I’m not sure at what moment it actually hit me. Maybe it was during my relaxing walk around the Donald Ross design at the iconic Biltmore Hotel. Or on the short ferry ride to ritzy Fisher Island. Perhaps it was while playing a round with three Europeans at The Westin Diplomat. It may even have been as I strolled past a Michael Jackson impersonator moon-walking to the blaring boom-box strains of “Billie Jean” on a raucous night – is there any other kind? – in South Beach.
Regardless, at some point the thought occurred to me: Miami is unlike any other golf destination in the country. The courses alone are not the most highly ranked, although stay-and-play staples such as Doral Golf Resort & Spa and Turnberry Isle are strong anchors for the region. But any golf vacation here inevitably is subsumed by an eclectic fusion of culture, history and cuisine that produces an unabashed cosmopolitan flair like no other in America.
On this trip, my objective was to explore some of the region’s lesser-known retreats. My quest began with the seven-minute ferry ride from Miami Beach to Fisher Island, an ultra-private enclave between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic whose luxurious villas have provided sanctuary to A-list celebrities such as Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey and Jack Nicholson.
The Fisher Island Hotel & Resort consists of a historic mansion and surrounding guest bungalows, all constructed in the 1920s by former island owner and Vanderbilt heir William Kissam Vanderbilt II. Upon check-in, guests receive a golf cart for travel around the island, which has its own fire station, marina, aviary, tennis center and an array of casual-to-formal dining options, plus a few free-roaming peacocks.
The island’s impeccably manicured nine-hole course, a par-35 P.B. Dye design, measures 3,039 yards from the tips and holds its own with Fisher’s other amenities. PGA Tour length, it’s not, but, as the 71.0 course rating and 137 slope might attest, it’s no pitch-and-putt either. Nos. 2 and 4 are par 4s of 435 and 450 yards, respectively, and there’s even a full-size range.
Considering the entire island is only 216 acres, Dye’s most impressive feat might be that the course doesn’t have an overwhelming feel of being shoehorned in. Landing areas typically are generous, but Dye used sprawling bunkers, mounding, contoured greens and occasional water to good effect, leading him to call his work a nine-hole course with 18 holes of design features.
Head pro Jim Curran estimated that 10 percent of play comes from resort guests, who have almost-unrestricted tee-time access. Nos. 6 and 7, a par 3 and par 4 on the island’s northwest tip, play across and around a large lagoon and offer views of the port, bay and Miami skyline. Adding to the enjoyment: Curran and I zipped around in about 90 minutes. And, honestly, we weren’t even in a hurry.
It’s difficult to be the least bit harried on Fisher Island. Of course, as do most good things in South Florida, relaxation comes at a price. You, too, could enjoy the cozy, two-bedroom cottage in which I stayed, complete with private patio, outdoor spa and covered golf cart-port, for $1,400 per night. (Garden rooms are a mere $400.) Guests can play nine holes for $100, or opt for a $930 golf package that includes a garden suite, breakfast and lunch, range balls, a two-hour lesson and nine holes for two.
I spent a lizard-like afternoon in the sun with a good book at Fisher’s Beach Club, where soft white sand, spectacular bay and ocean views and the aptly named Sunset Bar make it a popular late-afternoon gathering spot for island residents. After dinner at La Trattoria, a laid-back Italian eatery, I was off to South Beach.
The ferry terminus, a 24-7 operation, is less than five minutes from the heat of the action along Ocean Drive. How many places in America can one, in the space of a city block, walk past revered Art-Deco architecture, trendy restaurants, a ringer for the late King of Pop, nightly belly-dancing contests and a guy with a huge snake coiled around his neck?
The Biltmore, in nearby Coral Gables, is a tad more refined. A short iron from the University of Miami campus and the stylish shops and restaurants of Miracle Mile, the Biltmore’s imposing 93-foot tower and elegant mix of Spanish and Mediterranean architecture loom above the resort’s circa 1925 layout.
The course, restored in 2007 by Brian Silva to its true Ross origins, is a pleasure to walk, and I enjoyed the stroll with Biltmore regular Sean Walker, a friendly General Mills executive. Walker, who has a home on the course, counts former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among his semi-regular Saturday golf partners.
As with most Ross designs, the genius here is in the fairway bunkering and the green complexes, starting with the double-dogleg par-5 first and continuing through a strong finish that’s highlighted by the 450-yard 17th, with its long green fronted by a canal that traverses several holes.
The hotel, a South Florida landmark that opened in the Roaring ’20s, has 273 rooms and a history filled with Hollywood elite, notorious Mafia
kingpin Al Capone (he still has a namesake suite), at least one mob-related killing and even more alleged hauntings. The Biltmore was used as a military hospital in World War II and continued as a VA hospital through 1968 before sitting shuttered for almost two decades. Now restored to its full grandeur, the hotel is a marvelous trip back in time, yet with all the modern amenities, including first-rate restaurants and a seventh-floor spa – a perfect remedy after toting your bag for 18 holes.
The polished-marble pool – at 23,000 square feet and 700,000 gallons, it’s billed as the largest hotel pool in the continental U.S. – includes private cabanas rented by the day.
Not to be missed: The Biltmore’s Sunday champagne brunch, set in an open-air courtyard surrounded by lush palms, ornate columns and soaring arches. The spread features stations ranging from sushi and caviar to carved meats, fruits, pastas, traditional breakfast items and a chocolate fondue fountain among other decadent desserts. Just be sure to walk another 18 afterward.
About 25 miles north, in Hollywood, is another golf resort with its own star-crossed history. The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa includes a 998-room beachfront property along South Ocean Drive and a more-intimate, 60-room golf and spa retreat, located a 5-minute drive across the Intracoastal Waterway. Many rooms have private balconies with ocean or golf views.
The Diplomat’s checkered past includes entertainment by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Judy Garland and Lawrence Welk, but also arson, financial woes and a number of guests
with reputed Mafia ties (a recurring theme in these parts). The hotel began a new era in 2002, debuting an impressive oceanfront high-rise after the original structure was imploded in 1998.
My round at The Diplomat was a reminder of this region’s international appeal. I was paired with a Frenchman, Gaston Morzadec, who splits his time between Montreal and Miami, and an affable twosome from Norway. Morzadec, a man of few words but straight shots, told me he’d posted a 69 here two days earlier, and after one hole, I believed him.
The course may not be on its own tropical island like Fisher, but it has that feel. And similar to the Biltmore, the 6,488-yard Diplomat layout plays around the centrally located hotel on a lushly landscaped tract that’s peppered with thousands of coconut palms, royal palms and mature banyans.
The signature second hole is a short par 4 with a true island green, and the tight, dogleg-right, 550-yard 16th, the par-3 17th over water and the par-4 18th, with water encroaching on both sides, combine for a worthy finishing test.
Even by those outrageous South Florida standards.