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SANDPEARL RESORT, CLEARWATER BEACH, PROVES BEING GREEN CAN FEEL G-O-O-O-D

Clearwater Beach’s first new hotel to open in 25 years aims for LEED certification

By Karen Rubin

The Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach on Florida’s Gulf coast is proof that a resort that is ultra luxurious, elegantly designed, can still be green, and that green feels very, very gooood.

The lush setting - and eco-friendly - pool and beach at The Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

You realize you have never felt what it is like to swim in a pool without chlorine, the water purified instead through an ozone process. The water feels lighter, softer, you don’t get that stinging chemical in your eyes, or get that sour metallic taste.

Or what it is like to sleep on sheets that don’t have that musky smell of chemical additives like softener and bleach because they are washed with another ozone process that cleans with cold water.

Sandpearl Resort – Clearwater Beach’s first new beachfront hotel to open in 25 years when it opened its doors in August 2007 – is also the first in the Southeast to be built to LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) standards. It has just been admitted to the Florida Green Hotel Association.

And the greater beauty is that guests experience how you can be green without giving up “quality lifestyle” – a message that they can take back to their homes and hometowns.

Elegant but comfortable, the interior decoration at The Sandpearl manifests nature imagery and themes (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Education is a big part of the mission of LEED-certification, and we take advantage of the regularly scheduled LEED “back of the house” tour with Brian Grant, director of engineering (free, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m.)

What goes through my mind is how accessible such “sustainable” systems are – things that can be installed in homes (certainly new-builts), in businesses and in government buildings – and I imagine how people will leave this tour and become an engine for change.

But for most, the first impression is how awesomely beautiful, how gracious the service, how comfortable it is to be at the Sandpearl.

The interior design is exquisite – sophisticated, classy, with colors, textures and patterns that remind me of the naturalistic influence of Japan and Egypt – yet comfortably casual, capturing the feeling of a beach locale.

Ah, the beach. Sandpearl has a 700-foot expanse of the soft-powder white sand Gulf Coast beach, and a lagoon-style beachfront pool, lushly landscaped, with private cabanas, which you see immediately through the wall of windows in the lobby.

Sandpearl Resort's naturalist Marianne Klingel leads a morning beach walk (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

There is an open, airy, and light feeling throughout the hotel, and in the 201 standard guest rooms – most with balconies.

We are in one of the 52 one and two-bedroom suites, located on the top two floors of the resort. Our one-bedroom works out great for our family – spacious, with kitchen and laundry facilities, and a fold-out sofa bed in the living room.

There is 11,000-square feet of spa, fitness center and beach club space, and here, there is a novel approach: the Spa at Sandpearl has no boundaries. Instead, the “spa” program is integrated into day-to-day resort life – influencing the restaurant menu, guest-room amenities, and programming. You can get an ocean-side massage, a facial that incorporates extracts of powdered pearls, and a massage that utilizes crushed pearl paste and a variety of water therapies and touch therapies, spa programs like sunrise and sunset rituals (yoga, meditation, tai chi, $15/session), Expression through Dance (a movement ‘art’ class for fun and fitness), Moonlight and Nature Walks, and a variety of fitness programs, including an early morning beach walk.

The dining choices at Sandpearl are wonderful. Caretta on the Gulf, its signature restaurant, offers seasonally inspired cuisine reflecting South American, Caribbean and other international influences. Perched two levels above the beach, with indoor and outdoor seating, it offers views of brilliant sunsets, and also serves as a casual place to enjoy breakfast and lunch.

The Ceviche and Raw Bar offers a daily selection of fresh local seafood, and a wood-burning oven for rustic dining selections. A wine room provides an intimate space for special events and tastings and offers an extensive collection of wines from around the world.

Holding a moon snail collar in her hand: Sandpearl's naturalist Marianne Klingel leads a morning beach walk (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The Marketplace is a pastry and coffee bar that offers a casual menu.

The poolside Tate Island Grill provides a laid-back setting for casual cuisine. At dusk, the pool deck transforms into a beachside lounge, with tropical music, and at night, you can linger around a beachside fire pit.

Dominating the lobby – and the second thing you see after gazing to the pool and beach – are two large murals by local artist Christopher M. Still, commissioned by Sandpearl. “Return to Picnic Island” and “Beneath the Waves” evoke the nostalgia of two families that return year after year to Picnic Island (as Clearwater Beach was called by early visitors), a feeling that is infused throughout the Sandpearl. All the symbols of the murals are authentic – gleaned from research into the Scharrer family and the shells, marine and bird life to be found on the beach – and are even life-sized (for the underwater scenes, the artist took waterproof paper and sat under water). There is a theme of return, and continuity from past to future generations. The Sandpearl is very much a place that you would enjoy coming back to, year after year, and is forging the traditions that accompanied resorts of bygone times.

The Sandpearl is successfully continuing traditions and starting new ones. For example, it has nightly sunset celebration, with a chosen guest ringing the dinner bell saved from the former Clearwater Beach Resort (which occupied the site before the Sandpearl). The first guest to ring the bell was the actual boy depicted in the painting. There are also campfire storytelling and sing-alongs and treasure hunts. Each day, there is a schedule of programs and recreational activities.

Enjoy the festive beach environment at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Indeed, rich programming reinforces the sense that Sandpearl is a true resort.

Some of the special eco-tours that families will enjoy include a Behind-the-Scenes Tour at Clearwater Marine Aquarium ($75 for a family of four); a combination Clearwater Marine Aquarium Tour and Kayak trip ($65/adult, $150 for a family of four); a visit to the Suncoast Sunbird Sanctuary ($10, with half donated to help the birds); and a trip to Honeymoon Island Birding Trail, Beach Shell-n-Swim ($50/adults, $125 for family of 4). Other enrichment programs that are offered include “Marine Discovery,” a private boat tour of Mandalay Channel to observe wildlife; Astronomy Night enables guests to use a telescope with an expert astronomer; and Moonlight Nature Walk in the company of a naturalist gives you insight into nesting sea turtles.

The Sandpearl also offers a supervised children’s activity program, Camp Ridley, for children 5 to 10. Each day has a different theme, like “Nature Day,” and “Around the World Day.”

The Sandpearl Resort is a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts (www.preferredhotels.com).

Tasty tropical drinks and succulent seafood with a water view are joys of dining at Jimmy's (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

For more information, rates and packages, contact The Sandpearl Resort & Spa, 500 Mandalay Avenue, Clearwater Beach, FL 33767, 727-661-2425, 877-726-3111.www.sandpearl.com.

Wining & Dining

Island Way Grill presents a stunning, contemporary and sophisticated ambiance – clean lines, lush plantings, gorgeous glass objects, the raging wood fire. The menu is Asian fusion, with an influence of Caribbean and Floridian food. So you have Thai high Mussels and Lollipop Conch fritters, Vietnamese King Crab rolls, and scallops seared in a wok with galangal, black vinegar and sweet citrus sauce; entrees like Macademia Nut crusted Mahi Mahi, wok-fried whole yellowtail snapper, Szechwan Pepper crusted tuna. The steaks, though, are amazing – prime beef, aged in a temperature-controlled aging room, grilled over an open pit fire. A 20-ounce Korean BBQ T-bone marinated in a concoction which includes (and this is the secret ingredient) Cola Cola and kiwi provides a memorable feast ($22.95). A 32-ounce porterhouse, at $30.95, is an absolute bargain.

The desserts are to die for (those who can’t decide can take the chef’s dessert sampler of crème brulee, molten lava chocolate cake and key lime pie, $7.95). But for me, the marvel was a red raspberry sorbet that tasted as if the sweetest, purest fruit had been infused with ice (20 Island Way, 727-461-6617, www.islandwaygrill.com).

Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber Restaurant has been a Clearwater Beach landmark and family owned since 1948. The atmosphere is casual and the menu is a combination of new and traditional dishes, with the emphasis on “homemade.” We go with the Fresh Florida Black Grouper, which is cooked to perfection. Another traditional favorite is Back-To-the-Farm Chicken, prepared from a “secret” family recipe.

Tasty tropical drinks and succulent seafood with a water view are joys of dining at Jimmy's (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The real surprise here is the Beachcomber’s award-winning wine list – 600 different selections from a 20,000-bottle inventory! We learn that Bob Heilman has his own vineyard, FoxyRock, in Oregon. We sample Bob & Sheri’s 2005 Estate Pino Noir. (His other establishment, Bobbie’s Bistro, on the marina, is even more wine-oriented and does tastings). (447 Mandalay Avenue, 727.442.4144,www.heilmansbeachcomber.com).

Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, a beachside restaurant and bar overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, has the perfect atmosphere for families (and is around the corner from the Sandpearl Resort). It is colorful and fun, and serves many styles of seafood, steaks, burgers, with a few Mexican, Jamaican and Floribbean items for good measure. Popular items include Cajun Grouper Sandwich (grilled with Cajun spices), Rockaway deviled crab cakes, Oysters Rockaway, she-crab soup, and coconut shrimp. The music starts up at 7:30 p.m., adding to the beach-party feeling. Frenchy’s actually has four locations (7 Rockaway Street, 727-446-4844,www.frenchysonline.com).

We had seen the distinctive yellow umbrellas of Jimmy’s Fish House and Iguana Bar from Little Toot on our Dolphin Encounter, and now, we are dining al fresca with a prime view of the Bay, Little Toot and other boats and the occasional dolphin. One of the few places where you can dine on the water, this is another festive, “happening” place, and one of the best places for families to enjoy sunset dining. There is live entertainment nightly from 7 p.m., and weekends from 2-6 p.m., as well. It offers steaks, pasta, sandwiches, and seafood and is known for the crispy fried shrimp, served in a Thai peanut sauce over a crispy noodles ($9.95) and clam chowder – as thick as stew with clams, potatoes, vegetables, dill flavor (Jimmy’s Fish House and Iguana Bar, 521 S. Gulfview Blvd, 727-446-9720).

Clearwater Beach is just only 30 minutes due west from Tampa International Airport.

The best time to visit Clearwater Beach is October through December (except for the holidays) when there is that optimum combination of low rates and low humidity, but there are also great rates and wonderful weather February through May.

For further information about attractions, packages and events contact the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, 1130 Cleveland Street, Clearwater, FL 33755, 888-425-3279 or 727-461-0011,www.visitclearwaterflorida.com, or email info@clearwaterflorida.org.

See: Clearwater Beach and Soooo Much More

Monday, 11 August, 2008

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© 2008 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

THE WATER CLUB SETS NEW STANDARD OF SOPHISTICATION IN ATLANTIC CITY

Hot, cool, hip, and posh, new boutique hotel is also ultra-luxurious

By Karen Rubin

It’s hot. It’s cool. It’s hip. It’s posh. Its chic. And it’s so far beyond what Atlantic City has been, it might as well be in a different time zone.

The indoor pool at The Water Club (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The Water Club, fresh from its grand opening this summer, is the most refreshing change in Atlantic City since, since… since its sister hotel, The Borgata Hotel & Spa, opened in 2003, bringing a Las Vegas-style destination-resort concept to Atlantic City.

Together with The Borgata, The Water Club brings the hope for the beach resort’s renaissance as a destination, rather than a bus ride to the gambling tables.

The two hotels, together with the massive casino-entertainment-and dining complex between them, form their own destination – an “island” surrounded by highways and overlooking a bay (with a view of Atlantic City’s wind turbine farm).

The $400 million, 800-room Water Club is Atlantic City’s first “boutique-lifestyle” hotel, offering a personalized guest experience within a distinctively cosmopolitan setting. You could easily imagine celebrities and power brokers feeling very comfortable here.

The Water Club is also billed as Atlantic City’s first luxury hotel built in the era of casino gambling but without a casino. In actuality, Water Club shares a massive casino/entertainment/dining complex with its sister hotel, The Borgata.

But unless you take that walk through the lobby down a short promenade of six exquisite, high-styled boutiques, you could easily enjoy Water Club as a boutique resort-style hotel with a world-class, two-story spa, five indoor and outdoor pools, and and state-of-the-art meeting and function facilities.

A one-to-one employee-to-guest ratio means service that rises to the level of pampering and begins with a valet taking the car and an “Ambassador” who checks you in curbside with a hand-held device.

The Water Club's dining experiences are all designed by chef Geoffrey Zakarian of Manhattan's Country and Town, here doing a cooking demonstration (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The Water Club continues the precedent of an upscale, sophisticated, cosmopolitan hotel set by The Borgata. When the 2,000-room Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa opened in 2003, it was the first new Atlantic City casino in 13 years, and the first to present a Las Vegas-style destination with entertainment, celebrity chef restaurants, lavishly appointed guestrooms, and exciting nightlife options all under one roof.

“Within a few short months of opening Borgata, we realized the need to expand our product offering to accommodate the high demand and understood that there was a untapped niche in the market for a cosmopolitan hotel experience in Atlantic City,” explained Larry Mullin, President & Chief Operating Officer for Borgata at the opening of The Water Club in June. “We are confident that not only will the addition of The Water Club firmly position Borgata for long-term success, but will lead Atlantic City as it evolves into true travel destination.”

The connection to Las Vegas is no surprise. The projects are a joint venture between Boyd Gaming and MGM Mirage, and with The Water Club, brings the total investment into the resort destination to $1.7 billion – leading Atlantic City in its development surge, which includes over $10 billion in capital investments planned within the next five years (including another 4,000-room MGM hotel on the site). The hotel was conceived as an exclusive extension to the Las Vegas-style Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Just steps away from Borgata’s gaming, dining, nightlife, and entertainment options, The Water Club combines elements of Borgata while delivering a personality all its own.

But rather than merely expand The Borgata, the decision was made to create a second hotel with a distinct personality.

“The Water Club’s personalized service, sophisticated style and unique brand of comfortable luxury will offer guests the feeling of an exclusive retreat, without being excluding,” said Drew Schlesinger, VP and General Manager for The Water Club. “In crafting The Water Club experience, we drew inspiration from the style and intimacy of boutique hotels in cities like Miami and New York, while still affording guests the ability to enjoy Borgata’s entertainment, world-class restaurants, nightlife and gaming.”

‘Immersion’ Motif

What impresses you (especially if you have been to Atlantic City’s boardwalk, with the Caesars, the Trumps, Resorts International) is the elegant design not seen before in this city, the quality of the materials, the sophisticated styling.

The Los-Angeles based design firm Laurence Lee Associates, has created an exquisite atmosphere using naturalistic themes and materials, much in the style of (what I call) Asian-moderne, with the motif of “immersion” – immersion in water, immersion in indulgence – as the over-arching motif.

Stunning décor and stylish treatments enhance the ambiance in the Water Club guestrooms (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

In the hotel lobby, limestone columns, and plush handmade rugs punctuated by rich splashes of color are interwoven with gentle water features to create alluring spaces that soothe and revitalize. As you go around the hotel, you see different patterns of stone (collected from 40 different countries) and grain of woods that form artful patterns, palm trees and bamboo grace the interior landscape, stunning art work including Chuiluilly glass.

Floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the hotel’s 43 floors present striking views of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding bays, while the five pools offer sanctuaries of renewal and relaxation. The hotel’s lobby lounge, The Sunroom, is a sun-filled space with cascading water that flows along a curved 50-linear-foot blue stone wall and into a tranquil reflective pool. In the evening, The Sunroom transforms into a sultry hideaway with intimate seating areas set amidst a winding stone pathway and lush landscaping that can be enjoyed for drinks and conversation.

Outdoors, guests are introduced to two heated infinity-edge outdoor pools. Surrounding the 400-jet pool, a wooden deck features soft sand with Teak chaise lounges and cabanas. Inside The Water Club, a 42-foot high glass ceiling canopies the hotel’s two infinity-edge indoor pools with plush beach chairs and lofty palm trees that evoke the feeling of an outdoor setting. The indoor pool area is complimented by an intimate bar with poolside service and large Jacuzzi.

The Water Club’s 800 guest rooms, including 760 Clubrooms, 3 levels of suites, and 3 residences, provide upscale amenities and stunning design. Warm Earth tones mix with subtle yet striking bursts of color. A scarlet throw blanket adorns a plush cream-colored chaise lounge, while woven, ultra soft, Egyptian cotton linens combine hues of brown, beige, and deep turquoise.

Each guest room is outfitted with a 40″ LCD Sony Flat Panel TV, iHome Alarm Clock with iPod docking station, wireless high-speed Internet access, and IP Phone. Black and white photographic artwork, L’Occitane amenities, his and hers bathrobes with matching slippers, woven, 400 thread-count Egyptian cotton linens, and oversized, glass-enclosed showers with therapeutic showerheads provide an intimate, soothing atmosphere.

You will likely swoon over the quality of the plush robes, towels, even the bathroom glass that is utterly gorgeous – and everything you see, including the sheets, the slippers left by your bed, and even the pillows – can actually be purchased in the Cameo store downstairs.

The Water Club’s suites are spacious and stunning, and come with butler service! plus showers large enough for two people, and are equipped with a media-rich mini theater, a 70-inch Sony LCD HGTV with surround sound, wet bar and panoramic views of the ocean and bay. Both the two-bedroom Viceroy and Social Suites and one-bedroom Harbor Suite offer designated spaces for in-room massage therapy treatments.

The Water Club’s three residences are modeled after chic, New York-style lofts. The Residence on 34, located on the 34th floor, is a two-bedroom duplex with grand piano, fireplace, and spa room, while the two-bedroom 4,500-square-foot duplex Residence on 36, offers a pool table, fireplace and entertainment center. The 3,000-square-foot, Residence on 38 is a single-floor suite with one bedroom, wet bar, and spa room.

The "third-eye" treatment at Immersion, the Water Club's spa (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

For many valid reasons, The Water Club sees itself as appealing to destination weddings, bridal or bachelor party getaways, as well as for high-level corporate retreats, incentive programs and board meetings.

Immersion – A Spa With A View

Located on the 32nd and 33rd floors, Immersion – The Spa at The Water Club, is a globally-inspired, 36,000-square-foot retreat with floor-to-ceiling windows, 180-degree ocean views; a 25-yard infinity-edge lap pool; 16 ‘experience’ rooms, a 1800-square-foot, state-of-the-art fitness center with TechnoGym equipment; and gourmet spa menu.

The spa, which is available exclusively to Water Club guests, is the epitome of opulence and luxury, and is like a resort-within-a-resort, with a private lounge (separate ones for men and women), 80-foot lap pool, fitness center, in addition to the 16 treatment rooms. Spa guests can use the exclusive facilities for the entire day.

Not only is the spa for the exclusive use of Water Club guests, but there is an extra $30 charge even for guests to use the spa pool and fitness room.

The 36,000-square-foot spa, Immersion blends natural materials with a modern design, including a river rock archway with cascading water; slate, green marble, stone and glass detailing; and lush indoor greenery. Immersion’s crowning feature is a spacious, two-lane, 80-foot-long infinity-edge lap pool with horizon and Atlantic Ocean views and 42-foot ceilings with floor-to-ceiling glass panels.

