Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
The 75-room Congress Hotel is spread across four separate buildings on Ocean Drive, and surrounded by throngs of tourists, thrumming dance-club beats, and expansive views of Lummus Park and the beach. As with many Ocean Drive hotels, there's no grand entrance; instead, you'll find two busy outdoor restaurants in front of the hotel plus two cheesy souvenir shops. The tiny lobby is hidden past a narrow walkway behind the Medi restaurant.
There's no hotel bar or indoor dining room, so the best place to meet your fellow hotel guests is on the sixth-floor pool deck -- the hotel's best feature by far, and what differentiates it from its midrange neighbors. There you'll find a few sunbathers quietly soaking in the rays and enjoying the view from their perch above Ocean Drive's chaotic mosh pit.
The lobby staff is friendlier and more knowledgeable than most in South Beach.
The service is excellent. When I checked in -- quickly and smoothly, I should add -- the front-desk clerk took out a small map of the property and highlighted where I'd find all the essentials -- pool, gym, food, and so on. Then a bellman guided me to my room in a separate building, alerting me to points of interest along the way.
Later that night, when I asked a different front-desk clerk for dinner recommendations, he asked me what kind of food I wanted, then took out a FAQ sheet (also useful, by the way!) and wrote down three different options, with locations, on the back. The one I chose, a sushi place called Moshi-Moshi, turned out to be a solid recommendation.
Finally, the morning I checked out, the front desk called to see if I needed any help with my bags or with transportation.
The only negatives: There's no room service (though takeout is available from the Atlantic restaurant), and poolside drinks service seemed, well, intermittent when I was there. Finally, the coffeepot in my room was broken, and when I told the guy at the front desk about it, he said they'd fix it, but they never did.
It's in the center of South Beach, an ideal midpoint in the Art Deco District, within blocks of several iconic buildings, including the Park Central Hotel and Casa Casuarina, better known as the Versace mansion.
The location also puts you next door to one of SoBe's most popular bars and clubs. If you're looking to drink (and drink, and drink ...), the Clevelander, a block away on 10th Street and Ocean Drive, is the place to be -- at least until the thrill of its '09 reopening wears off.
The area is generally safe -- well lit and trafficked enough to make even petty crime a rarity.
One of the most famous beaches in the world is right across the street.
It's a one-minute stroll across the grass to one of the world's most famous beaches, where a jumbled horde of bikini babes, jacked dudes, couples on vacation, and families with kids play on a stretch of sand 100 yards wide. South Beach makes it clear why there's a diet named after it.
In the mornings, the occasional runner trots along the harder, inland half of the beach. By the afternoon, the joint is packed with sunbathers; the scene thins out again at dusk.
The mandatory $12.50 "daily resort fee" includes access to two beach chairs and one umbrella per room. Mobile snack stands are scattered along the beach, selling soft drinks and chips.
The Congress encompasses four buildings: the Retro, the Deco, the Contemporary, and the Tropical. Aside from some slight variances in decor, the size and layout of the rooms themselves are about the same throughout the property.
The noise, however, varies from building to building. Because of its location on Ocean Drive (next door to the thumping Clevelander, no less), noise is an issue throughout the property. The quietest rooms are in the Tropical; then again, that's where I was, and I could still hear the dance beats through the thick glass windows well into the night.
Only the Contemporary and Retro rooms have genuine balconies. (The Tropical and Deco rooms have small decorative ledges.) Finally, for a view of the famous Versace mansion, try for an upper-level room in the Tropical.
Every room features sleek, minimalist furniture and fixtures from Miami-based (and world-renowned) Luminaire. In keeping with so much else in SoBe, including many of the people you meet, this means the room is aesthetically pleasing but not always practical. For instance, the stand-alone bathtubs are nice to look at and feature trendy rainfall showerheads, but the steep angles on the side of the tub aren't conducive to baths, and there's no place to put the shampoo or soap if you shower. On the plus side, the bathrooms come outfitted with toiletries from FCUK.
That's a minor quibble, though. Overall the rooms are large, clean, and comfortable. I was upgraded to a 550-square-foot one-bedroom suite, which is huge by South Beach standards. The junior suites are usually even larger, ranging from 450 to 700 square feet.
The soft, plush beds feature white comforters and goose-down pillows. Every room features an iHome iPod dock and a 17-inch Sharp Aquos LCD flat-screen TV with 80 channels -- though, with plenty of room available for a larger screen, you have to wonder what management was thinking. My free Wi-Fi connection was reliable and relatively fast.
The rooms aren't kitschy (like at, say, the nearby Pellican), but you can count on a few whimsical touches. Also, unlike the cheap-perfume scent ubiquitous in so many SoBe hotels, the aroma pervasive throughout the Strand is subtle enough to be pleasant, not offensive.
The pool, six stories up on the roof of the Contemporary building, isn't just the best of the Congress' features; it's the best thing about the entire hotel. It's not very big, but it's clean and warm and surrounded by veiled cabanas and cushioned lounge chairs, including what must be the most comfortable high-heel shoe in the world. (Seagulls apparently love the rooftop deck as much as the guests, which explains why the humans prefer using the chairs with umbrellas, though I never saw anyone get dive-bombed during my stay.) The views from the edges of the roof are as spectacular as any you'll find in South Beach.
The fitness room is tiny -- just a few cardio machines in a room the size of a teenager's bedroom. It requires a pass code to get in, but it's free for all guests.
The $12.50 resort fee grants you access to two beach chairs and one umbrella per room. Wi-Fi is reliable throughout the property.
Not an ideal place for kids.
There are two open-air restaurants right in front of the hotel: Medi and the Atlantic Bar & Grill, though only the Atlantic is officially affiliated with the Strand. For practical purposes, what that means is that if you want takeout, you can grab it at the Atlantic. (The Congress doesn't have room service.)
When it comes to most of the restaurants along Ocean Drive, it's really six of one, half-dozen of the other: It doesn't matter which one you choose. Al fresco bars and grills serving up mediocre, overpriced standard American fare (sandwiches, burgers, fries, etc.) lure you in with happy-hour drink specials, cereal-bowl-size margaritas, and attractive young women pushing menus into your face.
The Congress Hotel's 75 modern, massive kitchenette-equipped suites and rooftop pool make it a clear winner over the other Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive. But Ocean Drive comes with hard-core dance beats well into the night, and the Congress is no exception. For a quieter night, check out the Angler's, further off the beach.
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