By ANDREA BILLUPS AND BETTY CORTINA WEISS
Luxury travelers are accustomed to nice things. Fine linens, infinity pools, hotel dining rooms named after celebrity chefs. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the detailsthe little features and insider amenities reserved for the very best guests. Knowing about those can turn a special trip into an excursion that's more fabulous fantasy than nearby stay-cation. Here, we showcase five exquisite Florida experiences that are but short drives away: a personal chef whose kitchen has an open door. A private butler to cater to your every need. A novelists South Beach writing retreat. A Disney stay replete with a near-private fireworks show. And a suite aboard a Florida ship that will forever change the way you see cruising. So sit back, read on and bon voyage.
If you want to upgrade the Disney experience...
WALDORF ASTORIA ORLANDO
Fans of the Waldorfs iconic property in New York City have no doubt come to love its signature restaurant Bull & Bear. Now that clubby gastronomic luxury has found a Southern home in Orlando, where the hotels menu, exemplary service and its staffs creative whimsy combine to offer travelers a little bit of an adult Disney experience, with the iconic theme park literally at your doorstep. Among the resorts most genteel services is what they call dining en suite," where whatever a guest might dream upfrom menu, to flowers, to popcorn machine or live musiccan be proffered intimately in a luxury room.
The concept came from the hotels Food and Beverage Director, Francis Metais, who said he listened to his best customers and their desire for an over-the-top experience to create a hotel stay thats intimate, private and specialbeyond what most vacationers might expect. Special occasions drive it. Our team will really personalize your experience, Metais says. We have a conversation with guests from the beginning and really try to understand what it is they want, whether it's for a marriage proposal or a special anniversary or just a family vacation.
An ice cream maker for the children? No problem. The hotels personal concierge will find one. Special pillows, bed sheets of silk or linen? Consider it done. Theyll even deliver a favorite perfume for your bath or hire musicians to perform live in your room over dinner. We are here to be creative and at the same time provide all the service they are looking for. There are lots of ideas we can give them.
Among the coolest, he suggests, is having a customized dinner of your favorite dishes served in the suite, then taking dessert or cocktails on the outdoor terrace, timing the meals finish to the spectacular Disney fireworks that occur each evening at the park. Its like you are in your high-rise apartment and have one of the best caterers around you to provide everything you need, Metais describes. The views are incredible. And just like Tinkerbells stardust, he adds, memory-making.
Waldorf Astoria Orlando, 14200 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane, Orlando, FL; 407-597-5500; waldorfastoriaorlando.com.
If youve always wanted a butler (or a Bentley)...
THE ST. REGIS BAL HARBOUR RESORT
To the north of sizzling South Beach is the ultimate in sleek and luxurious confines, a place where no guest detailfrom the unpacking of a wardrobe to a post-shopping snack of champagne and caviaris beyond reach. Meet the butlers of The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort.
No, this is not Alfred, the prattling British manservant from Batman. The Bal Harbour butler service is far more relaxed and cosmopolitan, though nonetheless professional in skill and discretion. Both male and female butlersmost are also multilingualare on call 24-7, offering travelers personalized hospitality as they unwind at the five-star property, among the newest and most glamorous in South Florida. I think at times it might sound a bit intimidating having a butler, but I encourage our guests to try it, says Marco Selva, the resorts general manager. What I always hear is I wasnt sure it would be good for me, but when they leave its like I cant believe Ive been living my life without it. They want to take them home!
How far are the butlers willing to go to please? Selva shares this story: We had a Russian couple here celebrating a very intimate wedding. They requested from our butler team to have seven white puppies for the ceremony. This is a good luck tradition in Russian weddings. They made the request on a Sunday morning. The wedding was Sunday afternoon. Our butlers were able to find those seven white puppies to walk down the aisle with the brideall wearing matching blue collars. We never say no, Selva adds. We may say it might take a little bit longer. But the word no doesnt exist in our language.
Another perk: If youre in the market for something chic from Chanel or something gorgeous from Armani, ask a butler to arrange a ride to the nearby Bal Harbour Shops in one of the hotels two house Bentleys. It may be a short drive across the street, but youll arrive long in style.
St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, 9703 Collins Avenue, Bal Harbour, FL; 305-993-3300; stregisbalharbour.com
If you dream of writing the Great American Novel...
THE BETSY HOTEL, SOUTH BEACH
Of course its a scene down on Ocean Drive. And yet youll be hard-pressed to find a South Beach establishment more committed to going beyond that scene, to elevating culture and making the Beach more thanwellthe Beach. Known as the consummate hosts to Floridas cultural glitterati, with events like poetry readings, afternoon literary talks and photo exhibits, The Betsy Hotels most recent gesture toward the arts is by far its most impressiveThe Writers Room.
Aptly named, its a simply if luxuriously appointed room where writerspoets, novelists and memoirists alikecan do their thing with inspired, tropical surroundings and (heres the impressive part) free of cost to them. The rooms centerpiece is a vintage wooden desk that once belonged to Pulitzer-nominated poet Hyam Plutzik, father of the hotels owner, Jonathon. It was his original desk, says Jeff Lehman, the hotels general manager. It almost doesnt fit in because it doesnt look like the rest of our furniture. But it does fit...because of what it is.
