In December, South Beach, Miami, home to the super rich, explodes with activity for the ultimate art collectors' show. Alex James takes in this weird, wacky, glamorous world

I first came to Miami's art-deco neighbourhood, South Beach, to make a record with Marianne Faithfull. I got into all kinds of trouble and I've been coming back ever since. It's Miami's party precinct and it oozes glamour and sleaze in equal measure. It's super-gay, sexy and fabulous. Everywhere you look there is a juice bar or a gym. Ocean Drive is one of the world's great catwalks. Women wearing only jewellery and bikinis, mincing cops and chopper "doods" dazzle the waddling tourists. The sun is always shining and there's always one more place to go. It's brilliant. Two days after I arrive I always seem to have a lot of new friends.

This time we're staying at The Hotel Victor, which is très moderne et très chic. There is a jellyfish tank in the lobby. I've always wanted one of those. There always seems to be something that you've always wanted, wherever you go in Miami. But we're here for the art. I don't covet art, but I do like looking at it. Miami has more contemporary art than anywhere else. It seems to be having a little golden age all of its own. The Miami art scene is a huge, raging bushfire fuelled by the petty competitiveness of immense wealth.

The rich people here are obscenely, flabbergastingly, rich. The famous people are proper famous people, too. The Bee Gees live here, for goodness' sake. There are whole swathes of suburbs where houses cost upwards of 30 million dollars. All self-respecting billionaires have extensive art collections and they march you round them before dinner. The art isn't confined to rich people's houses, though. It spills onto the streets. There are strange blobs of weird geometry, and eye-catching towering objects all over the city. My favourite is the car in the tree. And from 7-10 December, Art Basel is coming to town.

Since it started in 1991 Art Basel has exploded into a colossal frenzy of art shopping. The exhibition centre, the museums, private collections, galleries, warehouses, specially erected marquees, backyards and street corners throughout the city will be crammed full of art for sale. All the international high rollers will be here to buy sell and speculate. Stars will be made and fortunes will be spent. We came last year. It really is impossible to see everything. There was so much good stuff. You can pick up anything from 99 cents - a pencil designed by an artist you've never heard of - to $9,999,999 which buys you a whole condominium full of artists' work. If you buy well you stand to make a lot of money.

My friend Robert is a sculptor. He is putting a motorbike arrangement up a tree at the moment. He was in London about 10 years ago when he spotted something in a little gallery and advised the person he was with to buy it. It was a Chris Offili and it's now worth rather a lot. They'd probably looked at a few hundred works of art that day. He knows what he's doing, Robert does. Claire and I drove to his house in Coconut Grove along the winding Dr Zeus highway that passes the trillionaire's enclaves of Star Island and Palm Island, packed with suburban castles with huge ships parked at the end of the gardens. Coconut Grove is slightly more down to earth than South Beach, but it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see a crocodile walking down the road. There was a peacock on the roof of Robert's house among the banyan trees, and he was in the yard trying to start his helicopter. The rotors have been removed and replaced with black and white spirals. They start to spin as the engine bursts into life. The noise draws the neighbour to look over the fence. The neighbour is Vidal Sassoon, the hairspray guy. He comes round to decide if he wants to buy it. Soon the yard is full of people. That sort of thing is always happening in Miami.

We have to break up the party because an experimental sound artist is performing at Vizcaya, the local palace. It sounds too good to miss. I've been to too many palaces, but Vizcaya is a good* *one. It was built in the Twenties by the tractor magnate John Deere on a scale that even the stupendous wealth of 21st-century Miami can only dream about. Palaces are quite nice to look at but you need something going on there other than the architecture, for it to be really worth going. One of the really good things about Miami is that a large proportion of the historic buildings are being put to good use. Art dealers are getting wise to the marketing power of castles and are using them as barrows to sell art from, more and more.

Vizcaya has all the usual palatial trimmings, indoor forests and gilt candelabras. The trustees are an intensely nice group of people. They want to share this wonderful place and fill it with interesting things. This event was a rarefied, elegant gathering of couture frocks and dazzling rocks. I've never seen a diamond as big as the one the lady next to me was wearing. It was as big as an acorn. Gustavo Matamoros, the artist, was a nice man, but I couldn't hear a single, as we say in the music industry. He explained how he had spent weeks measuring the resonant frequencies of the space to create his sonic textures. Nobody knew if it was good or not. Except me. God, it was awful. I will definitely go there again next time I'm in town. Bad art is way better than bad television.

We went out for dinner at the Sagamore Hotel. Usually, I like the cheap food best in America - pizza, burgers, and breakfast. Miami has a lot of low-budget gourmet delights; the Cuban guys who serve tiny thimbles of coffee from caravans; Professor Barbecue, a legendary character with a pick-up truck converted into a mobile stove - you call him and he drives over and does the business. Brian is our host for the evening. He explains that the Sagamore is not so much a hotel as the place where the owner keeps his spare art and his spare friends. It's spectacular, as usual. Almost everything is in South Beach. There are candlelit drapes wafting in the gentle ocean breeze, mood lighting and it's a well-chosen art collection. Yoko Ono is showing here during Art Basel.

