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A Place in the Sun: The Sheraton Bal Harbour of Miami Beach

“When I was a kid, we’d visit my grandmother in West Palm Beach every Christmas, and from there we’d always go down to Miami Beach. I have this memory of sitting in the back of the station wagon, driving past Bal Harbour and being transfixed by all the holiday lights in the trees. That was the image that flashed through my mind the first day I came on board at the Sheraton Bal Harbour”

Dan Kaplan gets just a bit wistful as he recalls that boyhood memory. Otherwise there’s not much room for wistful reflection on the energetic young general manager’s agenda. Not when you’re running an award-winning, 659-room shorefront resort that’s one of the busiest and most happening in a busy and happening Miami Beach. Especially this last week of March when the Passover and Easter holidays coincide, the hotel is operating at close to 100% occupancy, and the weather is Florida-fabulous with day after day of  sunny skies and temperatures in the 80’s.

A Place in the Sun: The Sheraton Bal Harbour of Miami Beach There’s a tone and a tempo at the Sheraton Bal Harbour that we sensed the moment we turned off Collins Avenue onto the circular driveway before a gleaming white entrance fronted by shooting jets of water and brilliant flower beds beneath towering palms. Amidst a jumble of cars, a valet parker emerged, handed us a ticket, and swooped our vehicle out of sight but not before the bellman had rescued our luggage and escorted us into the glass atrium of the flamboyant Morris Lapidus lobby of curved walls and a circular stairway that descended before a windowed wall maybe 20 feet high.

On the other side was a riot of tropical growth that could have been Hawaii as easily as Miami. Later on when we joined Dan for a little tour of the property, we got to see this elaborate complex of gardens, waterfalls, and swimming pools -- all part of an $8 million renovation that was completed in 2000.

“If I have a particularly pressurized day, I walk out here, and all the stress is gone,” he told us as we crossed a suspension bridge made of wooden planks and held aloft by ropes. Below were lush gardens; bougainvillea and hibiscus framed cascading streams and rushing water tumbled among the rocks of miniature grottos.  We understood what Dan meant. The zen-like setting promised instant serenity. A setting that promised instant serenity - Click to Enlarge
A setting that promised instant serenity
On the far side of the bridge, divergent paths followed a series of connecting swimming pools of varied shapes that flowed like lagoons under graceful bridges and past sundecks set with lounges and grassy knolls studded with shading palms. Built to accommodate more than a thousand guests, the pool and lounging areas were spread in irregular formation across ten acres. 

Even at the height of the day, there was ample room for swimming, sunbathing, and strolling; there was no sense of being part of a crowd.  Just beyond lay thirteen acres of glorious Miami beachfront. Bright blue cabanettes dotted the sand; colorful parasails bobbed out on the turquoise sea. Enough touring, we said. It’s time to change and get out on the beach.

A fixture on the Miami scene since it first opened in 1956 as the Americana, a property owned by American Airlines, the hotel was designed by Morris Lapidus (who was the architect for the Fontainbleau and Eden Roc as well). The hotel was emblematic of glitzy, exuberant Miami Beach of the post-war years.  Sheraton took it over some years later, and that was the name that became fixed in the public mind, so much so that when the Starwood Corporation bought Sheraton out, they retained the name.

The Bal Harbour part of the name comes from the hotel’s association with the exclusive shopping center that was created on the opposite side of Collins Avenue in the early 1960’s. With emporiums on the order of Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Versace, Bulgari, and Chanel just across the street, Sheraton Bal Harbour guests are hard pressed to resist a little shopping especially since each receives a “Pasaporte” filled gift certificates and assorted Bal Harbour premiums.

“The Sheraton and the Bal Harbour mall thrive because of each other,” Dan had mentioned. “Without the draw of shops, we’d lose some of the occupancy. Without the hotel, they’d lose a lot of their patronage. It’s a wonderful harmony.”

The mall is but one element among many that make the Sheraton Bal Harbour a total vacation destination in and of itself. Miami Beach holds manifold attractions, yet we found little need to wander. After the March snows and mud of New England, it was enough for us to swim in the warm waters, luxuriate before the pool, indulge in a blissful Swedish massage, walk the shores of the mile-long pristine beach . . . and dine at al Carbon.

Friends who had recently moved to Miami Beach joined us for dinner at the Sheraton Bal Harbour’s gourmet restaurant whose paneled walls and lazy ceiling fans evoked a colonial tropical ambience reminiscent of the historic Jamaica Inn of Ochos Rios where Winston Churchill and Noel Coward were wont to dine. Through the French doors, the suspension bridge was visible illuminated by dozens of tiny lights set along the ropes. All that was missing was an orchestra playing “Begin the Beguine.”

We quickly agreed when Barbara, our lovely server who comes from Argentina, suggested we begin with a selection of appetizers. Soon after, a tantalizing sampling appeared: miniature crab cakes flavored with ginger and chili mayonnaise, ribs in a spicy Creole sauce, grilled shrimp, Argentinean empanadas, and a red pepper salad. Three of us dug in while the sole vegetarian in our group contented himself with the salad. This did not escape Barbara’s notice. She put in a word with the chef, and moments later, a dish of risotto and mushrooms was added to the mix.

