IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Miami hotel gets $1 billion makeover

It takes a lot to impress here on Miami Beach, where magazine models shop and $100,000 cars creep by without a batted eye.  But the legendary Fontainebleau hotel's grand re-opening - complete with $5 million celebrity-studded party  - did just that.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It takes a lot to impress here, a place where magazine models shop and $100,000 cars creep by without a batted eye.

But there are exceptions, and in the 1950s and '60s the only one that mattered was the Fontainebleau hotel. Blending five-star luxury with chic, progressive style, it was where Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack stayed and played, where James Bond beat Goldfinger in a game of gin rummy. A sleek, curvy layer cake of a place bending into Atlantic beach.

But that was decades ago — centuries, really, in the lifetime of a high-class resort — and the grand old dame had been surpassed by newer and hipper sites.

Not anymore. After finding a new owner willing to pump in $1 billion, the Fontainebleau is back.

It reopened over the weekend with a $5 million celebrity-studded party attended by Puff Daddy, the ubiquitous Kardashian sisters and others, with a surprise performance by Mariah Carey.

"In this business you really have to keep up with the times," said Howard C. Karawan, chief operating officer of Fontainebleau Resorts LLC. "We decided if we were going to do this, we wanted to do it right."

Even that seems an understatement.

Gutted to the studsThe Fontainebleau was gutted to the studs, its 22-acre grounds completely redrawn. Developers added three upscale signature chefs' restaurants and an enormous new beachfront spa to accommodate 1,504 guest rooms — just under half of them suites in two new towers. Each features granite counters, walk-in showers and separate jetted tubs, flat-screen TVs and even a new Apple computer. That last part is the centerpiece of the "paperless" hotel — meaning all guest correspondence will be electronic.

New owner Jeffrey Soffer's team, which bought the property for $500 million and shelled out another $500 million in upgrades, is also opening Fontainebleaus in Las Vegas (fall 2009), Dubai and a fourth, to-be-named location.

Though they wanted a new identity, designers strove to retain architect Morris Lapidus' original vision. For example, Lapidus' affinity for circles is clear throughout the hotel's spacious hallways, where elaborate chandeliers by Ai WeiWei, a consultant for the Beijing Olympics' Bird's Nest main stadium, hang from high-ceiling insets.

The grand lobby's original white-and-black bow-tie floor pattern was recreated out of new materials, and its furrowed columns were preserved and refurbished.

So too was the Fontainebleau's famed "Staircase to Nowhere," which historically led to a small coat room just above the lobby. Belles and beaus would take an elevator up, check their coats and descend the stairs for a grand entrance. The coat check is gone — not a terribly sensible feature in the tropics, anyway — but the runway remains.

"It's not a planned, themed, Orlando or Vegas-type resort," Karawan said. "(Lapidus') feeling was, it's more about the people, all about social interaction. This is about you being the star."

Topless bathing allowedStandard rooms range from 500 square feet to 1,742 square feet, and suites max out at a cavernous 4,000 square feet. The complex has 11 sharply appointed restaurants and clubs, some sure to become hot new tickets for locals. Sinatra's old haunt, the Tropigala lounge, is remade into a dance club under a domed light-up ceiling, and "Blade" is a late-night sushi hangout with a raw, sociable vibe. The confection kitchen will even offer a ready selection of wedding cakes.

Gone is the former 7,000-square-foot children's water park, "Cookie's World." The new Fontainebleau features a freeform main pool and a separate "European" bath, where topless sunbathing will be allowed.

The spa, a two-story undertaking with a jagged, modern exterior, is covered in endless white marble. Post-treatment, guests end up in a coed lounge with its own pool, where specialized jets control several different temperature zones. Upstairs is the exercise area, whose floor-to-ceiling windows offer expansive views of the ocean and grounds.

For all their grand plans, the designers did not seem to neglect small details. Beach chairs, for example, were made in-house with special pockets to keep cell phones and magazines dry. The front desk is literally a work of contemporary art, with a bank of alternating lights that constantly shift the station's color and depth.

After the opening party, the Fontainebleau hosted the Victoria's Secret lingerie show — the footprint of careful calibration to recreate its sexy, stylish past and to become once again relevant, a new place to be for a new generation of pretty and cool.

"There are probably only a handful of hotels as synonymous as this is with their location," Karawan said. "As The Plaza is to New York, as the Ritz is to Paris, the Fontainebleau is to Miami Beach."

Once, they hope, and for all.


If You Go...

FONTAINEBLEAU HOTEL: 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; Rates starting at $399 in-season, $299 off-peak (summer).