Checking in at Casa Versace

By Sarah Turner, The Mail on Sunday

Last updated at 15:44 30 August 2005


The Italian fashion icon was slain on the steps of his South Beach mansion

Quietly, discreetly, Gianni Versace's Miami house has just opened as a very luxurious hotel - the ultimate fashion billet.

Until he was killed by a gunman outside the front entrance in 1997, the 50-year-old fashion mogul's home was Casa Casuarina -a Thirties Mediterranean palazzo in the heart of South Beach. And what am I most fascinated by? The storage space in Versace's own suite.

Leticia, who works at Casa Casuarina, gives me a guided tour of Versace's wardrobe area. 'The storage starts here,' she says and I catch sight of an endless collection of glass-fronted cabinets before being temporarily blinded by the sight of Versace's marble bathroom and shower. Her voice gets fainter as she heads into the deeper recesses of the cupboard space. 'And carries on here.'

The houses of rich, celebrated fashion designers aren't a bit like ours, especially when it comes to closets. Versace - appropriately - housed his clothes in a space that was the size of the average boutique.

There is a general supersize theme to the room - the bed has roughly the proportions of a Challenger tank, the satin curtains cascade to the floor in luxuriant folds. Outside, there is an endless stream of tourists taking photographs. Along with the White House and Graceland, this is the most photographed house in the US.

South Beach used to be the preserve of the retired - a tropical Eastbourne full of elderly men wearing shorts with knee socks sitting on the porches of decaying Art Deco hotels. Then Versace bought Casa Casuarina on Ocean Drive in 1992, bringing the rich and famous to South Beach.

When he was alive, if you weren't a supermodel or rock superstar, the chances are that you'd be waiting a long time before you got to recline on one of his velvet and satin-strewn beds, fondle the original curtains or admire the beamed (and painted) ceilings. He spent £17million creating his fantasy home, even buying the hotel next door just so he could demolish it. 'He needed a guest house and a swimming pool,' says Leticia, making it all sound quite reasonable.

The guest house was for Madonna (her suite, La Mer, features the only bathtub in the house - Elton John preferred the Egyptian suite). It overlooks the swimming pool, a swirly rococo fantasy surrounded by orchid plants.

This is one pool where you'd be wise to wear sunglasses at all times, given that it's tiled in gold leaf, which glints alarmingly when the sun shines. Every inch of the house is covered in mosaics, murals and stained glass - along with a veritable mulch of gold leaf. Even the guttering is decorated with little Medusa heads, the Versace logo.

Put bluntly, it is a house that is beyond the dreams of even Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. It is the very essence of bling although - historical note - in the late Eighties and early Nineties, we called it Eurotrash. And at that time, Versace was the architect and master of the look. So, in one sense, his house is his most permanent creation.

Technically, it isn't a hotel - it's a private club owned by Peter Loftin, who bought it from the Versace family in 2000.

What this means, unfortunately, is that hoi polloi like you and me won't actually be able to do what we really like doing when it comes to expensive hotels - which is come in, wander around, surreptitiously take a photo or two with our mobile phones, look as if we're thinking about having a drink and then wander out and go somewhere cheaper.

The thought of people doing this pains Loftin as much as it is possible for a telecoms multi-millionaire to be pained. 'This is a historic building and the wear and tear would be terrible,' he tells me.

As a result, there are only two ways to get into Casa Casuarina. You can become a member, which costs a minimum of £19,500, plus a hefty annual fee, or you can book one of the bedrooms for about £650 a night, which seems a bit of a bargain by comparison, especially as the contents of the minibar are thrown in.

For that price, you stay in one of the rooms designed for Allegra and Daniel Beck, Versace's niece and nephew. They were clearly sophisticated children - the walls of their rooms are decorated with elaborate murals, one with an ancient Roman theme - and have full-sized beds.

Pay a bit more and you can have their mother Donatella's suite. For someone usually considered the high priestess of brassiness, it's a surprisingly girlie set of rooms, with murals of wisteria climbing up the walls and views on to the swimming pool.

The Safari Suite was the bedroom of Santo Versace, Gianni's older brother. It is possibly the most macho bedroom I've ever encountered, with the ceiling painted to look like leopard skin and a lion pelt on the floor.

After taking in the ten bedrooms, you begin to pick up a certain amount of information about the Versace family. They liked showers rather than baths but only ones that were roughly the size of a stretch limo.

And big beds were important --most of them measure an impressive 10ft by 9ft, and are covered in velvet and silk, topped with a display of cushions that would put Harrods to shame.

The Versace family might have gone but it's nice to think that their spirit lives on in the Casa Casuarina's new role. Its new restaurant, which will specialise in Mediterranean food, has walls studded with stones.

That may sound worryingly like upmarket pebbledash but the intricate patterns redeem it somewhat. Upstairs, there's a cigar lounge, a Moroccan-style lounge and Versace's observatory, which has a revolving ceiling. 'You've been inside?' asks a woman incredulously when I emerge from the heavy metal gates. 'Do they give tours?'

'No,' I say cheerfully, adjusting my sunglasses.

Getting there A seven-night fly-drive package in Miami with Virgin Holidays (0871 222 1232, costs from £499 per adult. This includes Virgin Atlantic return flights from Heathrow and seven days car hire (excluding insurance and tax). Child prices for under-12s start at £329. Room rates at Casa Casuarina (001 305 672 6604, are from £659 a night.

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