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Live like a Vanderbilt (this Miami hotel used to be one of their summer homes)

This five-star hotel boasts a new spa, restored pool with water-spouting lion and its own aviary, home to a dozen exotic birds.

Ken Hayden

Fisher Island Club Hotel

Fisher Island, Florida, 1-800-537-3708,, 15 rooms and 11 villas from $620 (U.S.).

Dreamers wistful for the first Gilded Age and curious about the current one can plunk down some considerable loot and book into the resplendently restored Fisher Island Club Hotel (once a Vanderbilt vacation home) located on a private island just minutes from Miami Beach. You'll find peacocks strutting among the neatly arranged Royal Palms and bougainvillea flourishing on impeccably groomed grounds. Life is good here.

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Location, location

South Beach may be just minutes away, but Fisher Island is a world away. It promises a quiet broken only by the occasional bird trill or the discreet hum of an electric hedge clipper. "Everything is perfect. Nothing is complicated on this island," says Montrealer and part-time island resident Hubert Marleau over a glass of Champagne. "You can just lose yourself completely."

The island is inaccessible without the ferry or a yacht. In fact, planning for the ferry ride takes longer than the trip itself. Guests must be preapproved and then, before boarding, undergo a scrutiny usually reserved for flying into Kabul. In short, it's a hotel with a kind of moat, safe from crime and the possible annoyance of, say, another Occupy protest.


William Vanderbilt's mansion is the centrepiece for both the hotel and the island's private community. Originally designed by Palm Beach architect Maurice Fatio, whose Mediterranean houses were popular with tycoons of the time, the mansion's $60-million do-over is elegant and respectful. Its marble fireplaces, antique walnut millwork and copper-framed arched windows were meticulously restored. (I longed to see the Snooker Room, but sadly only parts of the mansion are open to hotel guests.)

The Vanderbilt estate's historic cottages and former servant quarters, now guestrooms, also got a facelift. The results are airy Florida living-style interiors with period appropriate touches – wing-back chairs, gold-leaf four-poster beds, ornately carved wooden ceiling fans – in rooms done in a palette of golds or pale blues. Some rooms have the original crystal chandeliers and fireplaces; all have private patios and Jacuzzis. Though not the playful gay aesthetic for which we love South Beach hotels, this one is absolutely perfect for the Gatsby reverie.

Eat in or eat out

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The clientele at the island's five restaurants is beyond particular and the executive chef used to be Chris Blackwell's, so great eats are guaranteed. The restaurants range from Garwood Lounge (formal brocade and mahogany ambience) to the most casual and prosaically named La Trattoria boasting a memorable lasagna and thin-crust pizza. At Dockside Café Porto Cervo, the most popular of the restaurants, maitre d'hotel Renato Taberno (who you just know has served everyone from Mafioso Meyer Lansky to Madonna) serves up dishes such as scampi with green risotto with great flourish and oversees jet set guests who I'm pretty certain included some Grimaldis of Monaco the night I was there.

Whom you'll meet

Bejewelled second wives sip drinks on the Beach Club terrace, while occasional hotties such as Real Madrid's Christiano Ronaldo or Hollywood heavy Will Smith will drop by in their yachts. Largely, the island appeals to the top-sider and khakis demographic. Who's who depends on the season: Brazilians love July, the French love August and the Russians, a significant presence, escape their long Moscow winters here.

Best amenity

This five-star resort has five-star amenities such as the new Spa Internazionale (located in what was Vanderbilt's private airplane hanger) with its underwater spinning class and Fijian sugar rub treatment. I loved floating in the Vanderbilts' restored pool with its water-spouting lion, but my favourite is the Fisher Island aviary, home to a dozen exotic birds and a flock of flamingos. The colours are brilliant and joyous as is Arturo Alvarez, the birds' knowledgeable and kind guardian.

If I could change one thing

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I'd really like to see the Snooker Room. I promise to abide by the rules: "Denim in good taste permitted."

The writer was a guest of the hotel.

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