The Coral Castle of Many Names
On a street full of fairly opulent buildings, 1114 Ocean Dr, a cream-colored Mediterranean revival castle built of hewn coral and exposed timber that could rightly be the center set piece of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, stands out. The three-story palace, built in the 1930s, was modeled after the Governor’s House in Santo Domingo, where Christopher Columbus’ son once laid his head. For years it was known as the Amsterdam Palace – until one day, in the early 1980s, it caught the eye of a certain fashion designer named Gianni Versace. Versace bought the property, renamed it the Versace Mansion and promptly locked horns with local preservationists after announcing plans to tear down a neighboring hotel so he could build a pool. After a battle, the moneyed designer won – but also struck a deal that would allow for law changes, saving more than 200 other historic hotels in the process.
None of it mattered in 1997, when stalker Andrew Cunanan gunned Versace down in front of the beloved mansion. For years after, the house was known as Casa Casuarina and operated as a members-only club. Currently it is the site of the Villa Casa Casuarina hotel. Ironically, the death of a European fashion guru here has attracted lots of, well, European fashion gurus. Tourists still shuffle by, armed with morbid curiosity and a thirst for celebrity-related photos of any kind.
Hibiscus, Palm & Star Islands
Floating off the edge of the A1A, in the heart of Biscayne Bay (and posh exclusivity),Hibiscus Island, Palm Island and Star Island are little floating Primrose Hills. There aren’t many famous people living here – just wealthy ones – although Star Island is home to Gloria Estefan and for a short time Al Capone lived (and died) on Palm Island. In the 1970s and '80s a mansion on Star Island was the headquarters of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a Rastafarian sect eventually convicted of smuggling large amounts of marijuana into the USA. That incident prompted a media circus that focused on both the indictments and neighborly disputes between the long-haired, bearded white Rastas and their aristocratic Star Island neighbors, who complained about the fog of cannabis smoke constantly emanating from the EZCC’s compound.
Today the drives for the islands are guarded by a security booth, but the roads are public, so if you ask politely and don’t look sketchy, you can get in. Star Island is little more than one elliptical road lined with royal palms, sculpted ficus hedges and fancy gates guarding houses you can’t see.