Big tips in Miami – The Shelborne reborn

The sundeck at the Shelborne

When I first visited Miami I was there to look at the buildings and it was against a backdrop of newspaper articles about marauding gangs and high levels of street-crime. There had been warnings not to stray far from the hotel and to avoid isolated car parks in a city that preyed upon hapless tourists. This was, after all, a Mafia hotspot and we’d seen for ourselves how bad it was in Miami vice.

Well, it really wasn’t like that at all despite Gianni Versace being shot on the street next door shortly after one visit. I quickly found hiding traveller’s cheques in my underpants unnecessary. Visiting Miami never seemed any more dangerous than Christmas shopping at Tesco and it was certainly much safer than watching a football match at Chelsea.

South Beach and the art deco district appeared earthier then and, in some ways, more authentic. Many of the ‘boutique’ hotels and buildings that had sprung up in the mid-1930s were run down; some were empty and several were derelict in what seemed a natural cycle of decline and regeneration of a city. My perception was that it felt more lived-in but that’s gradually changed; the buildings have been refurbished and the area improved through a series of initiatives that include tax breaks so that, like the water flowing through theEverglades, the ever-growing number of tourists and visitors has become an exploitable resource.

Pool at the Shelborne

I’ve stayed in a fair number of art deco hotels now and was pleased to hear that another grand old ruin had been restored. The Shelborne began life at the end of 1940 as one of the hotels that backed right onto the beach. It has now just about emerged from a bumpy metamorphosis – if not quite as a tropical butterfly – as The Shelborne Beach Resort. It’s part of Menin Hotels but nonetheless retains an individuality that’s not quite unique and yet not really corporate. We know the place from previous visits and were keen to have a look around despite recent reviews that were truly awful so Mission Control e-mailed before we made reservations to ask if what people were saying on Yelp was true – could it really be that bad? Ominously, there was no response to either that or the follow-up e-mail she sent to [you might want to avoid these people] so, after calling the hotel, she elicited a promise that we’d get a renovated room and all would be fine. And it wasn’t bad at all given that it was only for a couple of nights. The décor was mannered in that ‘we celebrate our art deco’ sort of way so it wasn’t authentic but it was very much ‘Miami Beach’. I loved the hard-backed art volumes carefully placed on shelves higher than one could reach; a sure sign that the targeted clientele would be attracted by the covers but probably uninterested in the content. The Shelborne badly wants to be a venue, but struggles to deliver on its promise. Despite those truly awful reviews staff members were friendly and welcoming but things sort of stopped there. At check-in we were given ‘happy hour’ cocktail vouchers as a welcome gift but had to drink them, squeezed between diners, leaning against the screen wall of the lobby restaurant as the bar was restricted to a private function. No one thought to mention that earlier. The Rooms were clean and the beds supremely comfortable but despite pleading with staff and maintenance guys it took most of the first day to get some cheese and salad cleaned off the corridor floor outside the room and half the second for the used linen from several made-up rooms to be removed from the lift lobby. I found that a little surprising in a place where you pay a non-optional resort charge to cover the little ‘extras’ like beach towels, room safes, wi-fi and continental breakfast, none of which, by the way, was necessary to enhance the customer experience. As it turned out, the beach towels we were offered were dirty, the continental breakfast – comprising small pastries and coffee – was no more continental than black pudding or St Patrick’s Day – and the room safes weren’t actually fixed down. I know that a guy walking out of the hotel with a small safe under each arm might look suspicious but you get the point.

Having worked on hotel building and refurbishment over many years I was more understanding of the glitches that left us without hot water for long periods. I was less forgiving, however, of groups of builders not moving for guests and clearly put out by the disturbance caused to progress. There were more art books in the room but there were no soap trays in the bathroom [can you sue the hotel if you slip in a soapy shower and break your leg?]. And although the wardrobe was supplied with plenty of hangers it didn’t allow trousers or a jacket to be hung without folding them.

