Ocala Magazine: Elite Excursions Part 1 – The Biltmore

A weekend escape from the ordinary is meant to be extraordinary. We visited four resorts in Florida to share what we discovered that would make your few days away, fabulous.
Story: John Sotomayor and Kelli Fuqua Hart

Reservations made – check. Louis Vuitton and Pierre Cardin luggage packed – check. Car cleaned and detailed – check. Prepared to experience once-in-a-lifetime, elite excursions with pampered VIP service and all worries left at home – check, check and check. It is fair to say that nothing recharges your battery like a weekend of indulgence. Fortunately, Florida has several choice destinations to satisfy that need. Saddled with the burden of learning the latest in leisure travel, I made reservations for myself to three heavenly havens: The Breakers, The Biltmore and The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island and one reservation to the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota for my cohort in lavish living, Kelli Fuqua Hart. We discovered old standards and new favorites that you will undoubtedly wish to try for yourselves. Having observed and experienced more than we have room for, we focused on some of the highlights and new attractions from each resort. The rest, you will have to learn on your own. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences checked off our bucket lists? We certainly hope not.

The Biltmore

There are few hotels as legendary as the Biltmore. Built in 1926, during the height of the carefree decade of decadence known as the Roaring ‘20s, the structure has withstood the test of time and world events, such as WWII when it became a military hospital. After decades of dormancy until 1990, the Biltmore was brought back to life – back to the glory and glamour it once epitomized to the world on a nightly basis.

In its heyday, the Biltmore was the most fashionable resort in the country, hosting royalty from Europe and celebrity from Hollywood. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby were regular guests. Everyone from U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt to notorious gangster Al Capone stayed at the Biltmore, where they enjoyed fashion shows, gala balls, aquatic and diving shows in the enormous, 23,000 square-foot grand pool (still the largest hotel swimming pool in the continental U.S., meant to mimic an oceanfront), elaborate weddings and world-class golf tournaments.

The Biltmore is the brainchild of its founder, land developer George Merrick. He partnered with hotel magnate John McEntee Bowman. Together they envisioned a grand hotel, which would attract crowds thronging to Coral Gables – a destination they would create for the world’s elite to visit and call home and as a center for sports and fashion.

They contacted world-renowned architect Leonard Schultze and famed developer S. Fullerton Weaver. Together, these four men devised a hotel unlike any other, borrowing elements from Merrick’s adoration of Venetian palazzos of Italy and Iberian castles from Spain, set in the lush Florida landscape Merrick also favored. They created a structure with brilliant, hand-painted frescos on barrel-vaulted ceilings, exquisite travertine floors, fine marble columns, intricate leaded glass fixtures, carved mahogany furnishings and lavish gardens.

The decades that followed saw the Biltmore fall into decline. The resort laid in ruin until resurgence in 1973, after the City of Coral Gables purchased the resort and invested $55 million to restore the Biltmore to its former grandeur. Further refurbishment followed when a multi-national consortium led by Seaway Hotels Corporation, a Florida hotel management firm, became its final owners and invested another $40 million.

It is difficult to improve upon a legend – yet they managed to do so, impeccably. To begin, the services are exemplary. Upon arrival, I was ushered by uniformed bellmen to a second floor driveway for new arrivals only, assisted by valet. The lower level driveway is meant for registered guests for valet service. The experience of valet door service, uniformed bellman service and red velvet carpet entry rivals that of the Plaza, New York.

During my stay, I was then provided a tour of the two presidential suites. A favorite among the famous and infamous, including Al Capone — from which it derives its nickname ‘The Al Capone Suite” — the Everglades is a two-story suite in the tower of the Biltmore. The living room decor includes soaring hand-painted ceilings, a baby grand piano, over-sized desk where President Bill Clinton once signed a formal document, and dining table for six. The master suite contains a Roman bathtub and two spacious dressing rooms. A second bedroom is ensconced upstairs and a small kitchenette is located near the private elevator entrance.

The regal three-bedroom penthouse suite is located on the top floor of the Biltmore tower. Three master bedrooms with private bathrooms open onto the two-story living room, which runs the full width of the tower and includes two balconies with views reaching to Biscayne Bay. The living room is decorated with plush sofas, a 42” plasma TV, a dining area for six and a fireplace.

Afterwards, I utilized the Clefs d’Or concierge service to recommend a local excursion. I was directed to the Miracle Mile, a condensed, lively area for high-end shopping, dining, and personal services. After a late-morning, early afternoon of window-shopping, grooming and noshing, I returned to the Biltmore for my 1:40 p.m. spa appointment.

Perched on the seventh floor of the iconic resort, with spectacular views of the golf course, the Biltmore spa has earned the Les Nouvelles Esthétiques & Spa, American edition, Grand Winner award in the Luxury Spa category. Conde Nast Traveler’s 2012 readers also recognize the Biltmore Spa as the top resort spa in Miami. Among soothing sounds, warm wood and rich stones, my massuer utilized the Signature treatment, which combined elements of deep tissue massage, Swedish and Asian for a well-balanced and personalized treatment.  The ambiance of trickling waterfalls and a wooden footbridge from the locker area to the treatment rooms was transforming.

That evening, I dined at the Biltmore’s signature restaurant, Palme d’Or.  Palme d’Or brings a taste of France to Coral Gables with dishes ranging from simple yet sublime, to expertly exotic. I was offered the five-course tasting menu. My memorable meal included both L’oursin en gelle de citronelle (sea urchin, lemon grass, ginger gelee with fennel cream) and Langoustine au caviar (marinated Langoustine, Osetra caviar, passion fruit tapioca and vodka gelee) as the cold appetizer first course, Risotto a L’encre de seiche (squid ink risotto, squid, chorizo with confit tomatoes) as the hot appetizer second course, Daurade Royale (zucchini scaled seared sea bream, black olives, confit tomatoes, fennel puree with Bouillabaisse sause) as the sea third course, Caille au foie gras (Foie gras stuffed quail, porcini, creamy mash with black olive sauce) as the land fourth course, and Declinaison de gateau aux carottes (deconstructed carrot cake, Mascarpone cream with ginger-orange carrot sorbet) as the dessert fifth course.

My final extravagance was one of the country’s most celebrated Champagne brunches. Offered every Sunday in Fontana’s spectacular courtyard, the lavish buffet features numerous delicacies, such as caviar, smoked salmon, shellfish, carved meats, fresh omelettes, pastas, sushi and more.  Brunch culminates with an abundance of desserts prepared to perfection by Executive Pastry Chef Olivier Rodriguez. Perfection.

At the 1926 grand opening of the Miami Biltmore Country Club, Dr. Frank Crane predicted, “Many people will come and go, but this structure will remain a thing of lasting beauty.” Indeed.

Stay tuned for the second installment of Elite Excursion, The Breakers Palm Beach

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