Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009

Mandarin Oriental

Besides the Mandarin's trademark luxury Asian touches, the reason to stay here is the view of the downtown Miami skyline and Biscayne Bay. Of course, those views come with a carefully modulated elegance, evident in the design of the curvy white building and the cream-colored marble baths that open onto generous balconies. The Mandarin is located on Brickell Key, a small residential island that has fairly pedestrian condos. Still, it's within walking distance of downtown for business travelers, and has all the advantages of a waterfront resort (making it ideal for singles too). In fact, only in Miami would a Mandarin have a private man-made beach and a weekly Friday night party that rivals the social fray of South Beach. The next day, celebrants can work it all out in the soothing Asian-inspired spa.

Insider Tip: Shop at the new Shanghai Tang outpost in the lobby. It's good for items on the order of silk scarves with jewel-tone flower prints and Chinese fortune sticks, which come inlaid with good-luck charms and packaged in a lacquer box.

Room to Book: A Spa Lifestyle room on the sixth floor, ideal for the stressed, with air-purification systems, yoga mats for in-room meditation and yoga classes, spa cuisine menus, and dumbbell racks.

The Raleigh

A 1940 Art Deco masterpiece that served as a backdrop for many Esther Williams films, The Raleigh delivers the grace and pure fantasy of old-line Miami. After an Andre Balazs update in 2002, it's now filled with wicker furniture and done in a color scheme of muted tans and olive greens. In a few instances, the perfectionist Balazs has fine-tuned the aesthetics to a point of refined chilliness, but it's still a place that feels more sophisticated than other properties, with Sarah Vaughn over the pool stereo system; a languid grace, set by the vintage décor; and soft, alluring music in the lobby. The rooms tend to be small — they start at about 300 square feet — and are furnished with rattan couches and chairs. But then, this is a hotel that's all about the public realm, from the Raleigh's pocket-size Martini Bar to the world's most beautiful pool — a retro setting that somehow makes everyone look more beautiful and glamorous in a bathing suit.

Insider Tip: If you like peace and quiet, avoid the pool during the monthly Full Moon parties, which attract a horde of celebrants, dancing and whooping it up with live music until midnight. On this night, a room facing Collins Avenue might be quieter.

Room to Book: Apart from the penthouse, only eight rooms have balconies. They cost about $100 more, but the ocean views help complete the fantasy package that is the Raleigh.

The Delano

This Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck collaboration, which launched modern South Beach in the 1990's, offers everything mod all at once: flowing white curtains in the lobby, groupings of excessively cultivated modern furniture, and surreal Alice-in-Wonderland-style grounds with oversized chess sets on the grass. Rooms are done in stark white-on-white fashion, from the white wood floors to the white upholstered leather headboards. In the lobby, around the pool, or at the restaurant, the Delano remains the definitive social scene in town, and everyone from Salman Rushdie to Madonna has made state visits.

Insider Tip: The patio of the hotel's restaurant, Blue Door, overlooks the garden and the pool and is the prime vantage point for taking in the tsunami of flesh and flash.

Room to Book: Any of the eight poolside bungalows, duplexes with huge soaking tubs suited for jumping right into the glamour. Bungalow 3 is in the middle of it all.

The Setai

With some 40 floors, the Setai rises over South Beach like an opulent obelisk, serving as a playground for damn-the-expense visitors. Adrian Zecha brings Asian minimalism (Chinese black stone floors in the lobby, Shanghai-based artist Christian de Laubadere's paintings in the rooms) to the land of Art Deco. Rooms are exceptionally tasteful shrines of Indonesian minimalism, full of teak furniture, and the hotel also houses a first-rate spa and two accomplished restaurants, The Grill and The Restaurant . While service in South Beach can sometimes be lacking, the Setai runs a commendably tight ship, which suits the upscale, international clientele. That said, the hotel lacks a sense of place: the stunning central courtyard with a reflecting pool could be anywhere in the world of money.

Insider Tip: Experience the theater of The Restaurant . Pick one of the tables around the demonstration kitchen and order the Thai-inspired lemongrass-glazed salmon with soy and chili paste from among the dishes from India, China, Singapore, and everywhere else.

Room to Book: For an amusing bird's-eye view of the celebrity-driven nightlife on South Beach, ask for Room 208, facing the entrance to Nobu at the adjacent Shore Club.

Biltmore Hotel

This 1926 Mediterranean-style historic landmark that anchors Coral Gables still feels very Old Florida. The palm-adorned central courtyard's gurgling fountain and grand entrance-inspiring lobby have seen the likes of Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and an assortment of Vanderbilts. These days, the well-heeled stay in the Everglades Suite — reportedly owned for a time by Al Capone, who ran an underground casino there — but all the 275 rooms are comfortable and subtly done, with Jerusalem stone floors and natural wood furnishings, and come with Frette robes for lounging. Wear them out to the largest hotel pool in America (once home to aquacades, alligator wrestling, and Johnny Weissmuller) and the first-rate spa.

Insider Tip: If you can, avoid staying when a convention is booked here; it can lower the hotel's regal tone.

Room to Book: One of the north-facing rooms on the sixth and seventh floors. Most people opt for views of the golf course — don't. The hotel has rooms that face the gorgeous baroque, Mediterranean-style Coral Gables Congregational Church and look out over Coral Gables.