Just a seven-minute ferry ride from Miami Beach’s über energy is a 216-acre secluded island that is one of the wealthiest zip codes in America. Welcome to 33109.
The island appeared in 1906 after the federal government approved dredging a shipping channel to open up a route to the Atlantic from Biscayne Bay. Now, this residential slice of paradise, with a nine-hole championship golf course, megayacht marinas, a private beach and tennis center, is home to the Fisher Island Club and its exclusive resort. Oprah Winfrey, Mel Brooks, Jim Courier and Boris Becker are just some of the celebrities that have succumbed to the lure of the island, which is in the midst of a $60-million spruce-up program. At the heart of it all is a charming Vanderbilt mansion and cottages. Did you ever wonder how they got there?
It seems you can’t dig into the silky sands of South Florida’s history without uncovering some fragments of a colorful past, and Fisher Island is no exception. During its short history, the island had several private owners, or better yet “caretakers,” who contributed a vision that changed forever the manmade bit of land—initially just 21 acres. Their stories are fascinating and contribute immensely to the island’s charm.
Dana Dorsey, a Georgia native and son of former slaves, was the island’s first owner. With only had a fourth-grade education, he went on to become known as Florida’s first African American millionaire. He came to Miami in the 1890s to work for Henry M. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad. He saw a need to provide housing for an increasing number of African Americans moving to the area and began purchasing land, just a parcel at a time, until eventually his holdings expanded as far north as Fort Lauderdale. A developer, banker and philanthropist, Dorsey bought and sold many properties until his death at the age of 68 in 1940, including a small island we now know as Fisher Island. He bought the land to provide African Americans, unwelcome on Miami’s segregated shores, a beach of their own. Although Dorsey had intentions of developing the island into a resort, he sold it instead in 1918 to fellow entrepreneur and developer Carl G. Fisher, who lent the island his name.
An automotive pioneer who is credited with developing Miami Beach, Fisher had grand ideas. He channeled his energy into expanding the island by adding bulkheads, filled with dirt and sand, until it was more than 100 acres. His initial plan was to create a commercial seaport. But he butted heads with the mayor of Miami who wanted the seaport on the mainland. He lost that contest. Undaunted, Fisher, ever the entrepreneur, began selling off small parcels of land with little else than scant palm trees and mangroves to anyone willing to come to his little paradise, accessible only by boat. Fisher’s love for boats turned out to be a pivotal factor in the continuing saga of the island.
Here enters William Kissam Vanderbilt II. “Willie K” was born into the life of luxury. Raised in Vanderbilt mansions in New York and Newport, RI, he traveled the globe on the family yachts and spent winters in the sun. While the rest of his family preferred Palm Beach, Vanderbilt took a liking to Fisher Island, and in the 1920s began buying small parcels. At the time, “Willie K” also owned the 250’ Eagle, which caught Fisher’s eye. The story goes that one night in conversation (one suspects over a few rounds of drinks), Fisher admitted to Vanderbilt that he’d love to have his yacht. Vanderbilt offered Fisher a surprising deal: his yacht for the island. Fisher jumped at the opportunity, the story goes. In reality, Vanderbilt only acquired seven acres in the exchange, but he continued purchasing parcels until he eventually owned the whole island. In 1935, Vanderbilt decided to build a mansion on his property. Favoring the Mediterranean style Addison Mizner made famous in Palm Beach, he hired Palm Beach architect Maurice Fatio to build his and wife Rosamund’s private retreat. The plans were lavish. The 19-room mansion featured an ornate porte-cochère entry and a central courtyard (a popular design element at the time). Vanderbilt also commissioned the architect to create guest and servant cottages, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a nine-hole golf course and a beach area. His daughter Rosemary, an artist, preferred her own private cottage with adjoining studio to the exquisite mansion. Vanderbilt’s Miami retreat, nicknamed “Alva Base” (after his mother), even had a 9,000-sq.-ft. keystone and Spanish tile hangar for the seaplane he used to shuttle guests. It wasn’t long before an event at Fisher Island became the coveted invitation among the social elite of the time. Vanderbilt died in 1944, and his wife sold the island a year later to U.S. Steel heir Edward Moore for a mere $500,000 (the mansion alone had cost $1.5 million to build).