Sixteen experience rooms cater to today’s spa trends of longer (80 and 110 minutes) and more personalized services (and cost $250 each).

Two of the treatment rooms are deluxe couples’ suites with oversized Japanese-style Hanoki soaking tubs and 180-degree views; two are Vichy shower wet rooms with heated Hamam tables; four are skincare-ready rooms; and two are individual suites with dedicated private showers and Jacuzzi tubs. Immersion also offers three soft-pack floatation device tables, designed to increase product absorption by 30 percent. Pairs can experience this service side-by-side.

An "in-tandem" treatment at Immersion, the Water Club's spa (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Additionally, The Water Club has 28 deluxe suite accommodations with a dedicated spa room ready for body treatments, massages and facials for a private in-room spa experience.

Immersion’s spa director Brennan Evans, who is also the director of spa operations at Borgata’s Spa Toccare and formerly the spa director at the esteemed Canyon Ranch Spa, created the service menu to suit the spa enthusiast who not only wants medi-spa options, but also desires “a quick fix and spa indulgences without downtime.” Immersion satisfies with “high tech, high touch” experiences, which last a minimum of 80 minutes and feature leading spa industry products, including Naturopathica, Intraceuticals, Spa Visions, Jamu, True, Academie Scientifique and Tara Spa Therapy’s Ayurvedic line.

For example, intraceuticals, involve oxygen infusion, which plumps up and hydrates the skin without an injection or redness (which is why is popular with popular with “red carpet” celebrities.

In another room, we see a fine stream of herb infusion oil being dripped on the “third eye” – to calm and relax – which is followed by scalp, hand and foot massage.

Another room offers heated hammam table, from Germany, made completely of jade marble.

What impresses is the selection of methods from around the world and with different cultures.

Immersion’s signature services include the Immersion Rainforest (110 minutes), which starts with an exfoliation and mud wrap of Black Silt Clay containing herbal extracts of Indian Sarsaparilla, Plantain, and Echinacea, and then a rinse in a Japanese-style Hanoki soaking tub filled with rare essences of Bourbon Vanilla, Massola Bark and Linden Blossom. The experience finishes with a pampering full-body deep tissue massage.

Nightlife is plentiful at the Water Club: here, a band rocks at the Gypsy Bar (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

In addition to the pool, the spa includes a state-of-the-art Techno Gym-equipped fitness center with ocean views that also overlooks the pool area; a men’s and a women’s lounge featuring cold water plunge pools along with Jacuzzi and steam rooms.

A gourmet spa menu has been created by New York City’s Country and Town Chef/Owner Geoffrey Zakarian. Continuing the personalized focus, guests are given the opportunity at check-in to select their dining option, which is served poolside, or while relaxing in a spa suite. Spa cuisine is served in three Geoffrey Zakarian designed bento boxes.

Spa menu selection include super food lunch boxes with options like a roast turkey wrap with arugula, and cranberry relish, a string bean and almond side salad with yogurt dressing, quinioa, shallots, pine nuts and sherry vinegar, served with a blueberry parfait filled with crushed pumpkin seeds. The Spa also offers guests a chocolate and tea service for before and after treatments to provide the ultimate experience in decadence.

A delightful surprise is Acai – a spritzer of sparkling water and berry juice from Brazilian rainforest, high in anti-oxidant.

Spa Immersion offers fitness classes and personal training sessions for $120/hour. To visit Immersion, spa clients must be guests at The Water Club. For guests opting out of a spa service, a $30/day fee is charged for use of the fitness center and pool. All packages and services include a 20 percent service charge (visit www.thewaterclubatborgata.com, or call 800-800-8817 for reservations).

Dining Experience

The Water Club’s dining experiences are all designed by chef Geoffrey Zakarian of Manhattan’s Country and Town, in his first venture outside New York City, who creates and oversee all food and beverage hospitality for the spa, pool, special events and in-room dining.

The selections are completely unexpected: Tuna Tartare with green apple and flat bread crisps; Grilled Organic Chicken with smoked mozzarella, pesto and arugula and rosemary foccacia; and a Curried Taro Turnover with pork, daikon and lemongrass, guests will enjoy soaking up the atmosphere, which is inspired by Miami’s South Beach and features lush landscaping, sand and private cabanas.

The Water Club is billed as a non-gaming hotel, but steps away is the stylish Borgata casino (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

A novel twist is the emphasis on in-room dining, especially for breakfast, rather than going to a hotel restaurant (since the hotel restaurants are really all in the Borgata).

Signature in-room breakfast items such as bagels and scrambled egg sandwich or savory sides of smoked bacon, cheese pork grits, and rosemary home fries or a healthy heart cereal choice of house made granola, organic raisin bran or Kashi GoLean Crunch complemented with soy, whole organic or rice milk and fresh berries on the side.

We enjoyed the unusually prepared Blueberry pancakes, and “Ouefs in plate with cheese” (cheese omelette) with ham and wild mushrooms, served on stunning silverware and china.

Instead of a formal restaurant, The Water Club has casual eateries in the Sunroom and by the pools (a dozen restaurants are just steps away at The Borgata). The lobby-level Sunroom is lush and will make you think you are in Palm Beach, with soaring palm trees and fountain (though the fireplace is a bit jarring). It is set up with comfortable lounge nooks where you can order light breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night snacks.

The two heated outdoor pools are just behind the Sunroom – they have done an excellent job creating a beach-like environment – with sand, cabanas, trees – and shielding the roadways from view. Both outdoor pools -beautiful with the “infinity edge” where water rolls over the side – are reserved for adults.

The prettiest pool (also heated) is indoors, but it is easy to forget that it is actually indoors, except that the temperature is perfectly controlled and there is music. It, too, is lushly landscaped with trees, lounge chairs (each with an orchid placed on a rolled towel). There is an eaterie, here as well, for breakfast and light meals, making it a delightful gathering place.

Happening Place

The Water Club is billed as the first non-gaming hotel to be built in Atlantic City since gaming began, but you simply walk through the small promenade of retail shops, leaving the tranquility of The Water Club, and enter a “happening” place with 161,000-square-feet of casino floor space including 200 gaming tables, 4,100 slot machines, and an 85-table poker room; 12 destination restaurants; 12 retail boutiques; a 54,000 square foot spa; 70,000 square feet of event space; a 2,400-seat Borgata Event Center and a 1,000-seat Music Box theater,

The space is actually gorgeous – not tacky like so many of Atlantic City’s casinos, even the name-brand hotels – and can be enjoyed even if you are like me, a non-gambler.

This is the place to come for dining and entertainment.

Atlantic City's famous beach with Convention Center (at right) (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

There are seven “destination” restaurants to chose from – each exquisite and offering a distinct personality: Bobby Flay Steak famous for its Southwest-style steak and boldly seasoned dishes; Old Homestead Steakhouse, an original, classic steak house; Ombra, a classic trattoria and wine bar; SeaBlue, A Michael Mina restaurant, serving seasonal fresh fish from all over the world cooked over a wood-burning grill; Specchio, featuring modern Italian cuisine with a classical twist; Wolfgang Puck American Grille serving American cuisine; and the newest, Izakaya, A Modern Japanese Pub offering spectacularly reinvented Japanese cuisine within an alluring social scene.

There also are six casual dining options: The Metropolitan, a 24-hour café serving contemporary and classic American foods; Borgata Buffet, a buffet of entrees, snacks and desserts; Bread + Butter- serving sandwiches and gourmet beverages; Risi Bisi serving pizza, Panini and salad selections; N.O.W. featuring Japanese, Chinese, Korean cuisine; and The Cafeteria, multi-concept quick service dining featuring Tony Luke’s cheese-steaks, Ben & Jerry’s, and Panda Express.

Also within this complex (again, just steps away from The Water Club) are four signature nightlife experiences: MIXX dance club featuring renowned DJs; mur.mur, an intimate nightclub with signature bottle service and celebrity DJ’s and B Bar lounge centrally located on the casino floor. My favorite place was the Gypsy Bar, Borgata’s rock & roll and tequila bar featuring live music and eclectic eats. There is also a theater presenting live entertainment.

Shopping as Entertainment

The Water Club’s retail shops warrant mentioning – just six, but each is distinct and in most cases, the only shop of its kind, and really interesting/fun to visit, even if you are just window-shopping (like at Hearts of Fire).

The Water Club is home to the first North American Hearts On Fire store. Hearts on Fire elevated the industry standard in diamond cutting by creating perfect “Hearts On Fire” cut diamonds, which are truly exquisite. The boutique offers an intimate and personalized shopping experience that you would not expect.

Fixation, a Water Club exclusive, featuring top brands of shoes and handbags such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Stuart Weitzman, PRADA, Emilio Pucci, KORS by Michael Kors, Diane Von Furstenburg, L.A.M.B, Longchamp, Juicy Couture, BCBG, Betsy Johnson, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Lacoste, Via Spiga, and Missoni. Fixation at The Water Club, boasting 1,580-square-feet of designer labels, is the only place at the shore to find all of the top accessory designers under one roof. Plush white leather couches complemented by pearlescent silver walls add to the rich shopping experience. Unexpected pops of lime add energy, while black and gray accents keep the overall design grounded. There is also an unexpected range of prices, with sandal flats at $29, up to jeweled sandals at $140.

Hugo Boss at The Water Club features stylish menswear, ranging from classic business-wear and casual sportswear to elegant evening apparel.

The Shoppes at The Water Club also boast the area’s first Just Cavalli boutique, which joins the brand’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue, combining the right mix of high-end retail and luxe lifestyle. Renowned designer Roberto Cavalli’s ready-to-wear collection has a sensual, party infused flair similar to The Water Club. The store successfully caters to women of any age who want “fun” and “sexy”. This is a great place to look for Prom or Sweet 16 dresses (prices ranging from $200 to $300).

Wrap yourself in sensuality at La Perla at The Water Club. Specializing in luxurious intimate apparel, swimwear, and ready-to-wear, La Perla features one-of-a-kind, limited edition items (even a cigarette holder and a gold-plated “dragon bra”, at $1,048). This is really something to be seen. The stunning 1,250-square-foot boutique mixes a cool and calming color scheme of silver and white with warm wooden floors.

Cameo, The Water Club’s signature boutique, is where you can find just about any of the necessities you might have forgotten to pack. But it is also where you can actually purchase just about anything you admired (and wished you could stuff in a suitcase) in your room: bathrobes, slippers, sheets, pillows, towels, even the glass in the bathroom.

Hi-Tech/Hi-Touch

Rolling wicker chairs are an Atlantic City boardwalk tradition (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

You get your first exposure to just how high-tech The Water Club is when you pull up in a car, and the valet checks in the vehicle, and a Water Club Ambassador greets you curbside and checks you in with a handheld device. The device sends information to a second Water Club Ambassador, who arrives with pre-printed keys and a glass of champagne and escorts you up escalator, avoiding a waiting at the front desk

You no sooner enter your room, than an IP LCD TV offer personalized greetings with your name.

Guestroom phones are VOIP (voice over IP), which allows guests direct information from the Internet, view in-room dining information and place orders from the phone; find out the wait time for an in-room dining request, check the delivery status, and advance order an “Express Breakfast” by touching a phone icon. You can also use the phone to check flight status, weather or travel conditions, and locate local restaurants through citysearch.com.

Rooms are equipped with HD television and video on-demand and (for a fee) wireless and wired Internet service. You can also trade-up to “Turbo Service”, to connect to home computers, photos, and videos.

The rooms all have Sony HD LCD screens, iHome Alarm Clock with iPod docking station; even the minibar is equipped with “smart” technology that lets housekeeping know when to replenish items (or what to bill you for).

On the Boardwalk

You can see the Atlantic City boardwalk from the hotel and easily spend the entire time within The Water Club and Borgata complex, but it is tremendous fun to hop a jitney bus for the 15 minute-ride ($2, it operates 24 hours) from the surface parking lot at The Borgata and within minutes, you can be strolling the famous boardwalk.

By day, Atlantic City is still a great beach destination – in summer, some of the major hotels have opened lovely eateries and provide umbrellas and chairs right on the beach; in other seasons, it is still fun to just walk on the beach.

There seems to be a concerted effort to fight back against the forces that would stomp out everything that was charming about Atlantic City. Look a little closely and you will find historic marketers (like along Jones Beach boardwalk) that tell you the history of the wicker rolling chairs ($5/for five blocks), even Mr. Peanut shop, that I remember so fondly from our many family trips when I was a child.

Those famous rolling chairs date from 1877, when the Boardwalk was the “Great Wooden Way, and hardware store owner William Hayday rented wicker wheelchairs for people with disabilities, then a few years later, people started requesting them for a joy ride. (This triggered memories of my younger brother, age 4, saying “beep beep” as we were pushed along the boardwalk).

Enjoy a game of miniature golf on the boardwalk (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The nicest, most charming aspect to the Boardwalk is the miniature golf course that harkens back to Atlantic City’s Victorian glory days, with lovely sculptures and old-time “postcards” at each of the holes. The course is directly opposite Atlantic City’s famous convention center, once the home of the annual Miss America contest. A round of miniature golf should definitely be part of your Atlantic City tradition (Weekdays, 10 a.m. to midnight, weekends until 1 a.m., $8 pp).

You can ride a bike on the boardwalk, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. from April 1-Oct. 31, and 6 a.m. to noon from Nov. 1-March 31.

The boardwalk is fairly tacky – even and perhaps because of the gambling era hotels that seemed oriented to middle America and show the effects of hordes of people.

A pleasant exception is the Pier Shops at Caesars retail shopping mall where one of the pier attractions used to be. The shops and restaurants are great, the atmosphere is fun.

And if you walk through to the pier, you will find yourself out over the ocean with lovely views back up the beach and boardwalk on both sides. Off in the distance is the Steel Pier, now more than 112 years old and still an amusement park.

But to add to the resort-feel of Water Club and The Borgata (and the exclusiveness that maximizes separation of hotel guests from the Boardwalk and the Boardwalk casinos), they offer a shuttle on weekends to Brigateen Beach, on an island surrounded by water and significantly more private than Atlantic City’s beachfront (you have to check the shuttle schedule).

Atlantic City is now the second largest casino-gaming destination in the country, earning $5 billion – after Las Vegas. The take from gaming may actually be greater than what Las Vegas brings in, but Atlantic City, with 15,000 hotel rooms to Las Vegas’ 130,000 – can’t compete in terms of non-gaming revenue.

The Water Club, 1 Renaissance Way, Atlantic City, NJ 08401, 609-317-8888, 800-800-8817,www.TheWaterClubatBorgata.com.

Wednesday, 15 October, 2008

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‘GAL GETAWAY’ TO CONNECTICUT’S SPA AT NORWICH INN

Nothing like a trip to a spa to forge memorable bonds

By Karen Rubin

I have known, loved and been close with my sister in-law for decades, but I realized, much to my chagrin, we had never had extended “quality time,” just us, together.

And so, when the opportunity presented to take a “gal getaway” to the renowned Spa at Norwich Inn, in Connecticut, I grabbed at it, knowing the power of travel to forge memorable bonding experiences.

And I was right.

Our “gal getaway” at the Spa at Norwich Inn in Connecticut was full of surprises.

It began with our dinner at Kensington’s – an elegant space with dark-wood paneling, hand-painted floral mural, shimmering crystal chandelier, and music by Pat Mitchell on a keyboard – as we reviewed the menu and found succulent selections – not that thin, watery, bland stuff you might expect from a “spa”.

Here was beef, lamb, chicken, fish, pasta, even clam chowder, all bursting with flavor, with portions big enough to satisfy, so when you leave, you do not have that empty, deprived feeling. Yes, the preparations were designed to maximize flavor with minimum calories – the clam chowder, for example, was creamy enough but thankfully not so rich that you feel guilty with every spoonful (275 calories, 10 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein, 10 grams of carbohydrates).

The Amaretto Shrimp appetizer, as another example, is prepared with a sweet and spicy Amaretto emulsion and finished with walnut crumbs and a light salad of edible flowers (329 calories, 25 grams of fat, 14 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrate).

And the amazing entrees: Lobster Purse – a fresh lobster saut�ed in shallot and Chardonnay cr�me, wrapped in a crepe with braised vegetables, saffron and caviar (510 calories, 15 g fat, 32 g protein, 41 g carbohydrate); grilled swordfish about an inch thick, with a zesty flavor from garlic and citrus, accompanied by grilled zucchini and tomato, with rice pilaf and cucumber-citrus-garlic yogurt aioli (477 calories, 16 g fat, 56 g protein, 26 g carbohydrate).

The combination of distinct flavors is exciting.

Who would have imagined that the prime rib steak would actually come in at fewer calories (499 calories, 24 g of fat, 41 g of protein and 31 g of carbohydrate)?

This was only the first of many surprises during our weekend getaway.

But in some ways, it was not a surprise, but a fulfillment of expectation – being able to share quality time with my sister-in-law, who has been a part of my life since I was 13. It was, in fact, the first time in all these years (I won’t share how many) that I can remember, that we had time just to ourselves. In this, we became part of the growing trend toward “Gal Getaways” – so liberating, empowering and fun.

And we couldn’t have chosen a better place: the Spa at Norwich Inn has become a premiere spa destination, one of the biggest in the Northeast, regularly among the top four spas in the country, and the perfect place to relieve stress that we all feel, balancing work and family.

The setting of the Inn contributes to the atmosphere: set on 43 acres, in the picturesque “Rose of Connecticut” – so-called because from above, the rolling hills resemble petals of a rose – and just a stone’s throw from Old Lyme, where the landscapes were so bucolic as to attract the famous Old Lyme Art Colony of American Impressionists (see Discovery, 9/26). Its grounds abounding with perennial gardens, shimmering ponds, and inviting walkways, oak trees, a reflecting pool, and an oversized deck which are so conducive to relaxation.

The Vitality Vitamin Wrap involves application of anti-oxidant Vitamins A, C, and E-dense cream to the skin, then you are wrapped, cocoon-like, which activates hydration (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

With 100 guestrooms, suites and villas, The Spa at Norwich Inn, a member of Historic Hotels of America, is classy and classic, and quintessentially New England. You are greeted at the door by doormen, and taken to the room by bellmen. Nightly turn-down service includes fresh towels and chocolates left on the pillow. The concierge helpfully makes special arrangements or suggests sightseeing excursions.

We head up to our room – a king-suite – with an amazingly comfortable king-sized bed, and a separate sitting area with pull-out sleep sofa and TV – all classic and restful.

In the morning, we meet ladies doing their “bachelorette” getaways before the big day; bridal parties enjoying the spa before the big event taking place at the inn; couples in their plush white robes, strolling and holding hands while they wait for their treatment; mother-daughters and I am sure there is a three-generational group somewhere. My sister-in-law thinks how fabulous this will be to return with her two daughters.

With men seeing the benefits of stress reduction, they are becoming a growing market for spas, and the Spa at Norwich Inn has catered to this with corporate retreats.

