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    • Miami, as the media portrays her, is a peacock. Brilliantly-hued, confident and slightly outlandish, she is the tropical vacation queen of the U.S. and the well-dressed belle of the ball. The faces of fashionistas and Latin American businessmen are animated as they speak of her, longing to be warmed by her gaze and her heat, and envious of her life of designer shows, dusk-to-dawn club-hopping, elegant dinners and potent drinks with VVVIPs. No one wants to remember that when the lights are turned off and everyone goes home, she reverts to her ‘real’ self. She removes the showy plumage she attached earlier, and so stripped, the peahen is as drab as can be (the peacock, after all, is the male, and yes, cross-dressing is not a foreign concept here).

      You’ve heard the phrase ‘the town that never sleeps’ a thousand times before, but this is the one time when you should take it seriously. Shops and restaurants stay open until eleven and beyond, and bars are open until the small hours. If it’s nightclubs - open until noon! - luxury cars, magnificent boats and beautiful people with huge egos you crave, you have certainly come to the right place.

      But if you were expecting Americana in all its glory, prepare to be disappointed; Miami is a place where you could quite happily get by without speaking a word of English. The city is a teeming mass of ethnic groups that create an eclectic Euro–Latin fusion, with the Latin component encompassing Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Peruvians, Brazilians, Argentineans and of course Cubans (Latinos make up around two-thirds of the city population, and Cubans account for about half of that figure). And in fact, what many take to be Miami is actually an amalgam of separate cities. Miami (of Downtown) and Miami Beach (from the glitzy reputation of South Beach) are two entirely different entities whose residents view each other with healthy scepticism. Miami Beach-goers believe Miamians to be lower-class, boring workaholics who pale beside their fire and glamour; Miamians think of themselves as authentic strivers who live with integrity, and those who live on the island as silly (but richer) pretenders; the citizens of Coral Gables, meanwhile, largely stay out of the fray, cocooned in their mostly upscale, refined community of business-folk and trophy wives worthy of a reality series.

      Besides the stream of Cuban (and other) immigrants that have arrived in waves over the past fifty years, Miami’s growth has also been shaped, in one way or another, by the effects of drug trafficking. Originally, it was a positive of sorts, stemming from the Prohibition era when lax enforcement of the ban on liquor led to an influx of people, and the beachfront became home to gambling, drinking and licentiousness. However, it also led to a real estate boom in the 1920s, during which cities sprung up and building projects came together as investment flooded in. But this increase in land value was entirely artificial, and the movement was felled by the Great Florida Hurricane of 1926, the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Many years later, controllers of South and Central America’s source of cocaine and marijuana realised they had direct, clear access to Miami thanks to the lengthy beachfront and extreme southern location, and in the 1980s the city became a magnet for drug runners. The drug enforcement agencies, however, cracked down on dealing and deliveries. Finally the city began a big clean-up and models and celebrities returned in force. But drugs continued to be a major influence on life in Miami until the 1990s. Films such as Scarface (1983) and the Miami Vice television series of the same era paint a pretty accurate, if somewhat glamourised, version of how life was.

      But that’s ancient history. Today, commercially, Miami means banking, and the city continues to develop its reputation as a financial centre and as a link that connects the U.S. with South America and the Caribbean. And international trade through MIA and the Port of Miami is crucial to the city’s health. But as evidenced by the 11.6 million guests that spent more than $16.6 billion in the area in 2009, tourism remains one of Miami’s top industries, as visitors come from all over the world to sample her sunshine, indulge in her exciting restaurants and party in some of her brightest nightspots.