CHEAP RETREAT: $999 - As part of a series on budget travel, this family of four shows us the best of the city - for all ages - without breaking the bank.

Miami's South Beach is a multiringed ­circus, ripe with surprises and dramatic players, and we wouldn't love it any other way.

Walking down Collins Avenue at dusk, our family of four is reminded just how much of a big tent this sunbaked piece of sand can be. A raven-haired woman in her 30s skates backward between moving cars, chatting up a convertible full of admirers. Black-and-silver-clad bikers rev their rides as they crawl through traffic.

We aren't startled, however, until the neckwear hanging off a man walking ahead of us slowly turns to look at my 16-year-old son, Hunter. My son stops, glances back at us, and smiles broadly. The head of a large boa curls his way, slowly considering him.

"From far away, I thought it was a ferret or a squirrel or something," 14-year-old Maddy says.

Welcome to the show, one that defies easy definition. There is the over-the-top, oddball Miami depicted in local author Carl Hiassen's novels, and the stylish, wild joie de vivre Miami that prowls all night and basks in the sun during the day. And then there is the family-friendly Miami that offers beaches­ and attractions to fit almost every taste.

Traveling to such an exotic, high-energy-nightlife city poses interesting challenges for budget-conscious families, however, both to the pocketbook and to scheduling. What might be a go for the 40-plussers in the clan might not fly with the teens. In preparation, we spent a month researching our options, culling them, and voting for final preferences (one Ostdick, one vote). In the process, we amassed a two-inch-thick travel planner for the weekend, complete with driving directions.

For price and convenience, we've chosen the art deco Essex House Hotel, a block off the beach and in the thick of the South Beach whirr. There is a public garage next door, an asset in this parking-starved land.

After checking in, Michelle and I join other guests for a free glass of wine in the lounge, then gather the kids and stroll two blocks to the fascinating Wolfsonian museum­ on Washington Avenue. The Wolf, which contains an amalgam of North American and European artifacts dating from 1885 to 1945, has a Friday happy hour, where visitors roam free of charge from six to nine.