There are at least two wedding parties while we are here, as well, but clearly, the focus of the Inn is on the spa – as you realize when you see men and women wrapped in their plush white robes, everywhere – in the wood-paneled formal dining room at breakfast, in the Ascot’s pub, in the lobby, and not just within the confines of the spa and outdoor patios. It’s a little surreal at first.

I realize when I talk with Betty Loiacono, the Inn’s spa director, that the Inn at Norwich was in the forefront of the now-ubiquitous trend in major spas at resort hotels. The Inn’s spa was one of the first in the East, built 20 years ago, even before the Canyon Ranch opened in Lenox, Massachusetts, when spas were more of an amenity than the central focus of a visit. The Spa at Norwich Inn, now with 30,000 square feet of space and 40 treatment rooms, has become one of the top four spas in the country.

Betty came to the Inn 20 years ago and was here when the spa was first built. In that time, there has been a virtual revolution in spa-going. The focus has also shifted – from weight loss and deprivation, to stress reduction and health.

Then, it was mostly older women, now the spa welcomes teens (as young as 14 with a parent or caretaker, or 16 on their own), and men are coming in growing numbers (Real Men do Spa).

For teens, for example, there are age-appropriate facials, massages and body polish treatments. Therapists have heightened sensitivity so not to embarrass a teenager with acne, and they teach daily facial care – cleaning, toning, moisturizing and using sun-screen. A specially designed “Teen Maxin’ & Relaxin’ Swedish Massage” uses gentle, flowing strokes, delivered with utmost sensitivity (50 minutes, $95).

“It’s a rite of passage. Teens are very savvy about the spa. Everybody is in a white robe – it is an equalizer. It is treating teens with respect, honoring them.”

A Teen spa package provides one fitness class; choice of a Maxin’ and Relaxin’ Swedish Massage or Teen ‘Put Your Best Face Forward’ Facial; and choice of Tip-to-Toe Body Glow or Fab Feet Pedicure or Material Girl Manicure; lunch in Kensington’s Restaurant; and full use of the Spa Facility ($175).

More and more men who appreciate the opportunity to reduce stress, as well. A “Real Men Do Spa” package includes a choice of 50 Minute Swedish Massage, or Men’s Energizing Facial; Choice of “Man Handler” Manicure, or “Man Handler” pedicure; Men’s Hair Cut and Style ; Lunch in Kensington’s Restaurant; Full Use of the Spa Facility ($210).

We also see many couples, both in their plush white robes, strolling hand-in-hand or sitting and quietly talking as they wait to be called in. One of the programs offered is a “Massage Lesson for Partners” where the therapist demonstrates massage techniques and both partners get to practice so the techniques taught may be used at home to generate relaxation and relieve stress (50 minutes, $90). Men are also taking advantage of facials, like the “Men’s Energizing Facial” ($95).

To the extent that disease can be triggered by stress, spa-treatments may be regarded as preventive. In fact, she says, some insurance companies now cover the cost of treatments.

But, she notes, that if you are undergoing chemotherapy, some of the treatments – like those that might move lymph – are not appropriate, or if you are on blood thinners, or have high blood pressure, or pregnant (a Pregnancy massage is offered).

On the other hand, people who are in remission come to celebrate their renewal with children and family.

“It is very healing. It is giving yourself permission to deal with yourself,” Betty says. “It is allowing someone to touch you, to put yourself at peace.”

Connecticut Workout

After breakfast (I request an omelet with cheese, mushrooms and spinach), we go directly to our fitness classes.

There are any number of group classes to choose from during the day -Belly Dancing, Body Definition, Candlelight Yoga, CardioSculpt, Get on the Ball, Hatha Yoga, Limber & Tone, Line Dancing, Making Waves (a water workout), progressive relaxation (all of these are 50 minutes and cost $18).

We opt for the Connecticut Workout, a nonstop cardio workout combining traditional and trendy high-energy movements, followed by Pilattes Mat, which I have come to believe is the best type of conditioning, especially for women at our stage of life. Pilattes focuses on developing strength of “the core” – the abdominals and back muscles that keep the rest of the body in alignment – and on flexibility and balance. This is a way of life that you can take back with you.

There are a limited number of offerings that are complimentary, such as “Fit Tips,” a 20-minute session with the personal trainer in the gym; a 20-minute Meditation session, and a 50-minute 2.5-mile morning walk. But just about everything else is a la carte, even tennis court time ($25 per hour), and a seasonal Devil’s Hopyard Hike (a three-hour trek through a hemlock forest with the scenic Eight Mile River meandering through, offered on Saturdays from May through November, weather permitting, $40).

Tips & Tricks for Healthy Cooking

The Norwich Inn's Executive Chef Daniel Chong-Jimenez gives a "Tips and Tricks for Healthy Cooking" luncheon-cooking demonstration (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

After our fitness sessions, we take part in a “Tips and Tricks for Healthy Cooking” luncheon-cooking demonstration presented by Executive Chef Daniel Chong-Jimenez on the Garden Patio.

After our dinner at Kensington’s, I was fascinated to hear him discuss cooking techniques that maximize flavor and nutrition while minimizing calories.

As a food scientist, he understands the importance to metabolism of protein, fat and carbohydrates, and the interplay of the chemistry of food to nutrition. He graduated with a Bachelors of Science in animal science from the University of California-Davis, and teaches culinary nutrition at Johnson & Wales in Providence.

It turns out that Chef Daniel draws upon his early training as an animal scientist – an understanding of metabolism and chemistry – and applies this to his culinary art. He also draws from his heritage – Asian and Latino – to produce exciting combinations of flavors and textures.

The menu selections, which are so flavorful, turn out to be loaded with antioxidants.

“Scientific evidence continues to mount that points to Antioxidants as the most important component in the human diet after fats, protein and carbohydrates,” he says. “This menu represents the most Antioxidants I’ve ever used. And I haven’t skimped on flavor – in fact, the opposite is true.”

It’s like being given license to enjoy eating.

For example, the new Baked Portabella appetizer, where the giant mushroom is served warm and crusted with chevre, roasted garlic, roasted shallots and topped with crispy pepitas, organic olive oil and cabernet syrup – the olive oil and cabernet syrup, a reduction of wine made from red cabernet grapes, provide the Antioxidant kick.

The pairings also provide the Antioxidants – the Long Island duck entrée is breast meat seasoned with star anise and hot peppers with bok choy, shitake mushrooms and licorice-root infused duck brother. The Antioxidants come from the mushrooms and licorice root.

Fish oil also is a good source of Antioxidants, so the Cassoulet of Halibut, as well as the Grilled salmon and monkfish saddle also are good sources.

Antioxidants, he said, are important because they can absorb free oxygen radicals, a normal byproduct of human breathing, an essential component of cellular communication, enzyme synthesis and immune defense. But too many of these in the wrong places can have a detrimental effect. They have an unpaired electron that is looking for a “buddy” to bring its energy level to a stable state. If there isn’t a nutrient from a helpful fruit or vegetable or fish oil to pair up with the free radical, it will “steal” a hydrogen atom from a cell membrane to stabilize its energy field.

This can be bad over time, diminishing the ability of the cell to function properly. These cells affect memory, heart, kidney, lungs, thyroid, muscle, bone, skin, and the body ages faster because the cells are wearing out, he says.

But the most important “ingredient” is simply the freshness of the ingredients, he says. The fresher they are, the more natural flavor they impart, and the more healthful they are. So he has cultivated relationships with local farmers and fishermen.

There are many reasons to become a “Locavore” – a person who eats locally grown food. A key reason is that the vegetables and fruit are picked closest to peak, are riper and have ripened naturally, have the most nutrients, are livelier, have been handled by fewer hands, exposed to fewer markets, and doesn’t need to be transported far (burning fossil fuels). And because the taste is so vibrant, needs less added seasoning.

“That’s the secret to the intense flavor,” he says.

So he starts our lunch with a gazpacho soup that has more the consistency of a salad, made with vine-ripened tomatoes from a local farm two miles away that have never been refrigerated, yellow bell peppers, cucumber, onions, olive, sherry vinegar and white balsamic, salt imported from France, and extract of virgin olive oil. It is served unabashedly with bread fried in olive oil (it’s healthy, I am delighted to learn since it is so delicious).

In front of us, he demonstrates how to prepare a watermelon salad with shrimp and scallops with goat cheese and balsamic that you would say to yourself have no business being on the same plate.

As he prepares, he answers our questions – such as the efficacy of eating foods in certain combinations so they metabolize more efficiently (leaving less fat on our bones).

“We are most metabolically active in the early part of the day, which diminishes later and slows down at night. It is better to eat carbohydrates early in the day – pancakes, French toast – but in the evening, eat a lot of vegetables and proteins because the body repairs at night.”

Also, choose high quality protein. Beef and chicken are best that have been fed grass rather than grain (corn), which became the popular method during the Nixon Era because of a surplus of corn, he says. Corn-fed beef produced more marbling, but Americans got fatter, and the animals raised on a corn-diet are stressed.

Grass fed meat is leaner, less marbled, gives off a cleaner smell when it cooks, and shrinks more (because the animal is less stressed).

He says that he likes to serve portions of 6 or 7 ounces – more than the 4-ounce servings at many spas. “It is the amount at which people usually feel satisfied. I learned not to starve my guests. They won’t lose significant weight here, anyway.”

His approach is to give generous portions of protein, and limit the amount of carbohydrates. “30 grams is the threshold where the body feels challenged by sugar load… It’s one of the secrets of the Atkins diet, that proteins satisfy.”

Chef Daniel has been cooking throughout this, and has finished saut�ing the shrimp and now holds up these massive, four-ounce scallops, harvested from nearby Stonington, so are as fresh as they can be. “We buy direct from a fishing family – two brothers and a sister.”

He cooks them over a high flame, not even adding oil, because the scallops release their own oil. He cooks them until they caramelize on each side.

While they are cooking, he turns to arranging strawberries and the shrimp against thick, blockish squares of watermelon, and when the scallops are finished, puts them on top of the watermelon, with a mixture of “micro greens” – arugala, bean sprouts – finally spooning a balsamic reduction of honey, orange and vinegar, on top and finishes with goat cheese (no lactose).

He discusses the difference in salt – he prefers the Fleur de Sel from a marsh in France – and the different taste it imparts to seafood and tomatoes, and in this case, the watermelon. Watermelon, he said, is high in Vitamin C and beta carotene, is naturally sweet, and compliments the protein in the shrimp and scallops.

With vegetables, he says he roasts instead of steams and uses a toaster oven.

When asked how he describes his cuisine, he says, “Fusion. When I look at the dishes I have crated, there is a lot of cultural heritage. I can’t help myself – I know how to play with spices, but enjoy most the Asian, Latino, and French. Lucky for me, these are also the most popular.”

As for cooking for a spa, he says, “it is the quality of ingredients, eating seasonally. There is no substitute.

Chef Daniel offers these demonstrations, “Tips and Tricks for Healthy Cooking: An interactive demonstration and tasting,” each Saturday at 2:30 ($25). People with food allergies are welcomed – he modifies to accommodate (they ask about allergies when you sign up).

Potpourri of Spa Treatments

The historic Norwich Inn provides just the right amount of elegance (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

A similar concept to the “freshness” of ingredients in cooking, and the natural setting is apparent in the spa treatments, as well. The spa takes advantage of its New England ambience, temperate climate and four seasons, manifest in the seasonal treatments.

Fall Harvest selections include a pumpkin wrap, using aromatherapy of pumpkin and spice, mixed into the dead sea salt scrub. This pumpkin wrap exfoliates dead skin cells and provides the ultimate stimulating cellulite reduction therapy. Pumpkin is best known for its high concentration of Beta-Carotene and Vitamin E, two very important antioxidant agents to fight the effects of aging. Rich in minerals, the pumpkin will re-nourish your depleted skin to a vibrant glow. This treatment is followed with an application of our Pumpkin Body Butter (50-minutes $125).

A Cranberry Pomegranate and Pumpkin Facial uses a pumpkin enzyme masque that works to gently digest and exfoliate dead skin cells and impurities as it delivers pumpkin’s botanical benefits to repair the skin. It is followed by a luxurious cranberry pomegranate moisture masque that re-hydrates and plumps tired cells. The facial ends with amino-lift peptide complex that diminishes fine lines, smoothes and firms the skin (25 minutes, $70; 50 minutes, $110). There’s also a Cranberry Fig Body Scrub; Pumpkin Body Wrap; Oatmeal, Walnut and Pumpkin Manicure or Pedicure.

Since Norwich is designated the ‘Rose of New England, the Norwich Native Flower Wrap treatment incorporates floral essences that are indigenous to New England, with Rose being predominant, combined with the benefits of a hydrating body wrap. The purely natural ingredients relax the body and stimulate the senses (50 minutes, $115).

Phytotherapy?

In the afternoon, we get to experience the spa treatments first hand.

I enjoy a phytotherapy massage – essentially two treatments in one, incorporating the aromatherapy of the plant oils, and a Swedish massage.

As I am taken into the room by Heather (that’s really her name), she points to open bottles of so I can choose the aroma for the oil. The aromatherapy is taken into the body through the skin during the massage or body wrap. Each one has a different benefit.

For Relaxation, a soothing blend of ylang ylang, lavender and tangerine, which brings peace and ease to your body, and mind.

For Energy, a stimulating blends of peppermint and rosemary to awaken your senses and invigorate you for the day.

To improve Respiration, a clearing blend of eucalyptus, fir and pine that helps open your lungs and respiratory channels.

For Muscle Relief, a rich warming blend of birch, thyme and juniper that penetrates to help release stress in your muscle and joints.

For a Clear Mind, a warm blend of peppermint and ginger to help settle that wandering mind.

That one sounded interesting, but because I am not fond of the smell of peppermint and ginger, I decide on “Ambiance”, with a blend of orange and geranium, which is supposed to help center my body and mind.

This notion intrigues me. I can’t wrap my mind about what that feeling is supposed to be like – and wonder if I will rise from the table with a focus, purposefulness that I never had before, a sense of what is “right”; a clarity and single-mindedness. And then I wonder what it will feel like when the treatment wears off and I return to myself.

I also wonder if you are drawn to a certain aroma because your body craves the relief it provides, much as you crave foods when you need certain nutrients.

To be honest, the massage was so relaxing, I am not sure I was aware of being particularly “centered”, though I did fulfill my plan to sit and read, swim laps, and explore the property.

Situated near the 17th tee of the Norwich Public Golf Course, the Norwich Inns grounds abound with perennial gardens, shimmering ponds, inviting walkways, oak trees, a reflecting pool enhancing the sense of peace (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

I also wonder whether people are drawn to a certain scent – like they are to certain foods – because of a need for that particular remedy – relaxation, energy, muscle relief, and so on.

Reva does the Vitality Vitamin Wrap that begins with gentle exfoliation with an aromatic natural algae followed by a stimulating and fragrant application of shower gel. After showering, the therapist applies a richly blended and skin nourishing anti-oxidant Vitamins A, C, and E-dense cream. Then, you are wrapped, cocoon-like, which activates hydration.

There is a dizzying array of treatments to choose from (I can see how people can keep coming back just to try different ones).

Thalassotherapy is a thermal algae body mask, rich in nutrients from the sea, is designed to cleanse, tone and detoxify the system, which finishes with an application of the Inn’s private-label Avocado Lotion (50 minutes, $115).

Ayurvedic Mud Wrap is an application of rejuvenating Ayurvedic herbal-based mud imported from India which is designed to gently balance circulation and deep cleanse your system. The treatment finishes with an Ayurvedic oil application (50 minutes, $115).

One of the new Specialty treatments is CranioSacral Therapy, designed to release the tension that has made your tissues tighten up, to allow the body to relax and “self-correct.” The practitioner uses light-touch techniques, freeing the central nervous system. The treatment requires specialized training, so there is limited availability. ($95 or $152).

 

A Coffee Body Polish is designed to awaken your senses with an invigorating 25-minute body polish.�You relax as each muscle is exfoliated with a blend of ground Coffee, nature’s own micro-cellular stimulant; Dead Sea salt, prized for its detoxifying and regenerating properties; and soothing essential oils.� The coffee and salt gently remove dead skin cells and soften rough patches, while the invigorating aroma of rosemary, mint and citrus oils awakens your senses and invigorates your body. An application of Coffee Blossom Essence Lotion is then applied that completes the experience ($70).

The Nirvana combines the Herbal Body Exfoliation with the Shirodarah treatment to create “an Ayurvedic experience for the mind, body and spirit.”It begins with a Herbal Body Exfoliation – a total body detoxifying experience that provides deep cleansing. The powerful combination of herbs and oils is supposed to work to strengthen the immune system and eliminate the feelings of stress and anxiety. Next comes the Shirodarah that begins with a gentle stream of warm herbal infused oil onto the third eye to quiet the mind and soothe the senses. The oil is then massaged into the hair and scalp to nourish the hair roots and condition the scalp ($175).

Rain Drop Therapy uses nine therapeutic essential oils, hot stones on your back and energy work that balance your Body, Mind and Spirit. Oils are dripped ceremoniously ‘drop-by-drop’ down your spine and on your legs. Then, using gently choreographed strokes, the oils are delivered to your system leaving you feeling very relaxed. You are told to avoid alcohol and heat after this treatment ($125).

There is Hydrotherapy, including a Volcanic Mud Bath which utilizes therapeutic anti-inflammatory properties of mineral-rich volcanic ash mud extract; Lavender or Rosemary Aroma-Mineral Bath; and Seaweed Bath, which is rich in trace elements, vitamins and minerals and has healing properties that stimulate circulation, eliminate toxins and nourish the skin.

Various Body Polish Treatments are offered: Coco Mango Body Buff; Crystal Sea Salt Glow; Lavender Salt Polish; Orange Blossom Sugar Polish; Sensitive Skin; and the Teen Tip-to-Toe Body Glow.

There is a choice of facials, from Anti-Aging, to the Antidote for Fragile and Sensitive Skin.

Most intriguing are a Caviar facial that uses Russian caviar, pearl extracts and Excutox ™, a natural herbal topical alternative to Botox®, to smooth wrinkles, improve elasticity and promote cellular activity ($225); and a Champagne facial, designed for mature skin, that uses Champagne yeast extract with a high concentration of Vitamin B Complex and amino acids to stimulate the skin to combat the effects of free radicals ($110).

Men also are getting facials. The Norwich Inn uses its own Men’s Facial Care products to address the specific needs of men’s skin. A thorough facial cleansing and exfoliation is followed by a serum and masque to help calm the skin. A gentle massage detoxifies and enhances tone. $95

A particular novelty is the in-house astrologer and Tarot card reader, Rosemary Williams, who does a basic Astrology reading, baby chart astrology, couples astrology, even relocation astrology (to find out what your life would be like in another town or country), and Tarot Card reading. All 50 and 90 minute sessions end with an optional Tarot Card reading, and each session is taped to take home ($80).

