Oh Florida, dear Florida, we love you. We are sun-worshipping transients, fugitives from a cold and unforgiving climate. We appreciate that you are user-friendly to us Canadians. We eagerly pay our way and contribute handsomely to your economy every year. In fact, according to StatsCan, 3,099,300 of us spent more than $3.5 billion in Florida last year. And worth every penny, we say. Miami is our Mecca, and it has wondrous enclaves for us to explore. Each one is different, yet they showcase their one commonality: The warm and all-embracing sun.
At the Fisher Island dock, security confirms that I am a bona fide guest. The tone is set at registration with a glass of Veuve and a charming generosity of spirit. Hotel Director David Smiley tells me that the residents and guests come from about 40 different countries. It is evident that they are the well-dined, well-traveled, names-in-the-news internationals, and discretion is part of their life-code.
About a century ago, Carl Fisher and William Vanderbilt made a trade: Seven acres of Fisher Island for the Eagle, Vanderbilt’s luxurious 220-foot yacht. Located just a few miles off the southern tip of Miami, it has the highest mean income in the United States. Today, Fisher Island Club continues the tradition of luxury.
The electric golf cart is the transportation of choice and one is plugged in at each front door. My guide drives through the Island, pointing out the flora, fauna, golf course, 18 lighted tennis courts of all surfaces and two marinas. The lovingly restored Vanderbilt Mansion (circa 1935), the Spa Internazionale, five indoor/outdoor restaurants and the fresh market are all well-used by residents and guests. Wherever the eye falls, there is meticulously groomed natural beauty.
I could move in and stay forever in this modern, Mediterranean motif hotel suite, and there is even enough closet space to accommodate my wardrobe. Dinner hour approaches. I climb nimbly into my golf cart. It all looked so simple in the light of day. Now, I have serious doubts. A quick phone call, and a driver is dispatched to deliver me to the Garwood Grill. It’s a handsome room, with warm lighting, a convivial buzz and the aroma of good food.
The piano player favours Sinatra, and that suits the crowd here just fine. At the bar, highballs and cocktails, that’s the long and short of it. There is a fine line between professional friendliness and fawning, and the staff has it nailed. The stone crab claw is cracked, shelled and ready to eat; the steak sizzles with the scent of mesquite and the baked potato could be a model for the phrase, “love is a big baked potato and someone to share it with.”
Back in my suite, the “pillow menu” offers a range of pillows, including Isotonic, Magnetic Therapy, Buckwheat and Goosedown. I want them all! No problem, madam.
After a wonderful night’s slumber and a cup of coffee on my terrace at sunrise, I watch the joggers get their heart rates up. At the beach club for breakfast, I hesitate to leave a footprint in the sugar-soft, Bahamian sand. Is it the idyllic setting or is my omelet with asparagus and lobster really so delicious?
Executive Chef Stefan Caporal has just arrived from Paris to take over the gastronomic life of Fisher. While we lunch at the Trattoria, on thin crust California pizza and salmon Carpaccio, he explains, “I want to build the menus by working closely with the members and follow what they like.” Cheese tortellini with chicken, as well as penne Bolognese are signature dishes and will never be deleted from the menu. Delectable Italian comfort food stays.
On the terrace of the Vanderbilt Mansion, the City View restaurant is filled today with people who are friends from winters past. According to CEO Larry Brown, these people have picked Fisher Island as their lifestyle. Many have several homes, but in the winter months, this is where they live. People stay and chat and tablehop, while they lunch on salads, burgers, roasts, even barbecue ribs.
A favourite dining room is Café Porto Cervo. The room’s imposing dimensions give it a modern edge, seamlessly fused with the traditional. Everyone looks beautiful in this warm golden lighting, and the staff is trained to the tips of their polished shoes. As the waiter makes his way from the kitchen bearing a festooned and flowered tray of duck l’orange, folks stare and wonder who has ordered this gorgeous dish. Dessert? Yes, please. Mine is a chocolate gift box, filled with ice cream. It’s all very special. Yes, why waffle when you can soufflé?
A diner who notices that I am taking notes and photos reminds me nicely that this is a private club, not requiring criticism and that the members and guests like the food, menu and service the way it is.
Duly noted. As it happens, I like the way it is, too.
