It is cagoule weather in Miami and about a dozen of us are on a pleasure cruiser, touring the 10 manmade, mansion-studded islands of the city's bay. We approach a waterfront hacienda, our umpteenth of the morning, and a gardener, seemingly alert to rubberneckers like us, drops his rake and runs for cover behind a clump of banyan trees. The engine stalls and the tannoy crackles into life. "And on our right", says the tour guide, "is the house of Gloria Estefan's second cousin twice removed".
Okay, this last bit is obviously a lie, but it may as well be true, for Miami, a city rightly proud of its Latino heritage, is weirdly obsessed with Estefan; every anecdote seems to involve the singer. If not her, then one of her family, a former bodyguard or the checkout girl who once served her in a Walgreens pharmacy.
We take in Palm Island, where the former home of Al Capone - a modest 1920s villa, all pantiles and Spanish arches - sits in all its glory, and Star Island, where rapper Diddy sometimes holes up and where one Croesus-rich property developer has a rambling pad with an "air-conditioned exterior".
We pass the late Elizabeth Taylor's mansion, and Edith Piaf's, before coming to a halt outside the home of the inventor of Viagra. And yes, the palm trees in his garden are rather vigorous, as well they should be, having cost him US$80,000 ($126,000) apiece to import from South Africa, according to our guide.
On we float, to Fisher Island, accessible only by private boat, where Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey and J. Lo (cue excited chatter from the Latino contingent on board) all have condos.
Finally we sail past the Port of Miami, which is where things get pretty weird. From that gilded world of striped window awnings and manicured lawns we find ourselves cast incongruously into a grim, industrial scene, with sea containers and giant cranes looming menacingly against the horizon. It's so eerily like the place they dump bodies in The Sopranos that you half expect to spot a human head bobbing along in the water. Instead, we suddenly glimpse a pod of dolphins arcing from the water, and we all chorus "Aah" and reach for our cameras.
That contradiction between pure, unabashed bling and gritty underbelly is Miami all over. And at first it can make for a surreal and slightly unsettling holiday. But give it a chance, I say, for it is an intriguing place with much to occupy the visitor, and it doesn't all involve sunbathing and shopping, the other chief pastimes alongside celebrity-spotting.
There are, for instance, vibrant restaurant and arts scenes, the highlights of which are this month's Miami Spice food festival and Art Basel Miami Beach, held every December, and it wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that there's an air of London's Shoreditch or New York's Brooklyn about the edgy Wynwood district.
You soon see why so much of it does involve sunbathing and shopping, though, with the beaches of icing-sugar sand and high-end shops that attract the rich and botoxed from as far afield as Brazil.
I am staying at the W hotel in South Beach, which is the perfect place to indulge in both, and to explore the historic pastels-and-cream art deco district, a short stroll down the boardwalk (thick with joggers in satin micro-shorts most mornings).
If you're a fan of monochrome luxury - square taps, goatskin rugs, mood lighting and lots of white leather - the W is probably the hotel for you. Certainly the actor Mark Wahlberg loves it - he often spends up to three months at a time there - as do the hordes who queue round the block to get into the hotel's bump-and-grind Wall nightclub. Here a ringside table will set you back several thousand for the night.
But this is a drop in the ocean for many in Miami, as you soon appreciate at the Bal Harbour shopping precinct a few kilometres north.
I get talking to a chatty saleswoman in the fur salon at Saks Fifth Avenue (most expensive item: a Russian sable at $140,000), who excitedly tells me that Joan Collins was "on the floor" not a fortnight before. Oh dear, did she trip, is what I want to ask, but think better of such impudence. Anyway the saleswoman is too busy reeling off other celebrity customers to brook interruption - Beyonce, Diddy, Usher and Gloria Estefan. Yes, Estefan again.
As you've probably gathered by now, they're as shallow as a summer puddle in this part of the world - but it's rather enjoyable to go with it.
- Canvas, Telegraph