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Miami Spotlight

America's Riviera is a land of sun, sands, clubs . . . and Cubans

By David Appell

January 10th, 2006

Sprawling, sometimes sexy, unruly, and occasionally outrageous, Greater Miami has become an urban mix unlike any other in America: one part sun-splashed resort playground; one part glamorama party capital; and one part (the biggest, in fact) bustling, Hispanic-flavored sprawl – parts of which feel more like Latin America than the United States. It's a magnetic combination that has long attracted the attention of showbiz types, both for filming (from CSI: Miami to Miami Vice and from the campy The Birdcage to the hopped-up 2 Fast 2 Furious) and hanging (in the old days it was "fly me to the moon" with Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, now it's, yo, the likes of J.Lo, Paris Hilton, Uma Thurman, Oprah, and Kanye West).

The long, skinny island of Miami Beach – and specifically image-conscious South Miami Beach (that's South Beach or SoBe to you), with its charming Art Deco District and sizzling dining and club scenes, has for the past decade reigned as one of America's capitals of cool (so cool, in fact, that designer Roberto Cavalli recently launched a $60-a-bottle vodka to be sold only in Miami, along with New York and Los Angeles). It's the kind of place where you might spot Cuban boat people washed up on Ocean Drive or a guy walking a leashed mountain lion on Lincoln Road. Sure there's some pretty interesting and even cultural stuff to do out here, but it's really all about "the scene" – by day, sun and sand amid scantily-clad, hard-bodied rollerbladers and volleyballers; by night, dining and partying amid a mix of the rich, famous, and fabulous (leavened by a good smattering of none of the above). In recent years, a number of seasonal events have sprung up or been cooked up to raise SoBe's profile even further in various areas, from cuisine (February's South Beach Wine and Food Festival) to music (the Winter Music Conference) to art (Art Basel).

If you have three days, you'll have your hands full with South Beach (where you really don't need a car). But if you can make it down for five to seven days, by all means rent some wheels and cruise over the causeway off the sandbar, to areas like Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Little Havana, and the Everglades. These and other parts of Miami-Dade county, where most of the locals live, get less attention than South Beach but have lots of cool cultural and historic attractions, not to mention the caffeinated, Spanish-accented flavor that has turned the tip of South Florida into the capital of Latin America. And it, too, is undergoing a boom – especially evident in the ever-burgeoning condo towers and downtown's huge, futuristic new Miami Performing Arts Center (due to open in October 2006). The mainland parts of Greater Miami presents a sometimes strange mix of poverty and conspicuous consumption but many can be entertaining – and certainly always eye-opening.

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