We ended a recent epic East-coast jaunt in Miami, because why not? It was the beginning of December and the draw of somewhere with a temperature persistently over 25 degrees won over damp and chilly north London without there being much of a contest.
Miami, like much of the US cities we’ve visited, is full of contrasts. Known for being an upmarket retirement hot spot populated by affluent Betty White lookalikes, it is also home to devastatingly beautiful, hip young things baring their tanned torsos as they effortlessly whack volleyballs at one another and rollerblade along the boardwalks. Very much a southern city, at least geographically (after all, it’s home to the most southern spot on mainland USA) it nonetheless lacks much of the conservative overtones of cities in neighbouring states. Famous for its thriving gay scene and awash with unabashed hedonism, “reactionary” isn’t a word you’d use about Miami.
Some might argue otherwise, but Miami Beach is really the place to go, unless you have some sort of phobia of Art Deco architecture, in which case I’d recommend you try a different city altogether. The downtown part of the city is great – buzzing and impressive – but it’s sticky-hot and there arguably isn’t a lot to separate it from many other US cities. Miami Beach, on the other hand, feels like a film set: miles and miles of Art Deco brilliance, miles of fine, sandy beaches and a deluge of plush hotels and chic dining spots. I clogged up my phone memory in the first half hour there, my husband patiently suggesting to me that I might not want to take pictures of every building.
The drawback of all of this is that it comes at a price, and after a week ambling around the backwaters of Virginia this was a bit of a shock. We checked into a bland chain hotel conspicuous by its modern, faceless facade in a row of otherwise elegant perfection, and vowed to spend as little time there as possible. Instead we went to the nearby Fontainbleu for dinner – twice – and pretended we were actually staying there, and in the daytime sashayed along the boardwalk, taking in the elaborately-decorated beach huts and dazzling blue sea and luxuriating in the late Autumn heat.
Miami is friendly, too. Everyone we met had a certain southern easiness, a natural friendliness that made each encounter a snapshot of joy, and all without the underlying tensions of the other states that we’d visited, still very much, at this time, in the shadow of the Charlottesville protests and the dangerously simmering racism that had bubbled to the surface there. Florida, physically on a limb as well as, perhaps, metaphorically, was safely removed enough from all this, a microcosm of charm and comfort and self-assuredness. Yes, of course, there are pockets of the city that are unsafe; there are areas the hotel would earnestly warn you against visiting; there is petty crime, as there is in any other major city, both in the US and elsewhere. But there is Key West a short drive away; there are the Everglades in the other direction, with their airboat tours and guides delighting the thrill-seekers daily in their dalliances with the local reptilian inhabitants, rousing huge, prehistoric creatures from their natural, murky habitats for the purposes of a decent selfie to show the folks back home.
Then there is cutting-edge street art to go with street food of such quality that in London it would be sold for three times the price by a chap with a beard out of an old, brightly-painted shipping container in Shoreditch – Cuban food, Colombian food, prawns so implausibly big you fear they might be the result of some catastrophic scientific experiment. There are museums, galleries, walks and wildlife – Miami is the only place I’ve been where I have looked down to find an iguana more than a foot long walking alongside me, who, when I paused, paused too, and looked up at me as if to say, “yes? Can I help you?”
I have been to a lot of places in the US, from the blizzard-swept north to the deep south, I’ve experienced the unforgiving buzz of New York, the intellectual babble of Boston and the lazy hum of Savannah. But the confident, chic, contradictory fizzle of Miami?
Yes. It did it for me this time, and I’m certain it would do it for me again and again.