The New American Riviera: Sunny Isles




November 21, 2006 — IT is a cloudless, balmy day, and we are strolling past a bright green English-perfect lawn to a white, sandy beach, where we plant ourselves under pretty red umbrellas.

Servers, clad in flowing white tunics, buzz around, bearing trays of tropical drinks stuffed with fresh fruit. A holiday acquaintance from St. Barts stops by to say hello. We experience the sensation, suddenly, of having forgotten where we are.

Oh, yes. We are in Sunny Isles Beach where, until recently, the only reason to drop by (in our estimation) would have been for Jewish classics at the red-naugahyde paradise that is Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House, one of the Miami area’s truly great restaurant relics.

But everything changes. North Miami Beach will soon feature Canyon Ranch Living (conveniently located across from Dunkin’ Donuts). Further up, you have Bal Harbour imploding on itself in an effort to go even further upscale. Sunny Isles, the next in line as you drive north, is under fire, being promoted by developers as the new hotness.

Right now, Sunny Isles is part construction zone and a lot scruffy old beach town, a favorite with old-timers who have vacationed here for more than a generation. They are now finding themselves having to move their beach chairs out of the shadows of high rise condominiums and package hotels such as the Trump Sonesta and a Le Meridien.

Former Ritz-Carlton president Horst Schulze’s Solis hotel is slated to open just one door north of Haulover Park in 2008.

The Kimpton Group’s Sole hotel (we are now taking bets on which one will change its name first) is due to open nearby next year.

Separating the two will be a Trump development of epic proportions. (Covering the fences lining the streets are ads printed with giant-sized puffy images of Trump and his development partners. Less Trump Royale, more Trump Royale with Cheese.)

Not that development is ruining the community, necessarily.

The kitsch value of properties such as the Thunderbird, the Suez, the Monaco and the Golden Nugget (all now owned by Trump’s partners) is not to be discounted. However, beyond that, the town, filled with miles of gloomy strip malls, has little to boast about.

And while the hotels crow that Miami’s nightlife is a short hop away, 11 miles of driving on congested surface streets seems a trial. Particularly after mojitos.

Hence, and contrary to my usual stance on resorts, the best you can hope for in a Sunny Isles hotel is that it does not have a “sense of place.” You want to be kept as insulated as possible.

A night in the shoulder-width Le Meridien, jammed onto a sliver of beach, revealed that at least one hotel is failing miserably.

Our room was nice enough, with spare, modern furnishings. But a failed attempt at eating dinner in the restaurant, marshaled by a hostess with Hair-U-Wear and no people skills, sent us running for room service.

Things did not improve at the Trump Sonesta. Good luck navigating the ugly interior up to an antiseptic pool, elevated so far above the beach that you run out of energy to tackle the narrow staircase leading down to it.

We’d almost given up guessing what anybody sees in this town besides the location. But then we checked into the Acqualina, a brand new, 96-room, Rosewood-managed resort in a 51-story residential confection whose exterior unapologetically thieves both from Italian villas and the Vegas hotels that rip them off.

A surprising thing happened once in the lobby, with its Venetian-ish marble columns, sky-high coffered ceilings, red and gold velvet and damask furnishings: We were transported.

To where, we weren’t sure, but it was far away from the flickering Subway sign across the street.

The front desk, which had been alerted to our arrival by the valet, whisked us up to our room.

I remembered why I like Rosewood’s flagship, the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, so much. It keeps telling you it is European, but it is actually European filtered through the lens of a wealthy lady from Dallas. Opulent and slightly inappropriate, but endlessly gracious.

Since this was low season, our room had been automatically upgraded two levels from an Intracoastal Waterway room. Our large oceanfront room was light and beachy, in cream colors with classic dark wood furniture.

An old-school bar with real-sized bottles stood in the corner. A huge, flat-screen TV swiveled 360 degrees to the plush couch and retracted into a white upholstered box at the base of the bed. Sounds cheesy, but it actually (almost) resolved the sticky interior design question of what to do with the tube.

Our room also looked over the outdoor area of the new ESPA spa, whose rooftop lounge area was still in the works (it will open next month).

Unlike other area hotels, Acqualina has carefully considered its outside spaces, with three distinct pools (one for adults only), separated by green lawns and punctuated by bright red upholstered furniture, all looking out to the resort’s particularly nice beach.

Here, one may -as we did – avail oneself of delicious specialty pineapple mojitos from the Costa Grill, the poolside restaurant that is mostly open to guests and residents only.

We were a bit thrown off by the presence of New York’s Il Mulino. While some people might leave home to eat the same food in the same atmosphere, we decided on the resort’s signature restaurant, Aaria, for its creative mish-mosh of Asian and Mediterranean (delicious but for the chef’s accident with a saltshaker).

Pricey, yes, but for an evening we were sitting on a terrace overlooking some other stretch of ocean, in another country, millions of miles away from Route A1A and the strip malls, just out the front door.

Gordon (who, like a wealthy lady from Dallas, is opulent and slightly inappropriate), always travels anonymously at the Post’s expense.


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