Hotel Breakwater, South Beach, Miami, Florida

South Beach, Miami. A starry Monday night, the week of Thanksgiving. Cars cruising up and down Ocean Drive, slowly, taking in the scene. To one side, the beach and the sea –save for waves crashing against the shore, dark and silent. To the other, a line of hotels, deep courtyards between them, live bands or djs creating vibes that are anything but. Tables – extensions of dining rooms having already moved out onto hotel verandahs — line the edges of sidewalks, turning pedestrian passageways into narrow aisles.

Beguiling hostesses tempt strollers to stop for a drink, for dinner. Agile waiters, balancing trays, glide up and down verandah stairs in time to a beat that does not stop. Nearly all the hotels are of 1930s vintage and design. Having fallen into disuse and disrepair in the decades following the Second World War, they have, one at a time, been restored to their original glamour, lending to the area the name: “Art Deco District.”

Dead center, between 9th and 10th Streets along the Drive, the newest of these was having a “soft” opening. On the heels of completing a three-years-long, multi-million-dollar renovation, it announced its presence with a pair of angled vertical panels braced against the hotel façade and rising up into a background of Miami sky spelling out “BREAKWATER” in white letters against a deep blue background illuminated at night by what appears to be neon but is actually LED — a fitting thematic note for a hotel that merges 1930s imagery with 21st century technology.

The real opening is slated for mid January, 2012, we were told. Still, judging from the capacity crowd at tables on the bi-level verandah and sidewalk extension, sipping gargantuan margaritas and dining on dishes that mingle the Italian imaginings of a Neapolitan chef with the Latin/South American flavors of the locale, the 100-room Breakwater seemed fully operative.

“We are just waiting for work on the pool to be completed,” said General Manager Axel Gasser. “It’s up on the roof of the hotel, above the third story, a see-through infinity pool that flows against a glass wall facing the ocean. People walking on the beach promenade across the way will be able to see the swimmers.”

The Rooftop Lounge already houses a penthouse oasis for private receptions and the luxurious Intimissi Lounge with panoramic views of city and sea. The sensibility is very au courant, although we were told that when darkness falls, the candle-lit expanse takes on a particular romantic aura that evokes an earlier moment, when Calvin Klein’s “Obsession” perfume was launched on this site. The publicity resulting from that 1985 shoot featuring supermodel Kate Moss drew attention to the possibilities embedded in a long-languishing South Beach and put the hotel, designed by Yugoslavian architect Anton Skislewicz nearly fifty years earlier, on the map.

Subsequently, however, the Breakwater went the way of many a South Beach Art Deco property. “When I first saw this place, it was falling apart; homeless people were sleeping inside,” Axel told us.” Sporting the shadow of a beard and ruggedly handsome, Axel, who is of Austrian and Italian origins, comes from a long line of hoteliers and tour operators, but opted to resettle in the United States some twelve years ago and worked for a series of Marriott Hotels before relocating in Miami.

“I was always attached to the city; I had friends here,” he said. “I ran into a man from Jordache Jeans who was looking for a regional director to help lead a portfolio of Miami hotels the company had purchased. I focused on different places for eight years before coming here. This is the baby.

“We have completely gutted the interior. When we began, nothing was left but the walls, the floors and the verandahs. Since it’s a protected building, renovation was very expensive. There were certain things we couldn’t change; although some of them — like the beautiful terrazzo floors that were original to the hotel — we wouldn’t want to change. We were very careful to retain the Art Deco styling and colors, merging that ambience with sleek contemporary furnishings.”

It is a seamless blending. In a hotel that offers all manner of high-end 21st-century facilities, Breakwater guests find themselves transported back to mid-20th century Miami as they walk across the lobby’s gleaming terrazzo floors streaked with swirls of green and cinnamon. They take in the huge circular chandelier in the Arte-Moderne style and the sconces – streaks of pink neon-like light, the simple club chair of blue velvet and the flamboyant barrel chair of fuchsia velvet on a stainless steel ring. Walking through the hallways, they find themselves following a photo exhibit, sizable black and whites that document the experiences of two couples who have come to Miami from Paris, circa 1955. “The Unfiltered Journey” shows them disembarking from a private plane; lounging poolside, drinks in hand, the women in huge brimmed hats, the men casually toasting one another; one of the men leaning against a white convertible while his picture is snapped by one of the women who could be a Marilyn Monroe stand-in (especially in the single colored photo of the collection, where dressed in seductive 1950′s lingerie, she lies invitingly across a bed). All the images seem so accurate, one assumes they are actual period photographs and not (as we subsequently learned) created specifically for a very 21st-century hotel.

But it is the attention to details and the in-depth research that uncovered them which distinguish the Breakwater. “Many hotels have Art Deco exteriors, but we try to re-live the times within as well,” said Axel – who, we are beginning to think, reminds us of Don Draper.

