By Liz Hatton, New York correspondent
South Beach is located east of Miami’s downtown city area, sitting pretty on a spit of land between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Its history is as chequered as it is fascinating. The area started off in the mid-1800s as coconut farming land. In the early 1900s development began and by the 1920s several millionaires had taken up residence, kick-starting the architectural revolution in the 1930s. A proliferation of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne and Nautical Moderne buildings means that even today, South Beach still has one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the world.
Built in 1939, the 69-room Townhouse hotel is an excellent example of such a building. I imagine it must have seen some action in its time. Like many of the hotels along the Collins Avenue strip, it’s changed hands many times since it first opened. Judging by the throng of hip young things and constant stream of photo shoots for local and international magazines and cool brands like Campari and Nike, it still gets a lot of action. This is the kind of venue that I work with on a weekly basis: a clean, crisp backdrop for the product launches I create for big brands. For this stay, though, I was here for relaxation purposes only: a peaceful couple of nights in the heart of Miami’s South beach so we could partake in retail, beach and food therapy.
First impressions weren’t great. We struggled up the two (admittedly short) flights of steps with our heavy bags and despite the man behind the desk witnessing our obvious struggle and discomfort, and my colleague’s nasty tumble over her own luggage, no help was forthcoming. It says a great deal about the hotel, however, that our initial fury soon faded as the charm of the receptionist worked its magic. Like so many things in life, it’s all about managing your expectations. I think a great deal of disappointment could be avoided in life, if only we were realistic about what to expect. I would imagine that the Townhouse is one of the least expensive hotels in Miami, and for around $120 a night, including breakfast… well, really, what do you expect? (Prices leap to $275 during national holidays and high season, and yet it’s still one of the cheapest hotels in South Beach).
So, what do you get for your dollar? For starters you can expect a fantastic location, on Collins Avenue, a few steps away from the beach, next door to The Setai and a block or so from the Delano. You can also expect exceptional value for money (and to come away not feeling ripped-off in Miami is no mean feat). You can expect a great deal of style and just enough substance – just – to stop you feeling like you’re in a budget hotel.
Hotelier and restaurateur Jonathan Morr’s pedigree is impressive – the owner of trend-setting Manhattan restaurants Republic (the first noodle bar I ever visited, in NYC, many, many years ago) and Bond Street, he also opened the Blue Door restaurant at the Delano in Miami. The idea behind the townhouse is “to create a happy, unpretentious place for people who have style but don’t need to spend a lot of money”. Never has this philosophy been more relevant. More than ever, I believe people are looking for experiences. Frivolous, ostentatious spending is out, unless you are a Russian oligarch, a footballer or a Middle Eastern prince (luckily there are plenty of these to keep South Beach’s finest hotels in business). Real people are thinking more carefully about where and how they spend their buck. A decent but good value hotel to base yourself in allows you to explore the area and splash out on a top-flight meal, splurge in the area’s fabulous designer shopping district or treat yourself to a spot of waterskiing or kitesurfing (or maybe a day in a luxury spa if like me, you’re more that way inclined).
The rooms are basic and could do with a fresh coat of paint – if you’re rocking the all-white, minimalist look, things have got to be pristine – but they’re functional and fun and have a style of their own – they’re very “beachy” which I liked, because it gave a sense of place. The two double beds were five-star comfy, with proper feather pillows and high thread-count linen. There is an L-shaped couch for overnight guests (there is no charge for your visitor – smart, nice touch), a docking station for your iPod, a TV with a smattering of channels, plus free wi-fi (hooray!).
The ground floor feels like a seaside Ivy League university common room with its bright fabrics, low slung coffee tables piled with glossy magazines, sofas and comfy arm chairs. The smattering of Abercrombie & Fitch wannabe models helps add to the ambiance. A little kitchen on the ground floor is open 24 hours a day and you can help yourself to tea, coffee and snacks. For anything stronger or a more substantial snack the front desk acts as mini bar and shop as well as a concierge for local tips and bookings. There are also some super-cute branded products, including teeny-tiny running shorts and bottled water.
In the morning a really decent breakfast (with the best bagels in Miami) is complimentary. Dinner downstairs at Bond Street, meanwhile, serves some of the best sushi in town, and at the weekends the roof terrace bar comes to life at night with an inventive cocktail list and a chance to hang out with Miami’s equivalent of our own Eurotrash. Even the hallways conform to the “hangout environment” (their words, not mine) ethos, with a constant soundtrack, benches piled with magazines and even an exercise bike on each floor.
I’m a convert. I loved the “keep it real” feel of the Townhouse. The lack of luxury actually becomes quite liberating. I enjoyed the feeling of not having to reach into my purse every five minutes for a tip. I spent the “change” on a rather beautiful pair of shoes from the naughtily tempting shop around the corner. Makes sense to me.
150 20th St, Miami Beach
Tel: +1 305 534 3800
Date of review: January 2013.