south beach WHITE Hot : Miami's Art Deco District adds to its allure with a surreal new hotel and a growing flock of celebrity-owned hangouts : Hottest Hotel

Webb has written nine books and many articles on architecture and design around the world

Had any surrealistic dreams lately? Hotel impresario Ian Schrager would certainly like you to have some at his ultrachic redesign of Miami's landmark Delano Hotel.

In the eight months since he and French designer Philippe Starck transformed the angular 16-story tower that was built in 1947 and named for FDR, the new all-white Delano has been white-hot. Much has been written about the startling decor and sybaritic rooftop spa. Moguls, supermodels and plain folk have filled its 238 rooms and suites and socialized in its lobbies. Recent guests have included Robert de Niro and Demi Moore, Robin Williams and Donna Karan, k.d. lang, Calvin and Kelly Klein.

Schrager remembers staying at the hotel with his family in the early 1950s, when it looked (to a small boy, at least) like a pink and white palace. Not too long after that, the glamour ebbed away. Meanwhile, the boy from Brooklyn grew up to launch Studio 54, New York's hottest nightclub in the late 1970s. There was a brief incarceration for tax evasion (during which he reportedly boned up on architecture and design). Then he and his late partner Steve Rubell made a spectacular comeback in New York with the hip Palladium nightclub and Morgans, a boutique hotel of understated elegance.

At the end of the '80s, Schrager hired Starck to transform two shabby hotels in New York's Theater District, making the Royalton a place to be seen, and the Paramount a center of cheap chic. The dynamic duo are hoping to complete their transformation of Le Mondrian in West Hollywood by the end of the year. It will be interesting to see if they can top the success of the Delano.

Credit the location for much of the excitement. The square-mile Art Deco National Historic District at the southern end of Miami Beach--also called SoBe--has been heating up for a decade, but when I returned last month, after a year away, it seemed to have reached a new peak of frenzy. Kamikaze models roller-bladed around retirees grasping walkers. Glitzy new stores and towers loomed over the brilliantly colored Art Deco buildings. Pallid northerners jammed sidewalk cafes, oogling the expanses of tanned skin emerging from the beach. At night, traffic was often gridlocked, and bass boomed from every other doorway and car window. I decided to escape the madness for a day or so, and checked into the Delano, curious to see if it would live up to the hype. Friends had told me that this was the place to stay, and now, with deep-frozen New Yorkers filling every flight south, I was glad I had made a reservation several weeks before.

Everything about the Delano is intriguing. It's located away from the action on a nondescript stretch of Collins Avenue, several blocks north of crowded Ocean Drive. The 1940s pink tone has gone, together with the rooftop sign. The base of the blindingly white tower is screened from the street by a high hedge and a blue door (going nowhere) flanked by cypresses. Behind the hedge and door, a driveway curves up to the real entrance. The wide white front porch with its billowing gauze curtains and white-shorted attendants holding the doors reminded me of the old Raffles in Singapore. Fans turned lazily overhead. A kid with purple hair sprouting from beneath a Knicks cap seemed to have strayed in from another world.

As he carried up my bags, the bellboy (who could easily have modeled for Calvin Klein) asked me where I was from, and told me how much he'd prefer to be in L.A. The night before, he had walked five blocks through a rain squall to get his car, and discovered he'd lost his keys. I commiserated.

Miami's weather is as changeable as its fortunes, and I'd picked a rainy patch. However, the management wanted me to feel good about it. Propped on an easel by the elevator was a hand-lettered weather forecast for the day: WARM SUN/CLOUDS CALM. I leafed back through the past six weeks of these predictions and found a pleasing sameness, varied only by the occasional COOL, SHOWERS, or CHOPPY. Someone had angrily scrawled "No, cold!" through one bromide.

I was delivered to my room--at $200, the least expensive available for the season--and saw at once what Schrager meant when he reportedly asked his designer for "simple chic." Henry Ford promised to supply his Model T in any color as long as it was black. Starck apparently felt the same way about white. There's a pearl gray tone on the floors and walls but otherwise everything is virginal--furniture, linens, shutters, flowers, even the television in its tall closet. The gaudy paint box of South Beach is banished. The bathroom, with its mock primitive enameled basin on a table and its stack of trays for your toiletries--the hotel offers only soap and shampoo--is also Starck white. A green apple on a sconce dared me to spoil its perfection by taking a bite. Luckily I'm a minimalist at heart and hate clutter, but some guests may think they've been taken to a Swiss sanitarium.

The slim desk drawer was empty--no phone book or Gideons' Bible here, though there might be room for a chastely bound copy of the "I Ching." I called room service for a guest directory in order to discover what treats lay in store. Three calls later someone explained that a missing page was being printed, and the directory soon arrived in a snowy folder. While waiting, I stashed my clothes in the closet, and glanced in the full-length mirror to see if I looked worthy of the setting. I didn't, but figured (correctly) that you don't have to have an ideal figure to stay here.

If the porch evokes a 1940s Warner Bros. movie--"The Letter," starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall, perhaps--the lobby and the spaces beyond are straight out of a European art film. There's lots of empty space, pools of light and mysterious shadows; also an eccentric choice of furniture, fur throws and flickering chandeliers. Fat white columns veiled in diaphanous curtains take you on a processional route from the lobby, through an informal eating area and the dimly lighted Rose Bar, to the Blue Door restaurant (which does not have a blue door) and back porch.

