In the early 1920s, when George Merrick was parceling out his father's grapefruit plantation in what was then the back country west of Miami, he used a fleet of 86 buses to haul in prospective buyers. Railroads ran "Coral Gables Specials" from the Northeast, and no less a pitchman than William Jennings Bryan worked the crowds, describing Merrick's conceit: A Mediterranean-styled fantasy land would rise in the American tropics. It would be a totally planned, paradisiacal "city without a scar."

Miami has long since swelled to surround it, but Coral Gables remains distinct from the glitzy, cluttered metropolis. It has its own self-containing dignity. It's a 10-minute ride from Miami International Airport through the bustle of Little Havana, or a few minutes longer, past those startling Arquitectonica towers that have become Miami's emblem, if you're coming from the cruise port. It's perfect for that last taste of the exotic before you head home, and accessible to the pedestrian in a way most of urban South Florida is not.

You won't bump into lots of tourists in Coral Gables. Real people live here, living everyday lives. Merrick promoted his development as shamelessly as any Florida land speculator ever did, but we can forgive him, because his has proven to be the best of them -- enviably liveable, with a lasting conceptual integrity. Coral Gables is mature now in ways many other lovely enough places in the state simply can't be. But more than just age sets it apart. Coral Gables embodies a transforming vision of life on this scrubby terrain beneath this intense sky, and it is brilliantly successful.

On avenues with names like Catalonia and Navarre are block after fabulous block of Mediterranean revival houses. Houses with tiled loggias, with cloistered exterior stairways, with courtyards you can just glimpse behind ornamental grates, and with carved wooden balconies hung from their upper stories. No two are alike. They have been meticulously kept, and sit now in preposterously verdant gardens, clad with bougainvillea bearing masses of purple blooms, shaded by flowering trees like jacaranda and poinciana and bauhinia.

These are deliciously quiet streets. Palm fronds rustle in breezes scented with jasmine and frangipani. You could breakfast on the fruits you find as you walk -- mangos and loquats, citrus of course, sapodillas and sapotes and Surinam cherries. A flock of dazzling chartreuse parakeets sometimes shatters the silence. They're domestic escapees. After a day on foot in the Gables, you will feel like one too.

George Merrick arrived here at the turn of the century, aged 12, to homestead with his family. Digging in the sand to plant grapefruit trees, driving a wagon under the merciless sun to and from the settlement of Miami -- along a trail through the bush that is now a rather grand boulevard called Coral Way -- it's little wonder he hallucinated something more civilized in this place. By the boom years after World War I, having inherited the plantation and witnessed Miami's early uncontrolled growth, Merrick was ready to make his fantasy real.

While building several smaller subdivisions to gain capital and expertise, and piecing together the necessary property, he assembled his team of designers. Among them were landscape architect Frank Button; Merrick's uncle Denman Fink, who was a nationally known illustrator and became the art director for the project; and Phineas Paist, who served as Coral Gables' supervising architect and designed many of the city's signature structures.

These guys knew more than how to sell building lots. They understood that a community needs spatial and visual focus, and they built fountains and plazas, pergolas shading cool stone benches, and elegant entrances -- like gates to a medieval city -- that establish Coral Gables' separateness and its Mediterranean look.

This attention to entries carried over to the houses. It's hard to find a house in Coral Gables without a gracious front door. The grand ones have marble surrounds, or stone lions on plinths, or porticos swagged with wrought iron chandeliers. The smallest have mosaic-tiled stoops, or the suggestion of a tower in the way the wall rises, or Moorish arches holding up the porch roof. Modest or extravagant, a welcome is always implied.

Unlike buyers in today's typical "new town" and "planned unit" developments, prospective residents of Coral Gables had their houses individually designed and built to order. But Merrick's people exercised strict artistic control. They not only required the use of canvas window awnings on every house, for example, but specified their colors as well.

