Christian Gonzalez is an FIU student and active member of the FIU Honors College. Born and raised in Miami, his passions lie at the intersections of art, nature, and technology. Christian is a junior seeking a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and is currently majoring in Finance.
Every year, millions of people from all over the world come to visit Miami. South Beach and the city of Miami Beach are among some of the most popular tourist attractions in South Florida, but tucked away on the northside of the same island is the far lesser known village of Bal Harbour.
Bal Harbour lies on the the northernmost end of the same barrier island that South Beach is located on, with the city of Miami Beach on its southernmost end and only the town of Surfside in between them. The word “Bal” is a portmanteau of the words Biscanye and Atlantic, due to the fact that it is bordered on the west by the Biscayne Bay and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean.
Bal Harbour is by far the smallest portion of the barrier island, encompassing only 0.99 km2 (4.4%) of land on the island. Surfside, on Bal Harbour’s southern border, is located on 1.44 km2 (6.4%) of land, and both are dwarfed by the city of Miami Beach which occupies 19.92 km2 (89.1%) of land on the barrier island.
The land where Bal Harbour and Miami Beach are currently located was originally a peninsula and part of a much larger barrier island. However, in 1925 an inlet was cut through a narrow point in the sand. The northern end of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean became connected because of this inlet which now separates the cities of Bal Harbour and Sunny Isles.
In the 1940s, WWII broke out and almost all of Miami Beach’s 332 resort hotels were leased to the US Air Force. By 1943, the city had become a training ground for the war. Development plans for Bal Harbour were put on hold during this time and the land was rented out to the United States Air Corp. The Air Corps used this land similarly as a training ground, constructing military barracks, a firing range, and even a Prisoner of War camp. The prisoner camp, notably, was located where the Bal Harbour Shops currently stand.
The village of Bal Harbour was officially incorporated in 1946. Bal Harbour experienced rapid development in the subsequent decade. A total of nine beachside resorts opened in Bal Harbour during this time, attracting upscale clientele. In 1949, a bridge was built over the inlet to the north, connecting Bal Harbour and Sunny Isles.
In 1957, Stanley Whitman purchased 16 acres of land in Bal Harbour to build a mall. He paid $2 per square foot of land, which was a record price for retail property at that time. Inspired by the Lincoln Road mall in South Beach, Whitman wanted to create an open-air luxury shopping experience within Bal Harbour. The Bal Harbour Shops mall was opened in 1965 with 30 upscale tenants, and it was reported to have been immediately successful.
In 1971, Whitman convinced Neiman Marcus to open its first department store outside of Texas, which became an anchor outlet for the Bal Harbour Shops. Other notable outlets within Bal Harbour Shops include the first mall location for Cartier and Bulgari and the first Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Sergio Rossi outlets in the United States outside of New York. Because of the success of the Bal Harbour Shops, some consider Stanley Whitman to be the “Walt Disney of luxury retailing”.
The remainder of Bal Harbour’s history can largely be characterized by the development of resort hotels and luxury retail shops. The last undeveloped beachfront site was sold for $220 million in 2012 to build the luxury Oceana condominium complex. Today, Bal Harbour is flanked by the Bal Harbour Shops and St. Regis Bal Harbour resort on its south end and the Ritz-Carlton and Haulover Inlet Bridge on its north end.
According to 2020 US Census data, Bal Harbour has a population of 3,093 residents across 1,424 households. 65.8% of residents are White, 26.8% are Hispanic or Latino, 3.88% are Mixed or Multi-Racial, 1.49% are Asian, and 1.03% are Black.
Notably, Bal Harbour was the subject of scrutiny in the 1980s due to discriminatory housing practices. In 1982, a $10 million lawsuit was raised against an exclusive Bal Harbour community, the Bal Harbour Club, due to a 36-year old policy that prevented Jews and Black people from owning property there. After the introduction of the lawsuit, the community quickly voted and passed measures to remove these discriminatory restrictions.
The median home property value in Bal Harbour is $1.27 million, and the median household income is $76,962. 51.6 is the median age of Bal Harbour residents, and only about 1,138 (36.7%) of residents are employed. From this data, we can infer that a large majority of Bal Harbour residents are older retired White or Hispanic people.
Employment for Bal Harbour residents is somewhat diverse, but still concentrated in a handful of occupations. Of the 1,138 employed Bal Harbour residents, 19.7% are occupied in management positions, 17.0% are occupied in sales, 12.1% are occupied in business and financial operations, and 10.1% are occupied in health care. In terms of industry, 17.6% of residents are employed in the real estate sector, 15.6% are employed in the health care sector, 9.67% are employed in the accommodation and food services sector, and 9.46% are employed in the retail trade sector.
While taking photos at the Ritz-Carlton in Bal Harbour , I had the opportunity to interview one of the concierges at the hotel. I asked him if he could tell me something about Bal Harbour that most people don’t know about. He immediately started talking about the Bal Harbour Shops, and how he had lived in Miami his whole life and hadn’t even known the mall existed until he started working in Bal Harbour. I asked him why he thinks that is, and he speculated it’s probably because the Aventura Mall, nearby on the other side of Biscayne Bay, gets a lot more attention.
Continuing the interview, I asked what the best day of the week to visit Bal Harbour might be. Without hesitation, he claimed that Sundays are nice because there is significantly less traffic on the way to Bal Harbour, and that Tuesday nights are also good because of the food trucks at Haulover Park. Haulover Park, across the inlet bridge, is about a 5 minute walk from the Ritz-Carlton. Asking about the perks of working in Bal Harbour, he was keen to name-drop some of the numerous celebrities that frequently visit Bal Harbour such as Ed Sheeran, Mike Tyson, Gail King, and J. Cole.
