The island city of Miami Beach seems tethered like a boat to the cosmopolitan city of Miami on the mainland, with bridges tying them together. When you cross over to the island, much of it is as lively, colourful, and busy as the city. But at the northern tip of Miami Beach is a drop of land — a square kilometre — called Bal Harbour, and it is a peaceful oasis.
A manager at the Makoto restaurant in Bal Harbour described the village to me as a place where the “top one percent of the one percent” come for a variety of ultimate luxury experiences. My impressions from my time there support that assessment.
The village includes the highest grossing mall in the world (per square foot), called Bal Harbour Shops. The dining is not only a delicious haute cuisine experience, it can also be interactive, with cooking lessons and ceremonies. Bal Harbour’s visitors get a special pass, called an Unscripted pass, to explore the city’s art museums and even to enter the homes of prestigious art collectors, who can share with guests the stories behind their collections.
Bal Harbour Shops are like an heirloom jewellery box. The stores are neatly arranged, each one like a gem whose beauty is made sweeter by a hint of nostalgia. As I walked through the boutiques, there was a peaceful timelessness about the place — an aura you might feel while wearing your father’s watch or your grandmother’s precious earrings.
The bespoke shopping experience includes many one-of-a-kind or limited-edition pieces. Art and legacy flourish here, from Richard Mille’s Tourbillon Fleur watch to a Chopard’s Red Carpet Collection necklace.
The store designs draw on legacy as well. For example, CHANEL’s museum-like boutique is decorated to reflect the design of Coco Chanel’s apartment. While each curated brand is unique, the Shops seem part of a single collection, with a natural harmony that flows between them.
Louis Vuitton’s storefront décor is Edenlike and suggests a natural microcosm of the surrounding retail oasis. Product designs tie into this oasis feeling — the design of a Louis Vuitton Palm-Printed Petite Malle handbag, available only at Saks Bal Harbour, is like a reflection of palm leaves in a still pool.
A rich experience, of course, includes all the senses.
Smell and taste are mastered within the culinary arts, which at Bal Harbour Shops include authentic Japanese cuisine at Makoto.
Makoto’s Executive Chef Anthony Micari emphasized the restaurant’s reverence for “food rooted in culture.” It offers simple ingredients, traditional recipes, and some of the freshest seafood in the world, including exotic sea urchins and caviar flown in daily from Japan. The restaurant also chases high-fat-content fish around the world, ordering from Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, or Spain, depending on the season.
“You don’t ever master [Japanese cuisine],” Micari told me. “You learn every day by failing, and by succeeding.” If his food had any imperfections, they were imperceptible to me.
I chose chopsticks instead of silver to slow my eating and to savour the crunchy branzino skin and fall-off-the-bone fillet.
Despite having overeaten at every meal during my visit, I indulged in a treat on the second floor of the mall, something I’ll always make room for — chocolate. My favourite piece at the newly opened Vasalissa Chocolatier was the rose truffle, an alchemy of white chocolate and rose petal ganache as lovely as perfume on the French Riviera.
I stayed at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, which is one of only two hotels in Miami that have received both Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond ratings. Napoleon’s stately presence and fancy for festivity can be felt there.
The emperor would “sabre” his champagne — open it with a sword — and he famously did so in only two circumstances: for celebration in victory, or for comfort in defeat. The late Madeleine Astor — who was the wife of St. Regis’ founder, John Jacob Astor IV, and a matriarch of New York’s high society — decided to carve the hotel’s own signature tradition out of this legacy, with champagne sabring every evening.
The hotel is so uniform and punctual with this ceremony that when I showed up at the bar five minutes late, I had missed it entirely. But the staff quickly convinced me to sabre a bottle myself, something I was not expecting, nor fully sure I could or should do.
Soon enough, my left hand cradled a cold champagne bottle, and my right hand gripped a sabre. The staff guided me, and with one swift slice, the champagne top burst, along with our laughter.
This struck me as a specialty of Bal Harbour — breathing life into traditions, encouraging you to inhale deeply and participate, rather than stand on the sidelines.
My private Mediterranean cooking class at Atlantikos, the restaurant at St. Regis, was my next taste of cultural immersion. Arguably, Executive Chef Franck Steigerwald’s greatest skill was taking my ineptitude in the kitchen and somehow helping me spawn two delicate restaurant-level dishes — branzino tartar and sea salt crust branzino.
The latter dish is cooked in champagne. It’s important that a guest first choose a champagne to drink, and then the chef cooks the branzino with the same champagne, so the food and drink share the flavour. Steigerwald joked that having figured out a way to work champagne into a recipe is true testimony to his Frenchness.
As Steigerwald tried to instruct me away from cutting into the branzino’s bones, or from leaving too much meat on the bone, he also gave me tips for ordering fish. For example, he said to always order fish Tuesday through Friday since Mediterranean fishermen don’t work weekends and Monday’s fish is left over from Friday.
He also noted that patrons are particularly fond of Atlantikos’s large, 5-pound, line-caught fish from Greece — including dentex, branzino, and turbot — because they can be shared in the traditional style. They are placed in the centre of the table for friends and family to eat from together.
With its good spirits and wealth of authentic culture, for me, Bal Harbour’s most notable luxuries were the memories and experiences I had there.