Coral Gables' Historic 'Haunt'

As a hopeless cruise junkie, I discovered the best way to cope with the misery of "withdrawal" is to make the magic last a little longer. So I often extend my stay in the port city, and am always in search of new places to visit. After a recent cruise out of Miami, I wanted something different.

I had heard about the romantic Biltmore Hotel in nearby Coral Gables, so I decided to check it out even though I was traveling solo.

CLICK FOR PICBiltmore Hotel, Miami Florida
Just 20 minutes from the Port of Miami, the hotel's palatial tower came into view, piercing the Coral Gables skyline. It reminded me of castles and fairy tales, and as I entered the rich paneled lobby with its ornate chandeliers, leather furniture, and antique bird cages alive with twittering finches, I felt like I had traveled back in time. I could picture past guests like Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby sauntering along with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and assorted Roosevelts and Vanderbilts. Through glass doors to the rear, the azure waters of the hotel's 22,000 square foot artesian pool--the largest in the country--sparkled in the Florida sun.

I envisioned a young Johnny Weissmuller, prior to his tree-swinging days in Hollywood, giving swimming lessons. And on the grand poolside terrace, I heard echoes of swinging orchestras as fashionable couples attended afternoon tea dances.

Since I arrived on a Sunday, the Biltmore's famous and lavish ($50 per person) champagne brunch was being served on the terrace beneath swaying palm trees. Floral baskets and ferns banked the fountain in the center. On yet another terrace, a wedding reception was being held, and violin music wafted through the air.

My room was lovely, furnished in French provincial, and overlooking the pool and the green velvet ribbons of the golf course. At one end of the pool I could see the tops of the private rental cabanas, cozy little hideaways that are popular with honeymooners and clandestine lovers who want to hide from the world. My room had glass doors opening onto a wrought-iron balcony, where I could gaze at the breathtaking view and feel as romantic as Juliet...except there was no amorous Romeo waiting below. Still, it was wonderful, one of those "be-good-to-yourself" moments we all deserve.

On Sunday afternoons, I went on one of the hotel's complimentary tours, narrated by professional historians from the Dade Heritage Trust.

I learned that the Biltmore was built for $10 million dollars, and opened in 1926. With the onset of World War II, it was converted into a hospital by the War Department and remained a VA hospital until 1968. For the next five years, it sat in sad disarray until the City of Coral Cables gained ownership in 1973. Ten years and $55 million dollars later, the Biltmore reopened on New Year's Eve, 1987 as a four-diamond, four-star hotel and 18-hole Par 71 golf course. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

The tour guide laced her lecture with chilling stories about the reported haunting of the hotel. Room 702 is supposedly inhabited by a ghost, and images have reportedly been caught on digital cameras. But it was the tale of an Al Capone crony, Fats Walsh, that intrigued me.

In the days of prohibition, there was a speakeasy on the 13th floor in the tower, which Al Capone frequented. One night Fats was murdered, and his ghost is said to inhabit the hotel. According to one story, a hotel guest riding in an elevator remarked that Fats got what was coming to him. Suddenly, the elevator came to a screeching stop between floors. After a long wait, someone in the crowd suggested the woman apologize to Fats. She did, and the elevator continued on its way.

A bellboy told me that sometimes elevators stop on the 13th floor without the button being pushed. But when he swore that Fats' bloodstains could still be seen on the bathroom floor in the fancy suite, I wanted to see for myself. Not possible, said the bellboy. The suite was occupied, and the elevator didn't stop at that floor without a special key...or unless Fats wanted it to, which had happened to him on more than one occasion.

I took the elevator to the 12th floor and tried to go up the steps, but there was a locked gate preventing entry. I returned to the lobby, and a few moments later saw the elevator arrow pointing to the 13th floor begin to move. When it arrived, a couple came out and left. I stepped inside and punched the button for the ominous floor. A strange chill came over me as the elevator stopped there and the doors opened.

I found myself in the foyer of a gorgeous suite, encompassing two floors. But there was no time for gawking at opulent furnishings. My quest was to see if the bloodstains of Fats Walsh really existed.

With knocking knees I entered the living room and headed for a hallway that I thought would take me to that ominous bathroom. But suddenly the elevator doors began to quickly open and close. A premonition of something gone wrong told me to get back inside it, and as the doors closed one last time before descent began, I caught a glimpse of someone coming out of the kitchenette across from the foyer. The suite had not been unoccupied after all.

Later, sitting on my balcony sipping a glass of Chablis as I watched a breathtaking sunset, I knew I would one day return to the grand and lovely Biltmore Hotel. Not in search of ghosts--which I, for one, do believe are really there--but to savor once again one of the loveliest and most romantic places I have ever been.

And who knows? Next time there might be someone to enjoy it with me. But even without, the Biltmore is a lovely way to begin--or end--your cruise vacation out of the Port of Miami.

Rates: Seasonal
    Single:
  • Standard $259-$339
  • Deluxe $279-$359
  • Concierge $309-$389
  • Suite $429-509
    Double:
  • Standard $279-$359
  • Deluxe $299-$379
  • Concierge $329-$409
  • Suite $429-$509 Specialty suites available from $519-$2,850.
For additional information and reservations, call (800) 727-1926 or visit their web site: www.biltmorehotel.com

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