Visit a 12th Century Monastery on Miami Beach

One of the last things I expected to explore while visiting Miami Beach in Florida was a 12th century monastery, ancient and grand amid the hustle and bustle of swimsuit clad tourists. However, that is exactly what I found myself doing last October.

It wasn't as if I stumbled upon the monastery while strolling the beach. I had read about it prior to our Miami trip, and had already decided that I needed to check it out. It was still an unexpected find, and I was pleased that Miami Beach had some history to offer slightly older than the Art Deco movement.

Standing in the 12th century monastery on Miami Beach

How did a 12th century monastery show up on Miami Beach of all places? Allow me to explain. The monastery and cloisters are officially called the "Monastery and Cloisters of St. Bernard de Clairvaux", and originally come from Sacramenia, Spain. The structure was first built in 1133 AD and was completed in 1141 AD. That's some old monastery! Cistercian monks lived within the monastery and cloisters for nearly 700 years, but it was also at one time converted to a granary and stable during a revolution in the 1830s.

For almost 100 years, the monastery and cloisters were forgotten, utilized only as farming outbuildings. Then, in 1925, newspaper magnate and consummate rich guy William Randolph Hearst bought the buildings and decided they would better serve their purpose on Miami Beach. (?!) The monastery, cloisters, and accompanying structures were dismantled brick by brick, window by window, and protected in wooden shipping crates with hay. It took 11,000 crates to pack away the entire lot of St. Bernard de Clairvaux.

The monastery from the side - gorgeous!

Then a series of unfortunate events hit. Hoof and mouth disease experienced an outbreak, and immigration officials, fearing contamination, cracked open each of the 11,000 crates and burned the hay. Sadly, when they packed it all up again, they did not return the stones to their original and handily numbered crates, mixing up the entire lot. Oops is an understatement.

THEN Hearst experienced financial difficulties and was unable to reconstruct the monastery as planned. The crates were stored away and forgotten for almost 30 years. Thankfully, after Hearst's death, two gentlemen by the names of William Edgemon and Raymond Moss bought the dissembled buildings and began plotting to rebuild them as a tourist attraction. These men spent over $13 million in today's currency to reconstruct the monastery, with great difficulty considering the jumbled boxes and disorganized stones.

The vibrant courtyard in the monastery

Eventually the task was done, and today we have a gorgeous piece of history right there on Miami Beach to explore and admire. A friend and I decided to spend a morning strolling the grounds and buildings while our husbands attended their conference at the Fontainebleau. We grabbed an Uber and settled in. The drive took much longer than expected: the monastery is on the North End of the 'island' of Miami Beach at 16711 West Dixie Highway. We hadn't calculated that into our plan, and were a bit concerned about time, but there was no turning back so we just decided to enjoy what we could.

When you first enter the attraction, you find yourself in a small office type building with a reception desk, gift shop, and some museum exhibits set up to prepare you for the monastery itself. We paid our $10 admission ($5 for students and seniors), and began to look around the small museum displays. There was a great video playing on a loop about the deconstruction and reconstruction of the monastery that I enjoyed.

The Spanish hearse on display in the gift shop museum

The funeral hearse was the most interesting and slightly creepy object in the small museum. Beautifully carved ornate cabinets and pieces of furniture were featured, as well as giant candelabras, a suit of armour, strong boxes, and a very old and very large hand-painted hymnarium. I wanted to flip through it to check out all the beautiful and decorative pages, but of course it was protected by thick glass.

The ancient hand-painted hymnarium

Exiting the gift shop, we followed a pathway through a well-maintained, vibrant flower garden towards the monastery. The day was sunny and warm, and the stroll through the garden was a peaceful and also impressive way to approach the ancient monastery.

Our first view of the monastery

Stepping inside the building feels like walking back in time, especially after days filled with the vibrancy of Miami Beach. It is quiet and somber, yet still bright and relaxing, with sunlight filtering through the high arches and the bubbling of fountains soothing in your ears.

The monastery hallway with its sweeping arches

The monastery is in the shape of square, with four long hallways bordering an open courtyard in the centre. Each hallway is adorned with statues, arched ceilings, and sculptures on the walls.

This place was so stunning

Beyond walking the perimeter of the hallways and enjoying the beauty of the building itself, there isn't a great deal to see in the actual monastery. The stained glass windows were lovely and I was very taken with the ancient flat screen TV that hung in one of the side rooms. So after a couple of loops of the monastery and a quick walk through the sun-soaked courtyard, we headed out to explore the gardens.

The beautiful stained glass window and its colors

There are two very special aspects of the garden. The giant banyan trees that tower over all else was my favourite part. If you've ever seen a banyan tree, you will know why I was so excited about them. They seem to ooze their branches down to the ground, growing wider in circumference with each limb. In fact, that's pretty much what they do. Their 'vines' - called aerial prop roots - dangle down from the upper portions of the tree, and upon hitting soil, take root in the ground and eventually thicken to form yet another branch of the organism. The tree continues to strengthen and grow in this manner.

A giant banyan tree in the monastery's gardens

One banyan tree had a pathway cleaved into the centre of it, so we were able to wander into the belly of the tree, which was very neat.

Hanging out in the banyan tree

The other interesting aspect of the monastery gardens was the labyrinth. It is a simple labyrinth, made from stones set into a pattern in the ground. It isn't designed to lose or trap people like some garden labyrinths, with tall walls of boxwood. This one was created with contemplation and focus in mind - you are to walk the labyrinth in prayer or while concentrating on something within yourself. I was looking forward to walking its length.

Unfortunately, we picked a day when two young mothers had brought their many children with them to visit the monastery. The moms were chatting happily, sipping to-go coffees, while the kids ran around the labyrinth playing tag. It wasn't the most relaxing atmosphere to reflectively walk the path. The kids weren't being bad by any means - they were just having fun. I did manage to convince them to stand behind me for a moment while I took a few photographs of the empty labyrinth, and then they were back to running its course once again.

The labyrinth, without children for a brief moment in time

Beyond this, there wasn't much else to do at the monastery. My friend and I had been concerned that we wouldn't have enough time to explore it all, due to the long car ride to access it. However, we ended up having just the right amount of time, and made it back to our hotel right as our hubbies were leaving their meeting.

Although the monastery probably isn't a main attraction when visiting Miami Beach, it still is worth a look. If you find yourself with some extra time and want to explore something unusual yet beautiful, spend an hour or so checking out St. Bernard de Clairvaux!

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