my mother-in-law pulled her Subaru wagon up to the wharf with five minutes to spare before the private ferry was to leave for Fisher Island -- one of the nation's most posh and exclusive spas, and probably the only one with its own island.
The mother-in-law parked next to three Mercedes, a Range Rover and two BMWs, all with tinted windows. As we schlepped our newly purchased Hammacher-Schlemmer suitcase on wheels past the half-million-dollar queue of cars, a security guard with faux nautical stripes on his shirt spotted us. It didn't take a genius to realize that we were strangers to paradise.
"May we help you?" he asked suspiciously.
"We," I quickly surmised, was the Almighty Spa God looking down at our poor lot: the sandals, Gap-issue shorts and tie-dyed T-shirts, our blanched skin that had never enjoyed a thermal mineral kur mud bath, Vichy shower body polish, Yon-Ka eye treatment, deep pore cleansing facial or algae body masque.
We bid mother-in-law and the rest of our middle-class life goodbye for the next four days as we sped across Miami's blue waters to William and Rosamund Vanderbilt's Xanadu island, built in the 1920s, accessible only by Fisher Island ferry, yacht, seaplane or helicopter.
Today, Oprah Winfrey, Boris Becker, Mel Brooks and "Cagney and Lacey" star Sharon Gless own terra cotta-roofed condominiums on the island, a palm-covered spit seven minutes from Miami Beach's MacArthur Causeway. Frequent guests include Demi Moore, Meg Ryan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman and Sharon Stone. No-view studio apartments start at $550,000, while split-level panoramic villas go for $6 million.
Peacocks roam everywhere on the thatched patch of land, and an aviary boasts a collection of South American toucans and cockatiels. The mile-long beach was constructed with white sand imported from the Bahamas and is raked each morning at sunrise. But the centerpiece of the island is the pretentiously named Spa Internazionale, located in Vanderbilt's old 22,000-square-foot seaplane hangar, where an army of white-uniformed, strong-fingered masseuses awaits. To spa freaks hell-bent on relaxation at any cost, these gurus of kneaded flesh are to luffas what Michael Jordan (who has stayed on the island) is to basketballs.
As soon as our ferry pulled in to dock at the 216-acre island, another security agent armed with a clipboard and walkie-talkie drove us silently in a hunter-green golf cart to the refurbished Vanderbilt mansion, so that we could sign away our life savings.
In the back seat of the E-Z-Go mini-limo, my wife pulled out a mirror from her handbag, pursed her lips like a pouting Madonna and outlined them with Yves St. Laurent No. 5 liner. I worked on my pesky eyebrows.
We must have passed F.I. clearance because once at the reception desk, the two trilingual clerks were all smiles and whispers. "Champagne?" one clerk asked. "Why not," my wife said, not accustomed to free liquor except at weddings.
Of course, nothing is free at Fisher Island, but so that you never have to touch money during your recuperative visit, guests are issued gold-lettered Fisher Island charge cards. With champagne flutes in hand, we were introduced to Tico, a handsome Chilean who chauffeured our personal E-Z-Go to our refurbished cottage, Villa No. 1102, built to accommodate Willie and Rosamund's guests 50 years ago.
This was no Motel 6: floors of Italian tiles covered with Persian rugs, French doors, private patio with hot tub, two-room bathroom suite. On a mahogany table, a basket of perfectly ripened Anjou pears and imported cheese awaited next to a cut-crystal vase of roses, tiger lilies and hyacinths.
Hanging inside the closet -- none of those tacky hotel hangers you can't remove -- were two rain ponchos and terry cloth robes, which didn't come with advisos about what would happen if you swiped them. No Gideon's Bibles in these bedside tables. Next to the sofa was a decanter filled with sherry.
Tico stood at the door, smiling serenely like a tanned version of Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life." Before backpedaling, he dangled keys to our E-Z-Go -- the preferred means of transportation on Fisher Island. What where we, a couple of hayseeds from Iowa, doing at a ritzy place like this?
Truth be told, we were there to celebrate. We had just come back from four long days at Disney World with our 6-year-old son. We needed to recuperate from the masses of humanity standing in line sweating like pigs in 100-degree heat behind signs that cheerfully announced: "Two-hour wait from this point."
There was another reason for our own largesse. I had just been granted tenure as a professor of journalism, and after chasing fires and politicians for 20 years, and for the last four years attending faculty meetings at which the main topic of discussion was whether to install a lock on the unisex bathroom door, what was wrong with a blast of hedonistic excess?
Iowa is a wonderful place for a writer for one reason: There is nothing to distract you. Corn and plenty of it, plus a population of five pigs for every Iowan. Alas, Iowa is not where Wolfgang Puck plans to open his next restaurant. In a recent poll by the local newspaper, the Red Lobster was voted best seafood restaurant, followed by Long John Silver's.
