08 December 2016

 
Witness the famous neon of Miami South Beach
Miami spice
Florida without the theme parks? James Gillespie shows how it can be done. And it all started on South Beach with just a thong at twilight
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e were sitting in the setting sun at an outdoor restaurant when I first saw the scantily-clad pedestrian – who was wearing a string vest, beneath which was a bright yellow bra with matching thong. The whole ensemble was held together by a belt, into which was stuffed a sheaf of dollars. Only the frequent pauses to dance for passing motorists or wave to tourists interrupted this flamboyant lone parade. It was surprising how few people paid any attention, given that the person in the skirt was, very obviously, a man. And he’d just blown me a kiss. And given me a little finger wave.

What was I to do? I was with my family and surely he couldn’t think that I… for a split second I considered doing the proper British thing – pull my cap down over my eyes and pretend that nothing unusual was happening. Instead, I called him over. He flounced towards us with a broad smile. My mortified family buried their crimson faces in their hands.

‘Can I take your picture?’ I asked ‘Of course!’ he said. ‘That’ll be three dollars. ‘How about two?’ ‘Hey, that’s fine. I’m an easy guy to get along with.’ You don’t say. He immediately adopted a cheesy provocative pose, while I snapped two quick pictures, stumped up the cash and then he was on his way. The waitress appeared beside me: ‘Yeah, you gotta have a picture otherwise no one will believe you back home. But, hey, this is South Beach.’
W
South Beach is famous for it's retro buildings and cars
prove it was possible to have a family holiday in Florida without visiting a single theme park.But with a 17-year-old and a 13-year-old to keep entertained, would it work?

Actually, we’d have been hardpressed to fail. If you stay in one of the hotels which back on to the ocean, you immediately have access to one of the best beaches in the world. The water is shallow, the miles of sand are dotted with colourful Art Deco lifeguard huts and it is remarkably uncrowded. If, like us, you’re used to Mediterranean beaches, then it is a revelation – the water was warmer than anything I’ve known in Europe. Throughout the day in South Beach, people walk from the sand to the restaurants, cafes and bars that occupy the ground floor of so many of the colourful buildings, have lunch and then head back to the beach.

Or you can browse around the designer shops of Collins Avenue and the pedestrianised Lincoln Road, while the area a block further back along Washington Avenue has an edgier feel, with workers’ cafes, bars and a smattering of sex shops. It isn’t just that Ocean Drive looks like a movie set, it is a movie set. Every day we were there a film crew was at work, so it was fitting we should set off on a movie tour. First stop was The Carlyle Hotel, on Ocean Drive, which now stands empty after a refurbishment but was the set for Robin Williams’s film The Birdcage.
It certainly was. Not only was it South Beach, but this was Ocean Drive, the heart of Miami’s historic Art Deco district where the buildings look like a movie set and appearance is everything. We had come to South Beach with our two teenage sons and were determined to do one thing:
Relax on Miami's pristine South Beach
"It isn’t just that Ocean Drive looks like a movie set, it is a movie set."
Just a few doors down, the Cardozo Hotel was the backdrop for Cameron Diaz and Matt Dillon in There’s Something About Mary. Continuing the movie theme, you can eat at Johnny Rockets, where Al Pacino appeared in Scarface, and at the Vizcaya where Jim Carrey played Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Nearby, the Mansion nightclub has an unprepossessing exterior but is splendidly opulent inside. This is where Colin Farrell hung out in the film Miami Vice.

Amid all the celluloid glamour and fantasy, South Beach also has its own association with real-life violence. The biggest
crowds gather at the steps of the Versace mansion. It was on these steps that fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot dead on July 15, 1997, when he returned home after breakfast at News Cafe on the corner of 8th and Ocean Drive. But despite its links with some of the most glamorous people in the world, South Beach boasts one great secret for British visitors: it’s cheap. Thanks to the strong pound, everything is affordable. At the Levi’s store we bought jeans for £25 a pair, while our 17-year-old headed to Quicksilver for skateboard gear.

Perhaps this is the beauty of South Beach: it’s both a city break and a beach holiday. In the week we spent there no one mentioned a theme park. When the children got bored, we just chucked them in the sea and sat back. When they’d had enough of swimming, it was off to the shops. When they’d done the shops, we sat at a cafe and watched a movie being made. In fact, there’s probably nowhere better in the world for indulging in a bit of peoplewatching. Just look out for the men in dresses.


Original article published in Apr 2008. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
"Perhaps this is the beauty of South Beach: it’s both a city break and a beach holiday. In the week we spent there no one mentioned a theme park."
The opulent interior of the Mansion nightclub
The Versace mansion
Swap gossip at the famous News Cafe
 
 
 
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