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See the Sunshine State and discover magnificent Art Deco edifices in Miami Beach, alligators in the marshy Everglades, literary tradition at the southernmost point of continental USA, white quartz beaches and an old-time fishing town on the Forgotten Coast.

Miami Beach: Best for Art Deco
Whimsy is the substance of South Beach. ‘Some say that everyone here gets Botox or takes steroids,’ says architectural tour guide Mat Ruiz, standing before one of the city’s great restored Art Deco edifices. ‘The buildings are the same way – plain, rectangular boxes dressed up with fancy ornamentation.’ Ruiz is a volunteer with the Miami Design Preservation League, the organisation that in 1979 won federal preservation of Miami Beach’s Art Deco district and in turn saved the city from the demolition ball.

Decked out with swooping curves, racing horizontal bands, wraparound windows, needle-like towers and candy-coloured neon, the architecture was designed to remind visitors that they 0 200 400 600 800 1000 were on holiday. Even the beach’s lifeguard towers are unique, each one fancifully decorated. Some buildings look like wedding cakes, others like pyramids, and others – such as the Beach Patrol Headquarters, with its brushed-aluminium railings and porthole windows – conjure up the great transatlantic luxury liners.

Design permeates public space in South Beach. The post office features a 23-sided Art Deco dome with a fountain at its centre. Come twilight, the streets glow with neon from famous landmarks like the Colony Theatre.

Though not the finest examples of Deco design – these squat boxes are nothing compared with New York’s Chrysler Building – their value lies in the ensemble: it’s the world’s largest collection of Art Deco architecture, some 1,200 buildings, and the entire district was designated on the National Register of Historic Places, becoming America’s first historic district comprised entirely of 20th-century buildings. Most appealing is the scale – each building is just a few storeys high, keeping the pedestrian-friendly streets filled with that bright sunshine for which Florida is so famous.

It’s hard to imagine Miami Beach was a slum in the 1980s. It was built in the 1920s as a modest holiday destination for blue-collar workers arriving by train from New York, but by the time of the jet age, the city had fallen into complete disrepair. Violent criminals ruled the streets and the beaches were empty.

Enter the artists, who came for the cheap rents and warm sun. Then, in 1985, fashion photographer Bruce Weber shot an iconic perfume advert for Calvin Klein Obsession, of bronzed, muscled nudes draped atop the Breakwater Hotel. Soon every major American modelling agency had an office in South Beach.

Today, Miami Beach has the strongest preservation laws in the whole of the US, tourism is thriving and the fabulous architecture defines the skyline in all of its buzzing neon glory.

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Where to eat
Local celebrity chef Douglas Rodriguez creates classic Cuban dishes at his restaurant, De Rodriguez Cuba. Standouts include the lobster and mango ceviche (mains from £14).

Where to stay
Impressive for its understated style, the Shore Club’s white-on-white rooms occupy a mid-20th-century tower hotel, adjoining an Art Deco lobby opening onto sprawling Miami Beach. Rooms sport the requisite high-thread-count linens and top-end bathing amenities, but are most appealing for their total lack of clutter, keeping your attention squarely on the sun and sky (from £170).

Key West: Best for literature
At least 18 Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists have had a postal address in Key West. Ernest Hemingway wrote 70 per cent of his lifetime works during his nine years here. Wallace Stevens argued with Robert Frost over lunch at the Casa Marina waterfront resort and Tennessee Williams drank to excess at La Concha hotel. Margaret Atwood is holding a free reading at the local public library this coming January. You never know who you might run into in Key West. Longtime resident and fine artist David Schofield quips: ‘Miami is for nobodies pretending they’re somebody. Key West is for somebodies pretending they’re nobody.’

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