The Luxe Life

As the Great Hotel War of 2006 looms, South Beach's Delano tries a new tack: Magic

The Sanctuary hotel has a customized Bentley to whisk its guests around South Beach in style. The Ritz-Carlton offers a hunky poolside "tanning butler" to help schmeer sunscreen onto those hard-to-reach body parts. And, should musical inspiration strike in the wee hours, the $1000-a-night Setai features a Lenny Kravitz-designed recording studio. So just how does the Delano hotel propose to deal with this growing competition for its decade-long position as the Beach's premiere destination for the chic set?

"We have a genie," Delano general manager Mark Tamis offhandedly remarks in the midst of detailing his hotel's services.

Hold on. Did you just say you have a genie on staff?

"Yes, a genie," Tamis repeats matter-of-factly, speaking in the tone of voice one might use to tout, say, a deluxe salad bar. "He grants wishes."

Kulchur is momentarily speechless. Still, as the Great Hotel War of 2006 heats up, it only seems appropriate that if supernatural powers are to be wielded, they be deployed on behalf of the Delano. After all, its lobby already invokes Alice in Wonderland, complete with gauzy white curtains billowing from its cavernous ceiling, a velvet chair large enough to make Shaquille O'Neal look like an infant, and a long hallway leading past a life-size chess board to a "vanishing edge" pool with furniture welded to its floor.

"The genie doesn't wear pointy shoes," Tamis chuckles as Kulchur stares back at him incredulously, "and there's no brass lamp involved." Instead, this wish-granting wizard casually ambles around the Delano's pool area administering foot massages and, once the proper level of relaxed intimacy has been achieved, inquiring as to guests' secret desires. This being South Beach, Tamis declines to elaborate on the more outré requests. "Some of them are sexual in nature," he admits with a knowing smile. But as long as it's legal, he's game. And he's proud to claim his genie has saved at least one marriage.

None of this was in Tamis's business textbooks back at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, where he graduated in 1988. But then few would have predicted South Beach's evolution from an Eighties crime-ridden slum into the so-called American Riviera. Even as late as June 1995, when the Delano opened, this city was far from an obvious candidate for a tony resort setting.

"It was hard to visualize; nothing like this rehab had happened before here," recalls Miami Beach Commissioner Simon Cruz. Then the senior vice president of Ocean Bank, Cruz convinced his fellow executives to back Ian Schrager — Studio 54 nightlife impresario turned hotelier — and his 1993 $3.6 million purchase of a down-on-its-heels Collins Avenue retirement home. Ocean Bank staked half of Schrager's $24 million remodeling costs and then held its breath as Schrager turned the traditional notions of a luxury hotel inside out, enlisting designer Philippe Starck to mix the wacky with the minimalist.

The duo clothed their entire staff in medicinal white from head to toe and then decorated the Delano's rooms in the exact same fashion: A green apple on a wall sconce is the only splash of color inside sparse accommodations that more than a few travel writers have described as "sanitarium-like." Even Donald Trump, hardly a paragon of refined aesthetics, scoffed at the lack of luxe. Schrager's response? "I don't sell sleep," he quipped to the New York Times. "I sell magic."

Indeed, from its opening day, if guests were looking for a dose of excitement, Schrager didn't want them traveling any farther than back down the Delano's elevator. Come nightfall, the lobby was transformed into a central stop on the Beach's nightlife circuit, with a DJ spinning beats alongside a restaurant co-owned by Madonna (back when that concept still accelerated pulses).

Cruz, who grew up in New York City and managed to breach Studio 54's fabled velvet rope a few times, says he never doubted Schrager's plan: "I saw firsthand what he could create." Some of his banking colleagues were less sure: Would moneyed visitors really shell out $125 for rooms in a trash-strewn neighborhood still filled with drug dens and besiegedalter cockers?

"I don't think that $125 rate even lasted past the first weekend," Cruz laughs. "The place just took off from day one. [Schrager] gave it that sizzle, and they've been able to retain it." However you want to describe that appeal, the mid-Nineties social whirl was quick to adopt the Delano as a second home. Hollywood stars from Richard Gere to Sharon Stone, as well as supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, all served as chum in the water for the international flock of travelers desiring to lay out alongside them.

Moreover, a decade later, the term high-end customer no longer automatically connotes the use of pharmaceuticals on that stretch of Collins Avenue. This weekend a king-size bed with an ocean view at the Delano will run you $430 — and nearly double that sum once the winter months and the New York crowd arrive. Even that price may soon be a bargain, though. Peter Loftin has just reopened his Casa Casuarina, formerly Gianni Versace's Ocean Drive mansion, as a private club where the $36,000 initiation fee allows you a crack at one of its ten suites — available at upwards of $4000 a night. One can only imagine the room service charges.

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