Fisher Island Hotel & Resort,1 Fisher Island Dr., Miami, FL, (305) 535-6000, (800) 537-3708
At 86 years old, The Biltmore, the Grande dame of Coral Gables is still a stunning beauty—sometimes impoverished and sometimes in the chips. That’s life. Oh, she has had a few face- lifts and some full body restoration/preservation since the Roaring Twenties, occasionally reinventing herself with multiple personality changes and often empty and abandoned. It was not until 1984 that money and the ability to visualize spoke up. The Coral Gables Biltmore Corporation took over and changed history.
Today, The Biltmore wears the patina of age with dazzling personal style: a triumvirate of art deco, Mediterranean revival and cutting edge modern. Ten Har-Tru lighted tennis courts, a state of the art fitness centre with more than 100 fitness classes a week, Biltmore Kids that is even better than summer camp. One visit, or two, never seems enough.
FABULOUS THINGS TO DO AT THE BILTMORE:
Dine at Palme d’Or: Chef de Cuisine Philippe Ruiz, a Chevalier De L’Ordre Du Mérite Agricole, the highest honour awarded a French Chef, and Head Sommelier Sébastien Verrier have created one of the finest French restaurants in the world, according to the powers that be. Flavours are emphatic and there are some truly transcendent moments. The intensely perfumed Maine Lobster Bisque “My Way” is presented delicately. Maine scallop mousse ravioli in saffron cream cappuccino is a must. If I tasted nothing else, this would suffice. My attention is drawn to the black and white photos of guests of the past so renowned they are recognizable a half-century later. Other moments to remember: Ruiz braises beef for seven hours to fulfill its texture and flavour and presents it with creamy potato mousseline and organic micro greens. There are no shortcuts taken, no flaws in presentation or balance of flavours, and the wine choices by Verrier, an expert whose palate is intimate with all the nuances of the menu, make dinner here a privilege.
Play Golf: Here’s a chance to experience your best golf game ever, or improve it with instruction from the Pro. The Biltmore Golf Course is an 18-hole, par-71, championship course, designed in 1925 by Donald Ross, a transplanted Scotsman and the pre-eminent golf designer of his era. It has always attracted dignitaries, movie stars and sports luminaries. Variety, strategy and naturalness are the most consistent traits in a Ross design. In 2007, the architect Brian Silva took up the restoration. Bring the kids, because the Golf Learning Center focuses on cross training to improve young players’ skills. Ask about the largest driving/practice area in the southeast. And here’s an amenity that I like: each golf cart is equipped with GPS navigation.
R&R at the Spa: Call on the Spa Concierge to arrange for a mani/pedi or a day or a week at the Spa. Consider a heavenly spa experience for two: The Zen Spa Suite features its own personal sauna, dual rainforest shower and two massage beds to enjoy spa treatments side-by-side. How does a Chardonnay Signature massage sound to you, or an aromatherapy bubble bath? There is a deluxe pedicure station, multi-jet bathtub for two to melt tensions and a relaxation area with lounging chairs to indulge in a restorative nap. Order in for an intimate dinner, and watch a special sporting event or movie. After a day or two of golf, the Spa is a blessing.
Sunday Champagne Brunch at Fontana: A menu of modern Italian specialties appeals to everyone. While there is seating inside, most enjoy dining at a table set in the gorgeous landscaped courtyard centred by a fountain worthy of a square in Rome. The breeze gentles the scent from the wood-burning pizza oven and we hear the birds but don’t see them. Fontana opens at 6:30 a.m., a boon for active guests and early risers. The extravagance of the buffet will stop all conversation. Admire the selections and choose carefully, as you simply cannot have everything. A sampling of smoked salmon and caviar, shellfish and seafood, carved meats, pastas and omelettes made to order. And since The Biltmore is a citizen of the world, yes, there is sushi in this Northern Italian restaurant.
Culinary Academy: To learn well, get the best teacher, they say. Lourdes Castro, an instructor at NYU Nutrition and Food Studies Department, leads a three-day, totally hands on Boot Camp. Newlyweds, groups of friends, private classes, all will leave knowing how to prepare several dishes very well. The modern kitchens have eight stations and there are even three-hour classes that can fill a morning with wonder. Imagine preparing perfect pan-seared blackened Mahi-Mahi, or braised short ribs in red wine reduction. It’s a good plan for kids birthday parties, team building classes and more.
