Miami Nice

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James Siddall

If you can imagine a bigger, cleaner, richer, faster Durban, you’re half way to Miami, writes JAMES SIDDALL

Miles above an azure ocean, the space shuttle thunders heavenwards, atop a biblical pillar of flame. Behind it, hangs a contrail half the length of the state of Florida. Only fractionally shorter is the bonnet of my borrowed Lincoln Town Car arrowing out ahead of me.

It’s a moment to be savoured; a mosaic of indelible images to be stored on the cerebral hard-drive. It’s also an appalling collection of clichés, but I couldn’t care less. Nor would you, if you were having a good contender for The Best Day Of Your Life, armed with a yacht of a car, a fistful of dollars, and the carpe diem of it all crackling around you.

Show over, I con the Lincoln leviathan around and, with the dashboard digital compass reading almost true south, float back to Miami, or Greater Miami and The Beaches, as the city and its surrounds are known in officialese.

Ocean Drive in Miami. Picture: James Siddall

Although not impossibly huge by international megatropolis standards – even if its name is derived from the Tequesta Indian word mayaime, meaning very large – Miami is still staggeringly diverse, even to a Durbanite reared in a tri-cultural city.

Almost half the population of around 2.5-million plus is Hispanic – Cuba and the rest of Latin America is just across the water – and the result is a microcosm of communities that lends the place a gloriously cosmopolitan edge.

On that introductory whirl around the city with a PR friend, I felt the sort of pop-eyed euphoria last experienced when visiting Paris in my teens. Indeed, from the clean chrome-and-glass areas of downtown through to the upmarket Coral Gables, and the ethnic Little Havana and Little Haiti, Miami is a travel-marketer’s fantasy. Mine too.

Sadly my hometown of Durban has become a crime-wracked and scrofulous hole in parts, with the exception of a few glitzy developments. In some ways Miami is similar with its torpid climate, heady mix of cultures and exotic edge, but it’s bigger, safer, and far cleaner.

Miami is also wealthier than Durban or Johannesburg. New Aston Martins, Bentleys and Ferraris are thick on the ground and in many parts of America, only imported cars are deemed to have prestige value.  Those even further above the breadline buy a yacht with full-time crew and heli-pad. However, I digress.

Wonderful as it was having a PR escort, I far prefer travelling solo and so, having watched the shuttle scythe out of sight, I swung the car around and made for Miami Beach.

Now the “beach” bit is a misnomer. The place is actually a little island almost 10km long and just under two or so wide, and only a few hundred metres from the mainland, to which it’s connected via a few causeways.

Biggest drawcard is South Beach, or SoBe, particularly its Art Deco district, which has more than 800 listed buildings, largely pre-war and pastel-painted, and as elegant as the great ocean liners of yore. Drifting along Ocean Drive, the main drag, taking in the unending fashion parade hosted by the beautiful and the bronzed proved more entertaining than the architecture.

When hunger set in, it was easy enough to surrender the Lincoln to that great American institution, valet parking. Eating in Miami is not for the indecisive. All the standard cuisines – Mexican, Chinese, French and Italian – are well represented. Even more alluring are those with a Floridian flavour, comprising foods from the Deep South – frequently pork-based and oily enough to send your cholesterol levels higher than the space shuttle.

But if you have some more days drive out of the city. Northwards, the rest of the Sunshine State awaits, from Palm Springs to Walt Disney World and the Kennedy Space Centre. Southwards lies the Everglades National Park – 1.4-million acres of wet wilderness.

Colourful Sedan on the side of the road in Key West

Best of all though are the Keys. Like a jade necklace, they stretch 200km from mainland Florida south into the tropics and a world of coral seas, hurricanes and, naturally, tourism.

Remarkably, it’s possible to drive from the mainland to Key West, the southernmost key, along Ocean Highway-Route 1, which cuts down the length of the chain, sometimes crossing several kilometres of open water. I never made it to Key West, once the home of Ernest Hemingway, among other brilliant reprobates.