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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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
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.
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.
“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
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 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.
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.
Friday, 08 October, 2010
© 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.