Swelter 12

And so we all go, to and fro, talking of Michelangelo and the Delano, the media locusts drifting momentarily from the Hugh Grant mess to little old Miami, always good for a junket and a breaking trend story. The phoenix of fashion mutating into a new incarnation of tenuous postcoital allure, freshening up after a dalliance with the sordid. In tune with the mainstream press, resolved to be equitable and enthusiastic, positively nice for once, basking in a city we dearly love to loathe. After all we're no fool or hindrance to pop history, and glamour remains good for business. Appropriately, the week building steam with the evolving Albita Rodriguez saga, the newest installment played out in the megahomes-rule section of Tahiti Beach, formerly a teen wasteland haunt for Coral Gables youth. In the early Seventies, an invigorating mini-wilderness ideal for jeep racing, skinny-dipping, funneling beers, and chasing the sweet nectar of oblivion. Times definitely have changed.

Now, as a purveyor of other people's dreams, pulling up to the house of developer Pedro Garcia for the CD release party of Albita's No se parece a nada like a voyeur-for-hire, conscious of peeping protocol. In the three-story living room, photos of Albita mixed with those of the host's children, the fandom connections amplified by Albita's manager Miriam Wong, who once did construction work on the house. As usual, studiously ignoring the buffet and bar -- infested by every known local and international journalist -- and culling column fodder. Albita set for Vogue and various European glitter-beat magazines, and more than likely, the Des Moines Register one day will send a photo crew down. For the summer, promotional tours of London, Paris, Madrid, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Colombia, along with appearances in New York and at L.A.'s House of Blues. All the obligatory Thus-Spake-Albita effects in place: smoke machines; star-shape lights beaming out over the mangroves, mosquitoes cowed into submission by the tony surroundings; the faux-Havana effect of a clothesline laden with brand-new undergarments, trailing back from the stage.

The guests, happily enough, authentically Cuban, everyone talking at once and intent on being the most stunning thing imaginable. The truly focused Emilio Estefan, kicking his Crescent Moon Records label into overdrive. Musical legends Olga Guillot and Cachao, icons of the holding-on school. Totty Saizarbitoria, of Centro Vasco, the sweetheart from Albita's stomping grounds. At the peak of mingling fever, Miami's first star of the next epoch bounding on-stage in a white guayabera and dark pinstripe pants, charging through a few neoclassics with her band, then changing into a gold brocaded vest for visual values. Gloria Estefan standing in the crowd -- no obvious security, no reserved tables, no fuss -- and singing along, the pampered hips of Latin socialites breaking into the great sashay of Cuba. Seemingly, everyone also bringing their aunts, grandmothers, and third cousins, the congestion making for great scenery, our buoyant mood nearly dashed by a noted Anglo ethnoculture-vulture journalist, dismissing the party as "too Cuban." Talk about missing the point.

And then it's Friday night, the debut of the Delano, the Albita of hotels. As with the glitz-meets-publicity fest surrounding the Fontainebleau opening in 1954, variously derided as an architectural abortion and figurehead of civic rebirth, the Delano becoming an instant locus of hope, hype, and controversy, as well as the cruel beast of status, a touchstone for how the city regards itself. An epic two years in the making, the team behind the property casting a pall of major-league hipness, on the tip of the cutting edge. Co-owner Ian Schrager, whose curriculum vitae of chic includes the iconographic Studio 54, the New York hotels Morgans, the Royalton, and the Paramount, as well as the Mondrian in Los Angeles. His wife, Rita Norona Schrager, a hometown Cuban girl who'll be opening the women's spa-health bar Agua this Friday. David Barton's ground-level gym, located in the site of the old Beirut nightclub, a popping little joint in the pioneer days. Madonna teaming up with Brian McNally -- Indochine, 150 Wooster, the Royalton's 44, among other hallmark watering holes -- for the Blue Door, the hotel's lobby restaurant. The designer Philippe Starck, fueling the hotel-for-the-next-millennium chatter with grandiose pronouncements about Miami's devotion to the tired, the tacky, and the downright vulgar: hardly news and points well taken, to our way of thinking, despite coming from an overwrought Frenchman.