As we were to discover over the next four days, Fisher Island is for life's seminal celebrations -- 50th birthdays, making partner, fourth-marriage honeymoons or trading in your cheapskate husband for a sugar daddy. Fisher Island's brochure bills itself as a resort that is "absolutely the best of the best."
Our previous benchmark for ultra luxury had been Little Dix Bay in the British Virgin Islands. One afternoon there, while lazing on rafts 30 yards from shore, we suddenly had a hankering for a cold and refreshing beverage, preferably with a double shot of alcohol in it. I motioned with the index finger of my right hand toward my mouth. Without a second's delay, a pith-helmeted man in Bermuda shorts waded out to us, took our order and, within minutes, returned with two frosty daiquiris on a silver platter.
No way Fisher Island could rival that, I thought, although by the end of our stay, the experience had been close. Of course, such ridiculous service costs plenty. Three-night spa packages at Fisher Island go for $3,380 per couple; seven-day prices fetch $6,900 for two.
But that's during high season. From May 1 to October 31, the four-day, bare-bones Romance Package for two costs a mere $990, exclusive of meals and spa treatments. The stripped-down version costs more than the Holiday Inn Express, to be sure, but at Fisher Island you get more -- some of it tangible, some not.
What Fisher Island is selling, in addition to impeccable service, dining and accommodations, is security and proximity. No paparazzi here. We were about as close to paparazzi as anyone gets on Fisher Island, and all we had was a Canon Sure-Shot. Hermetically sealed and deafeningly quiet, Fisher Island is less than 15 minutes from the high-pitched frenzy of Miami's trendy South Beach, where tourists flock for photos in front of Gianni Versace's mansion, yet it might as well be a thousand miles away.
Built in 1905, when a passageway was dredged from the Atlantic Ocean to Biscayne Bay, Fisher Island is named after Miami Beach land baron Carl Fisher, who bought the key in 1919 from Dana Dorsey, a black millionaire whose failed dream had been to turn the isle into a resort for wealthy black tourists. Fisher grew tired of the island and in 1925 traded it for Vanderbilt's 250-foot yacht, the Eagle. The trade wasn't as bad as $24 worth of trinkets, but it's one reason why you've heard of Vanderbilt and not Fisher.
Vanderbilt sunk millions into the island, building a nine-hole golf course, azure-tile pool, grass tennis courts and a stone mansion with seven fireplaces and a library with walls that came from an estate once owned by Napoleon. After Vanderbilt's death in 1944, the island bounced between land barons, and in the early 1960s, an investment group headed by Bebe Rebozo (and including Richard Nixon) bought the island. In 1979, the island changed hands again, this time to a holding company, which built expensive condos, expensive restaurants and a brand new expensive golf course. In 1991, Spa Internazionale opened for business, specializing in, as the brochure promises, "customized body treatments."
We might be hayseeds, but we were hayseeds with a mission. As soon as Tico left our cottage, I called the sybaritic spa and made reservations for a thermal mineral mud kur. Maybe it was my living in Iowa with so many pigs, but there has always been something appealing about slathering my torso in mud.
Before embarking on such a task, though, I wanted to be in the right frame of mind. We chilled on the white-sand beach, lay out under a canvas cabana and -- following directions in our Fisher Island guidebook -- hoisted the cabana's green flag up its mini mast to signal we wanted a drink. No waiter clad in Bermuda shorts and pith helmet appeared, but it still worked just fine. Within minutes a cabana boy was at my elbow, taking our margarita orders.
That night, we dined in one of the island's five restaurants, the Cafe Porto Cervo, an elegant place with a patio overlooking 200-foot-long yachts. We feasted on sumptuous portions of shrimp and scallops grilled in garlic -- not quite Red Lobster, but I got used to it. On our left were two divorcies with designer noses who spoke with thick Miami accents and wore Rolex watches heavy enough to require forklifts. On our right was a Middle Eastern family of 22. Our waiter, from Paris, recommended the tiramisu. When he returned and saw our plate scraped empty, he asked with a discreet smile, "Something wrong with your dessert, sir?"
On our way back to our cottage, we drove the E-Z-Go through the island's residential neighborhoods, where the Fisher's 500 year-round families from 39 nations live. I hoped to get a glimpse of Mel Brooks and his wife, Mrs. Robinson (aka Anne Bancroft), or of Oprah and Stedman walking hand in hand, but I came up empty -- just an army of kids on new Rollerblades and a motorized skateboard. It all was so surrealistically pleasant; the few women we saw -- their perfectly pedicured feet squeezed into high-heeled, come-hither slippers -- were all manicured and bronzed, chic and very thin. All excess weight had been either sucked out by machine or sweated off by the butt-blaster and spin classes offered daily at the Spa Internazionale. The men looked like aging bad-guy extras from "Miami Vice"; now in their 50s, they still had pony tails, but their once-hirsute pates were bald and their one-time washboard abs today had more flab than ripple. Their tans, though, remained remarkable.
