A Peek Inside South Beach’s Best Hotel Pools
When it’s mid-August in Miami Beach, and the temperature dial is creeping ever closer to the 100 degree mark, while the humidity is soaking your shirt to your skin, a plunge into something cool and wet is the only outdoor daytime activity worth considering. The ocean is always nearby, but sometimes, particularly when the riptides are flaring and the jellyfish are frolicking, you find you’ve got an itch that only a pool can fix.
To SoBe locals and tourists staying at the boutique hotels, freshwater swimming options may at first appear somewhat limited, the only obvious choices being the Flamingo Park pool, functional, but a little too popular with the kiddies, and the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, which, while not without its charms, can be a bit too much of a jaunt for those who prefer to do their backstroke closer to the Beach.
However, as is often the case around these parts, looks can be deceiving: unseen to many, from about 16th Street on up, nestled between the hustle bustle of Collins Avenue and the oceanfront walk, there is a well-hidden world of tropical, palm-studded enclaves—stunning, watery playgrounds replete with cabanas, outdoor beds, and oversized pillows; they’re populated with models, rock stars, and Euro-hedonists, and obscured by towering hedges and white fences. This is the domain of the resort pool! The top players among them: The Delano, The National, The Raleigh, The Shore Club, and the Palms.
Strolling along the oceanfront walkway, you’ll pass by their rear gates. Thumpy, jazzy trance rhythms tease you as smiling tourists sashay in and out, towels draped over their shoulders, speaking a myriad of foreign tongues, past attentive guards and signs announcing that only registered guests may enter.
So how hard is it to actually get into these luxurious compounds? What exactly is going on in there, anyway? How do they compare in terms of ambience and amenities? This week, with camera in hand, I made it my mission to find out!
TIPS ON GETTING IN
Try to blend in with the guests and make your way through the back gate, and you’ll soon discover that it can’t be done. You’ll soon be asked to produce your guest card, or at the very least to provide your last name and room number. The solution to this conundrum is surprisingly simple: go through the hotel lobby. It’s probably best to pick a weekday in the slow season, when the crowds are lighter and security is less intense. Saunter through like you belong there. Walk with a sense of purpose and head east. Eventually, you’ll find the rear doors, usually opening to a back veranda with lazy ceiling fans and trendy patio furniture. Linger there for a few minutes, pretending to look at a menu or have a cellphone conversation while you scope out the place.
AIM FOR THE POOL BAR
The pool bar is the resort equivalent to first base. Usually, once you get there, you’re nearly home safe. Should anyone intercept you en route, approach them and ask if the pool bar is open, before they have a chance to request your guest credentials.
One pool bartender, who asked not to be identified, offered the following advice:
A couple of the resort hotels, such as the Raleigh and its sister hotel, the Standard, offer $20 day passes for non-guests who who wish to enjoy the pool facilities. No need to volunteer that you’re a non-guest, though: simply wait for the walkie-talkie people to approach you. If they do, they’ll be more than happy to accept your $20 payment at that time. Other hotels, like the Delano and the Shore Club (home of the ultra-chic “SkyBar”), allow non-guests to hang out at the bar after 5:30 pm and 7 pm, respectively.
Playing the pool bar card is not without its disadvantages, unfortunately. The drink and food prices are as over-the-top as the opulent surroundings.
Spend a few hours there, and you might as well have booked a penthouse suite. The idea is to make your way from the barstool to the lounge chair, as quickly and seamlessly as possible.
The best way to do this and complete your task? Befriend a guest; buy them a drink and ask for them to cover for you.
A WORD TO THE WISE: THE WALLS HAVE EYES
At first glance, it might appear that you’ve entered a carefree world of fun. Rum drunk girls with silicone-enhanced figures slur in broken French with visiting European businessmen, and couples snuggle on poolside canopy beds, while servers pass briskly amongst them with trays of piña coladas and mojitos. However, largely invisible to the naked eye, in many of these establishments there are strategically placed cameras, carefully scanning every wrinkle, curve, and bellyflop.