The overall impression is one of not attending to the details and, of course, any good hotelier – and most guests – will tell you it’s the details that count. We asked for fruit at breakfast – most top end resorts will provide some fruit somewhere, either in the room or reception – but were told pretty curtly that we had to pay for it. Hmmm, OK. Two cokes we bought at the Vesper American Brasserie at the pool were served, from a jet not bottles, without ice or lemon in plastic cups. Well, OK again, I suppose – and once more pleasant smiling staff but piss-poor service – but both the fruit and the drinks had a whopping 18% tip added to the bill. Wait a minute – what was the resort fee for? An invidious feeling that we might not be getting value for money kept us out of the hotel for the rest of our stay, which is probably not what the management – let alone the financiers – intended. No, the Shelborne is being disingenuous in positioning itself at an elevated level and not delivering on what it charges for.

Staying there was like wearing designer shoes with a pebble in one; it looked good but you couldn’t wait to get out of them soon enough; like the art books, this place is about appearance and not substance.

And a last word on those tips

What we found at the Shelborne was symptomatic of how South Beach has changed in the years we’ve been visiting. Pass the restaurants along Ocean Drive and you are solicited [less so on Lincoln Road or the charming Española Way but the malaise is spreading] at every step with offers of ‘specials’ for breakfast, lunch or dinner. That isn’t new and walking these streets is an essential part of any visit to Miami no matter how many times you’ve visited, but these days the hustle is a little more cold-blooded and the accents a little more Russian. A few days ago when trying to make a dinner reservation for that evening we were brusquely advised that the restaurant was fully booked so ‘why don’t you look at the lunch menu instead’. That we wanted to eat some nine or ten hours later wasn’t misunderstood; it was Ludmila or Svetlana or whatever the unsmiling harpy’s name was trying for another gratuity from another tourist. As at the Shelborne, the once sporadic practice of adding the gratuity to the bill is now widespread and common. Make no mistake here, I’m pleased to tip when I get good service – and in a very un-English way, I always make a point of mentioning when it’s not good – but I get very antsy when 18% is added to the bill regardless. A lot’s been written about it so I won’t turn this into a rant but the only justification I could find for jacking-up the price is that ‘Europeans and South Americans don’t tip as well as Americans’ so in order to get it, you add it to the bill. I haven’t been able to find one reference to pre-emptive tipping providing for better service, happier staff or improving the value of what you get. And I couldn’t find anything approaching an argument for tipping, either, other than it being expected. Miami has a State law that requires restaurants or hotels to clearly notify that a gratuity will be added to the bill but search as I may, I never found one.

At Smith and Wollensky at South Pointe the food was excellent and the service, by a knowledgeable, competent and friendly Os, just fautless. They didn’t add an 18% gratuity to the bill and clearly didn’t need to. There’s a moral to be drawn somewhere.   

The Shelborne opens directly onto the Miami Beach



Tenerife; searching for a soul and finding a few surprises

A few days in Tenerife and it didn’t fail to live up to expectations. If, like me, you believe that travelling to foreign climes is about immersion in another culture, experiencing local character or enjoying cuisine and places that are different, this is not for you. Of course, on the largest island in the group some parts do remain unspoiled and they are frequently visually stunning but, in its headlong rush to attract and exploit the tourist, Tenerife’s identity and history have been significantly obliterated by timeshare apartments, hotels and shopping malls. There were some pleasant surprises tucked away in a destination that attracts twelve millions sun-seekers annually but, for the most part, it’s sad and breathtakingly awful.

Our rural retreat on the banana plantation was located in the north-west corner of the island; an area that has the least tourist development and which consequently retains the last remnants of the pre-Thomas Cook Islas Canarias. But we’d decided to take it slowly and see something of the south side first. The convenient overnight stay near the airport was in San Miguel de Abona, an urbanización comprising holiday rentals, a golf course, clubs, retirement villas, timeshares and shopping facilities. Oh, and several Indian restaurants.

Don't panic, we're here to help.

