The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables: Where History and Luxury Meet
By Janet K. Keeler
The Biltmore Hotel Miami-Coral Gables is steeped in history. Just one look at the iconic Biltmore Hotel nestled in a Coral Gables neighborhood suggests that a lot has gone on inside the Mediterranean-inspired resort.
South Florida, especially Miami, has a New World feel for the most part, with glass skyscrapers dotting the waterfront. Mega cruise ships sail in and out of the Miami Cruise Terminal with passengers from all over the United States. The clubs of South Beach draw Kardashians and hip-hop stars.
The nearly 100-year-old Biltmore Hotel exudes Old World from the outside. Visitors or passersby who’ve been to Seville, Spain, may feel a sense of déjà vu when they spy the 93-foot copper-clad tower. It’s modeled after Giralda Tower there. And just like the historic architecture of Seville, the Biltmore Hotel has Moorish and Italian accents.
But don’t let that 1926 facade fool you even if it does look like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor might sweep through the grand lobby with entourage in tow. (They did just that in 1940.)
The Biltmore resort is fresh from a $35 million renovation including a redesign of the 271 guestrooms; 18-hole, 71-par golf course; grand lobby; fitness center; full-service spa, and all meetings spaces. That’s on top of a nearly $40-million, 10-year renovation project in the 1990s to buff up the iconic Biltmore Hotel to its Jazz Age shine, and to return it to a hotel-resort from its decades as a veterans hospital.
Jeff Johnson of St. Petersburg, Florida, has stayed at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables at least a half dozen times for business. He likes that it feels a world away from the city of Miami or the hustle and bustle of Miami Beach.
“If reflects the Spanish influence of Miami-Dade County, but nestled in the middle of a mostly residential Coral Gables neighborhood, rather than plopped on Brickell Avenue (in downtown Miami) or the beach. The Biltmore feels like it has a very different sense of place from traditional resort hotels,” he says.
Indeed, it does.
The soaring fresco ceilings of the lobby outfitted in plush blue and green fabrics have become a popular spot for selfies. It’s unlikely that the posing photographers know that the Biltmore Hotel was the first building in Coral Gables and was for a brief period the tallest building in Florida at 315 feet.
Tell that to the 64-floor Four Seasons Hotel in Miami, which now holds that distinction at nearly 800 feet tall.
Biltmore Hotel is a Luxury Oasis
The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables is fewer than 10 miles from Miami International Airport and only about eight from Miami. A quick cab ride can put you in the heart of the thumping clubs of South Beach if that’s your desire. And while distance to major points is important, the beauty of the Biltmore resort is that it’s not in those places.
George Merrick came to Florida as a boy in about 1898. He became a real estate developer and in the 1920s founded the city of Coral Gables, now with nearly 50,000 residents.
That decade saw great expansion into the state, fueled in part by the invention of air conditioning. Ice-cold air helped turn the swampy southern part of the state into an attractive tropical oasis perfect for snow birds fleeing winter storms and anyone wanting a sunny vacation. Merrick and others knew this and the boom started. He also founded nearby University of Miami (“The U” to the uninitiated) and laid out the city itself.
Many famous folks were drawn to the Biltmore Hotel, built initially as part of the Biltmore Hotel chain. Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby were guests, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, too. It was said Al Capone slept there and almost every other building in the state at that time it seems. Public Enemy No. 1 lived the last 20 years of his life in Florida, mostly in a Miami mansion. Today, the Biltmore Hotel is an off-the-beaten-track hideaway for the likes of singers Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez.
The grand Venetian pool hosted aquatic shows with synchronized swimmers and alligator wrestlers. Gator wrestling may be a thing of the past but spying the thriving prehistoric reptiles can be done in the wild and at preserves all over the state. Before he became movie’s heartthrob Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller gave swim lessons at the Biltmore.
With World War II, the Biltmore became a military hospital and remained as a Veterans Administration hospital until 1968. The city gained control of the stately complex and began its restoration. Coral Gables still owns the hotel and leases it to Prescott Seaway’s Corporation, which operates the 150-acre facility.
