Elegance, class and classic golf at The Biltmore Hotel

By Cynthia Boal Janssens, Contributor

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Just minutes away from downtown Miami, and a few miles farther from toney South Beach is an elegant, stately community called Coral Gables.

And the undisputed queen of Coral Gables is The Biltmore Hotel.

Driving up to The Biltmore is just like approaching an elegant estate. You motor through neighborhoods of upscale homes with the leaves of tall live oaks overhanging the streets. These are dripping with Spanish moss, contributing even further to the "Old Florida" feeling. When you arrive at the arched entrance, you are greeted by footmen in the proper finery. Your car is whisked off and you are shown to your luxurious room by a concierge. You feel very, very fine. And that's as it should be in one of the most historic and elegant hotels in the Florida.

Little wonder it is a national historic landmark. Just the look of the place is so special: The outer walls are a soft buff color that glows every evening at sunset. By contrast, the roof is covered in bright orange clay barrel tiles. The awnings are a cheery red. And centering it all is a tower, patterned after the towers of Italy, that rises above the area like a beacon. And it all overlooks a charming golf course built by Donald Ross way back in 1925. This hotel has a lively history: In 1924, George Merrick, then a young developer, had a vision for Coral Gables: It was to be an elegant, stately suburb featuring the best in Mediterranean architecture.

The centerpiece of his creation was to be The Biltmore.

“We’re doing that on purpose,” Director of Golf Maintenance Tom Alex says of the resort’s approach to the architecture. “One of these days you can imagine when Nicklaus is dead and gone and you’ve got 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus golf.”

“But that’s 20, 30, 40 years from now,” he adds quickly.

The original course at Grand Cypress, now the North/South course, was built in 1984. Over the years the North/South has hosted The Shark Shootout, a PGA Skills Challenge, and various LPGA Tour events. In 1986 Nicklaus and crew added the East nine and the Academy of Golf practice facility.

Later that year it was announced that the $10 million project would include a 400-room hotel, a country club, golf courses, polo fields, tennis courts and an enormous 150x225-feet swimming pool. The first component of the project to open was the 18-hole golf course. Even then, Ross was a premier course architect. And to this day, little has changed in the course's design. In January of 26, The Biltmore opened with a magnificent inaugural that brought people down from northern cities on trains marked "Miami Biltmore Specials."

The Giralda Tower was lit for the first time and could been seen for miles around, just as it is today. Fifteen hundred guests attended the inaugural dinner dance. It its heyday, The Biltmore played host to royalty, both European and from Hollywood. Frequent guests included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and Al Capone. Fashion shows, gala balls, grand weddings and world class golf tournaments featuring the likes of Bobby Jones and Sam Snead were favored entertainments.

The Biltmore made it through the Depression years by hosting aquatic galas in the 23,000-foot swimming pool. As many as 3,000 people would come on a Sunday afternoon to watch the synchronized swimmers, bathing beauties, alligator wrestlers and young Jackie Ott, the so-called "boy wonder" who would dive from an 80-foot platform. A celebrity anecdote: Prior to his movie career as Tarzan, young Johnny Weismuller broke the world record at The Biltmore pool where he was a swimming instructor. The onset of World War II changed the fortunes of the hotel.

The war department converted it into a hospital. Later it became the home of the University of Miami's School of Medicine. It was a V.A. hospital until 1968. In 1973, the City of Coral Gables took over The Biltmore but, tragically, it remained unoccupied. Many of the windows had been sealed with cement and the marble floors covered over. Finally, the city initiated a restoration and it reopened in 1987 as a first class hotel and resort. But three years later it was forced to close again due to a downturn in the economy. In 1992, a multinational consortium became the owners and operators of The Biltmore and embarked on another major renovation.

In 10 years, they have brought the hotel from near extinction to the elegant resort it is today. Featuring hand-painted ceilings, Italian marble floors and large stone columns, it is truly one of the most special hotels in Florida. The fate of the wonderful, historic golf course is somewhat different. It continues to be owned by the City of Coral Gables which has, over the years, spent a considerable amount to restore the course.

However, it remains a public course although The Biltmore pro shop does handle tee times and instruction and players use its newly renovated locker rooms. I wish I could say that the course is in pristine condition, but unfortunately it is not. It is tired. A bit like a glamour girl who is now 78 years old. The City is responsible for course maintenance, not the Biltmore, and so there is little the hotel operators can do to control the condition of the course and its facilities. It is amazing what just some fresh paint would accomplish on the bridges, in the restrooms and on the tee blocks. That said, The Biltmore Course is still well worth a few hours to play.

In fact, it is just wonderful to be on.

There are views of the remarkable tower from almost every hole. The course winds through a series of canals that once carried guests on gondolas. Huge banyan trees frame elevated greens. Although carts are available, this is one course that is well worth the walk. The par-71 course plays 6,624 yards from the tips, but is also a challenge from the red tees where it plays par-73 at 5,600 yards. But the aura of The Biltmore is so special that the stats hardly matter. Or the course conditions. This is a wonderful, historic, well-designed course that deserves to be played. It's as simple as that.

In addition to playing golf, there are a few other things that you must do during your visit to The Biltmore: You must dine at the 00 Restaurant & Courtyard and have the corn and Serrano ham risotto as a side dish and the sinful chocolate fondant for dessert. This is a warm Belgium chocolate cake with liquid center, served with vanilla ice cream; You must go for a leisurely swim in what is today the largest swimming pool in the continental United States. You should have dinner in Coral Gables at the Caffe Abbracci and order the hand-made Tortellini Tatiana (stuffed with Asiago cheese and pears). You must visit the spa for a sublime facial. And you must feel grand about being alive. This is certainly the place to do it.

Just the facts:

The Biltmore Hotel 1200
Anastasia Ave.
Coral Gables, FL 3134
(305) 445-1926
Reservations: (800) 727-1926
FAX: (305) ?3-3159

The hotel features two restaurants: La Palme d'Or (French fine dining) and the 1200 Restaurant and Courtyard (Mediterranean brasserie).

Greens fees:
Through April 30: $82.38 w/cart; $60 walk (lower fees for area residents)

After 2 p.m. every day or before 8 a.m., Monday-Thursday:

Out of county: $52 w/cart; $30 walk

The rates will decrease approximately 50 per cent beginning May 1, 2003.

Golf Packages:

Hole-in-One Package: Includes one 18-hole round of golf for two, accommodations, unlimited use of driving range, daily breakfast in 1200 Restaurant, a discount in hotel's restaurants and bars, access to private Wine Club bar and valet parking (a P-minute Swedish massage may be substituted for one round of golf) Minimum 2-night stay, double occupancy, from $119 per person.

The John Pallot Golf Academy Package: One-day golf tune-up (two-student minimum) includes accommodations, three hours instruction, nine holes of golf with instructor, unlimited use of private practice range, digital swing analysis, golf hat, bag tag, lunch at 19th Hole grill. Minimum 2-night stay, double occupancy, from $169 per person, per day.

The Biltmore Course Yardage:
: 6,624 (71.5/119)
: 6,213 (69.7/116)
: 5,600 (72.9/120)
: 5,292 (71.2/116)

Head pro: Jason Epstein Director of Instruction: John Pallot
Pro shop
: (305) 460-5364
Tee time service:
(305) 669-9500

Dining out: Caffe Abbracci 318 Aragon Ave. Coral Gables, FL 33134 (305) 441-0700

Cynthia Boal Janssens is a former newspaper writer and editor turned freelance writer. She is the former travel editor and Sunday magazine editor of The Detroit News. In addition, she has worked for newspapers in California, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Ohio University.

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