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Get Out of Town

Ready to take a springtime vacation in Florida, even if it’s only for a long weekend? Here are 13 destinations—some you may have never considered or even heard of—that are near and far from home.

The Seagate Hotel’s Beach Club on Delray Beach

The Seagate Hotel’s Beach Club on Delray Beach

COURTESY OF THE SEAGATE HOTEL & SPA

The Secret’s Out About Delray Beach

I remember thinking when I first visited Delray Beach four years ago that it wouldn’t be long before this quiet South Florida city would begin to generate some buzz as a getaway hotspot. It had all the ingredients of a great weekend destination for couples and families looking for quality time together: a beautiful soft-sand beach with blue–yes, blue!–ocean water washing up to it; a burgeoning urban scene with restaurants, bars and art galleries; and a walkable downtown retail strip largely unspoiled by chain stores.

A return visit last year revealed that sleepy Delray Beach has woken up and smelled the coffee—and it costs $4.50 a cup. Starbucks has moved in, with two caffeine-pushing stores located only three blocks apart on Atlantic Avenue, the main, east-west drag running to the beach. The arrival of the overpriced coffee franchise wasn’t the only sign of Delray Beach’s awakening.

Also new on the Ave (the nickname for Atlantic Avenue) are a concept gastropub, The Office, where a two-handed cheeseburger runs $15, and The Seagate Hotel & Spa, an independently run luxury class resort that opened in late 2009. Just a few blocks north of Atlantic is the Pineapple Grove arts district, where condo development has spawned an urban lifestyle. 

Delray Beach is buzzing with breakout potential as a getaway destination, though the city of 64,000 residents has almost no chance of rivaling the noise coming from the jet-set locales of Palm Beach, only 20 minutes directly north of it on A1A, and South Beach, an hour and a half further south off I-95.

But that works in its favor. Various travel media outlets have taken credit for discovering Delray Beach (both the city and beach itself) as a hidden gem. Last summer, Delray Beach and The Seagate got national exposure on an NBC Today Show segment titled “Great Weekend Getaways” when an editor with Travel + Leisure magazine raved about the city as a “secret, little hidden town” with great shopping, great nightlife, and so on, and called the hotel “fantastic.”

Having stayed at the 162-room Seagate, I know what she meant. It is one of the better hotels I’ve stayed at in Florida, and a bargain during the summer months.

The resort’s staff is prompt, professional and aggressive in a good way. My guestroom was spacious and quiet, insulated from outside noises as well as devoid of those annoying humming noises that A/C systems and minibars sometimes make. Among the room’s furnishings were a large couch and a comfy bed, on top of which must have been a half-dozen pillows. The bathroom was roomy as well, with an oversized jet tub, gorgeous shower and private toilet.

The exterior of the LEED-certified resort exudes a British Bahamian look, while its interior defies a design-style label. The airy lobby sets the tone for the hotel’s aesthetic makeup, a marriage of chic modern furnishings and marine-inspired décor. The centerpiece of the lobby is a 2,500-gallon saltwater aquarium (one of four in the resort) illuminated in blue light and framed by a teak wall. Overhead are sculptural light fixtures resembling oversized sand dollars, and behind the check-in desk is a textured white wall embossed with a wave pattern.

Those design touches flow into other parts of the property as well: A circular, blue-lit aquarium containing jellyfish dominates the bar in the hotel’s signature restaurant, Atlantic Grille, and a softly lit “wave wall” leads you down a long hallway to the treatment rooms in The Seagate’s top-drawer, 8,000-square-foot spa. (I usually forget spas, and the treatments I have in them, five minutes after leaving them. That I even remembered to mention the spa says something in itself.) Equally memorable is The Seagate Beach Club, a few blocks from the resort.

The Seagate hotel, which occupies a whole city block, is not on the beach. You could walk about five minutes to the Atlantic Ocean, but why would you when a polite hotel staffer is standing by to shuttle you to the beach club and back in a Mercedes SUV? The British Colonial-style, two-story clubhouse is set near a pristine and secluded spot of Delray Beach, overlooking an Atlantic that’s the color of Frank Sinatra’s eyes.

