A WEEK’S WINTER BREAK WITH A DIFFERENCE

If, like me, the idea of winter in the UK fills you with about as much joy and anticipation as the prospect of a Celine Dion mega mix, then the quest for some winter sun can become like some kind of holy grail. Time is shorter than your temper, and the ash grey winter skies are grimmer than a hangman’s jockstrap. The need for some sunshine can become almost obsessive at a time when warmth of any sort seems almost a contradiction in terms.

So yep, you’re gonna do it. But where to? What if you’re sawn off with the tried and trusted old favourites like Tenerife and Gran Canaria, or you can’t afford/stand the platinum chip pretensions of Puerto Banal or Monte Carbuncle? Options begin to look shorter than the attention span of a lobotomised dwarf.

Here’s an idea. How about a week in Miami and the Bahamas? That’s right. And no, I’m not mad. Three nights in South Beach, followed by a short cruise to the Bahamas, and back again. Sounds outrageous? Maybe. But it is practical, and it’s deliciously decadent. Throw off your winter clothes and step right this way….

Ten hours after leaving a rain lashed UK runway, you emerge into around thirty degrees of Miami ‘s solar healing balm. That first burst of heat hits you like a blast wave. Two hours later and you’re on South Beach, partying outside around the pool of the legendary Clevelander, with a crowd of around fifteen hundred, bumping and grinding to a blistering soundtrack. That first margarita will taste like the fountain of youth.

The sheer adrenaline surge is almost impossible to articulate, but you’ll feel it as surely as if you had been hit by a truck. Neon garlanded palm trees wave in a warm breeze that wafts in on a purple tinted twilight. Cafes, bars and clubs flaunt their wares along a full two, fun filled miles. Stretch limos the length of cruise liners purr up and down the frenetic, salsa fuelled strip. There are pony tailed hippies on skateboards, and hookers on rest breaks, stopping off to buy the kid’s birthday present at the glut of shops along the beach. All human life is here, and then some.

Miami is not a cheap date, but the quality is pretty damned high. Food portions are simply gigantic, and come served up on plates the size of a small island. The whole city shimmers, sashays and salsas through until the first light of dawn, and sometimes beyond that. Miami is the perma- tanned colossus of the south; she wears a permanent smile on her well nipped and tucked face. She has a lot to smile about.

If all this platinum chip people watching and partying saps your strength, then join he club. This amazing, art deco wonderland has the capacity to simultaneously energise and exhaust you by turns. For all that, Miami is an exhilarating tease of a town, and you’ll dance with her again and again.

But for something radically different, take a side trip out to the Everglades, a sea of sawgrass that stretches out seemingly to infinity. Airboats whoosh through the trails that form the arteries, occasionally bumping their keels on some lethargic alligator lurking just under the surface. Guides will tell you about the numerous species of snakes that inhabit the waterways. There are around ninety different kinds; some of the boa constrictors are the length of two good sized family cars.

People mistakenly think that the Everglades are swamp land; it is in fact, mostly fresh water. Go check out an alligator farm, and watch as a trainer of hugely dubious sanity feeds lumps of raw meat directly to these scaly, scary, reptilian battleships on legs.

So, back to the beach life. You’ll find your own way to your own personal food and drink nirvanas, but some of my own personal favourites include the Eleventh Street Diner, a restored chrome fifties confection that stays open around the clock. Prices are very good, portions huge, and the atmosphere and service are fabulous. I also like Finnegan’s on 17th and Ocean for pretty much the same reasons. For a breakfast without equal, try the News Cafe for fabulous food with a sunny morning sea view.It’s worth doing just for the sausages, and the fruit salads served here are a meal in their own right. Fantastic.

For good Caffe con Leche- and my, how it revives you after a hard night’s partying- try David’s on 20th street. Ocean’s Five does the best chocolate martini on the strip. If diaquiris are more your delight, those at the Crab Shack are to die for.

And now, as they say, for something entirely different. Take a short cab ride to the port of Miami, and board any one of the three Norwegian, Carnival or Royal Caribbean ships that will take you on a giddy little, weekend long waltz around the balmy Bahamas.

Each carries around 2,200 plus passengers, and comes replete with a slew of bars, restaurants and fast food eateries. There are pools, hot tubs, thousands of sun loungers and seemingly endless, incessant partying. This is not about relaxation; far from it. Time is short, and the mission always seems to be to pack in as much as humanly possible. There is very little of the old world finesse once associated with cruising in bygone days. This is not your granny’s love boat for sure.