The World-Famous Biltmore Pool and Lunch at Cascade. Johnny Weissmuller, who became a star as the first Tarzan of the movies, was “discovered” when he worked as a lifeguard at this 23,000 sq. ft. pool, the largest hotel pool in the U.S. The aura of celebrity parties, famous fashion shows and exhibits lingers in this pristine pool. A fitting lunch at the Cascade, poolside, is an order of stone crab claws from the Spa cuisine or French- Caribbean menu.
1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, Miami, FL, 305-445-1926, 1-800-727-1926
The laminated bag ladies who shop and lunch have certain buzz words that define their style. Mention the Shops at Bal Harbour and there are knowing looks. One hundred fine stores in a landscaped garden include Valentino, Chanel, Lanvin and Van Cleef and Arpels. The casual Carpaccio and La Goulue, a study in art deco, are celebrity-sighting eateries that also serve some inspired dishes.
A five-minute complimentary limo ride away, or a 15-minute walk if you’re wearing the right shoes, is the newest member of the neighbourhood, One Bal Harbour Resort and Spa.
Set back from the street, at the end of a winding driveway, the building whispers exclusivity and dignity. The list of condo owners reads like the international who’s who, but here, discretion is the better part of valour.
The two-story lobby of this 18-story glass tower, with its leather upholstered walls, massive columns of exotic wood and marble floors, is hushed and still—not words that one would associate with Miami Beach. And a curator with elegant taste has installed a fascinating art collection. Elevators go to groups of floors, and open right at your door, no wandering down long hallways carrying shopping bags. The view from my terrace is picture post-card, here is where the Intercoastal Waterway kisses the Atlantic Ocean.
Afternoon tea is served in the lobby and I wrestle with temptation at the array of pretty pastries, but I am on my way to the beach wearing an unforgiving swimsuit. How luxurious to doze in the sun surrounded by beautiful landscaping and the sounds of ice cubes clinking in glasses. It is January, and platoons of snowplows are out back in Toronto.
Dinner at ONE Kitchen and Bar is a Florida-casual event. Nothing is required of us except to relax, watch Europe’s haute couture collections on the huge TV over the bar and order from an American classics menu. While others might hustle over to the cacophony of South Beach for a night on the town, after a hard day of shopping and sunbathing, everything I need is right here.
10295 Collins Avenue, Miami, FL, (305) 455 5400, (877) 455 5410
South Beach rocks all night long. The bold and the beautiful, the young and the restless, old money, new money and no money, meet to eat, drink and hang out in this hub of social intercourse. The official designation of this 6.9 square mile tract of land is Orchid Island in Indian River County. For people watching, the view is sublime.
My purpose for being here is none of the above. I have come to the Spa at the Mandarin Oriental, to experience the innovative and restorative treatments inspired by the elements of nature, and the ancient traditions of Chinese, Ayurvedic, European, Balinese and Thai cultures as they are presented in this three-level sanctuary. Harmony and Balance—key words in nature.
While the hotel is contemporary in design, with the vibrant colours of South Florida, there are the minimal yet luxurious touchstones of the Mandarin Oriental hotels I have visited in Asia. An air of calm prevails in my suite, and the hum of traffic on the bridge over Biscayne Bay is soothing. The huge flat-screen TV remains off; it doesn’t stand a chance against the M Bar. A mixologist, who clearly dreams in high definition colour, has created a menu of more than 250 martini recipes.
The renowned restaurant Azul is closed for renovations. Never mind. I enjoy the pan-Asian fare at Café Sambal, an all day restaurant perched above Biscayne Bay and with a majestic view of Miami. Sushi for breakfast, seafood tempura for lunch and a noodle bowl for dinner.
Wellness becomes luxury at the Spa. This holistic spa is the only one in Florida to earn the industry’s most distinguished spa award. Here we are in a large, private suite filled with amenities and a window wall offering a glorious view of the bay. Not the usual small, dark treatment cubicles we are accustomed to at most day spas. The Ultimate Spa Day leaves no appendage un-pampered. Scrubbed with salt and oil; swaddled with ocean and earth wrap; feet, hands and face are attended to by practiced hands. After six and one half hours, which includes a delectable spa lunch, one literally floats out of the Spa.
500 Brickell Key Drive, Miami, FL, (305) 913 8288