Katie Bowman visits the most glamourous spot in Florida, and gives the lowdown on where to go and what to see.
…And that’s when the bodybuilder in pink Speedos launched his jet-ski from ocean to sand and cried out to the bikinied onlookers: ‘Yep, it’s a manatee, folks!’ This is the sort of thing that only happens on Miami Beach. Last time I was there, in fact. If there’s somewhere worth flying all those hours for, it’s this place. You’ll get so much extra thrown in for free: the city-beach buzz of Sydney; the nightlife of Ibiza; the wildlife of Brazil; and a local crowd that’s as diverse as on any you’ll find elsewhere. The weather, you ask? Oh, it’s sunny and 24C. In January.
Once Pierre, the jet-ski guy, had confirmed the manatee sighting, everyone climbed out of the turquoise shallows reverentially and the stand-up paddleboarders and speedboaters cruised away from the area. The manatees needed their space, after all. I would have returned to bask in my pool cabana, but I’d vacated it earlier after a spiky-headed iguana made it clear he favoured the spot. This is Miami Beach in a nutshell: a vibrant, mi-casa-es-tu-casa town, where Grammy winners sunbathe within a respectful distance of reptiles (Lady Gaga was catching rays on my most recent visit). It’s a city where you can eat gefilte fish for brunch, tacos at teatime and Haitian goat curry for post-disco munchies, all on the same street.
That street is Collins Avenue. It runs parallel to the shoreline, from the mangroves of Biscayne Bay to the country clubs of Aventura. The bit you want to get to know if you don’t know it already from a million music videos and ’80s movies, is South Beach (SoBe). Home to a fabulous, preserved collection of Art Deco buildings, it is daubed in every colour from nacho yellow to gecko green. Some are cute cafés, others bling boutique hotels, while some still house the same family who moved there in 1959. My most recent hotel, Cadillac, was one such stunner: a 1940 white wonder built in the ‘streamline’ style, with the signage of a retro sports car and the majesty of a royal cruise ship. Cadillac’s architect was Roy France, credited with creating Miami Beach’s famous skyline – many of his historic hotels puncture the blue sky, providing a backdrop to your snaps that you won’t find in any other winter-sun spot.
Next door is the equally magnificent Confidante hotel, where Dua Lipa filmed her New Rules video. Even if you don’t know the song, you will probably have seen her strut amid the aqua-blue parasols and plastic pink flamingos of its beach club (pay for day access, if you’re not staying). But if you think Miami Beach only suits limber young singles, you’d be wrong. Up the road is Tidal Cove, an upmarket water park, built to placate the growing number of parents who love Miami’s scene; you can rent a chic gazebo and order Rose-ritas while the kids ride the Boomerango slide.
Kick-start your evening with an El Diablo cocktail at Diez y Seis, an alfresco Mexican joint set around the cool pool of the Shore Club hotel. Move on to the tropical gardens of Leynia, a restaurant that brings together the flavours of Argentina and Japan (don’t roll your eyes; it works!) and serves dishes to a relaxed, tanned posse. Round things off at the extraordinary Night Bazaar, a Friday-night spectacle at the Setai hotel, where contortionists and fire-eaters work the room.
And then? Well, you could hit the clubs. Me, I prefer the uniquely Miami late-night pastime of shopping. In acknowledgement of the fact that people sleep late in this party town and that they prefer to spend their daylight hours on the beach, SoBe stores stay open ’til 11pm. And what stores! There are DJs and limited-edition sneakers at Kith. At Violet and Grace you can buy a bikini that costs more than the transatlantic flight you took here. Or you can simply mooch. Lincoln Road Mall is a ‘mall’, sure, but Miami style, with no roof and open-air shops that will sell you an $80k watch, or Botox, all within a 25-metre stretch.
Arty types will love the Wynwood, Downtown and Little Havana neighbourhoods, all just an Uber away from the beach. Meanwhile, families can be at Disney World in about three-and-a-half hours, making Miami the most decadent of antidotes to Mickey. Road-trippers can shuttle down the Florida Keys, a convertible-conducive highway if ever there was one. Adventurers might hit the Everglades National Park, golfers West Palm Beach and the itchy-footed can even day-trip to the Bahamas if they really feel the urge. Miami means so much more than loungers and loafing. The manatees can vouch for that.