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Dine at Le Sirenuse, the polished Italian restaurant at Four Seasons’ newly opened hotel at the northern end of Miami Beach, or swing by the adjoining champagne bar for a drink, and you cannot fail to be struck by the luxuriant verdure.
Wherever you look there are towering plants: twin-trunked pygmy date palms, Australian fan palms, giant “lobster-claw” heliconia and an immense prehistoric cycad known as a Queen Sago. Some are freestanding in huge pots, others are in planters ranged along the walls and between the elegant curved banquettes. The effect is that of a cultivated jungle, dramatically lit to cast an interplay of shadows on the crisp linen tablecloths and pale travertine floor.
The restaurateur, Antonio Sersale, is also proprietor of Le Sirenuse, the celebrated hotel on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. One afternoon he found himself in the arcaded glass-roofed courtyard of the Villa Vizcaya, a half-hour drive from Miami Beach in the district of Coral Gables. It is an intriguing estate: an ancient-looking Palladian-style stately home surrounded by 50 acres of elaborate gardens, a little piece of Italy in Florida. This patio, he realised, was just what he wanted to recreate for the new restaurant: an exotic palm house that spoke both of Miami, but also of his own palazzo hotel in Positano, where the interior walls of its Michelin-starred restaurant are a riot of trailing greenery.
The day after I dined at Le Sirenuse, I headed to Vizcaya myself. Extraordinary does not begin to describe it. Look out across Biscayne Bay from its East Terrace and, but for the typically Floridian Sabal palmettos that edge the promenade, you could almost be on Lake Como, even in Venice gazing out on the lagoon, what with the classical statuary ranged along the quay from which stone steps descend into the water, and the candy-striped oak poles driven into the seabed and Venetian bricole to guide those arriving by water.
Before you stands the Barge, a baroque stone structure, almost 50m long, of rusticated limestone blockwork decorated with winged mermaids and mythical creatures and shaped like an exotic ship arrived from an earlier century. In fact it’s an early 20th-century breakwater that was designed by Alexander Stirling Calder, father of the more famous sculptor Alexander Calder. Behind you rises the house it was built to protect, which was constructed during the early years of the first world war (although, with its artfully vermiculated masonry, it looks much older) by James Deering, who had made a fortune manufacturing agricultural machinery.
Deering spent a reported $22m, both on its opulent decor: its gilded dining-room ceiling was painted to evoke the one in the Hall of the Labyrinth in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, embellished with seahorses, snakes and olive branches. And on ensuring it had every mod con: elevators, a telephone switchboard, a central vacuum-cleaning system and fire sprinklers, which remain more or less as they were to this day. He moved in on Christmas Day 1916, having filled the bay with gondolas and asked his friends to dress as Italian peasants.
If the villa’s dark, antique and antiquity-filled enfilades of rooms are a curiosity, the gardens are astonishing. Venture into its maze or formal fountain garden and look out over the mangroves, or into the wilder reaches, and you can begin to imagine what it must have been like when the artist John Singer Sargent came to stay in 1917 and sketched the landscape. He was not impressed with the results: “Palmettos and alligators don’t make interesting pictures,” he wrote.
But there are also fancy formal parterres; a secluded “secret” garden; and an immense orchid house. In total, there are almost 1,000 plant species, among them the Milky Way tree, a small glossy evergreen that fills the air with a scent from its profusion of white flowers. It’s a heady perfume that adds to the exotic otherworldly atmosphere of this lost-in-time landscape, even when the air is filled with the chatter and laughter of extended local Latino families, their 15-year-old daughters dressed in flounced floor-length crinolines, here to be photographed for their quinceañera, or coming-of-age, portraits and a sight born of fantasy just as Vizcaya was.
Illustration by Matthew Cook