Fifty years ago, a chunk of prime waterfront on Belle Isle, just off the western shore of South Beach, was occupied by a two-story motor court called the Monterey Motel. Mr. and Mrs. Regular Joe would drive down with the kids on their annual winter pilgrimage, park their big American dream machine directly in front of the room, and gaze out through jalousie windows upon a sea of automotive flesh—a prelude to the blue serenity of Biscayne Bay. In the early 1960's, the Monterey was sold; the new owners added a three-story lobby-and-spa building, grassed over the concrete, and rechristened the property the Lido Spa Hotel.
For the next four decades, the Lido endured as a bastion of Catskills culture, a time-warp of handicrafts, chair-aerobics classes, and circle dances in the pool to the tune of "Hava Nagila." In the blank expanse of their evenings, widows took the air, chuckled at variety revues, and whirled gamely about the dance floor with elderly male host dancers. (These were the same ladies who, in the early days of South Beach, rocked on the porches of decrepit Art Deco hotels, chirping in the manner of distracted blackbirds at all the young people who were about to drive them out of their homes.) Two years ago, the Lido shuddered to a close, marking an end to the era when the old were actually welcomed in the vicinity of South Beach. The place stayed exactly the same until the end, making no concessions to the whims of fashion or taste; in the process, it had become the only truly unique hotel in Miami.
It's all about location, of course, and the Lido held on for so long partly because it was a refuge from the fray of South Beach. Apart from the hotel, Belle Isle has always been entirely residential. With its colorful collection of old waterfront cottages still defying the ravages of development, it is a landscape at peace with itself, stilled by water.
This little marzipan village—Miami as it used to be—was seemingly tailor-made for hotelier André Balazs, an archaeologist of ambience. Balazs is betting that his tribe of acolytes, the nomads of fashion who once craved noise (particularly the social riot-zone of South Beach), will now pay for quiet, the modern world's ultimate luxury. And so, on peaceful Belle Isle, within the hallowed grounds of the old Lido, he has unleashed his first spa hotel. The Standard, Miami riffs on the glories of the Lido's past with the inevitable dollop of irony: the future, to Balazs, is a hipster-holism theme park that juggles the spiritual and the pagan.
Balazs has always been adept at envisioning the next curl of the culture. His 1990 acquisition of L.A.'s Chateau Marmont spoke to a contemporary yearning for grace and old Hollywood glamour. The elegant minimalism of New York's Mercer hotel, opened in 1997, anticipated the monied march of SoHo. In 1998, the first Standard hotel, in West Hollywood, made the ballyhooed "cheap chic" trend actually cheap, with room rates starting at $95 a night. The hotel was wrought from a 1962 Sunset Strip institution called the Thunderbird Motel, a downtrodden joint that had become a last-chance retirement home; Balazs's team infused the place with pure Pop, in the form of blue Astroturf pool decks and Warhol flower-print curtains. Four years later, a second outpost arrived, in downtown Los Angeles, which was then virgin terrain for design hotels, as Belle Isle is now. The Standard Downtown took over the former Superior Oil headquarters, a 1956 landmark that Balazs filled with Verner Panton furniture and weekly bacchanals.
South Beach is presently riding its third wave of hype and glory as a resort town, and Balazs, having missed the first two epochs, has been digging in for the Era of Serious Money. His first move was to buy and renovate the Raleigh, L. Murray Dixon's 1940 Art Deco masterpiece on Collins Avenue. The Raleigh is Miami's version of the Chateau Marmont, and its Old Florida pageantry will be linked to the Standard's forward-thinking gestalt by a shuttle service. As with Sunset Boulevard, Miami Beach may yet become Balazsland.
The new Standard is rooted in the genius of the late architect Morris Lapidus, that visionary of excess—and accidental post-modernist—who defined Atomic Age opulence 51 years ago with the Fontainebleau. Lapidus also put his trademark baroque spin on the façade of the Lido, a confection of gold grille panels and tiny sea-foamgreen ceramic tiles with the good name of the hotel writ large in jaunty yellow neon. Because the building is a protected icon, the Lido lettering remains intact, though the neon has been removed; the customary upside-down STANDARD sign is tucked discreetly above it on the roof.
Ironically, Lapidus wound up spending his last bitter days a few hundred feet away, in a 1961 building of his own design. At 97, living among his Lucite chairs, cowhide bar, and Pegasus sculptures, within earshot of the social director's endless announcements over the Lido P.A. ("Attention Lido Spa! It's time for the Aqua Follies!"), Lapidus was still railing about the nerve of Miami's vulgarians. Sadly, one of his last clients was a local Fuddruckers—yet another part of the chain juggernaut that has been transforming South Beach into Anywhere, U.S.A.
