by Ron Bernthal
During my first visit to the Miami area, in 1960, my brother and I, both young teenagers, took the Pennsylvania Railroad from New York City, sitting up all night on the Silver Meteor as it struggled south through an East Coast snow storm. We woke from a fitful sleep in Sanford, Florida, where we saw palm trees for the first time, and when the train doors opened we stuck our heads out and marveled at the warm, sultry air that embraced us.
Since that first trip, I have always been nostalgic for the “old” Florida of cheap orange juice stands, 1950′s-era beachfront Collins Avenue motels, Wolfie’s Rascal House deli, and the tacky souvenir shops where my brother and I stared at the “tan” lines on the postcard models, and splurged on chocolate-covered coconut patties. In 1960 there were just a few motels on Sunny Isles Beach, even fewer private homes, and the Beatles had not yet been to the Castaways Motel, where they would carouse at the Wreck Bar until sunrise. Although we weren’t old enough to drink, we were thrilled just to be wearing shorts and swimming in December, and somehow managing to find our way down to the Fontainebleau Hotel, which had the coolest lobby and pool we ever saw. Jerry Lewis’ film, The Bellboy, was filmed there earlier that year.
In 1920, Harvey Baker Graves, a wealthy investor from Rochester, New York, spent $60,000 to purchase a spit of Florida oceanfront land, giving it the promotional-savvy name of Sunny Isles, The Venice of America, although it was known to everyone else as North Miami Beach. The tourist motels, residential bungalows, and fishing tackle shops gave way to high rise condo’s in the 1970′s, and today the beachfront is lined with shimmering glass towers, some as high as 55-stories.
The Acqualina Resort & Spa, opened four years ago, was awarded an AAA Five Diamond rating in late 2009, not only for its spacious guestrooms, its 20,000 square-foot ESPA spa, and the fine dining Il Mulino restaurant, but for having enough staff to satisfy every spontaneous whim a guest may have, including, but not limited to, 24-hour room service, twice-daily housekeeping, poolside reflexology, butler and pet walking services, on-site hair salon and tailoring, a kids’ AcquaMarine program, and, ready for this, a dedicated Proposal Concierge!
The lobby is opulent, narrow, intimate, and welcoming. The front-desk is small, yet efficient. With only 54 guest rooms and 43 suites, Acqualina is more like a boutique hotel than a beachside resort, and even with its three swimming pools, large bar and lounge area, spa and health club, beachfront grill, and a floor of fully-equipped meeting rooms, the property offers a quiet and tranquil ambience.
Although this massive 50-story cement structure, dedicated to hedonistic luxury, perhaps symbolizes everything that went wrong along Miami’s beautiful coastal landscape, vacationers to Miami have long stopped being interested in buying plastic alligators at roadside stands, or throwing a skimpy hotel towel on the beach and greasing up with Coppertone. At Acqualina the guests from Switzerland, Italy, South Africa, Israel, Arizona, and New York I spoke with wanted great food, impeccable service, and exclusivity. At Acqualina, where cost is not a concern, these desires are easily attainable.
For leisure visitors, it is not necessary to leave the hotel. Beach chasses and umbrellas are available for guests, and beach boys will reposition the umbrellas as the sun moves across the sky. I keep my eye out for the bar waitress, who periodically ambles across the sand with a tray crowded with complimentary cups of fruit smoothies — strawberry, mango, coconut, pineapple, all icy and delicious.
By mid-afternoon I leave the beach and swim a few laps in the resort’s “Recreation” pool. I watch a young French couple meticulously rub sun tan lotion on each other. It is not Coppertone, but an expensive French brand. I am reminded of a job opening I read about last spring, a beach resort in France, Les Sables d’Olonne, was looking for a man and a woman to work as “creamers” – employees who give SPF advice and rub sun tan lotion on guests when called upon. That may be the only service that is not available at Acqualina.
I retreat to my room, with its multiple flat screen TV’s, marble bathroom, and comfortable furniture. It is on the 24th floor, facing the ocean. The large balcony has a table and chairs. It is shaded, and accessed from the living room and bedroom by sliding glass doors. The ocean and sky are stunning to view from this height. One day the pre-dawn sky was vivid with red, pink and purple streaks, the sea a wide expanse of grey and green. In the evening, shortly after sunset, the sky and sea sometimes converge in a flat, one-dimensional pane, as if a huge gauzy-blue canvas has been stretched across the balcony, without definition or depth.
Acqualina has three dining venues, including Il Mulino New York, a branch of the highly rated Manhattan restaurant; Costa Grill, the beach bar and restaurant; and Aaria Lounge, where evening hors d’oeuvres and a sushi bar are accompanied by a live piano player. Aaria, with its indoor and outdoor tables, also serves as the resort’s breakfast room.
The property caters to small corporate groups as well as leisure travelers. Four high-tech, oceanfront meeting rooms can accommodate 10-40 persons, and an outdoor tented area is used for various types of events, including company receptions, weddings, and other social gatherings. Business guests make good use of the spa as well, called ESPA at Acqualina, a two-story facility that offers dozens of traditional and modern therapies, sauna, steam rooms, a private veranda, and several outdoor spa pools.
Acqualina, of course, is not just a hotel. From the 30th floor to the 51st -floor penthouses, it is also a residential building, with dedicated elevators at each end of the lobby for apartment owners, who can use all the amenities of the property. During my off-season visit, I did not personally meet any residents, but I was told that all the units were purchased when the building was constructed in 2006. The Acqualina Resort itself is owned by The Trump Group, a major investment firm that is not connected with Donald Trump’s company. That Trump has built several condo towers in Sunny Isles Beach as well, including a 55-story building next door to Acqualina.
Although I am still nostalgic for the drive-up-to-the-room beachside motels that used to line Miami beaches, the high-rise Acqualina property, with its ultra-comfortable guestrooms, fabulous culinary choices, and breathtaking views of the Atlantic, offers a very different Miami experience.
Acqualina Resort & Spa on the Beach
17875 Collins Avenue
Sunny Isles Beach, FL 33160
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