After we’ve tried and failed three times to use the correct French phonetic of Fontainebleau – fon-ten-blo – our Cuban cab driver threw his hands off the wheel, turned in his leather seat to look us up and down, then, in a cloud of petrol fumes, made a dramatic U-turn on Collins Avenue. We were leaving behind the serenity of the Setai Miami Beach for what we now realised – as our driver continued to shake his head while muttering the correct Florida pronunciation under his breath – we should have called “Fountain-Blue”.
We were heading to Fontainebleau for one thing and one thing only: a pilgrimage to the uniquely Floridian architecture of Morris Lapidus. One of the foremost proponents of Miami Modernism (MiMO), Lapidus is singlehandedly responsible for shaping the South Beach “look”. While van der Rohe and his followers were advocating “less is more”, Lapidus was busy drawing opulent, flamboyant and unapologetically decadent buildings. The Fontainebleau was his first major work, and the daring curved lines of this dramatic hotel were lovingly and expensively restored in 2008. It’s easy to see why the hotel was the perfect setting for the James Bond flick Goldfinger. Sadly, the alligators that originally swam in the lobby’s pool are no longer here, while Lapidus’s original idea of having monkeys swinging from trapezes never got the green light.
The pool-boy armed with the cocktail list asked us for our room number so he could add a day’s bed rental to our room: a charge of $500
Poured into the VIP check-in area along with hundreds of others just arriving, we were hit with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Though we were still within South Beach’s limits, it was as if we’d been transported west to the high desert of Nevada or, indeed, east to the desert of Dubai – it’s no coincidence that the Fontainebleau’s operator is UAE development and leisure giant Nakheel. Vegas-on-Sea welcomes you.
As our luggage was whisked away, we were led across the signature bowtie-patterned marble floor to the unimpressive VIP check-in broom cupboard. Here we handed over our credit cards and waited for news of our room. We’d arrived on a Friday in November and there wasn’t a single room free in this 1,500-room behemoth. Because of the massive turnaround of rooms, ready for the weekend invasion, we’d have to wait two hours for our room to be prepared.
Even after two hours of people-watching (it’s a very different crowd at this end of the Beach – all Donatella Versace wannabes and plucked and preened himbos with chest waxes) and cocktail drinking under Ai Weiwei’s three million-dollar chandeliers – the Chinese artist’s only permanent installation in the US – there was still no sign of our room being ready. Instead, we picked out our sunbathing gear from our waiting luggage, got changed in the public loos and headed down to the mammoth pool area. As with all Miami hotels, this is where the real parading and posturing takes place. Loungers radiate out from the water, while other pool areas have VIP islands and some are surrounded by cabanas stocked with fridges and widescreen TVs, in case the real-life episode of Jersey Shore playing out before you isn’t entertainment enough.
The PR girl had told us to make ourselves comfortable while we waited, so we plonked ourselves down poolside on a vacant bed, basking while we waited for someone to take our drinks order. What we hadn’t realised was that the “frontline” bed we’d chosen came at a premium – in addition to the premium cost of our room. The pool-boy armed with the cocktail list asked us for our room number so he could add a day’s bed rental to our room: a charge of $500 (well, it did sleep four). Our lack of room and indeed room number bought us a free hour in the hot seat, the bass beat from the DJ deliciously drowning out the whooping and “That’s what I’m talking about”s of the American footballing types frolicking in the water with their beers. Morris Lapidus once famously said, “If you create a stage and it is grand, everyone who enters will play their part.” How times change. While downtown there is an air of sophistication – almost – in the pool culture of the Delano, Setai and the Soho Beach Club Hotel, here at Fontainebleau it’s jock meets Eurotrash.
After several tiresome visits to the VIP desk, we were finally informed that our room was ready: an Oceanview Balcony Guest Room – the highest standard available in the Landmark Fontainebleau (i.e. the old bit). It’s a stunning, graceful sweep of MiMo gorgeousness, deliciously curved so that each balcony along this penultimate floor gets a glimpse of Fontainebleau’s turquoise waters and white sand. We were later to realise, however, that despite the $1bn spent on the hotel’s refurbishment – which I included the addition of a couple of show-off, must-have-in-Miami modern tower accommodations – very little had been spent on sound-proofing these old mid-century rooms. Our first night’s sleep was destroyed by the frat boys next door hollering through their endless rounds of poker and porn watching. A 3am call to reception resulted in two pairs of earplugs being delivered to our room by a sheepish member of staff whose arrival on our floor was met by a particularly energetic chorus of approval from the boys’ room.
Like a lot of Vegas rooms I’ve stayed in, you can tell, despite the highly-polished sheen, that a lot of bodies have been through the doors of the Fontainebleau. There’s a worn feel, and the room’s generic take on luxury fails to excite. I just can’t get worked up by an iMac in the room or a pleather headboard. Thankfully, beyond the net curtains is that view – and for a moment you can see why Lapidus was inspired to create this fine and outrageous place. Despite its now familiar façade, the building’s extravagance caused outrage when the plans were first announced and it’s only in recent years that the architect’s work has received the accolades it deserved.
It shouts “Supersize! Go large! Upgrade me! Turn it up!” and chants “U-S-A!” in the pool
The highlight of our stay was dinner at Hakkasan, one of three signature restaurants in the development, and by far the most confident and accomplished. You get what you’d expect from Hakkasan: refined service, sexy lighting and superb dim sum accompanied by a pricey but interesting New World wine list. Like Vegas’s, Miami’s key hotels boast kitchens from some of the world’s finest chefs, and the Fontainebleau roster of Scarpetta, Gotham Steak and Hakkasan mean there’s no need for guests to head south on Collins to seek out world-class dining. The poolside grub is also pretty decent, and we appreciated the boast that everything that goes into their dishes is house-made, from the bread to the pasta to the condiments. But waiting for 20 minutes to be served a cocktail from the lobby bar, with its fancy disco flooring, and long waits for poolside service, mean those careful touches are lost in the sheer size and anonymity of the place. Apart from at dinner, the only other spot in which we felt valued as a guest was in the outrageously equipped and very beautiful Lapis spa. Informative, patient staff are happy to show you around the vast space before you use it or check in for a treatment. The Lapis Ritual Water Journey is a free add-on with every treatment and is a great way to recharge and relax away from the madding crowd. If you haven’t booked a treatment, a day pass will cost you $65.
For those with more stamina than we oldsters, the hotel is also home to two enormous clubs, where a roster of DJ talent takes to the decks regularly and an “upscale dress code” is enforced. VIP wristbands are as rare as a pair of real tits in this town and VIP tables demand a minimum spend of around $2,000, while to secure one of the floating skyboxes, you face a minimum $10,000 outlay. If you want to listen to world-class tunes with the odd A-lister, wannabe models, rappers and their hangers-on, this is the place to drop some major cash.
In its heyday, Fontainebleau’s debauchery and decadence had a glamour, an eccentricity and a generous shot of elitism. Today, guests arrive by the stretch limo-load, all in search of Rat Pack-themed good times and poolside antics. Just as in Vegas, their hosts don’t want them to look too far or too hard, so it all seems a little bit too easy, a little bit too trashy, a little bit too accessible. It shouts “Supersize! Go large! Upgrade me! Turn it up!” and chants “U-S-A!” in the pool. I wasn’t expecting to find enlightenment or relaxation – not in Miami – but with the continual handing over of cash, I expected just a little more attention for my buck. C
Fontainebleau Miami Beach, 4441 Collins Ave Miami Beach, FL 33140, United States
+1 305 538 2000; fontainebleau.com
Lisa Richards co-runs the Great British Pizza Company