Mayor Matti Herrera Bower was whispering in my ear as we strolled along the oceanfront at Lummus Park. The city’s chief was telling me about Miami Beach, how the area brings together history and hipness, when my mind started to wander.
Feeling guilty about missing her last few comments, I stopped her mid-sentence, pressed rewind and started her all over again.
The mayor, her honoress, is part of a chorus of distinguished voices leading Discovery Miami Beach, a new audio tour of South Beach. Eight local personalities spend an hour — or five if you, like me, walk slowly and play back a lot — guiding visitors along a three-mile route dusted with Art Deco buildings, Atlantic views and juicy gossip.
The excursion, which kicked off Nov. 12, features 29 stops with accompanying narratives from such animated talkers as Jeff Donnelly, public historian of the Miami Design Preservation League; pop-goes-the-artist Romero Britto; and night life gadfly Tara Solomon.
Accessible by foot or bike, the tour starts at the Art Deco Welcome Center on Ocean Drive, the DMZ between the ocean and the parade of watering holes gushing oversize cocktails. An employee set me up with a headset and a palm-size gadget that was as easy to use as a Fisher Price toy. The audio equipment, with its acid-green lanyard, had play, rewind and fast-forward buttons, plus a keyboard for punching in the assigned number on the map. An image of the attraction also appeared on the screen, which was helpful when I was trying to find the site through the sidewalk rave of people.
I preferred a plot-by-numbers approach, starting with No. 1 (Lummus Park) and ending at No. 29 (South Pointe Park). But the helper behind the counter warned me that I’d be zigzagging like a tourist after one too many mojitos. As an alternative, she suggested following the right half of the map (stops 2-6, 11-23), returning to home base (zero), then roaming the left side (all the rest).
Historian Sam Bramson and I began in the park named after the two brothers who spearheaded the area’s development in the early 1900s. Bramson told me that Miami Beach, squished between the Atlantic and Biscayne Bay, was once a mangrove sandbar island and an investor’s dream at 35 cents an acre. If only I’d bought back then.
Scenester Tara couldn’t sneak me into Casa Casuarina, the former mansion of the late Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, now an ultra-private club called the Villa by Barton G. But she did dish on its diamond and cubic zirconia guests: Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Carmen Electra, Kristin Cavallari — I know, how did she get in?
With the exception of Chez Versace, most of the settings are public and allow guests inside, as long as you don’t try to cop a swim in their pool. (The infinity pool bouncers at Ian Schrager’s Delano keep you honest.) At the Hotel Victor, for example, I explained to a bellhop chilling outside that Tara had told me about the property’s tank of jellyfish. I asked him where they kept the jellies.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” he said, “but the jellyfish are no more. We got rid of them.” Glancing at my tech accessory, he added, “No wonder people are coming in here asking, ‘Where are the jellyfish?’ ” (Postscript: The company plans to remove the dated info.)
Rest assured, I did not encounter any more snafus. As instructed, I viewed the artworks in the Sagamore Hotel, a beehive of avant-gardists during Art Basel, and recognized the big deal behind the Gehry-designed home of the New World Symphony.
I gave my personal guides a siesta at the Holocaust Memorial. Here, among arresting sculptures and a somber wall etched with victims’ names, I crashed another tour. Volunteer Joe Dziubak was leading a group through an outdoor picture gallery, annotating the devastating scenes. At the last photograph, he pointed to a fuzzy picture of a young man lined up with other concentration camp prisoners and said, “See this guy here? That’s me.” I observed a moment of silence, keeping my audio tour off for the next five blocks.
At the Britto art gallery on the famed Lincoln Road, I experienced another shock of sorts: I had been walking for nearly four hours and was barely two-thirds of the way done. Oh, and the battery was dead.
After swapping my gadget for a charged one back at the welcome center, I quickened my pace down the south side of Ocean Drive. I had only an hour before the center closed and needed its equipment back. (The company rents the gear for four hours but allows for some overtime.) There’s News Cafe, Versace’s hangout, including on the morning of his murder; the staircase from the chain saw scene in “Scarface”; Prime One Twelve, steakhouse to the stars — talk faster, people!
I finally slowed down at South Pointe Park, the No. 29 finishing line. Standing in the soft sand, shoes off, I looked at Fisher Island to the right and the former swampy jungle to the left. (Stuart Blumberg, former president of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association, told me to.) The mayor then took over, telling me how the city needs to — was it reinvent itself? I cut her off and had her tell me again.
Discovery Miami Beach
Art Deco Welcome Center
1001 Ocean Dr.
Four-hour rental $14.95.