CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Although I was not able to take the family to a foreign country this time around, Coral Gables, just southwest of Miami, proved itself a fair substitute. People stepping into shops and restaurants would start with Spanish without any apparent concern about being understood, and I needed the help of the kind shopper standing behind me at a Walgreens in order to communicate with the cashier.
Make no mistake about it: This is a different Florida from Palm Beach, about 80 miles to the north on I-95. When visiting Coral Gables, leave home the white pants and pastels you bought for Palm Beach - the getup is just too Anglo - and leave behind as well any sterling social references in New York City or elsewhere (nobody cares).
For our visit, we chose the historic Biltmore Hotel, which is bordered by two golf courses and which figured prominently in the development and popularization of the sport in the United States. The hotel, which opened in 1926, has recently undergone a fine renovation, including the L-shaped swimming pool, which is the largest in the continental United States. When you swim in it, you feel as if you are in a shallow, clear river; you navigate your way by water to multiple destinations - like a Mississippi steamboat making its rounds - visiting the waterfall in front of the poolside restaurant and assorted lounge-chair communities.
The main lobby has that courtly grand-hotel feel, with its carefully prepared tea service, sink-to-your-thighs comfy chairs and large, wooden cages full of energetic finches. The building's tower is visible from a long distance off, yet with only 275 rooms (nearly half of them suites), even when fully booked, the hotel never feels crowded or over-utilized.
Our toddler, Ryan, made himself a favorite of the staff, who could not have been more accommodating. My wife and I knew we had turned a corner in Ryan's upbringing when the maid came to our junior suite to deliver his roll-away bed and tried unsuccessfully to address us in Spanish. Ryan, whose nanny speaks to him in Spanish, pointed to the opposite wall and explained, "She wants to put it there."
One Sunday morning, I booked massages for my wife and me at the spa, which is quite the equal of those we have enjoyed at European grand hotels. When I asked what Ryan could do during that time, I was directed to something I had not seen at a luxury hotel before: the Kids Spa. Cheryl, a masseuse who is the mother of a boy about Ryan's age, joined Ryan in the room, which is painted kelly green and filled with toys. She played with Ryan and gave him a foot massage; we had to use all our powers of persuasion to get him to leave when his time was done.
The hotel's restaurants were so inviting, although we had a rental car and had intended regularly to drive into town for dinner, we took most of our meals at the Biltmore. Particularly outstanding was the gourmet restaurant, the Palme d'Or, where Patrick Calvarese, the charming French-born maitre d'hotel, took excellent care of us, guiding our selections and explaining their preparation and ingredients. My dinner started with the cantaloupe melon, a cold soup that came in a cocktail glass; the fruit rested atop a purple jelly made of aged port, which gave a powerful and exotic final punch to the dish. For dessert, I had a chocolate souffle perfectly accented with a house-made almond ice cream.
The more casual Italian restaurant, Fontana, was no less successful - indeed, quite a bargain for what was served - and it added the fun of alfresco dining. The punch line to this story: Only as we were leaving did we learn that, during our visit, the hotel was between executive chefs. Whoever takes over obviously has an impressive bench with which to play the culinary game.
I have family and friends all over the region, and many of our days were spent either hosting visitors at the hotel or going on visits ourselves. On the recommendation of our friend, the South Florida travel writer Tom Swick, we visited Books & Books, which is rightfully regarded as one of the finest surviving independent bookstores in the U.S.
By chance, we arrived just as the children's author Judy Schachner started speaking to an audience assembled in one of the several discrete dark-wood rooms that comprise the interior, each of which looks as if it has been pulled bodily from a student bookshop in New England college town. With its Mediterranean-style exterior and cerebral air both within and without, the store is a testament to the kind of life that Americans who do speak English could lead if only they cared more about their broad-ranging but nuanced language. Although the so-called "Miracle Mile" shopping strip near which the store is located includes the usual shops appurtenant to resort living (including a large Barnes & Noble), you have to imagine that something uniquely complex is enriching daily life in Coral Gables if it can support this oasis of civilization.
South Florida will take American pluralism to extremes. Just a few blocks away, at the narrow and contentedly cluttered E & C Mini Market, the Cantonese-speaking staff kept up a steady dialogue in Spanish with their customers. Just beyond, the city's annual Hispanic Cultural Festival was taking place. Children played on blow-up carnival rides, and a teenaged troupe sang and danced with delightful exuberance to the kind of implacably forgettable pop music common to radios across the country.
On the famous golf courses of the region, however, golf remains golf: English is again the language of choice, and you can eat a hamburger at the adjoining restaurant (the one at the Biltmore is called the 19th Hole) without feeling as if you chose ethnic cuisine. Somehow, it all fits together, and in that uniquely American way, it is all made to work well enough for all concerned.
The beaches of South Beach are only about 20 minutes away from Coral Gables by car, and on a couple occasions I shuttled my wife there. Over time, Ryan has been slowly warming to the idea of the beach, but what really got him excited when he joined Mommy on her second visit to South Beach was the discovery, right on the sand, of a golf cart. Convincing him to forsake it for dinner took both of us a bit of time.
Most great travel literature is about the solitary journey: the author heads out alone and responds to what he experiences. What made Coral Gables particularly interesting was that, moving through its streets on my own, I felt as if I were on the road in a new and curious place - that I was truly traveling; but the moment I had my wife and son with me, travel again became the tourist-friendly experience that Florida is set up to provide. For anyone interested in cultural flavors not commonly found in the U.S., leave your family at the Biltmore's spa or pool and walk around town a bit. For those times you want to enjoy it all as a family, you would be hard pressed to find a more inviting place.
IF YOU GO:
STAYING THERE: The Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Avenue, Coral Gables, Florida 33134. Reservations: 855-311-6903; email@example.com, or book through The Leading Hotels of the World: 800-745-8883. Double rooms run about $360 during the peak winter season.
DINING PICK IN DOWNTOWN CORAL GABLES: Ortanique, where the owner and executive chef Cindy Hutson offers Caribbean-accented fusion cuisine - food from what used to be called the hot countries. Hutson keeps close to her inspiration with a companion restaurant in Grand Cayman. Reservations: 877-446-7710; http://www.ortaniquerestaurants.com.
BOOKS & BOOKS: The Coral Gables store (there are six other locations) is at 265 Aragon Avenue. Tel: 305-442-4408; http://www.booksandbooks.com.
TRAVEL TIP: The Biltmore Hotel is only seven miles from Miami International Airport, but it is a large and busy facility, so leave plenty of time when traveling as a family. We missed our flight; please don't miss yours.
Alan Behr: firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun