Tefillen and Tattoos: the Rat Pack gives way to the Tat Pack at the Fontainebleau Hotel
- The Goods
- Published on Thursday, 04 April 2013 10:13
I rarely delight in slicing and serving up a sacred cow, but in the case of the vaunted Fontainebleau Hotel of Miami Beach, the onetime sine qua non of the south, I feel I have no choice: they did it to themselves. As their own literature claims, the place "where James Bond played gin rummy with Goldfinger, where Frank and the Rat Pack played, and where Elvis was really 'in the building'" is now a confused and confusing collision of high prices, poor service, and a deeply dissonant customer base.
My family and I have just returned home from spring break at the 1504 room behemoth, and both the journalist and the neighbor in me feels compelled to share word of our experience with 10583 readers: the 2008 One Billion dollar renovation or "reinvention" as they term it, is beautiful. The grounds of the 20-acre-property are gorgeous. The lobby, with its trademark bowtie black marble inlay pattern abutting a new light-up-disco-floored bar called "Bleau", is hip and fabulous. The rooms are light-filled and stunningly decorated, and the views incredible. So what's the problem? The Fontainebleau's beauty is only skin-deep. The iconic inn that once played host to the likes of Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, and Jerry Lewis now appears to be targeting the likes of the world body art convention, or the candidates for the "most likely to be packing heat in their high tops" competition, and setting their service standards to meet that low bar. I half-jokingly asked one of the hotel shop girls sotto voce "is EVERY drug dealer in Miami staying here or is it just my imagination?" and she leaned in and deadpanned without a hint of irony..."No, you're right. They're all here."
They may have "reinvented" the now-bloated Fontainebleau, but they should have done a "reorg" as well. The brains behind the new "'bleau" are clearly having some sort of identity crisis about who they are and to whom they cater. Plus, they seemed entirely unprepared for the very predictable annual spring break/Passover rush of holiday guests from both camps of patrons-- the borscht belt snowbirds, and the sun belt jailbirds. In short: the "Bleau" blew it, and everyone was exasperated.
Despite record cold temperatures in Miami, the pool boys were sweating nervously every time we ventured out for a place in the sun, as there was not a single day we were there that chairs were available to us poolside in any of the 5 pool boy fiefdoms. One hapless towel wrangler told us that showing up at 7am was the best way to ensure a seat for the day..."Fantastic", I declared! "What a PERFECT way to spend my vacation mornings: holding a seat so I can sit in it in 5 hours when I actually WANT to sit." One day, in the final indignity, my husband and sons couldn't even get a seat on the beach—there was literally, no room at the inn or its environs.
The poolside area swelled to overflowing with chairs in every direction holding guests of all descriptions. The pool and pool bar "Glow" looked much more like a booty-fied boozy Jones Beach with pricey, but gang-friendly bling, than a storied James Bond hangout. Row after row after row of chairs covered nearly every inch of the astro turf surface with a remarkable parade of jewels, full body tattoos, and overzealous breast augmentations on display. Given the four-figure price of admission to the hotel, I would have thought that a seat in the sun NOT facing cement steps would have been available to us in addition to our hotel room. But this was too much to hope for.
The consolation prize, though, was bearing witness to the sociology experiment of two mutually suspicious guest contingents uncomfortably seated side by side and squished (exposed posterior) cheek by (payos-covered) jowl right next to each other: the fully-clothed kosher crowd hanging out in the sun in between helpings of Passover matzo brei and prayer, and the cigarette-wielding, sun- worshipping, bling-worshipping tan-in-a-can sybarites performing their daily ritual outdoor foreplay.
While we were there, the jewelry shop in the lobby offered a million dollar diamond-encrusted push up bra for sale (34C if you're interested), and Shaun Rogers, the Giants giant defensive tackle reported $500,000 of jewelry stolen from his room safe apparently by his less-than-safe lady of that evening.
Don't get me wrong: for my children, ages 10-14, the Fontainebleau offered a fascinating educational experience: in addition to a lesson in sociology there was plenty of anatomy and, at times, human sexuality as well. In between the "free" (at 7 am) lounge chairs, there were round beds and four poster beds that could be rented for 500 dollars a day, as well as the $1000ish-a-day gazebos, all of which were fully stocked and in seeming perpetual use by no fewer than four writhing, posing, preening, tumescent exhibitionists. My youngest son had missed several weeks of school prior to break due to an upper GI track illness. And during that time, he missed the whole of 5th grade sex education—no problem, says the Fontainebleau! My boy learned all he could stomach the one day we finally got seats at around 4pm, when our chairs abutted the bottom of a wide staircase topped by several of these well-used open-air-bed/pre-coital-performance-perches. Without actually wearing blackout masks, it was impossible to avoid developing some expertise in the mating rituals of the recently rich and scantily clad "Yes darling, " I heard myself say to my young son, taking on the role of accidental interpreter, "Some people pierce their nipples." "No darling, I do not know why". "Yes, I am sure they DO have a bedroom somewhere they could go to for privacy, but I guess that is not a priority for them."
