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South Beach

Choosing a hotel on South Beach is similar to deciding whether you'd rather pay $2 for french fries at Denny's or $15 for the same fries -- but let's call them pommes frites, and add $5 for some fancy salt from a fancy resort town on the Mediterranean -- in a pricey haute-cuisine restaurant. It's all about atmosphere. The rooms of some hotels may look ultrachic, but they are as comfortable as sleeping on a concrete slab. Once you decide how much atmosphere you want, the choice will be easier. Fortunately, for every chichi hotel in South Beach -- and there are many -- there are just as many moderately priced, more casual options.

Prices mentioned in this guide are rack rates -- that is, the price you would be quoted if you walked up to the front desk and inquired about rates. The actual price you will end up paying will usually be less than this -- especially if a travel agent makes the reservations for you. Many hotels on South Beach have chosen to go with a low-to-high rate representing the hotel's complete pricing range. It pays to try to negotiate the price of a room. In some of the trendier hotels, however, negotiating is highly unfashionable and not well regarded. In other words, your attempt at negotiation will either be met with a blank stare or a snippy refusal. It never hurts to try, though.

If status is important to you, as it is to many South Beach visitors, then you will be quite pleased with the number of haute hotels in the area. But the times may be a-changin': Courtyard by Marriott (tel. 800/321-2211 or 305/604-8887) maintains a 90-room, moderately priced hotel on a seedy stretch of Washington Avenue, smack in the middle of Clubland, a horror to many a South Beach trend-seeker.

Meanwhile as a result of the economic downturn, two very popular South Beach hotels faced foreclosure in late 2009 and early 2010. To avoid financial disaster, the swanky Sagamore may team up with the Playboy Club. Unfortunately the Gansevoort South wasn't as lucky, hitting the auction block in 2010 after owners were forced to use hotel revenue to make debt payments on their construction debt, a task made nearly impossible due to what experts describe as the worst lodging downturn in a generation. According to the Miami Herald, "The Gansevoort could be the leading edge of what analysts predict will be a wave of banks seizing hotels throughout South Florida [in 2010]."

Note: Art Deco hotels, while pleasing to the eye, may be a bit run-down inside. It's par for the course on South Beach, where appearances are, at times, deceiving.

Checking into Hotel Bars -- While South Beach is known for its trendy club scene, hotel bars all over Miami are also very much a part of the nightlife -- and may affect your selection of hotel. Among the hottest hotel bars are the Lobby Bar at The Setai, Skybar and the Nobu Lounge at The Shore Club, the Rose Bar at the Delano, the Bond St. Lounge at the Townhouse, The Living Room at the W South Beach, the Martini Bar at The Raleigh, the M Bar at the Mandarin Oriental, and Bahia at the Four Seasons.

Two Good-Value South Beach Hotels -- For a taste of South Beach action without breaking the bank, check out the South Seas Hotel (1751 Collins Ave.; tel. 800/345-2678 or 305/538-1411; www.southseashotel.com) or the Avalon (700 Ocean Dr.; tel. 800/933-3306 or 305/538-0133; www.avalonhotel.com). Both offer good deals on their websites for clean, functional rooms. The South Seas common areas may be bland, but the hotel sits on a stretch of Collins between the Delano and Raleigh -- a great location if you want to hang at either hotel's happening poolside bar. The Avalon is smack in the middle of Ocean Drive's Girls Gone Wild scene; thumping bass and wet T-shirt contests might rage around you, but the hotel maintains an aura of Art Deco calm -- as does its excellent restaurant, A Fish Called Avalon.

Miami Beach

The area just north of South Beach, known as Miami Beach, encompasses Surfside, Bal Harbour, and Sunny Isles. Unrestricted by zoning codes throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and especially the 1970s, area developers went crazy, building ever-bigger and more brazen structures, especially north of 41st Street, which is now known as Condo Canyon. Consequently, there's now a glut of medium-quality condos, with a few scattered holdouts of older hotels and motels casting shadows over the newer, swankier stays emerging on the beachfront.

The western section of the neighborhood used to be inundated with Brooklyn's elderly Jewish population during the season. Though the area still maintains a religious preference, visiting tourists from Argentina to Germany, replete with Speedos and thong bikinis, are clearly taking over.

Miami Beach, as described in this guide, runs from 24th Street to 192nd Street, a long strip that varies slightly from end to end. Staying in the southern section, from 24th to 42nd streets, can be a good deal -- it's still close to the South Beach scene, but the rates are more affordable. The North Beach area begins at 63rd Street and extends north to the city limit at 87th Terrace and west to Biscayne Bay (at Bay Dr. W.). Bal Harbour and Bay Harbor are at the center of Miami Beach and retain their exclusivity and character. The neighborhoods north and south of here, such as Surfside and Sunny Isles, have nice beaches and some shops, but are a little worn around the edges.

