Rough Guide: Hand-me-downs and alligators in a very flat land

Laura Harper, author of 'The Rough Guide to Florida', stars in her own parking lot budget extravaganza
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The Independent Travel
Best discovery

Palm Beach is all about money, but I found it was also the best place to shop for designer duds donated by the resident wealthy. The thrift stores, chock full of Chanel, Valentino and Armani, are the place for elegant attire at a fraction of the retail cost, with most garments worn only once by their fashion-conscious owners. What better place to sift through second-hand clothing than in one of the wealthiest counties in the US? Pick up a Donna Karan ball gown or a Todd Oldham dress-shirt and you can parade down Worth Avenue like you belong there.

Biggest mistake

South Beach has a glorious stretch of unbroken white sand, from the tip to approximately 17th Street. It is not cordoned off in any way, so I assume it is all one beach, right? Wrong. I went out early one morning to the deserted beach, paid my $5 beach-chair rental fee, and stretched out to cook myself for an hour or so. Two hours later, I wake up, a bit dazed from the hot sun. Too dazed, I thought, as I looked around at the throngs of people invading the beach and noticed a striking similarity - the women seemed to have a particular piece of Lycra clothing missing. In my rush to get a prime sand spot, I had stumbled into one of the word- of-mouth designated "topless" beaches in South Beach. What to do? Well, as they say, "When in Rome...".

Most bizarre meeting

The tourist office in Jupiter - packed with great regional information - is planted smack in between two major highways and has a rather small and murky pond in the back. Hardly prime habitat for alligators, and yet, when I mentioned my desire to see a live 'gator sans zoo, the information officer took me out back and began calling - yes, calling - for their resident pond alligator. Sure enough, a knobbly log came swimming up to us, and actually posed while the officer took a Polaroid of me and my scaly new friend. Luckily, I wasn't wearing sandals that day or "Old Faithful" might just have taken a fancy to my toes.

When I travel I love to come across panoramic vantage points, but since Florida is well-known for its extreme flatness, they're hard to come by here. But I found one in the oddest place when, one night, I had to unload my rented car in a South Beach multi-storey car park. It was full so, silently cursing, I wound my way to the very top, which was open- air. Lucky for me because at the top I found I had the eerily silent ocean on my left, and Collins Avenue, which was lit up just like a pinball machine, on my right. With the full moon acting as a giant spotlight in the sky, I found I was the star of my very own South Beach extravaganza, and I stayed there at least an hour so that I could take it all in.

Most memorable meal

Apart from the savoury Cuban cuisine in Miami, my favourite meal came from a shack I stumbled upon in Daytona Beach. Perched precariously on the water's edge, The Lighthouse Landing looks like an abandoned South American outpost with its rickety wooden planks they call a deck, and colourful slogans slapped up on the main dining area. I had the best shrimp cocktail and oyster platter in my life there, accompanied by a delightful breeze, a couple of friendly pelicans and a wonderful view of the sunset over the Bay.

FACT FILE

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How to get there

Book before 28 October with Quest Worldwide (tel: 0181-546 6000) and a direct flight to either Orlando or Miami with Virgin Atlantic is pounds 195 return (departure must be between 1 January and 19 March). Bookings made after 28 October are pounds 301 return.

Airline Network (tel: 01772 760574) has direct flights to Orlando with British Airways for pounds 216 return (departure must be between 1 November and 12 December).

What to experience

Palm Beach thrift stores include The Church Mouse, 374 S County Rd (tel: 561 659 2154); Thrift Inc, 231 S County Rd (tel: 561 655 0520), and Deja Vu, 219 Royal Poinciana Way (tel: 561 833 6624).

The 13th Street Parking Garage in South Beach is located between Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive (entrance is on 13th Street). Rates are $4/day weekdays, and $6/day weekends (applicable even if you spend just one hour in the garage, so be prepared to leave your car either overnight or most of the day to get your money's worth).

Further information

The American tourist information line (tel: 0891 600 530) is a premium rate number at 50 pence per minute.

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