South Beach and its neon glow best at dusk.
As the sun retreats from the white sands of Florida's most notorious topless beach, it heads behind the art-deco strip on the other side of Ocean Drive to paint halos on cream-colored stucco and lines of palm trees no developer ever dared to touch.
Electric signs blaze the night like fireworks: Clevelander. Colony. Avalon. Chesterfield.
All of Miami Beach, a small island east of the city's downtown, evokes a timeless, tropical glamour with distinct Cuban, Jewish and Latin-American influences. The southernmost strip from 19th Street to Fifth Street does it best - a district as eclectic as the crowds who flock there each year from across the globe.
Each restaurant, nightclub or bar has its own feel, its own flamboyant maitre d' hawking specials.
Barry White, Nirvana and Enrique Iglesias blare from the storefronts, then mix with the stereos from a slow, steady stream of street traffic. Rows of patio tables split by the sidewalk allow tourists, beach bums and old money to sample frozen drinks and seafood - or simply pass by with only the whisper of half-price paella wafting behind them in the warm salt breeze.
Everything here happens at a leisurely pace. No one runs or honks a car horn.
You can find discounts almost anywhere - it's a bit of a crapshoot to outsiders - but photographer Will Shilling and I stop first at Casanova Suites. It beckons with comfy outdoor seating and a well-stocked bar visible from the street. Like most around, it's designed to host crowds that gather outside at dinnertime, then migrate indoors as the night wears on.
Beers are $6, so we saunter off, yet to realize that finding beers for less than $6 is rare. One haunt promises a little dirty dancing, another an expensive filet, and we settle instead into the plush, inviting patio of The Tides.
Local reviews bubbled about the restaurant and fancy suites, and the luxury spills onto the multi-tiered terrace. In front of the historic hotel's elegant facade, shared seating with wide tables offers plenty of room to spread out, enjoy a long meal and meet your neighbors.
A decent beer selection pales next to a menu of high-end martinis and specialty drinks. The Tides Royal martini is the most lavish expense of the trip: $16 worth of Midori, Chambord, pineapple rum, coconut rum and pineapple juice. Savoring a pineapple-cinnamon popsicle that doubles as a stir, Will says it's worth every penny.
In addition to the best people-watching of the trip, the atmosphere is perfect. Music is playing but not loud. The drinking deck is full but not crowded. We're content to grow old here - sampling exotic liquor, chatting up the beautiful help, and combing the nearby beaches with Bahama hats and a metal detector.
Our assignment is to cover the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. But our mission is to find the most authentic Cuban food in Miami Beach. We want it cheap. We want it raw. After a few drinks, we want it in bulk.
A very helpful Tides waitress suggests a small diner called Puerto Sagua - adding a caveat that the best Cuban food is often in the diviest restaurants. She's right about one claim: Sagua isn't the prettiest place.
But the rough-and-tumble atmosphere lends it a genuineness often eradicated in the district's quest to outdo itself. A Cuban server walks us through the menu, and we opt for specials: roast chicken for me, pork stew for Will.
Both cost less than $10 and are piled high with meat, rice, beans and fried plantains. Homemade iced tea - served brilliantly with lime - caps the deal.
Puerto Sagua serves far too much food for men in the presence of supermodels to eat in one sitting. We don't mind, eventually rolling back to a red-carpet fete stuffed, greasy and very happy.
Casanova Suites on the Beach
524 Ocean Dr.
700 Collins Ave.
1220 Ocean Dr.