Eight cruise lines list Miami as their home port. The city calls itself the "cruise capital of the world. " Happily for Miami's many cruise...

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MIAMI — Eight cruise lines list Miami as their home port. The city calls itself the “cruise capital of the world.” Happily for Miami’s many cruise visitors, the port is close to South Beach, the Art Deco capital of America, a vibrant area that combines sea, celebrity and world-class people-watching.

Downtown Miami hotels are nearer the port, but I would choose South Beach, about 25 minutes by cab from Miami International Airport (flat rate: $32) and seven miles from the port. Another option is the Port of Miami Shuttle ($14 per person by reservation, 954-722-9904). In South Beach, a car is superfluous. The area is very walkable, and getting from there to Miami is easy: The Metrobus zips over the MacArthur Causeway ($1.50).

From South Beach, you’ll be well positioned for some great sightseeing. A good starting point is the Art Deco Welcome Center at 1001 Ocean Drive. The Miami Design Preservation League’s 90-minute guided walking tours leave from there and give a history of the area, which until the mid-’70s was dubbed “God’s waiting room,” where the elderly whiled away hours on the porches of dilapidated hotels and rooming houses. We saw where films, including “The Birdcage,” were made and watched tourists posing outside of Casa Casuarina, a private club at 1116 Ocean Drive that once was the mansion of designer Gianni Versace, who was fatally shot on its steps in 1997.

With Miami Nice Tours, I took a five-hour excursion that included a harbor cruise past Star Island celebrity homes, including that of the Miami Heat’s Shaquille O’Neal, where a little Shaq statue perches on his dock. Miami Nice allows 90 minutes for lunch and shopping at Bayside Marketplace on Biscayne Bay before continuing on to exclusive Coral Gables and a quick spin through Little Havana.

Another option — with kid appeal — is Miami Duck Tours, a land and sea sightseeing adventure. An amphibious vehicle swooshes down a ramp into Biscayne Bay as Dr. Quackalot, in green scrubs, instructs passengers to quack on cue.

Those seeking a glimpse into South Florida’s pre-Depression gilded age should visit Vizcaya. The Biscayne Bay mansion, completed in 1916, was the onetime home of James Deering of the International Harvester Co. family. It has the original European antiques in its 34 rooms; the 10-acre formal gardens are a fantasy of fountains, pools and gazebos.

In a 1930s South Beach building, a former storage warehouse, is the Wolfsonian, an eclectic collection of furniture, glass, paintings and industrial oddities from 1885 to 1945 that shows how culture changed and was changed by design.

Those Art Deco hotels in South Beach — once the destination of those who couldn’t afford Palm Beach — are now chic. But guest rooms behind those fancy facades can disappoint.

After a brief stay, I recommend the Nash on Collins Avenue. It has maximum style, minimum attitude and a top restaurant, Mark’s. There are three pools — fresh, salt and mineral water.

I also stayed at Hotel Impala, thinking some people might prefer its warmer Mediterranean ambience. It was undeniably charming, tucked behind a garden at 1228 Collins Ave., but it needed a little TLC. It does not have a pool or an elevator.

The more elegant beach hotels are clustered north of Lincoln Road. For a splurge, if not a stay, have a drink at the beautiful Asian-inspired Setai, 2001 Collins Ave. Lincoln Road is in itself a destination — a lively pedestrian mall for shopping and dining.

Hotel choices for those with deep pockets might include the Victor, Hyatt’s first boutique property. The Victor was designed by Parisian Jacques Garcia, whose mantra is “Why do things simply if you can make them more complicated?” It’s a bit over the top, with its jellyfish tank, fringed jellyfish-inspired lamps and lots of drapery — but it’s fabulous. There’s a pool, a spa and a smart restaurant, VIX.

Although most South Beach hotels are on Ocean or Collins, just two blocks in from the ocean is the beautifully renovated Astor, at 956 Washington Ave., a 1936 Art Deco stunner. It has a top-end restaurant, Johnny V’s, but no pool.

South Beach restaurants can be pricey. A good bet for a fresh fish dinner, served with pasta or salad and corn on the cob, is Grillfish, on Collins Avenue. It’s an inviting, family-friendly space with an open kitchen. I had good homemade ravioli at Spiga, an intimate indoor-outdoor Italian restaurant in the Hotel Impala. The 24-hour Jerry’s Famous Deli, at 1450 Collins Ave., which looks like a moored ocean liner, is a must — if only to admire its Art Deco interior, once a ballroom.

The Front Porch Cafe, 1418 Ocean Drive, is a good bet for a reasonable breakfast or lunch, either on the porch or at a shaded sidewalk table (great people-watching). There’s a huge menu with salads, burgers, burritos, curry and couscous.

The 24-hour 11th Street Diner, at 1065 Washington Ave., a 1948 diner moved from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., has chrome stools, red leatherette booths and decent fare, including malts and shakes.

Fort Lauderdale

Up the coast, the cruise ship docking point in Fort Lauderdale is Port Everglades, which has nothing to do with the Everglades. It is just across U.S. 1 from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, with a wide choice of accommodations within blocks. Many hotels offer complimentary shuttles; ask when booking.