The history gives the Biltmore Hotel a different feel than the many hotels that seem to spring up overnight nearby and all over Florida. That’s one of its charming qualities, says Johnson. That the Biltmore Hotel has been updated is another big draw. It started with more than double the rooms it has now. Someone was smart enough to know that we modern travelers need room to spread out and lots of plugs for charging our devices.
Staying at the Biltmore Hotel
The Biltmore is a popular wedding venue and conference location. Couples are drawn to the resort because of its beauty and history, plus there are so many places for beautiful photos. Even meeting facilities have charm, says Johnson. There is plenty for conference spouses to do because of the golf course and even culinary classes. The spa is also a draw and the 600,000-gallon, half-a-square-mile swimming pool.
Johnson says as a conference hotel, the Biltmore resort is unique.
“The meeting rooms, both within the main building and in the auxiliary buildings, have a charm and individualization that is very different from the standard hotel conference center,” he says.
These are the same amenities that make the Biltmore Hotel a good destination wedding spot with several locations for the ceremony. It’s also popular with locals. Couples can tie the knot inside or out and even overlooking the pool. Now that marriage proposals have become as important as the weddings themselves, the Biltmore Hotel is billing itself as a great place to pop the question. There are a lot of romantic nooks and crannies.
Not invited to the wedding? Hang out in the lobby long enough on a Saturday and you’re bound to see newly married couples posing for photos. Some couples stay on for their honeymoons.
Dining facilities include Fontana, an indoor restaurant that’s landscaped more meticulously than most of our yards. Palm trees sprout all around giving the elusion of being outdoors. The vast menu is traditional Italian.
Cascade overlooks the pool and is more casual with a menu that’s designed to please a lot of palates. Wings and crab cakes; salads that feature quinoa, roasted beets and plenty of greens; lobster served a few ways plus a host of mock-tails, including a cucumber spritzer and agave limeade. For a pregnant woman on her “babymoon” — the relaxing trip soon-to-be-parents take before a baby is born — having a choice of interesting drinks without alcohol is a treat.
Things to Do Near the Biltmore Hotel
The city of Coral Gables is one of the first planned communities in the state and it’s worth your time to take a drive through the neighborhoods leading from the Biltmore Hotel to the University of Miami. As you drive the beautiful tree-lined streets, you’ll feel a bit like you haven’t left the hotel grounds. The architecture of many of the houses is also Mediterranean inspired.
Find your way to the city’s Miracle Mile and grab a parking spot. The mile is really just a half-mile on Coral Way between LeJeune to Douglas roads. Along this stretch, on both sides of the street, you’ll find shops and restaurants. Bulla’s Gastrobar will put you in a Spanish mood with tapas. Get casual Cuban food and a tiny cup of strong coffee at Cubano Espresso. Or stop in for a themed happy hour at Copper 29. It gets crowded on weekend nights, which means its smart to make dining reservations where you can. The crowds also make it a good place to people-watch.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is a few miles away on the other side of the Dixie Highway. The drive along Old Cutler Road through another Coral Gables neighborhood shows off the lush tropical foliage that thrives in South Florida. Besides garden tours, Fairchild is a scientific research center and the world’s foremost experts on mangoes work from there. There are children’s activities, art exhibits and classes, and several annual festivals. You might consider planning your trip to coincide with celebrations of mangoes in July; orchids in March and chocolate in January.
The Venetian Pool is one of those oddities that still exist because the community adores it and the city owns and runs it. Built in 1923 from a coral rock quarry and fed by spring water from an underground aquifer, the Venetian Pool has been a favorite place for families and kids to cool off and have birthday parties for decades. There are waterfalls and grottos and plenty of lifeguards. Like the Biltmore Hotel, it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Venetian Pool and the vast pool at the Biltmore Hotel are two of the largest in the Southeast. Finding your cool in Coral Gables isn’t too hard especially when you start at the Biltmore Hotel.