Think of the beach club as a small country club, with restaurant seating inside and out, bar service, and a pool and beach area reserved for club members and hotel guests. Think of yourself at the club, lounging on a poolside recliner under a sky-blue umbrella, giving the sign that you’re ready for another cool drink.

And just like that, it’s in your hand.

An experience like that is hard to keep to yourself, which is why the secret is getting out about Delray Beach.

The Seagate Beach Hotel & Spa
1000 E. Atlantic Ave.
Delray Beach, FL 33483   
877-577-3242  |  theseagatehotel.com
Rates: In-season, from $529; off-season, from $179 (prices are for guestrooms only)
 


 

In Clearwater Beach, a Good Green Citizen

Sandpearl’s lobby reflects the resort’s aquatic theme.

At Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach, they bottle their own water in reuseable glass bottles and heat the pool using geothermal energy. The hotel’s A/C system recycles air and doesn’t use ozone-damaging Freon. And the property’s food and beverage outlets use biodegradable products, while the restaurants serve free-range and organically grown foods.

See a pattern here?

Sandpearl takes the environment seriously, going to great lengths—at great cost—to go easy on ol’ Mother Earth. So much so, in fact, that it was the first resort in Florida to achieve LEED Silver Certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

To the average guest, however, the resort’s green initiatives would barely register—until, that is, he or she takes a shower. Under the low-flow showerhead, it takes twice as long.

That’s a minor inconvenience when staying at a resort named one of the top 50 “Best Resorts in the U.S. and Canada” in 2010 by Travel + Leisure. Sandpearl is a luxury resort in a laid-back beach town kind of way. Everything about it fits in with its location on a barrier island, from the water-themed artwork hanging on the walls to the shells and starfish in the glass vases in the lobby to the name of the resort’s AAA Four Diamond rated restaurant, Caretta on the Gulf. (“Caretta” is Latin for loggerhead).

And on the Gulf it is, with an orange sunset as a backdrop while you dine on corn soup as an appetizer, followed by pan-roasted grouper and, for dessert, a medley of chocolate candies. Caretta’s Sunday champagne brunch takes the dining experience up a notch, with a buffet that tempts you to graze for hours, lest you miss anything.

Clearwater Beach is a gentle stretch of sand, with shops, bars and restaurants on each side of Mandalay Avenue, the main drag. Boating is a popular activity over here, and the bayside marinas are stocked with all manner of sailing, power and fishing boats for hire.

—MB

Sandpearl Resort 
500 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach, FL 33767  |  877-726-3111  |  sandpearl.com
Rates: $350-$600 per night
 


 

Amelia Maintains Its Good Nature

Amelia Island’s marsh offers a tranquil setting.

The folks at Omni Amelia Island Plantation have some pretty dreamy catch phrases to describe their venerable resort. Things like “Man and nature in harmony—with nature in control.’’ And “You come for the beach and stay for the marsh.’’

They could add one more: “Where you can get away from it all—but still have it all.’’

It’s been nearly 39 years since development began on the barrier island north of Jacksonville, and from all appearances, nature still reigns. Although Amelia Island Plantation is dotted by 950 homes, 1,150 condo units and a fancy hotel, more than 70 percent of the tree canopy remains, consisting mainly of live oaks draped in Spanish moss. The majestic trees tower over most every resort activity, whether it’s hiking, biking, jogging, horseback riding, golfing, playing tennis or even getting a massage. That’s right, the spa is nestled amid a stand of oaks, and the second-floor yoga room opens out onto a beautiful tangle of limbs. Yoga in a treehouse—can you get more spiritual than that?

You certainly may feel like you’re in heaven as you lie on or walk along the uncrowded beach, or indulge in the resort’s 54 holes of golf, where you’re challenged to guide your Titleist safely over
tidal pools, serpentine marsh and mammoth sand dunes (the heaven part comes when you play a few holes that  are a pitching wedge away from the ocean). And for a slice of solitude, take a naturalist-led kayak trip through the marsh, where you’ll discover that, yes, there really are places left in nature where you can hear a pin drop.