That desk is just about the only thing in the room that isnt hi-tech or drenched in decadence. The hotel partnered with Apple to equip the room with every modern electronic or digital tool a writer, who can stay up to a week, might need. Theres a flat-screen television and Wi-Fi. The walls are lined with a special, textured wallpaper that makes the room soundproof, the better to concentrate. Also provided: an unlimited supply of Italian illy espresso and a per diem to cover meals at the hotels swanky BLT restaurant. No sir, this is not Thoreaus Walden.
It is, after all, still The Betsy, that gloriously restored boutique Ocean Drive property where a third of the rooms are suites, where a rooftop deck offers stunning beach views and where the uncompromising accoutrements of luxury servicethere are 200 employees for only 61 roomsremain present.
In just the few months its been open, the room has been occupied by various literary stars, the very first of them being Billy Collins, the US Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. And while the hotel receives a steady supply of writers who qualify through referrals from various local arts organizations, it is open to independent writers reaching out to them directly. Doing this is really part of our culture, part of our soul, Lehman said. And we want to continue to keep that culture and those traditions alive.
The Betsy Hotel, 1440 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach, FL; 305-531-6100; thebetsyhotel.com.
If youve been uncertain about taking a cruise...
NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINES GARDEN VILLA
Forget what youve heard about vacationing on one of those mega cruise liners: the long buffet lines, the rigid dining schedule and seating assignments, the cramped rooms. Hear the team at NCL, the people who gave the world freestyle cruising, talk about their Garden Villas and youll begin to understand that what theyve created is the mother of all luxury experiences at sea.
Sitting atop their ships, overlooking all the action yet somehow hidden from everyone elses view, is The Haven, a exclusive enclave of suites and penthouses. Among these decadent accommodations, the most decadent is the Garden Villa, a more than 4,000-square-foot super suite (of which there are only two on each ship) featuring a living area with a large sectional couch, a full-sized dining table, a bar and a baby grand piano. The largest luxury accommodation on any of the major cruise ships, The Villa also has three master bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, private terrace and Lavazza espresso maker. Theres a private, outside lounging area where a Jacuzzi, a pool, a steam bath and another dining table are accessible only to the Villa guest.
You can order a pillow from a pillow menu. You can call a butler to help you unpack. You can have the meal of your choice delivered to your roomat any time of day. You can take a spa treatment on your private deck overlooking the sea. You can host a cocktail party with live music or you can spend the entire cruise in the Villa and never see another passenger. It is the ultimate in privacy if that is what you want, said Klaus Lugmaier, NCLs Director of Hotel Operations, who says the room, which is almost always booked, caters mostly to families and the occasional star looking to retreat from the world. What is great about it is if you want this very personalized, private experience you can have it. Or you can go out and enjoy the rest of the ship. Its whatever you like.
For high-end foodies, NCL also has an impressive dining scene, with specialty eateries like a traditional New York-style steakhouse, a full-service Brazilian churrascaria, a classic French restaurant and a top-shelf sushi bar. (Of course, theres also a private restaurant in The Haven.)
Travelers seeking this level of luxury in the past would have had to opt for a private yacht, says Anne Marie Matthews, NCLs Vice President of Public Relations. But if they had kids, for example, there probably werent a lot of other kids on those ships. On ours, the kids can go bowling if they want to. Were really blending the element of luxury with the big-ship experience.
Norwegian Cruise Lines, 866-234-7350; ncl.com.
If youre a foodie with a thing for private islands...
LITTLE PALM ISLAND, LITTLE TORCH KEY
Those seeking an escape amid a bit of flip-flop elegance have long chosen Little Palm Island as the ultimate place to unwind in the Florida Keys. But what most veteran travelers may not know is that the exclusive propertyaccessible only by boat or sea planeboasts not only romantic vistas with its 15 thatched-roof bungalows, but a true foodie experience up-close and personal. Guests are invited to dine inside the restaurants kitchen, where a personalized chefs table is set with linen and crystal. There, in the intimate and friendly setting, the resorts culinary stars whirl glistening sauces, filet colorful, local seafood and showcase not only yummy ingredients but world-class culinary technique right before their eyes. You have questions about the marinade, those chocolates, that wine? Ask away, says star chef Alex Rosado, a Puerto Rico native, who notes that while all meals are different, everyone leaves the same wayas a friend.
We dim the lights in the kitchen and the atmosphere is relaxed and nice, Rosado offers with a Caribbean cool familiarity. Our guests engage with me, with the other cooks. We talk about food, we talk about life. Your wishthrough as many as seven courses, no lessis Rosados challenge and pleasure, he says, encouraging the curious to step inside and learn. I give them all my secrets, all my techniques. I explain to them everything and anything. I have taught endless numbers of chefs table guests how to make anything from a sauce to a whole roasted pig.
If learning from the culinary all-stars right in the kitchen isnt enough, those who want the food experience but seek unabashed romance are offered a loving treatdinner a deux at the oceans edge as sea breezes waft, palm trees sway and candles define an easy mood. If youve ever dreamed of a meal seaside, under the sweet gaze of the moon, Little Palm Island can make this intimate fantasy happen. Dinner on the beach is absolutely incredible, delights Rosado. You enjoy dinner and less than a foot away is the water. Its beautiful.
Little Palm Island, 28500 Overseas Highway, Little Torch Key, FL; 305-515-4004; littlepalmisland.com.