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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.