The various spa treatments are offered a la carte, but there are packages:

For example, the Ultimate Day of Beauty includes an 80 minute Caviar Facial; a choice of New England Foliage Manicure or New England Foliage Pedicure; Make-Up Application Service; lunch in Kensington’s Restaurant; and full use of the Spa Facility for the day ($300).

The midweek Personal Escape Plan allows you to customize your stay. for one to four nights, and provides accommodations, breakfast, choice of two spa services and two fitness classes, (from $318 per person per night/double occupancy, and from $397 single).

Besides the full use of the Spa facility, the packages also offer daily complimentary morning walk, FIT TIPS, Morning Meditation, Make-Up Color Analysis Q&A, SPA 101, afternoon tea and scones, and afternoon wine tasting.

Foxwoods Connection

Now completely mellow from our spa treatments (I have also had a swim in the indoor pool), we meet our small group for dinner in the separate stone cottage that once was the clubhouse for the Norwich Public Golf Course, the 17th tee just outside the door.

Indeed, this historic inn, a member of Historic Hotels of America, has such an interesting history.

The pool at the Spa at Norwich Inn(© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Built in 1929 as a civic project of the town, the Georgian-style manor house was for a time a boarding house and the basement was a holding cell. The popular inn passed through a succession of owners and in 1994, was acquired by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which also owns Foxwoods casino (so no surprise that there is a nightly shuttle to the Foxwoods casino).

An infusion of capital resulted in a $15 million renovation, completed in 2000, which enhanced and doubled the size of the European-style spa, and built a corridor connection to the main building; reduced the number of guestrooms to make them more spacious, and included classic appointments, signature toiletries, luxurious robes and CD players. Nestled in the woods are 51 private villas, equipped with wood-burning fireplaces.

Guests can play golf on the Norwich public course, which is PGA-rated, and is absolutely gorgeous, as well as at the award-winning Lake of Isles Golf Course, designed by Rees Jones surrounding the 90-acre Lake of Isles, which also is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. (A Golf & Spa package includes overnight accommodations at the Inn, golf for one, choice of two spa services, breakfast and dinner for two and other package features (M-W, from $644; Thurs-Sun, $744).

After dinner, we hop the shuttle to Foxwoods’ newest addition, the MGM Grand with its own casino, and are lucky enough to catch part of Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar’s show in the 4,000-seat theater, wander around the casino, and take in the scene and the heart-pumping sound at Shrine, the disco.

The ambiance at the Norwich Inn is so refined, so classy, it is no surprise it is wonderfully popular for weddings (there are two that weekend) for up to 150 people, bachelorette parties, as well as corporate functions and executive retreats (the clearing the mind thing, especially). A wedding coordinator is on staff can plan everything – even an elopement!

There is a ballroom and five different meeting spaces, for a total of 6,500-squre feet, accommodating up to 250 guests. Special activities can be arranged, like corporate stretch, yoga, and even as a novelty, astrology reading.

The services are offered a la carte, but there are a wonderful array of packages which bundle in the kinds of spa, sports activities, dining options you might want.

ReNew You offers a fitness class, a choice of two Spa offerings, lunch at Kensington’s, a spa boutique lotion to take home, and use of the spa facility. ($275 including tax, gratuity and service charge).

Spacation is a weekday plan that offers one fitness class; lunch in Kensington’s Restaurant; A Spa Boutique Lotion- to take home; a choice of Aromatherapy, European Facial, Hearthside Relaxer Massage, Swedish Massage, PhytoTherapy Massage, Pregnancy Massage, Reiki, or Teen Swedish� Massage, Hair Conditioning Ritual; and a choice of Express Facial, Eyebright, Hand Massage, Foot Massage, Spa Manicures, Spa Pedicures, Body Polish, Hydrotherapy, or Salon Wash, Cut & Dry, Wash and Blow dry ($229 with tax, gratuity and service charge; available weekdays; an overnight stay can be added at a discounted rate).

A Country Getaway Retreat includes accommodations; breakfast and dinner; full use of the Spa facility; and Daily Complimentary Morning Walk, FIT TIPS, Morning Meditation, Make-Up Color Analysis Q&A, SPA 101, Afternoon Tea and Scones and Afternoon Wine Tasting (from $150 pp/night/double or $220/single midweek; and $195 or $325 weekends, with a two-night minimum).

For the best value, the best time to come is after labor day, after New Year’s, and in June before the summer rush. Midweek room rates are naturally lower than weekend. You can check the website for special rates at the day spa.

It is easy to reach the Norwich Inn by train from New York City and Boston; to feel as if you have really gotten away, take the Orient Point ferry to New London, where you can arrange a pick up to the spa (11 miles away). By car, it is about 2 1/2 hours from Long Island.

The Spa at Norwich Inn is a member of Historic Hotels of America (www.historichotels.org, 800-678-8946).

The Spa at Norwich Inn, 607 W. Thames Street, Norwich, Connecticut, 06360, 860-886-2401, 800-ASK-4-Spa, www.thespaatnorwichinn.com.

Tuesday, 28 October, 2008

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© 2008 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

HIGH STYLE PROMOTES WELL BEING AT MIAMI’S NEW EPIC HOTEL

By David Leiberman & Graziella Drover

We were greeted by a mix of soft earth tones and the sound of gently flowing water as we stepped through the front doors into the Epic’s “living room”. Sunlight bathed the lobby space, which was no darker or colder than the bright Miami day we’d just stepped out of.

On our left we saw a fountain consisting of a smooth, paper-thin sheet of water running over a low wall of lovely azure tiles; on our right was a bank of stylish but comfy-looking couches; ahead, beyond the front counter, we glimpsed a warmly-lit sitting room. The counter, adorned with a stunning orchid, was staffed by a group of serene-looking women in silky lavender outfits. We didn’t have to drag our suitcases to the counter and elicit service with an imploring look; instead, someone actually came out from behind the counter to shake our hand and greet us by name.

The newly opened Epic Hotel captures Miami's sophisticated cosmopolitan pulse (photo by David Leiberman).

An instant later, keys in hand, we lingered to absorb our surroundings a bit before going upstairs. The lobby/living area is a striking, high-ceilinged space, but it’s not imposing – a row of sculptures, a playful mobile, gorgeous flower arrangements and cozy, intimate groupings of couches and armchairs create a comforting, human scale. The murmur of the fountain dampens footsteps and voices and allows for private conversations and quiet reading. With views of the river and the bay, it’s the perfect place to relax after a long journey, or wait to meet someone for breakfast. I would have been happy to sit there for hours longer, but I was encouraged to go upstairs and take a nap, which didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

A hushed, carpeted elevator (the fastest in Miami, I hear) whisked us up to the 23rd floor. The halls were dramatically curved, so that we couldn’t see more than three or four rooms ahead. We wondered why this delighted us so much, and concluded that normal, straight hallways both limit privacy and make for a somewhat depressing sense of finitude. (Later, a representative giving us a tour pointed out that the curvature was also reminiscent of a sailboat.) Of course, straight corridors had never bothered us before; but the Epic’s curved ones made us wonder why anyone had ever built them any other way.

This was to become a theme of our stay. The architecture and design of the Epic, as well as its service and amenities, catered to desires and aesthetic preferences we hadn’t even known we had. In our guide’s words, architect Luis Revuelta, designer Cheryl Rowley and the Epic staff have tried to think of “all the things that you don’t think about, but that you experience.” That’s a perfect description of the subtle, subliminal effect of the hotel’s design-rather than calling attention to itself, it creates a pervasive sense of luxury, calm, and ease. That’s true of the architect’s master plan, but it’s also true of the fragrance of the soap-and of the countless other little pleasures and surprises that await Epic’s guests, from the heavy but perfectly smooth-sliding dresser drawers to the pretty canvas bag that holds the hairdryer.

Delight at these nuances, however, doesn’t begin to register until you’ve settled in, which takes a while. The Epic, which opened at the end of 2008, doesn’t offer the sorts of rooms in which, after check-in, you’re particularly eager to unpack and go out on the town. Instead, we spent a quarter-hour just marveling at the view from the balcony (large enough to function as a dining area), subliminally absorbing the mood set by the colors (warm, soft, but still somehow incandescent browns), and generally soaking up the feeling of ease and mental, not just literal, spaciousness that came over us when we walked into the room. Once we’d somewhat regained our critical faculties, we noticed some of the larger-scale choices that had created this experience.

The Epic Suite

The first thing that struck us was the way the architects had created an incredible feeling of openness by thinking more carefully about the design and layout of the bathroom. In some sense, a bathroom is just a bathroom, but on the other hand a hotel room bathroom takes up a significant portion of the square footage of the entire suite, even in amply-sized rooms like the Epic’s, and especially when the bathrooms themselves are luxuriously large and equipped with tempting freestanding tubs. Usually that area is entirely cordoned off from the rest of the suite, and the opportunity to enjoy all the space at once is wasted. The result is that you typically enter into a short, narrow hallway, with the bathroom on the right, and can only take in the rest of the suite once you’ve walked past it.

In our room, instead, the bathroom was in its usual position on the right as you came in, but was enclosed by wide frosted-glass and wood sliding doors, so that its entrance felt broad and prepared you for its size. This shape was echoed, on the bathroom’s opposite wall, by a huge open window opening onto the bedroom. As a result, as soon as you walk in, in addition to glimpsing the room unfolding out past the entrance hallway, you can also see into the bathroom through the sliding door, and, through there, you have an even broader view of the bedroom from another perspective through the bathroom window. Finally, these three frames are echoed by the fourth and grandest frame — the sliding doors of the balcony. The effect is stunning: your suite and the city and sea below all emerge as one continuous expanse.

On a more superficial note, because of the window, my companion could dress and get ready to go out while talking to me through the window in a normal voice, eliminating the usual shouting of “Are you ready?”. Needless to say, the bathroom window does not, however, limit your privacy — the window can be obscured by a tasteful translucent shade, and even when it is open, only the sink area, not the shower, is visible from the bedroom; the toilet is set off from the rest of the bathroom entirely in a European-style water closet with its own door. It’s hard to exaggerate how much this simple departure from the standard hotel-room layout changed the experience of living in the room. Taking a bath in a hotel bathtub, however nice, is usually a somewhat claustrophobic experience — the air gets stuffy and you feel shut away from the rest of the suite. Here, two people can chat casually while one soaks in a hot bath and the other researches restaurants at the desk.

After we’d familiarized ourselves with the broad contours of our surroundings, we immediately started to treat the suite like home. It was then that the details began to register, eliciting frequent little exclamations of surprise. The beds were triple-sheeted with subtly patterned, incredibly soft white linens; the fluffy down duvet and pillows contrasted with the nicely firm mattress. The curves of the gorgeous almond-colored wood furniture echoed those of the building. The dresser drawers opened and closed so smoothly and silently that I insisted my companion come over and try them immediately.

The TV, usually a somewhat unsexy presence in an otherwise elegant suite, was not just flat-screen — it was actually built in, so that it was flush with the surface of the wall and did not seem to anchor the suite as hotel TV’s sometimes do. If we hadn’t looked for it, we could have gone our entire stay without noticing it, although it was large and perfectly positioned over the bed. Most hotels have wireless internet access, of course, but using it requires you to drag out your laptop and charger, which is hardly the first thing you feel like doing in a luxury hotel room. Instead, rooms at the Epic are equipped with unobtrusive desktop computers, which are always connected to the internet — no passwords or fidgeting required — and are marvelously convenient for quickly looking up facts about Miami’s attractions.

Even the pools reflect the high-style and chic design of the Epic Hotel (photo by David Leiberman).

In the bathroom, the deep square tub which rises out of the marble floor has its faucets in the middle, not at the foot, so that the water can be adjusted while you’re lying down; the wonderfully huge circular showerhead similarly hangs from the middle of the ceiling above the shower, not from the side wall, and the water comes down vertically, making you feel you’re standing in a gentle rain shower. The sinks are lovely bowls, perched on a wooden table, and so deep that it would be nearly impossible for water to splash out of them onto the counter below, eliminating yet another tiny but common hotel-room annoyance. The table on which they sat had convenient open shelves underneath, where you could store your toiletries while keeping the tabletop pristine — yet another departure from the usual clutter of toothbrushes which mars the otherwise orderly feeling of a hotel bathroom.

Even the closet was a pleasure to use, equipped with charming silk-covered padded clothes hangers. The closet need not be stuffed with extra bedding, since the Epic is eager to suit your bedding tastes — it actually boasts a “pillow library” so you can choose your favorite size and texture, whether you want down, memory foam, big and fluffy or small and firm, which will be delivered to your door at a moment’s notice.

From Sewing Kits to Goldfish

There is a real sense that Epic staff takes pride in addressing even the most particular of guests’ needs, from sewing kits and extension cords to in-room spa services and “pawdicures”. (In typical Kimpton fashion, the Epic has a “Guppy Love” program which offers goldfish traveling companions to keep guests company; the hotel also invites guests to bring along Very Important Pets [VIPs], with no weight or height restrictions!) As one Epic representative showing us around put it, the hotel is “willing to do everything for its guests — short of breaking the law.”

The hotel’s dedicated attention to service is perhaps the most essential feature of the Epic experience. It is both extremely responsive and unobtrusive. Requests tend to be honored immediately and without hassle or questions. The front desk manager happily agreed to extend our check-out time (to 5 p.m., no less!). We had a bit of trouble with the climate-control system at first (although we were the room’s first guests, this was the only bug we noticed). When we let the receptionist know, two engineers came by in ten minutes flat. Porters seemed to materialize instantly in response to our calls downstairs with the smallest requests, such as for matches or complimentary yoga mats. (By the way, the mats had amazing traction, and the spacious balcony comfortably fit two at once.)

Even the way the employee’s help is requested and announced upon arrival is special in its combination of availability and respect for guests’ privacy — each room has a quiet, even soothing doorbell, eliminating the startling pounding on the door that, in most hotels, announces the arrival of the housekeeper. Even better, a pair of lighted buttons inside the door allows you to indicate “privacy” without having to lean out of the door, half-naked, to fumble with one of those awful hanging paper signs which you inevitably drop and have to bend down to retrieve just as your neighbor is emerging bright-eyed and fully dressed.

At some point in the day, however, you might want to come out of your cocoon — if not for ambitious sightseeing, then at least for some food, wine, swimming, and possibly even company. Miami, of course, can provide all that in spades; but aside from the inclination to just stay in and order room service, the Epic’s public spaces provide an additional temptation not to bother leaving. The fabulous pool area, which overlooks the Miami skyline, waterways, and the sea, has two mosaic-tiled “infinity” pools, ringed by tasteful private cabanas (for rent by the hour) and a variety of cool-looking, comfortable padded pool chairs, couches, and lounges of all kinds, some designed especially for couples and groups. Polite staff rush to your side with rolled towels (some with little orchids tucked inside), glasses of lime-infused ice water, and even sunblock if you’ve forgotten it. And, if like me you couldn’t bear to go inside after settling into this poolside paradise, the Epic’s entire bar and food menu is available with poolside service at all hours of the day.

After a long day of sunbathing, your thoughts may naturally turn to cocktails somewhat in advance of the dinner hour. You’re in luck — the Epic hosts a complimentary daily cocktail hour from 5-6 pm, where you can enjoy their signature mojitos and an interesting selection of wines, and mingle with your fellow guests.

Sadly, though, we missed the wine hour because we were too busy freshening up for dinner, where we’d choose from an even vaster wine selection upstairs at “Area 31″.

Area 31: 
Fresh Fish, Phenomenal Desserts

Area 31 is a destination in itself, a truly bold and unique restaurant that happens to be conveniently situated on the 16th floor just off the Epic’s pool deck. The restaurant specializes in delicately prepared fresh fish, all of which is sourced from its namesake region, the U.N. designated fishing area encompassing the waters off Miami’s coast, as well as parts of Central and South America.

Epic Hotel's room with a water view.

We arrived just after our fish did, and encountered it raw – first in the form of a sashimi appetizer of red snapper with a delicate cilantro sauce, and again when chef John Critchley brought out the whole fish we planned to share as a main course, submitting it to our scrutiny before cooking it. It looked gorgeous then, and tasted even better when it reappeared a few minutes later.

Extremely fresh fish, simply and delicately prepared, is, of course, the mark of a great seafood restaurant, and Area 31 more than met this standard set of expectations. It distinguished itself from other fine seafood establishments, though, in its entrees and side dishes, including a coarsely-ground white corn polenta-flavored only with the standard butter and Parmigiano, with a texture that testified to a lifetime’s practice-so exquisite that it could have put Area 31 on the map as an Italian restaurant. The garlicky broccoli rabe was, likewise, exceptional.

After such bounty, we were not particularly excited about dessert, but duty called, so we allowed our waitress to bring us a selection of pastries. These turned out to be the highlight of the meal, and were in fact among the most memorable dishes of any kind I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant. A sophisticated rendition of key lime pie juxtaposed a tart, lime-infused mousse with a sweet carrot puree atop a delicate pastry disc. Homemade cardamom ice cream was paired with rosemary-infused chocolate and garnished with a delicate, slightly caramelized wafer. Ginger, dark chocolate, and rum flavors mingled in unpredictable and delightful ways. A bitter passion fruit puree was paired with a sweet saut�ed mango and passion fruit compote.

With such an impressive core menu, Area 31 does not need a particularly good pastry chef. But they have found a spectacular one in Lynn Moulton, whose inventive creations alone would be worth a trip, even for the non-piscivorous.

For more information or to make table reservations at Area 31, call 305-424-5234 or visitwww.area31restaurant.com

The Epic is at 270 Biscayne Boulevard Way, Miami, FL 33131; for reservations, call 866-760-3742, or 305-424-5226, or visit www.epichotel.com. The Epic is a Kimpton Hotel; for information on other hotels and resorts in the group, call 800-KIMPTON or visit www.kimptonhotels.com.

* * *

SMITH & WOLLENSKY: CLASSIC STEAK WITH A VIEW

By David Leiberman

Perched on the southernmost tip of South Beach, quietly removed from the clumps of tourist-swarmed restaurants along Lincoln Road and Ocean Drive, Smith and Wollensky’s Miami Beach steakhouse prepares beef that defies witty literary introduction. The writer humbly affirms, with hesitation to expend such a powerful descriptor in only his second sentence, that the steak is just spectacular.

In a city full of hip and colorful fusion restaurants, each grasping for attention in the pre-meal hours of any given day, Smith and Wollensky offers a traditional, scenic and delicious alternative for steak or seafood lovers. Steaks are dry-aged, cured and hand cut in house daily; they are tender, serious and full of flavor, from mean sirloin and rib-eye to elegant, gorgonzola crusted filet mignon. The seafood menu features an array of grilled fish, three types of lobster, and the restaurant’s famous shellfish bouquets. Chef Dana Brizee also offers “a very special non-special” roast prime rib served with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce, as well as crackling pork shank, free-range lemon pepper chicken, and Dover sole when available. Even the lightly oiled and seasoned dinner rolls are worthy of mention.

