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Friday 1 August 2014

The Sunshine State of mind

WELCOME TO MIAMI: It’s America ... but with a pinch of salsa and a lot of style, says Mark Evans

Published 20/02/2013|11:35

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THEY don’t call it the Sunshine State for nothing. Leaving a Dublin braced for snow, within hours I was basking in the balmy air of a sub- tropical paradise in Florida’s most cosmopolitan city, Miami.

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Not any old American city, the metropolis of four million souls is hopping, and while it’s not even the capital of its own state (little ole’ Tallahassee has that privilege), it’s the true capital of Latin America.

Cuban, Brazilian, Caribbean, Bolivian – every nation seems to be represented in an intoxicating blend of food and music.

It’s got the energy of New York – global feel, pulsating nightlife, great shopping – with one thing the Big Apple can’t boast in winter: fantastic weather.

My first port of call was the Turnberry Isle Resort in north Miami, just a short hop from the international airport. And you just know it’s going to be swish when it’s got the address of West Country Club Drive, and is surrounded by an array of condos that would make a Nama baron salivate.

The next morning’s sunshine bathes my enormous room in the warm glow of another beautiful day in heavenly Florida. Then the tough choice – a trip to the shower’s that more spacious than some kitchens, or a dip in the marble bath that’s big enough to take a football cheerleader or three (not that I had any on hand to test that theory).

Forget about culture, history, lifestyle – breakfast’s one of the biggest draws for me in America. And yes, the choice was enormous: Pile the pancakes high, toss on some bacon, pig out on a waistline-busting omelette (and that’s before I found the spicy south american offerings).

Such gorging called for a trip to the huge gym – but the lazy boy cabanas by the pool looked so much comfier. Waiter service, towels you could sink into, and a very very fast pool slide later reminded me that I’d made the right choice. There’s a beautiful stretch of beach and surging Atlantic Ocean waves beside the pool, but this is a place that’s so laidback a five-minute walk seems an eternity.

Its Bourbon Steak restaurant is exactly that – great steaks or burgers, and a sensational variety of beers, whiskeys and wines in a towering display behind the bar. It’s classy but great fun – brilliant for everything from a romantic dinner to a girls’ night out (and congrats to the DJ on the classic Indie tracks). Better still, it’s good value, and a cheaper alternative to the wallet- busting bars of the famous South Beach area. The Turnberry’s a good option for couples too, with the massive Aventura Mall a short walk across the road, and great deals on the major US brands to pack into the suitcase.

And if you’re a major foodie, try the hotel’s Cascata Grill with a tasting menu with clever twists on classic seafood and meat dishes from Stateside. As hotels go, it’s friendly, chilled and a perfect bolthole from reality.

Whisper it quietly, but I don’t rate Miami as a place of must-see sights – it’s all about the lifestyle. But I did get a good overview of the city on a Dragonfly tour, taking in the well-heeled neighbourhoods of Coral Gables and Coconut Grove.

On the tour you’ll get to glimpse behind the scenes at the history-filled Biltmore Hotel. So old, in fact, that’s it even got its own ghost from the 1920s mobster era.

Johnny ‘ Tarzan’ Weissmuller was a lifeguard here, and you can visit the pool where he scandalised Miami society by running around naked before his Hollywood days.

We also took a fascinating trip to one of the city’s iconic ethnic neighbourhoods, Little Havana.

Many of the generations of Cubans who have fled, or been given the boot, by Fidel have ended up here. Nowadays many of the young have assimilated, so it’s a neighbourhood of old timers playing chess or selling cigars.

Spanish is the number one language around these parts, but it’s worth checking out for the Cuban coffee alone – small, sweet and very strong.

DIVERSE

In a city of diverse neighbourhoods, Cuban soon gives way to trendy in the emerging Wynwood Design District. It still looks a bit edgy, but it’s one of those cool areas so loved by Americans.

Street art is everywhere, and the Wynwood Kitchen and Restaurant, on NW 2nd Avenue, boasts funky murals aplenty in its al fresco dining area.

The food is South American fusion (spicy and flavoursome) and there’s a huge selection of international beers – some of which are 18pc alcohol.

I don’t know art, but I do know what I like.

Another side of Miami is very much in evidence in South Beach. The setting for CSI episodes, Miami Vice and a plethora of big budget movies, Southie is all about the look. Convertible Mercs, VIP clubs, art deco hotels, white sandy beaches – it’s the American dream for the rich and beautiful.

Even on a budget, you can afford a breakfast or a beer at the famous News Cafe, right on the ocean shore, and by night go grungey. Club Deuce on 14th Street is typical – pool tables, two beers for six bucks at happy hour and toilets straight out of Trainspotting. Dive bars are smokey, they’re loud, but they’re great fun for a cheap night out in a city with plenty of high end bars with New York prices.

My bed for the night in South Beach was the famous Fontainebleau Hotel.

If you think you’ve seen it before, you have. Scarface was filmed here, and Oddjob visited in Goldfinger. It’s a statement 1950s cool – a statement of luxury when America was the one and only world superpower.

Nowadays, it’s bustling and exciting – and the views from my room was pure Hollywod, with a horizon of downtown skyscrapers and million-dollar yachts on the Miami waterway.

I’ve never had an iMac in my room either, or seen so many pools in one hotel, making you feel like a movie star for a day or so.

But jumping into the body-pounding waves of its oceanfront beach, and looking back at the line of condos, you just have to crack open a smile – and think of the poor souls heading home into the cold 4,000 miles away.

Welcome to Miami...

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