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The Grande Dames

America's greatest destination resorts balance the charms of the past with modern amenities
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

(continued from page 1)

But shortly after Merrick's death in 1942, the hotel was transformed into an Army hospital. In 1952, the University of Miami opened a medical school off an abandoned hallway. In 1968, the entire structure was closed. For two decades it lay dormant, a reminder of Coral Gables' flagging fortunes as wig shops and cafeterias filled the main shopping street of Miracle Mile. Acquired by the city for a nominal sum, the Biltmore reemerged as a hotel in 1987.

In a sense, this staccato history was a blessing. With no elderly patrons to resist changing so much as the color scheme, the Biltmore was free to remake itself. For a time in the 1990s, it seemed as if every guest in the lobby had a name tag. A series of renovations have restored the luster, and groups now account for only about half of the hotel's business. (Weddings, on the other hand, are a major industry and about 200 are held on the property every year.) "We've gone through so many changes, even in the past few years," says Dennis Doucette, the hotel's general manager. More are on the way, helping the property trend younger. A local disc jockey is creating a unique music mix for the hotel's public spaces, including the semiformal Palme d'Or restaurant, which is getting less formal each season. New cabanas by the pool recently opened, featuring spa treatments, misting fans, even themed moonlit dinners.

Lately, Coral Gables has again become a fashionable destination of its own, a sort of South Beach for grown-ups with designer shopping, fine regional theater and other cultural amenities. That helps attract vacationers who want more than just a hotel as a destination. And the thriving community delivers business to the property. The Biltmore's Cellar Club, which offers discounted dining, waived corkage fees, periodic wine tastings and free valet parking, has more than 1,300 members paying annual dues of $995 a couple, and business memberships that give executives incentive to access the property. Thirty-four percent of the hotel's restaurant business, Doucette notes, is directly related to the Cellar Club. Ancillary revenues add even more. While on site, members just might buy a fine cigar from the hotel's tobacco boutique, or book a room for their next anniversary.

Early on a Friday morning, the gleaming treadmills and stationary bikes at the hotel's health club are nearly all in use. Most of the exercisers aren't hotel guests, but some of the 2,500 local fee-paying members. When the state-of-the-art spa opened last year, it provided another intersection between the hotel and the city around it.

Those ties continue to help, even as the Biltmore's next incarnation comes into focus. Doucette gained permission from the city to alter a dividing wall and reconfigured his outdoor restaurant into a patio positioned between the grand pool and the golf course. "The pool on one side of you, golf on the other," he exults. "Where else can you get that?"

In most communities, any modification to such a historically resonant structure would have to be approved by levels of committees. But Dona Lubin, the assistant city manager and former director of historic preservation for Coral Gables, is a regular at breakfast every Saturday morning. Unlike some distant bureaucrat with no connection to the property, she well understands the problem of guests using that elongated dining space as an outdoor corridor. "Great, I'm tired of getting hit by golf clubs as I eat," she told Doucette when he informed her of his plans. Ground was broken this year.

The Breakers Palm Beach, FL
There's a middle-aged man in a blue blazer, white pants and white shoes sipping a Martini while waiting for a salad of conch and surf clam. Later, he'll eat squares of sorbet: coconut, mango and blood orange. House music pulses around him, to the annoyance of the woman sitting across the table. But when her sushi arrives, she tunes out the pounding and digs in.

And there, in its essence, is both the challenge facing the venerable Breakers hotel and a piece of the solution. The restaurant is Echo, a five-year-old Asian hot spot that represents a stunning departure from nearly a century of Breakers food. It's such a departure that it is located off-site, three blocks north of the hotel in downtown Palm Beach—and out of sight from those who want everything to remain precisely as before at one of America's most refined resorts. As it has been from almost the start of the last century, Palm Beach remains the epicenter of Social Register winter life, and the Breakers is the epitome of Palm Beach. "At one point," says Kevin Walters, the hotel's vice president of food and beverage, "a woman would have to change clothes here six times a day. One outfit for breakfast, one for tea, one for cotillion, one for dinner, and so on."

The delivery systems are different today—Gulfstreams instead of Pullmans—but the same type of people still come. They're just far more likely to stay weeks—even days—than several months. That leaves plenty of empty rooms in the vast hotel and a shrinking pool of vacationers eager to wear tuxedos in the lobby, as was required on Wednesday and Saturday nights into the 1960s.

Over the last decade, the Kenan family—descendants of the man who built the Breakers, railroad magnate Henry Morrison Flagler—undertook what can only be described as a stealth makeover. "One part preservation, one part moving into the future aggressively and creatively," says Paul Leone, the hotel's president. So Echo opened up the street and the food at the signature L'Escalier restaurant was carefully modernized, with far more attention paid to a wine list that features the best of both the old and new world, and the average meal time pulled under three hours.


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