In some of the larger hotels (like Loews, for example), security people monitor the scenes from an office inside the hotel on multiple television screens, looking for something that seems out of place, ready to radio the ground troops should they encounter anything amiss. Don’t let that stop you, though! Just be aware that your exotic adventures are quite likely being captured in technicolor.
CHOOSING YOUR POOL
In terms of personality and style, the pools are as varied as the people who float in them. Here are most striking traits of each:
Best choice for an uncomplicated afternoon:
Of the seven spots I visited, the Raleigh Hotel, recently renovated by discriminating hotelier André Balazs, stood out head and shoulders above the rest in terms of friendly staff and accessibility to the amenities. Everyone from the management to the servers was congenial and unpretentious in this tranquil deco haven. Were you to be caught without your guest card, $20 will enable you to avoid an embarrassing and hasty exit. The ambience is also par excellence: the curvaceous pool boasts an outer, shallower extension, which is kept warmer during the winter months than water in the interior section. At the far end is a cascading waterfall, which is fun to drift under as you kick back in your inner tube. They’ve flirted with the idea of converting to saltwater, though they have yet to do so.
Beds and comfy lounge furniture adorn the surrounding area, providing you with a true resort experience. Sister hotel to the Standard (in Miami Beach), The Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, and the Mercer in New York. If I had to pick one setting to spend a relaxing afternoon in, this would be my pick!
Best place to have a Fantasy Island flashback:
You’ll find yourself scanning the skies for zee plane shortly after your arrival at The Palms South Beach. Despite its monicker, it’s actually a little north of SoBe, situated near 30th Street, and if feels like it could be worlds away. As you step off the veranda into the compound, you’ll think you’re on a remote Caribbean island. A white, Queen Anne style gazebo grabs your attention as you stroll in; from there, you’ll pass two colorful, perky macaws on your way to the pool bar, a funky palapa hut with stools around it.
Flowery foliage, gently swaying palms, and hammocks complete the experience. The security is there, but it doesn’t look like anyone is really very intent on doing anything strenuous, so it’s probably worth it to grab a banana daiquiri and take your chances.
Most likely spot to catch Jenna Jameson getting jiggy:
The Shore Club pool area is dripping in sex and epicurean appeal, a favorite watering hole for visiting celebs. The crowd is an electic gathering of hip hoppers, hipsters, and globetrotting party-set, with a sizeable gay and lesbian presence. Somehow they all manage to play together nicely in this Moroccan-inspired deco-dent locale, floating in one of the two pools, lounging, and sipping what may possibly be the best frozen mojitos in the world on the stools of their outdoor lounge, the trendy RumBar. At night, the place transforms into one of the hottest nightclubs on the beach: SkyBar, a complex of drinking niches including RumBar, the SandBar, Redroom, and the Red Room Garden. The landscaping is lush and fertile (like the patrons…), containing a labyrinth of secret passageways, in a design modeled after le Jardin Marjorelle in Marrakesh.
When I first arrived around 2 pm, I saw a sign posted near the pool area which read: “Hotel guests only. Please present your Privilege Card for access. Thank you.”
I ignored it and made tracks over to the nearest barstool, where I was left uninterrogated. My afternoon at RumBar slipped by effortlessly as I sampled their frozen tropical libations. They also make a killer tuna wrap with a choice of fries or salad, but it doesn’t come cheap at $24! Meanwhile, with a liter of Fiji water priced at $13, you’d think it had been hand-delivered from the South Pacific. Nonetheless, this is just the price you pay for unparalleled sensual swankiness, which this place, designed by famed English Modernist architect David Chipperfield, offers in spades.
Safest bet for escaping the paparazzi:
Nothing says security like the Loews Hotel. Access to the pool area appears at first to be a simple matter of following a stairway up from alongside the front of the hotel straight out to the rear. However, should you do so, you’ll soon find an attendant who’ll ask for your last name and room number. PR Director Sarah explains that of all the hotels on South Beach, they are the most customer-focused, wanting to ensure that the facilities are for the exclusive use of the hotel guests. Therefore, neither the pool, nor the poolside bar, nor any of the other facilities are available to non-guests. While an overheated local may find such policies frustrating, it’s no doubt a better deal if you’re actually staying at the hotel and want to enjoy the amenities free from the hassles of freeloading outsiders (who, me?).
