“Nobody gets on the island we don’t want to get on,” says Herb Pianin, manager of the hotel on Fisher Island, the ultraexclusive residential resort eight minutes by ferry from South Beach. But despite the vaunted maximum-security border guards, my girlfriend and I waltz on and off the ferry without anyone’s so much as asking our names. When Pianin hears this news after picking us up at the dock in his golf cart, he says, “You’ve ruined my day,” and promises heads will roll.
Welcome to Fantasy Island. The ultimate gated community, this former winter estate of W.K. Vanderbilt is a haven for people with too much money or too much fame and serious privacy issues. Oprah Winfrey has set up camp on its 216 acres with a 6,000-square-foot condo and a couple of satellite pads, one for her trainer and another for visiting members of her entourage. Jim Courier likes it for the ATP-quality tennis courts: hard, clay, and grass. This isn’t Palm Beach. The money’s so new here, they’re practically minting it on the premises. If you’re a generic rich person with $550,000 to $9 million to burn on a condo with views of the Miami skyline, this is the place.
Even if you’re only modestly loaded, you can still get a piece of the Fisher action, because it’s also a hotel. For the temporary guest, there are two ways to go. One is an apartment with two or three bedrooms ($610 to $1,450 a night), wraparound terraces, and mini-bar snacks in the kitchen. The quainter option is one of the $385-per-night bed-and-breakfasty cottages that Vanderbilt built off his mansion, a huge Spanish-style hacienda with a courtyard aviary still stocked with toucans, parrots, and peacocks perched on the old tile roof. (In the twenties, Vanderbilt traded the island to Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher in exchange for his yacht.) The accommodations are first-rate, but the real added value is outside the rooms themselves, in the five-star facilities available to guests and residents alike. The beach is a sheltered cove with yellow-and-white-striped cabanas and fine white sand imported from the Bahamas. The nine-hole P.B. Dye golf course has five tee difficulties, from ladies’ to gold, for pro tournaments like the Merrill Lynch Shootout.
Unlike other high-end resorts, Fisher Island feels like a village. It’s got a fire house, a post office, a crack EMS team guaranteed to arrive in less than three minutes. It happens to be a village where the locals ride in Bentleys, white stretch limos, and Mercedes golf carts. “These are well-heeled, high-profile individuals,” says Pianin. Not just Americans easing into their golden years but Brazilians, Argentines, Italians, Germans, and anyone in his or her late forties to sixties belonging to what Pianin describes as “that certain niche of individual that doesn’t care what they’re spending.”
A quick browse in the general store tells you the tax bracket of the average shopper. At the deli counter, a bottle of Dom Pérignon sits next to the cole slaw. There are entire displays of DP, Veuve Cliquot, Moët. Apparently, residents pick up cases of bubbly as if they were six-packs of beer. Asked if catering to this pampered class can be difficult, Pianin says, “I think we have the biggest egos in the world here. They’re accustomed to having everything now. If they want 24 hangers, they want them now.” And they get them. Given that there’s a staff of 550, the ratio of irrepressibly friendly service people to guests is as extravagant as on a cruise ship.
At the Clubhouse restaurant overlooking the deep-water, fiberglass marina, where caviar is standard lunch fare, the waiters aren’t out-of-work actors; they’re pros in the European manner (ours was from Italy). A model walks serenely among the tables, displaying couture from the local boutique. These are the fringe benefits of hanging out with the superrich. The island’s “strongest amenity,” according to Pianin, is the Spa Internazionale. Its hard-core gym features the newest Cybex equipment and a relaxing harbor view. Spa treatments run from the standard Swedish massage to a thermal mud treatment to the trendy (and smelly) algae body mask. Another La Dolce Vita touch is the Roman shower, a cascade of 100-degree water that will loosen any Gordian shoulder knots that the massage didn’t.
“Serenity now!,” as George Costanza’s father once exulted on Seinfeld. Tension-reduction-wise, they’ve thought of everything here. Aerobics on the beach. A kids’ program from ten to four. (“You don’t even see them,” promises Pianin.) The symphony and ballet come for command performances. And if your tastes run to livelier action, South Beach is just a white-stretch-limo ride on the ferry away.