Why South Beach?
Few urban locations are such a feast for the eyes. South Beach sits on an island across the water from downtown Miami, and is very much the swaggering, style-hungry Miami of the public consciousness. Down-to-earth doesn’t apply here; it’s gloriously posey, and image counts.
Miami Vice and Gianni Versace can be thanked for this. In the early 1980s, South Beach was somewhat down at heel. But then the TV cameras rolled in, everything got a lick of paint and Versace pulled in the European fashion set.
The newfound hip factor was based on an extraordinary architectural treasure trove. South Beach looks like nowhere else on Earth – and a 1926 hurricane is to thank for this. The area was rebuilt afterwards in the fashionable-but-affordable art deco style of the day, and there’s now an unsurpassed concentration of art deco buildings. It provides a distinctive edge to the me-me-me seaside cool.
A comfortable bed
In an area with often pokey rooms, the enormous spacious suites at Villa Bagatelle (www.villabagatellemiamibeach.com; 001 305 763 8330) are entry level rather than at the top of the upgrade range. Full kitchens, massive bathrooms and sink-in beds – plus sunbeds at the beach a couple of blocks away – give rare substance to back up the style. Suites start from $226 (Dh830).
At the National Hotel (www.nationalhotel.com; 001 305 532 2311), make a beeline to the ultra-long pool, surrounded by cabanas. The hotel is packed with art and art deco touches that are likeable without being overdone, carefully marrying heritage and modernity. Double rooms cost from $355 (Dh1,304).
The Hotel Victor (www.hotelvictorsouthbeach.com; 001 305 779 8700) is a prime example of an old art deco hotel that has been neatly brought up to date. Sleek wooden floors and touch-button technology are more 2017 than 1937, though. Rooms cost from $223 (Dh819).
Find your feet
The absolutely mandatory starting point should be the Art Deco Welcome Center on Ocean Drive. This is where the Miami Design Preservation League (www.mdpl.org) begins its riveting architectural walking tours. These weave around some of the most impressive art deco buildings, pointing out different building styles and key features.
From there, a people-watching wander is very much in order. There are three options for this. Ocean Drive has all the cafes, the Promenade has the joggers and tiny rat-dogs being dragged along by rollerskaters, while the beach has frazzled revellers asleep on the sand and athletic types lobbing Frisbees.
Detour a couple of blocks inland for the Wolfsonian-FIU (www.wolfsonian.org; 001 305 531 1001), a museum focused on design that helps put the South Beach look in context.
Meet the locals
While all-comers strut up and down the Promenade, the beach and Ocean Drive, few get to the very southernmost end. South Pointe Park is a more chilled-out spot where posers make way for dog walkers and residents sitting to admire the water views.
Book a table
Yuca (www.yuca.com; 001 305 532 9822) is the culinary highlight of Lincoln Mall. Standing for Young Urban Cuban-Americans, it's a slick-looking joint with musicians getting toes tapping and 21st-century takes on traditional Cuban dishes. Plantain-coated mahi-mahi is among the $26 (Dh96) mains, but there's a lot of fun to be had with the tapas-style lunch menu.
Pubbelly (www.pubbelly.com; 001 305 532 7555), on the western side of the island, is one of those places you have to know is there, but it's a great find. A relaxed vibe, exposed brickwork and experimental Asia-meets-Latin America small plates make it phenomenally enjoyable. Don't miss the $15 (Dh55) buffalo-style sweetbreads with blue-cheese dip.
The Lincoln Mall is the main, largely pedestrianised shopping strip. There’s a nice mix of mid-market chains – American Apparel, Havaianas, Banana Republic etc – and more interesting, one-off fashion stores. The best of these tend to congregate at the western end, away from the beach.
But the highlight is the Art Center South Florida (www.artcentersf.org; 001 305 674 8278), where 41 artists are in residence, making and displaying their (usually giddily colourful) works.
What to avoid
Ocean Drive is superb for people-watching and getting that snapshot South Beach feel, but you’ll pay a premium for eating generally mediocre food there. Go there for a leisurely scene-surveying breakfast, rather than a disappointing dinner.
Miami Food Tours (www.miamifoodtours.com; 001 786 361 0991) runs three-hour tasting jaunts around less-obvious but high-quality joints, and does a great job of exploring the different cuisines that migrants from all over Latin America have brought to the city. There's a bit of history and architecture thrown in – it's an excellent introduction to the best bites in an area where the cuisine can be patchy. Tickets cost $58 (Dh213).
Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com; 04 229 2229) flies from Dubai to Miami via Doha from Dh3,645.
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