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Weekending with the Kids: The Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida
My son, Steven, and I arrive at Miami International Airport after taking the red-eye flight. We head for Coral Gables and the iconic Biltmore Hotel. Built in the 1920s, the hotel has hosted European and Hollywood royalty and more golf tournaments than it can remember. Now it will host us.
We know we've entered Coral Gables when the streets go from numbered names to Spanish names...Antilla, Salamanca, Alhambra. Trees are everywhere, and the hush on this Sunday morning is a pleasant surprise. We turn right on Anastasia and pass a succession of Spanish-styled homes, their groomed lawns a testament to civic pride. Suddenly, Steven spots a tall tower peeking over the trees. It's a dead ringer for the campaniles of Seville. We're at the Biltmore.
The gracious front desk attendant informs us that our room is not ready but is happy to put us in a different room for the time being so we can take a much-needed nap. Steven wastes no time in jumping up on the bed, and I follow suit. The cream-colored linens are cool and soothing and the pillows place our heads in the softest embrace. We are asleep in no time. I later learn that hotel guests often request pillows like these be shipped to their home, a service the Biltmore is happy to provide (for a price). They're from the Phoenix Down Corp. and on a recent day, no less than sixteen had arrived for shipment to soon-to-be-delighted clients.
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The pool at the Biltmore is the largest in the continental United States. That was reason enough for us to pay a visit. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the hotel hosted aquatic galas that would draw thousands on a Sunday afternoon. On tap were synchronized swimming, alligator wrestling and spectacular high-diving from an 85-foot platform. Johnny Weissmuller was a swimming instructor at the Biltmore during that era, though it's not known if he was a diver as well. Guests would dress up for the revels and go tea dancing afterward on the hotel's grand terrace.
Steven and I are intent on doing some laps but jump back from the pool somewhat aghast upon realizing that the 700,000 gallons of water are not heated. It's maybe 75 degrees on this Spring afternoon, yet there's no mistaking that we're Northern Californians more used to a warm soak in a hot tub. In any event, we game it and are in the pool in less than five minutes. Romanesque statues grace the pool's loggia and peer down on us. We frolic more than swim and spend about an hour being the envy of guests huddled under their towels on the poolside chaise longues. The sun peeks in and out of puffy white clouds, while the sky is a serene blue. It all makes for a splendid afternoon.
Come 4 o'clock, we throw on our clothes and head to the hotel's port cochere, where a horse-drawn carriage awaits us. It's not that I'm Cinderella, or even a lady-in-waiting -- the Biltmore provides carriage rides along the streets of Coral Gables as a complimentary service for any and all guests. We climb up and the horse clip-clops off in a modest canter -- or is that a walk? Steven can't believe our horse is so slow. I surmise that he's been in Coral Gables a very long time and has become accustomed to the town's rhythm. My son starts to get restless in that five-year-old sort of way so I encourage him to lie back in the seat and look up. As we turn the corner, rows of banyan trees on either side of the street have found a way to meet and intertwine on the street above us. It's a stunning canopy. Steven starts to get into the rhythm of things and soon horse, mother and son are at peace.
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Dinner at the 1200 Courtyard Grill could easily be the bastion of stuffed shirts but the setting won't allow it. An imposing fountain gurgles at the center of a placid courtyard. Palms and other leafy trees are close by, yet a polite distance from the white-napped tables. A soft breeze compels us to put on our jackets. Our server, Rosaura, has mastered her art. She is polite and gracious and in no way overbearing. A smile never leaves her face, and we engage in fun banter whenever she stops at our table. I find the Mediterranean cuisine to be expertly prepared and a feast for the senses. Steven digs into a more kid-friendly grilled cheese sandwich and enjoys it so much, he asks for another. Rosaura gives me a wink and says it will be right up. Midway through sandwich #2, he falls asleep.
I carry Steven up to our one-bedroom suite and he comes back to life. Hotel rooms are a big hit with my much-traveled son and he is developing a keen sense of the finer things in life. He quickly checks out the bed (and pillows) and pronounces them as good as the ones in our first room. The double sinks in the bathroom also pass muster and he wastes no time in telling me which one is mine. He then gives me a mini-clinic in how to turn the various lights in the living, bathroom and bedroom on and off. Since it's late, we won't have time for the flat-screen TV in the living room but he promises to teach me how to work the remote first thing in the morning. After I tuck my son in and kiss him goodnight, I repair to the living room for a little TV. Moms CAN use the remote, regardless of what my 21st-century son may think.
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We head for the tennis courts on day two. Steven's game is still developing but, thankfully, he loves being the ball boy. I hit at least twenty balls in his direction, at which point he commands me to stop. He then grabs four or five balls in his small hands and flings them over the net. Then another large handful, and another, until all the balls have come my way. We play our version of tennis for about an hour then head for the pool.
After a quick swim, we walk around the pool to Cascade, the Biltmore's poolside eatery. If we were any closer to the pool, we'd be in it. The sunlight sparkles on our goblets, the pool, everywhere, while the bougainvillea positively screams magenta. Yet it's the lobster sandwich that reminds me why I'm in South Florida -- everything is so fresh here. Steven's hot dog is fresh enough for him and he eats the whole thing.
My water baby boy wants to swim some more but I cut him off at 4 p.m. so we can have afternoon tea under the vaulted ceiling of the hotel's magnificent lobby. Our server informs us that we have seventeen teas to choose from and will be enjoying a three-course presentation. Steven is a big fan of afternoon tea, since lemon curd usually makes an appearance. Course number one is a half-dozen tea sandwiches paired with fresh fruit. My son and I quickly do some trading and wind up with exactly what we want. A guitarist strums at the far end of the room and Steven is quick to applaud after each song. The musician giggles with delight. The warm scone with clotted cream is acceptable, but lacking the favored lemon curd accompaniment. We pass on it in favor of the petits fours, an assortment of small pastries that are as beautiful as they are delicious. Bellies full, we make our way to the one-bedroom suite.
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On our last morning at the Biltmore, much like the previous two mornings, we pay a visit to the gourmet coffee bar on the hotel's lower level. Although I'm angling for a java jolt, Steven and I are really here for the pastry. Okay, make that the brownies, huge squares of gooey chocolate with a dusting of powdered sugar. It's this morning fortification, I tell Steven, that has made it possible for us to brave the cool waters of the swimming pool. We look around for souvenirs, with Steven settling on a couple of post cards and me buying an emery board embossed with a photo of the Biltmore's facade.
As we head out the door, Steven turns to me and says "Mom, the next time we come to Miami we HAVE to visit the Biltmore." I have to agree.
Elaine Sosa is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and five-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.