Travel: Some like it hot and hip - and find it in Miami

Florida's once run-down capital is now funky, fun and beautiful, nowhere more so than along the Ocean Drive in South Beach. By Janet Lewis

THERE IS nothing like a stroll down Ocean Drive on a boiling hot summer afternoon. Florida lives up to its well-marketed name as the "sunshine state", and Miami grooves to an international and Latin beat, nowhere more so than in the hippest part of town, South Beach.

Known as SoBe to tourists alone, who distinguish themselves by this attempt to sound local, South Beach is located about seven miles north of the centre of Miami. Its main thoroughfare is Ocean Drive, a 12-block strip of hotels and restaurants that front the Atlantic ocean. This beautiful location acts as a magnet for tourists and residents alike, for pick-ups, put-downs, one-night stands, and the making and breaking of those twice-weekly holiday romances.

Once I counted 200 people walking down the street in a four-bloke zone, and this was not even on a weekend in high season. I would split that statistic by gender, but South Beach is known for its lack of discrimination. I have seen 6ft tall beauties in tutus and tiaras that, on closer examination were not of the female sex, holding hands with shaven-headed waifs of indiscriminate sexuality. If you are homophobic, don't come out to play.

The current scene is in marked contrast to the situation of the 1970s, when the area was the drug-ridden run-down capital of crime, and the buildings looked like relics of a Third World Latin dictatorship, not the tourist Mecca of the 27th state (it joined the Union on 3 March 1845) of a superpower. The change was wrought due to the remarkable efforts of Barbara Bear Capitman who fought to put South Beach on the National Register of Historic Places, due to its irreplaceable Art Deco buildings of the 1920s. The success of this achievement, and the subsequent renovation and re-painting of more than 800 historic buildings, brought a wealthier crowd and reduced crime. The increased police presence - you are never out of sight of at least one cop - might not have harmed matters either. In the 1990s, South Beach became and remains a glorious blaze of pastel pinks, yellows and greens, with every new development required to fit the Art Deco image.

It is now illegal to cruise Ocean Drive, but this does not stop the always- red Ferraris and Porsches of the nouveau riche from circling the block repeatedly, as their owners wolf-whistle at the pretty semi-naked models on the pavement. Bikini tops are de rigueur, even at night time. In fact, the less you wear, the more you fit in - though luckily current fashion sense has not yet extended to the solo nappy that I saw on an elderly gentleman in the East Village in Manhattan last year.

Night time brings noisy diners, party revellers and the brat pack. If you are looking for quiet conversation, the best time to eat on Ocean Drive is after 11pm, when the party animals have moved into the clubs on Washington Avenue, a parallel street just two blocks further away from the ocean. Another dinner option is a short stroll from the water, Lincoln Road, where you don't have to shout to be heard in a restaurant and the prices are reasonable. Michael Caine owns a restaurant here, The South Beach Brasserie, where the desserts are a dream but the main courses are God-awful (reminds me of England). Lincoln Road is a designated pedestrian- only parade so wandering the art galleries and cafes is relaxing, but if you are hoping to hop into that Lamborghini and be whisked to Never- Never-Land, you had better move back to the Drive.

Early morning delivers silence, after the very early morning of 4am has dispatched the last rowdy occupants of the clubs and bars out onto the humid streets and then rapidly into their air-conditioned hotel rooms: alone, with a beloved, whatever.

Sunrise is spectacular as the golden rays slowly creep over the fluffy cloud cover that descended at dusk. No one is usually awake to see this vision. Hangovers are nursed behind tightly closed blinds and heavy curtains; families breakfast indoors in their hotel restaurants; locals go to work.

Around eleven, the streets come alive with baby push-chairs, screaming toddlers and the trend-setters who gather at The News Cafi and admire each other's body-piercing. Once a famous haunt of Gianni Versace, who lived in the only residential building on Ocean Drive itself (which he converted from a hotel), it took a while for the atmosphere to regain its buoyant ambience as the South Beach set reeled from the shocking news of his callous murder.

After noon, the white sands of the warm water beach start to fill: fourth to sixth street for families, sixth to eighth street for men seeking men, eighth to 18th for a mixed set, and nowhere at all if you want solitude. The volume of traffic never remotely compares to the Algarve in high season, nor does local behaviour. I have never been hassled (unwillingly), nor have I found beer bottles beneath my feet. Radios hum the latest hit from discreetly placed mini-boom boxes, and on many a stroll I have left behind all my belongings, returning an hour later to find them intact. (I would not recommend this strategy to those with Oscar de La Renta beach towels or Gucci bags.)

