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Full-tilt Miami

In the South Florida party capital, they're serious about celebrity spotting, looking fabulous and playing all night long.

May 11, 2008|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Fifteen minutes behind Paris Hilton.

An hour behind Michael Caine.

A day behind Queen Latifah.

Everywhere I went in Miami I just missed a celebrity. The only name I didn't hear was Britney Spears. Everyone else in the celestial pantheon seemed to be making merry here.

Such is life in Miami, where star sightings are as common as Hummer stretch limos in L.A. Southern California still reigns as the celebrity capital of the world, but Miami has gained a rep as Hollyweird South.

Steamy by day and sultry by night, Miami is the hottest and hippest city on the Right Coast, a place to live large and party hearty, celebrities gone wild-style.

I stopped in for a few days recently to check out the scene and to find out why the city rates so highly with tourists, especially those of the rich and illustrious variety.

Not everyone loves Miami; some say it lacks finesse. But the naysayers are also quick to point out that the city's luxury hotels help soothe the sting. Places such as the stylish Setai, the surreal Delano and such waterfront landmarks as the Mandarin Oriental and the Ritz-Carlton have enough high-brow perks to please the glitterati. And even if the city is a bit gauche, the beautiful people don't seem to mind.

Neither do the region's other visitors, the 12 million tourists who pass through here annually, spending $17 billion on hotels, entertainment, food and other necessities. Despite hurricanes, crime waves and massive immigration, Miami continues to draw visitors, thanks to its fame as a party capital. Everything stacks up bigger than life: the boats, the cars, the egos.

Miami's ascent into the national consciousness began in the '50s and '60s, when entertainers Arthur Godfrey and Jackie Gleason, broadcasting from the South Florida city, promoted it as the world's top sun and fun playground. Half a century of energetic publicity campaigns, capped by scores of films and TV shows ("Miami Vice" and "CSI: Miami," among them) have kept the leggy flamingos, surgically enhanced women and shockingly pink sunsets in the limelight.

Much of South Florida has evolved into a megalopolis, a la Southern California. Miami-Dade County has 35 municipalities that sprawl across 2,400 square miles of the state. Several neighborhoods warrant a visit -- Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Little Havana -- but the tourist flocks tend to focus on Miami and Miami Beach, separate cities with separate vibes.

Downtown Miami holds the business district, a high-rise commercial center on the mainland. East of it, 17 Biscayne Bay islands make up Miami Beach; the most popular tourist area within it is South Beach, a.k.a. Party Central.

Like the rest of South Florida, the area has been racked by ups and downs -- but has managed to survive them. After a hurricane wiped out much of the city in 1926, hundreds of Art Deco buildings (many of them hotels) were built, giving South Beach a pastel-hued flavor all its own.

By the '80s, however, the area had become seedy. Some of the old hotels had been abandoned; others had become crack houses.

Just as the Art Deco treasures seemed destined to fall to the wrecker's ball, preservation efforts got underway. Today, about 800 of the buildings, many of the Streamline Moderne-style, form a protected South Beach historical district that's about a mile square.


SoBe, as South Beach is often called, provides the engine that drives tourism, a 24-hour-a-day place where supermodels, actresses and hip-hop stars rub shoulders with visitors from Sioux Falls, S.D. Its exclusive strip of sand supplies a place to see and be seen; preen and be preened.

"Outward appearances really matter; you want to look your best all the time," said my friend Michelle, a former Southern Californian who moved to Miami a few years ago. "Everyone's on parade, from the dishwasher to the senior executive. And everyone notices what you're wearing: the shoes, the purse, the fragrance."

She went on to tell a story about her first Miami job interview. "Lovely dress; too bad about the shoes," an employee told her while she waited, implying they weren't trendy enough.

My shoes, fragrance and clothing weren't going to pass muster. But, I said, "I excel at people watching."

"That's an art form in Miami," she replied.

The heart of SoBe -- and one of the best places to people watch -- may be along a 10-block strip of Ocean Drive from 5th to 14th streets. To the east lies the Atlantic, lined with dunes and powdery white beaches. On the west stretches a series of sidewalk cafes, some attached to sleek Art Deco hotels, others standing alone. All provide great places to watch the world stroll by, but the best known is the News Cafe, a 24-hour diner and newsstand at 8th Street and Ocean, one of my first stops.

I grabbed a table a few feet from the sidewalk and ordered breakfast.

"Any celebrities here this morning?" I asked the waiter.

"No, it's still early, but I waited on Queen Latifah yesterday," he answered.

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