Still, they didn't let their own guidelines trap them into redundancy; they appreciated the power of eccentric detail. Gaze down any block. You will never see a roofline repeated. Every house has a chimney, every one unique. And they knew how to employ artifice. The barrel tiles they insisted be used for roofing were salvaged from colonial-era buildings in Havana, already ancient and patinaed when they were laid here.

Merrick's dream was of an essentially residential community, "democratically" accessible to householders of any income, serviced by resident artisans and small shopkeepers. Since the 1960s, downtown Coral Gables has become an important venue of international business activity -- with a decidedly Latin American focus -- and it is also one of the metropolitan area's commercial and cultural centers, with theaters and galleries, artists' and designers studios and fine shops.

Property in the Gables is particularly desirable, and thus pricey, and even the tiniest cottages, which are located in the northern blocks bordering Little Havana, are being bought and redone by people of more than modest means. The cheapest single-family house you can buy here now goes for $80,000, and it's very easy to spend upwards of half a million dollars on a larger house.

The area has more ethnic variety since Merrick's time -- it now includes many Jews and Hispanics -- but Merrick would find the atmosphere in the domestic neighborhoods today consistent with what he intended. Though the city's original building plan was not completed, enough of its structure and visual tone was set. What has gone up since is restrained, and generally consistent in style.

And so, 60 years after the flamboyant sales pitches and the frenzied early construction, Coral Gables has a seemingly antique serenity, a slightly otherworldly esthetic coherence. In its charmed balance of restriction and exuberance there is surely a lesson for today's developers.

If you carry one guidebook when you come, make it an identification manual to tropical flora. If you really need a second, find a copy of the 1904 "Italian Villas and their Gardens," with its gorgeous illustrations by Maxfield Parrish. It won't help you at all to find your way around the Gables, but it will give your sensibilities the proper orientation. Oh, all right. There's a pamphlet called "Historic Coral Gables," and the place to get it is Books & Books, right in town.

The independent bookstore may be dying, but you can't prove it by Books & Books, which has expanded recently to fill a 1924 building -- originally an ornamental block shop -- at 296 Aragon Ave. It's an exceedingly simple structure with a wildly ornate entrance -- a double doorway between relief-carved pilasters, surmounted by an extravagantly scrolled pediment rising midway up the building's second story.

From here, step across to the old firehouse at 285 Aragon Ave. Built in 1939, it's more modernist and stark than the Gables norm, but it provides a good look at sheer planes of the misnamed coral rock used for construction and trim in so many of the city's buildings. (Actually a limestone, Miami oolite, it has a gnarled, brain-like texture; it's easy to mistake it for something once alive.) The pillars that separate the garage bays are topped by sculpted busts of firemen who have the severe chiseled look of Rockwell Kent figures. Above them, a row of corbels is decorated in relief with the face of the archetypical family they protect. Dad and Mom flank little Baby. To one side is Sis, in pigtails, and her doll, and the family parrot. To the other is Junior and Fido and Muff. It's ridiculously sentimental, but the elegance of the building carries it off, and it does express the essentially residential character of Coral Gables.

The residential neighborhoods are where you really want to walk. You can guess that some of the most impressive houses are on avenues with names like Granada Boulevard and Riviera Drive and Alhambra Circle. But don't ignore the less imposing streets. There are architectural gems on every block, and gardens of voluptuous beauty.

As you ramble, aim for the Biltmore Hotel at 1200 Anastasia Ave. It has recently been restored with painstaking respect for its original design. The best approach is down Columbus Boulevard, where two rows of immense banyans with grotto-like compound trunks 25 feet around form a tunnel of cool, undappled shade 10 blocks long. To enter it from the halogen daylight of South Florida takes your breath away. When you emerge from the shadows, the glorious pumpkin-colored facade of the Biltmore fills the sky.

Conceived as the city's social and physical centerpiece, the Biltmore blends Spanish, Moorish and beaux arts motifs in a palatial setting. In this flat neighborhood of two-story houses it might have been overpowering, but it's not. Smaller related buildings flank it -- to the right, the original Coral Gables Country Club is now the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it is equalized on the left by a newly -- and harmoniously -- constructed parking garage. The hotel itself rises first to six stories, then steps back to eight, then to 11 -- it's not quite symmetrical, though it's balanced -- and then the central tower goes on to a height of 315 feet.

