YOU find Miami either exhilarating or exasperating. Exhilarating because it can be a party every day and night and exasperating because of the frustrating crowd and traffic. But whichever way you lean, you have to admit the city pulsates with energy.
Millions of tourists flock to this American beach city every year to soak in the sun and partake in its hedonistic nightlife.
According to the 2007 Visitor Profile and Economic Impact Study prepared for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, a record number of 12 million tourists visited Miami-Dade County last year. Compare that to the county's population of 2.4 million, as estimated by the United States Bureau of Census in 2006, and you see how much of a tourist magnet the City of Miami - the largest municipality of Miami-Dade - is.
The crowd swarms South Beach, a stretch that runs from the southernmost tip of Miami Beach northwards till 23rd Street. This is where the action is, with fine beaches, trendy restaurants, bars and clubs and endless souvenir and designer clothing shops. It is the place to see and be seen.
It is at South Beach where I sunbathe on fine white sand overlooking the magnificent Atlantic Ocean while a colourful lifeguard station and blue umbrellas dot the background.
The late morning sunshine bears down on the lithe bodies asleep on beach chairs but the crisp ocean breeze refreshes the skin. There is no sticky humidity like in tropical climates. And there is 19km of beach in Miami for beach bums looking to whittle time away. Satisfied with my newly bronzed skin, I throw on a tank top and denim skirt and head for the famous Ocean Drive.
This is Miami's famous stretch of chic hotels, restaurants, clubs and bars facing an idyllic picture of the great blue sea and swaying palm trees. It is also where music starts pumping and revellers begin swigging mojitos as early as 2pm.
The area is intoxicatingly hip. At Collins Avenue, which runs parallel to Ocean Drive, early starters are hanging by the verandahs of hotel bars, beers in their hands, while upmarket boutiques like Armani Exchange and Kenneth Cole beckon with their huge door signs. Some stores like Puma even come with their own DJ.
Many of the establishments in Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue are housed in pastel-coloured Art Deco buildings. Miami, in fact, boasts some of the best Art Deco architecture in the US, with many of the candy-coloured, box-like structures preserved from the 1920s and 1930s.
Between Alton Road and Washington Avenue lies the pedestrian-only Lincoln Road Mall. This is where tourists and residents come to shop, people-watch from the many sidewalk cafes, skate, scoot and walk their dogs.
Over here you can choose to be a bikini-clad sun worshipper sauntering down in flip-flops and sun-kissed tan or the uber-chic babe in Dior shades and skinny jeans in the company of immaculately groomed men sipping wine in alfresco cafes. You cannot help but notice that the people in Miami are gorgeous and they dress to look the part in the trendy city.
In Washington Avenue, there is a dizzying array of souvenir and clothing shops as well as eateries. I settle on Pizza Rustica at 863 Washington Avenue which serves pizza by the slice at US$4.50 (S$6). And by a slice, we are talking the size of a B5 sheet of paper.
In some of the less glamorous areas of South Beach, you can still find the city's similarity between real and reel life. While there were no sudden bursts of gunfire a la Miami Vice, I could not shake the image of seedy drug deals in crime-laden streets so often portrayed on gritty television shows based on Miami.
Once the sun sets, Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue come alive in full neon glory and the nightclubs turn up the volume to attract party-goers. Do not expect to hold meaningful conversations over meals. I settle for Mango's Tropical Cafe where a Latin band is performing salsa and its vocalist strutting her stuff from a podium at the bar. Later into the night, dancers take to the podium when the band takes a break with the men stripping down to reveal their six-packs, much to the delight of the women in the club.
As I make my way out of the club at 2am, a BMW Z3 whizzes past and T-Pain's rapping trails off amid the laughter of its college student driver and passengers. In Miami, even the cars come flashy. Though traffic can be slow and parking becomes near impossible to find in these areas on weekends, a swanky convertible is still a must. It is all about keeping up with the image in Miami, after all.
Things take a pretty radical turn when you wander down to Little Havana.
About 65 per cent of Miami's population is Latin American, with many being Cubans. Hundreds of thousands of them had fled their home country when Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and many ended up settling in the west of Downtown Miami, now known as Little Havana.
Today Calle Ocho, which is 8th Street in Spanish, has become the heart of the Cuban neighbourhood in Miami. Just a 20-minute taxi ride from South Beach, Calle Ocho is lined with bright and colourful shops and churches with Spanish signs. Occasional murals of famous Latin artists bear evidence of the district's ethnicity.
The enclave is so authentic that English speakers are rare. Six people and plenty of gesturing later, I manage to find where Viernes Culturales, a festival held every last Friday of the month, is happening at Calle Ocho.
Between 14th and 17th Avenue, stalls selling paintings, arts and crafts and accessories have been set up and Latin music blasts from speakers at 7pm. As a Latin musician nearby starts a salsa number to recorded music, a couple break into a dance in the streets spontaneously as residents applaud and curious tourists cheer while enjoying a cup of aromatic Cuban coffee.
This is the perfect antidote to the overly commercialised South Beach.
5 things to do
1 Do visit Little Havana. It's the closest you can get to Cuba without actually flying into Fidel Castro's hometown. And while you're there, try a plate of arroz con pollo (chicken and yellow rice).
2 Do visit Espanola Way in South Beach. The stretch between 14th and 15th Street is a 1920s Spanish-style village with small galleries and charming cafes.
3 Do join a sightseeing cruise along Biscayne Bay, which is where the rich and famous live. You can gawk at the homes of NBA star Shaquille O'Neal and singer Gloria Estefan.
4 Do pack party attire. The local women dress up in the evenings, especially when they go clubbing. For men, the dress code is casual chic at most clubs, that is, no shorts, sneakers and sleeveless tops.
5 Do take public transport if you plan to hang out at the South Beach and Miami Beach areas as driving and finding a parking lot can get stressful over the weekend. Carry the exact fare as you don't get change on the buses.
1 Don't go around Miami without identification. You need a photo ID for credit card purchases, entry to certain clubs and to buy alcoholic drinks. Some places accept photocopies of passports.
2 Don't visit during the peak season (January to April) as hotels get expensive. The rates dip from June to August but the weather can get unbearably hot in the morning. The months of October to December are a good time to drop by.
This article was first published in ST Life! on May 6, 2008.