Florida’s most luxurious stay-cations

10/14/2012 12:00 AM

10/12/2012 12:12 PM

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 details—the 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 novelist’s 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 onand bon voyage.

If you want to upgrade the Disney experience...

WALDORF ASTORIA ORLANDO

Fans of the Waldorf’s 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 hotel’s menu, exemplary service and its staff’s 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 resort’s most genteel services is what they call “dining en suite," where whatever a guest might dream up—from menu, to flowers, to popcorn machine or live music—can be proffered intimately in a luxury room.

The concept came from the hotel’s 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 that’s intimate, private and special—beyond 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 hotel’s personal concierge will find one. Special pillows, bed sheets of silk or linen? Consider it done. They’ll 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 meal’s finish to the spectacular Disney fireworks that occur each evening at the park. “It’s 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 Tinkerbell’s stardust, he adds, “memory-making.”

Waldorf Astoria Orlando, 14200 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane, Orlando, FL; 407-597-5500; waldorfastoriaorlando.com.

If you’ve 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 detail—from the unpacking of a wardrobe to a post-shopping snack of champagne and caviar—is 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 butlers—most are also multilingual—are 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 resort’s general manager. “What I always hear is ‘I wasn’t sure it would be good for me,’ but when they leave it’s like ‘I can’t believe I’ve 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 bride—all wearing matching blue collars. “We never say no,” Selva adds. “We may say it might take a little bit longer. But the word ‘no’ doesn’t exist in our language.”

Another perk: If you’re 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 hotel’s two house Bentleys. It may be a short drive across the street, but you’ll 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 it’s a scene down on Ocean Drive. And yet you’ll be hard-pressed to find a South Beach establishment more committed to going beyond that scene, to elevating culture and making the Beach more than—well—the Beach. Known as the consummate hosts to Florida’s cultural glitterati, with events like poetry readings, afternoon literary talks and photo exhibits, The Betsy Hotel’s most recent gesture toward the arts is by far its most impressive—The Writers Room.

Aptly named, it’s a simply if luxuriously appointed room where writers—poets, novelists and memoirists alike—can do their thing with inspired, tropical surroundings and (here’s the impressive part) free of cost to them. The room’s centerpiece is a vintage wooden desk that once belonged to Pulitzer-nominated poet Hyam Plutzik, father of the hotel’s owner, Jonathon. “It was his original desk,” says Jeff Lehman, the hotel’s general manager. “It almost doesn’t fit in because it doesn’t 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 isn’t 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. There’s 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 hotel’s swanky BLT restaurant. No sir, this is not Thoreau’s 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 service—there are 200 employees for only 61 rooms—remain present.

In just the few months it’s 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 you’ve been uncertain about taking a cruise...

NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE’S GARDEN VILLA

Forget what you’ve 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 you’ll begin to understand that what they’ve created is the mother of all luxury experiences at sea.

Sitting atop their ships, overlooking all the action yet somehow hidden from everyone else’s 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. There’s 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 room—at 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, NCL’s 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. It’s 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, there’s 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, NCL’s Vice President of Public Relations. “But if they had kids, for example, there probably weren’t a lot of other kids on those ships. On ours, the kids can go bowling if they want to. We’re really blending the element of luxury with the big-ship experience.”

Norwegian Cruise Lines, 866-234-7350; ncl.com.

If you’re 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 property—accessible only by boat or sea plane—boasts 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 restaurant’s kitchen, where a personalized chef’s table is set with linen and crystal. There, in the intimate and friendly setting, the resort’s 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 way—as 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 wish—through as many as seven courses, no less—is Rosado’s 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 chef’s 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 isn’t enough, those who want the food experience but seek unabashed romance are offered a loving treat—dinner a deux at the ocean’s edge as sea breezes waft, palm trees sway and candles define an easy mood. If you’ve 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. It’s beautiful.”

Little Palm Island, 28500 Overseas Highway, Little Torch Key, FL; 305-515-4004; littlepalmisland.com.

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