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.
||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
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
“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
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 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
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.”
lunch al fresco on the Beach House patio
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
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.
about these authors.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights