All of Miami's constituent cities are fast to assert their individuality, but none has a better case than CORAL GABLES , southwest of Little Havana. Twelve square miles of broad boulevards, leafy side streets and Spanish and Italian architecture form a cultured setting for a cultured community. Coral Gables' creator was a local aesthete, George Merrick , who raided street names from a Spanish dictionary to plan the plazas, fountains and carefully aged stucco-fronted buildings. Following the first land sale in 1921, $150 million poured in, which Merrick channeled into one of the biggest advertising campaigns ever known. However, Coral Gables took shape just as the Florida property boom ended. Merrick was wiped out, and died as Miami's postmaster in 1942. Coral Gables never lost its good looks, though, and remains an impressive place to explore. Merrick wanted people to know they'd arrived somewhere special, and eight grand entrances were planned on the main approach roads (though only four were completed). Three of these stand along the western end of Calle Ocho as you arrive from Little Havana.
The best way into Coral Gables is along SW 22nd Street, known as the Miracle Mile . Dominated by department stores, travel agents, and a staggering number of bridal shops, it gets more and more expensive and exclusive as you proceed west. Note the arcades and balconies, and the spirals and peaks of the Colonnade Building , nos. 133-169, completed in 1926 to accommodate George Merrick's office. Further west, along Coral Way, the Merrick House , no. 907 (Sun & Wed 1-4pm; $5; tel 305/460-5361), was George's boyhood home. In 1899, when he was twelve, his family arrived here from New England to run a 160-acre farm, which was so successful that the house quickly grew from a wooden shack into an elegant dwelling of coral rock and gabled windows (thus inspiring the name of the future city).
While his property-developing contemporaries left ugly scars across the city after digging up the local limestone, Merrick had the foresight to turn his biggest quarry into a sumptuous swimming pool. The Venetian Pool , 2701 De Soto Blvd, opened in 1924, is today an essential stop on a steamy Miami afternoon. Its pastel stucco walls hide a delightful spring-fed lagoon, with vine-covered loggias, fountains, waterfalls, coral caves and plenty of room to swim. The café isn't bad, either (call for hours; April-Oct $8.50, Nov-March $5.50; tel 305/460-5356).
Wrapping its broad wings around the southern end of De Soto Boulevard, Merrick's crowning achievement was the fabulous Biltmore Hotel , 1200 Anastasia Ave. With a 26-story tower visible across much of low-lying Miami, everything about the Biltmore was over-the-top: 25ft fresco-coated walls, vaulted ceilings, immense fireplaces, custom-loomed rugs, and a massive swimming pool hosting shows by such bathing belles and beaux as Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. Today, it costs upward of $200 a night to stay here, but a fascinating free tour leaves from the lobby every Sunday (1.30pm, 2.30pm & 3.30pm; tel 305/445-1926 for more information). A short way south at 130 Stanford Ave is the University of Miami , site of the Lowe Art Museum (Tues-Wed, Fri-Sat 10am-5pm, Thurs noon-7pm, Sun 12-5pm; $5), whose diverse permanent collection ranges from European Old Masters to Native American artifacts and Guatemalan textiles.
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