Cha-cha to chakra

Long known for its excesses, Miami Beach has started to reinvent itself as a health destination. Aaron Peasley puts the city's vice and nice credentials to the test.

In the past, going to Miami Beach for a healthy getaway made about as much sense as heading to Vegas for a hit of intellectual stimulation. The 18-square-kilometre island of sand that makes up America's most famous beach resort has never really been a place for those looking for moderation. Known for hard drinking, hard partying and somehow – despite it all – hard bodies, Miami trades on its "sin city of the south" reputation.

Strolling along Collins Avenue on a Saturday night, it's clear the never-ending salsa beat hasn't dimmed but there are signs that Miami is attempting to clean up its party image, with a clutch of new high-profile spas, health-oriented hotels and luxury retreats.

My mission is to explore the two divergent sides of Miami Beach: the fabled land of spectacular excess, as well as the emerging centre of "wellness" tourism. I want to find out whether Miami has shed the vice for the nice and to address a burning question: Are downward dogs and daiquiris a dangerous combination?

THE VICE

Like Las Vegas, with its ribald "whatever happens here stays here" come-on, Miami has long been fashioned as a libidinous adult getaway, where inhibitions are shed with shocking ease.

That certainly seems to be the case at the current hot spot, Gansevoort South. Eighteen floors above street level, a glamorous rooftop pool and lounge throbs with life beneath the searing Florida sun. A mixed crowd huddles on huge wicker daybeds, swaying to the sounds of piped electronic music as waitresses slink by with trays of free frozen vodka shots. From up here you can really appreciate the turquoise-coloured sea, crystalline Biscayne Bay and downtown Miami but I seem to be the only person enjoying that view.

Gansevoort South, the flashy southern sister to the Hotel Gansevoort in Manhattan's Meatpacking District, was designed to attract the beautiful people. Opening with great fanfare last year, the 334-room hotel features a 4200-square-metre state-of-the-art David Barton Gym. (It is estimated Miami has 80 per cent more gyms per capita than the rest of the US.) And, like the Marlin Hotel, which helped spark a South Beach renaissance in the late 1990s, the hotel also houses a modelling agency (presumably the models are given pool access).

Outside its capacious, darkly lit foyer, which features a 15-metre shark tank, Collins Avenue, Miami Beach's main drag, pulses with poseurs. The great extremes of this tropical town reveal themselves: a garish white stretch-Hummer thunders past blasting the latest rap hit. Sunburnt tourists squelch by in thongs and Daisy Dukes, looking worse for wear after a long day at the beach. One older lady tells me she's visited Miami every year since the '50s and points out that the Gansevoort was once the Roney Plaza, "a very swish hotel in its time", she notes.

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Miami has always had a penchant for reinvention. The narrow island used to be swampland until it was dredged in 1910 by visionary developer Carl Fisher. As ever-grander art deco hotels sprang up during the '20s, Miami Beach became a pastel playground for the rich, the dissolute and those wishing to drop off the radar.

That night, the indulgence continues at the new BLT Steak, another New York transplant housed in the new Betsy Hotel on Ocean Drive, the heart of Miami Beach's historic art deco district.

With its columns and plantation-style shutters, the Betsy is more Gone With the Wind than The Birdcage, but is nonetheless a charming addition to the city's architectural pastiche. In true Miami spirit, people-watching ensues, accompanied by expertly mixed Hendrick's martinis, huge stacks of dry aged Angus beef and a calorific side of lobster mac and cheese. Later, we dodge the circus that is Ocean Drive on a Saturday night (complete with live iguanas, albino pythons and Tropicana-style revues) and sneak one last cocktail at Casa Casuarina, housed in Versace's tawdry old mansion. Arriving back at Gansevoort South, we check out the hotel's nightclub, Louis, which has been designed to look like a combination of baroque pre-revolutionary France and a Pussycat Dolls video.

