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‘Staycation’

Long before the recession blues rolled in, and “staycation” became a buzzword, Miami has presented vacation opportunities in one’s own backyard. Closer than the Keys, nearer than Palm Beach, we’re talking about a 10-minute drive over the causeway — or a five-minute stroll down the street — to experience real getaways. So many new properties have sprouted in Miami Beach, not to mention along Brickell, that “hotel hopping” is a bona fide sport for 2009. Here, a mere three, to get you started:

The Betsy

Beyond the usual luxury perks expected of boutique hotels, this impressive departure-from-the-norm boasts several rarities: an Ocean Drive address on the street’s sleepier north end, the only surviving example of Florida-Georgian architecture in the area, and cultural programs for the visual arts, music, literature and philanthropy. Think of it as a modern-day salon, inspired by the sort Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and other Paris expats fueled during the 1920s.

Unlike most South Beach hotels, which can seem quite cold, The Betsy feels like a residence, perhaps because it was co-designed by Ralph Lauren’s personal interiors maven, Diamante Pedersoli. The lobby’s cozy seating vignettes, soft lighting, entertainment and enrichments — from board games to a wide selection of newspapers — invite conversation or sitting down with a good book.

Rooms are anything but Miami minimal, as well. Organic textures like raffia and linen, and unusual color schemes including lavender or ochre, give the vibe of staying at a chic friend’s home in the Hamptons. Tech buffs may never leave the baths, where LCD TVs are embedded in the backlit mirrors. Incidentally, Books & Books has partnered with the property to host author events, book clubs and poetry readings, and at turn down, the hotel’s 60+ guestrooms feature books with bookmarks instead of traditional chocolates.

But even bookworms have needs — to blow off steam, it’s the Lobby Bar — or to take a steam, try The Spa and the rooftop Solarium (open on or before May 15, 2009), for Zen-style lounging. A branch of New York’s BLT Steak serves piping-hot popovers before the main attractions: raw bar platters, gourmet cuts of meat with herbed butter kept warm in cast-iron pans, and artisanal cheeses rolled tableside on an old-fashioned cart.

Canyon Ranch

Arizona’s luxury, wellness and hospitality destination has opened a Miami Beach outpost, where workaholics and pampered princesses, alike, can get the full tune-up. Designed by Arquitectonica and David Rockwell, its six acres of spacious, one- and two-bedroom guest suites with kitchens — plus sunrise and sunset pools, and a 70,000-square-foot spa — will take at least a long weekend to explore.

In the tranquil lobby, a glimpse of the mangrove sculpture, adorned with slivers of agate, helps city stress melt away. Take advantage of health-minded amenities: book a session with a nutritionist; choose from dozens of exercise classes (including yoga) in a spacious room overlooking the ocean; and complete Aquavana — a series of European water and temperature therapies, incorporating crystal steam baths, igloos and saunas, among others — which is the first complete version of its kind in the United States.

Since the spa is open only to residents and hotel guests, an overnight stay is really required to see what made the brand famous. The treatment list is overwhelming: a Muscle Melt Massage, inspired by Thai warriors’ post-battle regimen, uses lemongrass oil and heated pouches of herbs, while the Native American Dream Time combines a steam bath, head massage, rain shower, stones and more.

Dining at the on-site restaurant is, somehow, delicious, filling and healthy, all in one, with ingredients and even wine, from organic, sustainable and, when possible, local sources. Standouts are the Thai ceviche with Key West shrimp, jicama and pomelo; red-miso-braised bison short ribs with cepes and white sweet potato; and seared diver scallops with beets, and spelt/asparagus risotto.

The Hilton Bentley — Miami/South Beach

Also designed by Arquitectonica, this all-suites hotel, with full or partial kitchens and roomy balconies, is located directly on the beach in the South of Fifth Street (SoFi) neighborhood. Guests soon discover there’s little reason to leave the hotel, considering its unexpected luxuries, unknown even to nearby residents.

For example, Spa 101 claims one of the sweetest spots in town for its sky deck with ocean views — it’s a world away from the South Beach scene. The owners, a Dutch and Armenian husband and wife, spent five years researching and working at spas in Bali, so their place is a little slice of that Indonesian island — from the complimentary chrysanthemum tea to the Sumatra wood walls.

Specializing in Balinese massage (though Thai, Swedish and reflexology are also offered), they incorporate massage into every treatment, including the facials, mani/pedis and shampoos. Treatments are customized, using fresh organic products from Éminence that smell good enough to eat: chocolate, pumpkin and parsley-cucumber are a few scents. Besides smelling and feeling good, services get down to business, with high-tech machines that lift skin, as well as pre- and post-sun skin and hair protection.

Gaia Ristorante is a total surprise, not only for its hidden locale, but also for its authentic Italian menu prepared by chef Gaetano Ascione. Having cooked for presidents and other big shots, he raises the regional bar, with daring combinations and fine cuisine. Like a doting Italian mother, Ascione gets to know guests before customizing “walking menus” to their tastes. A spoonful of melon risotto wrapped in prosciutto shows off his intricate technique, and amuse bouches are savory, like a shot of lentil, porcini and truffle soup. Another option for foodies: themed dinners, with a single ingredient used in every course; tomato, for instance, featured sweet San Marzano tomato jam with biscotti for dessert.

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