Prime meats come with prime views of Fisher Island, the downtown Miami skyline, and an ongoing procession of sea-bound freighters, cruise ships, and other marine vessels passing through the Government Cut shipping channel. The restaurant, a $22-mil-renovation of the old South Pointe Seafood House, seats close to 600 (450 on two floors, 80 in the Grill, 30 in Mrs. Wollensky’s Cigar Bar). Tables along the tall picture windows and those in the outdoor caf� offer the best waterfront views, though the oak wood floors, rich cream walls and Italian marble make for an elegant interior scene as well and contribute to an elegant but not uptight dining experience.

The classic steakhouse menu is complemented by a distinguished wine menu, offering selections that go well with the exceptional aged beef and the fresh seafood dishes. The inventory of over 14,000 bottles, some of which are stored in the second-floor cellar but many of which can be seen mounted on walls and lined up on tables in the dining room, includes prominent American classics and cults as well as an array of international vintages, including boutique and “undiscovered gems.”

Diners looking for a more intimate group setting can reserve one of the restaurant’s private dining rooms. The Fisher Island Room offers a sunken water-level view, while the Government Cut Room upstairs provides a more panoramic scene; both seat up to 36 guests. The Vanderbilt Room includes its own bar and reception area just outside the entrance and seats up to 48. The Grill, located on the first floor with a large built-in bar as well as its own private entrance, comfortable accommodates 80 guests for dinner and up to 150 guests for a cocktail party.

For those just interested in drinks, people-watching, and/or lovely sunsets, Smith and Wollensky’s Deco Bar sits on a waterfront patio with a freshly cobbled lower walkway and table area that is almost contiguous with the rocks of Government cut. Menu highlights include Oysters Rockefeller, fried calamari, beer battered shrimp, and an assortment of flatbreads including buffalo chicken with gorgonzola and chili shrimp with avocado. The dinner menu is also available to Deco Bar guests.

Smith & Wollensky is at 1 Washington Avenue (At South Pointe Park), Miami Beach, FL 33139, 305-673-2800. For further information, visit, www.smithandwollenskysteakhouses.com.

Friday, 17 April, 2009

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© 2009 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

LIVABLE ART: THE HOTEL OF SOUTH BEACH

Art Deco District Has Special Allure

By Karen Rubin

It seems as if almost overnight – well, over the past decade – Miami’s South Beach Art Deco District has emerged as a showcase for designer hotels. More than two dozen boutique hotels now line Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and the streets in between, which are home to the largest collection of Art Deco buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With the architectural integrity fiercely protected, this extraordinarily beautiful setting rivals the beach that has come to be known as “America’s Riviera” as the main allure. The Art Deco District is a paradise for anyone who appreciates architecture and art.

Indeed, the historically preserved Art Deco architecture serves as the perfect vehicle for smaller-scaled, one-of-a-kind boutique hotels. With fewer than 100 rooms, they offer a more intimate, personalized, even luxurious experience and are stunning canvasses for gorgeous design.

You literally immerse yourself in the art… Livable Art, is what I call it, and nowhere more so than at The Hotel, a veritable three-dimensional canvas.

I felt it as I entered The Hotel of South Beach (formerly The Tiffany), built in 1939 by master architect L. Murray Dixon.

Dixon may have laid down the lovely lines of the building, but the art comes in when the property was taken over and completely re-done by urban developer/preservationist Tony Goldman and his daughter Jessica Goldman-Srebnick, a former fashion industry executive.

The Goldmans tapped innovative fashion designer Todd Oldham to create the interior design, marking perhaps the first time an American fashion designer was chosen to create every interior aspect of a hotel. The result is livable art. The colors, the shapes, the lines, the textures and lighting stir the senses, as the finest couture can.

The Hotel reopened in 1998 transformed into a true jewel – so much so that the Tiffany Company took exception and barred the hotel from using the Tiffany name. Still, its true pedigree is on view in a historically protected lighted spire that still stands atop the building, proclaiming Tiffany. The historical integrity is certified by The Hotel’s membership in Historic Hotels of America (along with its sister property, another Art Deco treasure, the Park Central Hotel, located on Ocean Drive).

Once you cross the threshold, you realize that The Hotel is anything but a passive structure. It is a three-dimensional canvas. The visual elements excite the senses, evoke an emotional reaction. That is what art is about. The Hotel is so striking, that when I first arrived, I was compelled to drop everything and simply explore.

It was already nighttime, and luckily, I found the rooftop pool, emerald-shaped at the center of a sea of color, affording a cinematic view of the streetscape, aglow in neon lights.

The rooftop pool at The Hotel is a vision of color, designed by Todd Oldham (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Oldham’s lighting and color treatments are captivatingly beautiful – tie-dyed herringbone canvas cabana curtains in bright sea-green colors shot through with yellow, mirroring the panoramic views of the ocean just beyond, like a floating wall.

During the day, the private cabanas are perfect for rooftop massages. Canvas sofas complete the oasis.

At the end of the floating wall, Oldham retiled the outdoor shower in dark green, turquoise and blue artisanal tiles made with carbon carbonate in 25 hues, so they glow like jewels.

The streetscape outside our window at The Hotel (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Also on the roof is the Spire Bar & Lounge, created in 2004, a stunning oasis with gorgeous views of the ocean and cityscape. Spire Bar & Lounge features a special drink menu, including the hotel’s signature electronic martinis. Oldham’s casual elegance style is on display here as well In – high tops, tables and canvas-covered overstuffed sofas and chairs of solid white, accented with handmade orange and pink woven ribbon pillows. Sheer white fabric that flutter with the ocean breeze hang from the main wall.

Todd Oldham's shapes and colors provide a dazzling scene at the bar at The Hotel (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Oldham’s love of color and hand-crafted artisan detail is apparent throughout The Hotel. He comes back periodically to keep the property vibrant and fresh, “re-dressing” The Hotel. For anyone who appreciates interior design, this is like Vogue coming out with the new season’s line.

And so when we arrived, there were new touches to enjoy, particularly in the stunning plein air restaurant, Wish. Wish is a tropical oasis, where umbrellas look like leafy flowers protecting the tables – the colors are inspired by the crest of a wave – blues, greens, turquoise shot through with golden yellow, amid lush landscaping set off by stunning lighting.

The lobby lounge is a symphony of color and shapes and light with these artful fixtures that Oldham designed – circular, high-tech small amber lights surrounded by bronze, gold and green-toned tiles created by artisans exclusively for The Hotel.

There are all these gorgeous spaces that are so inviting. Even a simple breakfast nook conveys an aesthetic charm.

The artfulness of the visual presentation extends to dining, as well.

Wish features the culinary creations of Executive Chef Marco Ferraro, formerly with Jean-Georges in New York City (training under the iconic Jean-George Vongerichten) and Le Muscandin, the acclaimed Michelin two-star restaurant in Mougins.

He has created alluring new appetizers ($14-$21) include Ferraro’s take on a classic – gazpacho (watermelon is involved); poached seafood of calamari, clams, mussels and shrimp, slow poached in a mason jar then poured onto a sidecar of white corn polenta; a whimsical foie gras served with almond crumbs and paired with blueberry compote, wasabi and white chocolate; and a Maine lobster ravioli.

Wish, the garden restaurant at The Hotel (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The interior restaurant dining space is surrounded by lush foliage that compliments green velvet sofas and velveteen banquets, the original terrazzo floors and Oldham’s hand-cut golden mosaic mirror.

New entrees ($28-$46) include a Kurobuta porkchop, oven-roasted and served with a parsley puree and stuffed eggplant; pan seared skate with grapefruit, mizuna, ginger and foie gras; local snapper steamed and served with squash, artichokes, tomato and basil; a crispy-skin organic chicken served with root vegetables, Thai basil and pineapple-cardamon sauce. New dessert selections ($9-$12) include a French toast stuffed with cr�me fraiche and served with a fresh fruit salad dressed with red wine-passion fruit syrup; vanilla frosted cheesecake; and vanilla pot de cr�me topped with chopped, fresh oranges and pink peppercorns. (Reservations can be made at 305-531-2222 or 305-674-9474.)

Besides having such visual appeal, The Hotel is sensationally livable – it has earned a Four Diamond rating – which is to say it offers every amenity and luxury a boutique hotel can offer, starting with the warm hospitality of the front desk, the helpful concierge and valet and personalized service that can be described as doting. There is twice-daily maid service with nightly turndown, room service.

The four-story boutique hotel offers 49 deluxe rooms and four suites, with lush bathroom amenities by The White Company of London, remote cable television with movie channels, DVD, video library and CD stereo system, a mini-bar, wireless internet, coffee maker, luxurious bedding and furnishings with those exquisite Oldham colors and patterns. The bathroom is a work of art, as well, with tile mosaics and fixtures.

If you fall in love with Oldham’s creations, you can actually purchase many of them at the on-site gift shop.

The Hotel also offers a well-equipped fitness room, small meeting/banquet facilities, multi-purpose business center, and the concierge can help arrange everything from golf to fishing or an in-room massage.

The Hotel is on Collins, just a block away from the beach (beach towels as well as beach chairs are provided).

The Hotel is being expanded. Goldman owns a residential building adjacent to The Hotel and there are plans to renovate it into an all-suite, adding about 20 units.

The Hotel, 801 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33139, 877-843-4683, www.thehotelofsouthbeach.com.

America’s Riviera

Collins Avenue, graced by Art Deco buildings (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

My enchantment continues as I leave The Hotel to explore Collins Avenue, lined with many of these Art Deco showplaces, and then cut over to Ocean Drive.

In fact, the best reason to stay over in South Beach, is because the Art Deco District is beautiful by day, but stunning at night. Almost fantastical. Definitely cinematic. No wonder so many films have been made here, like “The BirdCage” (Is that “Goldman” or “Coleman”? I can’t resist when I hear that Goldman Properties owns The Hotel).

Collins Avenue, graced by Art Deco buildings (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The energy, excitement, neon glow, music and movement fill the street. It’s almost like a street party, with one entertainment place after another.

Known as the “American Riviera”, South Beach is actually an urban beach resort. The ocean is separated by sand, dunes, a line of palm trees and grass, a wall, and then Ocean Drive, along which are the most happening of nightspots that don’t shut down in the day. That’s what is so remarkable about South Beach – and something I didn’t expect.

The atmosphere in South Beach is electric (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The beauty that is the South Beach Art Deco District owes a lot to Tony Goldman. Goldman Properties has been restoring historic buildings in architecturally significant neighborhoods in New York and Miami since 1968, renovating Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the Soho district in the 1970s, Miami Beach’s Art Deco district in the 1980s and New York City’s Wall Street in the early ’90s. The company’s most recent projects include the redevelopment of Wynwood, Miami’s emerging arts district, an historic city project in Philadelphia (Historic 13th Street), and the redevelopment of the historic Four Point Channel district on the wharf in Boston.

Indeed, as I explore the Art Deco District, I come upon The Park Central Hotel on Ocean Avenue, with its commanding beachfront location, which was Goldman’s first restoration in the Art Deco District.

The Park Central

The club scene on Ocean Avenue in South Beach (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Designed by master architect Henry Hohauser, and originally built in 1937, in its heyday The Park Central was a favorite Miami Beach destination for Hollywood royalty including Clark Gable, Carol Lombard and Rita Hayworth.

In 1985, Tony Goldman, of Goldman Properties, fresh from reinventing Manhattan’s Soho, discovered Miami Beach’s Art Deco District and recognized its potential to become America’s Riviera. He acquired 18 properties, adding one property per month to his portfolio, but he focused on this beachfront gem as his first Miami Beach renovation project. Honoring its original grace and style and respecting its unique history, Goldman opened the doors to the faithfully restored Park Central in 1987. In 1993, the Park Central Hotel became the100th member of Historic Hotels of America and the first in South Beach.

Today’s Park Central, the “Grande Dame” of the Art Deco District, has the sophistication of a boutique hotel and the unpretentious feel of a seaside inn. It offers many vintage touches including a nostalgic spin on music, with jazz and pop standards from the 1930s and 40s. The hotel’s rooftop lounge provides panoramic ocean views and a private oasis to relax in plush wicker lounge chairs, surrounded by potted palms. On Sunday and Thursday evenings, guests enjoy the Rooftop Cinema program – a free screening of classic films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, mixed with more contemporary films, presented al fresco with complimentary designer popcorn (that will assuredly make you forget what decade you are living in).

The Park Central, the "Grand Dame" of South Beach's Art Deco District (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The oceanfront swimming pool is decorated with a vibrant mural painted by the Spanish artists group Jus D’art.

The Park Central offers 113 deluxe rooms and 12 living room suites, an elegant 1930′s Grand Ballroom-style lobby, and innovative Florida-style meeting and event rooms.

Consistent with Goldman’s reverence for history, they re-designed the original Park Central furniture and installed the original vintage black & white Gleason Romer prints of Miami Beach in the ’20s and ’30s, evoking the golden days.

The Hotel, a 1937 Art Deco jewel, with its iconic Tiffany spire (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

For dining, the Park Central features Quinn’s Caribbean Fish restaurant for cocktails and dinner in the elegant lobby, while Casablanca, next door, serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and room service.

(Park Central Hotel, 640 Ocean Drive, 305-538-1611, 800-727-5236,www.theparkcentral.com).

Both The Hotel and Park Central offer the choice of several packages (low season is May 1-Dec 15; high season is Jan. 1-April 30):

A two-night Girlfriends Getaway includes complimentary room upgrade; tasting menu paired with wines at Wish; complimentary beauty gift bag; town car transportation to and from Miami International Airport (25 minutes drive); a Macy’s 11% discount car; Saturday morning yoga class atop the rooftop pool area; and free rooftop al fresco movies at the Park Central on Thursdays and Sundays.

A two-night cultural package features the Miami Design Preservation League guided architectural tour, an Art Deco coffee table book; complimentary self-parking; Access to Bass and Wolfsonian museums, and the movies.

A two-night Romance Package includes town car transportation to and from MIA, glass of iced champagne, in-room or rooftop massages; Todd Oldham-designed tie-dyed bathrobes; and sumptuous dinner with paired wines at Wish.

Miami Design Preservation League

The movement to save these Art Deco treasures originated with Barbara Capitman who organized the Miami Design Preservation League in 1976, laying claim to being the oldest Art Deco Society in the world.

The non-profit organization is devoted to preserving, protecting, and promoting the cultural, social, economic, environmental and architectural integrity of the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District and all other areas of the City of Miami Beach where historic preservation is a concern.

The League regards the architecture and design of the Art Deco District as a “Living Hands-On Neighborhood Museum,” and offers a 90-minute walking tour at 10:30 a.m. to explore Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival, and Miami Modern (MiMo) design found within the Architectural Historic district. The walking tour encompasses both exteriors and interiors of landmark properties. Walking tours depart from the Official Art Deco Gift Shop at 1200 Ocean Drive every morning except Thursday ($20/adults; $15/students and seniors; children under 12 free).

The best reason to stay over in South Beach is to become immersed in the stunning shapes and colors of the Art Deco District at night (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Thursday evenings, walking tours are also offered at the sunset hour on Ocean Drive. Groups gather at the Art Deco Gift Shop starting at 6:30pm and wander at dusk through the neon lit sights around South Beach until 8 pm.

On the first Thursday of each month, the group also sponsors “Lively Libations,” a heady blend of architecture and alcohol at key destinations all over the District. (There is no charge for this event and the parties kick off Thursdays at 7 pm.)

For more information, contact the Miami Design Preservation League at 305-672-2014 or visit www.mdpl.org.

For more information on Historic Hotels of America, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, call 800-678-8946,www.historichotels.org.

For more information about visiting South Beach and the Greater Miami Beach area, contact The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB), 888-76-Miami www.MiamiAndBeaches.com.

Monday, 21 September, 2009

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Ritz-Carlton Hotel Offers Peaceful Luxury in Hip South Beach

by Laurie Millman and Martin Rubin

South Beach in Miami, Florida, has a reputation to be a party town for 20- and 30-somethings, where bass beat of music rising from the bars reverberates off hotel room walls throughout the night. We read review upon review of hotels that reflected this image of South Beach. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel, South Beach, on the other hand, was a quiet, upscale oasis from the South Beach bustle of people and sounds.

Enjoy a relaxing oceanfront meal at the DiLido Beach Club, Ritz-Carlton South Beach's distinctive dining option (photo courtesy of Ritz-Carlton, South Beach).

The Ritz-Carlton is a fully renovated, Morris Lapidus-designed, oceanfront hotel from the 1950s. The hotel is within walking distance of the South Beach shops, museums, and nightlife venues. The lobby features the original black terrazzo floors, wooden columns, and a winding staircase that leads to the mezzanine level. A $2 million, eclectic art and sculpture collection is scattered throughout the hotel.

Our large, modern guest room on one of the Ritz-Carlton’s Club Level floors had a beautiful marble bathroom, Italian linens, down and foam pillows, and a “to-die-for” balcony view of the sprawling pool, the clean white beach, the beach-side promenade, and the turquoise-colored water of the southern Atlantic Ocean. The Club Level is a “hotel within a hotel,” providing additional amenities and expedited check-in/check-out services to its guests. The key-accessed Club Lounge is an upscale, yet casual, ocean-view environment. Complimentary food and hot and cold beverages (including wine and champagne) are served buffet-style five times a day in the Club Lounge, including: continental breakfast, lunch and mid-afternoon lite fare, and evening chocolate cordials and petit fours. The Club Lounge also contains a computer station and a Concierge desk available only to Club Level guests.

Generally, the Ritz service was excellent, and the staff was enthusiastic, friendly, and courteous. We were quite impressed by the Club Lounge Concierges, especially when they remembered our names and our interests throughout our stay. A couple we met from Long Island, NY, informed us that they return quarterly to South Beach on business. After staying at a number of different hotels, they decided to return only to the Ritz-Carlton Club Level, due to the exceptional quality and level of service they found at this hotel. In fact, when this couple arrived at the hotel when we first met them, a Club Level Concierge greeted them with tickets that were purchased prior to their arrival.

The DiLido Beach Club is the Ritz’s distinctive dining option on the South Beach Promenade. The DiLido chef, Jeff McInnis, and his staff prepare fresh Mediterranean- and North African-inspired tapas, salads, seafood platters, and even kebabs. Guests have the option to dine indoors or relax alfresco to enjoy the ocean view from a patio table or under a beach cabana. We enjoyed a seafood lunch that was complimented by the DiLido’s signature Watermelon and Peach Sangria. The Restaurant is open daily for lunch, dinner, and cocktails from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday through Wednesday. It stays open until 9 p.m. from Thursday through Saturday. Complimentary flavored hookahs are provided on Thursdays and Fridays from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m.

For one night each month, when the moon is a “full moon,” the DiLido sponsors a no cover-charge “Full Moon Party” from 7 pm to 11 pm. The restaurant stages exotic entertainment and a DJ, offers specialty cocktails, beers, and complimentary hookahs, and provides high tech telescopes to look closer at the full moon.