THE NICE

The brand-new Canyon Ranch hotel is less than seven kilometres away from the raucous Gansevoort South but it may as well be on another planet. Entering the slick David Rockwell-designed lobby, a sense of calm pervades and voices fall to a melodic whisper. In place of skimpy swimwear and crispy flesh are a couple of uptight-looking fortysomethings in designer sweatsuits clutching Louis Vuitton workout bags.

This is the nexus of Miami's emerging "wellness" scene and, by the looks of things, getting your chakras realigned in Miami is almost as expensive as getting trashed.

Check-in takes place at a small desk where an impossibly fit "adviser" greets you with an impressive schedule of activities. Pursuits at Canyon Ranch range from the standard (yoga, pilates) to the rugged (indoor climbing wall) and the new-age (reiki healing sessions).

Everything exudes calm, expense and very good taste. Could I still be in Miami, the place, in Lenny Bruce's opinion, "where neon goes to die"?

At first glance, Miami would seem an odd choice for a spa hotel like this. The first Canyon Ranch was opened in Tucson, Arizona, and was designed to be a temple of the mind, body and spirit.

If I needed further evidence that yoga and hangovers don't go together I was to find it later in a private one-on-one session. Between desperate panting and fits of sweats, I try to imagine this place during its '60s heyday, when it was known as the Carillon Hotel. Though not as famous as the nearby Fontainebleau, which recently received a $US1 billion ($1.2 billion) overhaul and whose racy ads are splashed across the city's billboards, the old Carillon was a popular destination of its time. Earning the honour of "Miami hotel of the year" in 1959, the property is considered a classic of MiMo, a modernist form of architecture native to the city.

The Carillon really swung during one of Miami's early booms (there have been plenty of busts in the interim), when the beach attracted a motley crew of gamblers, movie stars and dropouts; a ragtag citizenry that made Miami Beach famous as a "sunny place for shady people".

Recovering by the pool (one of four), I am tempted to order a bloody mary. In one concession to its location, Canyon Ranch Miami is the only Canyon Ranch destination that allows booze but in this case, it's organic spirits and biodynamic wine.

After exploring every inch of the 603-square-metre spa, we commandeer a taxi and head to the Standard Hotel. Known for its hip, affordable properties in Los Angeles and now New York, the Miami outpost was an early arrival to the flourishing Miami health scene. Opened in 2006, the Andre Balazs-owned resort is in the former Lido Spa Hotel, which itself was once a resort for weary northern snowbirds. On the debauchery spectrum, the Standard Miami sits somewhere between Canyon Ranch and the Gansevoort South. The property occupies a breezy position overlooking Biscayne Bay, far enough away from the spectacle of South Beach but still feeling like part of the action.

It's tempting to stay here: the crowd is younger, less label-obsessed and everyone seems to be having fun. Two couples slather themselves in iridescent mud and wait for it to dry before jumping in the outdoor claw-foot tubs; others are drinking rose as the sun begins to set. If Miami does balance health and hedonism, this would have to be it.

We drive back to the beach, past opulent neon-lit resorts, Cuban takeaway food stands and tiny marzipan art deco apartment blocks. By 9pm, Canyon Ranch is winding down and most guests look like they're turning in for the night. As we reach the lift, we notice the Botoxed ladies we spied earlier. Dressed in sky-high heels, cocktail gowns and carrying a bottle of champagne, they're ready to experience the city's legendary nightlife. It seems in Miami nothing, but nothing, can stop the party. In this town, naughty always trumps nice but you can't blame them for trying.

The writer was a guest of the Gansevoort South hotel.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Qantas Airways flies to Miami via partner American Airlines. Miami Beach is within easy reach of Fort Lauderdale airport.

STAYING THERE

Gansevoort South, 2377 Collins Avenue, phone +1 305 604 1000, see GansevoortMiamiBeach.com.

Casa Casuarina, 1116 Ocean Drive, phone +1 305 672 2679, see casacasuarina.com.

Canyon Ranch Miami, 6801 Collins Avenue, phone +1 800 742 9000, see canyonranch.com.

The Standard Miami, 40 Island Avenue, phone +1 305 673 1717, see standardhotels.com/miami.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See miamiandbeaches.com.

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