It’s hard to take life too se­ri­ously on the South­ern tip of Florida, and that’s what keeps us com­ing back for more

National Post (National Edition) - - THE TRIP - Sharon Lin­dores The writer was a guest of Bal Har­bour. The or­ga­ni­za­tion did not re­view this ar­ti­cle.

Mi­ami has al­ways at­tracted the rich and fa­mous. Ernest Hem­ing­way and El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor once graced this At­lantic shore­line and these days the likes of Oprah Win­frey, Will Smith and the Beck­hams live on the is­lands near South Beach.

I cruise by their lux­ury homes on the Thriller speed­boat tour — which goes around the Bis­cayne Bay area and then out into the ocean for a rol­lick­ing, high-speed splash about. The two skip­per dudes tell one-lin­ers (“There’s Mr. Will Smith’s home. If you look on the grass you can see his fresh prints”), while blar­ing mu­sic and point­ing out cool sites as the sun sets on the sparkly sky­line.


It’s easy to see why so many peo­ple are drawn to the south­ern tip of Florida. Not only is there plenty of surf, sand and sun­shine, but the city also boasts great gal­leries, mu­se­ums and shop­ping.

So no mat­ter what the weather’s like (hur­ri­cane sea­son runs from June to Novem­ber — bring­ing a mix of sun­shine and del­uges) there’s plenty to ex­plore.

And there are some unique and un­usual places to see. The An­cient Span­ish Monastery be­ing one of them.

Built in Sacra­me­nia, Spain in 1133, the monastery housed monks for hun­dreds of years be­fore be­ing bought by the news­pa­per mag­nate William Ran­dolph Hearst in 1925. He had the en­tire monastery care­fully dis­as­sem­bled (put­ting num­bers on each stone), bun­dled up in hay and shipped to the United States.

But upon ar­rival it was quar­an­tined due to a foot-and-mouth out­break. The crates were un­packed, the hay was burned and the stones were left in stor­age. Shortly there­after, Hearst fell upon hard times, lost money dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion and never man­aged to put the monastery back to­gether again.

The stones re­mained in stor­age for 26 years and after Hearst’s death they were bought by William Edge­mon and Ray­mond Moss.


It turns out that the stones had not been stored in any par­tic­u­lar or­der and some of the num­bers had been washed away by the years. Nev­er­the­less, as Time magazine re­ported they re­built “the world’s big­gest jig­saw puz­zle” as best they could in Mi­ami.

The monastery and mu­seum have two orig­i­nal stain-glass win­dows, a 15th-cen­tury mar­ble frieze and a wardrobe with the pa­pal seal (it was used by Pope Ur­ban VII in 16441652) among other ar­ti­facts. And it all sits on a beau­ti­ful prop­erty with nearly 1,000 plants and trees.

It’s a re­mark­able site lo­cated about 15 min­utes north of the ex­clu­sive en­clave of Bal Har­bour — a one­mile stretch that was built for the stars in 1946. Known as Amer­ica’s Riviera, it’s at­tracted ev­ery­one from Count Basie to Frank Si­na­tra and, more re­cently, the for­mer first lady of the United States Michelle Obama.

Nes­tled be­tween Surf­side and Sunny Isles, Bal Har­bour is home to the lovely St Regis re­sort, the Ritz Carl­ton and the Bal Har­bour Quarzo bou­tique ho­tel.

The ocean­front, lux­ury prop­er­ties of­fer won­der­ful ac­com­mo­da­tions, fine din­ing and stel­lar views — not to men­tion fantastic ameni­ties such as but­ler ser­vices, deca­dent spa treat­ments and kids’ clubs.

There’s a string of sandy beaches (all with signs ad­vis­ing pa­trons how to ‘stay out of the grip of the rip’), beau­ti­fully man­i­cured land­scap­ing with pa­tios and pools and a con­ve­nient trail for peo­ple wish­ing to cy­cle or walk along the coast.

In ad­di­tion, Bal Har­bour Shops — one of the world’s most ex­clu­sive open-air shop­ping malls — is here and it at­tracts peo­ple from all over.

Some come to dine at restau­rants such as Makoto, the Grill and Carpac­cio, all of which serve de­li­cious meals. Oth­ers come to shop — or win­dow shop as the case may be — in the glam­orous mall, with orchid palm trees, beau­ti­ful wa­ter foun­tains and about 100 lux­ury re­tail­ers.

The leg­endary crys­tal brand Lalique is here, as is Chanel and the newly opened Vasalissa Choco­latier bou­tique.

But there’s still more to do and see in the city. Guests who stay in Bal Har­bour re­ceive an art ac­cess pass, which gives them free en­try into 18 of Mi­ami’s best gal­leries and mu­se­ums — which should be on ev­ery­one’s list.

Viz­caya, the win­ter home of James Deer­ing, who made a name for him­self pro­mot­ing agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy in the late-1800s, ear­ly1900s is one of them. The stun­ning villa is a trea­sure trove of Eu­ro­pean art and fur­nish­ings span­ning 400 years — with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on Ital­ian goods.

The col­lec­tion is so good that even Queen El­iz­a­beth II made a point of vis­it­ing the home and gar­dens when she was in town.

And, of course, the Perez Art Mu­seum Mi­ami (PAMM) with its col­lec­tion of 20th- and 21st-cen­tury con­tem­po­rary art and the Phillip and Pa­tri­cia Frost Sci­ence Mu­seum, fea­tur­ing a plan­e­tar­ium, an aquar­ium and a va­ri­ety of ex­hi­bi­tions (both in the mu­seum park) are well worth vis­it­ing.

It’s also fun to wan­der around Wyn­wood art dis­trict. The Wyn­wood Walls out­door mu­seum show­cases mas­sive works by some of the best­known street artists and the area is full of funky gal­leries, bric-a-brac and colour­ful mu­rals. And it’s great to take a look at the vi­brant Lit­tle Ha­vana neigh­bour­hood, too. Both ar­eas have a dis­tinct charm and free spirit about them — with in­ter­est­ing, lit­tle shops, parks and cafe-bars.

In fact, the Ball & Chain in Lit­tle Ha­vana used to be Hem­ing­way’s hang­out. And the bar, with a great back pa­tio and fantastic live mu­sic, left me with a hop in my step and a to­tal chilled-out vibe at the same time. That’s one other thing Mi­ami is good for — you sim­ply can’t take life too se­ri­ously here. And that, no doubt, is what keeps us com­ing back.


Bal Har­bour is a one-mile stretch be­tween Surf­side and Sunny Isles neigh­bour­hoods.

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