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Travel: Follow the Sun

Miami Beach offers exciting highs and tranquil lows.

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A café con leche, served briskly at the News Café, provides a warm, creamy wake-up for the day ahead. Be wary of too much caffeine, though. You'll want to doze off later at the beach, where the greenish blue water is like a Caribbean cousin. To relax on the sand, in the warmth that lingers in November and beyond, is all the justification you need to step away from Virginia's chill and fly south for the winter.

Do what you can to get a room facing the ocean. If not, a hotel a block or two away will work fine on this busy strip. Shops, restaurants and clubs all are within the buzzing confines of South Beach, which is why a car will seem bothersome.

Rather than choosing a big, shiny resort far from the action, I took a smaller, more classic route. The Park Central, at 640 Ocean Drive, was among the first of the dilapidated hotels to be restored to traditional Miami luster. Goldman Properties helped lead the changes here, starting a revival years ago that can be compared to the restoration of Richmond's abandoned tobacco warehouses.

My stay started off with a scare, though. A front-desk agent couldn't find my reservation, made through Park Central's own Web site. But he quickly remedied things and sent me to the sixth floor, the top of the hotel, in a clean corner room with postcard views and fluffy beds that summoned me to sink in and fade away.

Art deco stands as king in Miami Beach, along with the pastel excess that comes with it. The Fontainebleau Hotel, designed and built by architect Morris Lapidus in 1954, warranted a visit by Bob Vila. The Art Deco District Welcome Center, run by the Miami Design Preservation League, will guide you through the architecture of the '20s and '30s, offering several tours — including a boat tour during Art Deco Weekend in early January.

Bright hues accompany the pastels too — you'll find them in the Latin music that permeates the streets and in the art at Effusion Gallery at 1130 Ocean Drive. There's plenty of modern appeal — not only in the buildings but also in the people. Yes, they're beautiful. And you may get a glimpse of glitterati, depending on how late you stay up. Plan at least a few long nights in Miami Beach — and bring money. Drinks are expensive ($10) in the clubs, but the parties are hot and happening (rely on advice, and perhaps passes for gratis cover charges, from your concierge).

A little Internet homework before my trip led me to a locals-heavy party celebrating the launch of an area literary magazine, Accent Miami. Held in the ArtCenter Gallery, which has a fashionable Lincoln Road address, the event was free, as were the Cuban-style hors d'oeuvres and wine, and the residents generously shared advice about places to visit.

Outside the gallery, despite intermittent bursts of rain, people were bustling along Lincoln on an early Saturday evening. They dodged in and out of trendy stores or stopped in the courtyard, which runs for blocks, to eat outdoors. At Carnavale, the service was jumping. The Miami Beach staple, a mojito, was crisp, tart and sweet, and a seafood salad was brimming with fresh catches.

Dining options are plentiful. If you're going for standards, find a place with paella — some restaurants offer great deals on entrees during happy hour — or check the Cuban sandwich off your must-eat list. Then take a nap. You'll need it for the long night ahead.



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