The best sightseeing deal in Fort Lauderdale is the Water Bus, which is both transportation and tour, with commentary and bad jokes. I rode the entire Intracoastal Waterway loop, which took a little more than three hours. Along the way, we passed the waterfront mansions of those who had made their fortunes with Alka-Seltzer, Seagram’s, Wendy’s, Oscar Mayer and the like. The guide’s patter is fun, if not always accurate. He pointed out a home that once belonged to Janet Leigh, “who starred in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ “

A Fort Lauderdale treasure is the 1920s Bonnet House Museum and Gardens, 900 N. Birch Road, where visitors can see how the rich lived in a gentler time. The 35-acre estate was designed by artist Frederic Clay Bartlett, a child of privilege, as his winter home. (The family’s hardware empire became True Value.) His widow, Evelyn, saved it by willing it to the Florida Trust.

Fort Lauderdale’s beachfront road, the A1A (also known in some stretches as Ocean Drive), has some unfortunate tourist destinations, including Beach Place. Skip that and head for Las Olas Boulevard.

A good meal isn’t hard to find. At the beach, I had a good flank steak with polenta at Casablanca Cafe. The restaurant, in a vintage Mediterranean home, is pretty and has a lively piano bar.

Just across Las Olas Boulevard from the Riverside Hotel downtown is Johnny V’s, where I savored grilled mahi-mahi with rock shrimp and plantain stuffing.

Need a room? Hotels only minutes from the port include the Embassy Suites, the Hyatt Regency, the Renaissance, Holiday Inn Express and, in a quiet island location, the family-friendly Lago Mar Resort and Club. But if the object is more than just a place to sleep, the beach area (“Where the Boys Are”) or downtown Fort Lauderdale, with its shops and restaurants, is 10 or 15 minutes away.

I stayed two nights a few blocks from the beach on the Intracoastal Waterway at a lovely 19-room boutique hotel, the Pillars at New River Sound. In a two-story 1930s British Colonial-style home, it has a charming library and parlor, a delightful pool area and a private dock where the Water Bus stops. During breakfast on the dock one day, a 3-foot iguana joined me.

For a taste of old Florida, I checked into the Riverside (circa 1936) on the New River downtown. My room, on a less desirable floor of the original building, was decidedly old-fashioned (although I loved the palm-tree lamps). The better rooms are in the newer 12-story tower.


If you go

South Florida

Where to stay

• In South Beach, Hotel Nash, at 1120 Collins Ave., offers Art Deco rooms from $155; www.hotelnash.com. Hotel Victor, 1144 Ocean Drive, caters to bigger spenders, with rooms from $305; www.hotelvictorsouthbeach.com

• In Fort Lauderdale, get a taste of old Florida at the Pillars at New River Sound, 111 N. Birch Road, with rooms from $169; www.pillarshotel.com The Atlantic, 601 N. Fort Lauderdale Blvd., has beachfront rooms from $189; (954) 567-8020, www.luxurycollection.com/atlantic

Where to eat

• In South Beach, main dishes at Spiga’s, 1228 Collins Ave., are $16-$25; www.spigarestaurant.com Grillfish, at 1444 Collins Ave., offers good seafood in the same price range.

• Fort Lauderdale’s Casablanca Cafe, 3049 Alhambra St., is set in a vintage Mediterranean home, with main dishes starting at $19. Seafood at Johnny V’s, 625 E. Las Olas Blvd., starts at $21; , www.johnnyvlasolas.com

What to do

In Miami and South Beach:

• Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, 3251 Miami Ave., Coconut Grove; www.vizcayamuseum.org. Open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Admission: $12.

• Wolfsonian museum, 1001 Washington Ave., South Beach, www.wolfsonian.org Open every day but Wednesdays; noon-6 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays; noon-9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. Guided tours at 6 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. Tickets: $7 (free after 6 p.m. on Fridays).

• Bayside Marketplace, 401 Biscayne Blvd.; . www.baysidemarketplace.com Retail, restaurants and outdoor entertainment on the waterfront. Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays.

• Island Queen Cruises depart from Bayside Marketplace dock and sail past Miami’s skyline and Millionaires’ Row island homes; www.islandqueencruises.com On the hour, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Tickets: $19.

• Art Deco Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Drive, South Beach; www.mdpl.org Departure point for guided walking tours of historic district at 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and 6:30 p.m. Thursdays. Tickets $20.

• Miami Nice Tours, www.miaminicetours.com Passengers are picked up at Collins Avenue hotels for a five-hour city tour daily ($37).

• Miami Duck Tours, www.ducktoursmiami.com Land and sea sightseeing in amphibious vehicle, departing from 1665 Washington Ave., South Beach. On the hour 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. $32.

In Fort Lauderdale:

• Bonnet House Museum and Gardens, 900 N. Birch Road; www.bonnethouse.org Guided tours of the old South Florida artist’s estate are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and noon-4 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $15.

• Fort Lauderdale Water Bus, , www.watertaxi.com Hop-on, hop-off service with 11 stops along the Intracoastal Waterway. All-day pass $11. All-day family pass (two adults and up to four children) $35.

• Jungle Queen riverboat sightseeing and dinner cruises on the New River; www.junglequeen.com Departures from Bahia Mar dock. Four-hour dinner cruise, at 6 p.m. daily, $34.95. Three-hour sightseeing cruise, at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily, $15.50.

More information

• Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.gmcvb.com

• Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.sunny.org