Southern Florida has been the epi-centre of the cruise world for more than 40 years and the port city that pretty much started it all is still one of the busiest and most inviting today.
In fact, it is hard to imagine a better pre or post-cruise destination than Miami as it pretty much has it all – great weather, immaculate beaches, superb hotels, marvellous shopping, memorable attractions, top restaurants and a party-orientated style that attracts the glitterati and casual tourist alike.
The first thing to know about Miami, though, is that it is almost two cities in one. The essential downtown Miami is all gathered within about a mile of the port and it affords much of the shopping, as well as the main airport and a lot of the essential infrastructure.
Then there is Miami Beach, a glittering 8-mile stretch of beaches, smart high-rise resorts and condos, nightclubs and restaurants. It ensures there is something for everyone, and cruise visitors will struggle to do more than scratch the surface given just two or three days.
Just to start with, you need to decide where to stay in this vast mix of attractions, cultural experiences and beaches. If you like the vim and vigour of non-stop nightlife, head to South Beach, where every night is party night and the choice of bars, restaurants and clubs is dazzling.
Alternatively, you might like to take things a bit slower, in which case Coconut Grove – away from the main beach areas – is a great choice. There are still plenty of bars and restaurants, but the pace is less frenetic, and a touch quieter.
Then there is your choice of attractions, from rich cultural variety and several hundred years of history – more if you venture into the nearby Everglades – to the family-style fun of places like the animal-focused Miami Seaquarium and Jungle Island.
A Miami institution since 1955, the Aquarium covers 38 acres of indoor and outdoor shows and exhibits, notably Lolita the Killer Whale and TV superstar Flipper and his dolphin friends.
At Jungle Island, the lush landscaping is home to a wide variety of smaller-scale animals, from kangaroos, penguins and lemurs to monkeys, prairie dogs and baby zebras, as well as the not-so-small 900lb ‘liger,’ a rare crossover of lion and tiger. Their VIP safari tours and private animal encounters are also worth trying.
By contrast, the Vizcaya Museum is a stunning 1916 mansion that now holds an extensive art collection from North America to Asia that covers some 2,000 years. It is a wonder to wander, complete with its outbuildings and gardens. Miami Art Museum is a contemporary art colossus, a confluence of North and Latin American influences with a rich variety of permanent collections and visiting exhibitions.
Of course, many visitors are attracted by the shopping opportunities, and it’s hard not to be tempted by the upscale appeal of theBal Harbour Shops and the chic Village at Merrick Park, the extensive Aventura Mall and Dolphin Mall and the more eclectic offerings of the Bayside Marketplace and artsy Lincoln Road. For a good mix, try Coral Gables, where the Miracle Mile is packed with designer boutiques, art galleries and restaurants.
For the ultimate ‘taste’ of South Beach, though, you should try the new Miami Food Tours (www.miamifoodtours.com) a 3-hour culinary walking excursion through the heart of the area, stopping for samples at six different restaurants and learning the history and architecture along the way.
It’s a brilliant way to get an overview of this rich, complex destination – and find out just how MUCH variety there is in store.