Accommodations range from the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, with its 249 ocean-view hotel rooms, to the Villas of Amelia, which feature one- two- and three-bedroom abodes with kitchens, and ocean, golf or resort views. There are nine plantation places to dine or relax with a libation: Be sure to check out Falcon’s Nest, a lively aviation-themed pub where you can enjoy a cheesy bacon dog with your hazelnut chocolate martini.

Ahh, harmony.

—Barry Glenn

Omni Amelia Island Plantation
6800 First Coast Highway
Amelia Island, FL 32034
904-261-6161
On the Web: For general information or to book a villa, go to aipfl.com. To reserve a room at the hotel, go to omniameliaislandplantation.com
Rates: One-bedroom villas start at $239 per night; hotel accommodations start at $197 per night. Numerous spa, tennis, nature and unlimited golf packages are available.
 


 

 A Quiet Escape to Marco Island

Great getaways can come in plain-looking packages.

Take Marriott’s Crystal Shores on Marco Island (left), for example. From a distance, the resort’s main building looks boxy and bland, but that’s the only ordinary thing about this beachfront jewel, run by Marriott Vacation Club. All 65 of its high-rise two-bedroom villas are lavishly furnished and have some view of the Gulf of Mexico, with more than half the units actually fronting the water.

The Gulf pretty much dominates the view no matter what you’re doing at this laid-back resort south of Naples—whether relaxing on a spacious balcony, working out in the fitness center or sinking comfortably into a hammock. All villas boast floor-to-ceiling windows with separate living and dining areas and full kitchens that would be the envy of any condo dweller.

That kind of spaciousness makes Crystal Shores ideal for escapes with friends and family (you can squeeze up to eight people into a villa). Enhancing the family/community feeling are multiple spots to gather for good times—conversation pits, two pools that feature numerous private cabanas, and an open-air bar and grill called Stilts, where you can enjoy dishes like chili-glazed grouper and coconut shrimp. There are wholesome activities aplenty—from pie and cider socials to Ping-Pong tourneys to Kids Night In (which keeps the younger set busy with activities from 4 to 8 p.m.).

But the best activity may be simply walking the beach. Get there early in the morning and you will find an amazing array of starfish and shells scattered along the shore, a still-life arrangement perfected
by nature.

And don’t worry about that “Vacation Club’’ moniker. Sure, Marriott would like you to join, but you don’t have to be a member to reserve a memorable getaway that’s quiet and relaxed.

—BG

Marriott’s Crystal Shores
600 S. Collier Blvd.
Marco Island, FL 34145
1-888-236-2427  |  marriott.com
Rates: $519-$599 per night for two-bedroom villas through mid-February. Rates rise to $719-$799 after that for the spring season.
 


 

Home Course Advantage

The 16th hole on Reunion’s Jack Nicklaus-designed Tradition course

Although the name Reunion Resort & Club may spark images of a hotel-centric megaplex of towers and restaurants, this sprawling property southeast of Walt Disney World feels more like a residential retreat. Vacation homes and villas are clustered around three excellent golf courses and equipped with kitchens, washer-dryers and even private pools. There is a tower, the Reunion Grande, but it’s filled with one- to three-bedroom villas lavishly finished with granite counters, marble floors and stainless steel appliances; the downstairs lobby is likewise elegant, and a very good restaurant, Eleven, provides views across the resort from the top of the tower.

The original developer, Bobby Ginn, wanted to build a resort that would attract extended families or groups of friends, and the residential scale and amenities are well-suited for a girls’ getaway or a family vacation.

Reunion isn’t in the heart of Orlando’s tourism corridor, so you won’t be walking to any attractions or restaurants. However, those on-site amenities have a lot to offer. A large community pool, just across from the Grande, has poolside dining and plenty of loungers. There’s also a separate water park with its own restaurant for kids, as well as miles of footpaths and bicycles for rent, six lighted tennis courts and a well-equipped workout facility. The spa is small but surprisingly complete, and, of course, there are those three gorgeous golf courses.

—Steve Blount

Reunion Resort
7593 Gathering Drive
Reunion, FL 34747
888-418-9610, 407-662-1000  |  reunionresort.com
 


 

In Palm Beach, Opposites Attract

Brazilian Court has a history with Palm Beach establishment.

