Ian McCurrach takes a lesson in hedonism in Miami's South Beach

South Beach, Miami, is a world apart - a city within a city. With its non-stop hedonism, loose clothes and looser morality, it not only tolerates difference - it positively celebrates it. And it no longer has the drug-ridden image of Miami Vice days.

South Beach, Miami, is a world apart - a city within a city. With its non-stop hedonism, loose clothes and looser morality, it not only tolerates difference - it positively celebrates it. And it no longer has the drug-ridden image of Miami Vice days.

The rich and famous have long collided with their anonymous admirers on this pleasure strip. In the 1920s, pioneer Carl Fisher and other carnival barkers used celebrities such as Al Jolson, Will Rogers, Gloria Swanson and Al Capone to lure people to South Beach. Today, it's the likes of Madonna 'n' Guy, Oliver Stone, Robert De Niro and Cher. South Beach represents a new inalienable American right - the right to have a good time.

Why go? To see the 800 listed Art Deco candy-coloured buildings that sparkle in the light. Ocean Drive on the seafront, Collins and Washington Avenues, two blocks back, are the main Art Deco arteries. The district is Florida's second most popular tourist destination after Walt Disney World.

South Beach's "beautiful people" have attention spans of less than five minutes and what's hot one season is stone-cold the next. The advantage for the returning visitor? Many new bars, restaurants, clubs and hotels. Here you can live your life between the covers of a glossy magazine.

Why now? To rid yourself of winter blues. Spring temperatures hover around 24C - in summer the heat can be overbearing. January sales last into February, so in a town famous for retail therapy, the added bargains make it heaven. Versace, Armani, Boss, Kenneth Cole and Guess? are on or around Collins Avenue, offering tight, short and sparkly outfits, perfect for a Miami night out. Head for the house music blasting out from the funky stores on Washington Avenue, one block over, for a more budget-conscious spree.

The mission Sunbathing, eating, working out, shopping, drinking and dancing. South Beach stretches endlessly towards the horizon, punctuated by Art Deco lifeguard stations.

The beach culture neatly demonstrates Miami's diversity - Fourth to Sixth St is for Latinos and Hispanics, Sixth to Tenth for families, Ten to Twelfth for men who like other men with muscles, and Twelfth to Eighteenth for a mixed crowd.

There is a nudist beach at Haulover Park, just north of the upmarket Bal Harbour shopping district and the new Beach House Hotel, designed by Ralph Lauren. About half an hour away and $20 (£13) by cab, you can shop in Prada and Gucci, lunch by the sun-drenched pool area at the Beach House, then strip naked and soak up some rays as small planes zoom through the flawless sky, trailing flags advertising clubs.

Unless you plan to explore further afield, or want to cruise up and down Ocean Drive (for which a convertible car is essential) a vehicle is a hindrance and you will spend more on valet-parking than on cabs. To blend in completely you should roller-skate everywhere - even officers of Miami PD blade up and down - blades can be hired on the beachfront from $18 per day.

Remember this Pack an extra empty bag to bring home all your shopping. After a day dedicated to tanning, head for South Pointe Park at the tip of South Beach to watch the sun drop behind the glittering towers of Downtown. If you're lucky you'll see a cruise ship loftily ploughing through the narrow channel there, heading for the Caribbean - think the Robin Williams and Nathan Lane reconciliation scene in the camp movie The Birdcage.

Body fascism is rife is South Beach, so you'll want to visit the gym before going out for the evening. If your hotel doesn't have one (though most do) try Idol's at 715 N Lincoln Lane (tel: 532 0089) and Gridiron at 1676 Alton Road (tel: 531 4743). A more relaxed experience can be found at the XS Fitness Centre at 81 Washington Avenue (tel: 532 7989).

No visit is complete without cruising up and down the pedestrianised open-air Lincoln Road Mall. This palm-fringed shopping and eating precinct is lit at night by thousands of twinkling fairy lights entwined around the palms. Some hot restaurants are here as well as bookshops, boutiques and galleries open into the early hours.

Favourites clubs are crobar @ the cameo at 1445 Washington Avenue (tel: 531 5027), which has internationally renowned DJ's playing trance and hard house from Wednesday to Sunday from 10pm. Arrive around 11.30pm when you could bump into Gwyneth Paltrow and Denzel Washington. Like many South Beach clubs, it is in a 1920s cinema. Level at 1235 Washington Avenue (tel: 532 1525) offers theme nights from R&B to gay. Salvation at 1771 West Avenue (tel: 673 6508) is a gay venue which on Saturday nights houses 2,000 power-pec boys dancing until dawn or they drop.

Eating out Choose from New World, Pan-Atlantic, New Floridian, Asian/Caribbean fusion and more. Top of the menu of the moment is Touch at 910 Lincoln Road (tel: 532 8003), which combines smart dining in a lounge-type environment. An avenue of palms, a black Bedouin-tented ceiling and tall, orange velvet pyramids make it a sensual experience. Fresh Florida stone crabs followed by red curry crusted tuna, with good Pinot Grigio costs around $100 per head.

At 55 The Restaurant at 455 Ocean Drive (tel: 305 532 1200) Sarah Mair and Jason Storm serve European and Asian delights in an "Out of Africa" room. A more mature crowd enjoys such staples as pan-seared foie gras with lentils, huckleberries and port followed by marinated roast chicken with Himalayan rice, dried fruit and arugula. Pay around $80 per head with wine.

Madonna and I have a favourite restaurant in common - Wish at The Hotel at 801 Collins Avenue (tel: 531 8081), where you can eat inside under an Aladdin's array of lampshades or outside in the palm-fringed "oasis". Pan-seared sea scallops followed by marinated grilled Portobello mushrooms with truffled Yukon gold mashed potatoes cost around $70 per head with wine.

Breakfast is usually a late affair (most clubs stay open until 5am) and nowhere is it served better than at News Café, where Gianni Versace drank his last cup of coffee before being gunned down on his doorstep two blocks away.

Where to stay At the top of the darlings list is The Albion at 1650 James Ave (tel: 001 305 913 1000). At the beach end of Lincoln Road, it offers minimalist chic, pool portholes and a wall of cascading water in the lobby. Rooms cost from $215 per night.

For those with money to burn, Ian Shrager's shrine, The Delano at 1685 Collins Ave (tel: 001 305 673 2900), is a good bet. Imagine an army of sybarites posing on oversize sofas sipping vodka-martinis in a muslin-draped, cathedral-size lobby and you're there. You won't see change from $405 for a Lilliputian room.

New kid on the block is The Townhouse at 150 20th St (tel: 001 305 534 3800), prodigy of the marriage between Jonathan Morr of New York's Bond St restaurant and designer India Mahdavi, who worked on Manhattan's Mercer. Oliver Stone had his Christmas party in the sushi lounge bar (also called Bond St). The fun, white, beige and red rooms go from $195. There's no pool, but residents can sun-worship on the top-deck waterbeds and chill out in the Japanese-style water tower.

The Tides at 1220 Ocean Drive (tel: 305 531 800) is Island Outpost's flagship hotel boasting a fantastic restaurant and 45 spacious rooms and suites on the beach front in a shrine to understated chic. Deluxe ocean front rooms start from $475.

Getting there British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) offers return flights from London to Miami from £300. Virgin Holidays (tel: 01293 456789) offers a two-week fly-drive holiday from £526 per person, including return flights from London and economy car. Hertz Europe (tel: 08708 484848; net: www.hertz.com) offers car hire in Miami from £158 per week.

Further information In the UK, contact the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau for further details (tel: 01444 250048; net: www.miamiandbeaches.com or www.miamibeach.com). In South Beach, The Miami Herald is a good source of information. Free listings papers can also be found in cafés, bars and fashion shops.