Fifteen minutes behind Paris Hilton.
An hour behind Michael Caine.
A day behind Queen Latifah.
Everywhere I went in Miami I just missed a celebrity. The only name I didn't hear was Britney Spears. Everyone else in the celestial pantheon seemed to be making merry here.
Such is life in Miami, where star sightings are as common as Hummer stretch limos in L.A. Southern California still reigns as the celebrity capital of the world, but Miami has gained a rep as Hollyweird South.
Steamy by day and sultry by night, Miami is the hottest and hippest city on the Right Coast, a place to live large and party hearty, celebrities gone wild-style.
I stopped in for a few days recently to check out the scene and to find out why the city rates so highly with tourists, especially those of the rich and illustrious variety.
Not everyone loves Miami; some say it lacks finesse. But the naysayers are also quick to point out that the city's luxury hotels help soothe the sting. Places such as the stylish Setai, the surreal Delano and such waterfront landmarks as the Mandarin Oriental and the Ritz-Carlton have enough high-brow perks to please the glitterati. And even if the city is a bit gauche, the beautiful people don't seem to mind.
Neither do the region's other visitors, the 12 million tourists who pass through here annually, spending $17 billion on hotels, entertainment, food and other necessities. Despite hurricanes, crime waves and massive immigration, Miami continues to draw visitors, thanks to its fame as a party capital. Everything stacks up bigger than life: the boats, the cars, the egos.
Miami's ascent into the national consciousness began in the '50s and '60s, when entertainers Arthur Godfrey and Jackie Gleason, broadcasting from the South Florida city, promoted it as the world's top sun and fun playground. Half a century of energetic publicity campaigns, capped by scores of films and TV shows ("Miami Vice" and "CSI: Miami," among them) have kept the leggy flamingos, surgically enhanced women and shockingly pink sunsets in the limelight.
Much of South Florida has evolved into a megalopolis, a la Southern California. Miami-Dade County has 35 municipalities that sprawl across 2,400 square miles of the state. Several neighborhoods warrant a visit -- Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Little Havana -- but the tourist flocks tend to focus on Miami and Miami Beach, separate cities with separate vibes.
Downtown Miami holds the business district, a high-rise commercial center on the mainland. East of it, 17 Biscayne Bay islands make up Miami Beach; the most popular tourist area within it is South Beach, a.k.a. Party Central.
Like the rest of South Florida, the area has been racked by ups and downs -- but has managed to survive them. After a hurricane wiped out much of the city in 1926, hundreds of Art Deco buildings (many of them hotels) were built, giving South Beach a pastel-hued flavor all its own.
By the '80s, however, the area had become seedy. Some of the old hotels had been abandoned; others had become crack houses.
Just as the Art Deco treasures seemed destined to fall to the wrecker's ball, preservation efforts got underway. Today, about 800 of the buildings, many of the Streamline Moderne-style, form a protected South Beach historical district that's about a mile square.
SoBe, as South Beach is often called, provides the engine that drives tourism, a 24-hour-a-day place where supermodels, actresses and hip-hop stars rub shoulders with visitors from Sioux Falls, S.D. Its exclusive strip of sand supplies a place to see and be seen; preen and be preened.
"Outward appearances really matter; you want to look your best all the time," said my friend Michelle, a former Southern Californian who moved to Miami a few years ago. "Everyone's on parade, from the dishwasher to the senior executive. And everyone notices what you're wearing: the shoes, the purse, the fragrance."
She went on to tell a story about her first Miami job interview. "Lovely dress; too bad about the shoes," an employee told her while she waited, implying they weren't trendy enough.
My shoes, fragrance and clothing weren't going to pass muster. But, I said, "I excel at people watching."
"That's an art form in Miami," she replied.
The heart of SoBe -- and one of the best places to people watch -- may be along a 10-block strip of Ocean Drive from 5th to 14th streets. To the east lies the Atlantic, lined with dunes and powdery white beaches. On the west stretches a series of sidewalk cafes, some attached to sleek Art Deco hotels, others standing alone. All provide great places to watch the world stroll by, but the best known is the News Cafe, a 24-hour diner and newsstand at 8th Street and Ocean, one of my first stops.
