Every Friday night, Alexis Newell leaves her South Miami home for Miami Beach, where she plops down on cushioned outdoor seats on Lincoln Road and orders a beer and a hookah, a long, ornate water pipe with roots in the Middle East. Usually joined by a few friends, her group lounges for hours, passing the fruity smoke-exuding pipe around, munching on falafel between puffs.
''It's chill, laid-back,'' says 30-year-old Newell, who works in marketing. ``It's a way to relax after a long week.''
She goes to D'Vine, one of several hookah destinations that have popped up in South Florida in recent years in hip spots such as South Beach and suburban neighborhoods including Plantation and Kendall. The hookah -- also called shisha -- has become increasingly popular among teenagers, college students and even young professionals. It's found a niche as an alternative to bars and clubs for those under 21 -- hookah smokers have to be 18 -- as well as for people like Newell, who prefer a more relaxed vibe on weekends.
While hookahs vary in size and extravagance, they're generally set up the same way, with a glass, water-filled base connected to an upright pipe topped with a bowl. The bowl holds the maassel, tobacco soaked in a mix of molasses, semidried fruit and honey with the occasional artificial flavoring. On top of it, separated by a thin sheet of aluminum foil peppered with tiny holes, is a lump of hot coal. A flexible tube connects to the water bowl and the user sucks in smoke that's cooled by the liquid, producing a smooth taste that doesn't feel as rough as that of a cigarette. Some users think that means it's healthier, but doctors disagree.
''There's no evidence that it's safer to smoke a hookah than to smoke cigarettes,'' says David Brown, an assistant research professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. ``The water as a filter, it cools the smoke, but it doesn't change the content of it.''
Yet, hookahs keep gaining popularity. There are more than a dozen places to smoke them in South Florida, up from just a handful a few years ago.
Originally from India and made of a hollowed coconut (nariyal in Hindi, similar to the narghile, another name for the pipe), the hookah spread via trade and conquest through South Asia and the Middle East. In the '60s, it was a head shop staple for marijuana smokers, but the hookah's latest incarnation as a tobacco device is closer to its origin.
During the past two decades, hookahs have been big in areas like New York City and Los Angeles, but now they're all over South Florida, says SouthSmoke.com's Brennan Appel, a national distributor that supplies a half-dozen local hookah businesses.
They're found in restaurants, cafés and lounges, mostly owned by Middle Eastern immigrants and usually offering ethnic fare -- hummus, falafel, kabobs and shawarma. Some sell alcohol, too. These spots vary from the cheap and minimal, such as Michael's Café in Kendall -- a small, converted gas station -- where it's $10 to rent a pipe and most foods are priced the same, to posh D'Vine, where a premium hookah can set an aficionado back $45.
Most places, such as Oasis Café in Coconut Grove, fall in the middle. An Internet café, coffee shop and hookah lounge, it's been open four years and caters largely to college students and high schoolers.
Oasis is run by Tamar Sherman and Eli Amor, a 23-year-old Israeli immigrant who figured a hookah lounge was the most natural business for him operate. They charge $21 per single-hosed pipe with tobacco and offers flavors including strawberry, cherry, melon and double apple -- that's mixed red and green apples, one of the most popular -- plus dozens of others.
''Here, it's new to people. They want to try it,'' Amor says while overlooking a packed house on a Thursday night. ``In Israel, it's just there. They don't go crazy for it. They see it every day.''
One of his regular customers is Chris Ocasio, a 22-year-old engineering student at Miami Dade College, who comes to Oasis up to three times a week.
''It's cleaner, it's not dirty and my breath doesn't stink afterwards,'' says Ocasio, who rarely smokes cigarettes. ``If you smoke it the right way, you'll get really light-headed. It's a fun feeling.''
Luis Agosto, a 21-year-old business administration student at Miami-Dade College, comes to the café every weekend from Doral. He dislikes cigarettes, but doesn't mind hookahs. They're ''not as bad,'' he says. Like him, many hookah smokers interviewed say they don't smoke cigarettes and prefer the social aspect of the lounges.
Thomas Eissenberg, a researcher at the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, has spent five year's studying the effects of hookah smoking, which he says are the same or possibly worse than cigarettes.
''Water pipe smokers are inhaling charcoal smoke, plus tobacco smoke,'' says Eissenberg. ''On average, water pipe users produce 100 times the amount of smoke in a single water pipe use episode compared to a single cigarette.'' Even if the pipe is shared among a group, it's still a lot of smoke, experts say. Eissenberg points out that, like cigarettes, hookah tobacco contains nicotine, so it's also addictive.
Yet, some business owners are catching on to health concerns. At Off the Hookah in Fort Lauderdale, a vast lounge that serves dinner and cocktails and has plush cabana beds where patrons gather around hookahs, they offer a tobacco-free, herbal-based maassel.
''It's giving them an alternative,'' says owner Ehab Atallah. The business has been open for a year and started offering the herbal product six months ago, in addition to the regular tobacco mix. ``It's becoming popular because some people want to stay away from tobacco.''