It took 35 superbly skilled ecclesiastical restorers from Mexico to recreate the painted ceilings of the lobby and ballrooms, and the result is so mesmerizing that you just want to lie down on the floor and stare. The magnificent scale and detailing of the hotel's public spaces makes you feel lighter than normal, as if you are floating along the tiled galleries onto the broad piazza that overlooks a lush golf course and the largest swimming pool you can ever hope to see.

As part of the restoration, the number of guest rooms was nearly halved, and these bright, elongated spaces are done in a luxurious traditional style, richly accented with colors like claret and indigo and malachite. The appointments are of top quality, although the furnishings seem rather sparse, as if the budget ran out too soon. The exception is the lavish two-story tower suite, which is much as it originally was, with stone floors, paneled walls, vaulted ceilings painted with Florida scenes, a terrace in each direction, and unobstructed views all the way to Gibraltar.

When you have recovered from the Biltmore, walk back along De Soto Boulevard. This brings you by the city's most formal fountain, at the intersection of Granada Boulevard. From here, you can see several particularly striking houses. One is a refined white art deco wedge with elaborately stylized iron gates. Another, elegantly simple, has a window the shape of an eight-pointed star high in the end wall of its two-story living room. A third, with a lower story of coral rock, has a dome like a mosque's.

Across the street, at 2701 De Soto Blvd., is the Venetian Pool, the original quarry where coral rock was dug, which was later fashioned into a spectacle of caves and waterfalls, with an island and an ersatz doge's place. Run by the city as a public swimming pool, it is one of the last in Florida to be drained every night and refilled each morning with cool, imperceptibly chlorinated water drawn directly from the aquifer -- which makes for a marvelously refreshing swim. It will be closed this winter for restoration, but peek through the fence.

De Soto Boulevard ends at Balboa Plaza, really a spacious intersection with inviting pergolas, crescents of rough rock wall and small fountains circling it loosely like fragments from a dreamscape. Coral Way -- a major traffic artery -- runs through it, but seated in the shade of a pergola dripping flame vine, with the breeze carrying the sound of traffic off in the other direction, you could be on some other continent, in another time. That's what Coral Gables can do to your head.

A couple of years ago, when we lived in the Gables, my wife and I were walking through one of these plazas. We realized that the ground and the bottom of the pool before us were strewn with pale golden fruits. These must be something, we agreed -- although we had no idea what. I fished one out of the water and shook it dry. We sniffed it, shrugged and, in turn, took bites. I know, I know -- but we get like that in the tropics, ready to put anything that glows into our mouths. Instantly we recognized the taste of guava -- not the sticky paste we knew from Latin American sweets, but the fruit's fresh grainy essence of pear-and-pineapple. This sentiment may have been enhanced by the aged Cuban tiles and the pseudo-Spanish architecture, but for a second we felt like Columbus, and The Day We Discovered Guavas has entered our personal calendar, commemorated often since.

Then last spring, back in the Gables for a visit, we decided to make a pilgrimage to our guava tree. I remembered it being at Balboa Plaza -- in fact recalled smugly ignoring the streams of cars passing behind us on Coral Way. My wife thought otherwise, but humored me and off we went.

It wasn't there. We proceeded a couple of blocks west, to the intersection of Granada Boulevard, where she knew it was. Again, no guava tree. We went to every fountain in the city. We couldn't even find a telltale stump. But we know we didn't make this up. Maybe you'll have better luck. It was a fountain with a low wall behind it, shaded by a huge ficus -- or was it a live oak? -- branches furred with bromelaids. The guava tree was at the left, and the pool was one with a raised lip, or no, maybe it was set into the ground ... Jonathan Lerner's novel "Caught in a Still Place" will be published next April in London by Serpent's Tail. He is currently at work on "The Everglade Kite," a novel about aging gracelessly in Miami.