Moore only had the property a few years. Upon his death in 1950, Garfield Wood, a boat designer, inventor and racer, acquired the island. Wood’s goal was to set every speed record and make a name for himself as the Speedboat King. At the wheel of his speedboat, he raced the Havana Special train, in a 1,250-mile dash up the Atlantic coast from Miami to New York City. Wood made the trip in 47 hours and 23 minutes, beating the train by 12 minutes. In 1925, he repeated the exploit, racing the Twentieth Century Limited train up the Hudson River between Albany and New York, winning by 22 minutes. Wood was the first to do 100 mph on water and to reach two miles a minute on a boat. He won five straight powerboat Gold Cup races between 1917 and 1921 and took the prestigious Harmsworth Trophy nine times. Wood is also credited for the hydraulic lift used on dump trucks, and one of his boat designs became the forerunner for the PT boat. His 33' Gar Wood and the Baby Gar Runabout are still considered classics and are prized among speed-boat collectors. Wood resided 21 years on the island, spending most of his later years tinkering in his workshop. By then he had given up the 10th twin-engine Albatross amphibious plane he owned, but only after logging 7,600 hours of flying time in 36 years.
In the 1960s, a new set of owners appeared on the scene. Cuban-born Miami banker Charles “Bebe” Rebozo and a group of investors, which included his close friend Richard Nixon, approached the contented millionaire about selling his island paradise. Wood initially refused, but gave in after the investors allowed him to continue living on the island as long as he wished. Wood left in May 1971 and died a month later, the last of the millionaires to occupy Fisher Island as a one-family island retreat. ■
Improving on perfection
“People don’t join the Fisher Island Club to become part of a country club, they join to become part of its ultimate lifestyle,” says Fisher Island Club CEO Larry Brown, who is overseeing the renaissance of Fisher Island’s private club, with the aim to bring this landmark up to the demanding standards of today’s discriminating travelers.
There are several ways to partake in this ultimate lifestyle. You can enjoy all club amenities for a $250,000 membership fee plus $18,300 yearly dues. Another way to enjoy the good life is to stay at the Vanderbilt Mansion Resort, the centerpiece of 45 recently renovated luxury accommodations comprising cottages, villas and suites. Just as in the Vanderbilt days, arriving guests are greeted at the Porte Cochère with a Mimosa cocktail. After a tour of the island, they are free to zip around in their golf carts, the island’s favorite mode of transportation. The cottages feature a clean, contemporary look and sleek bathrooms. If at all possible, try to book Rosemary’s Cottage, exquisite with its renovated three spacious bedrooms, fireplaces, chandeliers and plenty of windows looking out onto an exotic flower garden and a private courtyard with Jacuzzi. Aside from oodles of Mediterranean charm with peacocks freely roaming manicured grounds, the island has much to offer the active yachtsman. The marinas feature 118 slips in total and accommodate yachts up to 250’ with surge-proof deep-water access. The marina’s pilings are in greenheart, a wood known for its lateral strength, and the new decks are in Brazilian hardwood, which weathers into a lovely silver gray patina. A spacious gazebo at the end of the members’ dock is a prime spot for events and cocktail parties.
The Fisher Island Raquet Club, the island’s world-class 18-court tennis center has welcomed tennis stars, such as Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras. A new lighting system now allows members to play 24 hours a day on 14 Har-Tru clay courts, two grass courts or two hard courts. A new state-of-the-art hydro-grid watering system improves drainage and drying time.
Renowned golf architect P.B. Dye upgraded The Links, a par-35, nine-hole championship golf course, which received new pasapalum grass and was reconfigured to keep the game interesting for members. A bridge now connects the new Beach Club, an oasis in white, to the Vanderbilt Mansion and swimming pool. Once they have worked up an appetite, members can choose from seven dining locations, including the steakhouse/piano bar Garwood Lounge inside the mansion, the casual La Trattoria for pasta and pizza and Café Porto Cervo for upscale dining. This newly renovated space with its barrel ceiling, wine displays and a chef eager to prepare dishes to your specifications, along with La Trattoria, now serve as anchor restaurants for a new piazza, called Town Center. This European-style square with a landscaped courtyard and fountain overlooking one of the marinas will feature a food emporium, styled after New York’s famous Dean & Deluca, a bakery and retail shops. It should blend beautifully with the overall Mediterranean charm within sight of a vibrant metropolis.
For more information, call 1.800.537.3708 and visit FisherIslandClub.com.