Overlooking the promenade and the Atlantic Ocean, the hotel’s elevated outdoor pool terrace is upscale and serene. Throughout the afternoon on any given day, the in-house DJ is out on the terrace spinning restful lounge music. Poolside beds may be reserved for $250 per day, which includes four bottles of Fiji water and two bottles of Champagne. Or, for $300 per day, guests may reserve one of the two elevated California King Canopy dens, and receive four bottles of Fiji water and two bottles of Champagne.

Pampering guests is notable with the Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels. This is certainly evident in the 16,000-square-foot Ritz-Carlton Spa with its elite menu of La Maison de Beaut&eacupe; Carita treatments and European wellness and beauty therapies, such as Prada Beauty skin care. The Ritz-Carlton Spa offers a long list of massage therapies for an individual or a couple’s joint session. The therapies are also enhanced by incorporating specially scented lotions for a seasonal or special occasion promotion. For the winter holiday season, the sweet and spicy scent of peppermint is used, reminiscent of candy canes. The “Chocolate Lovers Swedish Massage” applies chocolate to this traditional modality for hydrating and improving circulation.

Laurie chose one of the hotel’s signature massages — the 80-minute “Astro Balance Massage.” This unique therapy was specially created for the Spa by Jeff Erik Wallace, a massage therapist who is also an astrological counselor. The therapist uses the client’s birth date, astrological sign, and one of the four elements (water, earth, fire, or air) to determine the type of massage to apply, and which body areas will benefit the greatest from that massage. Essential oils, mood music, and an astrological reading enhance this experience.

The Spa maintains a full-service salon that Laurie jumped at, since she did not have a chance to get her hair cut before traveling to Miami for the wedding. Not only was Laurie pleased with the cut, but really appreciated the expert stylist employed by the Spa after she was informed by more than one person at the wedding that the haircut made her look younger.

State-of-the-art weight training and cardiovascular equipment with cardio-theatre personal flat screen televisions are found in the recently renovated 24×7 Fitness Center. The Center is fully staffed from 6 am to 9 pm. The staff is also available, by appointment, for private training, fitness boot camps, and yoga sessions on the beach.

For guests who travel with their barking companions weighing less than 35 lbs, the Hotel has a “Pampered Pooch Pet” package. These “VIP” (Very Important Pooch) guests receive their own plush beds, toys, home-made treats, and designer water. A $250 one-time, non-refundable pet fee is required.

Out of the many “stay with us” packages that the Ritz offers throughout the year, as a couple with busy, independent lives, we liked the sound of the package, “Resort.” Starting at $649 per night, it includes accommodations in a standard guest room, daily breakfast for two at the Hotel’s Bistro One, and a daily $100 resort credit for dining, spa, or other hotel activities.

The Ritz-Carlton offers many seasonal and spa/accommodation packages, babysitting service for guests, cooking classes, wine tasting events, holiday dinners, and even children’s events. To make reservations, or to check on seasonal packages and events, spa treatment specials, rates and availability, visit the Ritz-Carlton South Beach web site, ritzcarlton.com/southbeach, or call 786-276-4000.

Thuersday, 18 December, 2009

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POSTCARD INN ON ST. PETE BEACH IS PERFECT GETAWAY

Get away from it all just a trolley ride away from Florida’s cultural hub in St. Petersburg

by Karen Rubin

The Postcard Inn is right on St. Pete Beach, affording a delightful getaway (© 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com)

If ever you wanted a place to get away from it all, in the midst of it all, an oasis of simple pleasures, visually pleasing, perfectly relaxing, laid-back, the Postcard Inn on the Beach (St. Pete Beach, Florida, that is) is the place.

Low rise and low key, the Postcard Inn is retro done with a hip, beach chic flare. Kitschy and clever, and aesthetically marvelous – it’s amazing what design can do to create an atmosphere. Shapes, lights, colors – a chandelier is made from rope and sailors’ knots; painted skateboards and surf boards provide the decoration; there are vintage lamps, 1950s photos of beach, a giant photo of waves breaking on the surf covers the entire wall of our room. There is whimsy and humor which makes you smile a lot… and relax.

Enjoy the garden setting at The Postcard Inn on the Beach © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There is an absolutely wonderful Olympic-sized swimming pool (heated in season), kiddie pool, two well-outfitted fitness rooms, a pool table and a ping-pong table.

There are plenty of areas to lounge or hang out with family and friends: central garden areas where you can idle away in Adirondack-style chairs under the trees as music emanates from speakers; several lobby lounges that are quirky and colorful . There is WiFi throughout (free access).

The 196 guest rooms, which are in one or two-story buildings with their own entrances (like a motel, which is what the Postcard Inn originally was) are delightfully furnished (ours had a wall-sized photo of a wave breaking on the beach), 32-inch flat panel HD flat-screen TVs; the rooms have views of pool, or Gulf, or garden. The bed is of the highest quality, fitted with crisp white sheets and down-filled duvet.

Retro with a modern flare, the Postcard Inn's lovely design turns a 1950s motel into a chic boutique hotel © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are poolside cabanas which have private patios connecting to the pool and walk-in closet or refrigerator; garden-view units which have a sitting area; custom king and custom double-queen; and beach bungalows, located poolside, which have a balcony, walk-in closet, sitting area with lounge chairs and refrigerator.

The Postcard Inn is as casual as a motel, as swank as a boutique hotel, with the charm and personal attention of an inn – including a continental breakfast.

It also offers the Wildwood BBQ – a casual restaurant that brings BBQ to new culinary heights, specializing in multiple regional variations including Memphis-style, Carolina-style, St. Louis-style spare and baby-back ribs, dry-rubbed or wet, Texas smoked brisket, Carolina pulled pork, all-natural smoked chicken. The meats – all natural without any preservatives, are smoked for 12-14 hours. Other selections include the most sensational nachos and skillet cornbread, as well as fish-of-the-day, burgers, sandwiches and salads. The bar is known for its Pina Coladas, Rum Runners and selection of Bourbon.

The Postcard Inn on the Beach has wonderfully colorful spaces to lounge © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There is also a Beach Bar where there is live music, a snack shack, and a banquet room accommodating up to 150 people, as well as catered beach functions for as many as 750.

The restaurants and the inn, itself, is managed by B.R. Guest, which has more than a dozen restaurants in New York City (Blue Fin, Ruby Foos), plus two in Las Vegas, but this is its first in Florida.

And when we were ready to explore, we only had to cross the street to hop one of the charming, air-conditioned trolley buses, to ride into downtown St. Petersburg in air-conditioned comfort (you’ll need a light jacket, it’s actually cold), to enjoy the plethora of cultural and heritage attractions, including the newly opened Chihuly Collection, the Dali Museum, the Holocaust Museum, the Fine Arts Museum to list but a few (all linked with a charming system of trolley buses, the downtown ones offer a narrated commentary), then return in time to linger on the sand beach, float in the warm Gulf waters (perhaps to see a pod of dolphins swim by, or pelicans diving for fish).

The Postcard Inn gives you a front row seat for a nightly spectacle © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Suncoast trolley also goes to south to Pass-a-Grille, an absolutely charming beach village with the prettiest parcel of beach on the island, and north into Clearwater, hitting all the other beaches along the way.

In the evening, you might cross the street to the Cockney Rebel Pub where there is karaoke Friday-Sunday, or next door, to the Beachcomber Inn where Jimmy’s beach bar has superb live bands playing until 11 p.m.

The Postcard Inn opened in October 2009 but actually is the granddaddy lodging in the area: it originally opened in 1958 as the Travelodge, when there was nothing else around but palm trees. The re-do re-imagines the motel concept.

The Moon shines at dusk at St. Pete Beach © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Postcard Inn is a partnership between B.R. Guest Restaurants and Starwood Capital Group, and may be the prototype for others (we hear they are talking about another Postcard Inn in Key West, Las Vegas or California).

“The Postcard Inn on the Beach is an authentic reflection of its environment, incorporating the laid-back essence of St. Pete Beach,” says Stephen Hanson, President of B.R. Guest Restaurants. “Similar to opening the James, our first hotel property, we’re looking to build a successful brand with unique character that will cater to all types of travelers looking for more than just the trendiest new hotel.”

What is more, all this comes at an affordable rate: $99 in the summer, $189 at the height of tourist season.

A continental breakfast is served at The Postcard Inn © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com The 3 1/2-mile canoe/kayak trail through Weedon Preserve is wondrously scenic and you may well see dolphin, a manatee, herons and egrets © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

For all the right reasons – charm, services, amenities, affordability/value, location – the Postcard Inn on the Beach is becoming a wedding destination, and is superb family reunion place (they even accommodate pets, 50 lbs. or less, for a $50 Pet fee per stay).

In another nice touch, there are vintage-looking postcards which they are happy to post for you.

Here’s mine:

A pod of dolphin swim passed swimmers in the Gulf © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Dear Family: The Postcard Inn is picture-postcard perfect. Wish you were here.

Postcard Inn, 6300 Gulf Blvd, St. Pete Beach, FL 33706, 727-367-2711 main line, 800-237-8918 reservations,www.postcardinn.com.

Venturing Out

Location is everything, and from our cozy room at the Postcard Inn on the Beach, chic, remodeled 1950s-era motel with the charm of an inn and the amenities and service of a boutique hotel, we stroll out to the beach.

But when we want a change of venue, there are scores of phenomenal beaches all along this spit of Florida, between St. Petersburg Beach, including Fort De Soto State Park (you can visit the Spanish-American War era fort) and Pass-a-Grille at the southernmost point, up through Treasure Island, Indian Shores, Clearwater Beach, Caledesi Beach, and Tarpon Springs, many accessible by the Suncoast Trolley that goes along Gulf Boulevard, from Pass-a-Grille in the south, up to Clearwater Beach.

The beach at Pass-a-Grille, a historic town on the southern tip of St. Pete Beach, is especially beautiful © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Pass-a-Grille turned out to be one of our favorite places to idle away. You follow Gulf Boulevard passed the famous “pink castle” of St. Pete Beach, the 1920s era Don Cesar Hotel, and find yourself in Old Florida – charming houses lining a narrow street that ends in a historic village. Four miles of undeveloped public beach along Gulf Way on the Gulf of Mexico wrap around the end of the key to meet Boca Ciega Bay on the harbor side of Pass-a-Grille. You can go on a shelling or snorkeling excursion to Shell Key, watch the dolphins play; or enjoy gentle sea breezes on a sunset cruise. Take a stroll on 8th Avenue, where you’ll find galleries, boutiques, and restaurants and an adorable ice cream shop, Paradise Sweets. The sand and the view here were among the best (www.pass-a-grillebeach.com)

For a true adventure, I drive about 40 minutes from the Postcard Inn to Weedon Island Preserve, near Clearwater

You feel a sense of adventure, kayaking through the mangrove tunnels of Weedon Preserve © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Here, I kayak through mangrove tunnels, along a well-marked 3 1/2-mile trail. It doesn’t take long before I spot the fin of a dolphin swimming nearby. I maneuver through the tunnels – made of red mangroves, known as “walking trees” because their prop roots give the appearance of walking; black mangroves, which have finger-like projections called pneumatophores; and white mangroves which have light yellow-green leaves. I carefully avoid touching the mangrove branches where I can see the black mangrove crabs (they look like spiders but “are not interested in you, so don’t worry about it,” Russell Miller of Sweetwater Kayaks tells us during our orientation before we set off). I spot heron and egret. At another point, I can hear the breathing of a manatee (it sounds like someone breathing through a snorkel), but I don’t get to see it. But as I emerge in a more open area, mullets are leaping out of the water. when you go, you may well see Rosette Spoonbills, Osprey, Red Shouldered Hawks and Kingfishers, rays, and Redfish. It takes about 2 1/2-3 1/2-hours to complete the trail. Bring plenty of water, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent. (Sweetwater Kayaks, 13060 Gandy Boulevard, St. Petersburg, Florida, 727-570-4844; www.sweetwaterkayaks.comrussell@sweetwaterkayaks.comTheShop@sweetwaterKayaks.com).

The 3 1/2-mile canoe/kayak trail through Weedon Preserve is wondrously scenic and you are very likely to see dolphin, manatee, heron, egret © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There is more to do in Weedon Island Preserve, which combines a wonderful nature experience on a site with fascinating historical significance. The Cultural and Natural History Center features classrooms and exhibit areas designed by anthropologists, historians and Native Americans to reflect the art and history of the area’s first people. Weedon Island Preserve is a group of low-lying islands in north St. Petersburg whose history goes back 10,000 years when early peoples such as the Timucuans and Manasotas made the island their home. The center combines a look at artifacts excavated from the site by the Smithsonian in the 1940s, as well as the chance to experience aspects of Native American culture including dance, cooking, art, crafts and more. The preserve also includes a 9-mile hiking trail along with a fishing pier and waterfront picnic sites (1800 Weedon Island Drive NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33702, 727-453-6500; www.weedonislandpreserve.org/)

Another marvelous destination is Fort De Soto Park. Crystal clear waters, luscious sand, seven miles of beaches on five islands, bike trails, fishing piers, camping grounds, picnic areas, dog parks, and canoe rentals make this 1,100-acre county park a full-day destination. Fort De Soto’s North Beach was ranked #1 in 2005 by Coastal Geologist, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach, and best beach in America in 2008 and 2009 by TripAdvisor.com. Really interesting is to explore the Spanish-American War-era Fort and wilderness areas (free guided walking tours are available) and there is a re-created Quartermaster’s house as a history museum. Fort tours are every Saturday and nature tours through different areas of the park are held on Saturdays and Sundays (for info about Fort De Soto Park, www.fortdesoto.com; to rent canoes, kayaks, or bikes, 727-864-1991; www.canoeoutpost.com).

Kayaking amid the mangrove tunnels of Weedon Preserve gives a wonderful sense of adventure © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I am jealous of the bike club that we see riding out from Fort De Soto Park – the trails here are amazing, and this group is probably headed all the way back to downtown St. Petersburg.

Biking is a big thing here, and I have yet to time my visit right so that I can get on the Pinellas Trail. Located throughout the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, this 37-mile long, 15-foot wide dedicated trail is part of the county park system and is one of the longest linear parks in the southeastern United States. You can bike, in-line skate, jog or walk – all without the hassle and safety concern of being in automobile traffic. The trail runs from the sponge docks at the north end of Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg in the south end of the county. The original rail track saw the first Orange Belt Railroad train in 1888, and the first stretch of rail line opened for recreation in 1990. (Bike the Pinellas Trail;www.pinellascounty.org/park/12_Trail.htm; Pinellas Trail Bicycle Rental,www.pinellascounty.org/volserv/rangers/rental_shops.htm).

Had we more time, we could have expanded our travels to include Busch Gardens-Tampa, one of my favorite theme parks (www.buschgardens.com).

To plan a trip, contact St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 13805 58th Street North, Suite 2-200, Clearwater, Fl 33760, 727-464-7200, 877-352-3224, www.visitstpeteclearwater.com.

Next: Chihuly Collection Opens in St. Petersburg; New Dali Museum to Open

Friday, 6 August, 2010

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CoCo Key Hotel & Waterpark-Orlando is Built for Family Fun

Resort features for hotel price, CoCo Key is Universal Orlando partner

by Karen Rubin

Coco Key Hotel & Waterpark is a refreshing addition to Orlando, already the indisputable world capital of family fun. In fact, Coco Key was built for fun.

The bucket dumps 400 gallons of water to everyone's delight at the Parrot's Perch interactive jungle gym adventure with slides for younger children © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Most important for families: it offers resort features for a hotel price, is a Universal-Orlando partner property and the waterpark is amazing.

The newest hotel in Orlando is the 11th member of CoCo Key Water Resorts, poised to become one of the largest family of indoor Water Resorts. It is the company’s first in Florida which can seem a bold and risky choice in the theme park capital of the world, within spitting distance of other waterparks and dozens and dozens of attractions all competing for vacationers’ time, money and attention.

And yet, Coco Key is different – because this waterpark is where you stay. This is your home base. You don’t have to pack up and travel to get to the park – it is right out your door. And it gives the family time off from traffic, parking, queuing up for entry. It is amazingly relaxing.

But the waterpark is only one of many advantages for families staying here – not the least of which is value: you get the features of a resort at the price of a motel.

CoCo Key is a partner hotel of Universal Orlando (located less than two miles away), which means it is one of the lodging choices in Universal’s package, but also, discount tickets are available for sale in a lobby ticket center.

This is a really big deal, and the opening of “The Wizarding World Harry Potter” at Universal Orlando has generated enormous interest. Guests who purchase these packages (on Universal’s website,www.universalorlando.com), get to come into the park one hour early and get breakfast.

Mickey's ears shape the main pool at CoCo Key Hotel & Waterpark, a clue to the Orlando hotel's origins © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Also (and this is not a small thing), CoCo Key offers a free shuttle to Universal, Sea World, Aquatica and Wet’n'wild once or twice each morning (you need to reserve in advance; and the shuttle serves three hotels). This saves on the hassle of driving and on parking fees at the attractions. (It does not offer shuttle service to Disney, which is about 10 miles away; a car service costs about $30, but you will want your own car if you want to “hop” around the parks).

There are many resort-style amenities: CoCo Key has a massive – and I mean massive – 6,500-square-foot, state-of-the-art arcade ; plus a spacious and bright fitness center (with flat-screen TV).

It even has a separate party room to accommodate families, and a convenience store on the premises (though there is a convenience store across the street and a Dunkin Donuts two doors down; in fact, there are scores of eateries, shops, and attractions ,including miniature golf, just walking distance, that line International Drive).

The main hotel pool (apart from the waterpark) is in the shape of Mickey’s ears – a clue to the origins of the property.

In fact, CoCo Key is not just Orlando’s newest hotel, it is also one of the oldest. When it opened in 1970 as a Hilton, there was not even an International Drive – it was supposed to be named for Finley Hamilton, one of the early tourism visionaries here who said that it would be more appropriate to name the road International Drive. The motel was being used to house Disney executives while DisneyWorld was under construction. Wow, that’s history. It’s like coming back to the birthplace of DisneyWorld.

Today, most of the units are motel style, though they have been marvelously and pleasingly updated, and there is a six-story hotel unit, as well. Dozens of the rooms either overlook the pool or the waterpark.

CoCo Key has one of the largest waterparks under canopy in Orlando - the pool and water features are geared to the youngest visitors © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The property has been totally reimagined and updated with a delightful tropical, Key West look and feel. Its 391 newly renovated guest rooms, decorated in a surprisingly sophisticated way that I call “Asian-modern” is wonderfully pleasing (perhaps a bit of feng shui involved) and feature 37-inch Hi-Def flat-screen televisions (our room, a king suite in the hotel, has two TVs), mahogany furniture with South Florida accents, coffee makers, high speed internet access, luxurious Perfect Sleeper beds. Many of the rooms are connecting, if families need.

There are several wonderful colorful, comfy areas to sit around and lounge together – like in the lobby where you can also find two computer stations.

These areas to gather together is ideal for multi-generational families and family reunions.