St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort
The most well known hotel and resort in Bal Harbour is the St. Regis. This 5-star hotel sits on the beach at the south end of Bal Harbour and was opened in 2012. The St. Regis epitomizes the high-end luxury lifestyle that defines Bal Harbour, containing several notable restaurants including Atlantikos Greek cuisine, BH Burger Bar, and La Gourmandise French cuisine.
Bal Harbour Shops
The Bal Harbour Shops is a luxury open-air shopping center, and one of the highest grossing shopping centers in the world with sales of $3,000 per square foot. The mall is still owned and operated by the Whitman family who developed the site in the 1950s and 1960s. Bal Harbour Shops contains approximately 100 retail stores and services including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue department stores as well as dozens of luxury and designer outlets such as Gucci, Prada, Saint Laurent, Versace, Balenciaga, and Fendi.
The Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour Resort
Another 5-star hotel resort in Bal Harbour is the Ritz-Carlton which sits at the northernmost end of the Bal Harbour beach. Opened in 2014, the hotel stands out from other beach hotels on the island and is marketed as a “getaway” on the beach, isolated from the busier hotels on Miami Beach within the more residential north end of Bal Harbour. The Ritz-Carlton offers several restaurants, a complete spa experience, and many other amenities to its guests.
Bal Harbour Beach
In tune with the neighborhood’s luxury status, the Bal Harbour Beach can be described as one of the most manicured and well maintained beaches in South Florida. The beach is free and publicly accessible to all. A path alongside the beach allows guests to walk, jog, or cycle and is widely decorated with outdoor art exhibitions and installations organized by Bal Harbour’s “Unscripted” art program.
On the other side of the bridge connecting Bal Harbour and Sunny Isles, you will find Haulover Park. A 177-acre park opened in 1948, the park contains one of the first officially recognized nude beaches in South Florida and the largest public nude beach in the United States. The park also contains a marina, tennis courts, numerous food trucks on Tuesday nights, and a dog park.
North Beach Oceanside Park
North Beach Oceanside Park is located south of Bal Harbour, a 30-minute walk along the beach from the Bal Harbour Shops. Although dogs are not allowed on the beach itself, this park is widely recognized as a pet-friendly area complete with nearby restaurants that accommodate pets with outdoor seating. Oceanside Park is also known for being a good spot to picnic, thanks to designated BBQ grilling spaces within the park.
According to data from the US Census Bureau, 56.7% of workers in Bal Harbour commute by driving alone, 21.9% work at home, and 9.62% commute via carpool. Only 1.9% of workers in Bal Harbour commute via public transit. The Bal Harbour Express Shuttle that once used to operate in the village was suspended in 2021 due to budgetary adjustments.
There are a few options to get to Bal Harbour from Downtown Miami via public transport. One example is the Arsht Metromover which can take you from the Adrienne Arsht center all the way to the Bal Harbour Shops on Collins Avenue. However, public transportation appears to be limited almost by design in Bal Harbour. With the removal of the Bal Harbour Express Shuttle, there are only two bus stops in the southern half of the neighborhood, near the retail district.
Located on the second floor within Bal Harbour Shops, Hillstone offers modern American cuisine. Open for both lunch and dinner, meals here are not cheap. However, the food may be considerably less expensive compared to other high-end restaurants in the neighborhood. My sister is a huge fan of the ribs here, and I can personally recommend both the grilled artichokes as well as the crab cakes, whenever they happen to be available.
Le Zoo is described as an energetic celebration of French Mediterranean cuisine, located in Bal Harbour. This French bistro is inspired by Parisian cafes and restaurants in St Tropez, offering freshly baked bread and an assortment of gourmet cheeses. Some of the best dishes here include the escargot, carpaccio, and crème brûlée.
Another restaurant located within the Bal Harbour Shops, Makoto is a modern Japanese restaurant operated by Chef Makoto Okuwa since 2011. One of Bal Harbour’s most popular restaurants, Makoto specializes in Edomae-style sushi. Here you will find outstanding short rib noodles and a wide variety of sushi dishes.
Haulover Bike Rentals
Haulover Bike Rentals is a great service that offers bike rentals for reasonable prices within Haulover Park. You can ride your bike throughout the park or across the bridge and down Bal Harbour Beach’s scenic beachside cycling trail.
Big Daddy’s Liquors
Big Daddy’s Liquors, a South Florida staple for over 60 years, is a locally-owned liquor store located just one block south of the Bal Harbour Shops. It is owned and operated by the family of Joe “Big Daddy” Flanigan, the man who founded Miami’s famous Flanigan’s restaurant.
Miami Boat Rentals & Tours
One of the best boat rental and charter companies in town, Miami Boat Rentals & Tours is located at the Bill Bird Marina within Haulover Park. A great way to explore Biscayne Bay and Bal Harbour by sea, you can rent a boat here for an entire day complete with a captain who is licensed to drive the boat for you.
Rather sleepy and quite small, Bal Harbour is one side of this urban oceanside paradise that many people who live here don’t often see. You could say it’s one of Miami’s best kept secrets, but the more I learned about Bal Harbour, the more I realized how prohibitively expensive the town really is and how limited local activities appear to be if you are not a hotel guest or a resident. The Bal Harbour Shops is an interesting mall to visit, especially if you have money to spend, but the only affordable activities in this neighborhood are the local parks and beaches on the periphery of town. Although I would love the opportunity to stay at one of Bal Harbour’s famous 5-star hotel resorts, it is easy to see why most people prefer visiting the much more tourist-friendly South Beach.
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