Miami, US: Biscayne Bay, the home of the rich and famous former resident for gangsters and drug lords

Near the middle of our sedate family cruise through Miami's Biscayne Bay, the photographers suddenly lurch from port to starboard.

Our guide is still pointing towards Miami's "millionaire's row" when everyone's attention is drawn to four young women in thong bikinis. They're twerking to very loud music while posing on the bow of a luxury motor vessel anchored in the bay.

We appear to have strayed into a time warp, a past episode of Miami Vice. Surely, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, as two of the unlikeliest undercover cops in TV history, will appear at any moment?

When I had told the taxi driver taking me to the quay at Miami's Bayside Marketplace that I would be spending this Sunday afternoon viewing the homes of Miami's rich and famous, he laughed.

"You mean you'll be seeing the homes of Miami's richest drug dealers and hoodlums," he said. "Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug baron, had a waterfront house. So did Al Capone, the real Scarface. Did you know they filmed the 1983 remake of Scarface, starring Al Pacino, here?"

Actually I did. It remains a classic of '80s excess, but what do you expect from a movie directed by Brian De Palma and written by Oliver Stone, who was a cocaine addict himself at the time?

The 90-minute Island Queen voyage had begun soberly enough. Our bilingual guide (English and Spanish) explained the Miami River, though the shortest in the US at only eight kilometres, was immensely important to the Mayaimi and Tequesta tribes who lived here until the French arrived in Florida in the 16th century.

Modern Miami, he told us, owes its existence to two unlikely things: a widow and a frost. "This is the only major city in the US founded by a woman," he said. "Julia Tuttle moved south from Cleveland in 1891 after her husband died. She purchased 640 acres on the Miami river in what was then called Biscayne Bay."

She planted orange trees, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the 19th century railway magnate Henry Flagler to extend his Florida line south so her fruit could reach northern markets. Then, in the 1894 winter, frost destroyed most of Florida's orange crop. Flagler quickly changed his mind, extended the railway – and built Miami's first resort. (Flagler is commemorated with an obelisk in the bay, near where the women were twerking.)

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Today there are 26 artificial islands in Biscayne Bay. Fisher Island, reputedly, is the most expensive real estate in the US, only accessed by helicopter, private boat or ferry.

"Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Jed Bush have homes here," we're informed.

The Carl Fisher who gave his name to the island had earlier developed the swamp land now known as Miami Beach. Elephants cleared the jungle. But what of the homes of the rich and famous?

Gloria Estefan has three properties in Miami, near a house owned by Ricky Martin. Basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal, formerly of the Miami Heat, apparently sold his home to a Russian oligarch.

But most of the houses we see, though magnificent, are owned by corporate types we've never heard of. The largest house on "millionaire's row", for example, is owned by Dr Phillip Frost, "billionaire dermatologist" (who knew there was such a thing?). He and wife Patricia are prolific Miami benefactors, with music, art and science institutions named after them.

All well and good. But where's the scandal when you need it? Enter Alphonse Capone.

Born in New York, Capone will forever be associated with Chicago and the Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929. He'd purchased his Miami retreat, on Palm Island, a year earlier. By modern standards his home is modest. His murderous reputation preceded him, but his regular "steak and spaghetti" evenings (no alcohol: it was still prohibition) were well attended. Capone was imprisoned, famously on tax evasion charges, soon afterwards.

Upon his release in 1940 after a syphilis-connected illness and reputedly with the mental age of 12, Capone spent the rest of his life at this house, before dying of a heart attack in 1947.

"During his last years, Capone enjoyed throwing coins to kids," our guide concludes. "They were marked 'from your pal, Al'."

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham travelled on the Island Queen cruise at his own expense, but was a guest in Miami of Regent Seven Sea Cruises.

MORE

traveller.com.au/miami

miamiandbeaches.com

TOUR

Island Queen Cruises' Millionaire's Row cruise costs $US28 for adults, $US19 for children. See islandqueencruises.com

CRUISE

Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Mariner will visit Australia and New Zealand in February and March 2020 as part of its 117-night world cruise. See rssc.com

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