It was the “Mad Men” era when a middle-aged but preternaturally buff Burt Lancaster slipped on his snug square-cut trunks in “The Swimmer” and made his way from pool to pool, encountering all sorts of diversions along the way. His aqueous journey took place in the ‘burbs, but—no disrespect to John Cheever, who wrote the classic upon which the story was based—I’ve always felt that if I did my own extended pool crawl, it would be a lot more glamorous in Miami than in Connecticut.
That’s because whether public or private, historic or state of the art, this sultry city’s swimming holes are among the most opulent and well executed in the world. My own poolside memories of Miami Beach, Brickell Key, and Coral Gables unspool like a personal movie montage. Glad I never leave home without my goggles.
Fountainebleau Miami Beach
The 2008 resurrection of architect Morris Lapidus’ 1954 masterpiece reminded people what a showcase a hotel—and a hotel pool—can be with the right amount of glitz and vision. The grounds actually contain multiple pools, and the biggest one (referencing Lapidus’ original bow-tie shaped pool), is so long it took me a minute to swim it from end to end. When I jumped out, the ocean looked so close that I wondered if I could hold my breath until I reached the waterline (I could). Not as daring as anything in “Goldfinger,” “Scarface,” or “The Sopranos”—all were shot here—but I did momentarily crash a $550/day Ultra Cabana after emerging from the Atlantic. (There are, count ‘em, six categories of cabanas available for daily rent.)
The Setai Miami Beach
If you know anything about Adrian Zecha, the founder of Amanresorts who also built the top-rated Setai, you know he likes his water features. The three pools that adorn this 40-story beachfront tower would satisfy any modern-day Goldilocks who needs a dip: each one is a different temperature. I’ve swum them all, but there’s a special allure to the pool closest to the intimate spa. (Note that day spa guests can purchase packages that afford all-day access to the Setai pools and private beach area.)
Raleigh Hotel, South Beach
To many Miami Beach aficionados, no pool setting beats the Raleigh’s. Esther Williams used to hang out here and dive off the high board. Now the high-diving board is a fountain, splashing into this ornate, swirling water sanctuary. The fancifully shaped swimming pool is surrounded by a wading area, and there’s a fun, nautical-looking pool house. Don’t miss the lounging area known as the “Oasis,” which is the perfect place to chill after a dip.
National Hotel, South Beach
The National’s black-tile-edged swimming pool is one of my absolute favorites in the world for its improbably long and skinny design. I just think of it as my private one-lane lap pool. The hotel is an Art Deco landmark dating from 1939; you can stay in the street-facing tower or in one of the low-rise Cabana Wing guest rooms that flank the pool. An equally elegant square pool sits between the long pool and the beach. Dry off in one of the hammocks that swing under lush Canary Island palms.
Ritz-Carlton South Beach
When I started coming to South Beach in the 90s, the area above 14th Street was sort of a wasteland. A lot of the beachfront hotels had yet to be renovated, and I used to crash the DiLido, a lesser-known Morris Lapidus effort, to swim my laps. That was before the Ritz-Carlton moved in in 2003 to resurrect this midcentury beauty, recreating the pool deck as a showplace with luxury cabanas and synchronized swimmers called the Aqualillies. Today guests lounge poolside at the DiLido Beach Club, where you can enjoy the Ceviche Duet and the pomegranate and pear salad at one of South Beach’s only oceanfront eateries.
Flamingo Park Pool, South Beach
Sometimes you want to hang with the locals, and since Miami Beach boasts an especially fit population, it’s no surprise that this public pool offers both eye candy and serious athletics. These eight lanes are cooled in the summer and heated in the winter to a perfect 82 degrees. Morning and evening hours are set aside for adult lap swimming, and kids will have a blast during open hours and in their own water park.
Viceroy Miami, Downtown Miami
Located on Miami’s ultra-lux, ultra-modern Brickell Avenue, the Viceroy is perhaps the chicest hotel in town. The 300-foot rooftop pool is one of Miami’s longest and most fun to swim; I would look up between strokes and feel like the king of a skyscraper forest. And if you take your water play indoors, the 28,000-foot spa boasts a crazy-opulent marble water park with a view of the bay.
Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables
This is the biggest hotel pool in the country by volume. The depth, the expanse, the extravagance—well, it’s beyond compare. And it’s surrounded by Roman statues: How’s that for inspiration? The Biltmore is palatial, gorgeously over the top in Spanish colonial style, yet is an utterly comfortable place to be. One of the best feelings in the world is hoisting myself out of the water, grabbing a towel, and seating myself at one of the Cascade Grill’s tables for some grouper ceviche, just inches from the water. Memberships are available for locals.
Venetian Pool, Coral Gables
Totally oddball and totally fabulous, this enormous 820,000-gallon spring-fed public pool earned its spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Dating from 1923 (renovated in 2010), and featuring waterfalls, grottos, loggias, mooring poles, and lookout towers, it’s a sight to behold. But it’s also functional and accessible: the pool offers adult swim classes and there’s a concession stand so you can stay all day.
In my experience, a beautiful pool in an oceanfront resort area is a warning sign that the beach quality is substandard. But the amazing thing about Miami is that so many world-class, inventively designed and well-appointed pools exist when the city is fringed by 22 miles of beautiful white sand and emerald ocean. A typical “lap” for me means swimming 10 city blocks or so. Of course, you must swim at your own risk—not that the water is rough, but because the city is frisky: Did I mention the time when I stopped to catch my breath and was propositioned by a bobbing couple right there in the water? The moment definitely did Burt Lancaster’s journey proud.