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The Swashbuckling, Sad Story of the North Bay Road Castle

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[Photos by Tanya M. Diaz of]

The North Bay Road Castle, one of the most, if not the most, eccentric homes in Miami Beach during its relatively short existence, was erected by the sheer force of will of its owner, Captain Michael Burke, founder of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. The company's cruises were known for their carefree attitude (hence the "barefoot" title), which was an evident reflection of the owner's spirit. Rumors circled as to how Captain Burke came up with the idea for Windjammer: from winning a poker game and receiving a sailboat he renamed, "The Hangover," to a drunk Burke purchasing his first decrepit boat for only $600.

These rumors would be proven false, though. In an obituary, his wife revealed that the company actually arose from Burke selling his previous painting company to start the fleet in 1947. The rumors themselves were probably not all that farfetched, however, considering his self-declared pastime of swimming in his pool, rewarding himself with vodka at the completion of each lap. The company amassed a loyal following, growing the business into a great success.

In 1995, Burke built what was once a figment of his imagination into a reality: a hybrid of a pirate ship and a Gothic castle on the blue waters of Biscayne Bay. The residence with 10 bedrooms and 7 ½ bathrooms included a billiards room, home theater, gym, and lagoon-like swimming pool. The wildly Gothic, almost theatrical estate was decked out with iron gates, gargoyles, turrets, towers, a drawbridge, a Knights of The Round Table-inspired dining room, and, even a shark-filled moat. The house that was so uncharacteristic of Miami Beach eventually became a city attraction (especially on Halloween), beloved by children and dreamers alike.

Burke, known as "the last authentic Caribbean pirate by some…walking around his Miami Beach home with a large macaw on his shoulder" was as lively a man as his house. The castle was known for its extravagant parties as well as family get-togethers where all his grandchildren wore matching outfits.

In a devastating turn of events, the Fantome, one of the Windjammer ships and its crew were lost at sea in 1998. With growing financial and family troubles, the Windjammer empire began to falter and in 2005, Captain Burke suffered a debilitating stroke. His son, Daniel Burke, took over the company, yet soon after died tragically of a drug overdose in 2007. Joshua Burke, the youngest of Burke's children, then replaced Daniel as the company's president. That same year, the castle was sold for $7.6 million and later abandoned. It was placed on the market once again but this time with plans for demolition. Unexpectedly, the castle caught fire on the morning of July 17, 2009. Luckily, long before the blaze photographer Tanya Diaz of captured the castle in all of its weird, wonderful, abandoned glory. Her fantastic photos are at the end of this post. The sprawling flames took hours and teams of firefighters to take control of, destroying what remained of the house. The unfortunate saga continued, when just eight days after the loss of the castle, Joshua Burke, age 46, shockingly passed away in his sleep.

From 2007, the company was declared inactive, and as a result of cancelled trips, passengers were reportedly owed up to nearly $700,000 in refunds. Crew members had also allegedly not been paid for months. Finally, the company confirmed its termination in 2008, auctioning off the remnants of the business. In 2009, however, diehard crew and passengers revived the casual cruise concept, giving rise to Island Windjammers.

The castle served as both a symbol of the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' earlier success but also as an icon for Miami Beach and one of its many whimsical residents. The cause of fire was never determined, yet a piece of Miami Beach and Captain Burke's soul went with the flames. Eventually, Burke passed away in 2013, leaving behind a boatload of memories and stories to be told.—Alexandra J Miller

· Windjammer Cruises Founder Michael Burke Dies at 89 [Skift]
· Windjammer experiencing financial difficulties [Cruise Critic]
· Fire Destroys Miami Beach Castle [Herald Tribune]
· Windjammer founder's son dies after castle burns [Miami Herald]
· A rough ride on Windjammer Cruises [Wall Street Journal]
· Sad end for beloved, unique chartered firm [Aqualuna]
· Frommer's Cruises and Ports of Call [Google Books]
· One last cruise [Miami New Times]
· Miami Beach Mansion Destroyed by FIre [Miamism]
· Abandoned Muse []