CORAL GABLES, Fla. - The rise, fall and triumphant return of the Miami Biltmore Hotel would make for a good Hollywood blockbuster.
It's got all the elements of a classic movie - grand parties thrown by the rich and famous, World War II drama as the hotel converts into a military hospital, a depressing decline, followed by a miracle comeback. Just for good measure, throw in a few ghostly tales of a haunted hotel, and you've got a script with quite a few twists and turns.
This legendary hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places is truly a one-of-a-kind golf resort. There's a classic Donald Ross golf course outside its back door. There's big news too: Jim McLean transferring the world headquarters of his golf school from Trump National Doral Miami to the Biltmore come Jan. 1, 2018. The Biltmore's owners have committed to significantly upgrading its practice area and teaching facility for McLean's teachers, another sign that the resort is fully invested in improving its golf product.
After staying two nights at the Biltmore on a recent trip to south Florida, I'd argue it's every bit the bucket-list destination as Doral or South Beach. I enjoyed it so much the Miami Biltmore Hotel made my Deegan's Dozen list of the 12 most historic resorts in golf.
As a fan of both the Miami Dolphins and college football, I can't imagine a better spot to play golf on a nice fall morning, followed by afternoon games at the 'U' on Saturday and Hard Rock Stadium for the 'Fins on Sunday.
Miami Biltmore: The Hotel
The Biltmore's Mediterranean architecture has influences of Italian, Moorish and Spanish heritage. Its grand tower was lit for the first time Jan. 15, 1926, for a 1,500-person gala. The Jazz Age brought famous guests from gangster Al Capone to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Converting the 273-room hotel into a hospital from 1942 to 1968 doomed its immediate future. Deeded to the city, the building sat dormant for more than a decade in the 1970s and early 1980s before Coral Gables committed to a full restoration. The Biltmore reopened its doors for a New Years Eve party Dec. 31, 1987. More than $50 million has been spent by private ownership since 1992 to restore the luxury of the resort and course.
The Biltmore's hotel lobby gives off a grand first impression, a colorful explosion of elaborate décor on vaulted ceilings, marble columns, quirky furniture and mantled fireplaces that bookend the room. Traditional English afternoon tea is served every day, accompanied by a harpist playing on weekdays and an acoustic guitarist jamming on weekends.
My room had an interesting suite-like configuration, where an entertainment center/desk separated the bed from a small sitting area with a couch. A separate TV on either side would allow children and parents to relax without bothering one other. I slept with the TV on to keep any ghosts (rumored to haunt the hotel) from waking me up.
Three different bars can conjure up a stiff drink or glass of wine - the Cellar Club Bar in the basement and the Biltmore Bar - both featuring a classic, wood-paneled look - and the 19th hole Sports Bar and Grill, a more casual hangout at the golf course. Dinner one night at Fontana was exquisite. Funny to admit now, but it was quite a romantic setting - me sitting by myself in an outdoor courtyard next to a fountain gazing up at the stars. The signature Palme d'Or, a Michelin-starred French restaurant, is regarded as one of the best in all of Miami.
Even the pool has its own story to tell. At 23,000 square foot holding 600,000 gallons of water, it is one of the largest hotel pools in America. In the early days of the resort, it held water shows featuring synchronized swimming with bathing beauties, alligator wrestlers, fashion shows and celebrity parties. Today, only statues watch over guests as they take a dip. The 85-foot diving tower - where a 4-year-old boy wonder named Jackie Ott would dive into the water to entertain as many as 3,000 guests on a Sunday - has been converted into a tropical waterfall.
The Biltmore Spa, a fitness center, tennis courts and conference center/ballrooms complete the facilities. And one last fun fact: Did you know that the Biltmore is home to North America's only hotel-based culinary academy?
Miami Biltmore: The Course
Hurricane Irma took a whack at the par-71 Biltmore Golf Course this fall, knocking down dozens of trees. None really impact the strategy of the holes, but it did lose some of its intimacy from the surrounding roads and civilization.
Like the hotel, the 6,800-yard course has seen its share of celebrities. Bath Ruth teed it up at the third annual Biltmore Open in the 1930s. Tiger Woods, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and LPGA Tour star Lexi Thompson have competed in the Junior Orange Bowl International Championship, which celebrates its 55th anniversary in 2018.
The Ross characteristics dating to 1925 when the course opened were reintroduced during a $5-million restoration by Brian Silva in 2007. The rhythm of the round, featuring a steady stream of doglegs, Ross bunkers and water hazards, makes the day worthwhile. The Biltmore is open to the public, so that keeps prices down and activity up. It's the home course of the University of Miami women's golf team.
Conditions have come back quickly from the wet hurricane season this fall, according to recent Golf Advisor reviews. User 'wayne1079962' gave his round in early November five stars.
He wrote in his review: "Always a pleasure to play Biltmore; especially if you like the old classic courses. There's not a railroad tie in sight, good shots are rewarded, bad ones not, and when the wind picks up, as it does most days, the course shows its teeth."
Speaking of teeth, don't worry about all those iguanas that overrun the course at times. They don't bite.
As for the new golf school, McLean said a new building will be built next summer. Golfers might have to put up with some construction noise, but the end result will be worth it - a better Biltmore entering a new chapter in its long and storied history.