When my son and I arrived at the front desk of the Biltmore Hotel in the elegant, tree-lined Miami suburb of Coral Gables, we were delighted to find that we would be staying in the hotel’s newest, biggest suite—so new, the desk clerk informed us, “It may or may not be called The Venetian—we haven’t decided yet.”
That uncertainty shows just how new the renovations to the historic hotel, built in a mix of Italian, Moorish and Spanish styles by developer and Coral Gables founder George Merrick in 1926, were at the time of our visit. In the case of our suite, it had formerly been two rooms, but a wall was knocked down to combine the two for more space. It retained, of course, a private, walled balcony, and, from one set of doors, a view of the Biltmore’s Donald Ross-designed 18-hole golf course.
History runs deep at the Biltmore, a National Historic Landmark. Many of the corridors are lined with old black-and-white photos depicting earlier guests disporting themselves in various ways, from boating to partying to swimming. (Among them were Babe Ruth, golfer Bobby Jones, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Bing Crosby and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.) My movie-minded son remarked that the photos reminded him of the hotel in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, and while the Biltmore certainly does not have the creepy ambiance of the Overlook Hotel, it turns out there is at least one ghost rumored to roam the place: Mobster Thomas Walsh, a Dutch Schultz crony, was killed here in a gambling dispute, back in the Roaring ’20s. (He’s said to haunt the elevators, causing doors to open and close and lights to blink on and off.)
But I wasn’t worried about being haunted during our stay—only about trying to fit in as much of the Biltmore experience as possible. That included an “Executive Massage” at the hotel’s spa (well, my job title does have the word “executive” in it), where the neck and shoulders of a too often hunched-over editor received some needed relief. It was deeply relaxing, especially since it was preceded by time in the steam room and sauna, and in the spacious “relaxation room,” attired in a plush robe and sandals while sipping on coconut water. The seventh-floor spa also welcomes the weary traveler with a variety of facials, scrubs and wraps.
When mealtime beckons at the Biltmore, you have several choices, including a casual poolside spot and the 19th Hole sports bar overlooking the golf course. We selected the Fontana over the 5-Diamond Palme d’Or, because one of us (guess which) has not yet developed a sophisticated taste for caviar, Maine lobster and veal tartare, which pop up on executive chef David Hackett’s tasting menu.
But we were also drawn to the Fontana for its lantern-lit courtyard setting, fine Italian cuisine and, naturally, the bubbling central fountain that gives the restaurant its name. We started our dinner with a melt-in-your-mouth appetizer of “Fiora di Zucca,” zucchini blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and ricotta, before continuing with a traditional lasagna for my son and the mezzalune di arrosto (veal shank with shiitake mushrooms and shaved black truffles) for me. In the interest of research, we also split a delectable chocolate gelato for dessert.
The Fontana is also the setting for the Biltmore’s famous Sunday champagne brunch, which offers guests a huge selection of items from tables laden with everything from smoked salmon, sushi and oysters to carved meats, pasta, pancakes, Belgian waffles and omelets. Perhaps some of the hotel’s guests manage to work off those calories with a spirited tennis match on the nearby courts, but the best we could do was lounge for a while by the Biltmore’s 23,000-square-foot pool—the largest hotel pool on the east coast. The pool was the site of many an aquatic spectacle back in the Depression-era 1930s, when management drummed up business with shows featuring synchronized swimmers, alligator wrestlers and lessons from swimming instructor Johnny Weissmuller, before he headed to Hollywood to play Tarzan.
In its long history, the Biltmore has also played the role of a veterans’ hospital, during World War II and for some years after, before reverting to use as a hotel and then closing its doors in two separate eras during parts of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. With its latest renovation, the Biltmore may be returning to its glory days, as upscale visitors, business conferences and private wedding parties are drawn to its Mediterranean style, its trademark Giraldi Tower (modeled after the one in Seville, Spain) and its unique tropical setting in tony Coral Gables, which Merrick envisioned way back when as “The City Beautiful.” He was definitely onto something.
Things to Do
Smell the Flowers
Take in Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, whose 83 acres on Biscayne Bay are home not only to tropical blooms but to palms, cycads, vines, a tropical fruit pavilion and butterflies in the Wings of the Tropics exhibit. There’s a rainforest, too. fairchildgarden.org
Take a Dive
The famed Venetian Pool is the only pool listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The freshwater pool is open to the public and features a grand waterfall, kiddie pool, walking path, grottos and even a small island. coralgables.com/venetian-pool
Shop ’Til You Drop
Along Coral Gables’ Miracle Mile (really half a mile or so, along Coral Way), high-end jewelry, apparel, home furnishings and art are among the buy/browse options. When energy flags, there are plenty of restaurants to rest up in, along with salons and spas to refresh you.