So sang Will Smith in the 1998 single Miami from his unforgettable debut album Big Willie Style.
“Welcome to Miami… Bienvenidos a Miami,” he continued.
The song probably sums up most people’s impressions of the eighth largest city in the US, a party paradise for the rich and famous where the sun is always shining and the inhabitants never stop smiling. Certainly, it was pretty much the sum total of my knowledge of the Magic City, as it is known, complemented by Miami Vice and Scarface for context.
And so with the Fresh Prince ringing in my ears, I began what would be my first trip, albeit brief at 48 hours, to the party capital of Florida, courtesy of the lovely people at Aer Lingus. The Irish carrier has just launched three weekly direct flights from Dublin which connect handily to Edinburgh.
What I found was a place which confirmed every stereotype extolled by Smith while retaining the gritty undercurrent portrayed by Al Pacino – and lots more besides.
My adventure began early at Edinburgh Airport with a short hop on Aer Lingus regional to Dublin. Here – and this is a big plus – exists the dream of US pre-clearance. Smiling American security officers, presumably a lot more chilled on account of being posted to Ireland and not having guns, make the worst part of any trip to the States instantly disappear. Checks complete, you can arrive at your destination as a domestic passenger and breeze past customs queues. Not even the dreaded “SSSS” stamped on my boarding pass – code for a random enhanced security check – could dampen my spirits, the interrogation being carried out in the more relaxed atmosphere of the Emerald Isle.
Once on board, I was jammy enough to be travelling business class on what was the inaugural flight between the two cities, and it really was the last word. Fully lie-flat beds, free wi-fi, an excellent choice of in-flight entertainment, fantastic food and an X Factor celebrity sitting across from me (note: probably not available on all flights) – I have never felt more relaxed stepping off a plane.
Home for the next two days was the four-star Grand Miami Beach hotel. Miami Beach is a whole separate city, connected to the mainland by bridges with wonderful names such as the Venetian Causeway. At the southern end is the world famous South Beach and the fabulous Art Deco buildings that line Ocean Drive.
The Grand Miami Beach is a three-mile drive from South Beach but none the worse for it. My ridiculously large suite had a balcony with a panoramic Atlantic view, two marble bathrooms, two 42-inch TVs, a coffee machine I never quite got the hang of and – perhaps most importantly – very efficient air conditioning. The wider hotel was stunning. An outdoor pool on the seventh floor, a private beach, top class restaurant and ludicrously friendly staff left me wondering what more they had to do to get a fifth star in Miami. I had to carry my own bag to my room, maybe that was it.
First stop on my whistle-stop tour was the famed Art Deco District. Here we were treated to a guided tour, and despite my usual aversion to joining such groups, this is thoroughly recommended and a bargain at $20. The 90-minute tours are run by the Miami Design Preservation League (www.mdpl.org) and take you to the heart of one of the area’s most popular attractions.
There are 960 historic buildings in all in the art deco style, with our guide pointing out film locations and famous residences, including the Ocean Drive mansion where Gianni Versace lived and was tragically murdered in 1997. Every building is different and yet they somehow all fit together like an impossible jigsaw of architectural brilliance.
Here they like to play up the underworld connections too. Miami Beach was a favourite haunt of Al Capone and our tour points out the location of several Prohibition era speakeasies and the lengths gangsters went to hide their activities. No such subterfuge is required today. The Art Deco district may be a protected heritage site but it is no museum and at night transforms into the beating heart of Miami nightlife. I loved it.
Heading into mainland Miami, past a dock full of the largest cruise liners in the world, we land in Wynwood. What was once a rundown, crime-ridden warehouse district is now one of the city’s most fashionable neighbourhoods. Graffiti is everywhere. Only it’s not vandalism, it’s street art, and simply stunning in scale and artistry. The guide this time was the delightfully named Ryan the Wheelbarrow (I didn’t ask), an accomplished artist who knows the streets like the back of an aerosol-stained hand. He points out the stories behind vibrant murals, the code of the graffiti artists, and how art has transformed a community. (www.miamisbestgraffitiguide.com)
Close by Wynwood is Miami’s Design District and it would be difficult to imagine a bigger contrast. With 60 boutiques, it’s billed as Miami’s main shopping destination. Not a place for souvenirs unless you have the GDP of a small European country burning a hole in your pocket. Dior, Armani, Prada, Rolex, Tiffany and Co, and beautiful people spending their beautiful money. There are also top galleries and design studios. It’s worth a visit, if only to admire the Bentleys and Lamborghinis lining the street while their owners do the messages.
A more affordable way to experience the lives of the rich and famous is to take a tour of the bay and what better way than in true Miami Vice style on a speedboat? The “Thriller” tour (www.thrillermiami.com) lasted 45 minutes ($38/$24) and was just on the right side of terrifying. After a high-speed spin about, which ensures you get closer to your fellow passengers than you perhaps planned, the speedboat captain conducts a thankfully more leisurely tour of the multi-millionaires’ haven of Fisher Island and Star Island, pointing out the homes of Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Gloria Estefan, Madonna, Sylvester Stallone, the Beckhams, and of course Don Johnson. None of them were in, as far as I could tell. And so a breakneck tour brought to an end a whirlwind visit to Miami.
This is a multi-layered city of which I only scratched the surface and left with a sense that every visit would offer a completely different perspective. Given its history and the Latin influence that flows through its streets and its multilingual population, you could easily forget you are in America. Then you turn the corner, see another soft-top Ferrari, and realise it couldn’t be any more America if it tried.
As the great man Will Smith said so eloquently:
“I only came for two days of playing
But every time I come I always wind up stayin’
This the type of town I could spend a few days in
Miami the city that keeps the roof blazin’”