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Dog-Friendly Travel in Miami

On a trip through Miami, T+L finds a service culture that has literally gone to the dogs: pet concierges and massage therapists, customized menus, and even “pawdicures.”

By Bob Morris

A pleasant breeze was blowing off Biscayne Bay, on a residential cay just outside of Coconut Grove, in Miami. There, at the four-star Grove Isle Hotel’s restaurant, candles flickered in hurricane lamps, a distant South Beach sparkled under the stars, and waiters hovered over me and my long-haired miniature dachshund, Zoloft, or Zoli for short.

“Would she like the tap water?” one asked while holding a crystal pitcher.

I said that would be fine, and he filled the silver bowl—engraved with the words cherish others—at her place. Once the waiter had finished filling my own glass, Zoli put her cognac-brown paws on the table and drank in a way that can only be described as genteel. Her little tongue lapped as softly as the bay lapping the shore. After a few moments, she sat back down in her chair, quiet yet attentive to the proceedings.

While well-dressed human couples dined nearby, enjoying a romantic evening, I was smiling like a lovelorn idiot, admiring the table manners of my tiny and big-snouted companion. “I guess a dog can be a pretty good date,” I told the waiter when he arrived with our entrées: filet mignon for Zoli, and salmon for me.

“Oh, yes, sir, the best there is,” he said.

When the bill came, I noticed that her meal was more expensive than mine. But at least there was enough left over in the doggie bag for both of us to eat later.

Welcome to the world of high-end pet travel, where the increasingly over-the-top level of luxury service for humans is now available to dogs in amusing new ways. But then, what else to expect in a country with 77.5 million dog owners where, according to a recent American Pet Products Association survey, at least 16 million of us travel with dogs?

“In the last few years, better hotels are making more of an effort to cater to dogs,” says Melissa Halliburton, founder of the pet-travel website bringfido.com, which has doubled its size to 35,000 pet-friendly hotel listings since its founding in 2004. “They’re providing dog menus, massage therapists, and all kinds of high-end services.”

The pet-friendly Kimpton chain of boutique hotels has amenities such as special birthday cakes from a local dog bakery at the Marlowe Hotel, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or a “pawdicure” service at Miami’s Epic hotel. Loews Hotels offers animal workout tips and diet pet menus at all of its properties. There’s even a dog surf package at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort, in San Diego.

“Dogs are traveling more and more,” says Eric Hyde, the manager of Grove Isle Hotel, where Zoli and I visited after hearing that it had received a Five Dog Bone award for pet friendliness from Animal Fair magazine. “Hotels either get it or they don’t.”

In Miami, it seems they do. At Grove Isle, where bowls, beds, and treats are presented upon check-in, dogs also have access to paw massages, a VIP lounge, and a Creature Concierge who will arrange playdates, walks, and poolside seating. The restaurant welcomes them, too, creating low-fat and low-salt meals for dogs with special needs.

“We will happily honor any request for dogs, because we understand that they’re like children,” says Hyde, who has plans to open a pet salon at the resort. “But then, we’re not your usual hotel.”

He might be surprised to find that isn’t so anymore. While it’s true that Grove Isle may offer the ease and practicality of Spanish-tile floors and big balconies (so owners can worry less about doggy accidents) as well as 18 acres for walks, it turns out that the rest of Miami as well as Palm Beach, two places on my weekend itinerary, are now also doggedly dog friendly.

“There isn’t a café or hotel in Miami that doesn’t welcome dogs,” says Ruth Remington, organizer of the South Beach Dachshund Winterfest, which drew 400 dachshunds while I was there and awarded my Zoli a prize for her Amy Winehouse costume. (There’s a vague resemblance.) “Everything’s outdoors, so it’s very dog social. You can take them anywhere.” It also helps that both cities allow dogs at outdoor portions of restaurants.

Indeed, at the Standard hotel and spa, which doesn’t allow children, dogs of all shapes and sizes lounge at the bay-side pool among models and hipsters. (Well, nearly all shapes and sizes; dogs must be under 14 pounds, according to the hotel’s policy.) When Zoli and I visited one afternoon, we watched a Doberman lay poolside on a towel and chew on a coconut as we lunched at the outdoor restaurant; I had the seafood salad and Zoli had some crudités. (Dachshunds are the socialites of the canine world—they keep their thin figures by eating raw vegetables.)

That evening, at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, a favorite new restaurant among Design District locavores, Michael Schwartz, the award-winning chef, stopped to say hello (to my dog, not me), as did half the people eating around us. Then, a smitten waitress knelt all the way down, as if for a princess or Lady Gaga, and presented Zoli with a plate of artisanal dog biscuits.

“These are made with organic wheat and skim milk, with a touch of peanut butter,” she said at ground level. Zoli cocked her head, then dug in. My friends were amused.

“She gets better service than we do,” one said.

It was true. But then, there’s something about dogs on trips that disarms people. You’ve never had a friendlier check-in at an airport than when you’re carrying on a dog. (As long as the dog is quiet, ticketed, and in a regulation-size carrier for the flight.) And when you walk around a terminal, harried looks morph into sentimental sighs and smiles.

“Did she have a good trip?” dog lover Morley Safer once asked me at Newark International, where we’d gotten off a plane from Austin, Texas. “She looks like she did.”

Well, why not? Dogs don’t have to make plans and connections. When it’s time to settle in for the evening, it doesn’t matter where they’re staying. They don’t need special menus, either, nor do they need spas, psychics, and other luxuries—a nuance that is lost on many owners.

“I get all kinds of pet requests,” says Stacy Lee, the marketing director of the Brazilian Court Hotel & Beach Club, in Palm Beach, home to the top-rated Café Boulud and where Zoli and I were ending our Florida sojourn. “Guests ask for room changes because their pet isn’t happy. I’ve even seen someone send a meal back because her dog didn’t like it. Can you imagine, with the chef we have here?”

As part of a package, the hotel provides a limousine to go shopping with your dog on nearby Worth Avenue. You may laugh, but it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds when it’s raining cats and dogs on your last day in Palm Beach, as it was for ours. After a chauffeur opened the door and Zoli (who simply does not do rain) jumped in, we found ourselves gliding south past the Louis Vuitton store to the Chateau de Puppy, where we sniffed at the Juicy Couture nail polish, fur conditioner, and other luxury absurdities. We also stuck our snouts into a Tory Burch store that had sold out of its collars and sweaters early in the season. I was worried that a pet would not be welcome.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Nicole Roach, the store’s young general manager. “If we didn’t allow dogs in here, we wouldn’t have any customers.”

At Tiffany & Co. we considered some lovely Elsa Peretti drinking bowls.

“My dog really seems to love this store,” I told the sales clerk.

“I’m not surprised,” she said. “All girls do.”

Last stop: Chanel, where there were no more coco’s pet leashes with silver chains. “They were five hundred dollars and they flew out of the store,” a clerk said.

All she could offer Zoli was a bottle of Evian water for the drive home.

On the way back to the hotel to pack for our return to New York, Zoli sat in the back with me, looking out the tinted windows as we passed palms and pastel-colored homes in the rain. Despite the weather, it had been a delightful afternoon.

“We both had such a pleasant time,” I told the driver.

“It’s a pet-friendly society,” he said. “All the dogs seem to get along down here.”

“What about the people?” I asked.

“That’s another story,” he said.

Some things are just too much to ask.