I TEND to roll my eyes when my friends book their holidays to sit on the beach all day. This is not arrogance; the truth is that drop-dead gorgeous beaches have always scared the living daylights out of me.
It’s not the danger of too much sun, or concerns about exposing months of pale cellulite to a more tanned, fitter world. Rather, it’s the fear of lazing around for hours on end doing absolutely nothing – idle time being the devil’s playground, after all.
So Florida, predictably, has never held much interest for me. Retirees? Chintz? No thanks – this is why Benidorm and Blackpool have their own dedicated tourist boards. But like many oft-stereotyped US states, Florida has more beneath the surface than stunning beaches and year-round sunshine.
Still, my arrival to Miami and Fort Lauderdale – Floridian sister cities about 30 miles apart that sometimes see themselves as rivals – was none too auspicious. I spent my first afternoon in the lounge of the W Fort Lauderdale, a chic property that turned out to be just the kind of place I was hoping to avoid. Within 15 minutes I experienced sensory overload of trashiness: Botox, neuroses, tears, chartreuse polyester tracksuit bottoms, offensively skimpy bikinis and $18 “imitation crab” sandwiches at the bar. This was the Florida of Jersey Shore accents, Crackberry conference calls and flaunted cushion-cut Tiffany bling – not exactly at the top of my list of holiday destinations.
So I decamped to somewhere much more plebeian and much more my pace. The waters of Deerfield Beach, a relaxing 20-minute drive north, lapped against a kilometre-long stretch of uncrowded sands. The beach was presided over by lifeguards who thankfully didn’t look like Baywatch extras, and patronised by co-eds who didn’t appear to be airbrushed caricatures of themselves. I sat in the sand watching a local parade of vintage and antique cars putter down the coastal road, and even took a quick dip in the water. After an hour or so, though, I was keen to get stuck into something more productive.
Enter stage left: retail therapy. Fort Lauderdale has one of the largest discount retail outlets in the world, Sawgrass Mills. It’s all very American – overweight arguing families, mini-skirmishes to win that coveted parking spot – but after spending just $297.32 (£189.93) for two Hugo Boss shirts, some snazzy Ray Bans, a canvas-and-leather overnight bag and a fetching dark blue raincoat (perfect for my disembarkation at Heathrow), I decided this was an America I could happily live with. Fort Lauderdale also boasts other dubious superlatives – the world’s largest drive-in movie theatre (13 screens), largest boat parade and largest free-flight hummingbird aviary – but it’s best known for being a more relaxed alternative to faster-paced Miami.
The State of Florida gets so much press as a consummate hedonist’s destination that its Native American history is often lost on most visitors. An hour inland, the nearby Everglades National Park offers 1.5 million acres of swamps, jungles, prairies and access to Indian reservations. I picked up my partner Kelly from Miami International Airport (both cities have their own international airports) and drove us to a Seminole Indian village, where we spent a quiet evening taking in a wildlife safari, dining on fried crocodile nuggets and bedding down in a straw hut right on a swamp.
The following day, we sped our hired black Dodge Challenger muscle car into Miami’s famous South Beach enclave. An era well documented by the television series Miami Vice, South Beach circa 1980 was populated by cocaine cowboys, petty thieves, Cuban exiles and elderly folk eking out a shoestring existence. But a decade later, once jet setters discovered its 800 Art Deco buildings, the neighbourhood swiftly morphed into one of the country’s most prosperous commercial areas and a cultural haven for the south.
South Beach’s architecture lures you in with gentle pastels, nautical motifs, neon lines and terrazzo floors. Even the hotels here are much classier than you’d expect from a Brazilian-and-bling destination, from the imaginative Betsy, a renovated whitewashed Florida Georgian spot with a classic, four-column portico and shuttered windows, to the zen Setai, an Asian-inspired retreat with three pools, a spa, private beach and several excellent restaurants.
Miami’s vintage aesthetics even inspired me to get back into snapshot photography. On another bonanza shopping spree, I picked up a Fujifilm 10X, a sleek digital camera. I took it to shoot Frank Gehry’s $160 million New World Center, a playful geometric home to the New World Symphony, and a few blocks away, Swiss architect darlings Herzog & de Meuron’s gorgeous new heralded car park, filled with boutiques and restaurants. Miami’s visual party doesn’t stop there: Art Basel Miami is now in its tenth year as the US’s most important art show, eclipsing the original Art Basel in size and popularity. Even street artists have made their mark here. One Vespa tour of the Wynwood neighbourhood and the Design District takes in the work of local and internationally known graffiti artists who have tagged their creations across public and private city spaces.
In recent years, Miami has also become a consummate foodie destination, with glamorous new restaurants being opened right and left by big-name American and European chefs. We learned this all during an afternoon with Tour Des Forks, an exploration of the city’s best food haunts (NB: Miami’s Cuban-esque pulled pork sandwiches are to die for).
All had been going smoothly until, on our last day, Kelly and I had a fight. I revealed to her our plans for the day: the Vespa street art tour; reservations at a swanky new downtown restaurant, Sustain; a visit to the drive-in theatre; then an evening hitting the après-jetski scene. “You plan too much,” she scolded me. “Why can’t we just have a simple vacation: you, me and no one else – and no plans?” Holidays for me had always been about exploring and experiencing, not lazing and lethargising. “Who wants to fly 11 hours just to lie on a beach?” I criticised. “You can do that anywhere in the world!” We sat in a harumph of silence for some time before I bit the bullet. I threw out my schedule, threw on a pair of trunks and joined my partner on the warm white sands.
As Kelly lay on the beach tanning and dreaming of a world where no one makes plans, I ordered a rum and coke and did the crosswords. When she fell asleep under our umbrella, I strolled for a while, eventually finding solace in a 250HP jetski to ride my away my cares. It had been years since I’d been out on a jetski, and I’d forgotten how thrilling it could be. An hour later, when I returned, energised, to our patch on the sand, Kelly was still asleep. I whispered at her ear, “Wow. Love the beach. Love it!” Under her Ray Bans, I’m sure she was rolling her eyes.
Flights with American Airlines (0844 499 7300, www.aa.com) start from £610.70. America As You Like it (www.americaasyoulikeit.com) offers a package including flights from Heathrow to Miami, car hire, two nights at the Wyndham Deerfield Beach (www.wydham.com) and two nights at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale (www.starwoodhotels.com) from £805.
The vintage Betsy (+1 305 531 6100; www.thebetsyhotel.com) is one of America’s classiest hotels. Located a block from the beach, the vintage white plantation façade leads to an airy, almost colonial-esque lobby, refined and tastefully luxurious rooms, and a rooftop spa and solarium. Doubles from £127. A few blocks away is the sleek, sumptuous and serene Setai (www.setai.com; +1 305 520 6000), where you’ll find deferential staff, sprawling rooms with great panoramic views of the city, a private beach and several outstanding restaurants. Studio suites from £368.
Billie Swamp Safari (www.billieswamp.com) offers Everglades gator tours and has straw huts from £38 per night. The Street Art Vespa Tour (www.roamrides.com) costs £80. The three-hour Tour des Forks (www.miamifoodtours.com) costs £34. Tours at the New World Symphony (www.nws.edu) are £3.
For information on Florida, visit www.visitflorida.com or the Visit Florida UK and Ireland page on Facebook. For further details on Greater Fort Lauderdale visit www.sunny.org/uk. Information on Miami you can find at www.miamiandbeaches.com.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east