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SOUTH BEACH - AMERICA'S RIVIERA

The next time you book a departure from the Port of Miami, budget some extra pre- or post-cruise time to experience America's Riviera--trendy, glitzy, zany South Beach. The pastel colors of the historic Art Deco District, stunning architecture, glittering nightlife, fantastic shopping, and a breath-taking shoreline--all within a single square mile--is an experience not to be missed.

But before you dive into the glitz, check out the city's cultural offerings, like the Wolfsonian Museum's collection of decorative and industrial arts from the late 1800s to the 1940s, and also the Bass Museum's wonderful collection of Renaissance paintings. Not to be missed is the Art Deco Historic District, containing more than 800 buildings designed in this distinctive architectural style. Many have been restored to their original glory--a must-see for anyone who appreciates the blending of function and art in building design.

Lummus Park
The main access point to South Beach is Lummus Park, bordering Ocean Drive. The stretch from 5th to 15th streets attracts a hip crowd almost every day, and the park is a favorite with in-line skaters and volleyball players.

Occupying the bottom third of Miami Beach, SOBE (as the in-crowd calls South Beach) has become a magnet for celebrities, beautiful people and fun-lovers from the world over. They thrive on the urbane atmosphere, designer shopping, innovative cuisine, exciting nightlife, and fabulous beaches.

An added attraction is star-watching for celebrities like Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Michael Caine, Madonna, and "J-Lo", often spotted "making the scene." Combine all this with supermodels, film crews, artists and literati, and you have the motley mix that feeds feverish SOBE its high energy level.

Roney Palace Spa Hotel
My visit to South Beach included a stay at the beautiful and luxurious oceanfront Roney Palace Spa Hotel. It was a treat to have a spa experience in a private tent, with the blue-green water lapping the shore as palm trees swayed overhead in the constant breeze. My suite was large enough to live in full-time (which I wouldn't mind doing), and within easy walking distance of all SOBE has to offer.

However, you might want to stay at one of the deco palaces like the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue, which opened in 1939 with Martha Raye as the headliner. The hotel's scallop-edged pool is a deco delight, and it's said that the Raleigh is the only place Robert DeNiro stays when he's on South Beach; ergo one of the top floor suites is named the DeNiro suite.

Pelican Hotel
For a fun experience, there's the Fellini-esque Pelican Hotel on Ocean Drive. Famous for its unique design, the Pelican features rooms and suites decorated in themes from the '30s to the '70s. The luxurious penthouse occupies the entire top floor.

For those who want deco on a more moderate budget, the Park Central Hotel is a great deal. At the southern end of Ocean Drive, it has an ambience that's definitely Floridian--a design of palm trees on the carpet, fans whirring overhead, and a great beach view from the rooftop sundeck.

As for dining, SOBE has earned a reputation for its variety of innovative and eclectic cuisine--Chinese, Thai, Italian, French, Jewish, Cuban, New World and Pacific Rim, and, of course, good old American fare, like Joe's Stone Crab on the southernmost tip of Miami Beach. The large claws are cracked when served, ready to be dipped in their tangy mustard sauce or drawn butter. Joe's also has, in my opinion, the best Key Lime pie outside of Key West.

So many restaurants; so little time; but I couldn't resist Lario's on the Beach. Heavy on Latino decor, the restaurant boasts Cuban diva Gloria Estefan as one of its owners. I had the lomo de puerco--pork loin roasted the Cuban way, with rice, beans, yummy fried plantains and a garlic butter dipping sauce. Thursday through Sunday evenings there is live music, and sometimes Gloria herself stops in.

For breakfast before heading for the port and your cruise, you must try Wolfie's on Collins Avenue. This quintessential Jewish deli has been there since 1947. Open 24 hours a day, it's also a great place for a late-night snack.

Around ten o'clock, the nightlife starts to explode in SOBE, but you'll have to keep an open mind about some of the wilder sights you might see while people-watching. Just remember it's all good fun, and the action goes all night long. There are clubs where you can dance to live music until dawn, and clubs for both gays and straights. Bars, lounges, diners--you name it and it's here.

For shopaholics, SOBE is a dream come true, and a welcome change from the usual mall fare. Sometimes called the Fifth Avenue of the South, the 12-block Lincoln Road district features more than 170 specialty shops with an array of world-famous designer clothes, rare art treasures and collectibles, and trendy indoor/outdoor restaurants.

On nearby Ocean Drive, Collins and Washington Avenues you'll find a plethora of designer shops like Versace, Benetton, Gucci, and Armani, as well as locally owned boutiques. Nearby is the original Spanish-style street, Espanola Way, that dates back to early Miami Beach. This two-block long promenade, with flamingo pink Mediterranean Revival buildings, is a mix of art galleries, boutiques, and outdoor restaurants.

If shopping 'til you drop is not your thing, you don't roller blade and don't care for the wild party scene at night, then just head for the beach. The sand is clean, the water's clear and warm, and most of the time the sun smiles down on Miami Beach. Slather on the sunscreen, kick back with a good book and rest up for your cruise--or from it.

Whatever your tastes, there is something for everyone in wild and wonderful SOBE. Don't miss it.


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