The Standard, in its own twisted fashion, actually honors the unhinged history of mid-century Miami Beach. Balazs retained the lobby's white-marble walls, terrazzo floors, and stainless-steel elevators, then added a row of Hans Wegner rocking chairs, as a camp homage to the widows of an earlier era. A decidedly personal vision reigns in the public areas, with the usual Modernist suspects—Aalto tea trolleys, vintage Danish furniture, Arne Jacobsen sconces from an old SAS hotel in Stockholm—counterpointed by riskier propositions such as beanbag coffee tables and a Hans Hopfer denim sectional sofa that sprawls out like an errant amoeba. Just off the lobby is the hotel library, where Robert Pirsig's bible of hippie-dippiedom, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, sits alongside Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality and The History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil. A sliding door emblazoned with a retro sunburst pattern leads to a lounge done up with Olewanscher easy chairs, walls covered with woven goat's wool, and a bar topped with polished Douglas fir. The entire package recalls a 1960's hippie mogul's house in California. In the bathrooms, rectangular sinks, diagonal strips of mirrors, and painted pine jump ahead to a 1970 Playboy After Dark effect.
Alongside a bank of epic windows is the airy in-house restaurant, supervised by Eric Ripert of New York's Le Bernardin, with a menu leaning toward fresh fish seasoned with herbs from the Standard's own gardens. The dining room, lined with slanted pine planks, looks like an overinflated Swedish sauna; a deep-blue, glazed-brick accent wall is pure Scandinavian summer.
In fact, despite all the whimsy and let's-lasso-the-zeitgeist in-jokes, the entire hotel was actually inspired by the simple and somber lodges of the Stockholm archipelago. Guest rooms evoke Swedish cottages with their whitewashed walls of sandblasted plywood and floors adorned with bright blue macramé rugs. Cotton tea cozies cover wall-mounted televisions, picnic baskets serve as bedside tables, and bathrooms are Shaker-plain but comfortable.
Scandinavian decorative conceits are not the usual Florida thing, but this is, after all, a spa hotel, and they work well with the Standard's inner-journey ambitions. The Esalen-like Standard Center for Integral Living provides naturopathic counseling, guided fasts and cleanses, even relationship workshops. Guest rooms are serviced by rolling Apothecarts bearing herbal teas and aromatherapy footbaths. Of course, the life of appetite being a Balazs trademark, mini-bars are also stocked with homeopathic DrinkEase hangover medication and Standard-brand condoms.
Every inch of the Standard plays with sin and redemption, excess and denial, in settings that alternately smack of Roman decadence and monastic purity. Next to a classic cedar sauna where guests can slap themselves silly with soapy birch branches, private nooks are set aside for "self-exploration and indulgence." The Turkish hammam has heated marble seats and a somewhat less traditional subwoofer mounted in the corner. Across the hall is a scrub room with enormous overhead hoses, the same kind used by butchers.
Many of the treatments are things guests do for themselves or each other: the high-pressure hoses, for instance, or—for those staying in the ground-level "Wet" rooms—a healing soak in an outdoor bathtub encircled by way-too-transparent curtains. A guest can also drop $165 on a Standard Spanking" (a cellulite-fighting massage) or $360 per couple for a K.I.S.S. scrub, a massage, and a Chinese "sex tonic." Yet for the most part, the Standard is keeping things cheap and easy.
The heart of the hotel is the pool and hydrotherapy area, an ode to communal bathing as social sacrament. The outdoor aquacade encompasses a plunge pool, a hot tub, and a 12-foot-tall, three-inch-wide column of falling water. DJ-spun music plays through underwater speakers in the chlorine-free Sound Pool. In the clothing-optional mud baths, guests can slather one another with "golden body mud." Arbors of sea-grape trees, night-blooming jasmine, and Moroccan palms are intended to create "pockets of contemplation." Scattered about the lawn are more convivial arenas, such as a set of immense, pie-shaped wicker lounges ﬂanking a small fire pit. Just off the courtyard is a Tyrolean-style wishing well, a kitsch holdover from the Lido days. Back then it bore a perky little sign: HOME TO THE ADVENTURES IN BEAUTY.
Balazs, who began his career in the nightclub business, understands that the alchemy of chic is a delicate matter—and never more so than now, as corporations co-opt everything from punk imagery to the trappings of mysticism. With even pedestrian chain hotels installing hammams in an attempt to appear hip, the Standard's hydrotherapy-meets-holism concept is no longer so novel. Not long ago, when the vocabulary of the daring hadn't devolved into a barrage of visual clichés—when every trendy establishment around the globe didn't look exactly the same—it was far easier to make a mark. "Think of what Spiegel accomplished by hiring Verner Panton," Balazs says. "Now, every groovy designer doing some musician's house steals from Panton. Everything is known everywhere."
This co-opting of cool is especially prevalent in South Beach, where even the Lapidus-designed Ritz-Carlton has a drag-queen DJ spinning house music in—what else?—the Lapidus Lounge. Only here would the Hyatt brand, seeking an illusion of boutique edge, downplay its involvement in the new Victor Hotel and hire P. Diddy and a troop of penguins for the grand opening. In the golden age of Miami Beach, half-baked hucksters built larger and more outlandish hotels each year. Now, big money pretends to be small.