I grabbed a table a few feet from the sidewalk and ordered breakfast.
"Any celebrities here this morning?" I asked the waiter.
"No, it's still early, but I waited on Queen Latifah yesterday," he answered.
"What did she eat?" I asked, wondering about her status as a Jenny Craig rep. Was she blowing her well-publicized diet?
The waiter raised his chin smugly. "She ate lightly," he said, with the air of a man with a secret. "Very lightly. And she tipped well."
SoBe locals like to drop names, and the list seems endless. Among the luminaries who own Miami-area homes: Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez, Matt Damon, Lenny Kravitz, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Enrique Iglesias and Anna Kournikova, Ricky Martin, Shakira and Gloria Estefan. Oh, and we probably shouldn't forget former L.A. resident O.J. Simpson.
Visiting stars get their share of publicity too. During my stay, Pamela Anderson, Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus (a.k.a. Hannah Montana) were in town, according to gossip blogs.
Celebs here to work on productions also add to the local color. Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, who are filming "Marley & Me" on location, qualify as the most talked-about man-and-woman-about-town the last couple of months.
And some well-known entertainers launch their own Miami businesses. Actor Danny DeVito and a couple of partners opened a pricey chop house last summer called DeVito South Beach. It draws tourists in search of the 5-foot-tall boss and fellow stars in search of a good meal.
When I visited, I missed Caine by 60 minutes, the waiter said. "He sat at the table next to yours." The food was good, but the bill can be a killer: the Global Steak Flight, a trio of Japanese, Australian and American Wagyu rib-eyes, costs $295 (but can be shared with two or three diners, the menu says). I cheaped out with a low-end meal of organic lemon chicken ($26) and a side of fire-roasted asparagus ($12).
You'll find plenty of ways to spend big money in SoBe and environs. Shops along Collins Avenue, which runs parallel to Ocean, stock sexy tees, jeans and sandals sporting triple-digit price tags.
Lincoln Road Mall, a thriving 10-block pedestrian esplanade, mixes funky shops, sidewalk cafes, galleries and bars. It's a great place to watch the locals parade, especially on weekends and early evenings, when diners crowd the restaurants and street. (It's between 16th and 17th streets and stretches from Washington Avenue to Alton Road.) If you're planning to shop, you should prepare yourself for sticker shock.
Those prices, however, pale in comparison to the ones at the Bal Harbour Shops, a '60s-era mall where the platinum-card set binges on high-end merchandise. Graff Diamonds, a tony jewelry store, stocks items that start at $2,500 and climb to $3 million. I was nearly blinded by a 129-carat yellow-white diamond on display.
Then I wandered into Dolce & Gabbana, where a sequined black jacket cost $7,395 and a cotton hoodie would set me back $1,195. I browsed in several other stores. Roberto Cavalli, Chanel, Dior. Two sales clerks told me that I'd just missed Hilton.
"We have a large celebrity clientele," said mall representative Cheryl Stephenson, although she wouldn't mention names. "We have many one-of-a-kind items. They like that. They also like to shop here because no one pays attention to them."
Miami's visiting celebrities have a love-hate relationship with the public. They say they want to melt into the crowd, but then they make grand entrances at SoBe's hottest clubs and hotels.
Most local hoteliers can tell stories about their famous guests. One of my favorites is about Michael Jackson, one of the first to use the presidential suite at the Mandarin Oriental, a swank hotel that overlooks the Miami skyline. He scribbled his own name on artwork hanging on the walls, obscuring the real artist's name. Looking for a new line of work, Jacko?
When local businesses aren't catering to famous people -- or bragging about them -- they do some pretty impressive things.
At Barton G., that takes the form of incredible drinks and dishes, all wacky and outrageously over the top. Start with a steaming Classic Nitro-tini ($24), alcohol frozen with liquid nitrogen to give it an extra kick; move on to Sashimi Snow Cones, icy cones filled with a tuna and salmon appetizer ($18); then try the Sea Monster, 2 pounds of lobster tail served from a table top sea monster ($125). The bill is as over-the-top as the menu, but you probably won't see this presentation anywhere else.
