More and more these days, visitors to Miami are leaving the beaches to head downtown, which is home to a growing list of cultural attractions, nightclubs and gleaming, modern hotel towers.
But just a handful of miles west of downtown, the luxurious Biltmore Hotel stands as a reminder of a Miami pre-1960 that was shaped more by the European tastes and customs of its founders than by the Latin world that has since come to define Miami's character.
Spread out over 150 acres, the Biltmore once played host to polo matches and fox hunts. It still sports the enormous 600,000-gallon pool that was said to be the largest in the world at the time of its opening during Florida's original land boom in the 1920s. And it's still home to home to an 18-hole golf course designed by Donald Ross, a legendary architect of the period who also designed U.S. Open venues such as Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, Oakland Hills near Detroit and Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y.
Indeed, the 275-room hotel, designed in what owner Gene Prescott described to me as a Moorish-Italian style, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And its stately, 315-foot tower stands sentinel over the posh Mediterranean-styled suburb of Coral Gables, which likes to call itself "The City Beautiful."
The Biltmore Hotel and its 315-tower of sit vanguard over the newly reconstructed 18th green at the classic Biltmore golf course. Photo Credit: Robert Silk
But classic charm doesn't guarantee modern-day relevance, as Prescott is clearly aware of.
"The difficulty is to have something that is historic but not old," he explained to me during a recent visit to the property. "Guests don't want something old, musty and tired."
To that end, the Biltmore is just wrapping up what Prescott said has been a more than $30 million renovation, which included refurbishments of every guestroom as well as more than $3 million of work on the golf course.
The guestrooms, Prescott reported, were stripped down to the studs. Every window was replaced. New electrical outlets, improved lighting and more connectivity were added. Furnishings and adornments were chosen to maintain the hotel's regal, Moorish-Italian feel.
The golf course, meanwhile, has been lengthened to keep up with the longer-flying golf balls of today. More distinctively, architect Brian Silva sought to restore the playing characteristics of Ross's 1925 design by adding or moving 36 bunkers and by reshaping a few greens, most notably the 18th, which now features two tiers. In addition, the greens and fairways have been resurfaced.
I had the privilege of experiencing the renovated rooms and golf course as well as the Biltmore Spa, the resort's assortment of dining options and its grand, old-world charm, as an invited guest of the hotel. The three days I spent there were a bit of a walk down memory lane for me since I lived in Coral Gables, a mere three blocks from the Biltmore, during my graduate school days in 2001 and 2002. Indeed, the visit reminded me that Miami, in my view, is the finest major American city in which to be during the months of December through February, especially when you can fill those December days with activities such as massages, golf and decadent meals.
Decadent, indeed, is the best description for the dining experience I had at the Biltmore's Palme d'Or restaurant, where the French fare of chef Gregory Pugin has earned a five-diamond rating from AAA. Over the course of three hours, I was treated to an eight-course meal featuring such items as Kobe beef tenderloin, seared scallop, duck foie gras and seared Alaskan halibut; all were artistically plated. Lest Pugin and his staff be accused of taking themselves too seriously, dessert included a tree whose chocolate trunk and branches were topped with foliage made of cotton candy.
The hotel's grand Mediterranean style lobby, where two servings of high tea are offered daily. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Miami Biltmore
The Biltmore has four restaurants in all, including an Italian offering and casual dining establishments overlooking the golf course and the pool. The hotel also serves afternoon tea four days a week in its ornate lobby and offers what is regarded by locals as one of the best Sunday brunches in Miami. During my brunch I was disappointed not to make it to the pasta area, having already satiated myself at the caviar bar, the oyster and crab raw bar, the sushi bar, the Bloody Mary and mimosa bar and the four-stop carving station. Plus, I needed to leave room for dessert at the chocolate fountain.
Speaking a day earlier with the Biltmore's vice president of marketing, Philippe Parodi, I had agreed with his assessment that no other hotel in the Miami market fits precisely in the Biltmore's niche. Sure, a couple Miami hotels are better known for their golf; the JW Marriott Turnberry in the suburb of Aventura and Trump National Doral come to mind. Plenty of other hotels offer luxury. And several, most famously the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach, have historical appeal, even if they aren't as old as the Biltmore. But none are able to blend those in the way the Biltmore does, with its spacious, parklike setting surrounded by the amenities and charisma of Coral Gables.
"What people want when they travel now is to discover something really different, and when they come to the Biltmore, that's what they find," Parodi said.
And of course, the beach is always just a 20-minute drive away.