MIAMI NICE: Ice cream colours of Downtown
But not quite the memories I’d expected.
“It was derelict for years”, she says, as we ate oysters and caviar at Sunday brunch in the Fontana courtyard restaurant which persuades you that you are in southern Italy.
“When we were kids we’d sneak in. At night you’d see candlelight in the windows because there was no electricity.”
The hotel staff are contractually forbidden from talking about the Biltmore’s ghost, usually seen on the seventh floor where the spa now operates, though back in the 1930s it was a speakeasy dubbed the Al Capone suite.
Mobster Bugsy Siegel shot a bouncer there.
Funny, I’d have thought this was a selling point myself.
It was built in the 1920s, with a tower modelled on the Giralda tower in Seville.
I’d imagined that the only interesting thing about Miami would be the famed ice cream-coloured exteriors of the art deco district downtown.
They’re pretty but nothing prepares you for how extraordinary this city is, like some vast mirage flung up from the swamps 100 years ago which is in a permanent state of flux, a magic kingdom of crime, depravity, lemony sunshine and tropical beauty.
As Carl Hiaasen, the famed novelist and columnist on the Miami Herald, tells us: “Strange things happen all over the country, bizarre and disturbing things. But… the sheer weight and volume of weirdness is unique to South Florida”.
For maximum weirdness make your way, on a hot afternoon, (preferably in a vast, gliding, glacial SUV courtesy of Magic City Adventures) along Ocean Drive past the Versace mansion where fashion designer Gianni Versace was gunned down in 1997.
It is now a hotel and still endlessly photographed.
Built in 1930, gated and balconied, it is a fine example of Miami’s Mediterranean Revival style with a palatial mock Gothic entrance.
But its camp opulence is nothing compared to the street life on show.
The dress code is minimal on and off the beach and it’s a parade of strutting, preening, tattooed, fleshy, bronzed, dyed, lacquered humanity. There’s a gay bar called Palace where the straights outnumber the gays to whoop at the drag queens.
There are pavement shisha bars where huge men in reflective sunglasses sit opposite each other sucking on vast ruby cocktails.
On the beach across the road the muscle brigade simply… flex.
Palm trees line this outrageous, canopied, decadent “me me me” fest.
It’s a place to linger and pose. It’s a continuous slow cavalcade of massive off-roaders and the human equivalent.
Apart from late designer Versace, the very rich people in Miami live in gated communities on the manmade islands in Biscayne Bay.
We gawped at one palace after another on Star Island.
“Look look”, squealed our driver, “There’s Emilio Estefan [husband of Gloria, the Queen of Salsa] turning into his drive.”
Well I never. There are mansions with stone lions rampant at the front gates so big that they’d give the ones in Trafalgar Square a run for their money.
DIVE IN: Miami’s grand Biltmore Hotel
Sometimes the houses are set so far back along their banyan tree-lined driveways you can barely see them.
Sedate, honey coloured, some ultra modern and all glass; some a nod to Miami’s love affair with all things Italianate and Spanish.
Out back they have their own waterfront complete with quay and his and hers speedboats.
In Little Havana where the Cuban exiles once flocked, I ate street food – empanadas (basically a small Hispanic Cornish pastie) and drank tiny paper cups of strong, sweet Cuban coffee.
For a slap-up Cuban you go to Versailles (“The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant”) for white rice, black beans and pork chops. Main courses for around £7. Over on Domino Park, on the main drag called the Calle Ocho, elderly domino virtuosos (no swearing, no drinking and they must be over 55) spend their quiet afternoons matching tiles.
There’s a real buzz to this area; the smell of coffee, the sound of salsa. Want to see hipsters? Maybe not.
But they hang out in their thousands at the trendy district of Wynwood, once a bad neighbourhood (almost everywhere in Miami was once “bad”).
There are loud, edgy murals on every large flat surface and young people Instagramming each other.
It’s noisy, it’s fun, it’s exhausting.
Back to Coral Gables, rather thankfully, a wealthy, calm, beautiful residential area created in the 1920s by local “visionary” George Merrick who had never been to Europe but wanted the homes he built to mimic houses from France, Italy and Spain, planting banyan and fig trees along the peaceful avenues.
The 1910 Merrick House, built for the family and now a museum, is worth a visit, as is the elegant Old Police and Fire Station on Aragon Avenue, built in 1939, which is also home to the Coral Gables Museum.
Residents use the Venetian Pool, with its gondola poles and fresh spring water, and calm their souls in the Fairchild Botanic Garden (beware of the crocodiles but enjoy the butterfly house).
Merrick also built the Biltmore in 1926.
My suite (one of 275 rooms) had no ghost but it did have a canopied bed, floaty white curtains, French windows looking over the pool and the golf course and a gold-coloured marble bathroom.
A typical cuban and latin american restaurant in famous Calle Ocho, heart of the Cuban area of Miami
The hotel is undergoing a revamp, which should be completed by Christmas.
The dining is fine and French and for sandwiches and fries there’s the 19th Hole which is less formal and welcomes children.
But Coral Gables is not short of great restaurants and the Caffe Abbracci (upscale Italian) on Aragon Avenue is my recommendation.
Red snapper and black lobster ravioli are among the fabulous sea food.
Non-golfers at the Biltmore can lounge by the pool with its faux classical statuary, do a fitness session or a cookery class. Oh, and shopping.
The locals always talk of Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, which is fine if you want a tuxedo or bone china. But far better to go to the pedestrianised Lincoln Road downtown which is livelier but classy, designed as a piece by the architect Maurice Lapidus in what I think of as lido-style architecture.
It stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Biscayne Bay to the west.
For a calmer shopping expedition, a free transfer car from the Biltmore will take you to the beautiful Merrick Park mall with palm trees, fountains and all your designer destinations. Miami – weird but wonderful.