SUNNY ISLES BEACH, a two-mile stretch of white sand five miles north of Miami Beach, was once the Vegas of Florida. In the 1950s, Frank Sinatra and his cronies wintered at glamorous party palaces like the Gold Strand Hotel, occasionally ducking out to bet on jai alai and dog races. Then the action moved to South Beach in the 1990s, leaving the gambling houses and midcentury motels of Sunny Isles forgotten.
But in recent years, South Beach has become overcrowded, and a hotel boom has crept up Sunny Isles, putting the barrier island with expansive beaches on track to become Florida’s next hot spot. Luxury condo-hotels have sprung up, chic restaurants have opened along the beach, and shiny condos are being snapped up by wealthy Europeans and football players like Terrell Owens of the Dallas Cowboys.
Perhaps the splashiest newcomer is the Acqualina Resort (17875 Collins Avenue; 305-918-8000; www.acqualinaresort.com). Opened last year on 4.5 beachfront acres, this 97-room resort, where rates start at $850 a night, has attracted hordes of rich Brazilians and Russians who arrive in Maybachs, Jaguars and Ferraris. The hotel also has an ESPA spa, which blends Asian elegance with top-notch massages.
If all that pampering puts you in the mood to shop, the resort will dispatch a chauffeur to drive you three miles south to the Bal Harbour Shops (9700 Collins Avenue; 305-866-0311; www.balharbourshops.com). Perhaps the most exclusive open-air mall in the country, it has hundreds of upscale boutiques to choose from, including Gucci, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Chloé, Lora Piana and Tory Burch.
Want a cosmopolitan cocktail to go with your new stilettos? Glide into the nearby Lime Lounge, one of three restaurants at the Trump International Beach Resort (18001 Collins Avenue; 305-692-5600; www.trumpmiami.com), which was a Sonesta resort until this month. The Lime is the place to be on Thursday and Friday afternoons, when it draws a fashionable Miami crowd, along with a sprinkling of Miami Heat basketball players who live in the Trump condos next door.
The Trump Resort, like its neighbors, is all about excess. The 32-story resort has grotto-style swimming pools, air-conditioned cabanas and sumptuous rooms, which start at $399 a night.
For dinner, Italian is the name of the game. A favorite among visiting New Yorkers is Il Mulino, which has an outpost at Acqualina (305-466-9191; www.ilmulino.com). Those seeking more low-key dining should head to La Vita e’ Bella at the Golden Strand Hotel (17901 Collins Avenue; 305-931-2229; www.goldenstrandresort.com), where you’ll find big-name developers and romancing couples tucking into Italian classics like veal scaloppine with artichoke hearts and a pine nut sauce ($19.95).
Sunny Isles isn’t known for its night life, but just a 15-minute drive away is Miami Beach and the Forge (432 41st Street; 305-538-8533; www.theforge.com), a Hollywood-style restaurant and nightclub. Its Glass lounge (formerly Jimmy’z) is popular with jet setters, celebrities and models who groove all night to D.J.s like DJ Vertigo or Tom Laroc.
Back in Sunny Isles Beach, if you’re not tired at 5 a.m., the Porterhouse Bar and Grill (17004 Collins Avenue; 305-949-7757) is where strippers go after work and where the hard-core partyers greet the day.
Despite the new gloss, Sunny Isles hasn’t lost its eclectic character. Stroll the beach in the morning, and you’ll see local hippies looking for shells, beside young hedge-fund couples and Russian tycoons. And since the well-known deli Rascal House closed at the end of March, the breakfast crowd is seeking a new hangout.