Star-watching is a breeze when you cruise the islands that are home to the rich and famous off Miami, as Estelle Sarney finds.

If you want to see how the stars live, forget Los Angeles, head to Miami. From the anonymous distance of a boat deck, you can peer into the front yards and analyse the housing tastes of the rich and famous on the islands in Biscayne Bay, between Miami central and South Beach.

Not all of of the islands' celebrity homeowners are A-list, and there's never been a better example of how money can't buy taste, but Miami is that kind of place - in your face. And you will see a lot more of the stars' homes than you do in Beverley Hills, where you see little more than long driveways and good-sized walls.

Our tour started on a bus, cruising down South Beach where spots of interest were pointed out - the doorstep where fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot; the famous art deco hotels and restaurants that have doubled as sets in numerous movies and TV shows, from Casablanca to the 80s series of Miami Vice.

We then crossed the bay into Miami City and its toney neighbourhoods of Coral Gables - so named because early homes were made of coral from Miami Beach - and Coconut Grove, location of the magnificent Biltmore Hotel, where gangster Al Capone lived for a while and scenes from the original Tarzan movie were apparently filmed.

Our guide Carlos proudly points out locations of more dubious film and television shows, including Bad Boys 1 and 2, and The Specialist which we hear about more than once but for the life of us can't remember much about. The best part of the tour is a stop in Little Havana, home to the hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles who have arrived in waves through the decades.

The main street is a tourist trap, where you're dropped off and shepherded towards cigar manufacturers and souvenir shops.

But the fun really starts on the boat leg of the tour. First of the celebrity zones is Fisher Island. Reachable only by boat, it has its own golf course, rumoured fees of $100,000 a year, its own fire department and a roll call of who's who. Our guide neatly prefaces his roll of honor with the phrase "celebrities who live here or have lived here", then goes on to include Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Lopez. Strangely for such an exclusive joint it has a rather big oil terminal.

The island most-densely populated by celebrities past and present is the aptly named Star Island, reached by a private bridge from one of several causeways that cross the bay, with guards at its gates.

Star Island was built by army engineers from reclaimed dirt in 1922 as an exclusive getaway, but boat tours take you to the front door of some of the priciest real estate in the US. Next to a house owned by talk show queen Rosie O'Donnell is a white mansion that was used as a setting for the 1983 movie Scarface, starring Al Pacino.

Next to the home used as the setting for the film Wild Things (another B movie that starred Neve Campbell, Kevin Bacon and Denise Richards) is a sprawling two-home property belonging to Miami hometown hero Gloria Estefan. Flanked by gleaming jetboats resting on stands above the water, the $10m spread has an almost two-to-one bathroom-to-bedroom ratio, a pool and a tennis court.

We cruise on past a vacant lot (sales have been slow since the global financial crisis) to a spread belonging to Edward Parker of Parker pen fame.

A big red place under renovation once belonged to NBA star Shaquille O'Neal but he quit Star Island in 2009 for $16 million, apparently $6 million below his property's asking price. The buyer was Naomi Campbell's billionaire boyfriend, Vladislav Doronin, the so-called Moscow Trump. You could bet the tradies would be on their toes when the tempestuous super-model was in the house.

The nicest place we saw once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor. The pale pink mansion - relatively understated - was where she spent her honeymoon with husband number four, Eddie Fisher. It was later a home of a star of the original Miami Vice series, Don Johnson.

Again we're directed to a location for The Specialist - the lion statues on the dock of a home owned by an ex Miami Dolphins star may mean something in the movie starring Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone.

The grandest of them all belongs to Dr Phillip Frost, founder of generic drug firm IVAX with a personal wealth of $2 billion. The $50m property has trees imported from around the world.

The best bit of retro trivia was being reminded who Robert Van Winkle was. Think Ice Ice Baby. One-hit wonder Vanilla Ice, the rapper-turned-reality show home renovation expert once owned a nine-bedroom place that is back on the market for $14.9 million. Nearby is Julio Iglesias, who has a nice place but the fizz boat was nowhere to be seen. His son Enrique lives across the water at Sunset Island next to Colombian singer Shakira and tennis star Anna Kournikova.

A festive-looking place belongs to Tom Kramer, a property developer who is trying to sell but according to the latest real estate buzz is meeting buyer resistance at $45 million. Our guide says he's had to rent it out.

Last pass-by is the home of producer, rapper, and multi-millionaire entrepreneur P Diddy. According to reports, the nine-bedroom home cost $14.5 million eight years ago and was once owned by music industry mogul Tommy Mottolla. Engulfed in trees that shield the property from tourists' prying eyes, it's the only place where its owner displays some discretion. We can't see a thing.


Miami city and bay tours can be booked through any Miami hotel; most cost about US$50 per adult.

Getting there: Flight Centre has Miami holidays including return airfares, four nights' accommodation, a Biscayne Bay boat ticket and return airport transfers from $2949* ex Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch per person, twin share. For further details and bookings, contact Flight Centre on 0800 427 555.

* Price subject to availability. Valid for sales until June 30. Travel from September 6-30.
Where to stay: Circa 39 Hotel at Miami Beach is just a block from the sand, where you can rent a lounger, and people watch. Competition keeps room rates reasonable - we paid US$160 for a double room in early May.

Estelle Sarney paid her own way to Miami.