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Most resort hotels feel claustrophobic in the rain, but here it strengthened my feeling that I'd gone to the tropics, though it was almost cool enough to wear a sweater. (I'm tempted to return in summer--despite the horrendous heat and humidity--when the Delano relies more on natural breezes than air-conditioning in an attempt to avoid the ice box conditions of most Florida hotels.) At any season, people and decor provide free indoor entertainment. Racks in the hotel store are stuffed with enough exotic magazines for a week of browsing, and I was briefly tempted by Starck's lemon juicer, cheese grater, kettle and other baubles.

The hotel is serene by day, but by 7, every chair, even the one that looks like a wheelbarrow and the shiny gold throne in the lobby, was taken. A couple lay together on a broad couch in a purple-lighted niche--they seemed to be having a very good time. A group of tipsy suits, each with a name tag, trooped out from a party in one of the meeting rooms. More revelers were living it up at the bar, which appeared to float in a cloud of pink light.

I had invited a friend over for dinner at the Blue Door restaurant and found it to be an oasis of calm efficiency. Madonna is a part-owner and has thrown some splashy parties here. This night, it seemed to be a celebrity-free zone, and it was easy to get a table--it usually takes two weeks; preferences are given to registered guests. The restaurant is another set of variations on white, from the tall columns to the pair of Calla lilies on every table. The service was brisk and the cuisine (supervised by Brian McNally, who runs the hip restaurant 44 at the Royalton in New York) was simple and good. Choices included pumpkin soup with white truffle essence and poppy seeds, sea bass with fennel and acorn squash, and rack of lamb with potato-leek gratin. The cost per head with wine, desert and tip was about $60.

That night I slept well, rose early and pulled back the shades with a sense of expectancy. The sky was clear at last and I set off to explore before breakfast. In the garden everything was very still and damp. A young woman in a black bikini was working out on a swing that's located in a sandy enclosure overlooking the ocean.

I met John, who guards the back door leading out to the beach, and takes his job of checking intruders very seriously. He spotted me wandering around by myself, studying the scene--obviously a suspicious character--and politely asked if he could check my name on his clipboard list of guests. I flashed back to a similar moment of truth outside Schrager's Studio 54 in New York 17 years before. How embarrassing if my name wasn't there and I was turned away! At first glance, he couldn't find it. His face tightened, then eased, as he found the name on another page. We both sighed with relief.

"Do many people try to sneak in?" I asked. "Oh yes, but I can usually recognize them; often they look too perfect," he responded. "You see some of the prettiest girls trying to crash the party." He encouraged me to swim in the pool and listen to the underwater tapes of classical music. I tried, and it sounded like mermaids singing. Serious swimmers should head for the beach: The Delano's pool, pretentiously dubbed the Water Salon, is too shallow and confined for laps.

A dozen duplex bungalows flank the pool (high season, $500 a day). At 8 a.m. all were still tightly shuttered, and the garden looked like the morning after a wild party. But the Dali-esque arrangement is deliberate. Starck has scattered furniture across the lawn: a day bed, a hammock, formal tables with candelabra, and oversized chess sets. There's a silvery table and chair in the shallow end of the pool, and mirrors are propped against the palm trees. This must be the "surrealistic dream" Schrager spoke of when he asked his designer to surprise him.

I had breakfast from the buffet on the back porch, looking out over the garden and pool. Other guests (mostly young couples) attacked their croissants and fruit salads at a communal table in what's called the Eat-In Kitchen, next to the Rose Bar. Food and drinks are served at several other locations throughout the hotel.

I missed working out with New York fitness guru David Barton in the basement gym. I would like to have brought a kid to check out the children's concierge and play programs. The hotel offers both, but very few children were in evidence. And I shall never see Agua, the women-only rooftop spa. Rita Norona Schrager--a former New York City Ballet dancer, now Ian's wife and mother of young Sophia--supervised the practical aspects.

Would I recommend the Delano as the place to stay? Only to a few close friends. It's already near capacity, at least in the cool season, and it wouldn't suit everyone, though there's a lively mix of people thronging the lobbies. You don't have to be rich and famous; in fact the hotel is probably less impressed by that than are other less-hip hostelries. It probably helps if you are (or look like) Cindy Crawford--but that's true anywhere. Some will find the Delano too austere upstairs, too whimsical downstairs and too officious throughout. Not everyone wants to be told they can't take snaps in the garden (an unwritten rule to protect celebrities) or to have their name checked on a list. That's lucky since the hotel's only problem right now seems to be finding room for everyone who is willing to pay $200 and up for a bed.

I liked its cool, quirky, laid-back quality. Most hotels, regardless of price, have no personality, or jump all over you like an eager puppy. This place is professional and friendly. As I checked out, the receptionist smiled winningly and invited me to return as though she meant it. The car I had summoned from the valet moments before was waiting outside the door, its trunk open. As I drove to the airport, I knew I would be back.

* MORE HOTELS: Other stylish lodgings in the Art Deco District. L14

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GUIDEBOOK: Delano Details

Particulars: Delano (1685 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, FL 33139; telephone [305] 672-2000; for reservations, tel. [800] 555-5001 or fax [305] 674-6499); 238 white-furnished rooms and suites with TVs, CD players, honor bars.

Rates: Through May 31: rooms, $200-$300; lofts, $400; suites, $550; poolside bungalows, $600; penthouse, $1,500. June 1-Sept. 30: rooms, $150-$200; lofts, $300; suites, $325; bungalows, $375; penthouse, $950.

It's prudent to make reservations four weeks in advance. For group rates, call sales department.

Extras: The Blue Door restaurant ([305] 674-6400) with a sophisticated but simple, and eclectic menu; entree prices range $19-$34, starters $6-$16, desserts around $6; good but reasonably priced wine list.

Also, supervised activities for children; state-of-the-art gym; rooftop bathhouse and spa for women, with spa treatments ranging $83-$306.

--M.W.

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