If you’re not ranked on Forbes’ World’s Richest People list, you may feel like you don’t belong in Palm Beach. The inferiority complex sets in as you pass a Jaguar dealership’s showroom en route to Royal Park Bridge, the main artery into the heart of the South Florida barrier island’s blue-blooded wealth. At nearly a city block in size and loaded with luxury vehicles, the showroom tells you something about who lives here and how they get around.

Luckily for me, it’s summer, when Palm Beach is basically a ghost town. So I slip into the wintertime enclave of the (pick an adjective: filthy, stinking, absurdly, super-) rich without so much as having to produce a credit report. Still, my hybrid car gives me away as an interloper as I drive up to the Brazilian Court Hotel, where a red Ferrari is parked out front along with a spiffy two-seater Mercedes and a Range Rover. Maybe they belong to residents who can’t afford to summer in The Hamptons anymore, their investment portfolios hollowed out by Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff, once the grand poobah of the Palm Beach Country Club set and now a federal inmate serving a 150-year sentence.

I decide to park on the street.

The Brazilian Court is an in-town hotel about a quarter-mile from the shoreline. Built in 1926, the Spanish-Mediterranean-style hotel was home to visiting high society. In 2008 the property emerged from a six-year renovation led by owner and interior designer Leslie Schlesinger, who recaptured the 80-suite resort’s spirit as a gathering place for those who have always had it.

The hotel’s Café Boulud (named for New York-based chef Daniel Boulud) is a four-star rated attraction among Palm Beach’s old guard, who saunter into the dining room as if it were suppertime at their estate homes.

Interestingly, the Schlesinger family also owns another local hotel that could be the antithesis of the Brazilian Court’s old money charm. Six miles south of downtown, The Omphoy Ocean Resort is targeted to appeal to young upstarts who would find Palm Beach’s traditional luxury hotels, like the Four Seasons next door to it and The Breakers,
out of step with their nouveau riche lifestyles.

The Omphoy (a made-up name linking the “om” associated with meditation with the Gaelic word “phoy,” meaning “feast,” for “feast of good energy”) is a 130-room inn Schlesinger designed to put guests in synch with the calming state of Zen. It’s an unusual resort, what with the dimly lit sitting areas, Asian-influenced décor and a staff as low-wattage as the amber lighting in the dark hallways. But it’s worth visiting if only to dine at Michelle Bernstein at The Omphoy. Named for the James Beard Foundation’s 2008 Best Chef in the South, the restaurant, with floor-to-ceiling window views of the ocean and inventive seafood cuisine, is wonderfully out of synch with The Omphoy’s much-too-serious personality.

Here’s a novel idea: Stay at the lavish Brazilian Court, which epitomizes what Palm Beach truly is all about, and dine at Michelle Bernstein’s. But be sure to visit Palm Beach when it is at its opulent best—now, during our winter and spring months. That’s when the privileged reoccupy their homes on Billionaire’s Row and frequent Worth Avenue, the so-called Rodeo Drive of Florida.

Just arrive in a vehicle that fits in and no one will be the wiser.

—MB

Brazilian Court Hotel
301 Australian Ave.
Palm Beach, FL 33480
800-552-0335 | thebraziliancourt.com
Room rates: $299-$699.

The Omphoy Ocean Resort
2842 S. Ocean Blvd.
Palm Beach, FL 33480
561-540-6440 | omphoy.com
Room rates: $299-$599
 


 

Costa d’Este: A Hit Single

Gloria and Emilio Estefan

Guess who owns a way-cool resort in Vero Beach.

Give up?

Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Yes, Miami’s Estefans, she a Grammy Award-winning superstar solo singer and he a music producer, and both formerly of the Miami Sound Machine. They moved here several years ago and, in 2008, opened the 94-room Costa d’Este Beach Resort.

A two-hour drive south of Orlando off I-95, Vero Beach may be best known as the onetime spring training home of baseball’s L.A. Dodgers.  The team packed up and left Dodgertown in 2008, so there’s even less to do here, frankly. But less complements the Estefans’ unpretentious resort and spa.

