Fred A. Bernstein

Spending Money Like Water

Two hotels in Miami Beach makes waves

Published in The New York Times, February 17, 2006

IT IS RAINING in Miami Beach.

At the Setai - the Asian-inflected hotel where rooms start at $792 plus tax - the swimming pools are closed.

Just over a mile west, at the Standard Miami, where most rooms go for $225, the raindrops shattering the surface of the pool aren't deterring anyone. Two women in their 20's are swimming laps. A group of men wade in the shallow end, admiring the views of Biscayne Bay, spectacular even in bad weather. In the hot tub - fed by a giant waterfall - a man and woman are in intimate embrace.

Their attitude seems to be "we're wet, so let's get wetter." The Standard, which opened in January, is turning out to be the perfect dayclub in a city known for nightclubs, thanks to its decidedly unstandard spa. At the center of the action is a semicircular room called the hamam (the Turkish word for bathhouse). On a rainy Saturday in early February, two dozen men and women in bathing suits or wrapped in towels lounged on the hamam's heated marble platforms.

Others soaked in deep, free-standing metal tubs or explored the adjacent steam room, sauna and communal shower -- all of them coed. Stairs led to outdoor attractions like a mud lounge, an arctic plunge pool and a sound pool offering an underwater music system. Everyone not in the water was wearing the Standard-issue hooded robe, making the four-acre grounds look like a surreal monastery.

On my last few trips to South Beach, where the focus lately has been hot restaurants and contemporary art, I hadn't even packed a bathing suit. But on this trip, I was looking forward to getting wet. If the chic city has turned its back on its raisons d'être - the ocean and the bay - two new hotels are using water to make waves. The Standard is a kind of summer camp for grown-ups; while the Setai (up and running since August) aspires to be a serene tropical paradise. Every detail at the Setai is meticulously planned, from the three swimming pools heated to 75, 85 and 95 degrees to the ethereal spa to the bathtub in the center of each guest room.

With high expectations, I spent one night, incognito, at each hotel After all, the owner of the Standard, André Balazs, has had great success with water: At his Standard Downtown LA, the big draw is the seductive rooftop swimming pool, and at his Sunset Beach on Shelter Island in New York, a private cove mimics the Caribbean. The Standard Miami offers a cross between the two: a city hotel that feels like it's on a tropical island. In fact, it is on Belle Isle, immediately west of Miami Beach. And the company that created the Setai - GHM Hotels - is best known for a series of resorts in Asia with infinity pools and bathtubs that appear to float in private lily ponds. (I stayed in one of them, the Datai, during a trip to Bali and loved it.)

BUT tropical enchantment isn't easy to achieve in chaotic South Beach. The Setai, occupying an eight-story Art Deco-style building, is next to a garish Days Inn and its own sibling, a 40-story condo building where Lenny Kravitz is building a recording studio and where suites can be rented for $1,760 a night or more. Half the rooms in the hotel face the ocean - but from a distance. The other half, including mine, overlook crowded Collins Avenue. Yet thanks to extraordinarily elegant design, the building manages to keep the outside world at bay. The ground floor spaces, all dark wood, dark masonry and hammered metal, surround a graceful reflecting pool; here water isn't for recreation, but for contemplation.

I arrived at the Setai from New York at 10 a.m. and had planned to take a spa treatment while waiting to check in. As it turned out, the hotel allows check-ins at any hour, and I was quickly escorted to my sixth-floor room, a "city view spa studio." There was no actual bathroom; instead, the entry foyer, which was about 20 feet long, contained two vanity areas and culminated in a pair of glass doors: One led to the toilet and another to a black-tiled shower with astonishing water pressure - 12 gallons a minute, according to experiments I conducted with an Evian bottle and an ice bucket. (A normal home shower dispenses about a fifth that much.) The bathtub - deep and black - sat in the center of the bedroom, directly under the television, an odd positioning that led one friend to wonder whether the TV could fall in.

