City Life: Miami vices
Miami is a particularly colourful swirl in the great American melting pot; few cities are more diverse and cosmopolitan, and even fewer can boast white-sand beaches and endless days of perfect sunshine, too.
Half of Miami's population is Hispanic, including a sizeable community of Cuban exiles, which gives the city a fast-paced rhythm and Latin swagger that is as much a part of the Caribbean and South America as it is Florida. Districts such as Coral Gables, Little Havana and Coconut Grove offer the kind of sultry indulgences their names suggest, but it is South Beach (SoBe) that's the heart of the party scene in a city that takes its hedonism, ostentation and extravagance very seriously. The wide sweep of SoBe sand between the famous candy-coloured art deco beachfront of Ocean Drive and the Atlantic surf is both Miami's playground and its catwalk. Beyond the bling and bikinis lies a city of stylish restaurants, decadent lounge bars and a burgeoning arts scene offering irresistible Miami virtues and vices in equal measure.
In the land where the car is king, there really is no substitute unless you plan to spend most of your time in one part of the city.
You're more likely to arrive at the busier Miami International Airport, 12 miles west of Downtown, rather than Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, which lies 30 miles north of the city. SuperShuttle minivans (+1 305 871 2000; www.supershuttle.com) and taxis can take you into town from MIA for upwards of $20.
Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) connects Miami to other US cities. Within the Downtown area, the efficient Metromover is a free, driverless, mass-transit system. The Tri-Rail commuter line that runs along the coast to Palm Beach is also a good way to get around.
Dial +1 for the United States; the Miami area code is 305.
Get Shorty or Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard.
Do go / Don't Go
Winter (December to March) is the peak season here, particularly with US tourists, so you'll need to book well in advance; same goes for the fortnight around Carnival weekend in October. Miami is in the most southerly state, and enjoys year-round sunshine, so there's no bad time to go unless you can't take the heat: summer temperatures usually hover around 30º Celsius and it can feel very humid. June to November is hurricane season, so keep an ear out for any warnings during this time.
The city has strong Caribbean and Latin influences that are reflected in the cuisine, particularly in places like Little Havana, but you'll also find choices as diverse as Chinese and Ethiopian. In this city, you are what you eat (and drink); ordering a beer rather than a cocktail in one of the many plush bars will not impress the locals.
Taxis are relatively cheap and readily available. There are fixed rates for journeys to the airport. If you really want to travel in style, hire a chauffeur-driven vintage Rolls Royce, from $90 an hour at Vintage Limousines of Coral Gables (+1 305 444 7657; www.vintagelimosonline.com).
Tipping is always expected in restaurants; 20 per cent is not unusual. It's also the norm to tip a dollar for every drink at the bar. Don't forget to leave something out for housekeeping to ensure your toiletries get stocked up to the max each day.
Shades are an essential part of the Miami look. Also bring some insect repellent to ward off Miami's vampire-sized mosquitoes.
The Spanish Monastery on West Dixie Highway typifies Miami's cultural life; built in Spain in 1141 it was bought by William Randolph Hearst in 1925 and shipped over to North Miami Beach, stone by stone. Much of this young city's culture is imported from elsewhere, but it is no less fascinating for that. Little Havana is the centre of the city's Cuban exile community, particularly around Calle Ocho (Southwest 8th Street) between 11th and 17th Avenues. In South Beach, head to the Bass Art Museum on Park Avenue (www.bassmuseum.org); it's the centre of the neighbourhood's art scene.
Lincoln Road in South Beach is pedestrian area with various high street names as well as smaller independent boutiques, such as Base (www.baseworld.com), which sells music, clothes and accessories, and En Avance, which has an edgy pick of designers like Wyeth, Dsquared, Juicy Couture and Zooey. Collins Avenue offers more upmarket merchandise (think Ralph Lauren, Armani Exchange, Urban Outfitters and Kenneth Cole), while Washington Ave is grittier, with tattoo parlours and kitsch novelty shops. For an all-inclusive mall that includes a branch of Saks Fifth Avenue as well as brands ranging from Banana Republic to Bottega Veneta, try Bal Harbour Shops (www.balharbourshops.com) at the north end of Collins Avenue. C.Madeleine's on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach is a vast treasure trove of vintage haute couture and designer pieces (www.cmadeleines.com): a must-see for any woman who knows her Halston from her Hermès. Elsewhere in Miami, the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables (www.shopcoralgables.com) is great for boutique browsing. You'll also find the excellent Village of Merrick Park (www.villageofmerrickpark.com) in this area, too.
Miami's location between the Everglades and the Atlantic mean there are few vantage points in the predominantly flat landscape. Azul restaurant at the waterfront Mandarin Oriental at 500 Brickell Key Drive (+1 305 913 8254) has great views of Biscayne Bay and Downtown (as well as great food).
The Art Center (www.artcentersf.org) on Lincoln Road in South Beach is free and provides space for promising young artists; it's definitely worth a visit - you might even be tempted to buy something.
January Art Miami (www.art-miami.com) is a major exposition of modern and contemporary art from more than 100 international galleries, held at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Early March The Miami International Film Festival is one of the biggest in the US, attracting international DJs and artists (www.miamifilmfestival.com). The lively Carnaval Miami (www.carnavalmiami.com) is centred on Calle Ocho in Little Havana and includes pageants, parades and concerts. Late March The Miami Music Conference is a major dance music event (www.wintermusicconference.com). June Goombay Festival (www.goombayfestivalcoconutgrove.com) in Coconut Grove is a Bahamian festival of music, parades (junkanoos) and Caribbean food. Late September-Early October The Miami Carnival is one of America's biggest street festivals, the highlight of which is the carnival parade in early October. There are lots of events in the run-up to the parade, including the International Caribbean Music Festival in Bicentennial Park, which brings a fiesta atmosphere to Downtown Miami (www.crfest.com). December Art Basel Miami Beach is one of the world's foremost annual art festivals and is centred on South Beach, bringing with it special exhibitions, events and parties. Visit www.artbaselmiamibeach.com for details of the next event.