“We’re particularly targeting grandtravel,” says Richard M. Jackson, Director of Sales and Marketing, referring to a style of travel where grandparents host their grandkids. “We make kids happy – that’s what we do. Grandparents bring kids who aren’t at school. We offer value.” Universal Orlando’s opening of “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” has given Coco Key a huge boost. “Theme park aficionados say they have nailed it creativity,” Jackson says. “Demand has exceeded our expectations.

“If kids could plan their ideal hotel, Coco Key would be it,” Jackson says. “Bold colors, gigantic arcade room, open spaces, big pool-shaped like Mickey’s ears and best of all, a fantabulous water park on the premises. It was built for fun.”

The real distinguishing element here, is, of course, the waterpark, which is absolutely sensational.

Giant slides at CoCo Key's waterpark © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The 62,000 sq. ft water park is half outside, where the most vigorous attractions and features are, and half under a giant canopy, possibly the largest in Orlando.

The waterpark’s attractions offer something for everyone:

Parrot’s Perch, an awesome interactive jungle gym adventure with slides for younger children, featuring a zero depth entry area, water cannons plus a 400-gallon bucket of water that periodically tips over, drenching everyone underneath, to their delight (children need to be 36″ and 40″ depending on the slide).

More aggressive attractions include Over The Falls and Surfer Splash Slides – two large adventure slides that twist and turn all the way down (height requirement: 40″ and 42″).

The real surprise (and adventure) for me was the Boomerango Double Rider Slide. This is crazy fun. About the same level of thrill as you get at the theme parks, this “ride” is for doubles in a tube; almost immediately, you drop what seems to be straight down, then get propelled what seems to be straight up a slide, then fall backwards! (height requirement: 48″).

Coral Reef Cove, a teen activity pool where you can take a plunge down the cyclone slide (height requirement 48″)

There is also a tot pool including slides and water features, which is the part that is completely under a canopy. Minnow Lagoon and Slides offers splashing fun for the youngest members of the family! There is no height requirement but riders are strongly encouraged to wear a life jacket (which are provided).

CoCo Key Hotel's fitness center, adds to its resort-style tropical feel © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are also lovely lounge chairs and tables all around and a poolside Wet Rooster Bar, which add to the resort-feel.

When you want a break from the water, go into the 6,500-square ft. Key Quest Arcade, with such popular games as Skee Ball, Guitar Hero, Whac-a-mole, Mad Wave Motion Theater, Shark Air Hockey, Mini bowling, Dino Spin, Alley Hoops, Water Blast, and Super bikes. There are also pool tables.

CoCo Key further shows its family-friendliness with a “Kids eat free” policy at its Tradewinds restaurant: with each accompanying adult entrée purchase, kids 12 and under receive a free menu item from the kids menu.

There’s also Callaloo Grill/Pizza Hut Express for very casual, convenient dining, completing the resort-feel of CoCo Key.

CoCo Key attaches a resort fee ($19 per room, per night), which provides access for four people in the waterpark (you get a wrist band when you arrive), free internet, free parking, plus free shuttle service to Universal, Seaworld and others.

CoCo Key Orlando is the 11th waterpark property opened by CoCo Key Water Resorts, but the others are separate, gated attractions, and at 62,000 square feet, Coco Key’s Orlando waterpark is one of its largest.

“This one is different,” Jackson says “Consumer demand pushed back against a gated attraction. So we are similar to Nickelodeon (which charges $25 resort fee). That works out to less than $5 per person to use the waterpark.”

Does Orlando really need another waterpark, I ask? “People enjoy the waterpark where they don’t have to get in car and drive to another park.”

What a hoot: Dave tries out the slide at CoCo Key's waterpark © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

CoCo Key Water Resorts, created in partnership with Wave Development LLC and Sage Hospitality Resources, are the newest water resort developments throughout the United States, offering a tropical paradise for family adventure getaways. Managed by Sage Hospitality Resources, one of the nation’s leading hotel management companies, CoCo Key Water Resort locations are open at The Clock Tower Resort, Rockford, IL; Cherry Valley Lodge, Newark, OH; Crowne Plaza Boston North Shore, Danvers, MA; Holiday Inn Omaha Central, Omaha, NE; Crowne Plaza Cincinnati North Hotel, Cincinnati, OH and Holiday Inn Kansas City NE, Kansas City, MO, Mt. Laurel Marriott, Mt. Laurel, NJ, Holiday Inn Waterbury, Waterbury, CT and Courtyard by Marriott Fitchburg, Fitchburg, MA, in addition to the new Orlando property.

“CoCo,” the Resorts’ mascot, is the ambassador of the Water Resort and a key component in completing the tropical water resort experience for children of all ages. CoCo participates in family activities, and also attends birthday parties and special events. CoCo has developed specific programs (“CoCo Rewards Kids”) to encourage children to do their best in school, read and help around the house.

Located in the heart of the Orlando vacation corridor at 7400 International Drive, CoCo Key also is a perfect hub for quick access to Orlando’s other popular attractions – a five minute-drive from Universal Orlando; five minutes from Sea World/Aquatica; and 15 minutes from the Walt Disney World theme parks.

It is also close to Orlando’s largest venue for convention business, the Orange County Convention Center, making it an ideal spot for convention-goers who bring their families along.

Also, it is a short day trip to the beach and Busch Gardens in Tampa, while Orlando’s downtown Business District is less than 12 miles away.

The CoCo Key Orlando Hotel and Water Resort can accommodate groups of all sizes. There is 3,600 square feet of meeting space on site. The Orlando International Airport less than 13 miles away.

There are all sorts of packages and deals at the resort’s websites – length of stay, splash packages, double-play.

Belying its family-focus, CoCo Key's rooms are swank and sophisticated, perhaps with a touch of feng shui to add to complete relaxation you feel © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

CoCo Key’s Kids Eat Free promotion is available throughout August and offers free one breakfast buffet and dinner at the resort’s Trade Winds restaurant for kids 12 and under staying at the hotel, for each adult buffet or meal ordered. The breakfast buffet, available 7-11 a.m. daily and regularly priced at $9.95, includes biscuits, sausage gravy, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, French toast, pastries, bagels, cereal, fresh-made waffles, a variety of juices, milk, coffee and tea. Kids’ dinner selections at Trade Winds include chicken tenders, the CoCo Key burger, mac n’cheese, goldfish salad and a “build-your-own sandwich” option. All kids’ meals are served with a choice of fries or fruit cup and include a soft drink, milk or apple juice.

The resort is especially catering to families with pre-school children with amazing deals in September, with rates as low as $89 and “fourth night free” promotions.

“For value, CoCo Key hits sweet spot,” Jackson says. “People love the property.”

We sure did.

CoCo Key Hotel and Water Resort-Orlando, 7400 International Drive, Orlando, FL 32819, 321-206-4377, 877-875-4681, www.sagehospitality.comwww.cocokeywaterresort.com.

Friday, 13 August, 2010

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© 2010 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. And check out our blog athttp://goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel Lets You Live Universal’s Theme Park Fantasy

For a time, you get to live in the idyllic world of a theme park

by Karen Rubin

As soon as you pull up from the long driveway to the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, you note the European style traffic sign, see the Cypress trees so identified with Italy’s Tuscan landscape, and you forget where you are.

The Loews Portofino Bay Hotel recreates the look and feel of Portofino, Italy, but with 4-Diamond luxury © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

You are in Portofino – an Italian village on the water – certainly not two miles off I-4 in Orlando, or walking distance of Universal Orlando theme park.

Everything tells you that it is Portofino, from the “Ciao” as the front-desk clerk hands you the key-card to go off for the day and “Ciao” from the man selling gelati on the harbor piazza, the dulcet sounds of tenor Andrea Bocelli that resonate in the air, the rows of buildings lining narrow cobblestone streets, the tower, the flags that fly, the Italian sports cars and Vespa scooters decorously about and the small boats anchored in the harbor.

But look closer, and the stonework on the buildings is trompe d’oeil, painted on flat stucco; the scooters have no engines – they are props (delightful for posing for pictures) – as are the small sailboats in the harbor.

The stunning night time scene of the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, greets you as you arrive back from CityWalk by boat © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

You know how the best theme parks create an idyllic world that matches a fantasy? That is what it is like to stay at Loews Portofino Bay, one of three on-site hotels at Universal Orlando, home to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure themeparks. It is like stepping into a movie set – only these aren’t false-fronts. Step through the doors, and the fantasy continues.

This is more like making that fantastical step into the theme park world which you wish were real, and, at least for the time you are here, is real. It is pure perfection.

What is absolutely real is the quality of the service, from the front desk to the bellman to the concierge, the stunning beauty of your room and lavish amenities; the luxurious features including a beach-pool with a water slide and waterfalls, a lap-pool that looks like it is set in the garden of an Italian villa, a world-class spa, a selection of restaurants laid out as if in the village of Portofino, itself.

The Loews Portofino Bay is so much more than a hotel, so much more even than a resort. Once you are there, you feel such a sense of relaxation and serenity – something that seems a contradiction in terms for a theme park vacation or a business meeting. You can make your own pace, feel like you have really been transported somewhere. You won’t want to leave.

Night on the piazza at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

And like the best theme parks which work their magic to appeal to every age group, the Loews Portofino Bay can satisfy the fussy corporate VIP here for a convention, boardroom retreat or an incentive program (it would be a sin to come on business to Orlando and leave the family home; a destination wedding party; the honeymoon couple or empty nesters; a family, multi-generational or reunion, even people traveling with their pet (Loews is pet-friendly).

It is luxurious and sophisticated yet casual and comfortable, romantic yet businesslike, and the Loews Portofino Bay has become one of my favorite hotels in the world.

You walk through the portico and experience that OMG moment – taking it all in. It doesn’t take long before you absolutely forget that you are not actually in Portofino, Italy (the mayor of Portofino was on hand for the hotel’s opening) – an illusion that is cemented by the mural of the actual city, and the old photographs (I think they are old – they could be re-creations) of Portofino that are framed in our bathroom.

My first view of the hotel is a fast one – I am dashing out to make the shuttle bus that will take me to the Orange County Convention Center downtown for my meeting that morning. That is when I appreciate most ardently the professionalism of the staff. I have five minutes to check in, deposit my luggage with the bellman who will keep it for me until my room is ready later in the afternoon, and rush back to the bus. She hands me my key-card which I note has my name on it, and says that they will call my cell phone to give me my room number.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel's beach-pool, complete with a Roman Aqueduct water slide © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

I return in the afternoon after my meetings and before I have to dash out again to a function, I take time to explore. Just being there puts me at peace. I don’t know if it is because I am mentally transported back to my visit a couple of years ago to Tuscany. It is the stunning beauty of the place. I linger in the lounge – which is decorated as if for a Venetian masquerade – and help myself to some of the refreshing juice that is provided (like a cranberry juice zinger). Just being there, you feel this wave of relaxation take over, as if a massage.

There is much to explore – the hotel is quite literally a scale model of a fishing village. Instead of towers, the rooms are arranged in villa wings – but from the outside, look like attached buildings such as you would see in Portofino or Venice. It can take you a day to figure out where everything is (the bellman says that it takes them a month to figure out where all the elevators and ice machines are).

I find the beach/pool – there is literally a sand beach where you can lounge, that connects to a free-form pool, and an absolutely marvelous “Roman Aqueduct” water slide and waterfalls. There are cabanas, as well. Sitting there, you are looking back at this “village”. There is also an adjacent children’s pool and play area and two Jacuzzis.

An interior gazebo and courtyard at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

I take note that there is a schedule of organized poolside activities such as ping pong tournaments, pool basketball, hula hoop contests, arts & crafts, weekly “dive-in movies”.

For a more private retreat, and to feel like you are truly on a Mediterranean beach holiday, you can rent one of three colorful beach cabanas complete with amenities such as a ceiling fan, phone, Plasma TV, a refrigerator with water, soda and a fruit bowl (Cabana Rental varies by season; call 407-503-3235 to reserve).

A second villa pool is more sophisticated, geared for adults and for lap swimming, but set back, amid the gardens with tall cypress, surrounded by the villas, with more sophisticated amenities and lounge chairs. There are 18 cabanas here. A waiter who comes by to take drink orders. There is a bocce ball court next to the arbor (they think of everything!).

The interior lobby of the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel makes you feel you are in Italy © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Next to that, there is a sprawling, manicured lawn, set off by a gazebo at one end – ideal for a wedding.

A third pool on the east wing of the hotel, the Hillside Pool, offers a quiet place for contemplation and more privacy.

You can indulge yourself at the world-class Mandara Spa®, where signature therapies include the Mandara Four Hands Massage (two therapists working on you simultaneously); Javanese Lulur (traditional body cleansing utilizing tumeric, red rice, fenugreek, jasmine cempak and ylang ylang); and Balinese Massage (a combination of stretching, acupressure, and Swedish massage techniques). (Reservations recommended, 407-503-1244.)

Key-Card is Fast-Pass at Universal Themeparks

Musica della Notte, a sunset concert that takes about 20-30 minutes, of exquisite opera, romantic and festive favorites, perfectly capture the romance and charm of Italy © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Staying at the Loews Portofino Bay is spectacular enough – you almost have to remind yourself to go to the theme park – but there are significant advantages to staying at an on-site hotel (the other two are the Hard Rock Hotel and the Loews Royal Pacific).

In the first place, the proximity to the theme parks – that cuts out the surprising traffic congestion, and hassle of parking. You are there – in the same complex, though you don’t actually realize it when you are at the hotel.

Another MAJOR advantage – and why the key-card has my name on it – is that you can come into the park one hour earlier that the official open.

But even better than that is that the card acts as the Express Pass (a feature that costs at least $87 a person) to bypass lines to get into most (not all) of the rides and attractions. I did a small calculation and this saved hours of wait time – more significantly, I could take in that many more rides and attractions in a day.

The setting for the Musica della Notte, sunset concert, on the piazza of the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Even if you arrive early and have to leave before you get your room, you can use your key-card for Express Access at the park; similarly, after check out, your key-card still works at the themepark that day.

The key-card also gives you priority seating at select Universal Orlando® theme park restaurants; complimentary delivery of purchases to your room; and on-site charging privileges with your room key.

And getting to the park! You can take a 13-minute walk along the water, or, you can take this adorable boat for a seven-minute ride that feels like a voyage.

Another significant advantage is that you can also take the boat (or walk) into CityWalk – a complex of dining and entertainment venues, including Hard Rock Cafe (where we enjoyed the most scrumptious turkey burger) and Rising Star Karaoke club. There is service until 2 a.m.

Because of the proximity to the park, if you want to or need to, you can take a break during the day, or come back after the theme parks close, rest, rejuvenate, luxuriate, then go back to CityWalk for the evening.

Loews Portofino Bay also offers Camp Portofino, a supervised children’s activity center that operates from 5:30 pm to 11 pm. weekdays and until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights (for children 4-14; $15/hour), to enable parents to enjoy the nighttime entertainment. (The agency also offers in-room sitting and a Nanny service – where you can hire someone to help you in the theme parks with your kids; they also do pet-sitting).

Camp Portofino is just one element of the Loews Loves Kids program. Other elements that make the stay especially wonderful are kids menus, on-call gear, Fisher-Price toys and entertainment, poolside activities.

The colorful lounge makes you think of Carnival in Venice © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

“Loews Loves Teens, Too” with a selection of entertaining, fun and educational activities from music download cards and on-call entertainment to Teen Edu-cation learning vacation packages.

Loews is also one of the most pet friendly hotels around: all pets receive their own gifts including a pet tag, bowl and a special treat to start their vacation and there is pet-sitting available if necessary.

Onsite, the selection of 8 restaurants and lounges also appeal to the full gamut of age groups and travel styles, each is utterly delightful, with a special ambiance that continues your vacation in Italy: grab a morning espresso from Gelateria Caffé Espresso or breakfast at the festive Trattoria del Porto. Create the perfect sandwich at Sal’s Market Deli or treat yourself to the best slice this side of Roma from Splendido Pizzeria, a fabulous Orlando Italian restaurant. You can enjoy cocktail hour at the aptly-named Thirsty Fish, located poolside, savor homestyle eats at Mama Della’s Orlando restaurant (where there is also live entertainment ) or dine in the lush comfort of Bice Ristorante, an Italian fine dining tradition since 1926. Enjoy the refined atmosphere of the elegant Bar American.

Kids Suites, Dr. Seuss Suites

The rooms at Portofino Bay Hotel are colorful and elegant © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

A four-Diamond hotel, The Loews Portofino Bay offers 750 guest rooms, including 45 suites.

Every guest room features authentic Italian furnishings, marble accents and all the modern conveniences, including fine bed linens; 32″ flat panel TV including HD channels; smart-room technology for automated heating and air-conditioning; Keurig coffee makers and Emeril’s gourmet coffee and teas; in-room wireless high-speed Internet access (fees apply) and complimentary high-speed internet access in public areas; an in-room safe; three-telephones; on-demand in-room movies and video check-out (fees apply).

There is a selection of suites, including Kids Suites which are 650-675 sq. ft., and give parents privacy; the kids rooms are decorated in fun themes and include two twin beds or bunk bed, a small table and chair set, separate closet, and a television.

The American Bar at Portofino Bay Hotel © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The newest addition are Dr. Seuss Kids Suites – it’s as if you’ve stepped into one of the beloved stories of Dr. Seuss. The two-room suites offer plenty of space for the whole family at 650 sq. ft.: a king bedroom for the adults and two twin-sized beds in the children’s portion of the suite. Kids have their own flat panel TV.

There are also Portofino Suites (900 sq. ft. with optional second bedroom) with a 450 square foot parlor adjoining a 450 square foot Garden View bedroom; Villa Suites are 1110 sq ft.; larger suites, are available as well.

Activities go beyond what you would expect, as well. In addition to poolside activities, Bocce Ball courts, jogging and walking paths, a game room, there is also a Dive-In movie; golf on nearby courses can be arranged.

What was so special for us was the Musica della Notte – a sunset concert that takes about 20-30 minutes, of exquisite opera, romantic and festive favorites that perfectly capture the romance and charm of Italy. Three themed shows are offered on a rotating basis: Romantico Night, Classico Night, and Italian Festival Night.

Fanciful fruits and a chocolate gondola shows off the panache of the Portofino Bay Hotel © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The romance that overflows – not to mention the stunning venues – makes the Loews Portofino Bay ideal for a destination wedding. A new twist is its “Green Wedding Package” organized by the hotel with Just Marry: from utensil-free receptions and plantable invitations and stationery to dinners prepared with locally-grown ingredients, eco-green wedding photography, eco-chic wedding gown, a ‘green’ wedding is designed to reduce waste, save energy and help protect the environment (www.justmarry.com).

But back to business: there is a Business Center, Internet in the room (at a fee), 42,000 sq. ft of meeting and function space; self-parking at $15/day or valet parking at $22/day; 24-hour in-room dining.

