As we walked up the steps of the Art Deco Welcome Center a homeless man greeted us, swigging from a can of beer in the morning sunshine. Unlike his weather-beaten British counterparts, this one exuded a touch of Miami flair: his shorts, Hawaiian shirt, sun-bleached hair and beard strongly suggested that the surf was up.
I couldn't help but think he had the right idea. Not about the early-morning beer, but about heading south to Miami Beach. Here you tend to have the weather on your side – and the option of a giant bath in the form of the ocean on your doorstep.
Exuberance seems to be a characteristic of this city. Here lies a different breed of East Coast America from sophisticated New York or sober Boston. It's like a US version of Brighton – slightly alternative, a little bit counter-cultural – but with better weather. It's also glamorous in its own trashy way. There are beaches, bosoms and bars aplenty. But sophisticated? Buckling under the weight of museums and galleries? Well, not exactly.
Two things perpetuate the city's sense of gaudy hedonism: its people and its architecture. Miami Beach is a playground for plastic surgeons. Nearly every woman I passed was a billboard for cosmetic embellishment: lips were plumped, breasts inflated, eyes lifted and faces ironed. And yet, while these women and the city's architecture might seem unlikely bedfellows, they complement one another. The blonde hair and bright bikinis of the one reflect the pastels and neon lights of the other.
For Miami Beach is not without its own brand of cultural significance. No city in the world can boast as many art deco buildings in such a condensed area. And thanks to the Miami Design Preservation League, South Beach – where most of the city's promenading takes place – is home to more than 800 of them. The buildings contribute to Miami Beach's sense of exhilaration. Their architects, from Henry Hohauser to Frank Lloyd Wright, hoped that their candy-coloured walls would reflect this notion of freedom and fun.
American or streamline art deco was influenced by designs that embodied the spirit of modern America, from skyscrapers to trains, planes and ocean liners. Miami Beach's own version, tropical deco, takes the idea even further. The architecture was created to encapsulate the decadent days of the 1920s; its style like "a dash of froth making up a delicious and completely new flavour" according to Leonard Horowitz, co-founder of the Miami Design Preservation League.
It was Horowitz who, when returning to Ocean Drive in the 1970s and finding the art deco buildings in distressingly poor shape, created a 40-colour palette of pastels to bring them back to life. "I added the icing to those wonderful cakes," he said, using colours inspired by "sunset, sunrise, the summer and winter oceans and the sand on the beach, bringing the colours from outside inside". Each January, an Art Deco Weekend celebrates the Miami Design Preservation League's achievement with various street events.
Though condensed in South Beach and Ocean Drive in particular, this new flavour of architecture is clearly visible citywide. You just need to know what you're looking for – and for that, you need to visit the Welcome Center, which offers daily walking tours and a self-guided audio tour loaded on to an iPod.
Within 90 minutes, I was well versed in the form: horizontal banding wraps around the linear-looking buildings like ribbons; windows have concrete "eyebrows" above them to provide shade; everywhere you look you will see the "rule of three", where vertical lines created by columns or flagpoles cut across the horizontal banding in groups of three.
Cheap and easy to construct – and therefore very popular – these buildings are made mostly from plain sheets of concrete enlivened by a more decorative façade. What makes tropical deco different is that whilst the design motifs on most façades still serve some kind of purpose, in Miami Beach you will see decorative flourishes that are purely ornamental – a nautical emblem here, a flashing pink flamingo there.
Ocean Drive is home to the Leslie, the Carlyle and the Cardozo, three hotels considered to be among the defining treasures of art deco here. For more razzle-dazzle, head to Collins Avenue. Here you'll find a wonderful art deco diner built like a railway carriage, the Tiffany building (built by L Murray Dixon, one of the district's most important architects) with a neon tower de signed to look like a rocket about to take off, and the nautical deco of the Sherbrooke Hotel, which looks like a sleek ocean liner that has run aground. You almost expect smoke to billow out of a funnel on the roof as you pass.
Among all the froth and frippery, a Tuscan villa suddenly emerges. The terracotta roofs and classical lines of Mediterranean Revival buildings, also popular in the 1920s and 1930s, might take you by surprise, yet they make sense here amid the sunshine. Carl Fisher's Old City Hall is one example, Casa Casuarina – outside which Gianni Versace was shot dead in 1997 – is another.
At night, the art deco buildings take on a more dazzling character, as Ocean Drive becomes a flashing neon strip. Anywhere else, it might feel like a red-light district or tacky seaside parade. But somehow Miami Beach gets away with it. Its playful spirit might seem frivolous on the surface, but what lies beneath is a unique, historic identity.
See this Saturday's Traveller section for '48 hours in Miami Beach'
American Airlines (020-7365 0777; www.americanairlines.co.uk), British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly non-stop from Miami to Heathrow.
Taxis charge a flat rate of $32 (£21) for the 20-minute journey to South Beach. A cheaper option is a door-to-door share taxi service with Super Shuttle (001 305 871 2000; www.supershuttle.com), with fares of $19 (£12.50) to South Beach.
Sherbrooke All Suites Hotel, 901 Collins Avenue (001 305 532 4904; www.sherbrookehotel.com). Suites start at $79 (£53), room only.
The Carlyle, 1250 Ocean Drive (001 305 531 3238; www.thecarlyleoceandrive.com). One-bedroom condominiums start at $175 (£117) per night, room only
Miami Beach's Art Deco Weekend runs from 14 to16 January, with various events including a parade, music and dance performances.
The Art Deco Welcome Center and Gift Shop (001 305 672 2014; www.mdpl.org) is at 1001 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach. Daily guided tours cost $20 (£13) per person; self-guided audio tours cost $15 (£10) per person.
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