Arts + Culture

Going Places: Exploring Villa Vizcaya

Think Versailles-meets-the-subtropics at this Miami estate

BY May 12, 2016


Here on the Gulfshore, we often prefer a modest lifestyle. Sure, Naples has its share of grandiose mansions and flashy sports cars, but on the whole our tastes tend toward the understated. Which is why I sometimes like to escape to Miami. Not for long—there’s only so much peacocking I can take—but for just enough time to soak up its glitz and glamour. This is what I had in mind when I set out on a recent day trip to explore Villa Vizcaya, a sprawling estate set on 50 acres only a few blocks from downtown. Completed in 1916 as a winter home for James Deering, head of International Harvester, Vizcaya is a rollicking homage to European aesthetics created in Miami’s best show-off tradition.

To reach the main entrance, I followed a winding path that made its way through a native rockland forest. Stone statues in the classic style—maidens carrying water jars, nymphs, satyrs—were set down among the gumbo limbos and strangler figs so that the place had a Versailles-meets-the-subtropics feel. Inside the villa, I saw the architecture and design were clearly lifted from Europe’s grand estates. I climbed stone staircases and walked arcaded balconies, peering into ornate rooms and marveling at frescoed ceilings and gold detail work. If the Medicis constructed a palace during the Gilded Age, this would surely be the result.

Of course, when Vizcaya was being built, Miami was only just beginning to take shape. Early photos of the estate hang on the walls, and it’s a wonder to see the slash pine and saw palmetto that would soon give over to fountains and topiary. Still, Deering and his Vizcaya were clearly forerunners in the Miami that was to come. The place is showy, extravagant and unapologetic in its love of baroque beauty.

On the second floor of the villa, I strolled from one ornate bedchamber to the next. Many were named for notable European women, and others captured a particularly continental esprit.

“The Pantaloon Room?” I said out loud as I read the placard in front of one of the chambers.

The woman next to me rolled her eyes. “This place is something else.”

I made my way outside to the gardens that spanned the estate. There were more statues, more fountains, more bushes sculpted in the European tradition. The effect was conspicuously romantic, the sort of spot suited for a Regency romance book cover. As I strolled, I saw a bride in layers of tulle vamping for her photographer. I smiled to myself. Close enough.

On the east side of the property, the villa faces onto Biscayne Bay. Stone steps cascade from the terrace down to the water in a dramatic sweep. The view is expansive, breathtaking and clearly meant to evoke aristocratic Venice. A stone dock shaped like a Venetian barge sits in the water beside the boat landing, and striped pilings looked ready to tie up a fleet of gondolas. Still, it’s impossible to block out the fact that we are, after all, in Florida.

I leaned against the stone balustrade and looked out over the water. To my left, a canal choked with mangroves fed into the bay. I squinted as I peered into the trees.

“Are those—?” I said to the man standing next to me.

“What? What do you see?” he asked.

“Iguanas,” I said.

Two of them sat perched in the branches growing across the canal. They were huge—the size of small dogs—and colored fluorescent green and orange. I’d never seen anything like it.

The man flapped his hands dismissively. “Oh, iguanas. We see them all the time here.”

He walked away, and I shook my head, laughing. I forgot that, in Miami, it takes a lot to impress.


If You Go…

• Vizcaya’s ( café offers a lovely place to recharge during your visit. Stop in for a slice of quiche or try the Tapestry Tea, a mix of black and green teas, passion fruit and marigold petals blended especially for the estate.

• Don’t miss the orchidarium (pictured above) on the north side of the property. The flowers are a testament to patience and cultivation, but be warned: If you’ve ever struggled with orchids, this spot might make you insecure.

• Save time to enjoy the terrace facing the bay with its stunning blend of European architecture and Florida scenery. Iguana sightings, unfortunately, are not guaranteed.


The Deering bedroom


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