There are many varieties of vacation packages at the hotel and combining theme park tickets and special deals; check the Universal Orlando website for details, www.universalorlando.com.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, 5601 Universal Blvd., Orlando, FL 32819, 407.503.1000 or 866.360.7395,www.loewshotels.com, or www.universalorlando.com.

See also: INSIDE UNIVERSAL’S ‘WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER’

Friday, 08 October, 2010

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© 2010 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. And check out our blog athttp://goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com.

COME TO A HOUSE PARTY AT VANDERBILT HALL, NEWPORT’S MANSION HOTEL

by Karen Rubin

The stunning Beaux Arts mansion built by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt in 1909, and now "re-imagined" by hotelier Peter De Savary as Vanderbilt Hall, a mansion hotel © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Want to feel like a million bucks? The scion of a Vanderbilt? Perhaps you are seeking the most romantic setting imaginable to pop the question, exchange vows, reconnect. Possibly you are looking for a power-place to forge a deal. Or maybe you think you were born in the wrong era, and you are more at home in the Gilded Age.

The mansion of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, built in 1909, has been re-imagined for 2010 by international hotelier and entrepreneur Peter De Savary as a luxurious boutique hotel/membership club, Vanderbilt Hall.

The goal at Vanderbilt Hall – with its intimate scale, doting service and attention to detail – is to let you fantasize that you have not come to a commercial lodging, but rather, you are one of the guests invited to a house party.

And you adore living the illusion.

It really is quite something to tour the famous mansions along tony Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island, built by the millionaires of the Industrial Age (when a million dollars was like a billion): Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s Breakers, Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House, Rough Point (Doris Duke’s mansion, originally built for a Vanderbilt), and then return to your “own” – at least for the time you are in Newport.

Walking across the threshold, it is easy to imagine you are an invited guest, coming for a house party. Everything around you suggests a private home – most spectacularly, Peter De Savary’s $30 million private collection of American Illustration Art that decorates the walls. De Savary’s collection rivals the private collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. And while you are a guest, you experience the paintings in a more personal way than visiting a gallery.

Vanderbilt Hall's chanteuse, Christine, sitting at a gilded piano sets a perfect mood at Monty's, the gilded dining room at Vanderbilt Hall © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

At Vanderbilt Hall, they do their absolute best to make you feel that way: there is no “reception desk” as you might find in a commercial hotel, even a boutique hotel. You sit down at a grand desk with someone more like a concierge and are given your pass key.

So maybe you are a guest who is a recent acquaintance. It is okay to fantasize.

It is late afternoon when we arrive, and we quickly take advantage of one of the most alluring and distinctive attractions that De Savary has added to Vanderbilt Hall: the Crow’s Nest, a rooftop terrace where cocktails and complimentary hors d’oeurves are served (6-9 pm), with a view of the harbor and the rooftops of historic Newport sprawling before you. A stone’s throw away is the steeple of the magnificent Trinity Church, Newport’s centerpiece that dates from 1725, while on the opposite side, the sun sets in a glorious blaze of color behind the Newport Bridge.

Vanderbilt Hall is very much part of the history and intrigues of Newport.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the great grandson of Cornelius (“Commodore”) Vanderbilt, commissioned the mansion, in Beaux Arts style, for his mistress, Agnes O’Brien Ruiz, who was at the time, the wife of the Cuban attaché. The publicity of the affair, made public in divorce papers filed by his wife, Elsie French, in 1908, led to Agnes’s suicide in 1909. After she died, Vanderbilt donated the house to the people of Newport. Only a few years later, in 1915, Alfred perished in the sinking of the Lusitania, a hero who saved others on that doomed ship, including giving his own life vest to save a mother and her infant. His son, William Henry III, went on to become Governor of Rhode Island.

Vanderbilt Hall's lush gardens, with a view of Trinity Church steeple © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

A direct link to the Vanderbilts of the Gilded Age is the name, “Alva,” boldly emblazoned on the fireplace in Monty’s, the grandly gilded Dining Room.

The legend that is told is that Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt’s Aunt Alva, who was married to William Kissam Vanderbilt (Cornelius Vanderbilt’s grandson), was so upset at Alfred’s affair, that she threatened he would be cut off from the family’s fortune; she had her name put on the fireplace during the construction to serve as a conscience, as if to say “I have my eyes on you.” Alfred broke off his relationship with her and she later committed suicide.

(But when I did my own investigating, the timeline does not make sense, since Alfred inherited the money a decade before, leaving more of a mystery as to why “Alva” is emblazoned there. Indeed, the backstory is even more fascinating, as you learn when you visit Marble House, the mansion that Alva Vanderbilt built as a shrine to feminism, had her husband gift it to her, and then, breaking with the norms of High Society, became the first of her social set to divorce so she can marry her husband’s partner, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, in 1896; after Belmont dies, in 1908, Alva becomes a leading Suffragette, fighting for and financing the movement to win the right to vote for women.)

There are still just 33 “keys” – almost all of them suites – which makes for an exceptionally personal experience. The suites from the 400 sq. ft. Chihuahua Suite to the 1,000 sq. ft. Vanderbilt Suite, all with every manner of creature comfort – from sumptuous Italian linens with cashmere throws, marble bathrooms, to in-room entertainment and kitchenettes – that make you feel very much at home, but in the lap of luxury.

Ours is one of eight duplex loft suites, with kitchenette, two TVs, a skylight (with remote controls – it actually closes automatically if it should rain). From our window, we can look out to the steeple tower of Trinity Church on the next block. You feel you are at home in Newport.

Allison Schumann, Vanderbilt Hall's spa director, shows off the "duet" room where you can get a couples massage, and sit and sip champagne in front of the fireplace © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

All of this intrigue just reinforces the feeling that you are part of Newport society and you have slipped back into that time. It is delicious to contemplate.

The mansion itself went through many incarnations: it was a YMCA for a time, and was going to be condemned in the 1980s when it was turned into a hotel and its five bedrooms rooms turned into 33 guest rooms. The mansion came on the market again in 2009, when Peter De Savary, who has created boutique hotels and private clubs around the world, purchased it, renovated it, and “re-imagined” it for today’s high society.

Dinner is served at Monty’s Grill, named for owner Peter De Savary’s Chihuahua, Monty, who is frequently seen around with him when he is in the hotel. The dining room is utterly, breathtakingly stunning, bedecked with gold wallpaper that sets off the paintings in gilded frames to spectacular advantage.

There is live music being played on piano, also gilded in gold and black (with Monty’s portrait), by chanteuse, Christine, wearing a 1920s-vintage dress. The ambiance is perfection – and could well have emerged from one of the paintings.

The crystal, China and silver, fresh flowers set the mood for a delectable clam chowder and a char-broiled steak; grilled swordfish served with Sherry and red onion sweetened asparagas.

De Savary has infused Vanderbilt Hall with Britishisms – most apparent in the menu at Monty’s, where there is a large selection of “British eccentricities” from across the Pond: Steak and Ale Pie ($28); Fish & Chips, $23; seafood pie, $35; Bangers and Mash ($30); and Salmon from the Isle of Skye. Each night there is an adult “comfort food” selection (a reflection of De Savary’s whimsical approach to life), as well as “Local and Sustainable New England” selections like steamed lobster ($42), pheasant ($38), and sticky wild boar ribs ($36).

Vanderbilt Hall's Crows Nest affords one of the best views in Newport © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Adjacent to the dining room is a Snooker room (a table game similar to billiards), which can be converted to a private dining room or board room. You can easily imagine men in their dinner jackets and cigars taking shots and doing deals.

Monty’s also has a warm and inviting lounge area arranged in front of the “Alva” fireplace and a picturesque bar – the design, from the lighting to the interior decoration is just stunning, a feature throughout Vanderbilt Hall.

Another hallmark of Vanderbilt Hall is its indoor lap pool, decorated in the most tranquil of aquamarine colors, set off by diamond-shaped mirrors – the low lighting making it seem like a watery inner sanctum. There is also a state of the art fitness room with computerized workout programs, iPod docking stations, TV earphones (supplied if you don’t have your own), heart monitor; you can see the regular TV or have personal TV, and though it closes at 11 pm., a guest can get access from the front desk.

But the full-service Vanderbilt Spa epitomizes the personal attention of this mansion hotel.

Allison Schumann, spa director, walks us around three treatment rooms. One, the “duet” room where you can get a couples massage, used to be the Library; you can sit on the couch and sip champagne in front of the fireplace.

Allison, with 12 years experience as a massage therapist, has made a particular specialty of pre-natal massage (ideal for the couple who wants one last escape together). She likes to blend Eastern and Western techniques.

Allison uses Yon-Ka products from Paris, an early innovator in the 1950s in utilizing botanicals – that use five essential oils – Lavender, rosemary, cypress, thyme, geranium.

One of the spa’s signature treatments is the “Amber Massage” – involving an amber candle, that drizzles the warm oil.

Savor a spectacular sunset from Vanderbilt Hall's Crows Nest© 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Personal training, yoga and mat Pilates sessions can be scheduled for individuals or groups.

After a swim in the pool, we enjoy a breakfast experience (because that is what it is): a delectable omelet with Mozzarella, fresh tomato, pesto, with home fries, croissant, fresh-squeezed orange juice – served in a lovely enclosed patio overlooking the lush garden where there is an outdoor pool; the garden area is the setting for outdoor functions as well as a tranquil place to relax after a busy day taking in Newport’s many, many attractions.

Even here there are stunning paintings from De Savary’s collection, most of which were purchased from National Museum of American Illustration, nearby at Vernon Court, a Bellevue Avenue mansion which De Savary used to own (www.americanillustration.org).

Indeed, the art collection perhaps more than anything else, makes a stay in Vanderbilt Hall an extraordinary event.

There is a corridor of original magazine covers where the paintings had been published – and it is fun to go around the hotel trying to find the originals.

Peter De Savary has really made Vanderbilt Hall is own, from the British menu items, to the photos of him in the America’s Cup races, the Tatler Magazine on a table by the pool, the portrait of his dog, Monty, on the gilded piano, and his blue Rolls Royce in the parking lot – all of which personalize Vanderbilt Hall as a mansion home rather than a commercial hotel and add to the feeling that you have been invited to a house party. In fact, there is the Chairman’s room and a second that turn into a suite that can be closed off from the rest of the hotel with French doors, when De Savary is here.

Vanderbilt Hall's indoor pool © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Between those two rooms is a stunning parlor with one of the most important pieces in De Savary’s art collection: Howard Chandler Christy’s famous mural painting depicting American composer Stephen Foster as he is composing “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”. The painting has had only three owners (De Savary had it in his own home in England), and, I am told, has never before been in public.

Vanderbilt Hall is a few blocks away from the Bellevue Avenue mansions (and perhaps the glare of disapproving relatives), just off Thames, in the waterfront area on Mary Street, one of the delightfully narrow, cobble-stoned streets with colonial-era homes around. This is known as Historic Hill in Newport’s Old Quarter, distinguished for the galleries, boutiques, colorful food places, and historic sites including Trinity Church, Touro Synagogue, the Redwood Library (the first circulating library in the US), the Historical Society and the Newport Art Museum.

The area is fabulous for strolling around and taking it all in. The mansion is just across from the revitalized wharfs, with their colorful shops and boats which offer sightseeing cruises or charter opportunities, and of course the magnificent sailboats that Newport is so famous for. The area bustles throughout the day and into the night, and you are a short walk from it all. The wharfs are marvelous, even in winter, when there are seal watch tours and a skating rink.

During our visit, Newport was filling up with sailors who had come for the famous Newport-Bermuda Race. Indeed, it was during one of these races that De Savary began his love affair with Newport and has been entrenched in Newport ever since.

De Savary first came to Newport with the British “Victory” Team challenge to the America’s Cup in 1983 and again in 1986. Since then, he has owned several Newport’s mansions, including Vernon Court, Ivy Tower, Oakwood and the Frederick Law Olmstead summer residence, Wildacre.

Even the enclosed patio where breakfast is served is decorated with paintings from Peter De Savary's collection of American Illustration Art © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Completing the “house party” experience is that guests of Vanderbilt hall have access to De Savary’s 60-foot motor yacht, “Vanderbilt.” And, a private car is available for transportation from the airport or around town.

Another intriguing aspect to Vanderbilt Hall is the opportunity to join the Vanderbilt Hall Club – affording special privileges as well as reciprocity with other exclusive clubs through the United States and abroad (membership by invitation) – a concept that De Savary has used at his other properties and developments.

It is described as “An international members club for those who enjoy travel, the camaraderie of like minded people and the finer things in life, staying in places of style and distinction under a reciprocal members’ agreement at private clubs throughout the world. Many of the clubs provide dining, accommodation, golf, spa, tennis and other recreational facilities.”

The setting of the mansion makes it ideal for special functions and private parties, from weddings to board meetings. Alfred’s Billiards Room (actually snooker) accommodates 14 for private dining or meetings; for larger events, the Victory Room accommodates up to 40 guests for dinner or 60 for conferences. A Wedding Planner is available to assist.

Nearby, there is tennis at the Tennis Hall of Fame, polo, golf and sailing, and restaurants, the waterfront, museums and even a skating rink on the wharf are walking distance from Vanderbilt Hall.

Remarkably (but not surprisingly, seeing De Savary’s Chihuahua, Monty, about), Vanderbilt Hall is dog-friendly: a limited number of rooms are available which accommodate dogs; reservations must be made in advance because some rooms are allergy-free. Dog beds and bowls will be awaiting arrival. There are some magnificent local walks around town and on the Cliff Walk (spectacular). Pets must be under 25 lbs., and incur a non-refundable $50 fee.

Holiday ‘House Parties’

The fireplace at Vanderbilt Hall is a link to the intrigues of the Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Vanderbilt Hall is a special venue anytime, but is spectacular for the holidays, when Newport, Rhode Island, itself takes on an enchanted quality (it is in fact one of my favorite winter destinations, because there is so much to do, inside, in a compact area, and hosts a special Winter Festival).

I can’t imagine a more cozy yet elegant place to spend the holidays:

Thanksgiving House Party, starts with arrival Thanksgiving Day, with a glass of hot mulled cider by the fire after settling in to your luxurious accommodation, and a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in Monty’s (either 3 or 7 pm); then, on Friday, a brunch buffet ($589/nite for suite accommodations).

A three-day Christmas package encompasses Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day (a British tradition), starting with hot chocolate and biscuits by the fire in Monty’s on arrival, then in the evening, holiday cocktails served by a butler throughout the Hall, the Conservatory and the Christy Drawing Room, followed by Christmas Eve dinner at Monty’s and entertainment (a dramatic reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas, Christmas Carols”); on Christmas Day there is brunch, a leisurely afternoon of snacks and movies, and dinner at Monty’s; on Boxing Day, Dec. 26, enjoy the incomparable sights of Newport, like the Breakers, decorated for the holidays, a walk on the beach or Cliff Walk (not to be missed), and skating on the ice rink on the harbor. The three-night package ranges from $1600-$2100 for suite accommodations.

"Alva" emblazoned on the fireplace at Vanderbilt Hall, is part of the lore of the mansion built in 1909 by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and re-imagined in 2010 by Peter De Savary © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

A New Year House Party, starting Dec 31, is a Gilded Age black-tie event where you celebrate as the Vanderbilts did. You arrive early to relax and dress for the evening. The party starts with champagne and hors d’oeuvres. At the ringing of the butler’s bell, adjourn to dinner in Monty’s for an elegant, five course gourmet meal with wine pairings created by our Monsieur le Chef and his culinary team. Entertainment is provided by the Hall’s in-house pianist/singer throughout dinner. Immediately following dinner, a special lounge will be set up for dancing with a three piece band providing entertainment. View New Years Eve festivities from around the world on a large screen while dancing the night away. End the evening with a champagne toast at midnight accompanied by a buffet of delectable late night fare. On New Years Day, enjoy a late morning brunch buffet. If you’re feeling adventurous join other Newporters for the Polar Bear Plunge at Easton’s Beach or spend the afternoon on a Seal Watch Tour out on the harbor. The two-night package, including accommodation, New Years Eve dinner, brunches, entertainment and drinks and snacks, is priced from $1850 – $2350 for suite accommodations.

Vanderbilt Hall, 41 Mary Street, Newport, RI 02804, 401-846-6200, 888-826-4255. www.vanderbilthall.com.

For more information on planning a visit to Newport, contact the Newport County Visitors Center, 23 America’s Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 401-845-9123, 800-976-5122, www.gonewport.com

De Savary Properties

Peter De Savary has spent the last 35 years developing what he calls “unique pieces of real estate in a special way,” from Skibo Castle in Scotland to The Abaco Club in the Bahamas. Now, in addition to Vanderbilt Hall, he has converted The Residences at Brown and Howard Wharf on Newport’s famed harbor into the Vanderbilt Residences. Sixteen harbor-front homes (only 7 remain available) make up this exclusive condo complex, offering classic New England architecture with gorgeous views of Newport Harbor and priority dockage at Brown and Howard Marina. Owners will enjoy a menu of concierge services and membership privileges at Vanderbilt Hall, a mansion hotel, spa and private members club located nearby in the heart of Newport’s Historic Hill (vanderbiltresidences.com)

Howard Chandler Christy's famous painting of American composer Stephen Foster as he is composing "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" is part of De Savary's $30 million collection that decorates Vanderbilt Hall © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

De Savary has made his mark with renowned hotels and clubs – more than 30 projects to date – including Cary Arms, a boutique inn and pub on the beach in Babbacombe Bay in Devon, England, acquired by De Savary in 2009 and named one of the Top 10 Beach Hotels by the Times of London within months of its opening, www.caryarms.co.uk); The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle in Scotland (www.carnegieclub.co.uk); Bovey Castle in Dartmoor National Park (www.boveycastle.com); the St. James Clubs; Stapleford Park in England (www.staplefordpark.com); the Abaco Club in the Bahamas (an ownership development); Cherokee Plantation in South Carolina; and Port Louis (www.portlouisgrenada.com) and Mount Cinnamon in Grenada in the West Indieswww.mountcinnamongrenada.com).

Most recently, De Savary (actually, his wife, Lana) restored and opened The Old Swan, a romantic 600-year old inn and adjoining 18th century Minster Mill, near Oxford, with 60 acres of gardens, orchards and surrounded by what remains of the ancient Royal Hunting Forest of Wychwood. The Old Swan offers 16 beamed guestrooms and suites, while the Minister Mill, with 40 contemporary guestrooms and meeting and function rooms, is designed to be for the more budget conscious and groups (dog-friendly, too). There is also a destination spa with indoor and outdoor pool. An architecturally stunning Great Hall will be created that will historically fit with the village and surrounds. New formal gardens, a traditional vegetable garden and one of the country’s largest wild flower meadows (40 acres) will also be created alongside the River Windrush (www.oldswanandminstermill.com).

See also:
NEWPORT’S GILDED AGE MANSIONS OFFER ODYSSEY INTO UNDERSTANDING WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE
NEWPORT’S GILDED AGE MANSIONS PROVIDE NARRATIVE TO WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE

Friday, 12 November, 2010

 

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