Predictably, the promotional circus helped along by lingering provincialism, Babbittesque chest-thumping, and denunciations of Manhattan's cultural imperialism, the same influx that inspired the original South Beach resurgence and reams of great gush copy. That said, the Delano, in the end, seems right in step with local civic culture, more about real estate than anything else. Perfectly theatrical, in the light-opera sense, the renovation encapsulating the workings of style: a denial of what is -- flying in the face of local realities -- accomplished through sheer artifice and talent. Like Starck himself, the hotel occasionally over the top, a surrealistic blend of aesthetics: a little bit of this, a lot of that, and everything works. A true resort, the kind of refuge that makes you feel more fabulous than you really are.

The neon jangle of Collins Avenue instantly evaporating at the front portico, sheathed in white linen and hibiscus trees, the porch equipped with an enormous mildew-prone sofa, an extravagant touch of whimsy. In the main lobby, a soothing dark sea of cherry wood floors, ashwood-paneled walls, and huge pillars framing a free-floating museum of designer furniture: Chippendale, Charles Eames, simple bentwood pieces, a Dali female-nude chair with high heels, and a futuristic Christian D'Astuguevieille piece, nestled in a phone nook screened by white linen. Farther back, the pocket-size Rose Bar and an elegant dining room with more linen drapery and theater, facing the grounds sweeping to the ocean. An orchard with a subwaylike grate spewing forth atmospheric steam, stately rows of royal palms leading to a lounging area of imported sand. Cabanas with canvas drapes on one side of the vast wading pool, white-on-white poolside suites on the other. Up and down, a grand jumble of elements: mirrors propped against trees, a suburban swing hanging from a tree, an outdoor Starck chess set, New Englandish latticework, and, just for pure punch, an old-fashioned patio table with two chairs and a lighted candelabra, smack-dab in the shallow end of the wading pool. The whole package inspiring similarly eclectic repercussions, from "they have to be kidding" to the fervent blessings of the excessively cultivated: "Finally, a place where I feel normal."

As it happens, the debut festivities inspiring an abnormal level of self-generating neuroses beforehand, gossip transforming the place into a monolith of intimidation. Given the celebrity connections of management, Beach people mistakenly assuming the opening would be a no-chumps-allowed attitude carnival, and no one, after all, wants to look like a gawking rube. Accordingly, a very grand hotel sliding into being with an eerie, studiously uncrowded pleasantness. None of the usual door-groveling or stampedes for free hors d'oeuvres, and a surprising paucity of models, professional personalities, and regulars, the brave souls in attendance on their best behavior, more palatable than usual. From the start, the opening running like clockwork -- smooth, cordial, and more efficient on opening night than most veteran South Beach establishments. Finally, a service business that actually knows how to do business: Open the right property, and over time the right people will come.

At the stroke of 1:00 a.m., our table still lingering over executive chef George Marone's tasty cross-cultural dinner: tuna with foie gras and spinach, steak, crab cakes, with cräme brnlee and root beer floats for dessert. Piped-in music, from Leonard Cohen to nine inch nails to Billie Holiday, drifting over the room, the evening taking on the quality of a dream. A posse of retro Shaft wanna-be's, all Afros, Cuban heels, and hip-huggers, constantly parading through on the way to the pool. Some hipster, an attitudinal Lurch with a peroxide hairdo, jarring against gum-chewing, off-the-list types. Way too many aging sex kittens, opting for ridiculously inappropriate attire: In a way, Miami always gets what it deserves. Designer Norma Kamali, Suzanne Bartsch and husband David Barton coming down from New York, along with a guy billed as "the ex-husband of Carolina Herrera's oldest daughter," and finally a Christo look-alike, warmly embraced by McNally and Schrager.

McNally, an affable pro, explaining the gentleman's true identity -- Charles Gandee of Vogue -- and good-naturedly noting that "Christo might be a little busy with the Reichstag right now." Winding down with the likable Colin Callender of HBO, both of us dodging some trashy things, McNally talking of the real opening on November 10: "We're going to call in all our favors, bring down everybody, have a bash going all the way to the sea." And then it's home to bed, dazed from the night of the soft sell, perplexed, and a little lost, our companion perfectly capturing the curious chimera: "I've figured out why tonight's been so strange: This may be the only nice opening I've ever been to, the only time I haven't totally disgusted myself.

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Tom Austin