In post-Delano South Beach, trying to out-Starck Philippe Starck is a futile effort. Balazs has managed to carve out his own carefully modulated turf, even among countless boutique-hotel competitors and pretenders. The Raleigh's atmosphere is more palatable for people of a certain age than, say, that of the Shore Club, and Balazs has hosted some intelligent parties at the hotel. On the other hand, the Raleigh's Sunday Soirées—poolside bashes around a vast tribal bonfire—cross the line to resemble overlit nightclubs. For fashion designer Catherine Malandrino, who was dismayed by the silicone, hormones, and escalating Euro-lounge music one recent afternoon at the Raleigh, a moment has passed. "I've been coming here for eight years. Back then it was an undiscovered jewel—quiet, shabby, and crooked," she sighs. "Maybe it's time to look for the next secret place."
Balazs insists that the Standard, Miami will be the opposite of "everything Collins Avenue has become."Then again, the Standard has applied for a 5 A.M. liquor license—and in Miami, everyone, everywhere, wants some kind of party. A lounge and outdoor restaurant now occupy the Standard's wooden dock, set to become yet another stomping ground for the young and wayward, though the hotel is not permitted to play music after dark. Given the constrictions of being the only commercial enterprise in a residential area, the Standard is bound to face some complaints from the neighbors. Few people on Belle Isle will be thrilled to live next door to any kind of late-night scene, no matter how tasteful.
In the end, to last as long as the Lido, the Standard only needs to stay out of its own way and embrace Biscayne Bay, a lulling expanse of pure beauty that makes natives fall in love with Miami all over again. Balazs insists he is resolved to keep the party small and quiet. "This little neighborhood of cottages, with the sounds of birds and children playing, is like nothing else in America," he says, sipping a glass of wine as night falls and the skyline of downtown Miami glimmers across the bay. "It's lost in time, unbelievably charming. The vibe doesn't need music: the idea is to turn down the volume, not step into it."
The Miami area is in the midst of an unprecedented real-estate explosion, and hotels are turning up all over. Miami Beach will soon see entries from Rosewood Resorts (the Acqualina), Canyon Ranch (a new health resort), Le Meridien (Sunny Isles), and Regent (two condominium-hotel projects). Morris Lapidus's landmark Sheraton Bal Harbour is being demolished and replaced with a St. Regis condo-hotel. On Key Biscayne, Sonesta Hotels is tearing down the old Sonesta Beach Resort and building a new $300 million property with five-star ambitions, to compete with the nearby Ritz-Carlton. (The Ritz-Carlton chain also has properties in South Beach and Coconut Grove.) Downtown Miami's standard-bearers of luxury—the Four Seasons Hotel Miami and the Mandarin Oriental—are still firing on all cylinders; the Mandarin has even started throwing a weekly SoBe-style party on its artificial beach. Ian Schrager, of the Shore Club and Delano, reportedly plans to open properties in North Miami Beach and downtown. Meanwhile, stealing a page from Schrager's book, 29- year-old Sam Nazarian has hired Philippe Starck to redo the old Ritz Plaza, right across the street from the Starck- designed Delano.
It's a bold new order, and a crowded field, with plenty of good values. Below, some of this year's standouts.
The Standard, Miami
André Balazs's first spa hotel.
DOUBLES FROM $150
40 ISLAND AVE., MIAMI BEACH 305/673-1717
Balazs recently revamped this 1940 Art Deco jewel, which has one of America's great pools, where Esther Williams once filmed her Technicolor aqua-dreams.
DOUBLES FROM $195
1775 COLLINS AVE., MIAMI BEACH 305/534-6300
Opened in February, adjacent to the old Versace mansion, this new 91-room property—owned by Hyatt—is the first American hotel orchestrated by Paris-based designer Jacques Garcia. The Victor has the now requisite hammam, as well as a celebrated in-house restaurant, VIX.
DOUBLES FROM $305
144 OCEAN DR., MIAMI BEACH 305/428-1234
This much-anticipated condo-hotel combo arrived in August and is plush as all get-out, with a champagne-crustacean-caviar bar, three outdoor pools, and an opulent spa.
DOUBLES FROM $485
2001 COLLINS AVE., MIAMI BEACH 305/520-6000
A tasty little 30-room property with a spa, salon, rooftop bar, and trendy Sugo restaurant for the chattering classes.
DOUBLES FROM $499
1745 JAMES AVE., MIAMI BEACH 305/673-5455
Bentley Beach Hotel
Still in its pre-openinggala phase, the 109-suite Bentley Beach—a member of Small Luxury Hotels—was designed by Architectonica and is hyping the first Caroli spa in North America.
DOUBLES FROM $395
101 OCEAN DR., MIAMI BEACH 305/938-4600