“I’m an expert in opening a hotel,” he added. “It gives you the opportunity to begin from scratch. Our vision is to be a solid four-star, but with five-star service equal to that of a European four-star. And a four-star property in Europe is not the same as in the U.S. We take great pride in the customer service level. To give you some idea, we interviewed 490 people for 55 positions. That is our standard.”

The standard extends to the other side of Ocean Drive where a segment of the pristine beach is reserved for Breakwater guests, along with lounges, towels, a snack shop, and access to water-sports activities. It also extends to an exceptional dining operation that includes the casual courtyard which separates the Breakwater from the adjoining Hotel Edison (under renovation at the time of our stay and soon to be a second Breakwater tower), to the Edison’s sidewalk café, to lounge service, 24-hour room service, and NINE — the fine dining restaurant (named for 9th Street) housed in the cool and lofty lobby and extending out to the bi-level verandah and sidewalk below.

Executive Chef Rosario Corrao, Hotel Breakwater, South Beach, Miami, Florida

Executive Chef Rosario Corrao

All of the above are under the expert direction of Executive Chef Rosario Corrao, who melds his Neapolitan DNA with the demands of a Floridian hotel. “We have the culture and mentality of Italy, and the wonderful products of Florida,” the serious and earnest chef told us. “At the same time, we have to suit guests from all over the world, not only New Yorkers, people from Chicago, and L.A., but many Europeans and lately Asians and South Americans. So we add a touch of jalapeno to gazpacho, we serve Florida shrimp with curry, we have the ceviche for clients from Peru, chorizo for those from Argentina and Mexico. And what we find is that people from one group will end up trying the dishes from another.”

Sitting on the far end of the verandah and sipping effervescent Prosecco enlivened by slices of strawberry and lime, we were introduced to Rosario’s philosophy. “We put our Italian influence on products of the tropics,” is the way he put it, presenting a lobster and crab salad with mango and papaya. His bruschetta was classical Neapolitan: “Home-made ciabatta bread, with roasted cherry tomatoes and organic basil pesto,” he said, placing the long-loved delicacy before us, “but also crusty bread with French brie, guacamole, and sun dried tomatoes — a mixture of Europe and the Caribbean.

“In Miami, we make things that are for the climate; they have to be very fresh,” he added as a marvelous seafood gazpacho with calamari and mussels was served. There was tuna tartar topped with guacamole, oysters with cocktail sauce in a vinegar reduction, classics like linguini (hand-made, as are all the pastas) with clams, black tagliatelle, little Italian rolls.

Clearly, Rosario’s heart lies in the cuisine of his native land. “We want to give you the simple things, top of the line products, not too much seasoning,” he said. Then he paused and shrugged. “With a nice mozzarella, you don’t have to do anything. No sauce, just a little olive oil. “That,” he concluded with a smile, “is the Mediterranean mentality.”

Just at that moment, the strains of a melody could be heard. Something hauntingly familiar. It took a few bars, solo violin, heartbreakingly poignant, before we could place “You Belong to My Heart.” So unexpected on South Beach.

Soon a single guitar joined in, then a rich baritone adding the lyric in the original Spanish: “Solamente una Vez.”

Musicians, Hotel Breakwater, South Beach, Miami, Florida

Captivated, we followed the music to its source at the opposite end of the verandah: two men — the violinist and the guitarist/vocalist, a synthesizer filling in bass and rhythm. Who plays music like this any more?

“I saw them at a different hotel, found out who they were and said, “I want you here,’” Axel told us.

In their passionate renditions of this beautiful ballad, along with the eternally romantic “Besame Mucho,” the theme from the film “Love Story” and such, many sung in Spanish, these gifted musicians were yet another element of the Breakwater’s mid-century motif. Up and down Ocean Drive, the heavy beat of contemporary rock was pulsating. At the Breakwater, we were listening to something else.

General Manager Axel Gasser, Hotel Breakwater, South Beach, Miami, Florida

General Manager Axel Gasser

Perhaps that is because this hotel is something else. “If you go to a resort like the W, it doesn’t matter if you are in Miami or Milwaukee,” Axel had said. “I traveled so much for Marriott, and wherever I went, all the rooms were the same. I want to stay someplace where I can experience the surrounding area, where I can get the feeling and culture of the place. I don’t want wake up and say, ‘Where am I?’

“We sold the Breakwater to the travel industry on the basis of a vision, on the way it was going to be three years later. It was like showing Vegas when it was no more than an empty desert. Now the property is nearly set, ready to capture the essence of Miami’s glamorous lifestyle with its 100 sleek rooms and suites, its chic lounges, its ‘unfiltered’ concierge services.

“This is the newest block on Ocean Drive. This is the newest hotel. This is also the last hotel that was redone from scratch.”

He stopped for a moment, then added with a laugh: “That distinguishes it.”

Hotel Breakwater
940 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach, FL 33139

305.532.2362
Reservations 877.388.9074
www.breakwatersouthbeach.com.