There's nowhere like Miami. The cruise capital of the world, with America's third highest skyline after New York and Chicago, it's Miami Vice and Cuban cigars, sunshine and sex appeal, Ferraris, facelifts and pink flamingos. It's America's happy place, where it's always summer and everyone is on vacation. But that's not all it is. Nor is it a Surfers Paradise on steroids. It's more beautiful and intriguing than that, with shady avenues of mahogany trees, a melting-pot populace and elegant beachfront hotels within the world's largest art deco district.
If you had to pick one part of Miami in which to base yourself, or you have limited time, choose South Beach, the south-eastern corner of an island connected to downtown Miami by a causeway. It's historic, happening and not as high-rise as the rest of Miami, and it has a wide sandy beach. For street art head to Wynwood arts district; for shopping and dining try Lincoln Road, Miami's Rodeo Drive, which was America's first pedestrian mall when it opened in the 1960s. If you're staying more than a couple of days, do a day trip to the World Heritage-listed Everglades National Park, an hour's drive west of the city.
News Cafe in Ocean Drive, South Beach, is celebrity-spotting central; it was Gianni Versace's regular haunt until he was fatally shot on the steps of his mansion up the street in 1997. But a footpath table at any of Ocean Drive's cafes or restaurants, touristy and over-priced as they are, is a fine way to watch Miami drive, ride and roller-blade by in all its fleshy, unselfconscious glory. For a touch of class, have lunch by the iconic pool at The Raleigh (raleighhotel.com), where even non-guests can pretend to be Esther Williams (many of her movies were filmed there).
Almost 3000 art deco hotels were built during Miami's tourism boom between 1940 and 1942, before America joined the Second World War, and South Beach today has more art deco buildings than anywhere else in the world (about 1200). To see and learn about their distinctive nautical features such as portholes, ship's railings and rounded facades, take one of the excellent Art Deco Walking Tours led by local historians from Miami Design Preservation League.
The 45-minute free walking tour of Little Havana with its cigar shops, domino club, Cuban-pride street art and Bay of Pigs monument is the highlight of Miami's Big Bus hop-on-hop-off city tour, another must. Other landmarks worth "hopping off" for are Vizcaya Museum & Gardens (Miami's Versailles) and The Biltmore, a palatial resort-hotel built in 1926 that has hosted everyone from Judy Garland to Al Capone and is now famous for its afternoon teas and enormous swimming pool.
South Beach's best hotels are renovated beachfront classics along Collins Avenue that exude a cool sophistication far from the clamour of Ocean Drive, such as Metropolitan by COMO (comohotels.com), Royal Palm South Beach (royalpalmsouthbeach.com) and the eco-chic 1Hotels South Beach (1hotels.com/south-beach), which opened last year. More affordable and closer to the action are the charming Beacon Hotel (beaconsouthbeach.com) and the more modest Harrison Hotel (harrisonhotelsouthbeach.com).
Brush up on your Spanish; it's Miami's most spoken language, although English is its official language. The beach is at its most serene before breakfast. Rent a bike from Miami's solar-powered bike-share system (it's only $US4 for 30 minutes, see citibikemiami.com); you'll see more and it's cooler than walking.
Louise Southerden travelled at her own expense.