Miami virtue: Sunshine and style in south Florida

Beyond the beachfront, James Litston finds awe-inspiring architecture and sublime street art

"It's child's play," the affable tour guide had promised. And at first, so it had seemed. As we set off slowly, in single file, the sun glinting brightly on polished chrome details, I was feeling pretty confident in the saddle. But I'd never ridden a scooter before and now, steering into the traffic on Miami's Venetian Causeway, I couldn't help fearing just a little for my life.

I blame my friend Jody for putting me in this predicament. We'd met in Miami years ago, stayed in touch and kept our friendship alive by making sure we catch up whenever I'm on her side of the pond. I visit Miami fairly frequently and Jody, being one of those people with their finger on the pulse, always has something new, exciting or off-the-wall for us to discover together.

"Right now, this is one of my favourite things to recommend to out-of-towners," she'd said when we were planning my latest trip. And that's how I found myself inexpertly straddling a genuine, old-school Vespa scooter, noisily buzzing across the causeway on my way to explore the art scene in Wynwood. I'd never heard of it before, but according to Jody this up-and-coming area is the hippest hangout in town.

Until very recently, Wynwood was an unloved and overlooked locality in the shadow of Miami's downtown skyline. Flanked by the edgy and emerging neighbourhoods of Midtown and the Design District, Wynwood was missing out on the gradual renaissance that's been giving these adjoining areas their artsy appeal. At least, that was the case until a radical group of street artists began covering Wynwood with enormous, spray-painted murals. Make no mistake, however: the graffiti here is anything but wanton vandalism. Indeed, far from being a symptom of urban decay, it has kick-started the area's regeneration.

Many of the walls in this rundown region of boxy, single-storey industrial units now bear the work of local and internationally renowned artists. As a result, Wynwood has been transformed into an outdoor gallery showcasing one of the world's largest collections of graffiti artworks, and is now dubbed the Wynwood Arts District. The Street Art Tour that's brought me here is by far the best way to get to grips with it all.

The guide explains how local artists started it all by seeking permission from property owners to allow them to "tag" their buildings. By making it legal, they reasoned, their work would no longer be targeted for removal. The murals remained, the idea caught on and soon celebrated figures such as Retna (America's answer to Banksy) and Shepard Fairey (whose Hope poster was a defining image of Barack Obama's first presidential campaign) were adorning Wynwood's walls with their colourful, eye-catching and often thought-provoking images.

Its relevance is such that Wynwood now plays a key role in Art Basel Miami Beach, a major art festival that takes place each year in the first week of December. According to Jody, the best time to visit is in the fortnight prior to the festival, when Wynwood is alive with artists putting the finishing touches to their latest creations. "It's always changing," she says, as we get back on our bikes and follow the guide to our next stop. "Every time I do this tour, I see something new. It's honestly one of the best ways to spend an afternoon in Miami."

I can't disagree. The art tour by Vespa is a blast, but it's the sort of unexpected, memorable and trip-defining experience that too many tourists miss out on. Thanks to its glitzy reputation and frequent flights, Miami provides many UK visitors with their very first American landfall. But a good proportion of these arrivals use the city purely as a gateway, skipping town swiftly in search of adventures elsewhere.

They're missing a trick. Miami is a truly world-class destination. It boasts deep roots, an iconic beachfront and Latin flair, courtesy of America's strongest Cuban community. But most of all, it's got Art Deco architecture.

Most of this is found in the South Beach district. This is the Miami of your mind's eye and the hub of the city's tourism industry, complete with swaying palms, beautiful people and candy-coloured lifeguard huts.

South Beach is home to the highest concentration of Art Deco buildings anywhere in the world. It's a distinction that lends the area its unique sense of place and a delightfully retro, one-of-a-kind charm.

Such is the importance of this impressive heritage that a good swathe of South Beach has been preserved as the Miami Beach Architectural District. More than 800 buildings of historical significance are crammed into this square mile "Deco District", which is rather more than I have time to see for myself. Instead, the next day I follow up on another of Jody's recommendations by joining one of the Miami Design Preservation League's walking tours around Ocean Drive.

The 90-minute tour kicks off at the Art Deco Welcome Center and provides an insight into both the history of South Beach and the basics of Deco design. As the guide steers us past a sequence of well-preserved architectural gems, he explains how the area's transition from virgin beachscape to America's Riviera began in the 1920s, when luxurious hostelries were built to emulate Venetian palaces and French châteaux. Miami Beach was billed as a tropical paradise providing a sunny seaside escape for wealthy "snowbirds" from colder, more northerly states.

Later, in the 1930s, the advent of motor cars and paid holidays put Miami Beach within the reach of the burgeoning middle class, who demanded more affordable accommodation options. A building boom ensued, with newly fashionable Art Deco being the construction style of choice. The rapid development, masterminded by architects such as Henry Hohauser and L Murray Dixon, resulted in the wonderful stylistic unity that still characterises South Beach to this day.

Deco, it turns out, was a very flexible concept and South Beach developed its own eclectic, regional style. True to their "tropical paradise" brief, the designers took inspiration from such varied sources as ocean liners, ancient Egypt and Mother Nature and combined these with the core Deco principles of symmetry and streamlining to create Miami's signature "Tropical Deco" look. I'm soon able to recognise features including terrazzo flooring, porthole-style windows, bas-relief details and vertical accents.

Tour concluded, I continue strolling along the waterfront and head up Lincoln Road, the restaurant-filled, pedestrianised strip that serves as the centre of the South Beach scene. Here I find another striking architectural masterpiece, albeit one in a very different vein from historic Art Deco. Designed by Frank Gehry, the futuristic New World Center is Miami's most striking cultural landmark.

This thrillingly avant-garde building is home to the New World Symphony, America's leading orchestral academy. The venue is a consciously transparent structure whose glass frontage affords a glimpse inside to a soaring, six-storey atrium. Somewhere within lies a state-of-the-art performance hall, but all I can see is a dramatic avalanche of tumbling, white, irregular shapes that cleverly disguise offices and practice rooms.

Next, I had a lunch date with Jody. True to form, she has chosen the recently relaunched 660 Restaurant in The Angler's, an endlessly chic boutique resort. "There's a brand new menu and chef, and the food is divine," she said. "Plus they do Sunday brunch with bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys. It's my new favourite place to recover from Saturday night!"

As we tuck into the restaurant's signature, Latin-inspired dishes such as ropa vieja and scallop tiradito, Jody explains what it is that makes Miami such a great place to visit. "You know how I said yesterday that Wynwood's art scene is always changing? The same is true of Miami itself. There's forever a new bar, new restaurant, new museum or new hotel opening, but it goes way beyond that, too. Most tourists only see South Beach – which is phenomenal – but there's so much more happening here that's off the beaten track. I always say it's a case of, 'You think you know Miami? Think again!'"

She's right, of course. On the face of it, Miami may seem a mainstream destination, but there's an element of unexplored America here too. And with more headline developments coming soon, including PAMM – the Pérez Art Museum Miami, opening next autumn – the city's metamorphosis looks set to continue. For now, though, I'm just happy to enjoy the moment: sitting in the sunshine having lunch with a dear friend, with experiences to savour from the 1930s to the future.

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