Best locale for some stylish splashing:
The Delano is style personified. Built in 1947 and designed by Robert W. Swartburg, it was named after then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As soon as the doorman welcomes you in, you’ll find yourself in an immense, dimly lit corridor; sinuous sheers beckon you on from the sides. Once outside, you’ll feel as though you’d wandered into a scene from Alice in Wonderland: mismatched chairs and tables randomly appear, stimulating your imagination as you traverse the great lawn. Beyond it is the swimming pool, possibly unique in its feature of “soothing underwater music.” On the surface, the water flows freely over the sides, while its periphery is lined with cabanas and ornate bungalows.
It morphs at the end into a mere wading area, where a lone patio table and accompanying chairs provide a striking visual in the shallow water. This hotel, like the Shore Club, also possesses a certain sensuality, but here it’s less about hook-ups and more about raw aesthetics. Though it feels very exclusive, the Delano pool bar welcomes non-guests after 5:30 pm. Before that, it’s kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. A piña colada and a piece of key lime pie will buy their silence.
Where to go when you want to impress the Sultan of Brunei:
The National. Its long narrow pool stretches back a seeming eternity (205 feet, to be precise), met at the end by a waterfall streaming forth from a second pool a few steps higher. Canary Island date palms line the sides, creating a motif straight out of the Arabian Nights. Refurbished in 1997 and restored to its 1940s spendor, this hotel has long been a favorite for traveling celebrities. Among its amenities include poolside massage therapy, spa services, and gourmet dining in their restaurant, Tamara.
If this wasn’t enough, the hotel also employs its own production department to coordinate fashion/film shoots and music videos.
In the rear, A bar awaits; aptly named Zee Pool Lounge, it’s surrounded by lush greenery, lawn chairs, and enough black and white cabana tents to house the most happening harems. Of all the hotels, this one was the best at striking a balance between posh and family-friendly.
Though its policy is said to be guests only, I was able to make my way back to zee Pool Lounge without any effort, where I encountered a hostess. I simply asked if I could sit at Zee Pool Lounge, and she said yes, showing me in. I was then able to enjoy myself for quite a while there without anyone asking any questions.
Best place to get lost in the crowd:
The Ritz Carlton. Despite the name, this place feels more trendy casual than ritzy. It’s got style, yes—it was originally designed in 1953 by Morris Lapidus, a local architect famous for his Mi-Mo (Miami Modern) creations—but in its present incarnation, it isn’t as larger-than-life as its cousins up the street. On the ground floor, abutting the oceanfront walk, is the Dilido Beach Club, the only beachfront restaurant on South Beach, while upstairs, people both beautiful and ordinary alike co-mingle on the expansive pool deck, as servers busily peddle their pricey cocktails to the public. To reach this area from the hotel lobby, you’ll need to pass reception and climb a set of stairs to the second level. From there, you’ll notice the glass doors leading outside.
The outside bar is immediately to the right as you walk out the door. The set-up makes for a more discreet exodus to the pool area, where you can blend in with the guests with a minimum of effort.
Despite the easy access, the bartender did question me, in a non confrontational, yet thorough manner. “How long would I be visiting?” “When did I arrive?” “Where was I visiting from?” In the end, he’d surmised that I wasn’t actually staying there, but after two frozen cocktails, priced at $16 a piece, and a $14 chicken wrap (18% gratuity pre-included), he didn’t seem exactly anxious to boot me out to the curb.
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Whether pool crashing’s your game, you simply want to research the most aquatically-gifted locale for your next visit, or you’re just insatiably curious, like me, seeing the world behind the tropical hedges can be an eye-opening experience, as long as you’ve got some cash to spend and you have an appreciation for the fine art of doing nothing. But in the end, the flashiness and grandeur of these elite retreats are no match for the natural beauty of the glowing Atlantic just beyond their gates. Perhaps then, what’s true in Kansas holds up just as well in South Beach: if you want to go searching for your heart’s desire, you don’t have to look any further than your own back yard!
You Deserve More Than an Ordinary Vacation.
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