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BOUTIQUE HOTEL MIAMI: my escape to The Vagabond

This weekend, I'm kicking back in Mid-Century style, and throwing it back to the 1950s at this dreamy retro motel in Miami's MiMo District.

photos courtesy of The Vagabond

I'm about a year into this adventure and I gotta tell ya, the transition from print journalist to online content creator is EXHAUSTING. (Don't let anyone tell you differently.) I'm loving every minute... but do I ever need a break!

As a design editor, I am admittedly choosey (not to be confused with snooty) when it comes to accommodations, because even when I'm looking for a getaway, I'm also looking for a takeaway (meaning, something I can write about from an interior design perspective).

Fun fact: it's Spring Break here in South Florida right now, and with my head clearly buried in the sand, I failed to connect the dots when I planned this little last-minute excursion. It's times like these when a teensy bit of clout comes in handy, because I can tell you this firsthand, folks: there is not a SINGLE hotel room available in the ENTIRE REGION unless you PLAN AHEAD. (By the way, not my strong suit as a "fly by the seat of my pants" kinda gal.)

So, before I tell you about this little gem of a property, I'd like to formally thank Vagabond's GM May Mallouh for showing a desperate working mom some love and hooking me up.

Now, onto the good stuff! Let me set the scene...

poolside oasis at Vagabond

Everyone's favorite ditzy redhead I Love Lucy! is on the small screen, while Marilyn Monroe is creating the original "Material Girl" moment in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on the big screen. Elvis is causing a commotion with a pelvic sway and sound that makes the young girls cry. The Corvette comes off the assembly line for the first time ever. And the Rat Pack is packing lounges... when they're not otherwise busy schmoozing with showgirls.

You guessed it. It's 1953. And not very far from Miami Beach where luxurious hotels (think Fontainebleu and Eden Roc) line the ocean, Biscayne Boulevard is a blur of motels with flashing neon signs.

But there is one that shines brighter than all the others: The Vagabond.

Vagabond Motel back in the day

To fully appreciate the significance of The Vagabond, you'll need a crash course in Miami Modernist architecture, or MiMo, so here it is: MiMo is a style of architecture that developed in South Florida during the post-war period. It characterizes a number of Miami Beach resorts built after the Great Depression. MiMo styling not only pulled inspo from international architectural movements, but also responded to the rhythm of the times: glamour and extravagance replaced stark and minimalist, the previous aesthetic, which was designed for efficiency more so than fun. Today, the MiMo Historic District runs along Biscayne Boulevard (from about 50th Street to 77th Street).

Miami Modernist influences on the exterior of the hotel

"Rumor has it that back in those days, Sammy Davis Jr. wasn't allowed to stay on the beach, and Frank Sinatra - who was hanging at the Fontainebleu - would come here to The Vagabond and they would spontaneously perform together," Mallouh informs me.

Flash-forward several decades to the present. A full restoration has breathed life back into the legendary property as first imagined by prominent architect B. Robert Swartburg (you know him from Miami's famous Delano Hotel) while staying true to its fascinating history.

All the hallways of this boutique hotel are open air.

"The property was totally boarded-up when we purchased it," says Mallou. "Although it was completely gutted, it was entirely recreated to reflect the building's heritage. The outdoor structure and setup is exactly the same now as it was then."

Upon arrival, I was given a room key (and mind you that by "room key," I mean an actual key, not a swipe card). Things felt different already. The front desk agent was warm and friendly, which tends to be unusual in Miami nowadays. Sorry, not hating on our Magic City, but I tell it like it is. Even though it was after dark when I checked in, my charming suite was as bright as a sunny South Florida beach day.

The stenciled, geometric mural behind every custom headboard depicts boxy luggage and steamer trunks, apropos of a hotel named for the perpetual wanderer.

I couldn't help but smile when I saw doppelgängers of some familiar friends I often write about here on DR (hello Poul Henningsen sconces, Platner stool, and Saarinen "Tulip" chair!) The lively interiors by Frenchman-turned-Miamian visionary and renowned hospitality designer Stephane Dupoux feature not only these terrific replicas, but also, an electrifying mid-century color palette that's spot-on: Cherokee red, lime green, aqua, tangerine, and golden yellow.

It might sound cliché but it's true: this guest room had all the comforts of home. The attention to detail - not only in recreating the era but also putting anything a weary traveler (or wiped-out writer in my case!) needs right at her fingertips - is most impressive.

World's away from the long elevator waits and poolside chaise feuds undoubtedly taking place all over Spring Break-central, The Vagabond's lushly landscaped pool area was effortless and serene. I've been so stressed out lately that I literally shed tears of joy.

But then I quickly wiped them away. Because after a good cry, there's nothing better than a good swim.

"The swimming pool used to be 12-feet-deep because of the diving boards in the 50s, so although we kept the shape the same, we reduced it to 7-feet at the deepest end," Mallouh tells me, adding: "We even restored the original mermaid to her former glory."

mosaic tile mermaid detail on the pool bottom

On the weekends by day, the Vagabond's pool bar is a place to unwind and refresh. By night, it becomes Aqua by Sebastian, an intimate hotspot that attracts hotel guests and locals alike with its chill vibe, friendly staff (including Sebastian himself who is - as you'd expect - a very cool cat), plus handcrafted and aptly-named cocktails. For me personally, "The Pack" (bourbon, sour mash whiskey, Frangelico, turbinado, and chocolate bitters) was just the thing.

The pool bar was rebuilt in the precise image of the original.

Due to its excellent reputation and uncanny resemblance to a bygone era, Vagabond attracts interior designers, architects, those who enjoy small boutique hotels, and naturally, fans of anything retro and kitsch. "When you have an experience at The Vagabond, it's very authentic," says Mallouh. "It really is an amazing oasis."

Having now stayed there myself, I can attest that what she says is true. Legitimately, I didn't want to leave since all that awaited back home was piles of laundry, paperwork, and moody teenagers. Even tried to sneak in one more night but they were booked solid. Lucky for me though, it's a relatively short drive to Vagabond from my place, and I will be heading back soon enough. But even if you need to travel many, many miles to get there, I promise you that this MiMo gem is well worth the trip.

The Vagabond Motel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.

For more information or reservations, visit:

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