The Biltmore Hotel: Old-world elegance in Miami with a Donald Ross golf bonus

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- The Biltmore Hotel rises almost like a medieval castle over an old, settled Coral Gables neighborhood, with views of the Miami skyline, the resort's golf course and tropical gardens.

The Biltmore Hotel
The Biltmore Hotel hosted the Summit of the Americas in 1994.
The Biltmore HotelThe Biltmore Hotel - poolBiltmore golf course
If you go

It is a beautiful, old-world elegant hotel, with architecture inspired by Spanish castles. It has housed golfing Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Prince Albert of Monaco and the Dali Lama, as well as the usual litany of Hollywood celebrities.

In fact, Clinton hosted 134 heads of state from the western hemisphere in 1994 here at the Summit of the Americas. Several movies have been shot at the hotel.

As you might expect, there is a state-of-the-art conference facility, with 76,000 square feet of meeting space, with an entire wing dedicated to small meetings and breakouts. The Conference Center of the Americas is a world-class conference center that includes two tiered amphitheaters.

The Mediterranean-style resort is spread out over 150 acres, dotted with palm and banyan trees, gardens, pools, lakes and waterfalls. It has a mammoth swimming pool, one of the largest in the world, according to hotel officials.

The National Historic Landmark building is close to both the airport and downtown Miami. It has 276 guest rooms, including 133 suites. All have separate sitting areas, high-speed Internet access and the amenities you would expect of a hotel of such stature. It's the only hotel room I've ever had with a long hall.

Two suites deserve mention: the 15th floor Merrick suite, with three bedrooms, each with its own bath, floor-to-ceiling windows, two balconies overlooking Coral Gables and a private elevator.

The Everglades suite has two stories, a master bedroom and second bedroom, a large living room and dining area with a baby grand piano and full kitchen.

The dining is superb at the Biltmore, starting with Palme d'Or, one of the best restaurants in South Florida. There's also the 1200 Restaurant and Courtyard, specializing in grilled meat and fish. It also offers "Italian-inspired" appetizers and pastas made with local ingredients.

Cascade is a newly designed al fresco restaurant and the 19th Hole Sports bar and grill serves more casual food. The hotel serves a Sunday brunch as well as afternoon tea. Two bars — the Biltmore bar and Boules bar — draw Miami-area celebrities and the social crowd.

The spa is a 12,000-square-foot facility on the seventh floor, with all the treatment rooms having picture windows overlooking Coral Gables and Miami. The spa offers massage therapy, facial and body treatments, terme spa baths, "lifestyle kurs" and specialty packages for groups, couples and wedding parties.

You'll see a lot of people lugging tennis rackets and golf clubs. There are 10 lighted tennis courts, but the star is the golf course.

The Biltmore Golf Course

"We don't have the ocean here, which is okay," said Jason Epstein, the head professional at the Biltmore's golf course. "The ocean is over-rated. We've got a Donald Ross golf course."

That they do, and they're doing everything they can to bring it into high relief. Like many of Ross' golf courses, the Biltmore layout, built in 1930, lost much of the master's imprint over the years, through storms, neglect and the biggest destroyer: time.

The course was in the hands of the city of Coral Gables for many years, and though this is a well-heeled city, it did not put much money into it and the course fell into disrepair. City councils don't revere Ross like many golfers do.

But, the Biltmore took over management several years ago, and has been slowly bringing Mr. Ross back to life, spending its own money on the renaissance.

They just completed a $1.5 million renovation, including replacing unsightly St. Augustine grass in the rough with Bermuda. They also filled many of the more than 200 bunkers -- yes, 200! -- because, after all, this is a resort course and pace of play is always important.

Epstein said the hotel plans to redo all 18 greens and replace the existing bridges over the Coral Gables Waterway, which runs through the course on its way to Coconut Grove and, eventually, to the Atlantic.

It's a course that has character now, and it shows. It is one of former President Clinton's favorite courses, for example, and Will Smith played here when he was in town. It's also a course Babe Ruth played, as well as Gene Sarazen and other south Florida stars.

The Biltmore is a deceptively difficult course, relatively short at 6,700 yards from the back tees, and with Ross' characteristically small greens, which can be notoriously hard to hit and hold. They don't have the radical drop-offs many Ross courses do, but you can find yourself in trouble if you hit to the wrong area, as Ross intended.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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