings – the largest collection in the world. )
Though designed and built in the late 1940s as military housing, our hotel, the Delano South Beach , is a gorgeous, white Art Deco structure, sporting a four-winged tower, once the highest in Miami. Redesigned as a hotel in the mid-1990s by celebrated French designer Phillippe Starck, the Delano credits itself as the hotel that “changed South Beach forever.” Rooms here are bright in all white, featuring marble bathrooms with Malin+Goetz toiletries (not always gluten-free) and brass touches lingering from a past life. For those who are not into this scene, it may feel slightly pretentious. For others, it’s exclusive, trendy, and right on the money.
Outside, the heat is sticky, and I appreciate the miracle of a fresh and dry room. I gaze outside the sealed windows, beyond the hotel’s large pool and outdoor bar, to the salty blue waters of the Atlantic; I think I can feel my blood pressure drop a few points.
We unknowingly start a three-and-a-half-hour lunch across the street at Dolce Italian , where the generous chefs keep sending full-portioned tastes of the restaurant’s gluten-free options, like grilled octopus salad and asparagus risotto with giant, palmsized seared scallops. We cheers our glasses of rosé between shallow bowls of pillowy potato gnocchi in tomato sauce with fresh basil and plates of beef carpaccio drizzled with truffle aioli, and, as we try to conquer the best roasted chicken I’ve ever had in my life, I think, food is my therapy.
After the fourth or fifth or seventh course, dinner seems unimaginable. I am officially Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory , and should be rolled out like a big round blueberry, across Collins Avenue, back to the Delano. But instead, I hop into a cab to be juiced at the decadent spa at the Carillon Miami Wellness Resort.
I’m 90 minutes late, which means less time to indulge in the 70,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor spa and wellness center, where you can find typical yoga classes alongside not-so-typical rock climbing walls, acupuncture and healing energy treatments, and diagnostic testing. We skip the tour to squeeze out every second possible enjoying the Euro-style Thermal Experience – one of America’s best circuits of hydrotherapy spa treatments.
With only 30 minutes to sweat it out in the Finnish spa, open my pores in the quartz crystal steam room, and relax my muscles on the herbal lanconium’s warmed ceramic tile seats, the New Yorker in me clicks back on. I hastily throw on my bathing suit, cotton robe, and rubber spa shoes; every second I waste is a second I could be relaxing in one of the nine rejuvenating therapy spaces.
Somewhere between the dry heat of the sauna and the rainforest setting of the experiential shower, I laugh at myself, aware of the comedy: I’m stressing myself out trying to make sure I relax. That’s when I take a deep breath, head back to the sauna and lie down, eyes closed, with no agenda.
It’s a state-of-mind that I revisit the next morning, after a night at Delano’s restaurant Bianca. Chef de Cuisine Jason Bamford, whose past experience includes the Orlando’s Waldorf Astoria and Bouley in NYC, is well informed and able to amend the menu to fit most dietary restrictions. Lucky for us, we have a delicious blackberry smash cocktail, lavender steak tartare and a charred romaine salad to start, and a petit rack of lamb along with gluten-free penne mixed with mint, pistachios, and fresh ricotta for main dishes – all paired perfectly with wine and fantastic service.
The next day, Leah from Innergy Meditation, Miami’s first studio dedicated to meditation, is sitting on the floor, playing three different sound bowls while I try, again, to create no agenda.
Meditation is never something that comes easily to me. I lack the focus or my mind wanders under the pressure. Leah shares a secret with me: I don’t have to reach nirvana the first time, or even after a few times (or maybe ever).
“It’s a gradual process,” she says, “and that’s the goal we all work towards.”
This sentiment stays with me after our session, catching me when I so often try to jump from step one to step finished, for no reason.
It’s our last day and we join a walking tour of Little Havana (via Miami Culinary Tours) – a three-hour stop-and-taste along the historic neighborhood’s main artery of Southwest 8th Avenue. They’re able to accommodate my diet, and I have something comparable to eat and drink from the first el pub to the legendary Ball & Chain jazz club to an ice cream shop. For this tour, arrive armed with a growling belly, comfy shoes, and sunglasses.
Somehow, I fit the Delano spa’s signature milk and honey body treatment in before we head to dinner at Izzy’s Fish & Oyster . I’m a sucker for shellfish and spicy cocktails. The bivalves, jumbo seared scallop, and the “Wouldn’t You Like to Know” spiced rum, watermelon, and ginger cocktail do not disappoint (though they are still learning about the rules for gluten-free diners).
As we walk home in the warm air, soaking in the Art Deco architecture and neon lights, I smile, catching myself in a moment of lightness. I look up at the gorgeous buildings, night sky, and retro neon signs, and try to remember what it was again that kept me from visiting this place when I lived so close. But I try not to think about it too much, for fear of chasing away this much-appreciated moment of Zen.
Must-Try: Miami’s Clean Eating Spot, DIRT
Driven by a desire to create healthy, vibrant, and delicious farm-to-counter dishes, South Beach’s DIRT focuses on nutritious food, sustainability, and quality ingredients. Chef Nicole Votano’s menu includes in-house-pressed nut milk, lavender lattes, egg bowls, sandwiches, and smoothies. Gluten-free, paleo, and vegan menus are available.
What to order: Gluten-free goat cheese and English pea toast (no extra charge for gf bread!), the colorful Dragon Fruit Bowl and the green Glow smoothie.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Katherine Alex Beaven is a writer/photographer and world traveler. Whether on assignment or on vacation, Alex can usually be found at the nearest food cart or restaurant sniffing out the local gluten-free goodies. Her photography site, katherinealex.com, features some of the wildlife, landscapes, and portraits she’s taken along the way.