Key Biscayne

Locals call it the Key, and technically, Key Biscayne, a barrier island, isn't even part of the Florida Keys. A relatively unknown area until Richard Nixon bought a home here in the 1970s, Key Biscayne, at 1 1/4 square miles, is an affluent but hardly lively residential and recreational island known for its pricey homes, excellent beaches, and actor Andy Garcia, who makes his home here. The island is far enough from the mainland to make it feel semiprivate, yet close enough to downtown for guests to take advantage of everything Miami has to offer.

Downtown Miami

If you've ever read Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, you may understand what downtown Miami is all about. If not, it's this simple: Take a wrong turn and you could find yourself in some serious trouble. Desolate and dangerous at night, downtown is trying to change its image, but it's been a long, tedious process. Recently, however, part of the area has experienced a renaissance in terms of nightlife, with several popular dance clubs and bars opening up in the environs of NE 11th Street, off Biscayne Boulevard. If you're the kind of person who digs an urban setting, you may enjoy downtown, but if you're looking for shiny, happy Miami, you're in the wrong place (for now). As posh, pricey lofts keep going up faster than the nation's deficit, downtown is about to experience the renaissance it has been waiting for. Keep your eye on this area, and remember that you read it here first: Like orange -- or pink, or white, or blue -- being the new black, downtown Miami will be the new South Beach.

Most downtown hotels cater primarily to business travelers and cruise passengers, although with the slower-than-slow downtown renaissance in progress a few higher-end luxury hotels are set to open in the area, including a JW Marriott Marquis (up the road from the already existent JW Marriott at 1109 Brickell Ave. tel. 305/329-3500; www.marriott.com), at 345 Avenue of the Americas (tel. 305/350-0750) and Tempo Miami, A Rock Resort, 1100 Biscayne Blvd. (tel. 305/396-4082; www.rockresorts.com), scheduled to open in the summer of 2010, attached to one of downtown Miami's vacant condos, and featuring 56 luxurious guest rooms and suites with floor-to-ceiling windows, a gourmet restaurant, 8,000-square-foot RockResorts Spa, an infinity-edge sunrise swim spa, and lagoon-style sunset swimming pool.

Although business hotels can be expensive, quality and service are of a high standard. Look for discounts and packages on weekends, when offices are closed and rooms often go empty.

Coral Gables

Translated appropriately as "City Beautiful," the Gables, as it's affectionately known, was one of Miami's original planned communities and is still among the city's prettiest, most pedestrian-friendly, albeit preservation-obsessed neighborhoods. Pristine with a European flair, Coral Gables is best known for its wide array of excellent upscale restaurants of various ethnicities, as well as a hotly contested (the quiet city didn't want to welcome new traffic) shopping megacomplex, with upscale stores such as Nordstrom.

If you're looking for luxury, Coral Gables has a number of wonderful hotels, but if you're on a tight budget, you may be better off elsewhere. One well-priced chain in the area is the Holiday Inn, 1350 S. Dixie Hwy. (tel. 800/HOLIDAY [465-4329] or 305/667-5611), with rates between $105 and $209. It's directly across the street from the University of Miami and is popular with families and friends of students.

The Biltmore's Oldest Guests -- Rumor has it that Al Capone, for whom the Biltmore's Everglades Suite is nicknamed, roams the halls here, as do wounded soldiers from the days when this was a post WWII hospital. Even if you don't stay at the Biltmore, a tour of the property is worth taking (call tel. 305/445-1926 for more information).

Coconut Grove

This waterfront village hugs the shores of Biscayne Bay, just south of U.S. 1 and about 10 minutes from the beaches. Once a haven for hippies, head shops, and artsy bohemian characters, the Grove succumbed to the inevitable temptations of commercialism and has become a Gap nation, featuring a host of theme restaurants, bars, a megaplex, and lots of stores. Outside the main shopping area, however, you'll find the beautiful remnants of Old Miami in the form of flora, fauna, and, of course, water.

West Miami/Airport Area

As Miami continues to grow at a rapid pace, expansion has begun westward, where land is plentiful. Several resorts have taken advantage of the space to build world-class tennis courts and golf courses. Although there's no sea to swim in, a plethora of facilities makes up for the lack of an ocean view.

Bargain Chains -- If you must stay near the airport, consider any of the dozens of moderately priced chain hotels. You'll find one of the cheapest and most recommendable options at either of the Days Inn locations at 7250 NW 11th St. and 4767 NW 36th St. (tel. 800/329-7466 for both, or 305/888-3661 or 305/261-4230, respectively), each about 2 miles from the airport. The larger property on 36th Street offers slightly cheaper rates, with singles starting as low as $69. The 11th Street locale may charge more on weekends, but prices usually start at $70. Prices include free transportation from the airport.

A more luxurious option is the Wyndham Miami Airport, at 3900 NW 21st St. (tel. 305/871-3800), with rates from about $125 to $225.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.