Whatever your preferred beach-time activity, it is available - for a price. Boat rental companies abound, for both sail and motor variety. Jet skis are available for a mere $70 (pounds 42) an hour. Cigar boats, with cruising speeds of 80mph, are a snip at twice that price. Cruises to view the homes of the rich and famous, just round the coastline on Palm and Hibiscus Islands, where Gloria Estefan herself has a residence, costs seven bucks a head. (Entry to these fine establishments is not included.)

The sand is deep enough to allow for a 12- to 20-inch sand-castle; the surf pleases the kids but could not even whet the appetite of a hardened surfer. Sorry, there is no mini-golf.

Upscale hotels have pools. A few blocks north of the strip, the Delano Hotel is the model of a successful establishment: doormen, valet parking, superb dining, but don't expect them to honour your reservation (unless they know your latest movie), as some of my friends found out to their cost. Madonna has her parties here, when she's not too busy mothering her infant prodigy.

Ten or 20 less expensive sleep alternatives are available on Ocean Drive itself. These are much of a muchness: decent rooms, more cash for an ocean view, a good bar and edible but unexciting food in the in-house restaurant.

I myself eat at Mezzaluna, ever since my boyfriend, Chris, discovered a piece of glass in his gnocchi at Caffe Milano. (We got a free meal out of it but he refuses to go back.) Pavarotti has his own restaurant, Il Paparazzi, but after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, it has gone down in popularity. Perhaps a name-change is in order.

Grillfish, on Collins Avenue, is excellent, apart from the grotesque wall-to-wall mural of naked men grabbing each others testicles. Just further down the road, Wok 'n' Roll is an undiscovered treasure for a quick Chinese, empty even on a Saturday night.

If you want a refreshing evening of culture, go to the tiny Area Stage Theatre, where I caught Tomas Milian in Harold Pinter's Off the Road. The Florida Opera season begins in November, but don't expect the quality to match up to over-indulged European possibilities, unless an out-of- town singer is featured.

If you came for the art, go home. No. That was unduly harsh. There are some excellent modern galleries on Lincoln Road where treasures from contemporary and unknown artists can be snapped up for a song, but the museum collections (Wolfsonian, Bass, et al) are universally appalling. I did see a Gauguin print in a travelling show once.

Shopping opportunities are abundant. That ubiquitous baseball cap has become even more ever-present after successes of the Florida Marlins. (Think of these as the equivalent to England getting to the World Cup final.) With the revamped lodgings, decent shops have started to replace the five-and-dimes of the prior inhabitants. The Gap, Speedo Swimwear and Benetton have all added another store to their large US chain, most on Collins Avenue (between Washington and the ocean).

The ultimate in designer clothing can be purchased from Armani Exchange, Moschino or Betty Johnson, perfect to wear on a Sunday night clubbing at the Bash.

Oh, and you've hesitated before but go for it (I did): there are several tattoo shops off Lincoln Road. My choice was Starlight Tattoo on Euclid Avenue - ask for Angelo.

A final word of warning - Miami is hot, hot, hot, especially in August. The European tourists are instantly recognisable from their lobster-coloured bodies. The US has wised up to the effects of skin cancer. Bring sun-screen, factor 15, reapply it regularly - and, as they say in America, enjoy.

miami fact file

Getting There:

Even though the summer is the hottest time of year, it is also unfortunately the high season as far as airline prices are concerned because so many British families are travelling there. Trailfinders quote pounds 482 (including taxes) on British Airways for July and August. Call 0171 937 5400 to book. Once the summer holiday period is over, prices will drop to about half of this. South Beach is a 20-minute drive from the airport, where rental car companies abound.

Where to Stay:

For accommodation, summer is regarded as low season and you'll find prices considerably lower at this time of year.

Coolest: The Delano Hotel (Tel: 001 305 6732900), favourite haunt of Madonna, Collins Avenue, costs about $200 (you pay for the hype).

Fairly cool: The Leslie Hotel (001 305 5342135), on Ocean Drive itself, $100 - $150 per double.

Dirt Cheap: Clay Hotel and International Hostel on Espanola Way, $13 per bunk.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London