MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The beachfront Faena Hotel has a lobby lavish enough to greet a pharaoh, with blinding sunlight bouncing off oversized gilded columns. In the distance, a golden sculpture of a mammoth's skeleton is framed by palm trees, the aqua blue sky and gleaming Atlantic Ocean.
The hotel is the centerpiece of Faena District, a once-neglected strip of Miami Beach where decaying structures and empty lots have given way to opulent hotels, condos and a performing arts center. The $1 billion project, which began in 2013, was developed by Argentine hotel magnate Alan Faena in partnership with billionaire Len Blavatnik. The cluster of buildings is located 2 miles north of South Beach, on a narrow strip of land between a waterway and the ocean.
The 169-room Faena Hotel maintains the Art Deco structure of the original Saxony Hotel, built on the site in 1947, but Faena's over-the-top renovation combines Belle Epoque splendor with tropical flair. Faena hired everyone from a Hollywood director to a Mexican shaman to contribute to the hotel's ambience. Elements include tiger sculptures, golden palm tree lamps and red roses.
Faena assigned the hotel's interior decor to Baz Luhrmann, director of "Moulin Rouge" and "The Great Gatsby," and costume designer Catherine Martin.
"For me, this is like cinema. Here I come to offer my heart and tell my story," said Faena, a former fashion designer, in an interview from his trailer studio.
He tapped the Argentine painter Juan Gatti to fill the hotel with mosaics of marine life and exuberant murals with flamingos, peacocks and tigers. The artwork is intended to depict the impressions of the first explorers to reach Florida.
And he wanted the spa to be a Latin American experience, so he recruited a Mexican shaman for rituals, and imported indigenous ingredients from the Amazon for treatments.
"The architecture, design, art, culture it all allows me to have this place to raise people up, so that people come here and feel somehow happier," Faena said.
Rooms start at $745. Less expensive lodging is offered nearby at Casa Faena, a Spanish beach guesthouse with 50 rooms, tall ceilings, skylights and stained glass windows. The name Claridge can be seen in the casa's facade, preserving the name of the site's original hotel, which had fallen in disrepair.
"I like places that are forgotten because you can listen to them and listen to what they have to tell you," Faena says.
It's not the first time abandoned sites have inspired Faena.
He started his partnership with Blavatnik developing an abandoned pier in Buenos Aires and turning old mills and warehouses into skyscrapers and luxury hotels and apartments. In Argentina's Puerto Madero, away from the historic center, the construction straddled seven city blocks and has become a cultural hub in the capital city.
In Miami Beach, Faena Forum, the events venue, opened in time for the prestigious Art Basel last November. The white building is a 43,000-square-foot structure of an asymmetrical cube embracing a cylinder, inspired by Rome's Pantheon. The center features a dome with an oculus and an amphitheater of pink marble expected to house concerts and seminars.
Charles Bohl, head of University of Miami's graduate program in real estate development and urbanism, says he'd like to see more done to make the area pedestrian-friendly. But Bohl said the district contributes greatly to developing arts and culture in Miami Beach, which attracts most of the 15 million tourists Miami sees every year.
"The developers brought a vision that has created a unique environment," Bohl said. "It's one of the places everyone wants to hold events in."
It has attracted celebrity visitors such as Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ariana Grande.
On a recent evening, visitors lined up outside restaurants while others sipped martinis and wine on a deck cooled by the ocean breeze.
At the hotel theater, the cabaret-style show "C'est Rouge" drew an audience of couples and friends, some dressed in shimmering cocktail gowns. They watched acrobats and trapeze artists, followed by musicians doing numbers like Gloria Estefan's "Conga" and the Spanish version of "Love Me With All of Your Heart."
One spectator, Alexandria Corral, an event planner, brought two friends from out of town to celebrate her 25th birthday.
"Of everything else I've seen, this would be the fanciest place. It tops everything else that Miami Beach has to offer," she said.
If You Go...
FAENA HOTEL: 3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Nightly $745 but rates vary by season; http://www.faena.com/ . Tickets for "C'est Rouge" from $95, with dinner $250. Los Fuegos Restaurant at the hotel, lunch 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and until midnight Friday-Saturday.
CASA FAENA: 3500 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Rooms start from $295; http://www.faena.com/casa-faena
FAENA FORUM: 3300 Collins Ave., http://www.faenaart.org/exhibitions/