- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — The lines outside Mansion nightclub on South Beach stream in both directions, like open arms welcoming the dozens of young, sweaty, thirsty partyers eager to get past discerning doormen and burly bouncers.

Cars slowly cruise by, occupants gawking at the sexy club-goers lining the streets.

It’s 1 a.m. and a sticky 83 degrees on a typical summer Saturday on South Beach, just east of Miami. But the heat and humidity of what is arguably the worst time of year to come here don’t seem to bother those seeking dionysian pleasures amid the clubs, restaurants and hotels of this cutting-edge hot spot.

The area’s evolution from a wintertime resort to a year-round destination began years ago, but it seems lately that every celebrity in the country — from Paris Hilton to Shaquille O’Neal — is hanging out on South Beach.

MTV’s decision to hold its Video Music Awards here Aug. 29 — at the height of hurricane season — is just another sign that the area has come of age. That until now the awards have been held only in New York or Los Angeles hints at the emergence of a third glam capital — slower pace than New York, less traffic than Los Angeles — amid the palm trees, pulsing clubs and Cuban food of Miami.

“The night life, the parties, the beach. It’s great,” says Chris Johones, 34, vacationing with three friends from Trondheim, Norway, and waiting to get into Mansion. “Long lines, though.”

The reputation of Miami — once thought of as a place to visit Grandma in January — as a party city has grown since the days of “Miami Vice” through the birth of the art-deco fashion district in the early 1990s (think Madonna and Versace) and the more recent explosion of the South Beach club scene.

Tourists have begun flocking here all year for high-end shopping, electric night life, fine dining and the Atlantic’s warm waters.

Though other areas of multicultural Miami, such as Coconut Grove, Coral Gables and the downtown area, have their tourist attractions, 70 percent of all visitors come to South Beach, says William Talbert of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The area boasts the offices of several Latin music labels and other entertainment-based industries, including film and television production.

“South Beach is able to stay up with the times, reinvent itself, keep itself fresh,” Mr. Talbert says.

Just ask hip-hop magnate Missy Elliott. “I love the beach,” she says. “I have cars that aren’t good for riding in New York. These streets are the right streets for me to get my engine roaring. I love being able to drop the top.”

R&B; singer Usher, meanwhile, digs the glitzy nightclubs — where he can have a reserved table whenever he wants — and the Cuban food.

“It’s really my home away from home. It’s so sexy out here,” Usher says. “It’s the beautiful weather, beautiful people.”

In June, visitors such as the Smiths’ Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce were seen hanging out at the Delano Hotel, while tennis star Venus Williams had a party to introduce her Web site.

Last month, members of ‘N Sync, including heartthrob Justin Timberlake, held their own charity event, with Mr. Timberlake’s girlfriend, Cameron Diaz, in tow.

Miami’s pro athletes hang in South Beach, too. Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas and Josh Beckett have been spotted recently at Crobar, Eddie Jones and Ricky Williams at Opium, Warren Sapp at B.E.D.

Rapper-businessman Luther Campbell is a South Beach regular as well.

Even NBA big man Shaquille O’Neal, the Miami Heat center who’s also a rapper and actor, brags about being able to walk naked on the beach in his new city.

“I see celebrities every time I come down here,” says Yasima Latour, 30, a lab technician from Atlanta who has made several visits to South Beach in the past five years. “I saw [rapper] Lil John on the flight down here.”

Statistics gathered by Smith Travel Research show that Miami has experienced a lucrative increase in summer travel from last year. The numbers reflect a 9 percent jump in hotel occupancy, to 61.7 percent, and a 12 percent increase in the average daily room rate, to $92.36.

Mr. Talbert attributes the increase to better marketing and an effort to attract celebrity-fueled events. He says the MTV awards are as popular as other wintertime events hosted by Miami.

“When this first was announced, I got more calls for tickets for the Video Music Awards than I get when we book the Super Bowl,” Mr. Talbert says.

Beyond the numbers and sales pitches, people just seem to like Miami’s mix of sun and fun.

“You come down here and forget all your problems,” says Mike Ebbecke, 35, a highway worker and volunteer firefighter in Stony Brook, N.Y., who is having a beer at the Clevelander hotel. “The night life is the same as New York — they try not to sleep, either.”

Italian actress Ilenia Lazzarin, in town filming a movie, takes photos and soaks up some rays while on the sandy beach with friend Paola Bossola, a 22-year-old producer who was born in Italy but lives in Miami. “There are cultures from everwhere here. It’s easy to meet people,” Miss Bossola says. Miss Lazzarin, 21, says Miami is “very relaxing. I sleep all day.”

Any downside to the city’s growing popularity is mainly felt by the locals — higher-than-normal food and drink prices, troublesome parking, congested traffic near the clubs and noise.

Bartenders and waiters who work during the day haven’t noticed more tourists, and South Beach’s streets seem emptier than normal on a couple of scorching-hot days. At night, though, the area teems with people.

“Even the summertime has been steady. The action is constant,” says Roman Jones, owner of Opium, Prive and Mansion nightclubs. He says South Beach has an international feel.

“People here have that South American or European attitude,” he says. “They eat later, they go to sleep later, they’re out at cafes like in Europe.”

Inside Mansion, bartender Audra Seminaro wears a tight white shirt and tiny skirt as she shovels drinks to customers inside the packed club. Lights flash, bodies grind on the dance floor, and partyers lounge on plush couches.

“It’s insane, crazy in here, especially on Saturday nights,” says Miss Seminaro, 26.

Before and after the awards show, celebrities such as Miss Hilton, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Dennis Rodman, Jessica Simpson and OutKast plan to host their own parties at clubs around South Beach.

Mr. Jones calls Miami “the Hollywood of the East.” He and others claim South Beach is catching up to Los Angeles and the Big Apple as a place to see and be seen. “Whenever New York looks too intense, or California too laid back, we have a happy balance here,” Miami Mayor Manny Diaz says.

• • •

For more information on Miami, visit www.gmcvb.com or call 888/76-MIAMI.

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