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MIAMI BEACH CATERS TO BIG SPENDERS

Published: Sunday, Jan. 21 1990 12:00 a.m. MST

Until they build a Miami Vice Theme Park, the real thing will have to do.

If ever there was doubt that life imitates art, come down to this part of the country, where purples and pinks seem indelibly painted into the landscape, where the palm-shaded streets are lined with glitz and towers of glass, where Crockett and Tubbs - or people dressed like them, or driving cars like theirs - might round any corner. Where even the Burger Kings are monuments to Art Deco.And where the beach is fabulous, still.

Miami Beach stretches for about five miles - 87 blocks, exactly: a singular strand of white sand stroked by warm ocean that passes the big hotels, the not-so-big hotels, the "historic" hotels and the slabs of high-rise condos. Paralleling legendary Collins Avenue - "A1A" to out-of-towners - the beach extends just below the ritz of Bal Harbour's fancy shops to the dilapidated environs of Lincoln Road, and then it disappears into the south-end channel - the "Government Cut" - where the big cruise ships sail out of Miami's busy port and into the Caribbean.

Miami Beach caters to big spenders - Northerners, Europeans, Japanese, anybody with money - who come to Miami because it's hot or because it's the country's second-largest international banking center and the major financial crossroad of North America and its Central and South American neighbors.

But the city between the bay and the ocean is a selective anachronism. Certainly it can be as up-market and pricey as any beachfront resort in the United States, and its amenities as fashionably modern: Stroll the grounds of the Fontainebleu Hotel - a hotel whose architecture screams " '50s!" - and you will pass neat tennis courts, an outdoor bar serving frozen yogurt and a new spa, where, in full view in the front window, several rows of aerobic dancers are jumping in time to "Steel Wheels," the Rolling Stones' latest.

On the other hand, there is the Miami Beach that smacks of decay, especially in contrast to the billowing skyline of its glittering sister city across Biscayne Bay. Dirty vacant lots litter the strand; blocks of lifeless concrete absorb the light and cast sharp shadows. Lincoln Road, the former "Fifth Avenue of the South," was once a social nerve center for the tourists and elderly retirees who, nursing their glasses of tea, people-watched from their hotel-porch perches on Collins. Now it is a ratty pedestrian mall where shops offer cheap luggage and discount shoes.

A revitalization program has been under way in the area since the mid-'80s - a former Bonwit Teller store now houses the highly regarded Miami City Ballet, and the stunning new convention center is just north of the area. But visiting shoppers flock to the mega-malls in Boca Raton or West Palm Beach or other points north up Route I-95. Lincoln Road and the nearby hotels - the Art Deco palaces of yore - now cater mainly to a Latin and Euro trade, although the section is truly a melting pot. Spanish is not a second language on this island; it co-exists with English.

The beach remains fabulous, and under the tropical sun, the real world melts away. Between sunset and sunrise, you have to pick your spots in Miami Beach. But there is plenty to pick from. ... Miami Beach has 300 hotels, and some are almost as grand as the Fontainebleau, but most aren't.

For decades, the Fontainebleau crystallized the glamour of Miami Beach: Rat Packs, kings, celebs and CEOs collected under its massive chandeliers. It was built by two partners, who subsequently feuded, and one of the men, for spite, built the Eden Roc next door.

The Fontainebleau's now another 1,300-room luxury hotel - part of the Hilton chain - but you would not mistake it for an upscale Motel 6. The city may age around it, and tourists might find new kicks up at Disney World or down in Key West, but the Fontainebleau survives, and so what if women parade in the lobby in hair curlers and a giant gaggle of "Sweet Adelines" from the Midwest take charge of the place for a few days? From the right suite, the view toward Miami at sunset is spectacular, the waterfall still careens into the pool, the Poodle Lounge still swings after dark.

A few blocks south of the Fontainebleau is the sublime architecture of the Art Deco district, a part of Miami Beach that has been given historic status by the federal government. Soft pink and aquamarine are the dominant colors, simplicity the dominant theme.

Most of the Deco palaces were built through the 1930s and up to the start of World War II. They were designed to define a time of carefree abandon, as Miami Beach was living up to its reputation as the American Riviera, a place "to get away from it all." Many of the buildings ran to seed until the early '80s, when the gentrification process caught up with Miami Beach, and the Deco district became a model for artistic restoration: sort of the SoHo of the South.

Even if you opt for overnight digs elsewhere - most of the Deco hotels seem to attract mainly European and South American guests - a walking tour of the district is mandatory.

Independent visitors should pay close attention to the Carlyle on 13th Street, with its terrazo floors and stone window canopies; the Mediterranean-like Amsterdam, built in 1930, and the Marseille on Collins Avenue, with its cozy bar and two pool rooms: one with swimming pool, another with a pool table.

At lunchtime, it's the Burger King on the corner of Collins and Lincoln, a remarkably bright and airy fast-food joint decorated with yellow and blue and pink swirls of Deco neon. (For those seeking organization, the Miami Design Preservation League, 661 Washington Ave., conducts 90-minute guided walking tours of the Historic District every Saturday morning. Groups meet at the league's office at 10:30 a.m.; the fee is $5 per person.)

The district's nightlife is the funkiest in Miami Beach. At Tijuana Joe's at 1580 Washington, the fajitas are served under patio umbrellas (although the restaurant in enclosed), and the bottles of Chihuahua beer are served in pails of ice, for slow sippers.

An earthy place is Mac's Club Deuce at 222 (get it?) 14th St., a hangout for locals that serves up drinks, tunes from a compact disc jukebox, "Monday Night Football" on the big TV, and a juicy ambiance. Skinheads, truck drivers, waiters and yuppies congregate at the Deuce's long, curving bar until the wee hours. Check out the pastel neon mermaids: They were erected for a "Vice" location shoot and became permanent fixtures.

A warm brandy snifter of Courvoisier might qualify as the best nightcap after a day at the beach, but my ideal finish to a balmy Florida day focuses on Miami Beach's Battery, the city park and the pier that stretch into the ocean at the south end of the strip.

If the timing is right, there will be a cruise ship steaming east, a massive blob of white lights and churning power, slipping and slurshing through the sea like a floating ivory castle. Off to the west the skyline might be shimmering in the heat, a glittering facade as slick and shiny as Crockett's Lamborghini. And if there's a moon over Miami, what else is there to want?

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