South Beach and Ocean Drive can leave heads whirring, so Abra Dunsby rests hers in laid-back, sophisticated Coral Gables – just a stone’s throw away from the Miami action
The path that leads to the storied Biltmore Hotel is lined with banyan trees, their leaves interlacing to form a shady canopy that provides a moment of welcome respite from the glaring Floridian sun.
Nearby, violet, terracotta and peppermint-painted houses are fronted by pretty porches or encircled by columns, fountains and symmetrical gardens.
I could be in southern Spain, and the Biltmore itself does nothing to dispel the illusion; the peachy castle with its columns and tiled roofs even comes topped with an elaborate Moorish bell tower that’s a replica of the Giralda in Seville.
Dubbed the City Beautiful or the Miami Riviera, Coral Gables feels a million miles away from the brash, sexed-up glamour of Miami’s South Beach – and yet it’s just 12 miles away.
The city was once a small Miami suburb, founded in 1925 by real estate developer George Merrick as one of the country’s first planned communities, and it’s still home to many affluent Miami residents.
For clients who want to avoid staying in the hubbub of downtown Miami, or for second-time visitors craving a more laid-back vibe, Coral Gables is a good option, and it offers a smattering of attractions that are well worth a visit.
It’s also a five-minute drive south of Miami International airport, 15 minutes from the Port of Miami and is centrally located for clients interested in taking day trips into Miami to soak up the culture, beaches and nightlife.
“Coral Gables is also a wonderful place to just stay put,” says Belkys Perez, marketing and events manager at the Economic Development Department of the City of Coral Gables.
“Cultural offerings abound – there are four live theatres, two art cinemas playing top foreign and independent films and three museums.”
Dubbed the City Beautiful or the Miami Riviera, Coral Gables feels a million miles away from the brash, sexed-up glamour of Miami’s South Beach – and yet it’s just 12 miles away
For clients wanting to explore, Coral Gables Museum offers free historic walking tours every Saturday, and bike tours every Sunday ($10 per adult). I join John Allen, the museum’s executive director, for a private tour.
In the 1920s, Merrick bought 120 acres of swampland outside Miami, transforming it into a glamorous neighbourhood of chic shops, fine-dining restaurants and Mediterranean-inspired architecture.
“Merrick only ever visited Cuba and Puerto Rico, but he seemed to have a vision of the Latin world and the Mediterranean in his head,” muses Allen.
Miracle Mile, a popular shopping destination, was the epicentre. “Brides would come here to buy items for their wedding and Merrick had a home here,” explains Allen.
The area has recently been revamped, with wider pavements to accommodate pedestrians and outdoor dining, while nearby Giralda Plaza, nicknamed Restaurant Row, has also been pedestrianised.
Coral Gables is walkable, though for older clients or those who want to avoid the heat, there’s a free vintage-style trolley system that runs north and south from Flagler Street to Douglas Metrorail station.
The dining scene is eclectic, and stylish restaurants with 1930s facades serve a variety of international cuisines. They include Hotel La Palma, which was once a glitzy hotel and is now an Italian restaurant. “Ladies still get cushions for their feet,” smiles Allen.
A symbol of the Florida boom years and the Jazz Age, the Biltmore was where the glitterati came to eat, drink, play golf on its 18-hole course, watch aquatic shows in its vast pool – and to be seen
Tucked away from the galleries, boutiques and restaurants, in the lush, tree-lined residential streets of Coral Gables, are a few more of Merrick’s marvels.
The Venetian Pool was once a coral rock quarry used by Merrick to build his homes. He prettied it up by filling it with spring water from an underground aquifer and adorning it with Venetian- style tiles, adding waterfalls, palm trees and a mini bridge.
The result is a fantastical-looking pool that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Hollywood golden-age A-listers such as swimmers turned movie stars Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller once bathed here, and the venue used to be drained to host concerts.
Today, it remains open to the public – tell clients to arrive early if they want to swim, as only a certain number of tickets are released per day. The water also remains at 25°C year-round, so can feel chilly in winter.
My tour concludes at the Merrick-designed Biltmore, a hotel that’s famous and infamous in equal measure.
A symbol of the Florida boom years and the Jazz Age, this was where the glitterati came to eat, drink, play golf on its 18-hole course, watch aquatic shows in its vast pool – and to be seen.
Everyone from Judy Garland to Barack Obama has bedded down in the Everglades Suite, more infamously known as the Al Capone Suite because he ran a Prohibition bar from here.
In 1929, Capone’s bouncer shot gangster Thomas “Fatty” Walsh in the casino on the building’s 13th floor – it’s said that Fatty’s ghost still haunts the hotel lift. The Biltmore fell on hard times during the Depression (as did Merrick, who died penniless in 1942) and it became a hospital during the Second World War.
After a multimillion-dollar refurbishment and new management in the 1990s, the hotel became an icon of Coral Gables once again, and it remains popular with guests and residents alike.
The City Beautiful is known for its greenery, its streets dotted with palm trees and tropical flowers.
For a full-on green-fingered experience, clients can also visit its Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden: 83 acres of flowers, fruit trees and endangered plants, complete with its own butterfly house. It’s a relaxing way to while away a few hours, and the perfectly tended gardens often host festivals and concerts.
Suitably rested after a tranquil couple of days in Coral Gables, I’m ready for a slice of Miami action.
Little Havana – where Latin music spills from salsa bars and trilby-wearing, moustachioed grandpas click down their dominos with fervour – is less than 20 minutes away by car and feels like a different world.
I stop for obligatory selfies in mural-painted, gallery-packed Wynwood, a formerly impoverished, industrial area that’s been given a creative lease of life by street artists, designers and restaurant owners.
Brickell’s financial district has become a popular party hotspot. In cocktail bar and nightclub Blackbird Ordinary, the atmosphere is very much party hard or go home, with a mixed crowd slurping tequila and gyrating to the DJ’s eclectic mix of tracks.
A trip to Miami wouldn’t be complete without a walk along Ocean Drive – its peppy, pastel- shaded Art Deco buildings cheer me out of my hangover and make me feel as though I’m strolling through a Hollywood movie set.
On South Beach, itsy-bitsy bikinis cling to oiled bodies while wannabe Arnies pump iron on the sand. It’s a fascinating, over-the-top spectacle, and one that provides the perfect contrast to charming, refined Coral Gables.
Book it: North America Travel Service offers a four-night B&B stay at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables from £985pp based on twin share, including flights from Heathrow and a half-day Land and Sea city tour of Miami Beach, downtown Miami, Key Biscayne, Coconut Grove and Little Havana. Price based on travel in September. northamericatravelservice.co.uk