Perhaps it was the dozen or so options of frozen mojitos they had to choose from, the SNOBAR adult Cosmo ice pops or the advertisement for the pool's "sexy enclave" in the hotel literature that got them going. My family took a sporting interest in assessing what factors led the charge in transforming the "bleau" from Passover haven to Plato's poolside retreat. But I can tell you that I am not at all a prude and the area surrounding "Glow" at the "'Bleau" was way out of my comfort zone for a family hotel, despite its educational and entertainment value. A full lounge chair row's worth of these folk's bikinis did not add up to enough fabric to make a pair of women's gloves.
As for other aspects of the Fontainebleau tableau, service of actual food at each of the four hotel restaurants we patronized was painfully slow and often disinterested. One morning I went alone to Vida, the more casual family restaurant, for a quiet solo brunch. I asked the man at the reception to watch my bag while I went to the bargain 35 dollar buffet, and though he insisted that my bag would be untouched if left at the counter where he'd seated me, I prevailed upon him to take it anyway. Two minutes later, when I returned with my food, there was a man sitting at my seat, drinking my coffee and texting on his smartphone. Reception man hadn't noticed. By contrast, when we stayed at the Loews down the road in the heart of South Beach a few weeks earlier during the crush of February break, every person at the restaurant was delightful, kind, and solicitous without being obsequious. They knew our name and did their level best to accommodate our allergies. Here, despite eating at the same place for breakfast each morning, we remained anonymous throughout the stay and our allergies, though carefully stated, were largely ignored: caveat allergic eater: the cheese bread is filled with sesame!
One day, after getting turned away at each of the five pool chair "stations", we finally gave up and decided to go get "takeout" from the pool service snack bar "Fresh"and take the food back to the 7th floor pool on our "tower". We confirmed with one of the guards checking room keys at the pool that we could bring our food to the "Tresor" tower's pool. We waited 45 minutes for burgers in a box, then trudged up to the charmless Holiday-Inn-style "Tresor" pool, only to be greeted by a sign that said "No food or drink allowed at the pool.". Instant migraine. Children in revolt. Defeated, I went back to the room and slept it off for the remainder of the afternoon.
Another day, frustrated again by the shutout at the pool, I decided to order room service early for dinner. It took almost two and a half hours to deliver. No "make good" beyond an apology was offered. Another night, two of the dishes we ordered were sold out.
But the service problems were not confined to the dining: we didn't get the rollaway beds we had booked for the children or the linens that were needed to go with them. Many, many phone calls as well as friendly ambushes of unsuspecting housekeeping personnel did little to address the dearth of bedding for our kids. "We ran out," they told me without apology. We did get one of the two rollaway cots we requested, but we never got the duvets for it or the pullout sofa, despite the fact that the room was continually reset to 64 degrees each day when we left, and with record cold temps outside, it was kind of CHILLY inside. The little cotton blanket one son got for his rollaway had a hole in it about 4 inches in diameter. Fine for summer camp, I say, but not for a thousand dollar suite at an "iconic" hotel.
The central problem, we found, was that one hand did not know what the other was doing, and there was no "ownership" of problems when staff was presented with them. Fed up one night because we could not get a reservation at any of the hotel's family restaurants after being on hold for almost an hour and getting locked out online as well, I called the front desk. I shared my frustration, adding that that there were no wastepaper baskets in my room or bathroom, that my children still had not received their bed linens, that the metal soap dish in my shower was hanging on by a thread and the fridge in my kitchen made moaning sounds all night as if it were being beaten....and the next day, I got a call from the manager of one of restaurants to apologize for the slow service. No follow through on any of the other fronts. I had to follow up on each of the items individually a second time. It wasn't until I found a lone and lovely stand-alone at the concierge desk named Mari that things began to turn around at all. Turns out that during peak weeks, they don't take reservations at restaurants at all and will only take walk-ins. This would have been fine if it were stated on their websites, but the websites weren't updated with this information, or other changes for that matter. I booked the ocean view "La Cote" after the site said the loud DJ music was set to stop so we would not have to shout when catching up with my visiting aunt and uncle. La Cote extended the DJ to go right through our dinner (claiming the confusion was due to a "daylight savings time change glitch", locked us out of the lovely ocean-view main dining area for an unannounced "event", and served up teeth rattlingly tough steak in their surf 'n turf dish as if we were lucky to get a meal at all. At this point Mari made sure I spoke with the manager on duty for the whole hotel as opposed to one little section. And that manager, (Jeannine), attempted to save the stay by making sure we at least got a late checkout on our last day and didn't have to pay for our children's hopeless bed and bedding situation, or the 35 dollars per person/per shower they were planning to charge us if we dared shower off the sand in the pool spa after 11am.
I was really looking forward to the new and improved Fontainebleau, to the "SoBe'd" update on a sun belt-via-borscht- belt-classic. It looked so beautiful. I just kind of figured that the service would be upgraded along with the sweet suites, to make the place fully inhabit its legendary stature. But in this case, bigger is definitely NOT better. And while she still has managed to stuff herself into a bikini, even one with a million dollar diamond top to set off the billion dollar facelift, this grande dame has simply grown too big for her britches.
Contributor Sharon Dizenhuz is a former reporter and anchor on New York 1 News and a Scarsdale mom.