Another tourist pleaser can be found at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach, a midcentury beauty near the heart of SoBe. Here the gimmick walks the beach -- a tanning butler who will get your back, making sure you don't burn. Or perhaps your sunglasses just need to be cleaned. He'll take care of that too. And look good doing it.
ALL ABOUT LOOKS
As I toured the area, I came to appreciate Michelle's words of wisdom: People here work hard on their image, tanning butlers included. I'd pretended not to care when she told me about the Miami Nice dress code. But I realized I'd been secretly shopping ever since and finding prices too high. I was worried about the late-night part of this assignment. I couldn't write about SoBe without going club-hopping in search of stars -- or at least tourists who want to live like stars. What was I going to wear?
Then someone suggested C. Madeleine's, a vintage-clothing shop that has been called the region's best-kept secret. So I drove about half an hour to the North Miami business (13702 Biscayne Blvd.,  945-7770, www.cmadeleines.com). I've seen smaller department stores.
Owner Madeleine Kirsh unwound herself from a yoga position and gave me a tour of her 10,000-square-foot shop packed with designer goods from the Victorian era through the '90s.
"You just missed Michael Kors," she said of the designer. "He was here for five hours yesterday."
Kirsh, who opened the store more than a decade ago, said that designers often ask to look at her vintage finds for inspiration. She also sees rock stars and other celebs looking for clothes for clubbing.
I perked up. This might work for me, I thought.
Then I looked at the prices. A 1965 Pedro Rodriguez strapless dress with a matching coat cost $25,000, and a 1956 Dior dress with a brocade jacket was priced at $9,000. Other things were less, but still pricey. Kirsh and crew suggested I try an '80s cocktail dress and jacket. It looked great, but not for $650.
When I hit the clubs that evening, I wore jeans, a nondescript top and comfortable shoes. Michelle was right. People looked twice at me, and not in a good way, if you know what I mean.
My two-night clubbing itinerary took me first to Mango's Tropical Cafe, a colorful bar on Ocean, where servers -- male and female -- take turns dancing atop the bar, to the delight of tourists, the club's mainstay.
I moved on to Cameo, Set, the Fifth and Mansion, all of which draw a combination of locals, tourists and celebs. They had similarities: a hectic scene outside as potential patrons pushed up against velvet ropes trying to gain admittance; colorful lighting and crowded dance floors; and sound systems that could move the Everglades.
At Cameo, I learned of Janet Jackson's visit.
"She sat here and drank Cokes all night," a bartender said.
"Too bad you missed her."
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Planning this trip
THE BEST WAY
From LAX, American offers nonstop service, and Continental, AirTran, US Airways and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $298.
WHERE TO STAY
Delano: 1685 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; (800) 555-5001, www.delano-hotel.com. Doubles from $330.
Mandarin Oriental: 500 Brickell Key Drive, Miami; (866) 888-6780, www.mandarinoriental.com. Doubles from $199.
Catalina: 1732 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; (305) 674-1160, www.catalinahotel.com. Doubles from $95.
WHERE TO EAT
Barton G.: 1427 West Ave., Miami Beach; (305) 672-8881, www.bartong.com. Entrees from the low $20s.
DeVito South Beach: 150 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach; (305) 531-0911, www.devitosouthbeach.com. Entrees $26 to $295.
News Cafe: 800 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach; (305) 538-6397, www.newscafe.com. Breakfasts from about $7; dinner entrees from $14.
WHERE TO PLAY/CLUBS
Mango's Tropical Cafe: 900 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach; (305) 673-4422, www.mangostropicalcafe.com.
Cameo: 1445 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; (305) 532-2667, www.cameomiami.com.
Set: 320 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach; (305) 531-2800, www.setmiami.com.
The Fifth: 1045 5th St., Miami Beach; (305) 538-9898, www.thefifth.com.
Mansion: 1235 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; (305) 532-1525, www.mansionmiami.com.
For a narrated photo gallery of Miami and environs, go to latimes.com/miami.