The Fisher Island ferry leaves from a dock a few hundred yards from Miami’s cruise ship terminal and just a short drive from the madding crowds of South Beach. It takes eight minutes to make the crossing and to offload its passengers in a parallel universe. The island’s 216 verdant acres are an enclave of almost surreal calm, from which Miami’s cityscape of glass-and-steel towers seems little more than a gigantic theatrical backdrop.
The island’s story began back in 1925, when William K. Vanderbilt II traded a 250-foot yacht in exchange for seven undeveloped acres, then the property of local real estate magnate Carl Fisher. (Legend has it that Fisher instigated the deal and proposed to Vanderbilt an exchange: “My island for your boat.”) On the southern shore, Vanderbilt constructed a stone mansion in a Spanish Renaissance style, intended to serve as his family’s winter retreat. Nearby, he also built three substantial cottages to accommodate his numerous guests.
When Vanderbilt died in 1944, his widow sold the island, which changed hands a number of times before finally becoming a club in 1987. Today, Fisher Island is primarily an affluent residential community, with 722 condominiums contained within six-story, turreted tile-roofed structures, a third of whose owners live on the island full time. Vanderbilt’s estate, however, now forms a 41-room boutique hotel, comprising the 1920s cottages — with one, two and three bedrooms, respectively — plus Mediterranean-style villas with private courtyards and Jacuzzis, and so-called “guest house suites.” The Vanderbilt Mansion itself houses dining venues and a ballroom.
Having driven off the ferry, we pulled into the visitors’ parking lot, where we were greeted politely by a staff member with a golf cart. This would be our transport for the next few days, as cars are allowed no farther than the dockside. Although much of the shoreline has been developed, Fisher Island still seemed overwhelmingly green and peaceful, owing to a nine-hole Pete Dye golf course that takes up at least a third of its area. A short trip brought us to the resort complex, where the small reception is housed on the ground floor of one of the villas. There, we were greeted with unusual warmth and plied with Perrier-Jouët champagne.
Fisher Island Club is coming to the end of a $60 million renovation program, with significant sums having been lavished on the hotel rooms and the mansion. This was immediately apparent in our second-floor suite, which was in pristine condition — indeed, it seemed entirely plausible that we were the first people to stay there since its refurbishment. Both the bedroom and the sitting room were spacious and pleasingly furnished in a traditional style. The classic color scheme of French blue, beige and white, plus a honey-colored marble floor, provided an environment that was both cool and restful. In the living room, we found a comfortable sofa, wingback armchairs, a small wet bar and a compact work area for those unable to withstand the siren call of the office. The bedroom and small dressing area were well-lit and were provided with ample hanging space. And from a small wrought-iron balcony, there was a seductive view down an avenue of palms to the glinting waters of a marina. The modern marble bath provided twin vanities, a soaking tub and Bulgari toiletries. The only thing it conspicuously lacked — presumably because of the constraints of space in an old building — was a separate walk-in shower. Otherwise, I could find nothing to criticize; on the contrary, I was extremely content and ready to settle in for an extended stay.
Having unpacked, we wandered down to the outer marina — one of two — to appraise the super-yachts. (Fisher Island’s 100-plus slips can accommodate craft of up to 250 feet in length.) There, the clear water also provided a sanctuary for a somnolent group of manatees.
Nearby, the Beach Club comprises a number of airy pavilions overlooking a stretch of fine white sand, backed by calm sea suitable for swimming.
It became our habit to drive around the island to watch for dolphins cresting the light swells of Biscayne Bay.
(The best beach on the island, which extends along its entire eastern shore-line, is for the exclusive use of homeowners; this can be annoying on weekdays, when it is frequently empty.) The Beach Club’s attractive casual restaurant offers a lengthy menu of American and Mediterranean classics, with an alternative provided by an adjacent sushi bar. During our stay, the Vanderbilt Mansion was still in the final stages of renovation, so although we were given a guided tour, its restaurants were closed (as was its sizeable saltwater swimming pool, a facility available to hotel guests). Instead, we dined at Porto Cervo, an Italian restaurant overlooking the inner marina that offered excellent if predictable food and friendly service.
Other amenities on Fisher Island include a 20,000-square-foot spa; the aforementioned Pete Dye golf course, widely considered one of the best nine-hole layouts in the United States; and a superb tennis center with two grass, two hard and 14 Har-Tru clay courts. In addition to Boris Becker, who once owned a home on the island, the complex has been used regularly as a practice facility by the likes of Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Anna Kournikova and the Bryan brothers.
After playing a set of tennis in the cool of the early morning, it became our habit to drive around the island, a leisurely 20-minute trip, to admire the views, to savor the breeze off the ocean and to watch for dolphins, which were regularly to be seen cresting the light swells of Biscayne Bay. Invariably, we would also stop in at the aviary, home to a small flock of flamingos and a number of resplendent (and exceptionally tame) macaws. It was on these morning excursions that we became most acutely aware of the island’s profound tranquility. Fisher Island feels calm and extremely safe, and despite the conspicuous wealth of many of its residents and guests, its atmosphere is unpretentious and surprisingly low-key. Given these qualities, it could provide an idyllic location for a family or multi-generational holiday. Certainly, I cannot think of another resort within sight of a major city and 30 minutes’ drive from an international airport that provides such a blissful place to unwind.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Atmosphere of serenity and seclusion; exceptionally friendly and obliging staff.
DISLIKE: The attitude of some homeowners, who clearly regard hotel guests as an unnecessary inconvenience.
GOOD TO KNOW: There are several ferries, and the service runs 24 hours a day, so it is extremely easy to dine or shop in Miami Beach.
Fisher Island Club, 95 One-Bedroom Guest House Suite, $950; One-Bedroom Courtyard Villa, $1,050; Three-Bedroom Rosemary's Cottage, $2,250. One Fisher Island Drive, Fisher Island. Tel. (305) 535-6000.