The Most Impressive Party Boat In Florida: A Trip To Vizcaya

Though we were fighting the clock to get to Orlando for our flight back to NY, we made sure to leave time for a stop at a place universally recommended by Scouting NY readers: the Vizcaya estate.

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I knew nothing about Vizcaya, other than having read a blurb describing it as a Newport Mansion by way of South Florida. Sure, the main house was pretty damn beautiful…

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…the gardens immaculate…

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…but I have to be honest: what really blew me away was the party boat in the back harbor:

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Of course, this isn’t your typical party boat – it’s entirely made of stone. This has to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

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Villa Vizcaya was the winter estate of James Deering, a businessman involved in agricultural equipment manufacturing. Built between 1914 and 1923, Vizcaya has been heralded for its combination of traditional European design with the South Floridian environment.


One of the most imaginative additions to the property is the stone barge, which almost has a “sunken ship” feel to it.

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Below, a photograph of the barge from the July, 1917 issue of The Architectural Review, shortly after it was constructed:


Deering never had any children, which is a tragedy simply in the fact that it would have been insane to play on this as a little kid.

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The barge was used for parties – in fact, I think you can see one going on in this picture, also from 1917:


The Venetian poles were part of the theme…

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…as gondolas were used to ferry guests back and forth from the estate:


The boat consists of a north and south cascade of steps…

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Unfortunately, the gondolas seemed to be out of service the day we visited. This photograph gives you an idea of what the boat deck looked like in its prime. I’m not 100% sure, but those tiered rings look a lot like fountains to me:


The barge is dripping with ornamentation…

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My favorite is at the bow of the ship…

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…which has what almost looks like a winged, captain’s-hat-wearing woman with octopus legs:

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Actually, the figure is an angel riding a pair of fish, which sadly have worn away over time. Also featured here is the barge’s tea-house, which no longer exists:


Two angels found on the stern of the ship, apparently guiding the rudder:

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A few bearded men line the sides:

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Additional obelisks and statuary can be found on the railings:

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I was all set to jump in and swim to the boat, but my girlfriend convinced me it’d be better to do the tour first.

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Right away, I began noticing how harmoniously elements of the Floridian environment had been integrated into the design of the estate. I love, for example, how the pool continues under the villa, making water a natural extension of the building:

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Perched at the peak of the roof is a seahorse, one of the two symbols for Vizcaya:

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Inside, classic European design is given a Floridian twist – here, with palm tree wallpaper:

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The wallpaper in this room, featuring a panoramic ocean scene, is stunning:

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And any house with a secret passage from the library wins high marks from me:

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But perhaps most beautiful of all are the gardens…

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…which use coral in a way I couldn’t have imagined:

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One of my favorites, it almost feels like you’re underwater as you walk through this enchanting passage:

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In other areas, coral is combined with traditional Italian Renaissance design:

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A fountain, with coral that feels like you could tug it right off the wall:

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A man with a coral beard:

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Finally, one last little bit: I love this forgotten set of stairs once used for boarding gondolas, which I assume traveled up and down the adjacent river.

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We  were in quite a rush and had to leave much sooner than we wanted, but Vizcaya was well worth the extra jog to the terminal.


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  1. I remember reading somewhere that at the time the house was built most of the people in New York who were in the craftsman/decorating trades were working on it. Of course it was a slow time in the business, what with the war and the post-war depression. I believe that the coral-stone is some sort of local item that was quarried, and was pretty soft at first, then hardened after carving.

  2. This place was used a a set for an ABC Movie Of The Week called “Haunts Of The Very Rich” which was another re-make of “Outward Bound” Very pretty place!

  3. Elizabeth Edwards

    This is beautiful – thanks for sharing with us! Must have been great to live here. I love the stone boat too – shame there aren’t parties on it anymore – what a great idea and the gondolas! Love it.

  4. A wonderful conclusion to a fabulous series of posts! I’ve enjoyed them all and am delighted that you worked in a trip to Vizcaya. I, too, was catching a plane the day I saw it; I’d been bumped and found myself with a few empty hours to either stew at the airport or take a quick taxi to see one of the sights and, fortunately for me, I chose Vizcaya!

    Thanks for so many wonderful shots of the barge. I had the same reaction when I first saw it–laugh out loud delight! Thanks also for your marvelously imaginative reconstruction of the whole Venetian party atmosphere it must have evoked in its day. I didn’t go out there so I’d not seen all that wonderful detail. All your detail shots are lovely. The library secret passage, the coral and stone carvings, the gardens, especially the pool and the grotto–I really enjoyed this! Thank you.

  5. I grew up in Miami, went to a very old school (for South Florida ;)) and my fourth grade teacher was a docent at Vizcaya, so forgive the slight geeking out that’s about to occur:

    The grounds are extensive and the old buildings actually sprawl off Vizcaya proper (the land’s been copped up to La Salle High, Mercy Hospital, Miami Museum of Science, I think…)- there’s a “farm villiage” they’ve been talking about restoring since the 80s (at least). I cannot overstate how much fun this place was to explore as a kid. It’s on the other side of Miami Ave., along with the main gates. It has beautifully constructed dairy and horse buildings, a courtyard, sculptural elements just because!

    Also, rumor had it that the crash scene from Flight of the Navigator was filmed in one of the ravines you pass as you head into the main house from the entrance.


  6. Hi Scout!

    I’ve really enjoyed your posts from the Key West road! I visited there many times in my childhood and still do from time to time. It’s great to see the sights from your unique perspective! I’ve considered that Dry Tortugas ferry before and certaily will get out there next time.

    And thanks for Scouting NY!

  7. I took a look for info on the gardens and found this . Thanks for the find.

  8. Jude Mermelstein

    We last visited Vizcaya the spring after Hurricane Andrew had devastated South Florida; Vizcaya had a maze that was leveled by the storm but was beginning to grow back by the time of our visit & was about ankle-high. Glad to see the gardens have grown back!

  9. The house was used in the closing part of “the money pit” starring Tom Hanks. 🙂 and in Bad Boys 2 I have been there, its gorgeous. I got lost in the gardens….

  10. also in a hilarious scene in ace ventura 🙂

  11. I absolutely love this website! I am a Miami native and despite our limited history (also, lack of historical foresight) we have many hidden gems such as this that give our city a tiny bit of sparkle if you look at it the right way. A friend who works in the film industry down here told me years ago that Baz Luhrman fell completely in love with Vizcaya while scouting for his Romeo & Juliet. Reality struck when he saw the cost of shooting several scenes there was. Look for a nice homage in the scene where Romeo meets Juliet in the pool. It’s practically a replica of the pool at the Villa.

  12. was also used as the mandarins house in ironman 3

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