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A Mellower Miami

A Mellower Miami

Miami’s coldest winter in memory is finally beginning to abate. For months, daytime highs had barely budged beyond the chilly, crisp 60s, instead of the sultry 80 degrees Floridians adore. Ladies resplendent in their Brooklyn furs could be spotted coming out of the theater on 45-degree nights.

Temperatures are slowly mellowing, and the scene in general is mellower than in years past, too. Throngs of tourists and spring break revelers fill the predictable hotspots, but the continued economic malaise means there are more discounts than ever before.

You can score hotel package deals that hearken back to 1999, absurdly cheap and long happy hours in trendy locations where cocktails used to cost in the double digits, and prix-fixe dinner menus at literally every turn. Bid a reasonable price on an auction Web site like Priceline or Hotwire, and you may turn up a waterfront resort for less than $200 a night.

Youthful South Beach still throbs with chic urban energy. There seems to be a DJ in every clothing store, bar and café, giving the entire area south of Lincoln Road a pounding, insistent techno soundtrack. This is the most European corner of Florida, and every year it seems more so: you are as likely to hear Italian or Russian as English on Ocean Drive, and Spanish is ubiquitous.

Lincoln Road, a pedestrian mall lined with outdoor cafes and boutiques, is sparkling after a renovation that shined up its whimsical sculptures and burbling, palm-shaded fountains. The strip’s proletarian retail mix has kept it lively amid the recession, and the people-watching is as entertaining as ever. But in a sign of the times, my companion and I paid just $7.50 for two glasses of sauvignon blanc and a prime outdoor table at Paul, a French bakery-café, during a recent happy hour that stretched to 8 p.m.

Exclusivity has shifted south with the recent gentrification of lower Collins Avenue. From about Fourth to Tenth Streets, this Art Deco strip offers a heady mix of high-end shopping, thick with European designers. Just a block to the east is Ocean Drive, less crowded and expensive than in years past; this whole area feels much safer and family-friendly than it once did, thanks largely to increased police presence and a cleaned-up oceanfront park.

Miami’s cultural profile has also risen in recent years. The most visible symbol is the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2006 as the largest such center in Florida, and the third largest in the United States. The complex itself is visually stunning — a glittering temple of Art Deco-inspired modernism, visible from afar at its central location on Biscayne Boulevard in Downtown Miami.

The Arsht’s spring lineup is worthy of any world-class city. The Joffrey and Alvin Ailey ballet companies, pianist Lang Lang, Cuban bolero singer Lucrecia and the Florida Grand Opera’s production of “Carmen” are highlights. Mahler aficionados will flock to the special series on that composer presented by Michael Tilson-Thomas and his Miami Beach-based New World Symphony. The center also hosts numerous Jewish-oriented events throughout the year, often in partnership with the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

The brightly lit lofts nearby are the Miami Design District, a burgeoning area of fine arts galleries, upscale boutiques and interior design shops that has thrived as the real-estate market softened. Dozens of cutting-edge art galleries and furniture showrooms cluster in the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood around Northeast Second Avenue and 39th to 41st streets, along with high-end retailers like Marni and Christian Louboutin and wine bars that cater to the hipster crowd.

The district holds an “arts walk” and gallery night on the second Saturday evening of every month, when galleries and design showrooms stay open late, Miami’s fashion crowd shows up and the entire neighborhood turns into a cocktail party.

While Miami’s downtown is undergoing a renaissance, I have to report that the fabled Calle Ocho, symbolic heart of South Florida’s Cuban-American diaspora and the central thoroughfare of the Little Havana district, has started to feel like New York’s Little Italy — a shell of a once-vibrant immigrant neighborhood whose communities have made good and moved on. Cafés and shops are shuttered behind forbidding-looking window bars, sidewalks are empty save for a handful of tourists, and bland chain banks and fast-food places give this boulevard an Anytown feel.

Today the Calle Ocho is notable for its collection of fine arts galleries, most of which lie between 13th and 20th streets and are worth a stroll if you’re in the area. That would most propitiously be on the last Friday of each month from 6:30 to 11 p.m., when the neighborhood hosts “Viernes Culturales” (Cultural Fridays), with live music and wine and cheese. There might also be Lorca plays, salsa singers or other performances at the several Hispanic theaters on the street (check the Web site for information).

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