The rooms are sleek, a mixture of wood, marble and glass in the furnishings and décor, and feature very comfortable platform beds.  From the moment you drive up to the porte-cochère entrance you notice the geometric designs, which flow through the resort’s interiors. Windows resembling portholes give the effect of being on a yacht. At night, the lobby glows with soft backlighting, the ambience enhanced by the image of a purple orchid projected on a see-through screen.

Costa d’Este was named one of the top 10 celebrity-owned hotels in the world in 2010 by TripAdvisor.com. Inns owned by Robert Redford, Robert DeNiro and U2’s Bono also made the list, so the honor has some street cred.

The  Estefans, some hotel staffers told me, are exceedingly nice people. They stop in from time and time to dine in their Cuban-fusion restaurant, Oriente (didn’t knock me out), or to sit out by the beachfront Infinity edge pool, acting like ordinary guests.

Ordinary?

From the looks of the resort (formerly the hurricane-damaged Palm Court Hotel), which the couple renovated inside-out and from top to bottom, there is nothing ordinary about Gloria and Emilio Estefan.

—MB

Costa d’Este Beach Resort
3244 Ocean Drive
Vero Beach, FL 32963
877-562-9919  |  costadeste.com
Rates: $256-$566 per night
 


 

Bi-Coastal Agreement

Hammock Beach Resort’s Ocean Course features six seaside holes.

When I planned a beach vaca-tion with my teen-age daughters last summer there was some debate over which coast to spend it on, the east or west. Each coast has distinctively different upsides-–the Atlantic Ocean has waves, which I enjoy body surfing in, while the Gulf side has beautiful sunsets and, to my younger girl’s liking, no surf.

So we decided not to choose. Instead, we split our beach vacation in two, with a day layover in Orlando between trips to Palm Coast on the east side and Lido Key on the west.

Why Palm Coast and Lido Key, you ask? Because we had never been to either spot, though we’ve been close to them–St. Augustine Beach above the former and Longboat Key, just a few miles north of the latter.

Hammock Beach Resort was our first stop. It’s only 90 minutes north of Orlando off I-95. The girls found plenty to do at this family-friendly resort, from lounging by the pools to sliding down the corkscrew slide into the lazy river to getting facials and taking a yoga class at the resort spa to checking out the outlet stores in St. Augustine, a 40-minute drive from the resort.

While they did their things I played golf on the resort’s Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean Course. The course gets a lot of hype for its beachside location, with six holes fronting the Atlantic. Big whup, my playing partner and I agreed. You can catch glimpses of the ocean from time to time, but the real star of this layout is the course configuration. It’s a hybrid of parkland and seaside golf holes, the former hemmed in by trees and lateral water hazards while the latter is as open as the Atlantic beyond them.

As good as it was to play the Ocean Course, the club pro hinted that I might find the Tom Watson-designed Conservatory Course, a links-style layout also on resort property, even more to my liking. But I was all golfed out. Another time, perhaps.

Besides the golf, the highlights of my stay were an unspoiled beach and our three-bedroom, fully furnished condo in the main tower. At 1,800 square feet, space was not an issue. For a family or group getaway, resort residential rentals are the way to go. Eat a few meals in and you save hundreds of dollars vs. dining out.

The courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota

The second leg of our vacation was as laid-back as the gentle waters of the Gulf just beyond the balcony of our guest suite at Lido Beach Resort, a family-oriented hotel with kitchenettes in the rooms.

A 2½-hour drive from Orl-ando, Lido Key is a thin, flat sliver of white sand connected to Sarasota by the John Ringling Causeway over Sarasota Bay. It is part of a series of keys that make up Sarasota County’s shoreline on the Gulf. One good Atlantic-size wave could wash them all away.

My younger daughter, Tess, prefers this side of Florida, and with her 14th birthday falling during our summer vacation, she got her wish to frolic in the Gulf’s 90-degree waters. The whole lake effect doesn’t do it for me, however, so with Tess and her sister, Emma, 16 at the time, veggin’ at the resort, I took in some sights and culture.