Chef Rafael Manvano was born in the Dominican Republic although he attributes some of his culinary genes to an Italian grandfather. After training in Rhode Island and working in a number of New England restaurants, he joined his parents who had relocated in Miami. At the Sheraton Bal Harbour, Rafael began as sous chef, moved on to banquet chef, and finally assumed his present position of executive chef.

“We get an international crowd so we try to appeal to a range of tastes,” he told us. “Caribbean food is popular here, and we have that. We do some Oriental dishes like clams with a black bean sauce, steaks a la Argentine on the grill, and lots of seafood. We specialize in fish caught in local waters, but also offer sea bass from Chile and lobster from Maine.”
Executive Chef Rafael Manzana combines his Caribbean origins with New England training in a fabulous Caribbean Clambake

We moved on to our main courses confident we were in good hands. And Rafael did not disappoint with the seared sea bass and perfectly rare tuna steak. Our vegetarian friend was both surprised and delighted with a rustic whole grain penne tossed with asparagus over spicy grilled eggplant.

But the piece de la resistance was the chef’s specialty: Caribbean clambake. Combining his native cuisine with his New England training, Rafael hollows out a small sour dough loaf and fills the crusty shell with lobster tails, clams, and grouper that have been steamed in a broth of coconut milk, fish stock, and roasted peppers. Inventive, aromatic, and up to date in this era of crusty cuisine, the chef’s take on a New England staple was relished not only by the one who ordered it but the two who could not resist a generous tasting as well.

When Rafael urged us to try his Kit-Kat dessert, we did not hesitate. Another take-off on an old favorite, it emulates the popular cream-filled snack by layering the thinnest of wafers with an richly indulgent chocolate mousse.

It had been one terrific dinner. Our friends, who had been busy sampling the range of restaurants since moving here, pronounced it among Miami’s best and assured Rafael they would return. He beamed. “I love what I do. I wouldn’t trade this for any job in the world. It is so much fun; you meet so many people from so many places.”

That much we could vouch for. At the al Carbona, in addition to Barbara from Argentina and Rafael from the Dominican Republic, there is Hakan Aksu, the food and beverage manager, who hails from Istanbul. Bobby, who was our breakfast server at the breezy, beachfront Beach House Restaurant, is from the Philippines. We met housekeepers from Haiti, florists from Guatamela, a bellman from Thailand. And the international staff seemed but a reflection of the guests we encountered coming from such diverse locales as Argentina, Rome, Canada, even Morocco. But the mainstay seemed to be Americans on their spring holiday.    

Throughout the year, companies and unions, military and educational associations, even teams playing against the Marlins make up the guest roster. But this was family time. From Pennsylvania, Chicago, the New York metropolitan area, Texas, Atlanta, virtually all over the United States, parents and kids had come down to Florida to find their place in the sun at the Sheraton Bal Harbour.

There had been little growth in Miami from about 1959 until the 1990’s. But now it is tremendous. We were amazed at the extent of new development since our last visit in 1998. “The Sheraton Bal Harbour fits in with the expansion and building going on in Miami Beach,” Dan had told us. “We realize we must have something over the others or we’ll be sitting with empty rooms. We had a nice pool before, but now it’s spectacular. We had quality rooms before, but now we’ve renovated our 440-room tower at a cost of $14 million so it meets the highest standards of luxury and comfort.

“The company has put a lot of trust in me. It is a tremendous responsibility,” he added. “I work hard and surround myself with the right people to make it happen. I’ve made a lot of changes, restructured the staff, helped to create a culture that is very service oriented. We have about one to one guest to employee now, and in the last four to five months, the comments we are getting from our repeat customers is that the staff is better than they ever remember it being.

“For me a big part of the job is going out and talking to the customers, finding out what they want, meeting and greeting. What makes the difference is the guest experience. Whether it’s a smile, meeting a need, those are the moments of truth, and we have them every day with every guest. If we don’t have the right attitude, we can renovate till the cows come home and we’ll lose.”

Breakfast and lunch al fresco on the Beach House patio - Click to Enlarge
Breakfast and lunch al fresco on the Beach House patio

We were sitting with Dan on the patio of the Beach House, having a late lunch before checking out. And once again, the young general manager turned wistful. “My father, who was the great idol of my life and my biggest fan, passed away two years ago January,” he said. “He and my mom had visited me at every property I worked at until I was in the Cayman Islands and left the week before they were supposed to come down. After that, the joke was ‘Tell us where you’re going and we’ll meet you there.’

But he never had the opportunity to visit me here. My mother and he had been at the Sheraton Bal Harbour before -- but not while I was running it. This would have been the climax for him. Maybe that’s why the experience is so meaningful to me.”

Sheraton Bal Harbour Beach Resort
9701 Collins Avenue
Bal Harbour, FL 33154

Phone: 305-868-2510        

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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