Primed for the mud experience of my life, I showed up promptly for my appointment the next day. Masseur Eduardo painted my body with hot, black Hungarian mud. Back home, we try not to track mud into our house. In fact, most Iowa houses have a room off the kitchen, called the Mud Room, designed as a place where you can kick off your muddy boots before entering the living quarters. But here, you pay $125 so that a stranger can slather gooey dirt over your body.
But frankly, Eduardo -- a nice Brazilian guy who is the trainer for the U.S. Olympic Rowing team -- was too stingy with the black gold. I knew the stuff was expensive, coming all the way from Hungary, but I still expected to get dipped from head to toe and then soak in the stuff. Instead Eduardo dabbed a little here and there as though he was touching up a pretty good paint job. For all I could tell, the touted mud could have come from a backyard in Hialeah. With lights dimmed and taped moans from cetaceans piped into my room, I lay for 15 minutes, then Eduardo wrapped me in white sheets that must be very messy to wash. Next, Eduardo led me to a long, narrow tub with bubbling water that the brochure promised was "laden with thermal mineral crystals derived from the world famous Sarvar Spring in Hungary."
To tell the truth, I get more pleasure from our own bathtub in Iowa overlooking the cornfields. The last step was for Eduardo to rub cream into the skin around my knees, elbows, wrists and ankles, which felt oily and smelled like something out of a Victoria's Secret catalog.
The next day's herbal wrap turned out to be more to my liking. Billed as incorporating "the ancient Egyptian custom of wrapping the body and the Far Eastern practice of using herbs to relax, detoxify and remove the body of excess fluids," this treatment had me feeling akin to a moth in a steaming hot cocoon. Eduardo used piping hot linen sheets that smelled like cranberries and chamomile, followed with a brief finger-point massage. When he had finished pummeling my body, expiated of toxins, I felt like a wet noodle.
Actually, what I enjoyed most about the spa was an outdoor "Roman Waterfall" Jacuzzi. This is the drill: You stand in a large, semi-circular shower area complete with statues and columns and allow the rapidly cascading water from above to pummel your neck and shoulders. It was a deep, almost rough, massage (punishment for excess pleasure?). The sound of the rushing water blocked out all other noises. Forget Rome. It felt like I was body surfing Iguacu Falls.
After more afternoons of hoisting our green flag on the side of our beach-front cabana, more lonely jaunts in the E-Z-Go, hours doing the back stroke in the waveless ocean water, we were ready to return to Iowa to watch the corn grow. We paid our bill: The whole shebang -- the body treatments, restaurants, the beach daiquiris, the 18-percent gratuities, the tax added in -- came to $1,835 for two.
I'm still not sure whether it was worth it. We certainly were relaxed, ready to face the rigors of the world again. In fact, we were looking forward to talking with someone who wasn't an obsequious servant. For four days, there had been polite nods and smiles, but nothing more. "Quiet, hushed elegance" is how the brochures describe the sensation. At times, though, it was eerie, like Stepford gone south for the summer. The blond topless woman with the too-perfect twin orbs floating in the calm water, the two French men wearing Bally loafers and chain-smoking Gitanes at the Tiki Bar, the honeymooners from Caracas with too much sunscreen on their noses -- no one talked to anyone else. But after all, that's why they had come to Fisher Island.
Of course, who stays in Miami during the summer? The wealthy Americans, Brazilians, Venezuelans, French, Germans, Italians and, recently, Russians who own residences on the island don't hang out in August. If you've got enough money to own an apartment on Fisher Island or stay as a guest, you've probably got enough to be somewhere besides under the blazing Florida sun in 100-percent humidity. The whole island seemed like a neutron bomb had been detonated. But while the summer cuts down the number of people on the island, it doesn't change the year-round mood of the place.
To most residents, the island is bliss, a nouveau Malibu without the gawkers or the mud slides. "It is like Los Angeles used to be when it was a pueblo and we were kids," Sharon Gless' husband, TV producer Barney Rosenzweig, wrote in a recent issue of the island's magazine, FI. "It is about maqana, and deep breathing without having to think about it. It is about healing, about feeling warm and loose and free and sexy."
Whatever. On the way back to raucous civilization on the ferry, which operates every 15 minutes 24 hours a day, there was the usual assortment of expensive wheels with dark windows. As each drove onto the dock, an attendant stood poised with a water hose. A flick of the windshield wipers signaled the attendant to spray the car. No conversation necessary.
To flick meant you wanted the attendant to rinse away any salt that might have accumulated on the windshield during the seven-minute ferry ride. At Fisher Island, they think of everything.