To enter and exit Lido Key you have to pass through a tiny island that’s a short walk from the resort. St. Armand’s Circle is a beautifully streetscaped traffic roundabout encircled by 130 upscale boutiques and high-end restaurants.

In 1917, John Ringling, the king of the traveling circus, bought the island and developed it. Ringling put circus elephants to work lugging timber planks to help build a causeway connecting his Ringling Estates to Sarasota.

Ringling’s fingerprints are all over Sarasota. At one time he owned 25 percent of the land here, and, in 1927, he moved the winter headquarters of his Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to Sarasota, where he and third wife Mable had built one of the grandest mansions in the world.

You could spend a couple days touring their 66-acre estate, on which sits the 56-room, 36,000-square-foot Cà d’Zan (meaning “House of John” in Venetian dialect) that the Ringlings furnished with precious art. Also on the grounds are Ringling’s Museum of Art, where he stored his collection of masterpieces, including works by Rubens and van Dyck, and the Circus Museum, a repository of circus history and the home of model master builder Howard Tibbal’s 1/16-scale model three-ring circus. Tibbal’s collection is a favorite with children.

The courtyard of the Museum of Art alone would be worth the $25 admission that it costs to tour the entire estate. In it, a towering cast of Michelangelo’s David watches over the dozens of Greek and Roman figures as well as replicas of two 16th century fountains, the Fountain of Tortoises (from  the Piazza Mattei in Rome) and the Oceanus Fountain (from Florence, Italy)

While I wouldn’t categorize the 222-room Lido Beach Resort as a luxury hotel, I found it to be a good place for a beach weekend with my kids. It’s affordable, clean and has decent (if unspectacular) dining options. But better yet, it put us near St. Armand’s Circle and downtown Sarasota, two destinations my daughters discovered in their pursuit of shopping.

—MB

Hammock Beach Resort
200 Ocean Crest Drive
Palm Coast, FL 32137
866-502-6228  |  hammockbeach.com
Rates: Prices vary depending on size of unit and views (ocean or intracoastal); one-bedroom unit starts at $250 per night

Lido Beach Resort
700 Ben Franklin Drive
Sarasota, FL 34236
800-441-2113  |  lidobeachresort.com
Rates: $289-$639 per night during high season; $207-$387 during summer
 


 

Relax, You’re in Steinhatchee

Steinhatchee Landing’s Cracker-style cottages

For those of us who struggle with the patience-zapping, traffic-choked, strip-malled streets of Orlando, the discovery of a Florida where there are more cows than people, as well as spaces—wide spaces—between houses, is a welcome relief.

Steinhatchee is one of those places: This little town is in Taylor County (density: 18 people per square mile), fewer than 200 miles northwest of Orange County (density: 1,198 per square mile). The lack of crowds keeps the intensity dialed way down, but thanks to Dean Fowler and his wife, Loretta, Steinhatchee doesn’t miss a step when it comes to hospitality. A native Georgian, Fowler was drawn to the area in the 1980s by the fishing in the nearby Gulf of Mexico. After a successful business career, he set out to build a Cracker-style village that looked and felt like the small towns he remembered from his youth on 35 pristine acres along the Steinhatchee River.

Steinhatchee Landing Resort—Fowler’s collection of wood-frame, Southern vernacular-style homes and cottages—comes close to being one of those small towns. Sited along winding paths overhung by centuries-old oaks, the cottages are luxurious without ostentation. The original designs were created by Ron Haase, a University of Florida architect who literally wrote the book on Cracker houses: Classic Cracker: Florida’s Wood-Frame Vernacular Architecture (Pineapple Press, 1992). The heart pine floors and beams in the houses were recycled from a 19th century hotel and there are stone fireplaces, sink-in-to-your-ears mattresses, jet tubs, kitchens, tin roofs and wide porches equipped with comfy chairs that complete the illusion of being at grandma’s. If you can’t relax here, you can’t relax.

When you’re ready for something more active, there are boats for cruising or fishing on the river and, in summer, some of the best scalloping and crabbing on the West Coast. The flats around the mouth of the river are a hotbed for redfish, mullet and, when the offshore waters cool down in the fall, waves of spotted sea trout.

