On the ocean, halfway between Fort Lauderdale and Miami (each is roughly a 30-minute drive away), Bal Harbour residents like to compare their little piece of paradise with locations on the French Riviera. For the well-heeled travelers who vacation in the Florida version, this might not be too much of a stretch. Style rules, designer labels abound, bison frises nibble from their mistresses’ luncheon plates, and there’s even a nude beach. But what does it offer for families? An upscale place to visit if you’re vacationing nearby. Or, if you decide to stay in Bal Harbour, genteel luxury of the kind harried parents will thoroughly savor. Shopping is the centerpiece. Bal Harbour Shops is famous in the industry for its extraordinary profit margins, and for the man who started it all almost 40 years ago — and decided to break all the rules. Stanley Whitman was a real estate developer with no retail expertise. His dream, however, was to showcase the toniest names in retail, and to make the shopping experience totally high-end. Now in his 80s, and the business still family-run, Whitman works almost every day, walking the corridors of his tranquil, open plan complex. If there’s a palm frond out of place, Stanley has it fixed. If a retailer’s sales fall below the minimum expected, out they go. These days, the waiting list is lengthy, but when he pioneered the concept of European designer labels in — gasp, a tiny place in Florida! — it took a long time to lure the caviar set. Whitman walked up and down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, trying to sell the idea of opening up boutiques in his Florida mall. Several retailers threw him back out onto the avenue. He begged Stanley Marcus to come to Bal Harbour and open up the first Neiman-Marcus outside Texas; Marcus laughed. But Whitman persevered. Eventually, Neiman-Marcus came in to anchor the mall; and Saks soon followed suit. Once Gucci came in, Fendi and Ferragamo followed. Now there are 90 stores, from Chanel to Christofle, from Prada to Pratesi, from Vuitton to Versace. If wandering in and out of luxury stores cooled by the ocean breezes, and pausing to people-watch over espresso under waving palm trees sounds like the perfect vacation for Mom or Dad, the kids may be less than thrilled. But the beach is a block away. Here, kids can rent kayaks, boogie boards and tubes, go parasailing and jet skiing, and just splash in the waves. And a landscaped jogging track winds alongside the sand. Or the kids can participate in the Harbour Kids Club at the Sheraton, one of Bal Harbour’s two hotels. Young guests ages 5-12 are kept busy daily from 9am-4pm with arts ‘n crafts, pool races, sand castle building, beach Olympics, lap pool, tube and Hula Hoop races. Half-days are available. (www.balharbour.com/sheraton) The Sheraton is set on 10 acres oceanside; rooms range from hotel to garden villas, and waterfall pools meander throughout the resort. Their Lifestyle & Fitness Club offers gym and spa. While Mom is having a massage here (or perhaps a makeover at Saks), Dad might fancy an outing to The Art of Shaving —a charming shop where men can be pampered for a change. Shaving is no lost art here; their Royal Shave is preceded by hot towels and facial massage. The shop also does hairstyling, and sells an array of luxurious shaving and hair products (www.TheArtofShaving.com). The one other hotel in Bal Harbour is the Seaview, one of the grand ‘50s hotels once so “Miami Beach”. Now refurbished and elegantly appointed in décor and ambience, it’s the perfect place for a quieter stay. (www.seaview-hotel.com) Restaurants are the places to people-watch, and it’s kid-friendly everywhere. We had memorable meals at the Shops, at Carpaccio (the specialty of the house at this Italian restaurant, with high ambience and very moderate prices), and Bal Harbour Bistro. Dining al fresco includes a tropical garden setting with fountains and cascading waterfalls. For all its exclusivity, the Bal Harbour merchants work hard at making visitors feel welcomed. For more information on Bal Harbour, log onto: www.balharbourflorida.com.
Nearby are the many activities and sights of Miami and South Beach, from Miami MetroZoo (www.miamimetrozoo.com), to Miami Seaquarium (www.miamiseaquarium.com), Museum of Science & Planetarium (www.miamisci.org), Parrot Jungle (www.parrotjungle.com), and Coral Castle (www.coralcastle.com). We opted to spend the day, instead, north in Fort Lauderdale. A 15-minute drive west from Lauderdale is Sawgrass Recreation Park, where an airboat ride through Everglades National Park is one to remember! Kids will love the rush of the ride that first skims over the water and then cuts right through the swampland. Ear plugs are provided, alligator sightings are highly possible, and some great environmental appreciation is guaranteed. The Everglades area is a remarkable part of the world. The 17-acre Sawgrass Park also has a replica of an 18th century Seminole Indian Village, and an exhibit of gators up-close. (www.evergladestours.com) We then drove back into Fort Lauderdale, picking up the ($5 all day) water taxi at Bahia Cabana, and gazing at the multi-million estates lining the waterway, yachts moored outside. Our destination was the lively Las Olas Riverfront shopping and dining area. But there are many interesting stops to experience along the way. The Fort Lauderdale area also has the Museum of Discovery and Science, the Buehler Planetarium, the Young at Art Children’s Museum, the African-American heritage Old Dillard Museum, the Graves Museum of Archeology & Natural History, as well as Butterfly World, Flamingo Gardens, and the monthly Five Star Championship Rodeo. For more information on Greater Fort Lauderdale, go to: www.sunny.org.