Brian knows a lot about art. He's a little bit piqued that Art Basel, which started as purely an art event has been taken over by the party crowd. I think that good things always get taken over by the party crowd and in this instance it has made the event even more ridiculous and exciting. He feels it has turned into a philistine free-for-all. Invitations to the parties have to be staggered nowadays. The big spenders come at five, spend, and leave at seven when the glamour squad starts to arrive. The glamour squad scoffs the caviar before the nine o'clock crowd turn up. This group is known as the "Art Bagel" brigade as there are only bagels left to eat by nine. After ten all that remains is free Absolut and Becks. This is consumed with relish by the freeloaders who all know someone and are all sure that they are at the best party because they heard Lenny Kravitz was there earlier. A waiter comes over and starts shouting at us. He's trying to help us order. The food is a bit like that too: shouty, party food. It's a menu that screams all the most fashionable, wonderful, expensive ingredients. Devilled eggs with caviar and truffles come first and are delicious. Two minutes later, mini Kobe beefburgers arrive. The beef is overcooked and there is the usual slice of huge tomato that tastes of nothing. It doesn't matter because immediately tiny conch escargots with ancient balsamic vinegar appear.

The onslaught of luxury is gradually rumbling into an out of control avalanche of extravagance. Brian nudges me. "See that guy? That's Madonna's brother!" Wham! Tuna carpaccio and crisps crash land on the table in front of me. "See this guy? Jesse Jackson's son!" Bang! Shrimps in something or other. "Madonna's ex-girlfriend, that one." Wallop. Skirt steak. The skirt steak is perfection. There's no doubt that this is the best food I've ever eaten in America. It's comic the way it is served. It's a blistering rush, a genuine feeding frenzy. What would have taken all day in France is over in about 15 minutes. More and more famous people's relatives and art bagelers have joined us and are gradually usurped as glamorous writers, sculptors, painters and dandies arrive. Suddenly we're a throng and I have lots of new friends. I love this city.

When you eventually need to run away from your new friends, the city environs are a stunning contrast to the metropolitan madness. The road to the south links the entire archipelago of the Florida Keys and is well worth exploring, but no trip to Miami would be complete without visiting the Everglades. Marjory Stoneman Douglas's book about the swamps, Everglades: River of Grass is an excellent read. It's a unique place, the Glades. It's much better than art, in fact. I remember being quite shocked the first time I saw an alligator, a fairly large one, in the Parrot Jungle, a park not far from South Beach. "There's an alligator in the park! There's an alligator in the park!" I shouted. Everyone was staring at me. It's just where they live, all around here. In the glades they are everywhere. The Diamondback Snake trail is the best place to get up close to a 'gator. Sometimes people get eaten, but not very often.

I went for a run along the boardwalk at fitness rush hour in South Beach. There's something particularly wonderful about running over a perfectly flat surface. It's hypnotic. I snapped to my senses as I was overtaken by a couple of old ladies. I tried, but I couldn't catch them. They were overtaking everybody with glee. We strolled past the Versace mansion to the News Café for breakfast. It's always quietly buzzing on the terrace there. There is a sense of peaceful chaos, a woman breastfeeding here, a power breakfast there, all night revellers in the corner.

The huevos rancheros (Mexican-style eggs) made Claire's face light up and we walked all over town looking for a book on a local artist called Felix Gonzalez Torres, her favourite. There are no hills in this part of Florida, and no basements. It's built on rock-hard coral. As I swam out to sea and looked back at South Beach, I realised everything I could see was manmade, including the primped and raked beach. It's one huge precarious beautiful sculpture. The hurricanes haven't ravaged the coast so far this year, but there is still quite a lot of damage from last year when parts of the city were without power and subject to curfew for days. It's hard to imagine all of this without electricity. One good hurricane could toast the lot. They'd better be ready for hurricane Basel.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with British Airways Holidays (0870 242 1276; www.ba.com/holidays), which offers three-night packages in Miami from £889 per person. The price includes return BA flights from Heathrow to Miami, connecting UK domestic flights or one night at a Heathrow hotel, three nights' room-only accommodation at Hotel Victor and car hire. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies to Miami non-stop from Heathrow, as do American Airlines (08457 789 789; www.americanairlines.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com).

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Miami, in economy class, is £15. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Victor, 1144 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach (001 305 428 1234; www.hotelvictorsouthbeach.com).

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Social at the Sagamore Hotel, 1671 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach (001 786 594 3344; www.chinagrillmgt.com).

News Café, 800 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach (001 305 538 6397; www.newscafe.com).

VISITING THERE

Art Basel Miami Beach takes place from 7-10 December (00 41 58 200 2020; www.artbasel.com).

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, 3251 South Miami Avenue, Coconut Grove (001 305 250 9133; www.vizcayamuseum.org). Open daily 9.30am-4.30pm; admission $12 (£6.70).

Everglades National Park (001 305 242 7700; www.nps.gov/ever).

MORE INFORMATION

Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau: 001 305 539 3000; www.gmcvb.com

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