Luxury Digs in Orlando
Charles Greenfield Looks Beyond the Theme Parks
Charles Greenfield is a Miami-based travel writer who has contributed to Travel & Leisure and regional magazines/ newspapers. He also is Cultural Arts Contributor to Artsbeat on WLRN 91.3 FM, South Florida’s NPR affiliate, a producer for WLRN Ch. 17’s Artstreet, and has written on classical and jazz musicians for the Miami Herald.
In the past decade Orlando has strived to vary its appeal from inexpensive, mass tourism to more luxury brands. In fact, I recently upgraded my Florida’s Turnpike 3.5 hour drive from Miami with RedCoach, a fleet of sleek 27-passenger Prevost motorcoaches with Wi-Fi, 110-v outlets, fully reclinable leather business class seats (140 degrees), and LCD monitors for films. From their bus terminal near Orlando International Airport (free shuttle) it was an easy car rental drive west to International Drive, Orlando’s main tourist drag. There I reached the Peabody Orlando, a 1641-room AAA Four Diamond resort which has just completed a $450 million expansion with twin towers and a 300,000 sq. ft. function space across from the mammoth 2.2 million sq. ft. Orange County Convention Center.
Despite its girth, the Peabody Orlando feels intimate and navigable, aided by a highly courteous staff, from bellhops and reception to the very efficient concierge desk. On the 26th floor of the New Tower the panoramic Peabody Club lounge provides complimentary continental breakfast, light snacks, drinks and evening desserts. Beige and tan-accented Club level rooms surprise with the comfy Peabody Dream Bed, Panasonic 42-inch LCDs, bathroom in-mirror TVs, very handy LED night “stumble” lights, a “feed the fridge” menu for self-stocking, and Wi-Fi internet access. Downstairs, their 22,000 sq. ft. full service spa and fitness center offer Octane equipment, a private grotto area with whirlpool tubs, a signature mango ginger skin infusion, waxing, nail services, and even couples, teen and kids treatments.
With over 100 public art works the Peabody Orlando evokes oversize chic with a striking water mosaic off the New Tower lobby and Guy Dill’s 3D aluminum sculptures and emerging LA artist Chris Classen’s bright acrylic panels in the Convention Center. Rocks, their South Beach-style, 6,000 sq. ft. nearly all-glass hotel bar, entertains with Venetian plaster columns and “spaghetti” lighting with great views of the immense heated zero-entry pool and private cabanas. Below Rocks, I ate dinner at Napa with its distinct healthy California menu using locally owned Florida farms and suppliers providing sweet corn from Zellwood and fresh calamari from Cape Canaveral. Small plates displayed zesty clean lines with butternut squash soup and truffle crème fraiche or caramelized diver scallops with vanilla scented cauliflower purée; Montana’s Meyer Ranch natural Angus beef filet in a Zinfandel reduction with boniato mash exuded lean, prairie-fed flavor. In the Mallard Tower skylight fountain lobby (named for their popular twice daily red carpet “duck” walk and feeding), enjoy Italian chophouse Capriccio Grill for prime and American Wagyu steaks or succumb to comfort food like old-fashioned corn beef hash at B-Line Express, their 24-hour diner.
Next door on International Drive nightlife buzzes at Pointe Orlando. After a few snarky sessions at the Improv Comedy Club & Dinner Theater or guitar licks at B.B. King’s Blues Club, try mojitos, dark El Dorado rum or cachaça with albondigas (meat balls) at salsa-dancing Cuba Libre or sushi with red blends and world varietals at Funky Monkey Wine Company. During the day the I-Ride Trolley will drop you off on the strip at SeaWorld, Skyventure Orlando (simulated skydiving), the upside-down Wonderworks building (interactive exhibits), Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, or the vast Prime Outlets Orlando (north and south branches). Just a short drive north lies Winter Park, home of Rollins College, a charming town of boutiques on Park Avenue and The Morse Museum, home to some of America’s finest examples of Tiffany glass and lamps in its brand-new wing.
The latest entry in the luxury resort market is the AAA Four Diamond Waldorf Astoria Orlando (2009), located next to the Disney theme parks just south off I-4 and Epcot Center Drive. Adjoining the 1,001-room Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek in a 482-acre nature preserve, the 498-room Waldorf boasts a 7,108-yard Rees Jones golf course and Spa by Guerlain with 21 treatment rooms. The resemblance to its New York namesake is unmistakable: an imposing 14-foot lobby clock, Peacock Alley (bar), Sir Harry’s Lounge, and the Bull & Bear Steakhouse. My 14th floor suite was elegantly furnished with gold and beige trimmings, powder blue ottoman, an LG 42-inch black LCD, wet bar and fridge with wine rack, in-room espresso maker, LED reading lights, and a DVD Blue-ray player with digital soundbar. The clubby Bull & Bear Steakhouse sticks well to classics: an excellent tableside Caesar salad, Certified Angus Beef brand Prime and Natural cuts (first in Florida), and a superb chocolate soufflé. Downstairs, next to the lovely zero-entry pool and private cabanas, Oscar’s serves a fine buffet breakfast with Eggs Benedict (Waldorf hallmark dish) and ricotta-filled French toast. Afterwards, for runners, there’s even a one-mile jogging loop around the property.
If the Disney experience seems somewhat jaded, try touring an hour southwest off I-4 in old-time Central Florida towns like Cypress Gardens, Lakeland, and Bartow. In historic Bartow stop for lunch or afternoon tea with freshly baked scones at The Stanford Inn, a stunning 1906 mansion with a broad wooden porch and rockers, modern pool, six antique-furnished rooms with individual baths, and a terrific hot breakfast in the parlor. The next day, ride east 17 miles on SR 60 and visit Bok Tower Gardens, a National Historic Landmark, just outside Lake Wales. Like some mythical hillside giant the neo-Gothic 205-foot-tall “Singing Tower” is layered in pink Georgia marble and tan Florida coquina. The music from its 60-bell carillon peals over lush gardens and drifts down sloping orange groves. It is a remarkable site and a symbol of serene permanence to the fleeting traveler.