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The Biltmore Hotel rises from the verdant flames of Coral Gables like a mirage, a towering fortress standing firm against the hurrying subtropical sky.
Just minutes from the bustle of downtown Miami and the glitter of South Beach, the Biltmore is an opulent sanctuary, a relic of the past made new again. With its heroic 315-foot central tower, vaulted lobby with mahogany-and-brass bird cages, enchanting central courtyard, massive swimming pool and Donald Ross-designed golf course, the Biltmore has all the amenities of a world-class resort hotel.
It is also darned cigar friendly, and proud of it. This historic hotel, the creation of Coral Gables founder George Merrick and hotel magnate John Bowman, first opened in 1926 and was an immediate smash. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor stayed there, as did the Roosevelts and Vanderbilts, Bing Crosby and Babe Ruth. The legendary gangster Al Capone took residence in the Everglades Suite, now known to the knowing as the Capone Suite.
But Biltmore's glory years were short-lived. The Florida land boom of the 1920s became the bust of the Depression-ridden '30s. By the 1940s, the hotel had become a hospital for the Army Air Force and, later, the Veterans Administration. The glamour of the Biltmore name was fouled by the smell of antiseptic and the ravages of linoleum.
In 1971, Coral Gables gained control of the hotel, though it lay vacant for another 10 years. The city and a hotel development group resurrected the Biltmore in the mid-'80s and began its restoration, but again, the timing wasn't right. The effort fell victim to the recession and the hotel was closed in 1990.
Along came the Seaway Hotel Corp. and its president, Gene Prescott, a hotel developer and devoted cigar smoker. Prescott led a group of investors who purchased the hotel in June 1992, accelerated the restoration process and reopened the Biltmore that August as an affiliate of Westin Hotels and Resorts. Once again the central tower, fashioned after the Cathedral of Seville's Giralda tower, became a beacon of civility on the south Florida landscape.
Under Seaway, the rooms have been refurbished in bright, airy colors and patterns. The golf course, owned by Coral Gables and administered by the hotel, was also restored. It is an appropriately sporty resort layout with a fine set of Donald Ross greens. The swimming pool, which at 22,000 square feet is the largest hotel pool in the continental United States, has been repaired, and recently its cabana section has been enhanced with landscaping designed to ensure privacy, whether for sunbathing in the buff or conducting business in the lounge chairs. There are also new tennis courts and a new spa and fitness center. The ongoing restoration is being supervised by architect Barry Berg.
As a way to enhance the hotel's image, The Biltmore hosted the Summit of the Americas in 1994, when 34 presidents from North, South and Central America convened. Prior to this high-visibility gathering, Prescott, resident manager Dennis Doucette and Prescott's cigar smoking partner, Robert Kay, decided to install a walk-in humidor. President Clinton was among the first to sample its wares.
Since then, cigars have become an integral part of the hotel's life. There is a Cigar Salon adjacent to the Cellar Club Wine Bar on the seventh floor. The Cellar Club is a different approach to the standard concierge level of upper-class hotels. The club is available not only to guests who upgrade to that level, but to Floridians who wish to join for an annual membership fee. Fine wine and fine cigars can be enjoyed at discounted prices.
"The cigar program here is an important amenity to this hotel," said Prescott, "With Miami's increasing role as a business center for South and Central America, our business clientele values our cigar orientation."
The hotel now offers Friday night Cigars Under the Stars dinners in the courtyard café, an alfresco dining and smoking experience. On Sept. 12 the hotel inaugurated the first of what is hoped to be regular black-tie cigar dinners in the Granada Ballroom. And the humidor is being expanded to 10 feet by 20 feet, with a cigar roller on the premises.
"We wanted to do cigars on the same grand scale as everything else in the hotel," says Doucette.
The Biltmore, on the Register of National Historic Places, is a grand place to escape from the mundane world to the ambiance of world class.
-- Jeff Williams is a freelance writer and a staff writer for Newsday.
The Biltmore Hotel
1200 Anastasia Avenue
(800) 727-1926; or Westin Hotels, (800) 228-3000
High season rates from $199 for rooms, from $359 for suites