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Golfers can rent a Mercedes or build a sandcastle at the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne near Miami

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

The Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne is Miami's only AAA Five Diamond resort, and it's a beauty. The resort has a Prada Beauty spa, excellent restaurants, and access to the nearby Crandon Park, a Robert Von Hagge/Bruce Devlin design that's one of Florida's top municipal golf courses.

Ritz-Carlton - Key Biscayne Resort
The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne rests on a 12-acre stretch of oceanfront and is bordered by 1,200 feet of beach.
Ritz-Carlton - Key Biscayne ResortCrandon Park Golf CourseKey Biscayne Resort - Rooms

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. - Key Biscayne is only a few minutes from downtown Miami, but seems as if it's in another world, only with the same great weather and turquoise waters.

Once you take the Rickenbacker Causeway east, you head out into Biscayne Bay and leave behind the hectic Miami traffic, noise and chaos.

Everything here on Key Biscayne is mannered and ordered. The streets are wide and clean. Kids play on well-kept soccer fields, their parents watching from the sidelines. Cyclists cruise down the causeway, wearing the latest in designer cyclist wear.

Watch the dolphins cutting through the clear water and the hawks and pelicans diving for fish in the shallows, without fear of getting car-jacked.

The Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne is Miami's only AAA Five Diamond resort, and it's a beauty, stuck out on the end of what they call here their "island paradise."

The resort overlooks the bay and the ocean, and has pretty much everything you would expect from a five-diamond resort, from the 20,000-square-foot spa to excellent restaurants.

It also has one of the largest tennis complexes of any Ritz-Carlton in the world, headed by former pro Cliff Drysdale. The tennis "garden" has a hard court and 10 clay courts.

The resort is a 13-story, 402-room facility on a 12-acre stretch of oceanfront and bordered by 1,200 feet of beach, named one of the top 10 in the U.S. Beach activities include kayaking, windsurfing and sailing on catamarans, or just lazing the day away under a palm tree.

The spa is partners with Prada Beauty and it has a spate of "Gentlemen's spa services, including the "art of shaving facial." That includes a hot towel wrap, protective, pre-shave oil. Then an after-shave mask is applied and removed with "natural sea sponges soaked in essential lemon oil."

After that, they slap a cold towel on you with "essential lavender oil." Finally, you get rose oil and a face massage. It's everything but an actual shave.

There are also manicures, pedicures, water therapies, "soul massages," and just about everything else they can do to your skin, hair, nails and various body parts. This is for men, remember. Think what they do for women.

You can rent a Mercedes Benz to tour the island and Miami — and they throw in a free tank of gas every day.

Music is a big deal here. There's jazz in the lobby, soothing guitar in the Cioppino dining room and a "world mix" at the Cantina beach grill, with its torches, fire pit and a "tequilier," a Mexican expert who will teach you how to drink it. (And I thought I learned that in my college days.)

For families, there is an oceanfront kids pavilion with floor-to-ceiling windows a wading pool and outdoor playground. They have sandcastle and volleyball competitions along with basketball and tennis clinics. They also have kayaking, sailing and fishing. And, of course, there is always shelling.

Bicycles are for rent, and nearby is the Bill Baggs Cape Florida state park with an early 19th century lighthouse.

Rates range from $225 to $3,500 in the offseason and $450-$4,500 in the high season.

Golf at Crandon Park nearby

The hotel doesn't have a golf course on the property, but Crandon Park is a few minutes away. It's the kind of municipal golf course that plays host from governors on down.

You can play here in the summer, which is essentially seven months long here, for $30 after 10 a.m. During the high season, it's $75 for Florida residents.

It's an excellent, affordable course in a beautiful setting, and you don't have to be a millionaire to play it.

"We're proud of that," Director of Golf Carlos McKeon said.

He's also proud of the course - as well he should be. Crandon Park is one of the best munis in the state, maybe in the country, with an upscale clubhouse and a great design by Robert Von Hagge and Bruce Devlin.

The first thing you may notice might be the size of the tee boxes. They're huge — I mean, really, really big. The tee box on No. 18 is about 150 yards long, unfolding through a chute of trees. From the back tees, it's nearly 250 yards just to reach the fairway.

It gives the course the option to move the tee markers around to keep the grass pristine, and to stretch out the course to more than 7,200 yards. McKeon has done his own bit of work on the tees, building new ones and moving them around to make the course more playable to the average player.

The second thing you can't help but notice is the setting itself. It's a pristine island environment, with seven saltwater lakes and views of Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline. The course is dotted with palms, mangrove and other exotic, tropical growth. It also has an assortment of exotic wildlife, like iguanas scuttling around the grounds, and climbing trees and — get this — crocodiles.

This is one of the best deals in South Florida, when you combine price and the quality of the experience. Crandon Park can be a handful, especially if you play it from the back tees, with the near-constant wind that comes sweeping over the unprotected layout.

Opened in 1972, Devlin oversaw a $1.5 million renovation in 1993, including rebuilding 17 of the 18 greens. They also made some bunkers bigger and some greens smaller, adding mounds around some of them.

The facility lost the Senior PGA Tour tournament it hosted for 17 years, where legends like Lee Trevino, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Gary Player and Ray Floyd played, two years ago. However, it's actively trying to get another. It deserves one.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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