A weekend escape from the ordinary is meant to be extraordinary. We visited four resorts in Florida to share what we discovered that would make your few days away, fabulous.
Story: John Sotomayor and Kelli Fuqua Hart
Reservations made – check. Louis Vuitton and Pierre Cardin luggage packed – check. Car cleaned and detailed – check. Prepared to experience once-in-a-lifetime, elite excursions with pampered VIP service and all worries left at home – check, check and check. It is fair to say that nothing recharges your battery like a weekend of indulgence. Fortunately, Florida has several choice destinations to satisfy that need. Saddled with the burden of learning the latest in leisure travel, I made reservations for myself to three heavenly havens: The Breakers, The Biltmore and The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island and one reservation to the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota for my cohort in lavish living, Kelli Fuqua Hart. We discovered old standards and new favorites that you will undoubtedly wish to try for yourselves. Having observed and experienced more than we have room for, we focused on some of the highlights and new attractions from each resort. The rest, you will have to learn on your own. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences checked off our bucket lists? We certainly hope not.
For a departure away from landmark hotels toward historic locations, venture from south Florida to the northeast part of the state to discover, or rediscover, Amelia Island. Known as the Isle of Eight Flags, the area is a treasure trove of history, heritage, and attractions filled with pirate lore. Dating back to 1562, Amelia Island has a rich history under the rule of eight different regimes, which “the French visited, the Spanish developed, the English named, and the Americans tamed.”
Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island
Strolling through historic Fernandina Beach is perhaps one of the best ways to explore the island’s history. Many of the buildings are on the National Register, as is the entire 50-block Historic District. This adventure from the ordinary requires a resort that is extraordinary – the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. Located on grand stretch of the island’s 13 miles of coastline, this oceanfront hotel offers 446 stylish guest rooms, including 43 Club Level rooms and 42 luxurious suites. This resort is listed in the Condé Nast Traveler Gold List 2013 and earned Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards – “Top Florida Resorts.”
The reasons for the distinction are plentiful. First and foremost, the Ritz-Carlton serves exemplary cuisine from a number of restaurants on site. With both inside and terraced seating, Café 4750 offers relaxed charm with a menu influenced by regional farms and coastal inspirations, including local fish, Mayport Shrimp, seasonal vegetables from local farms, farm-raised, grass feed beef and lamb. Pastas, breads and gelatos are made in-house.
Sports buffs will appreciate Eight Sports Bar, with its laid-back atmosphere and neighborhood pub charm. Guests can unwind with a beer while watching a ball game or playing pool. Signature food items feature a “Build Your Own Burger” menu and six delicious sliders: crab cake, barbecue pork, Philly steak, salmon, buffalo chicken and veggie.
From Ocean Bar and Grill, you can sip tropical cocktails and fruit smoothies while dining on fresh seafood, gourmet salads, sandwiches and local favorites in a relaxing setting, steps from the pool and the ocean.
The highlight of my visit was my customized five-course dinner at Salt, winner of the prestigious AAA Five Diamond Award. Salt, the signature element at the resort featured throughout the hotel and all the shops for tasting, takes simple elements from the earth and sea, properly seasons, artfully prepares and serves them in a contemporary coastal setting with refined ambience. Seasonal menus are created by Chef de Cuisine Richard “Rick” Laughlin and showcase unbelievably flavorful food.
I have tasted some very specialized food from my travels around the world, but I will remember Chef Laughlin’s signature entree forever. He created “steak and eggs” – with a twist. He filets the meat to a certain level and prepares two quail eggs served a top a 250 million-year-old block of Himalayan salt. The salt block is heated, and serves as a cooking block. You then sear the meat to completion, and additional lobster, to your liking. There are 40 different varieties of salt from around the globe available to season your food. If you like, you can purchase exotic salts to take home. I ended my meal with one of their signature, world-renowned soufflés. Délicieux!
The amenities are as spectacular as the food. The Ritz-Carlton spa, which also incorporates the theme of salt, earned Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Poll – “Top Spas in North America” and 2011 Spa Finders Readers’ Choice Awards – “Favorite Spa Treatment – Heaven in a Hammock.” At this deluxe 28-room Amelia Island spa, the soothing sounds of the ocean and rainforests set the pace.
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island golf resort is one of the only vacation spots in Florida to offer on-property golf off the beach. The adjacent 18-hole championship golf course is an avid golfer’s dream. Designed by Mark McCumber and Gene Littler, this north Florida golf resort’s stunning landscape is as lovely as it is challenging. Perfectly maintained greens, thoughtfully bunkered fairways and an unpredictable ocean breeze ensure no two rounds are ever the same. In 2011, The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island earned Spa Finders Readers’ Choice Awards – “Top 10 Best for Golf” and Golf Digest – “The 75 Best Golf Resorts in the U.S.”
With families in mind, Ritz Kids presents their young guests to the ecological wonders of the island through a variety of hands-on presentations. Designed for children ages 5 through 12, the supervised program both entertains and educates kids with games and activities featuring various daily themes.
Of course, resort living is not complete without lounging by the pool. Unique to the At the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, take in the scenic views of the Atlantic Ocean from the multi-level deck of the outdoor lagoon pool. A heated indoor facility allows guests to enjoy a refreshing swim any time of year. The spa pool features lap lanes, underwater music, a therapeutic whirlpool with a cascading waterfall, and luxurious seating options.
Three private boardwalks provide guest access to a quarter mile of pristine oceanfront, buffered by a natural landscape of sand dunes and sea oats. From the beach, you may enjoy ocean paddle boarding and surfing lessons. For the adventurous, The Inland Waterway Kayak Tour offers a unique experience through unspoiled natural beauty on a guided kayak tour through the scenic salt marshes of the Intracoastal Waterway. The Downtown History Tour offers a portal to the past with a tour of historic Fernandina Beach. This serene seaside village brings to life a bygone era, with cobblestone streets, ornately painted Victorian homes and a variety of charming boutiques, eateries and galleries as well as Florida’s oldest continually open bar, The Palace Saloon. Ahoy!
Come back for the fourth and final installment of Elite Excursions, featuring the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota. …