Have you ever read reviews of hotels on TripAdvisor or similar sites? As most people are only motivated to set the record straight when they have a grievance it has always been enjoyable to read about hapless holidaymakers blaming hotels for swollen feet, holes in the road, insects on the lawn or surly staff that don’t acknowledge a birthday. These days you can’t always trust the reviews as there is more than a little suspicion that ‘good’ reviews have been planted. They can, however, give you some insight into what to expect and so it was at the Vincci Hotel Golf, where we’d planned to crash. One positive ‘reviewer’ has photographed the newly-made bed, the bathroom and poolside sunbeds, which was useful if completely unbelievable, but less convincing was another eager contributor who enthused about the sight and sound of aircraft passing overhead on approach to the adjacent airport. Nonetheless, the hotel was clean and comfortable if a little run-down. In true Spanish tradition builders were sanding and varnishing the decking around the roped-off pool but I guess they have to do it at some time. When I first went to Spain I was fascinated by how inept the maintenance work was and how low the standard. Now, a career in construction and too many years to mention later, I’m left scratching my head at why that hasn’t changed. Pepe was not only sanding down the decking in a wind that blew the dust into the pool but was also splashing varnish onto newly-painted white walls. The electrician attending to the poolside lights had the air of someone unaware that touching two wires at once might kill you and I suspect he was the guy who wired the telephones into the rooms; it wasn’t until I had paid for access to the internet and plugged in the cable they kindly provided that I was told by the reception staff that ‘the signal didn’t reach up as far as the eighth floor’. I didn’t see mention of that on TripAdvisor.

Bargains, offers and mementos - but not of Spain

The perpetual dilemma suffered by the expatriates we saw in Tenerife is how to live in a foreign country without it  being, well, foreign. After all, in seeking an all-year tan and a cheap lifestyle there are so many things to avoid quite apart from the smell of the sewers – language, poor driving, that funny food, strange habits like keeping out of the sun and those little dark houses with small windows. Developers, being a clever sort, know about these things so rows of speculative ‘villas’ and apartments are built in the international ‘turret and pergola’ style, simultaneously presenting eye-wateringly poor design with the promise of a utopian lifestyle to an undiscerning clientele.

If you can't trust the spelling can you trust the service?

Our surroundings reflected just that; the accommodation cramming the urbanización Del Sur had at its centre, the heart of the development no doubt, the shopping plaza – a parched and shadeless citadel holding fast against all and everything Canarian. This soulless expanse of cheap bars, restaurants, empty units and peripheral expatriate services was as depressing as the couples wandering slowly through it with miniature dogs, cheap wine and cheddar cheese slices. With the developer long gone – I couldn’t help wondering if he had retired not to his own place in the sun but to a house in Hampshire or the Cotswolds – the paint was beginning to peel, the roads and footpaths were cracking and the ‘for rent’ signs in the empty shop units were bleaching in the sun. The area was livelier in the evening, but there was nothing Spanish about what was on offer – Asian favourites, tandoori specials and English beer. There was one Spanish outlet that sold souvenirs to holidaying northern Europeans; the owner was British. This was a microcosm of awfulness.

A little research provided us with the details of a local restaurant at a pretty village in the mountains called Valle San Lorenzo. The Mesón Era Las Mozas is well off the beaten track in the back streets and served a late lunch in a shaded courtyard. It is patronised by local people and survives because the food is excellent. We drank Canarian red wine – Tacoronte-Acentejo – from the oldest wine-producing area on the island and which is surprisingly good, local ham and cheese, a hot dish of beans cooked with pork and a vast salad. The drive takes you out of the tourist areas and up into the lower slopes of the mountains so your journey has the added advantages of spectacular views, greener surroundings and cooler air.

None of that foreign stuff.

In the evening we drove to Los Abrigos, a traditional but now slightly fake fishing harbour a few kilometres to the east of the hotel. We didn’t know that we could have walked along the rocky shoreline to it. It holds a few little restaurants, each claiming to sell the best local fish, but it was the temperature rather than the ambience that made it pleasant. Again the Canarian wine was excellent; a chilled bottle of Tierra de Frontos blanco from Granadilla de Abona was near perfect. The view took in hotels and apartments stretching away to the Costa Del Silencio and, beyond, Playa De Los Cristianos; inland and between unfinished concrete buildings that might be apartment blocks or might be hotels there was more development encroaching on the backdrop of the mountains. There was a pervading sense of sadness about it all – a feeling that perhaps the island had lost its soul and was still in mourning.

Tomorrow we’d head for the bananas.