Florida is growing out of its reputation as a low-rent destination for families and retirees. It is sprouting exclusive luxury resorts. Its cities are growing more sophisticated and European and nestled among its inlets and islands there are hidden oases with quiet beaches and small, discreet hotels.
Even Disney is getting in on the act. Its super-deluxe Animal Kingdom Lodge is in the middle of an African game reserve masquerading as a theme park. You can wake up to find giraffes grazing outside your window. But leave the kids behind – Florida is for grown ups too.
The Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes hotel is a few miles down the road but a million miles away in spirit. Although they have a kids centre, all the good stuff here is for adults. Try the ayurvedic massage in the 40,000 square feet after a day on the Greg Norman-designed golf course. They pour fragrant oil on your head during the pummelling. The Ritz-Carlton staff are attentive and gamely took on my unpronounceable Dutch surname at every opportunity. The nearby Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress operates on the same everything-in-one-resort principle but it is perhaps more ‘American’ and more kid-friendly with a swimming pool the size of Berkshire.
Leaving behind the theme part district, Orlando Premium Outlets is luxurious but not exclusively pricy. It is home to factory outlets for brands like Armani, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. The discounts are made even more attractive by the shopaholic’s exchange rate. Just be careful about which freeway exit you take as you’ll probably want to avoid the scary-looking “Holy Land Experience” theme park opposite.
Downtown Orlando is surprisingly cosmopolitan, owing more to European cities than American urban sprawl. The Westin Grand Bohemian fits in perfectly: a boutique hotel which is home to a substantial art collection and a cocktail lounge named after the monumental Bösendorfer piano in the lobby. Although it is part of the Westin chain, it is a one-off labour of love by its owner, Richard Kessler. It is civilised and urbane – surprising adjectives for a Florida hotel.
The Veranda B&B is the smartest of a small handful of upscale B&Bs in Orlando. It is set around a courtyard in a trendy neighbourhood close to the town centre. Although it lacks the amenities of a large hotel (although it does offer free wireless internet access), it makes up for the omission with modest prices and large rooms and suites. It is cheaper without being déclassé; more like being at home in a hip neighbourhood than staying in a regular hotel.Both hotels are very handy for Orlando Executive airport where the swish people arrive in their business jets (and your correspondent did some flight training). Depending on the wind direction, you can see the planes on final approach from the Grand Bohemian’s rooftop pool.
For the rest of us, Virgin Atlantic’s service to Orlando International is the next best thing. Their premium economy seats, on the upper deck of a 747, resemble the business class seats of a decade ago but cost a fraction of the price of the truly sybaritic Upper Class seats.
Miami is sunnier, more vivacious and more bling than Orlando: a treble espresso rather than a latte. Art Basel , a modern art exhibition and market, runs every year in June and December and is typical of the Alan Whicker version of the city. However, you don’t have to buy to spectate at what the New York Times calls “the Olympics of the art world.” But book early because hotels fill up quickly during the show.
The Four Seasons Miami is typical of the chain’s understated modernity. It occupies the middle floors of one of the city’s tallest buildings and the pools are located on a seventh story terrace. The rooms have views over the city and Biscayne Bay. It’s modern without being minimal; trendy without being forbidding.
Miami is also home to many small, independent luxury hotels and they offer a change of style compared to typical American hotels. For example, the Aqua Hotel , in the trendy South Beach area, has just 45 rooms, its own miniature tropical garden and sundeck. The concrete floors give it a minimalist feel but location is great and the bar keeps everyone in a party mood – think of it as executive backpacking.
The Florida Keys are nature’s theme park. The archipelago is one of the world’s top spots for scuba and snorkelling and a 2800 square nautical mile marine sanctuary, where fishing is prohibited, means that there are lots of fish to see among the reefs and wrecks.www.fla-keys.com
Key Largo is home to the world’s only underwater hotel, Jules’ Undersea Lodge, with overnight stays starting $295 per person per night. A converted underwater research lab, it is more Bond lair than deluxe hotel (despite the prices).
The Dolphin Research Center, on Grassy Key, doesn’t require oxygen but will let you swim with dolphins. A half-day dolphin encounter, which includes a 20-minute swim with the mammals, costs $155. A handshake is just $15 (plus admission). Booking in advance is advisable.
There’s a hidden side to Florida. Places that the locals like to keep to themselves. For example, Sanibel and Captiva Islands on the Gulf Coast (that’s the top left hand corner for the geographically challenged). The two islands are linked to one another and the mainland by a bridge. The miles of uncrowded white sandy beaches are unspoiled by development. Shell-collecting is the most strenuous activity most people undertake here. Charming inns, like the Tarpon Tale Inn, Waterside Inn or West Wind Inn, located on or near the beach recreate Florida as it was in Hemingway’s day.
On the opposite coast, Amelia Island is home to Fernandina Beach, a town with a charming Victorian centre and (again) miles of beaches along the Atlantic shore. It is home to another of the state’s luxury Ritz-Carlton hotels as well as undiscovered inns like the 1857 Florida House Inn, which is the oldest surviving hotel in Florida and the charming Williams House where you can sip iced tea in the afternoon sitting on a porch swing.