Miami isn’t the first place you would expect to find an eye-opening history lesson. It’s a city where you look for long sunny drives stretching into the distance dotted with fragrant tropical foliage and palm tree, backdropped by a soundtrack of eardrum-busting music blaring from skyscraper hotels 24/7. Yet, if you could press mute and dim the lights, these party-hard streets would become something quite different. Miami, as my guide Robert informs me, has a rich story to tell.
The rowdy neighbour to nearby cities such as Fort Lauderdale, it offered respite to American soldiers during WWII, signalled a new life for land seeking Cubans after Fidel Castro came to power (an event known as the Mariel Boatlift) and, as those who have seen Scarface will know, gained notoriety for more than one gangland shootout. Through much of it, Robert has been here, pounding the pavements for more than 30 years and remembering the less hedonistic days when hotels hosted pensioners, not party animals.
His history lesson is told through the bricks and mortar of the city’s Art Deco District – the largest enclave of tropical Art Deco buildings in the world. A member of the Miami Design Preservation League – the organisation responsible for keeping the spectacular period buildings intact – Robert is the go-to guy for local know how. We started off at the Essex House Hotel on the corner of 10th and Collins Avenue (named after John S. Collins who built the first bridge to connect the beach with the mainland at Biscayne Bay, revealed Robert), an lengthy stretch of road running parallel with the white sands of South Beach.
Before we’d even made a move, I’d been given a potted history of Art Deco. Hatched in France in the 1920s, the design movement was influenced by and grew in tandem with the machine age. Within minutes of meeting Robert, my eyes had been opened to geometric forms, chevrons and use of the sunburst motifs intended to mimic those of newly invented cruise liners and cars. The foyer of Essex House, a sanctuary from the heat and hustle, has all three – most notably the iconic three step pattern over the doorways and marble finishes that were used to signify opulence and wealth.
But getting to know Miami’s Art Deco past isn’t all cantilevers and casements – there’s plenty for star spotters to enjoy too. Just off South Beach is a large 1930s white Spanish-style mansion called Casa Casuarina. It might not be quintessential Art Deco but it is the third most-visited house in the United States (behind the White House and Graceland). Why? It was the scene of one of the most infamous murders of the 1990s – the spot where designer Gianni Versace was gunned down in 1997. Less bloodstained these days, its morbid history certainly keeps tourists coming to peer through the iron gates.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Miami’s hedonistic party scene, and as a result, it can be hard to fully appreciate the city’s impressive architecture. As we strolled down South Beach, dipping in and out of crowds of revellers at the 1938 high rise Clevelander Hotel, gawking at the real life muscle men strutting past in Daz white T-shirts and teetering transvestites in five-inch stilettos and pink feather skirts, the architecture paled in the face of human diversity. But then all was blocked out by row upon row of Art Deco splendour.
I stood back and took in the elegant ‘eyebrow’ ledge windows, ship-like railings that sweep around the buildings, shiny chrome, and gleaming terrazzo floors. I glanced further down South Beach and spied the epic curves of The Carlyle Hotel and the porthole windows of The Tides hotel. After a quick refreshing piña colada on the soaring roof terrace of Hotel Victor, whose unique Art Deco elements are blended with accents of the Far East, we continued our ramble past the Cardozo Hotel, owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and the sweet lemon-coloured Leslie Hotel, originally built in 1937, with its cool eyebrows that cling to its exterior curves.
Finally, we pitched up on Espanola Way at the Clay Hotel where Robert spun tales about a former resident gangster, one Al Capone, and the heady days of Prohibition and gambling that was rife. As we parted, it hit home just how much Miami really has to offer to culture vultures. Ignore the brochures: it’s the Art Deco buildings, not the raucous scantily clad college students, that are the real soul to the Miami party – and will be long after the (blaring) music fades.
Art Deco Walking Tours cost $30 per person and run three times a day in peak season (November to May) and twice a day in the summer (June to October). Destinology (0800 634 2866) offers five nights’ accommodation at The Raleigh Hotel, Miami Beach from £1,049 per person (famous for its curlicue framed pool). This price is based on two adults sharing a room on a room-only basis and includes return flights from London Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic. Based on midweek departures, with weekend flights available at a supplement.