Passage out of Miami is always exhilarating, as the ship sets off downstream with a band playing on deck. Arms and margaritas wave in the air as the ship passes by lines of traffic racing along the adjacent, palm thronged highway. Car drivers pip their horns in salute; the ships respond with the deep, throaty booms of their sirens. The sun sinks behind you into a sea of liquid gold, glinting against downtown Bayside’s forest of steel and glass skyscrapers as it does. The hordes of sun worshippers that sprinkle the honey hued swathe of South Beach fade astern. And you’re off into the twilight.

All three ships go to Nassau, so time for an upfront disclosure. I’m not a fan of the place. Nassau is possibly the most hideously over rated place on the entire Caribbean circuit.The vastly over hyped straw market is tacky beyond adequate denigration. Nassau was once very chic and exclusive, but that was six or seven decades ago. The former King, Edward VIII, was it’s governor during the second world war. Since then, the place has become jaded almost to the point of jaundice.

Yes, the shopping is great, and there are some fabulous beaches. Many will be unable to resist the lure of the lurid, looming Atlantis Hotel and theme park on Cable Beach. You will find endless pitches for tours to go here but, truth be told, you can walk it comfortably in around twenty five minutes, if you must. For me personally, it’s more hype than style.

Far nicer is the pretty little beach at the Hilton hotel, only yards from where you dock. For around fifteen dollars, you can access this small, pristine little slice of heaven. It’s clean, safe and sweet, but food and drink is not cheap.

If you’re simply continuing the party onshore, you’ll almost certainly end up in the rollicking, anything-goes emporium of Senor Frogs. It is fun, but don’t fall so heavily for their yard margaritas that you forget little things like sailing time. The ship will breeze off onto the briny without you and your friends, however fetchingly attired you are in your multi-coloured, bawdily shaped balloon headwear.

I often don’t get off the ship at all in Nassau. With most people ashore, it can be sheer bliss just to have the ship more or less to yourself. Soaking up the sun in a calmer, more sedate atmosphere has a lot going for it. The change in tempo can feel like liquid balm for the senses.

On board, the party hots up as evening unfolds. There might be a disco out on deck, around the swimming pools, as well as another indoors. Casinos the size of airplane hangars hum, whizz and ring into life with their own neon fuelled cacophony. Glass lifts course silently up and down through multi-storey atrium lobbeys. Other bars offer music ranging from country and western to cool calypso. The options for enjoyment are limited pretty much only by your stamina.

Next day will probably have you fetching up at one of the company’s private islands. The exception is Carnival, which usually overnights in Nassau. On the private islands, a free barbeque will greet the still hung over hordes, together with live music, a slew of palm shaded bars, and all manner of water sports. All, naturally, at a price.

There are broad, sun washed swathes of blinding white sand, sprinkled with sun loungers and chairs. Norwegian’s private island, Great Stirrup Cay, has cabanas for rent, and both islands have a few shops. Hammocks are slung at intervals between silent, slowly waving palm trees.

Royal Caribbean’s private island is called Coco Cay. It’s flat and essentially featureless, and nowhere near as pretty as it’s rival. Still, you’re hardly going to play at being Indiana Jones on either of these. It’s all about having a fun, chilled out day in the sun. You can come and go as you please.

Of the three ships, I personally prefer the Norwegian Sky, mainly because she has far more balcony cabins than the other two, and many more dining options, including a gorgeous French bistro. Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of The Seas has small cabins, but you won’t spend long in them. She’s a beautiful ship, showing her age a bit, but tremendous fun. There’s also a fab, flashy branch of Johnny Rockets, the fifties retro diner, on board. Carnival’s Inspiration is a rollicking resort at sea; freshly refurbished, with large cabins and a brash, swaggering vibe. Truth be told, you’ll have a good time on any of these three ships.

Three night cruises always sail on Friday. There is a longer, four night version that leaves every Monday if you want a bit more time. As bargains go, all three can beat any Miami hotel for price and inclusive value.

After debarking, spend one more night in Miami and get the tan perfected, or do some last minute shopping before contemplating that inevitable, dread inducing flight home. Well, nothing good lasts forever.

Still- look at what you’ve done in a week. Partied like a local, dodged Alligators, shopped on the strip…. that nifty little run to Nassau, and then partying on sands just steps down from paradise. Winter has been shortened by a week. And you’ve got a tan. Come Monday in January, you’ll be the only one in the workplace that’s grinning like an idiot.

Yes, it’s extravagant, but hey, you’re worth it. Life is too short not to, for God’s sake. Also, remember that flying mid week- say, Wednesday for a Friday sailing- is cheaper than flying on a weekend. Enjoy!

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