In general, I prefer low-key, smaller hotels, tranquil and secluded places that possess traditional virtues and are indifferent to the dictates of fashion. But every so often I find myself admiring a place that in most respects is the opposite of my customary template. Not long ago, I stayed at the glitzy Baccarat Hotel in Manhattan and was unexpectedly impressed. And on a previous visit to Florida, I was surprised greatly to enjoy my visit to the flamboyant Acqualina, resort in Sunny Isles Beach, near Fort Lauderdale. Now it is the turn of the new Faena Hotel in Miami Beach.
South Beach is generally reckoned to end at 23rd Street, with the area immediately to the north, Mid-Beach, extending as far as 63rd Street. The preservation and regeneration of South Beach began in 1979, when one square mile, with its striking art deco buildings, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, South Beach is essentially a finished project. However, Mid-Beach remains relatively scruffy, despite the recent renovation of the iconic Fontainebleau hotel and the arrival of the Soho Beach House at 43rd and Collins. But the times are changing fast and nowhere more so than in the stretch between 32nd and 36th streets, now known as the Faena Art District.
Alan Faena is a 52-year-old Argentine hotelier and real estate developer, who made his first fortune as a fashion entrepreneur. Having sold his company, Via Vai, in 1995, he went into partnership with architect Norman Foster, designer Philippe Starck and Ukrainian-born billionaire investor Leonard Blavatnik, to redevelop the Puerto Madero docklands district in Buenos Aires. There, the Faena Hotel opened in 2004; the Faena Arts Center, housed within a former flour warehouse, debuted in 2011. Faena next turned his attention to a $1 billion development in Miami Beach, where work began on a condominium tower, Faena House, designed by Foster + Partners, in 2013. This is now complete. The 12,500-square-foot penthouse sold for $60 million in September 2015, setting a new record for Miami residential real estate, and the building’s residents now include Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.
The breathtaking scale of Faena’s ambition was immediately apparent as I strolled up Collins Avenue from the 169-room Faena Hotel — which opened in December — to Casa Claridge’s, his 49-room Spanish-style boutique property, that received its first guests a year earlier. (Faena has said that he envisioned Casa Claridge’s, where rooms begin around $150 a night, to be a hotel priced within the budget of visiting artists.) The most prominent addition to the district is the Faena Forum, a 50,000-square foot cultural center designed by renowned Dutch architect and Harvard professor Rem Koolhaas, which is scheduled to open in December 2016. Opposite, the 1940s Versailles Hotel, purchased by Faena and Blavatnik for $100 million, is being converted into Faena Versailles Classic with 22 lavish condominiums, while next to it, work will soon begin on Faena Versailles Contemporary, a new tower of 41 apartments.
The Faena Hotel was originally The Saxony, a luxury resort constructed in 1947, which, at its inauguration, marked Miami’s shift from art deco to mid-century modern architecture. The boldness of the new design is immediately evident in the lobby, now dubbed “The Cathedral,” which has been left as a vast theatrical space with massive gold columns and specially commissioned tropical murals by the Argentine painter Juan Gatti. It requires little imagination to picture the scene on any given evening during the week of Art Basel. To one side of the lobby is a rather cramped area for the check-in and concierge desks. There, we were agreeably surprised by the warmth, charm and professionalism of the reception staff, who displayed none of the snootiness and extreme self-satisfaction found at many of Miami’s design hotels. Sometimes, the first few seconds of a hotel visit set the tone for the entire stay. This was one such occasion.
We had opted for an Ocean View Junior Suite, which turned out to be pleasingly spacious, with a large balcony that provided a mesmerizing view of the beach. The interior had a hardwood floor, handwoven rugs, elegant art deco-inspired furniture and a vibrant color scheme of crimson and pale blue. In another setting, this might have been oppressive, even vulgar, but in the dazzling tropical light, and set against a backdrop of the turquoise ocean, it seemed invigorating, optimistic and entirely appropriate. The exceptionally well-appointed bath came with an eau de Nil-tiled floor, a soaking tub, a large walk-in shower, twin marble vanities and an unusually generous and stylish array of toiletries. Every aspect of the suite demonstrated careful thought and attention to detail.
Faena clearly sees himself in the role of a casting director, assembling an array of exceptional talents. Film director Baz Luhrmann and his wife, the costume and set designer Catherine Martin, were hired to further embellish the opulent interior, and a unicorn sculpture by British artist Damien Hirst, purchased at a cost of $6 million, provides a centerpiece for one of the two restaurants. (Another work by Hirst, an extraordinary gilded mammoth skeleton, occupies a huge glass case in the garden, en route to the beach.) Intensely proud of his Argentine heritage, Faena employed the country’s most famous chef, Francis Mallmann, to oversee Los Fuegos, where the menu chiefly features gaucho-inspired meat dishes cooked on an open-wood grill. (There is also an outdoor fire pit, the focal point of a traditional asado at Sunday lunches.) And at Pao, the young Austin-based chef Paul Qui serves imaginative modern Asian cuisine with Filipino and Japanese influences. Other amenities at the hotel include the lavish Tierra Santa Spa, where South American-inspired treatments employ Amazonian clays, as well as body oils and botanical scrubs derived from rain forest plants. And a sumptuous cabaret theater, with a gilded design inspired by European opera houses, provides a venue for live music.
I was left feeling rather breathless at times by the extent of Faena’s innovation. On such occasions, it was a relief to head to the private stretch of beach, or to relax beside the lovely pool on a crimson lounger, beneath a crimson parasol. There, the service was prompt and obliging — one staff member dropped by from time to time to see if my sunglasses were in need of cleaning — and the palm trees fluttered soothingly beneath a flawless South Florida sky. The Faena is dramatic, flamboyant and routinely over-the-top. But along with being spectacularly imaginative, it displays a human touch. During my stay, the staff were consistently friendly and unpretentious. In defiance of all expectations, I found myself extremely unwilling to leave.
The dramatic and imaginative design; the contrasting restaurants; the lovely pool; the extremely friendly and professional staff.
The cramped check-in and concierge areas.
It is a three-minute walk down Collins Avenue to Ian Schrager’s The Miami Beach EDITION hotel, where Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten offers modern Latin cuisine at the Matador Room restaurant.