Oh Miami!: $1 Billion Reno Not Enough to Fix Fontainebleau

Fontainebleau lobby bar: Shakin'!

Fontainebleau lobby bar: Shakin

April 2 (Bloomberg) — The ideal Miami getaway goes something like this: Ensconced in a private poolside cabana, you’re brought a steady stream of drinks while beautiful people drift by — and you haven’t a care in the world.

Despite Florida’s housing mess and faltering economy, the Fontainebleau hotel has created a world-outside-the-world feel. Except for the cabana’s flat-screen TV showing 24-hour news, I could easily have been in the hotel’s 1950s heyday, divorced of current cares. I could barely muster enough concern to ponder my next drink order.

That’s lucky for the Fontainebleau, as the owners spent $1 billion renovating the iconic semi-circular structure on 22 acres of Miami Beach, including the construction of two all- suite towers for a total of 1,504 guest rooms. With vacancy rates nationwide the highest in years, that’s a lot of space to fill. {Click to read on Bloomberg News}

The property first opened in 1954 when the words “glamour” and “Miami” weren’t utterly incongruous, and guests included Frank Sinatra and Elvis. Updating a classic is always chancy, yet the renovation was desperately needed to bring it to the hip standards of South Beach hotels like the Setai, Gansevoort South and re-done Tides.

Having stayed years ago, the thing I most remember was being descended upon by a pack of smiling valets. This hasn’t changed: Moments after pulling into the circular driveway, we’re whisked from the car and ceremoniously led into the chic, coliseum-like lobby.

Bow-Tie Pattern

A series of couches and sculptural chairs are sprinkled around the bow-tie-patterned marble floor, an element from original architect Morris Lapidus. Equally impressive circular chandeliers thrust down from the ceiling.

The grand entrance is partly undercut by the odd confluence of poorly dressed conventioneers mixing with on-the-prowl locals in Pucci-print dresses.

The public spaces now look amazing, including the expansive pool complex, where “stars” in the bottom of the pool light up at night. But in truth the Fontainebleau is in the midst of an identity crisis, not quite sure what it wants to be.

Loud music plays at the pool morning to night, like the champagne-swilling scene at the Shore Club, yet its location on Collins Avenue near 45th Street is nearly two miles north of swinging South Beach — a blessing and a curse.

The Fontainebleau needs to keep its guests captive, which it pulls off with five upscale restaurants, including Manhattan imports Gotham Steak and Scott Conant’s Scarpetta. An eatery from Chinese chef Alan Yau, whose London restaurant is Michelin starred, is also opening — his first in the U.S. after plans long ago to launch in New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel fell apart.

Suspended Spirits

Gotham Steak, an offshoot of Gotham Bar and Grill, has an eye-candy atmosphere with a bar so incredibly tall that liquor bottles seem to hang in the air. The wild mushroom and truffle pasta and red snapper ceviche are standouts, not including the many steaks.

Scarpetta is hit and miss. Homemade pastas are transcendent, while seared scallops needed more acid. Prices throughout the hotel are high (a large coffee and tea at the coffee shop comes to $13), but food service is generally first rate.

Which is good, because service otherwise can be poor. On a Friday morning I requested that a shirt and jacket be pressed and shoes shined, impressing upon the representative that it was for an important evening event.

Right before the big event I arrived back into the room to find my clothes hanging where I had left them, untouched, and, insultingly, a self-shining kit next to my shoes. Mr. Sinatra would not have been pleased. Nor was I.

Dirty Dishes

Housekeeping was also the sloppiest I can remember, with dirty plates and glasses left in the room and cabinet and closet doors left ajar or open.

I booked a 320-square-foot ocean-view balcony room for $489 a night. (The hotel is currently discounting rates by 15 percent online if you pay upfront.) The bed had a white leather headboard and the wall art was a boring black-and-white print with the repeating words “I will not make any more boring art.” All rooms have a 20-inch iMac, yet you pay extra for Internet access.

It was not a sexy room, especially as the lamps lacked dimmers, leaving us with the option of overpowering light or total darkness. And while the white-marble bathroom was spacious, its door wouldn’t completely close and the toilet flush was the loudest I’ve ever heard.

Gorgeous Spa

If the room mostly encourages you to leave it, make instead for the gorgeous 40,000-square-foot two-level spa. The separate women’s and men’s sections are lavishly appointed, and even the locker rooms feel plush.

If the $1 billion hasn’t solved all of the issues, it has gone a long way to making the Miami Beach location much more appealing — a good place to ignore worries for a weekend.

A feeling I soon lost upon checkout. For some reason there was no electronic option, so we found ourselves in a long line on Sunday evening, waiting to pay the bill. How very 1950s.

Fontainebleau Miami, 4441 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach; +1- 305-538-2000;http://www.fontainebleau.com.

The Bloomberg Questions

Best amenity? The expansive pool complex that fronts the beach, although solitude lovers should know that music is continually piped in.

Service? Spotty. Valet and food service are excellent, but housecleaning and special requests can be problematic.

Bathrooms? Spacious and marble.

Spa? Enormous, with separate male and female sections and a unisex pool.

Price? Superior rooms from $399 (look for specials on the Web site).

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos and travel for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper atJason@JasonHharper.com.