A Candid Look At South Beach Hostels and Super Cheap Hotels
Maybe you’ve been fantasizing about that vacation in South Beach for a while, but you’ve been putting things off because you figured booking a room here would bankrupt you faster than a date with Paris Hilton. It is actually a very common misconception that this is a playground only for the wealthy and elite, and that the rest of us would be better off settling for a Motel 6 somewhere up in Dania. One stroll down Washington Ave. should convince you that this simply isn’t true! For every Christina Aguilera wanna be, there are at least 10 reasonably normal, cost-conscious sunburned tourists. And they all have to stay somewhere. The reality is that South Beach has plenty of budget options ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Its unmatched diversity is part of its charm. I hit the pavement this afternoon and visited six of the most popular spots, and some of the results I found were surprising.
SOBE HOSTELING TIPS
As I wandered from place to place, I picked up a great deal of useful information. For example, hostels don’t generally accept people as guests who have in-state ID. It’s a tactic to keep out transients. So if you’re a transient or planning on becoming one soon, hang on to your out-of-state identification. It shouldn’t be too hard. You’re a transient, after all. You roam. That’s what you do. This policy is discriminatory only against non-roaming transients. Another interesting fact is that most hostels enforce a 20-21 day maximum stay. They need to import new flesh, just to keep things interesting. They don’t want you moving in, even if you’re paying rent! Also, any posted rates are subject to soaring exponentially if something like the Winter Music Conference is in town—so be sure to call ahead!
Another thing that surprised me was how much the vibe varied from location to location. For example, the two hostels South of Fifth St (or So-Fi, as the locals like to say), Jazz on South Beach (321 Collins Ave.) and the South Beach Hostel (235 Washington Ave), were the trendiest and most ornate on the list, and also had the most outgoing staff, as well as the greatest amenities. The layout in both establishments was very conducive to conversation with fellow guests, most of which looked to be on the younger side and very ….um….well-developed. This neighborhood, mostly a residential area with scores of condos and few commercial venues, is quieter (and less congested) than the scene up the street in the heart of the Deco district—which leads the staff to go the extra mile with customer service and amenities. In contrast, the hostels in the prime location areas, such as the Miami Beach International Travellers Hostel (239 9th St) and the Clay Hotel (1438 Washington Ave.), appeared considerably less concerned with such matters. Farther north, the Tropics Hotel & Hostel had a posh yet relaxing feel, despite its location on busy Collins Ave. near the Lincoln Road Mall. It had the greatest range of ages in its guests, while the Peter Miller Hotel, a little further afield at 1900 Collins, completely lacked the youthful vibe and appeared to be geared more toward middle-aged refugees on a budget.
They say that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. For some on the list, that was a good thing. Others weren’t so lucky.
Most frigid reception: hands down, this had to be the Miami Beach International Travelers Hostel (236 9th St, 305-534-0268). I was given the third degree by the Brazilian girl presiding over the front desk, who, failing to get rid of me with the old “manager is out of town” trick, demanded a business card before she would answer my questions. Despite its semi-dingy interior, and the fact that the street outside was completely torn up in construction, I felt like I was having a conversation with Donatella Versace—when she was having a really bad day. Apparently, she was under the impression that she worked in a hostile. Prominent signs displayed on the wall behind her had messages like “Private room visitor fee $10” and “No guests allowed in dorms.” Any question I asked—your basic, general queries about rates and amenities a prospective guest might have just as easily asked over the phone—was met with suspicion and evasiveness, even after she phoned the (suddenly resurfaced) manager and got his okay to speak with me (she put me on the line with him to let him know what I was doing and told me I had “one minute”). She didn’t want me taking pictures of the front desk or any of the rooms—she said they would be remodeling soon, and it would change, so why bother? I said I could explain that in the article, but she was unimpressed. When I asked about the cost of the wi-fi and public computers, she didn’t want to tell me, until I pressed her, and then I couldn’t understand her rushed reply, so I let it go. I mention all this, not because I’m bitter (well, maybe a little), but because I have a feeling that if my interaction was this difficult, things might not go much more easily for you.
Most entertaining lobby: this was the South Beach Hostel (235 Washington Ave., 305-672-4227, http://www.thesouthbeachhostel.com), no doubt about it! Not only did they sport a red velvet pool table in the back, along with funky, oversized seating and scores of television sets up and down the walls, as well as the only full service bar (open till 5 am!), they had two of the cutest kitties I ever laid eyes on: Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, the hostel mascots. If you have allergies, not to worry. They’re restricted to the amply spacious lobby area, and they keep to themselves, unless approached, and then they’re very affectionate. This hostel also sports a sidewalk café, serving basic American cuisine, and offers a Sunday “community bar-b-cue.” Though the Clay Hotel is the biggest of the bunch, they actually have more beds at the South Beach Hostel, boasting 37 dorm rooms, averaging 4 beds a piece, with a couple of rooms at 8 and 14 beds per room, generally reserved for groups. Only two of the rooms are private. Travis kept really busy at the front desk while I was there, but patiently answered my questions whenever he had a free moment. The real star of the show, however, was owner Greg Alvarez, who happened to drop by while I was interviewing Travis. Greg was very charismatic and accommodating, going to great pains to help me get the perfect shots of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. You can tell that his positive attitude and attention to detail have rubbed off on the place. Located 3 blocks from the beach.
Most aloof (or “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”) reception award: this one would have to go the Clay Hotel (1438 Washington Ave, 305-534-2988, http://www.clayhotel.com). The Clay is an institution in South Beach, with a history going back 80 some odd years. It was once a hideout for Al Capone, and the site where Desi Arnaz first babalued his way into the American spotlight. It was once cited as the “most beautiful hostel in America” by Lonely Planet guidebooks, in appreciation of its exquisite Spanish colonial architecture and pristine location abutting artsy Española Way. However, it regrettably seems to have gone to the management’s head. Though this has traditionally been the place I’ve stayed over the years on prior visits to the Beach, I’ve always noticed them to be a little snooty and stone-faced. They hire scores of foreign workers, some of whom can be pleasant and outgoing enough, but as a general rule, they’re not the kind of personalities you’d want to have at your next hoe-down. When I approached them with my questions for the story, I was almost turned away because I lacked the credentials they required, though they weren’t really clear on what those were. They finally conceded enough to provide me with a rate card. Any other questions, they reasoned, could be answered on their webpage. They allowed one of their front desk personnel, a young French guy named Yannick, to accompany me as I photographed their upstairs lounge room, but I wouldn’t be permitted to photograph any other areas, such as their kitchen facilities or dorm rooms. I imagine there is always the possibility that the Russians might be constructing a hostel exactly like it somewhere, and that this information might compromise our national security. Despite the tight-lipped reception, this hotel has an excellent location, and I suppose an aloof front desk attendant is preferable to a Ritz-Carlton automaton who has to greet you every time you make eye contact, so I wouldn’t cross it off the list. Tip: If you’re a noise-sensitive early-riser, make sure not to book one of their rooms facing Washington Avenue; otherwise the nighttime noises will have you up until dawn. Second tip: They offer one free night for every 7 day-booking during the low season—be sure to mention it when you check in.
Best place to take a refreshing Olympic-sized dip: The Tropics Hotel & Hostel (1550 Collins Ave., 305-531-0361, http://www.tropicshotel.com). In fact, it’s the only place to take a refreshing Olympic-sized dip. They’re the only hostel with a pool in South Beach! They used to have bar-b-cues as well, but had to give that up because the guests kept putting charcoal into the gas grills. Someone should donate a charcoal grill and the problem would be resolved! In addition to their amply-proportioned pool, the front lobby was also very large and roomy, decorated in a minimalist, understated simplicity. The building is an impressive structure, with classic MiMo(Miami Modern) features. Their prominent vintage-looking sign outside looks as though it came with the place, but actually arrived after the building‘s construction c. 1954, and even then was constructed anew in 1992 after the former sign succombed to Hurricane Andrew. Nonetheless, it garners a lot of attention, and was recently featured in Bad Boys II. Manager Matias, and his front desk attendant, James, were very pleasant and generous with their time. When guests would occasionally approach with questions, they were responsive and helpful. Matias has managed the hotel for 15 years, and has seen the Beach evolve quite a bit since he first arrived. The difference between his place and many of the others, he explained, was that this property is owned, whereas most of the others are leased. In addition to their hotel duties, they also provide VIP access to selected clubs, and arrange tours of the Everglades, Key West, and Orlando. Passports required for dorm rooms, which come 4, 6 or 8 beds per room.
Best place to stay if “party” is your middle name: Jazz on South Beach (321 Collins Ave, 305-672-2137, http://www.jazzhostels.com). Open just 10 days (formerly the Atlantica Hotel), this hostel, part of the same chain that operates the Jazz on the Park and Jazz on the Town hostels in New York City, actually provides a club coordinator who will escort groups of guests for FREE ADMISSION to local hotspots like Cameo, Space, Nikki Beach, Indra, the Mark, and the Pawn Shop. Drink specials vary from night to night, and include $25 Tuesdays, which buys you a bottle of wine and a hookah at Indra, and Ladies Nights on Wednesdays. Other free goodies include wi-fi and lockers. Intimate bar in the lobby. The building is spotless, a curious melange of English tudor and Mediterranean architecture, painted a subtle beige, and situated on a quiet stretch of Collins Ave., just two blocks from the beach. Manager Will and front desk attendants Lucky, Navy, and Kaya were friendly and helpful as could be, providing me with a detailed tour of their immaculate 6 and 8 bed dorms, which came complete with full bath with shower in each room. Front patio ideal for sidewalk encounters.
Best place to hide out if you’re
Despite its compactness, South Beach delivers a wealth of options for the budget traveler. As we’ve seen, there’s something here for people of every taste—for the masochist, the primal college student, the loner aestheticist, and the older traveler seeking relaxation with a convenient location—once again demonstrating that this is a city which defies definition, despite what you may hear to the contrary.
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