—Steve Blount

Steinhatchee Landing
228 U.S. Highway 51 N.
Steinhatchee, FL 32359
800-548-1709, 352-498-3513
steinhatcheelanding.com
Weekday/weekend Rates: One-bedroom cottage, $140/$172; two-bedroom, $170/$215; three-bedroom, $286/$359; four-bedroom, $382/$466 (per night, two-night minimum)
 


 

At The Ritz, SoBeautiful

The Ritz South Beach’s lobby

Step inside The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach to check in and you may feel disoriented at first because the lobby doesn’t fit the mold of the elegant but businesslike reception areas that you often find in five-star hotels. It’s an expansive room with a sky-high ceiling and a huge curved wood veneer wall with rows of gold, reflective domes-as-sconces on it, 60 in all, and each dispersing a glow like a solar eclipse. Beneath your feet is a terrazzo floor that borders a teardrop-shaped gold rug on which sits ultramodern furniture that is less for comfort than for grandeur.

This is one of the beautiful- people hotels in Miami Beach, so its flair for the dramatic is a good fit for SoBe, a winter playground for celebrities on lists A through D and an operating base for the arts crowd. At The Ritz here you get the celebrity treatment as well as an immersion in art, with both coming together especially well in early December at Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the glitziest, star-packed art shows in the world. Think of it as the U.S. version of the Cannes Film Festival, but for a different form of art.

Located in Miami Beach’s historic Art Deco district, The Ritz is a work of art in itself, originally built in 1953 by the late architect Morris Lapidus, a controversial–and, for quite some time, critically dissed—figure for his curvy and flamboyant postmodern buildings. Lapidus built, in the ’50s, two of Miami Beach’s most exotic resorts, the Fontainbleau and Eden Roc, just two miles north of the DiLido Beach Hotel, which was restored and reopened under the Ritz flag in 2003.

The Ritz is a showcase for some of Lapidus’ trademark aesthetic touches, including circular and swirling shapes in ceilings, colorful lighting, and varied elevations in hotel open spaces. Complementing the building’s design is a multimillion-dollar contemporary art collection that Miami art gallery owner Diana Lowenstein installed in the resort. Lowenstein is a principal owner of the 375-room hotel.

It’s no wonder, given the hotel’s roots in Lapidus’ philosophy of “too much is never enough” (also the title of his 1996 autobiography), that the SoBe Ritz caters to extravagant tastes as well. This is where overindulgent parents spend $175 to send their adolescent daughters to

Charm Camp while those parents get in some me time in The Ritz spa (rated four stars by Mobil) or out by the pool or on the beach, where the hotel has “tanning butlers” standing by to apply sunscreens on lounging guests.

Charm Camp is a half-day program in which girls, ages 12-18, learn about beauty care, etiquette, poise and the art of conversation, as well as healthy cooking (as taught by Ritz chefs) and dance choreography, because what young girl doesn’t want to dance like the
Miami Heat dancers who teach the class?

Partying being a competitive sport in hedonistic South Beach, The Ritz seizes the occasion of a full moon on a weekend night as cause for celebration. Set at the outdoor DiLido Beach Club, the only oceanside restaurant on South Beach, the hotel’s Full Moon Party mixes locals and guests in a free-to-attend night of music and performances by fire dancers.

It’s a lively but tame affair by South Beach standards, but a good starter party before setting out for nearby Ocean Drive, the main strip of bars and restaurants where the beautiful people go for late-night indulgences.

—MB

The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach
One Lincoln Road
Miami Beach, FL 33139
786-276-4000  |  ritzcarlton.com
Rates: Rooms start at $479 per night during high season; $299 during summer.
Best Deal: Pay the $100 upcharge per night to stay on the private Club Level ($150 for access to it from other floors), where five food presentations a day and a full complement of alcoholic beverages await guests.
 


 

A Hideaway’s Star Appeal

Seclusion is one of the amenities guests enjoy the Key Biscayne Ritz.

President Nixon came here to get away from it all, and more than 35 years after the Watergate scandal forced him to resign, Key Biscayne still has the allure of a hideaway.

