With buzzing Cuban bars, knock-out margaritas and gloriously tacky casinos, Miami really is the ultimate party town
Underneath a shiny veneer of serene beaches, cocktail lounges and pastel-shaded Art Deco architecture, Miami is a city founded on displacement. Its population – over 400,000 at the last count – was boosted by the Second World War and multiplied by Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime in the 1960s. On the wide, sun-bleached boulevards, Mexican supermarkets and Latino bars rub shoulders with baseball stores and McDonald’s restaurants; and the striped pergolas of the South Beach hide an underworld of narrow alleys and backstreet slums.
This is a city of two faces, a mixture of squeaky clean and downright dirty, and therein lies Miami’s appeal. You can visit for the beaches and the parties, or you can dig a little deeper and discover the edgy culture that make this thriving metropolis more than just another Floridian tourist attraction.
My personal mission when I visited Miami last year was to see a little of both those faces. I wanted to slather myself in sun cream and mingle with the beautiful people on South Beach, sip a cool cocktail on Ocean Drive and boogie with the likes of J-Lo and Lindsay Lohan in the city’s glitziest clubs. But I was also keen to meet the locals, discover some of the grimier bars and dance the night away to the strains of upbeat Latino rock. In short, I wanted to party – and Miami seemed like the perfect place to do it.
Miami International Airport is approximately a nine-hour flight from most major UK destinations, but I took a less orthodox route and arrived by Greyhound coach. After a 24-hour journey, which had begun at Washington DC and taken in the vastness of Georgia and the Carolinas, only the sight of Miami Beach shimmering under a golden heat haze could have revived me.
Mindful of our tight budget, my friend Naomi and I bypassed some of the more luxury central hotels and headed straight for the Miami Beach International Traveller’s Hostel (at Ocean Hotel Miami Beach). This beautiful Art Deco building houses the city’s cheapest and most friendly range of accommodation, from double rooms to dorms. With the amount they give away (free breakfasts, lunches, dinners, wi-fi and drinks), you wonder how they manage to stay afloat in the shark-infested pool that is the Miami tourism sector; but after sharing a round of complimentary shots with fellow travellers, neither of us was in the mood to dwell too long on questions of economics. After a brief debate over our partying schedule – Naomi wanted to head straight out, while I was voting for an hour or two of sleep first – we decided to head to the legendary Nikki Beach Club for a pre-prandial cocktail.
This super-trendy club-slash-bar has been a favourite haunt of the A-list for years. It’s centrally located on Ocean Drive, the seafront parade that runs along the shore of Miami Beach and gets used by a crowd of bronzed celebrity wannabes as a sort of urban red carpet. Relax in one of the road’s pavement cafes and you’ll be treated to a never-ending parade of itsy-bitsy bikinis, bleached hair and enhanced assets, calculated to reduce less surgically improved visitors to a wobbling heap of insecurities.
Nikki Beach is the favoured haunt of these super-beings. It’s a place where the local jet set likes to go to see, be seen, and get mildly drunk on super-expensive but utterly delicious cocktails. Perfect for an aperitif, but lacking a little je ne sais quoi – so, after an hour or so spent gawping at the extraordinary displays of flawless physical beauty, Naomi and I headed down the road to Wet Willies.
This quintessentially Floridian bar benefits from a lively party crowd and a scrumptious Mexican menu. It also does the best margaritas in the south, as we discovered to our cost (never follow a sleepless night with excessive cocktail consumption). But even the discovery of a cosy rooftop bar with beautiful sea views couldn’t keep us awake, and before midnight we conceded defeat and retired to our beds at the comfortable Miami Beach Hostel.
The next day, after a good night’s sleep and a dip in the ocean, both of us were keen to explore beyond the confines of Miami Beach and discover the city itself. Venturing outside the tourist areas is frowned upon by most guide books; but, on the advice of a local taxi driver, we headed to a highly-rated Puerto Rican restaurant in Miami West and enjoyed the most delicious meal of our holiday. Inexpensive, friendly and full of character, Old San Juan is a true taste of Miami as it appears to the locals – a real treat for the tastebuds.
After a slap-up meal, we had a choice: head back to the bright lights of Miami Beach and party until dawn, or venture into the nearby Miccosukee casino – a gloriously tacky venture run by the Miccosukee Indian tribe. Naomi voted for the casino, and I wasn’t going to turn down a chance to see more of Miami’s other face. We left a hefty tip, hailed a taxi, and in less than half an hour began our initiation to the delights of poker, bingo and a host of other Vegas-inspired games in a plush hall of flashing lights and turning boards.
It wasn’t until 6am that we managed to weave our way back to the Miami Beach Hostel, and even at this unholy hour there were revellers abroad. A group of them were paddling in the sea, turning tired but contented faces to the rising sun. “Come on in,” they shouted to us. “We’re heading on to a rave after this!”
Twenty-four hour raving and an ocean dip to cure your hangover? This really is my kind of party town.