Every friend who heard about the hotel asked precisely the same question: For $900, what do you get that you couldn't experience by staying somewhere else and then having a drink at the Setai's bar? True, the room was beautiful, if a bit too complicated. There were 22 light fixtures in the ceiling alone; just finding the switches was a challenge. There were high-end furnishings, including a Dux bed that a hotel spokesman said cost more than $6,000, and stylish freebies like a pair of black flip-flops and a box of spicy chocolate truffles. And there was terrific room service. For lunch, a bowl of Asian-accented lobster bisque, delivered promptly, was superb ($20).

And, of course, there's the opportunity to use the spa, as long as you book far enough in advance. At the time I made my reservation, I perused the offerings online - a volcanic clay steam bath (30 minutes, $95) and a Sumatra coffee body polish (60 minutes, $150) - before settling on a Nirvana Purifying Wrap (60 minutes, $195). But the treatment, which involved the application of multiple Sundari skin care products, turned out to be far too choreographed for my taste. (The fact that the massage table tilted at the touch of a pedal, like a dentist's chair, reminded me of less pleasant procedures.) The therapist couldn't have been lovelier, but she was following a script that didn't leave much room for improv.

Spontaneity isn't the Setai's strong suit. At 3 p.m. on a Friday, I called the restaurant to request a table for two at 8 - and was told that I could eat at 10:30 or not at all. Eventually, a hotel manager, who agreed that hotel guests deserve priority in the restaurant, helped me secure a more convenient reservation. But dinner was expensive - some starters are over $50 - and the food was hit or miss. The chicken dusted with coriander and fennel seed ($30) managed to be dull and overly spicy at the same time.

And there were other problems at the Setai. Four hours after I checked in, the front desk called to ask when I was leaving. The computer, somehow, had me checking in and out the same day. The same computer had me as "Freda Bernstein" rather than Fred A., which is why a welcoming note from the general manager was addressed to "Ms. Bernstein." And the heater in one of the swimming pools wasn't cooperating with the three-temperature plan. The problems were minor, but when a hotel costs $900 (the least expensive room when tax is added), you're giving up something more valuable than money: the ability to take imperfections in stride.

The Standard, about a fourth the price of the Setai, is much less grand - but more inventive. The original motel rooms, built in the 1950's, were too small for bathtubs, so Mr. Balazs put them outside on patios surrounded by gauzy drapes, offering peek-a-boo views of bathers. The result is a sexy garden with tubs instead of shrubs. Inside, the rooms were cleverly updated, with lots of white paint concealing 50's wood paneling. Though there are flat-screen TV's, Mr. Balazs gave them cotton slipcovers, so they don't detract from the chic-shack appearance: picture a bathhouse on Gilligan's Island.

At the Standard, the atmosphere is informal bordering on irreverent. The official staff uniform is the tattoo. And some guests, taking breaks from the hamam, have lunch in the lobby restaurant in their bathrobes (something you wouldn't dare try at the Setai).

True, you can spend plenty of money at the Standard, too. An extensive spa menu, printed like a magazine, offers a "hot and cold stone massage" (75 minutes, $165). And at the restaurant, a glass of the house merlot is overpriced at $15. A mahi-mahi sandwich, delicious, was a steal at $16. Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York City is the director of cuisine, and a more extensive menu will debut in March.

But on a recent Saturday night, the restaurant was nearly deserted. Most of the crowd had headed to South Beach proper (cabs are about $7, though there is a free Mercedes shuttle to the Raleigh, Mr. Balazs's hotel on Collins Avenue). Later, the downtown Miami club Pawn Shop would be the hot destination for the under-30 set.

At night, the Setai lobby becomes an elegant singles' bar where cocktail dresses outnumber jeans and caviar replaces pretzels. Hundreds of candles illuminate the reflecting pool. It's at night that the water at the Setai really sparkles.

At both hotels, the guests' bedtime tends to be around dawn. But I had to leave for the airport at 8 a.m., and, at the Standard, getting a cup of coffee at 7:30 was a struggle. For one caffeine-deprived minute, I wished I was back at the Setai, with its in-room Lavazza coffee maker. But then I remembered the sound it made: the drip, drip, drip of money.