The seven-mile-long island—and, no, it’s not part of the Florida Keys—is quiet and secluded, but its distance from the daily grind is more of a state of mind. You just feel completely cut off from the outside world, though this southernmost barrier island of the United States really has easy access to the mainland, with downtown Miami only six miles away via a causeway.

So what is there to do here?  If you’re a sedentary sort, this is the place to be, because you won’t look out of place doing nothing here. The beaches are uncrowded and beautiful, especially the shoreline at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, where a historic lighthouse stands watch on the southern tip of the island. Sand-and-sun expert Dr. Beach put the state park beach on his 2010 Best Beaches in America list.

But if you’re active, then this is the right place to be, too. Plenty of water activities are available, including sailing, deep sea fishing, and world-class scuba diving and kite boarding.

If tennis is your thing, The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne owns the distinction of being home to the largest tennis center in The Ritz family, with 11 lighted courts, all but one with a soft-clay surface, plus a staff of teaching pros and programs for kids.

The AAA five-star rated resort, which recently went through a renovation, is a surprisingly affordable vacation spot if you take advantage of the packages it offers, including deals for families, tennis lovers and just plain lovers (think dining under the stars and getting massages in the spa, listed as one of the “2010 Top 99 Resort Spas in the U.S.” by Condé Nast Traveler).

If you’re fortunate enough to be visiting The Ritz on the night of a full moon, be sure to reserve a table for its “Moonrise Dinner” on the oceanfront patio of the Cioppino restaurant. It’s a four-course meal you won’t soon forget, and not just because the setting, the Tuscan cuisine and service are outstanding.

A “constellation concierge” points out celestial bodies to guests, holding up an iPad in the direction everyone is looking. With a constellation viewable in detail on the tablet, the concierge talks about its origins, delighting guests with his knowledge of astronomy. The dining experience is like none other, all for $90 per person with wine pairings.

—MB

The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne
455 Grand Bay Drive
Key Biscayne, FL 33149
305-365-4500  |  ritzcarlton.com
Rates: From $459 per night through March; $549 through April; $329 through May; $239 from June through September.
 


 

Florida’s Panhandle, Back from the Brink

The Panhandle is returning to normal in the wake of the oil-spill hysteria.

After watching endless coverage on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, I feared the pristine Panhandle beaches of my childhood would be ruined forever. But there wasn’t a tar ball or oily sheen to be seen, nor, for that matter, CNN or any other national broadcasters, when I visited my hometown of Fort Walton Beach in September.

The Panhandle’s story is switching from impending disaster to economic recovery, as the area gets back to normal. Commercial and sport-fishing boats are going out into the Gulf again and visitors are returning.

The gorgeous stretch of surf and shore here will always be the main attraction, but visitors who only hit the beach miss out on the area’s many inland charms. Skirting the shoreline between Panama City and Destin, south Walton County is home to charming towns, great galleries, top-notch restaurants and natural beauty.

The community of Seaside is the geographic and figurative heart of the region, and its influence is seen in the Victorian-inspired architecture and master-planned developments that have sprung up east and west of it over the years. It’s a good place to get your bearings along Highway 30A, which hugs the coast. Along it you’ll find some of the funkier shops, galleries and eateries in the Panhandle.

There are luxury resorts up here as well, some with their own golf courses and self-contained communities, like WaterColor in Santa Rosa Beach. But for Orlandoans, the Panhandle might as well be in California, the six-plus hour drive to it being a major turn-off.

Southwest Airlines last year began flying direct into Panama City airport out of Orlando International, but at $120-$150 per roundtrip ticket, plus the cost of a rental car, air travel may not be an attractive alternative to driving six hours to get here.

So, just think of a road trip to the Panhandle as going to Key West, but in the opposite direction and without the back-ups on the Seven Mile Bridge.

The Panhandle doesn’t seem too far away now, does it?

—Denise Bates Enos

Where to Stay
There are plenty of hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and resorts to choose from in south Walton, but if you prefer a place where you can enjoy all the comforts of home, check out ResortQuest at resortquestbeachesofsouthwaltonvacations.com. ResortQuest has more than 800 condominium and vacation home rentals in the area to rent.

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