Justin Marozzi, author of Travels with Herodotus, kicks back in Miami.
Miami, Florida: all that glitters
If this is as bad as it gets, I can manage. We are sitting outside the Martini Bar of the Raleigh, a South Beach Art Deco landmark, surrounded by palms and lush tropical foliage. Glimmering seductively a few metres away is the sculpted pool made famous by the swimmer-turned-movie star Esther Williams in the 1940s. And a stone's throw beyond the pool and cascading waterfall is the real thing, extending to the horizon - the roaring Atlantic. While Europe is starting to shiver, here in Miami it's all linen, shorts and the merest whiff of cashmere at night.
I have to admit that Miami is proving a pleasant surprise. I am here partially under sufferance, you see, accompanying my wife to a 20-year reunion of journalists, veterans of the now defunct Miami News. Like many men, I am not good at sitting-by-the-pool holidays, and prefer my markets to be 1,000-year-old souqs in the Middle East rather than five-year-old malls in Miami. Life is a compromise.
Things have moved on a bit since my wife left. These days the little old Jewish ladies, refugees from colder northern climes, are less in evidence on the streets and stoops of South Beach. It's a younger, hipper and flashier set that prowls the streets. Judging by the pimped-up convertibles and growling Mustangs, less is more is an unknown concept in this part of town. Even the mannequins have implants. The menu in Jerry's Deli is enormous and so are the servings. Do hamburgers get any bigger than this? At night South Beach turns itself into an arresting urban film set, a procession of cool curves of Art Deco buildings illuminated by sci-fi force fields of neon lighting in red, blue and yellow.
In the '80s, Miami was plagued by drug barons and riots. How times have changed. In recent years sophistication has descended on the city like a pushy gatecrasher in the form of Art Basel Miami Beach, which every December brings in a discerning crowd of luxe-lovers and fashionistas, many of whom take refuge in the discreet, neon-free enclave of the Raleigh. Think Tamara Mellon, the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez and Karl Lagerfeld, who chose the pool as the setting for the launch of his Chanel Cruise collection a couple of years ago.
For a few days we traipse up and down South Beach - miles of sand and shopping - and admire the peerless Art Deco district. These are two of the most ostentatious jewels in Miami's crown - the balmy, almost too-perfect weather is another - that draw in the sun-seeking crowds year after year from all over the world.
Sumptuous restaurants, chic boutiques, Latin pizzazz and interminable sun-bathing are all very well if you are my wife, but enough is soon enough. Restlessness strikes the male before you can say "No more shopping, please", and it is time to hit the road. First we drive south in a tropical rainstorm through the Keys to Key Largo, self-proclaimed dive capital of the world but today submerged in low cloud. We toy with the idea of pushing on to make an impromptu Hemingway pilgrimage to Key West, but the rain is too hard and the distance too long, even for Ernest.
We retreat north for the main event - my debut in Palm Beach, the dreaded do-nothing part of the visit. In Key Biscayne, a cyclist had a basket sporting the message "Slow down. It ain't the mainland." "Palm Beach is more 'Speed up. You ain't dead yet'," says my wife.
Until recently you could observe of Palm Beach that it had gone from old money to new money. The "gilded age" of style and glamour epitomised by the squillionaire railroad tycoon Henry Flagler, friend of John D. Rockefeller and founder of Standard Oil, who first established Palm Beach as a winter resort for the well-heeled in the dying years of the 19th century, were long gone. In its place came a more brash type of billionaire exemplified by Donald Trump, fined by local officials for flying a 4.5m-by-3.6m American flag atop a 26m flagpole in 2007. Today, for those members of the Palm Beach set unlucky or unwise enough to have invested their fortunes with Bernie Madoff, it's less new money than no money.
Yet there must have been plenty of people who gave Madoff a wide berth. A few fortunes may have been lost here and there - some reportedly were fleeced of US$100m (Dh367m) - but those are just minor details. Palm Beach remains defiantly plutocratic. This island of pastel perfection doesn't do poor or down at heel. A modest four-bedroom home is advertised on Worth Avenue for $6.5m (Dh24m), though I would prefer the lot offering 158m of oceanfront on Manalapan Beach for $33m (Dh121m). When I spot a sign reading Hammon Avenue, it looks like a spelling mistake, for Palm Beach is nothing if not a shrine to Mammon.
The immaculate gardens and lawns belonging to oceanfront mansions and faux haciendas, some of which recall Tony Montana's waterfront house in Scarface, are clipped by armies of immigrant labour with more care than most men lavish on their daily shave. You get the feeling that a blade of grass out of place is liable to result in an on-the-spot fine. And don't even think of speeding. Although the car of choice appears to be a Bentley convertible, lending a certain distinction to the place, push the needle above 50kph and you're likely to see a Palm Beach police officer in your rear view mirror faster than you can say, "Officer, I have an emergency appointment with my plastic surgeon."
Stroll down the wide boulevards here and you see some of the finest - and worst - examples of cosmetic surgery in the US. Work doesn't really feel a priority in Palm Beach. The only work you see on Worth Avenue - in extreme cases more trouble than it's worth - is displayed on the too-taut faces of men and women. "I told the town's tourism officials they should have a new slogan: 'Palm Beach: The Ultimate Facelift'," says Jennifer, a marketing executive. "They didn't go for it."
For a reality check and a little more atmosphere - perfection can become a little bland, after all - we head across the intracoastal to West Palm Beach, originally founded by Flagler to house the servants and the workers toiling in his hotels on the richer side of the water. The Royal Poinciana and then the Breakers, the latter still going strong more than a century later, were home to holidaying Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Astors, plus a smattering of American presidents and European nobility who fancied somewhere comfortable and warm to escape to on the sun-kissed shores of the Atlantic.
The rich can't have all the fun. In the former fishing village of Lantana, we luck out at Old Key Lime House, which calls itself Florida's oldest waterfront restaurant, a popular joint that offers the best chicken wings and key lime pie in the world. Who needs the ritz and glitz, if not the schmaltz, of Palm Beach when puddings are this good?
Over at the Ritz-Carlton, where my wife is in raptures over the 3,900-sq-m Eau Spa, we drop in on the Presidential Suite for a glimpse of the First Lady shoe collection, brainchild of Miami designer Robert Taborin, a tongue in cheek (something of a rarity in PB) homage to the style, and occasional excesses, of famous political wives from Marie Antoinette to Michelle Obama via Evita Peron and Jackie O. My favourite is the jewel-encrusted Imelda Marcos shoe, whose heel is made up of gold boxes stashed with looted banknotes. A quote from the woman nicknamed the Iron Butterfly provides some context: "Filipinos want beauty. I have to look beautiful so that the poor will have a star to look at from their slums, and I do not have 3,000 pairs of shoes. I only have 1,060."
Mrs Marcos, I suspect, would have felt at home in the Presidential Suite. It's yours for $6,000 (Dh22,040) a night.
Justin Marozzi's latest book is The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus, published by John Murray.
If you go
Delta (www.delta.com) flies direct to Atlanta from Dubai from Dh5,980 return, and to Miami from Atlanta from US$217.4 (Dh799) return. Prices include taxes.
A double room with a balcony at the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach (www.ritz-carlton.com; 00 1 531 533 6000) costs from $266 (Dh977) per night. A double room at the Raleigh, South Beach (www.raleighhotel.com; 800 848 1775) costs from $283 (Dh1,040) per night. Prices include taxes.